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Passage to India

 

I had so looked forward to leave in July '43 but within a few days it had palled. I wanted to get back into the air. The telegram arrived, "Report to RAF Bournemouth." A holding station, from where we would be posted to a squadron, which as far as I could see was, like many of these places, a few commandeered seafront hotels. Occasionally there would be a "Situations Vacant" on the notice board. They were usually for Coastal Command, Bombers or Photographic reconnaissance. A friend and I went up to Ringwood out of sheer boredom. Why? Sheer frustration.

Nothing open but the tatty type of pub that has all but disappeared from these islands today. The locals made us most welcome but after we had had a couple of beers we turned to go but we were challenged to a darts match by a very unlikely couple. Most able-bodied men were in the forces but these two would never make the medical, not only were they too old but one of them seemed not to be able to lift his arms above his waist. It was a fatal mistake. He threw his darts with a flick of the wrist that seemed to start in the region of his navel. We were taken to the cleaners and had to buy a round of drinks for everyone. As we turned to the bar I took my commando dagger from the sheath sewn into the bottom of my trouser pocket and flung it at the board. It sank into the bull a full inch, cutting the wire. I turned around, no one had seen it although they had watched our every mistake with some glee. I was handed my beer and drank wondering how to retrieve it. When we were making our farewells I had to go up to the board and pull it out with more difficulty than I could have imagined and we made a somewhat awkward exit.

When we returned there was a travel warrant for me. It was not to a squadron but I was to catch a troopship for where, I knew not. Strangely, it was with a feeling of relief. At least something was happening. The troopship sailed in convoy out into the Atlantic. There were said to be 5,000 on board but we believed nothing. The O.C. Troops was a Colonel. There were a few Indian civilians that gave us the idea that we were taking them home but that meant nothing in the strange-compartmented world of the war.

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There were the usual mixtures of officers and other ranks with a slight preponderance of 'Brown Jobs'. ( An epithet used by the RAF to describe soldiers. They returned the compliment by dubbing us 'The Brylcreme Boys'.). There were the usual complement of 'Padres' to look after our varied spiritual needs and three young WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) Officers, the only women among all these men. They had obviously decided that unity is strength and were never seen excepting as a trio and never raised their eyes. They had a large cabin, presumably with all facilities.

CONVOY CUTTINGS

I had decided to keep busy and opened up the ship's library. As I was putting the opening announcement on the notice board where the three WAAFs were reading the various placards. The prettiest of them was telling her friends that she had served as a cub reporter for a time. I gave no hint that I had heard anything but went straight back to the Library which was closed and made out another notice. It stated that a ship's newspaper was planned and would anyone who wished to help report to me the next day. We would be needing journalists and particularly any person with artistic abilities possibly including wood engraving. I took it to the O.C.Troops who gave me his enthusiastic backing. "Of course Sir, I would have little time for other duties."

"Of course not, I will give you all the help I can." Within a few moments it was on the main board. In scrounging for materials for the library I had come across a pile of offcuts of the finest lino I had ever seen. Thick, fine grained cork. It seemed that the gun turrets had been floored with it. Fine to drop shells on but had they ever seen it burn? The convoy had suddenly turned east and sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. We were told that it was the first to go through but we believed nothing.

On 21-8-43 I wrote home:-

"Am enjoying myself up to now. Most of my friends are bored stiff but as soon as I could, I took a job. It all started as ship's librarian. We got all of the books out of the hold and started the library. I charge 1/- deposit and 1d per book. The pennies I am returning as prizes for essays, sketches etc. The first competition is for a poster to advertise the other competition. That will bring me in sufficient posters to paper the ship. Cunning eh! I have worked out a wizard filing system for the troops and books so that I have been able to train a soldier to take most of it over. One flight sergeant and I got it running and it has been hard going. We always have a long queue to attend to and we can only allow 4 in @ a time.

I started organising a shop's newspaper yesterday so am making use of my freedom (newly won) by my debut as editor. The days are over in no time and there always seems to be twice as much work to do on the morrow. With the help of the ship's carpenter I am fixing up an office for our paper on Monday next to the library so that I can keep an eye on it all."

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One of the first to reply to the newspaper poster was an RAF Warrant Officer. He impressed me at once. He had been a newspaperman and had experience as a wood engraver. Others were arriving with a great range of abilities, so many, that we had to move to the deck where they were roughly sorted into artists, journalists, printers and general dog's bodies. We took names and details and called a temporary halt to proceedings.

The W.O. was most efficient and produced a list for further use. The three WAAFs had by then acquired the names of The Three Virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity. They stood just outside the group and seemed to be listening but remained resolutely apart. The W.O. and I went back to the 'office', posted a "Closed" notice on the door and surveyed the situation. It was plain that we had undertaken a larger project than we had anticipated. I asked him if he would take over the art work and he almost shyly produced a sketch for the Header. It was very simple but perfect for a linocut.

