AN ORDINARY MAN - PART 3 - INDIA, BURMA, RAMREE THEN HOME AGAIN
AN ORDINARY MAN – PART 3 – THE ROAD TO INDIA & BURMA – RAMREE ISLAND AND BEYOND, then HOME AGAIN
The rest of the memoirs were written down by me during afternoons spent with Dad after he became too disabled to write himself. He in fact left more than a year between writing down the first part of his story and deciding to carry on using me as ‘his secretary’. As his voice had also become very weak and he was often unable to speak or pronounce words properly, as well as the continuing deterioration in my own hearing – which sometimes made for some amusing and some distressing misunderstandings - it was not always easy to be sure that I had written down what he wanted, so much of this will be in my words, though the essence of the story is faithfully reproduced. As Dad could often only speak in short bursts, and being by now 90 years old and his memory becoming a little dimmer than it was, I hope the reader will understand if this part is rather more disorganised than what went before.
VOYAGE TO INDIA
On the troop ship Maloja in 1943 going over to India (embarked at Liverpool), a bloke died and was buried at sea. All were assembled on deck. The body was under a flag – the Union Jack – and was slid into the sea with all due ceremony.
Crossing the line - On the way to India on the Maloja we crossed the Equator. There was a ceremony for first time crossers, I’ve got the certificate! (signed by Neptune himself!)
IMPORTANT INFORMATION :TOILETS – BOGS, CRAPPERS, HEADS ETC.
On Board Ship toilets were in a long hut on deck and a step up on to the high seats. The holes were set in twos so you would sit there with your mate and have a chat. Seawater constantly ran through to clean them and they often stank as people were seasick or suffering from the runs. The sailors called them the heads or the scut or something similar
In general latrines were just a trench in the ground with a pole over it to hang on to, I don’t know if the Japs did the same but when they were full we had to cover them with grass or sand to fill them in and mark the ground as contaminated.
In India in one place the toilets were built just off the airstrip such as it was. It was a big hole or trench, with empty petrol drums sunk into the ground with a hole in the lid for the seat. On One occasion I opened a lid and out swarmed millions of bluebottles flies etc. as often happened so I thought can’t sit there! And moved on to the next one. Same again! So I set light to some paper and threw it down the hole, opened the lid and out swarmed the flies and bluebottles – followed by huge flames – definitely couldn’t sit there either and so had to wait til the flames died down!
In one place near the Arakan Express (Burma0 we had an HQ with bungalows surrounded by thick bamboo forests with mango trees where the Indians had built our workshops. The latrines were posher here: small bamboo huts with split trenches and partitions which made for a draught on the bum. The ‘chocolate man’ used to come round with a big barrel and pull out and empty the pans into the barrels even while you were sitting on the toilet!
On Ramree Island there was a ridge of hills where we went for a crap. You could see the bluebottles swarming as it rolled down each side of the hills and laying their eggs straight away. Another ridge was full of rotten paper.
On Ramree Island big sheets of metal with holes stamped out were placed on the cleared airstrip, interlocked with hessian mats and rubberised material (to deter snakes)– when it rained the holes became puddles, and someone had to go round with sticks and poke the holes out again. One morning I went for a crap but was held at bay as there was a big snake in the way. We used to pinch the hessian coconut matting for our tents – once I pinched a roll and a snake came out. Serve me right.
CAMPS IN INDIA/BURMA
As I have said previously, one place in India near the Arakan Express our HQ consisted of bungalows surrounded by forests with bamboo and mango trees and toilets in small bamboo huts regularly emptied. The Indians had built our workshops in this jungle. There were holes for windows; we had to push the flaps up with a stick to let air in.
I was in there one day when I heard a big rush of wind then much chattering and squeaking – there were hundreds of monkeys jumping about; more and more came out trying to escape the bamboo cutters close behind. This was near the Arakan Express. The trees were close together like fence-posts. Indians came along with huge piles of bamboo, and went across the plain – suddenly the grass went brown – with monkeys! The Indians felt these animals were unlucky or some such and would hold up charms to their faces before going near them.
Near Dakar I was in the canteen one day when some soldiers came in. As we chatted I found out one knew my cousin Arthur Utton! Arthur was not in the forces, he was in a reserved occupation, a metalworker making ingots.
Once we were putting up tents and filling the paraffin lamps and the handle of my hammer caught light!
In India some place
I remember we were housed in shacks, there was an Indian girl dance troupe, they had white stringed instruments, the strings made from girls’ hair.
