11 Embarkation

He went out one morning and he didn’t come back for over three years

London Woman  My husband went in the navy. After his basic training he had a very short leave – ten days, I think.  He said he was going abroad.  I went back with him to Portsmouth – Southsea – and I got lodgings for one or two nights.  And then he went off.  He went out one morning and he didn’t come home for over three years.

2nd London Woman  Stan said he’d be home on Friday – week-end leave – because he knew he would be on the move.  I waited all Friday, waited all Saturday, had my lunch Sunday and thought “I’m an idiot.  He’s not coming.  I’ll go down there.”  He was stationed at Woking.  I’d never been there before.

It was a little wooden station and there was one man collecting tickets.  I asked him if there were any hotels and he said there were two.  I went to the first one.  They were full up.  The other one was across the road.  After a lot of chat they said I could have the maid’s room.  Right at the top.  I left my case there and I came outside.  All I got was his postal address.  A soldier was coming along so I showed him this address.  “Oh”, he said, “I’m going there.”  He came from Star Lane, Canning Town.  He walked me to this place.  When we got there he said “I’ll go in and see if I can find him.”  Then I was called in.  They thought I was one of these tarts!  They called me into the guardroom.

Her Husband  I was on guard!

2nd London Woman  They let him out.  They gave him a pass, and we shared the maid’s room.  Next day he had to go off at six in the morning, and he was going to try and get back in the evening.  I phoned up the office (I worked in the scrap metal business) and said I was very sorry, I’d got a bad bilious attack.  I wouldn’t be in for a few days.  I had a walk ’round and thought I might as well go and have some lunch in the hotel.  They found me a little table and I looked across and there, at a big round table, were eight to twelve men, some from my office, all sitting ’round.  One of them came across to me and said “What on earth are you doing here!”

I said “Now sit down Percy” – it was Percy Barlow – and I told him that Stan was going abroad and that I’d phoned Mr Ford and told him I’d got a bad bilious attack.  “Oh,that’s alright with me.  Come across with us.”  Those I didn’t know were looking, wondering – who is she?  I found out afterwards they were from head Office in Sheffield.  I hadn’t sat there ten minutes and he’d told them all I’ve got a bad bilious attack!  “Her husband’s going abroad.”

We were married in the July and he went in the October.  He was away for three years and nine months without a day at home.

Her Husband  Our convoy out was about fifty ships.  We knew where we going when they issued us these pith helmets on the ship, when we were half way there.  They also gave us our tropical kit.  The pith helmet was plain on top and you had to have a band – terrific yards of this sort of yellow material which you had to keep winding and winding and winding.  There was a certain way to do it, to get all the pleats in it.  We was all shown how to do it, but none of us could do it.  Only the old soldiers could do it, and when you wanted yours done, it was two bob a time they were charging.  Oh shocking.  All the old soldiers were promoted as soon as war broke out and they were the biggest fiddlers under the sun.

Going out we stopped at Durban for two weeks.  That’s when I  first felt the sun.  Going swimming you couldn’t walk on the sand.  It was red hot.

2nd London Woman  He sent me home photographs.  He’d been out with a family with two beautiful daughters.  Best leave he’d ever had, he said, and he’d only just had leave to get married!

Her Husband  They came to the dockside to pick us up in one of these American cars and they took us out to one of these Country Clubs – all the monkeys going up the trees, and all the blacks looking after you with drinks.  Wonderful!  We eventually sailed on and landed at Mombasa.

When we got there they gave us six petrol cans each and a couple of blankets.  That’s how we had to sleep for nearly three months.

Commercial Traveller  I was an electrician in the airforce.  When I passed out they stationed me at 41 MU at Slough and I went out with a Waaf.  I got the wrong side of her and the next thing I knew I got posted.  She was in the posting office, the bloody cow!  I didn’t know where I was going.  They told us we were going overseas.

They took us out in the middle of the night.  A train stopped in the middle of nowhere.  We went on this bleeding train, you didn’t know how long you was going to be, it went and it moved, and it kept on going and going.  You didn’t know when it was going to stop, where it was going to stop.  Finally, we got some place.  One of the blokes told us we were there.  We were in bloody Greenock!  Fancy taking us all the way to Greenock to go to bleeding Gibraltar,  though at the time we still didn’t know where was going.  I was absolutely whacked.  I’d been on the train for fifteen hours.  The worst part was not knowing where it was going.  If you ever had the feeling of being treated like cannon fodder, that was it.  We went on the boat and we still didn’t know where we were going.

They took us down below, below the hold.  You had all your benches where you used to eat and above that they gave you a hammock.  You had to sling your hammock up.  Rows and rows of hammocks.  All of a sudden you could hear the engines chugging.  You was going somewhere, but you didn’t bloody well know where.  You didn’t know where it was until you landed.  Throughout the journey you heard Boom Boom – bloody depth charges going.  All night long.  You could feel it vibrating through the whole boat.

I used to feel seasick.  In the daytime you used to sit at the benches, where you ate, with your hammock swinging above you.  You realised you were going somewhere warmer because it was getting stifling down in the ship.  And then, all of a sudden, my hammock snapped.  Bang!  They took me to the hospital ward and I played it up a bit.  I had a couple of nice cushy days there.  I also earned a bit of money.  I was a tailor by trade and all the seargents gave me their stripes to sow on.  I got a bit of drop that way.

Eventually we landed and we could see.  We were in Gibraltar.  Was it baking!  They took us to this place, which was the North Front Aerodrome (before the war it was a racecourse).  There was nothing there.  They didn’t expect us.  They had two bases on Gibraltar.  One was the seaplane base and this was the land base.  They had nowhere for us to sleep.  They had loads of petrol cans, so they gave us six petrol cans, they gave us three biscuits and a couple of blankets.  And that’s how we had to sleep for nearly three months.  You just wasn’t used to it.

They gave you a tin plate and you went into the cookhouse and after, you washed it in a thing like a horse trough.  You had to be very careful with water.  There was so little of it. You had to wash in sea water.  And as you sat there – bleeding flies.  As fast as you swatted them they were on you again – Oh, it was the most horrifying experience.  Flies galore on every bleeding thing.  The most unsanitary conditions.  And as I say, you had to sleep out in the open.  The officers?  Where were they?  Oh, they had quarters.   Definitely.  The Morocco Hotel!  Oh yes.

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