In 1943 I left Heaton Park and journeyed to Greenock where I boarded a large White Star liner, SS Caledonia, bound for a destination unknown. Tropical kit had been issued. At the top of the gangway I was handed a blue card inscribed Mess Deck E. I wondered where the sleeping quarters would be. I was given a hammock and was told that was what I was looking for.
One day out and heading west, in the interests of discipline we were ordered to stand guard over allegedly important parts of the ship. The sea was very rough, I was very seasick and as far as I was concerned whatever I was supposed to be guarding could well look after itself. For five days we continued to head west, part of a magnificent convoy with the Royal Navy destroyers hooting reassuringly and dropping depth charges seemingly to boost our morale.
The next day we turned east and carried on that course for another six or seven days. Tropical kit was withdrawn presumably to confuse the enemy. It succeeded in confusing us.
Land Ahoy on the fourteenth day but where? The Rock of Gibraltar of course and entry into the Med. with its possible dangers. Only us and one destroyer seemed to be venturing forth into the unknown. Many moonlit evenings were spent watching the paravanes cutting through the water thankfully doing their job but many imaginary torpedoes seemed to be heading our way through the reflections of the moonlight on the water although our solitary destroyer continued to drop depth charges to reassure us. The main occupation on board was queuing queuing for everything, mess deck rations, tea, haircuts, Medical Officer (MO), toilets, tea, fresh water and more tea.
Just before reaching Port Said a violent storm broke bringing chaos to the ship and all who sailed in her. Everything which was not bolted down was on the move; human bodies, mess cans which had originally contained the days rice ration, mugs, tea, sea water, the lot.
Safely through Suez, the Red Sea and Aden and on arrival at Mombasa the lighting restrictions were lifted and we were allowed to sleep on deck the fact that the ships crew hosed the decks at 5 a.m. each morning washing all before them was one of the disadvantages.
Fresh water was severely rationed between Mombasa and Durban but on arrival our morale was raised by pop songs of the 40s sung by the Lady in White who, during the War welcomed every troop ship arriving at Durban.
On disembarkation it was a short trip to the Transit Camp where we spent four days sleeping in whitewashed cow sheds using kit bags as pillows. On the first day and wearing our tropical kit with shorts below the knee, we queued once again to have them shortened. This was done by two enterprising Africans who had set themselves up with a trestle table and by using a pair of tailors shears and a sewing machine reduced the leg lengths by three or four inches for one shilling a pair.
The next queue led to a table loaded with bags of fresh fruit; bananas, oranges, plums, grapes, etc., in fact the varieties we had not seen since the beginning of the War.
That night there was a further queue. This time for toilets. These were housed in a block containing a communal 32 seater arranged in four rows of eight with a running water channel under each row. Considerable delay was inevitable not helped by the formation of card schools. However, one individual speeded things up by lighting the top of a piece of screwed up paper and dropping it into the running water channel at the top of one of the rows.
RAF personnel who were returning home after service in South Africa were selling very good wrist watches for 30 shillings each. We found much later that these watches could have been bought for one pound; nevertheless mine lasted for many years after the War ended. We left Durban on a train journey lasting three days which took us through the Cape Province, legendary places such as Ladysmith, Mafeking, Kimberley and the Kalahari Desert and our final destination Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia.
On arrival at the RAF Station in Bulawayo all RAF personnel were confined to camp on a temporary basis as two deadly black mambas had been seen in the vicinity and two native boys armed with sticks had been sent out to deal with the problem which they did with great efficiency.
Our training as RAF pilots was about to begin.
Links & Notes
20 SFTS Cranborne http://www.galgos.co.uk/69901/index.html
The Lady in White - Perla Gibson http://www.allatsea.co.za/army/ladywhite.htm
SS Caledonia - no trace has yet been found of a vessel to match Jim's recollection
last updated 28 June 2010: © ACA Surrey Branch 2010