VOYAGE FROM INDIA TO RAMREE ISLAND, BURMA, AND LIFE ON THE ISLAND
The Unit, 131 RSM known as the Pawnbrokers, (Repair Salvage and Maintenance) eventually went to Burma, and on to Ramree Island.
We travelled on a big ship to Burma then on to Ramree Island. There were hundreds of blokes paraded on deck and I was in the second row from the front with my mate Joe Millett (who became my lifelong friend and we were eventually related when his son David married my younger daughter Patricia in 1972.) Joe worked in metal and at one time invented and made up a bomb dropper for Lysanders.
We were waiting to go ashore and the invasion barges were waiting below. They had their ramps up and I could see big holes in the gratings. Joe said : ‘Follow me, we won’t go on that bit’. We were wearing clean clothes and carrying 50lb of kit, sten guns and ammo. Looking over the side we could see ships circling into position. When it was time to get off, the staircase on the side of the ship went down, and at the bottom the platform rising and falling with the waves, and a huge gap between platform and ship. We stepped off as it came up again and onto the invasion barge. The ramp went down and we were up to our knees in lovely cool deep blue water. We were all standing enjoying this, with the Beachmaster calling us to come. I’m a bit of a short-arse and Joe has often told the family that all they could see of me was my hat on top of the water – but I maintain this is not true!
It was a lovely beach. (said with irony) There were no tops on the trees because of the bombardment. Ramree was a small island peppered with bomb holes and dugouts looking out to sea. The Japs first line of defence was the islanders. They lined the natives up each night on the beach hoping the Allies would not fire on them.
Apparently there should have been photographers there to record the landings, but they weren’t there and the story goes that blokes had to take one of the small repair and rescue boats they found out to sea again so they could take pictures!
INCIDENTS ON RAMREE
One RAF bloke wanted me to go onto another island and repair a plane. I refused to do so because I was not trained for such repairs this was a specialist job and would even have had to take my own tools! If I had repaired it I would have had to sign for my work and I was not willing to take responsibility for a pilot’s life if my repair had not been up to scratch. Instead I had to show the blokes (who supposedly had been trained in aircraft repair) what to do and how to make jigs etc.
One time Officer Black wanted a bar for the Officer’s Mess. I made one out of packing cases and anything else I could scrounge. It was half round, with empty tanks stuck all over the front (cleaned up of course), and I stained and polished the wood with French Polish used by the electricians. The store bloke got it for me. The wood stain was made up somehow by boiling up nails and various bits and pieces to make a good colour. Its quality was much admired. While I was making the bar a ship came in and unloaded at the docks. They asked for volunteers to drive lorries, and Joe went off to do that.
The bar was made to Blacks’ measurements: the counter his elbow high, with cupboards and shelves underneath for the bottles etc. It finished up (so I am told) being slung overboard from a ship because some blokes didn’t agree with it. (Imagine it still bobbing around in the Indian Ocean along with the huge tins of bully beef we got fed up with)!
Even further forward than we were, troops with shaven heads would occasionally come down – they were known as the Vultures. One morning we saw poles stuck in the ground covered with tarpaulins – they were shaving their heads.
One time we sat slinging used ammo on the fire and enjoying the bangs. We knew some blokes were coming from our unit and told them they wouldn’t sleep that night – too much noise! Another job we had was sitting on boxes of ammo pushing bullets into clips.
An invention of mine was to fix the axles of aircraft engine frames with baulks of timber so they wouldn’t move when sending them back for repair.
A bloke died somehow, I don’t remember how. We wrapped him in blankets and I had to go on a boat to bury him on a little island.
CAMPS ON RAMREE ISLAND BURMA
Ramree was cut off from mainland Burma by tide twice a day.
An early memory was going along on a lorry when we first went to Burma – there were lots of small Jap scout tanks alongside the road.
Our camp on Ramree was on flat ground surrounded by steep hills. Tents were pitched on the flat, with holes for washing water. When the Monsoon season started, we all got soaked and the camp flooded. We had to take the tents down, lug everything to the top of the hill and put them up again. What a job, with everything soaked through! Up and down, up and down! One Sunday some skinny old cows went right through our tent and out the other side, where water rushed through.
THE MOSQUITO FIGHTER PLANE
Mossies were much used early in the war in the Far East
The Mosquito had a very distinct engine sound.
