of the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales.
Ray was a mainstay of the
Australian contingent of the POWRSA. Sadly he passed away in August 2001 after an Illness.
1997, he wrote a short history of his life with music and his time in
the Royal Navy, called ' War Music'.
Once again I have found myself talking about the 1939-1945 war and music and saying "I really should write this down some time". This time I am at least making a start and I'll start at the beginning …
Jessie Maud Turner, my maternal grandmother, came from a comparatively wealthy background. She went to finishing school in Paris - was there during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War. She used to tell us that she was locked in a room whilst she did three hours' piano practice per day. Before her practice her music teacher would manipulate her fingers, occasionally hurting her, and I can remember as a youngster thinking she was "double-jointed" because she could put her fingers into such funny shapes. She used to tell of playing before Queen Victoria at the Albert Hall when she was thirteen years old. I have never confirmed this but the old lady was quite clear about the new sash she wore for the occasion. She had almost perfect pitch and aurally was never more than a semitone out anywhere on the piano (and this without the assistance of a 'guiding' note). Another anecdote was that she had a proposal of marriage from Sir Henry Wood and the family still has sheet music of Victorian Drawing Room ballads with words by a Fred Weatherly (a well known lyricist of that era) and music by Jessie Maud Turner. In her 70's she was still a fine pianist and played The Wedding of the Painted Doll long before I could get anywhere near it!
My brother Graham and I were both taught piano from about 7-8 years of age. I had about a years' interruption early on but then we both settled with a Miss Davis, an elderly spinster who lived on Street Road, Glastonbury, Somerset and who undoubtedly was a very good teacher. She taught under the auspices of the Trinity Collect of Music, London and I finished up by taking all the 'local' examinations. At the age of 17 or so, if I had wanted to go any further, it meant going to the College itself and pursuing a diploma and possibly a degree. I had no aspirations in this direction and in any case, the family couldn't afford it.
At the age of 17½ I was lucky enough to pass a Civil Service examination and went to Ealing in West London to work in a Tax Office. In London I was so lonely that I eventually joined what would now be a Uniting Church young peoples' group, where I met Ken Gamble. Ken was about my age and was studying for a violin examination at the Royal Academy of Music. At this stage I was still a pretty good reader of classical music and started going to his house daily to play piano accompaniments to his violin practice. This "kept my hand in" so to speak and made Ken's practice sessions a little more enjoyable (I think!). Even at this relatively early age Ken was a confirmed Trad Jazz buff and as soon as his violin practice was over I would be subjected to half an hour or so of his "78's". I remember hearing a lot of early Louis Armstrong and at the time, to me, it was just a noise. I can remember him asking me if I knew tunes like Dinah, Sweet Sue, Some of These Days and so on - I had never heard of any of them.
A bit later on I got hold of the sheet music to Whispering. I worked at this for some weeks, first of all getting to know it in the written key then moving up a semitone and sticking in that key until I could handle it, then up another semitone and so on thus acquiring a basic knowledge of chords and how they relate to each other.
Ken Gamble had been promised by his father that when he passed his violin exam he could have a tenor sax. The old man was as good as his word and, with his reasonable knowledge of music, Ken went out and bought himself a sax tutor for 2/6d and three months later was in a seven piece band. I complained bitterly about being left out in the cold. Dance band pianists were two a penny at this time and, in any case, I certainly wasn't good enough. Eventually Ken told me that the band wasn't too happy with their double bass player - he was always late for rehearsals, would start in without tuning up and was an indifferent performer anyway. If I cared to buy and learn a double bass I could get a place in this dance band - Jack Winter & His Frosty Knights!!! And that is exactly what happened. I advertised in the "Melody Maker", the British muso's journal, and received two replies. The first wanted £10:00 for a bass in good condition, the other £2:00 for a bass in fair condition. At the time I was earning 30 shillings a week and paying board of 22/6d; so, one Sunday morning I cycled over to Mitcham to negotiate for the cheaper instrument. I couldn't knock down the price and eventually bought it for the £2:00 asked, but the man selling it (himself a professional musician), delivered it. At the start of the negotiations, he went outside to his garden and brought in the bass from his coal house. It still had cobwebs liberally decorated with coal dust hanging from the two strings left on it, the geared tuning was not working properly, and the instrument was generally pretty scruffy. Luckily, a musical instrument repairer lived opposite Ken Gamble, just around the corner from my digs.
Said repairer (who thereafter I always regarded as a genius) had been gassed in the First World War and was not allowed to travel to the city on the tube trains, so worked from his private address. I took this poor little bass to him in fear and trepidation, but he was quite encouraging, and I left it with him. A fortnight later, I popped round to see how he was getting on and my purchase was in pieces. The belly, back and sides, fingerboard, bridge, were all lying around his lounge/workshop. His final result to me was nothing short of a miracle. He checked everything for worm (negative), took the grooves out of the fingerboard, fitted a new bridge and sound post, straightened out the geared tuning, fitted four new strings, and a collapsible brass support peg. The bill? £3:00. so my bass cost me a total of £5:00; in my turn I bought myself a tutor and three months later I was one of Jack Winter's Frosty Knights.