Just a troopship with smoke billowing from the single funnel. I had already christened the paper "Convoy Cuttings" and he rapidly sketched it in. He suddenly said "Was that someone at the door?" I was just about to tell him to ignore it but he opened it and there was 'Charity'! I just said, "Come in and look at this", showing the sketch. Afterwards I gathered that he thought that we knew one another. At first she said nothing but the W.O. and I had been gaining inspiration and she caught the rising enthusiasm. It was to be printed as four pages of three columns to a page with the Header as the only permanent art feature, with linocuts one column wide to break up the text. She caught on fast and was soon adding ideas of her own. Suddenly there was silence. We looked at one another and laughed. The basics had been laid down in that one meeting. The W.O. said "I have more that enough to be getting on with for one day" and left us. I offered to help her and asked if she would undertake gathering material and she agreed. She said "What have I let myself in for?' 'I had not expected things to move so fast!"

Seen at close quarters for the first time she was smaller than I had first thought. My guess would have been that she was a gym mistress. Neatly turned out and I made a little bet with myself that if she had any civvies with her that they would include a twin set and a single strand of pearls. She did not plaster herself with that ghastly bright red lipstick that girls seemed to like in those days. There was a more than a hint of determination and the impression of a girl who was fully in control of herself. It was a most unusual relationship, there was no beginning, it just was. We were both young, full of good humour and a love of life and we were happy to enjoy it. We had a respect for one another that became deeper with time. There was absolutely no commitment or constraint of any description. It was a gem of experience, honest, full, and complete in itself.

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By the time we started gathering material for the paper it was clear that it would not be wise for her to head the journalistic input. She was indispensable as a general factotum and when I was not present she took over without exerting any authority other than respect. That became the special feeling in our little team. There were no Prima Donnas, we all just gave our best. With a reading public almost entirely expressing frustrated testosterone the humour was bound to be broad and irreverent. We prepared our first edition with great anticipation. We had to conserve paper stocks so we printed on one side of the paper so that it could be put up throughout the ship on the various notice boards. Shipboard newspapers are usually produced under difficulty and trying to produce one with illustrations meant hard work for everyone. Space was at a premium but dedication was complete. As soon as we had a complete copy I took it to the O.C.Troops for his approval. He was ecstatic and asked if he could keep it! I rushed back to the gang who were putting in the finishing touches. We were building a good collection of linocuts for any conceivable requirement and work did not slacken. Dedication was complete and we were determined to produce the best 'publication' possible.

The way the notice boards were crowded gave us great pleasure but we were the most severe critics of our own work. Not quite true! The O.C.Troops sent for me. His Adjutant opened the door and the sight of a sombre O.C. and the entire flock of 'Padres' who drew back as though confronting the devil himself greeted me. I was torn off the most terrific strip. The full strength of the usually divided clerics had united in condemnation. Was I determined to corrupt the minds of vulnerable young men? Had I no respect for any morals? My parallel universe clicked into being. The Padres were enjoying it. The O.C. said "Thank you for drawing this serious matter to my attention.' 'I have more to say to this young officer!" Looking like a file of pouter pigeons they filed out. The Adjutant shut the door and the O.C said "What could I say?' 'We have to humour them you know!" "Convoy Cuttings is the best that could have happened to raise the troops' spirits". He handed me a large scotch and said "Knock that back and get going on the next edition and if you meet any of them don't let them smell your breath.

He asked me when he could expect the next addition and was surprised when I told him that it could be up to a week.

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Several nights later several of us were working on the paper when we were shushed to silence and told that we should go on deck. Things were happening. We went through the silent men looking into the night on the Port side of the ship to our favourite spot behind the funnel. The red glow illumined everything. A mile or so away was a sight that fills me with horror even at this remove of time. The indistinct outline of one of our ships went into and out of sight in a sea of flames and smoke, the sea itself was alight and from time to time there was a huge expulsion of energy; each time sending a cascade of incandescence into the sky. The ship was down by the stern. There was no sign of human life but what if there were? Any ship trying to approach that inferno would have been silhouetted against the blaze of light and a perfect target for the submarine that was responsible for this tragedy, leaving more victims in the sea.

In a final convulsion the whole sky was rent by a tremendous explosion and great clouds of flame and smoke burst into the sky, seeming to renew themselves from within as they billowed ever higher. I put my left arm around her and she suddenly flung round and buried her head in my shoulder. She was shivering. I held her and steadily looked over her shoulder at the awful scene with half created thoughts that were never allowed to form, rising and vanishing again within me. We steamed on: We had to.

It was all so unfair.

 

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Edward Sparkes 1998-2002