Chapter 9: World War II starts, 1939

At 11am on Sunday 3 September 1939 war started for me whilst listening to a primitive car radio parked in the town of Richmond in Yorkshire. Or perhaps I should say us, as the fair sex had not gone by entirely unnoticed in my life up to this point. For Margaret and myself the result was almost instant parting, with the hope of reuniting gradually diminishing over the years until it seemed sensible to say, without any counter attraction, “We must both now have become different people. It is best that we should live our own separate lives.”

The Saturday night had been the first with lighting restrictions and new officers, Territorial and Reserve, were arriving in the Mess by Sunday afternoon, and so long-laid plans were quickly put in motion. However a picture anyone may have of formed bodies of trained troops moving off to battle locations did not apply to us. I had recently completed the three years of service required to qualify for the rank of a Lieutenant. This somehow made me quite senior and turned me into a Company Commander in a few days. This did not relieve me of other duties including my Brigade Section and a new appointment as Signalmaster at the Divisional Headquarters which was being assembled. I asked a young arrival if his call-up caused much difficulty and I was told that a had been fired from the Ford car plant for putting the door screws in with a hammer. To him this was just another job.

The first five days covered dealing with new arrivals, digging slit trenches, injections for all and packing up for a move. The second five days involved moving out to create a tented camp at Gandale nearby, digging trenches, more injections, sorting out the trade skills of new arrivals and packing up for a move. The next five days took us back into Catterick Camp to the hutted 1916 date barracks of Hooge Lines. Here we cleaned up, dug slit trenches and prepared for training. However Phil Harding, our splendid Quartermaster, rightly pointed out that much of our equipment had been left in our original peacetime stores and should be moved to our latest location. This took priority.

Late on Wednesday 19 September a message was received to tell two of us, Wilfred Jelf and myself, to be ready ‘to proceed to the Tropics from midnight Friday’, fifty odd hours hence. With cars and all our belongings in Yorkshire there was sorting, packing and transport home required. There was tropical kit to acquire and a dozen loose ends to tie up. The next day we were in London by nightfall with the difficulty of finding our way in a blacked out city. In the daylight, balloon barrages were a novelty and a trip to the War Office elicited the news that we might be able to have an extra 24 hours for solving our problems. Arriving home at Benson, near Oxford, I spent 36 hours there, my ‘embarkation leave’, and left my car garaged ‘for the duration’. The train from Reading to London was standing room only and the one on to Darlington blacked out. Arriving in Catterick after midnight I found my room had been reallocated. I had to improvise.

The next day I met Major Ralph Bagnold, desert explorer, physicist, writer and brother of the author Enid Bagnold. He said that we were not under his command, but that we would be travelling together when the journey started. This meeting and what followed turned out to be a tremendous stroke of luck. A more interesting man cannot be imagined. The full moon that we had over our final waiting days brought home what a great blessing this form of lighting can be when all other lights are extinguished.

There was no hanging about. We were told that baggage should be marked a not very revealing ‘X2’ and we should be leaving by train at 7.30pm next day for Southampton. There we were marched to the Cunard White Star Quay to board the Franconia II. The later horrific stories of the discomfort of crammed ‘troopers’ with monotonous food did not apply to us. Our ship had been prepared for an expensive cruise and we were to benefit in every way, eating the fine meals intended for others. We were carried by lift to ‘A’ Deck where Wilfred and I were allotted a first class cabin with beds, not bunks, and a private bathroom. There was a Cunard steward to look after us.

We were able to get ashore for some shopping and I acquired an ancient typewriter for thirty shillings and a primer on touch-typing. It seemed likely to me that there would be free time available at sea to pick up a new skill. At 7.15pm we moved out into the roads, Alcantara, Empress of Australia, ourselves and then the Athlone Castle. Only the Military Police were there to see us off. The fading colours of our home country were at their best from the grey green of the sea to a huge low sun, red as the western sky and set off by rose tinted barrage balloons. A full moon rose and we drifted to a halt. It had to be dark before we came out into the Channel. At 5am a door started banging and we knew that we were on our way.