One that had been shot down on Ramree was in a bad way, and had been out in all weathers. These planes were wooden, really quite fragile, held together with glue and this one was coming apart and we decided it was not repairable. So we took our tools, sawed the plane in half then sawed it up. It eventually went on our campfires. Thenceforward we were known as the Unit that had sawed a Mosquito in half.
Our Unit was on the move all the time, always in forward areas. Mossies used to come down to refuel then go off again. Any pilot who came to the island to ask for petrol was asked to test aircraft that had just been repaired. These blokes were barmy! One went up got his wires crossed and turned left instead of right and went out to sea! One regular pilot had a 2 seater training aircraft rather than a fighter. He used to pull the lever to let his undercarriage down then fly up again just skimming our heads.
On one occasion we found a parachute in a plane on the ground – suddenly bang up it went!
Near the end of the war things eased up and we didn’t have to salvage the bits and pieces for repairs.
Our Unit was about the last to be called to the transit camp to leave. Eventually our Officer decided we had been forgotten and took the decision to leave anyway. We left behind a bloke to take charge of ruined food.
On the way home we dropped off at Agiary there were all these shrubs and now and again could see Jap dugouts with machine guns. We were shown pictures of fighter pilots out in the open waiting for repairs to aircraft. Our place was a bit off the road, a little dirt track off the main road. Joe found a ball of string and tied together 3 brass balls to represent our unit – which as a salvage unit was known as the Pawnbrokers.
We did more sea miles than air miles in the RAF!
When we moved camp to go home to Blighty quite a long time after the end of the war, Joe (Dad’s friend met in India. Joe’s family and Dad’s family became lifelong friends, and my sister Patricia later married his son David) and me were called to the airstrip on our way home to unload an old Dakota. The stores were unloaded and a lorry took them round to all the workshops.
When we landed in England we kissed the ground. It wasn’t the Pope that invented that one!
When our plane landed in England it was dark, and I remember seeing the white waves round the coast of the Isle of Wight as we came in to land. We unloaded ourselves and our stuff from the plane and the Sergeant in charge at the station said : ‘Where you’re going it’s all nice and warm!’ - he thought we were going out not coming in! Ten of us went from the railway station, as we walked along in our part green part blue uniforms, girls called out : ‘Where are you going? On holiday?’ I told a woman I’d just come back from my holidays ; 2 and a half years in the Far East!
I went to another station,and was surprised to see a shop outside full of apples and oranges, which I had thought were scarce in Britain. I had brought some fruit all the way back from Jerusalem where we had stopped en route home.
I had my kit with the bag of fruit on the rack above me on the train home. By this time my mates had separated so I was alone. There were some kids on the seat opposite who kept looking longingly at my fruit, so I gave them some. There wasn’t much left when I got home!
While I was away, my family had moved to Bellingham, having been bombed out repeatedly in Peckham, so I didn’t know where I lived now. I got the bus or tram from the station to the Old Kent Road, and went to see my Mother-in-law, Rose’s Mum who lived at 354 St James Road in Bermondsey. When I first got there, my brother-in-law John Wigley (Elsie’s husband) took me to Bellingham. There was no mistaking our house, all covered in bunting and flags and a big Welcome Home Banner. All the neighbours came out to see me, but all I wanted was my Rose.
On my first bus trip on coming home, a lady passenger turned to me and said ‘Ain’t you yeller!’. I was indeed very yellow as well as suntanned, because I had had malaria and dysentery and a very serious illness, amoebic hepatitis. I was treated in field hospitals whilst in India and Burma and in the Brook Fever hospital in Shooters Hill, over Blackheath way, soon after arriving back home, as I still had symptoms and was very ill. In fact our GP, Doctor Sangster who sent me to hospital as he soon recognised that I still needed urgent treatment, always said that it was thanks to him my two girls were ever born!
SS MALOJA (model made 54 years after the war)
When we were settled back in the UK, I worked for Fosters the builders. I mentioned the White Star ship Maloja on which I had sailed to India. There was a chap working there who had also been on it and corrected my pronunciation to MaloYa!
When Mum was ill with Cancer in 2000 Dad spent much of his time making a beautiful wooden model of the Maloja, correct in every detail down to tiny lifeboats and derricks, as he obtained the original building plans from the National Maritime Museum. This ship now sits proudly on my sideboard (which Dad also made just after I was born in 1950, in a tiny workshop (wooden shed in the back garden of the council house in Bellingham). Dad never tired of telling people all his life how I used to watch him doing his carpentry sitting under the workbench, and loved rolling in the wood shavings! The smell of home-made wood glue boiling on the stove is one of my early memories.