Friday, 1 October 2010

Introduction - Part 3.

Firstly the obligatory visit to the recruiting centre, then three months wait before reporting to an RAF station where for the next three days I spent learning the basic rules, given my service number and being sworn in.

Now with the news of the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk I knew that I would not be going to France for a while. On the 12th August 1940 a letter with a railway warrant to Blackpool requested me to report for service.

On arrival I was issued with my uniform and kit along with other recruits placed in seaside boarding houses, some still busy with holiday makers.

The following 14 days were spent with rifle and foot drill, lectures with illustrations on screen and inoculations, which I quite enjoyed.

The last Saturday we paraded with our kit, then taken to our RAF station. Our escorting NCO took us to Locking in Somerset where mechanics trained. Arriving in the dark after travelling all day we moved into a hut then told a meal was waiting for us in the dining hall, the food was good, after a wash we were ready for bed.

Next day we were left to do our own thing except to be told that outside we must be fully dressed and salute officers. Monday after breakfast a sergeant entered the hut and informed us that he would be in charge of us from now on.

We collected our kit, formed up outside in ranks and moved to a different hut, he then told us we were all of different trades but Britain was fighting for its life and if the fighters were unable to defeat the Luftwaffe we would be invaded. We were to be trained to defend the camp from paratroopers and possibly land forces.

I met a couple of like minded chaps so we trained with rifles, machine guns and hand grenades, when proficient did 24 hours at the perimeter, 24 hours on standby in a hut and 24 hours off plus guard duties. The threat of invasion lessened and we became bored with our duties, not what we expected when joining the RAF.

I did get a break from the monotony along with five others, when a Messerschmitt was shot down. It was being displayed on a tennis court at Weston-super-mare Winter Gardens and the five of us were sent to spend one week guarding it.

The chance of a move came in February 1941, 24 men were needed for overseas posting, one pal and I volunteered, the other decided to stay, said he would wait until he was needed for the job he had joined for which was to be a fighter pilot.

After a thorough medical check – about six inoculations – I was sent home on embarkation leave, arriving back at camp we were told postings had been cancelled.
Two weeks later I was back on leave again, 12 men only were required, my remaining pal was not one of them.

I said goodbye then travelled with my eleven companions to west Kirby near Liverpool, arriving at the camp we just had to lose ourselves, by then we were enjoying some sunny fine weather.

The day arrived when we were taken to the dock and boarded the ‘ATHLONE CASTLE’ a passenger liner. I was given a card that read ‘Balin 221B Deck’. A chap knew had the other bunk. We, Bill and I, made ourselves comfortable, with wardrobes, chest of drawers with mirrors above and outside were wash basins and bathrooms, all the mod cons, after all, it was a cruise ship and very relaxing.

It was a fine sunny afternoon as we left Liverpool and sailed north, the food was excellent. It had been an eventful day and the sea soon rocked us to sleep that night.

On deck the next morning we were in company with ships and warships as far as the eye could see. We were in the centre of the convoy, three lines of passenger liners, around us were merchant ships of all sizes and on the horizon, destroyers, cruisers and two large battleships, the weather was a little cooler. Within three days the sea looked black, there was fog with sleet falling, the day biting.

We had exchanged summer for winter, I assumed our position must be near to the North Pole, the battleships had left us along with some of the escorts. I thought possibly we had passed through the area where the U-boats were most active. The cold weather continued for about one week, then gradually it became warmer.

We were then given the order to wear out tropical clothes that had been issued. The escort was now five destroyers, several merchant ships had now left.

Three weeks after leaving Liverpool we slowly cruised into Freetown, Sierra Leone. Anchor was dropped and in no time dug-out canoes surrounded us, the natives diving for coins that were thrown and falling in the clear waters.

Some Sunderland flying boats were moored near the shore, it wasn’t long before a RAF launch came to the side of the ship, the chaps asking for news of home.

A water tanker came to refill our tanks, then we were ready and on our way. Some of the ships stopped at Cape Town, South Africa, we continued on our way until arriving at Durban where we tied up. The ship was to be refuelled and restocked, we had six days to spend ashore. One day when Bill my cabin companion and I were looking around we were asked to the home of a South African family where we were served a fine dinner, then asked for our names and addresses, a card was sent to each of our families for us after which we were given a tour of Durban and its beaches, a very enjoyable day. We heard this was a regular treat for troops passing through.
Then it was time to depart, so formed up in a convoy, much smaller than previously then headed North deciding our destination would be where there was fighting in North Africa.

We had passed Madagascar when a morse signal was sent from the commodores warship to us, we were to proceed alone at maximum speed to rendezvous with HMS Hector in the Indian Ocean.

A day at full speed when we met our escort, an armed merchant ship. The Athlone Castle had to slow down to match the speed of our escort. Another stop, this time Bombay (Mumbai) to fill water tanks again.

Next day we were alone once again heading for Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to meet up with HMS Mauritius. Later, as we watched, in the distance a hazy shape was heading towards us. As we neared it was possible to see that it was the high white waves of a ships bow, a fully armed cruiser travelling at maximum speed as it continued past us before slowing down and positioning itself alongside.

We travelled with it to Ceylon which was surrounded with mines, our ship moving slowly through the channels. The shore was quite close with a sandy beach and palm trees dotted about, my first glimpse of such a scene. Soon it was time to leave accompanied by another warship, sailing through seas as calm as a pond on a sunny day.

Our destination was Singapore. Naturally we all crowded the rails to take a quick look before disembarking. We could see RAF vehicles waiting for us to disembark. We were met by the waiting RAF personnel, asked our name and number, then each directed to their assembly point, as each carrier filled it was then on its way.

Like most people in those days I had never travelled out of England before, so everything and everywhere seemed so different. The ships displaying their goods, the buildings had pillars supporting the above floors making a covered walkway; very wide deep tropical drains. I was looking forward to seeing more in the coming days.

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