Boat drill, ship’s duties and routine had to be gone through, but with so many officers the shared workload was not heavy. My term as Orderly Officer was at a rough time in the Bay of Biscay. On the credit side we had a squash court, gymnasium, swimming pool, shuffleboard and extravagant quality messing. There was plenty of time for reading, photography and regular typing practice.

There were five Signals officers on the ship and our dining table was kept constantly interested and involved in the widest range of experience and discussion at every meal. Ralph Bagnold, unconscious of rank or age difference, was interested in people and with the instinct of a great teacher the response that he could get from them. His experience and interests were wide and he wished to share them. He was a man of exceptional intellect and imagination, a great human being, who never talked down to people. There was no trace of condescension.

Later in life I came across passages in Ralph Bagnold’s autobiography which spoke of his time around Ypres in 1917 and through the tragic battle of Passchendaele where he worked for a great Chief Signals Officer F.J.M.Stratton, who had important lifelong influence on his career. (See Appendix A.)

Bagnold was a man of small stature, wiry and active with a restless mind always pursuing new ideas and seeking wider knowledge. In the mid-1920s he and a band of friends stationed in Egypt carried out wide exploration of the Western Deserts. With the vehicles of the day this was no mean challenge. Navigation techniques were of prime importance and desert obstacles called for many imaginative solutions for safe travel. His last great expedition started from India, where he was then stationed. The drive across the intervening countries to Egypt was a formidable exercise in its own right. In 1927 Army life was not demanding enough for him and he retired, to be recalled from the Reserve in 1939.

I had developed my own firm belief in the importance of Adventure in life at an early age and he and I were both attracted by mountain activities. Here was someone for me to look up to.

We had touched at Gibraltar and with finer weather tropical kit was worn. We were well on our way until…

As a change from the gymnasium, squash court or swimming Wilfred and I were playing shuffleboard whilst the convoy was pursuing a somewhat zigzag course, because of a submarine shadow, supposedly seen from a French aircraft. Looking up I was horrified to see Alcantara across our bows and a short distance away. The inevitable collision took place with a crunch of tearing metal. The impact was just forward of her bridge. She hinged round on us crushing each of the swung-out lifeboats like walnuts as contact was made down the length of the ship. Some boats fell apart leaving separate ends hanging from the davits. The call to boat stations found several parties looking disconsolately at the remains of their supposed rescue craft.

In fact by good luck we got off lightly. It was said that Alcantara had been reinforced forward of the bridge for a gun mounting. Otherwise she would have been seriously damaged if not sunk. We settled down to a list of a few degrees, but were able to enjoy our usual caviar before an excellent dinner while matters were sorted out and we were on the move again.

The next day we sighted Malta’s small Island of Gozo and before long the submarine nets of the Grand Harbour were pulled aside and we entered this fine anchorage surrounded by great classical buildings. Valetta was all gleaming white limestone and most attractive. At first no-one was allowed ashore. The Governor had ordered a 10pm curfew as local inhabitants were refusing to obey blackout rules.

Our cruise routine now gave us time to explore the island. In due course Franconia entered the floating dock, carried clear of the water for inspection, but it remained our hotel. Alcantara entered the graving dock, where her patching up was quicker than ours. A quick staff exercise removed the important members from our damaged ship and transferred them to others that would continue to Port Said, leaving us behind. We said our goodbyes to our guru, Ralph Bagnold, and wished him good luck in East Africa.

Never one to miss an opportunity I set off with Wilfred to learn about Malta - cave dwellings from 4000 BC, the Cathedral and defensive works of the 16th century Knights of St John and a day on the island of Gozo. Old friends were discovered and a satisfactory break from sea travel enjoyed. Buses conveying us listed explicit rules: -

Rule 10. Loaded firearms and objects having an objectionable smell will not be carried on buses.

Even so it came as no great surprise to the passengers to discover that their neighbour on the ride might be a goat.

In due course two days sailing brought us to Alexandria which, incidentally, is not in the ‘Tropics’ we had been warned for, where we were put on a train to Cairo.

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