Reading through my war diary on 11th November 1998 jut one hour before the two minutes silence for the 80th anniversary of the First World War and the subsequent remembrances of the ensuing conflicts – the Second World War (to which these notes allude) I am much aware how personal and trivial they may appear to others who fought hand to hand in conflict with the enemy in all three services and those civilians who endured hardship and danger not on the battlefield.
However these notes are genuine and recall the day to day thoughts and deeds and experience of the days spent with the early 8th Army which coped with the Italians and the first development with Rommell’s first sortie with the German Army and our retreat from Agadabia, in our case 9th January 1942.
Today is a bank holiday, 29th May year 2000.
I sit in my electric elevated chair in my reception – living room surrounded by the many things I have acquired in my adult years, supposedly happy and contented, yet lonely hoping that my companion and Ceylonese son Robert will be with me in two months time to be with me for half a year.
This will keep me sane.
My English son Richard who I love dearly does not speak with me. I keep in contact with his wife who I admire so much, coping with his various moods and manners, bringing up their two delightful children.
I speak often, mostly on the telephone, with his mother Maureen who I have recently remarried after the death of her husband last year, she lives not far from him in Combe Down near Bath in the West Country. I suspect Richard resents me for remarrying his mother or is jealous of my regard and affection for Robert Mahipala who is very close to me.
My daughter who I love dearly, living in Devon, is kind and generous in her affection for me despite her emotional entanglement dealing with the problem of her two children living miles away from her in Oregon U.S.A. whence they went two years ago as teenagers to live with their American father.
As I look around my pleasant surroundings surprisingly lit by double aspect sunshine for it has been dull and raining for several days, each item brings back a memory. The small sideboard where I keep my spirit and liqueur drinks the sofa table standing in the white wool carpet still looking fresh though slightly shorn are items I brought back from my tiny village house in Portugal which was my home in 73, 74 and 75 until their revolution in 74 which, after a year I gave up and went back to the Gulf.
The picture of Robert by the swimming pool of the New Oriental Hotel in Galle, Sri Lanka brings back memories of him way back in ’85. The watercolour hanging over the mantle piece of a Syrian or Jordanian desert scene painted by F. Goodall R. A., in 1874, the day Churchill was born at Blenheim, reminds me of John Mitchell. It was given to me by his housekeeper legatee at the funeral meal gathering at the cottage. She insisted I had it as a memory of the Middle East where I had served with him and as she commented, had left me nothing.
The oil colour of the Nile by an Egyptian artist which had caught the eye of Rita Hill and which I also liked. She did not leave it to me; I bought it for £20 from the house clearance man. She left me the Chinese pot and a small batik wall hanging I had given her years before. She was always jealous of Robert.
The tall gilded wooden statue of a Siamese Buddha stands on a bookcase on the back wall for the light to catch the sequins and the shimmering gold paint. I rescued it from a junk shop on Portland Road years ago. The old now faded curtains which Robert and I made ourselves copying from the Hannington curtains in my bedroom because I was too mean to pay Hanningtons over a thousand pounds for similar curtains. We made them for £350.
So I looked around and finished my breakfast – the tray was in the sitting room for I was listening to and watching the news on television. I switched to the BBC Knowledge channel on which the programme relating to the Nazi War had just started. Memories flooded back. The day I was riding to work on my motorcycle on the day Chamberlain declared war on Germany on 3rd October 1939. By the time I had reached home that evening I discussed with my parents my joining the forces. My Father bade me wait awhile until he had the chance to discuss it with his friend Mr. Payling who lived in Cherry Cottage on Westfield lane at the end of our road. His son was my teacher and housemaster, who had a low opinion of me, yet tolerated me because of his and my father’s friendship. It was decided I apply to join the Royal Engineers – but note – The Royal Engineer Services. It must be the Royal Engineer Services, not just the Royal Engineers – I might end up anywhere if I did that. So Harry Payling’s advice set me on my war career.
I gave two weeks notice to the firm in which I was working and to whom I had sold the Illustra Signs business – but not the name – some three years before and by the end of October I was in Chatham being made into a soldier.
In the first week of the following February I was a member of the C.R.E. 2 Airfield Construction Company as a Lance Corporal under the command of Captain Tolhurst R. E. in charge of No 78 Unit of that Company. We totalled 24 souls. We sailed for France in the Isle of Man paddle steamer two days later ending up in Troyes and being stationed in a little village called Anglure and billeted in the local cafe and later with a delightful French family.
As Dimbleby’s programme on Dunkirk unfolded memories flooded back and I recalled the time I came out of France a month after Dunkirk on June 17. We had skirted round and taken the Company units transport and miraculously driven down the Loire Valley without much incident and ended up at Nantes and were some of the last to climb on to the top deck of the Cunard liner Lancastria. We arrived aboard in time for a silver service lunch of bangers and mash, no pud.
By four o’clock that afternoon we were back up on “A” deck sitting on our kit bags when five Stukas flew over and strafed us. One had a lucky drop that went down a staircase and out through the bottom sinking the ship bottom up in twenty minutes. The ship started to list quite quickly and an officer shouted every man for himself – over the side save yourselves!!!!! By which time being on the top deck I went over the side down a rope ladder along with my mates who had the wit to use that ladder. I had changed my new shoes I had stolen from the destroyed G.1098 stores and wore my plimsolls. I had the sense to wear my cork lifebuoy. I did not go down the ladder fast enough someone trod on my hands that were clasping the wooden slats of the ladder and I nearly swung off. I found myself in the water with the side of the ship towering above me. I took off and ditched my steel helmet that I thought would drag me under. I was in the sea for more than an hour by which time I had clung to a life raft; the ship had turned completely over with her bottom just above sea level with chaps still clambering over her hull. I was pulled aboard into a tiny yellow painted dinghy; then transferred to a French fishing trawler and then on to the Havelock a British destroyer. WE had to clutch to a rope mesh put over the side of the destroyer to assist us on board. I was carrying my battle blouse as I started to clamber up a French sailor yelled at me and I gave him my battle blouse which he flung up after I had got aboard. The swell churned by the ships propellers caused a large swell and although the Havelock seemed steady in the water the French fishing smack was rising up and down compared to the large Destroyer that when the sailor threw up my battle dress top it was caught in a big down drop of the French vessel and could not be caught – thus I lost my battle dress. I lost my trousers taken away to be dried out in exchange for a white ships blanket – I never saw my trousers again. I was placed in the middy’s mess room and given a hot cup of tea. It was then we learnt of the capitulation of France over the ship’s radio. We were stunned and fell silent, hoping we would reach an English port in safety after this ordeal. We did – it was Devonport. As soon as I could I telephoned my parents who of course were overjoyed.
From Devonport we survivors from C. R. E. 2, were posted to Leeds where we met up and were billeted in the town hall. We learnt that nine of our Company had been lost in the disaster. We eventually ended up in a rather grand house as headquarters in Roundhay, Leeds from whence we were granted survivors leave.