We were a conventional seven piece dance band of that era - piano, bass and drums, trumpet, two altos and one tenor sax as the reeds section and, from memory, we could actually play 17 instruments between us. We were rehearsing intensively for the All England Amateur Dance Band Contest organised by the "Melody Maker" and were receiving instruction from a Jack Baverstock, a professional piano player who also had a day job with Selmer's big Music Emporium in Charing Cross Road as a salesman.
Jack had this special magic that as soon as he started playing a piano, he got that automatic "lift" and you just had to jig around in time to his music. He was a hard taskmaster, and often, at 2 o'clock in the morning, after the "serious" rehearsing, he would sit at the piano, start strumming away and would yell out "Bass - four bars in Bb 7 … Tenor - four bars in Eb minor" and so on - but a great teacher. We never made it to the All England. The trumpet player took himself off to join Oscar Rabin at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse and was still there not long after the war. The Frosty Knights struggled on for a while but eventually broke up. Ken and I did a lot of freelance work through the next winter and a diary I kept then showed that I earned £25:00 with my £5:00 bass! The standard rate was 12/6d for a four hour dance; you stayed on the stage between brackets and only left it once during the evening for the conventional interval.
Throughout this period I was trying to improve my jazz piano and eventually got my first gig as a piano player at a wedding on George V's Coronation Day in 1937. Just a trio (piano, drums and reeds) and a Saturday afternoon's work. I remember that the following day, Sunday, my landlady who was a surrogate mum if ever there was one, asked me if I had been drinking the previous day (a cardinal sin at my age in those days).
To avoid trouble, I told a white lie by saying that I had only had a glass of champagne to drink the health of the bride and groom (I was actually very keen on their health and had drunk three glasses of champers). Quite innocently, I enquired why she had asked me and she replied that I had been very talkative when I had come back to my digs.
From them on I obtained occasional gigs on piano and continued freelancing on double bass. During this part of my life there were times when Ken Gamble and I must have given a good impression of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. He was a real bean pole, thin and 6+ feet tall and carrying a tenor sax case; I was about 5'6", stocky, with a double bass under one arm, and we regularly travelled together to and from gigs on the London tube trains. And this sort of "semi-pro" musical participation continued until the war.
I started my WW2 career in the Royal Navy at HMS GANGES, a Naval training establishment at Shotley (nr Ipswich). Shotley is in Suffolk, across the river Stour from Harwich. Within a fortnight we had a four piece band going - piano, drums, alto sax and trumpet.
Whilst I was at GANGES we did no paid music gigs. We played regularly, almost nightly in fact, in the NAAFI canteen and very often the Officer of the Day with his escort on evening rounds could be seen with his cap off (i.e. temporarily off duty), leaning on a counter somewhere just listening and taking it all in. Occasionally, we would be invited to entertain the Officers' Mess after dinner and I can remember one evening when the Captain of the Marine Band there (very much in his cups at this stage of the evening) asked if we could play a certain tune and, not being too certain of the melody, I said we would play it if he would sing it. Prodded by his messmates and, extremely embarrassed, the Captain of Marines was obliged to perform. At the time I was quite certain I would be up on a charge the following day!
France capitulated in May 1940 and a lot of us finished up in a Naval Battalion, manning trenches on that part of the East Coast since everyone expected the Germans to continue the momentum of Dunkirk by coming straight on over the English Channel for the coup de grace. We were finally relieved of Battalion duties, did four weeks' final training and then, in September 1940, went our various ways to the three big Naval depots, Chatham, Portsmouth and Devonport. From memory we were given some choice at this stage - I know I had opted for Devonport because it was the nearest to my home town of Glastonbury in Somerset.
I later learnt that there were about 400 of us earmarked for draft to the Prince of Wales, then fitting out at Rosyth. We were a mass of humanity which was just a nuisance in a barracks like HMS Drake [Devonport], occupying valuable "dead" space badly needed where men were continually coming or going. So the powers that be sent all of us to Glen Holt, a disused holiday camp on the north side of Plymouth just off the Yelverton Road. It was a miserable conglomerate of small wooden huts set in the middle of a thickly wooded area. It was a wet cold autumn and difficult to get your clothes dry let alone aired. Also, there was nothing to do and the few officers there must have been at their wits' end in trying to keep us occupied. Very often, we would be taken on route marches fully clothed in oilskins and wearing gas masks, and made to double over long stretches, whilst the PTI in his t-shirt and track pants (no gas mask!) would be bullying us to put more effort into it … They couldn't really take us on route marches in pouring rain (or did the PTI renege?) and on these occasions we finished up in what had been the holiday camp dining and recreation hall for a sing-song. And yes, they even had a passable grand piano!!!
From there, this "nuisance" body of men was sent to Bristol in October 1940, where we took over one of the monster wings on Mueller's Orphanage. Ever since HMS Ganges I had formed a close friendship with a Doug Collins and we often went ashore together. Doug was a builder's son from Potter's Bar whose father made him "start at the bottom". Consequently, Doug had done his share of trench-digging for foundations, general labouring etc and enjoyed a glass or two of ale.
I was not particularly interested in beer but used to like going to places where there was jazz of some sort and that usually meant a dance hall. Doug didn't like dancing too much so we usually had to go to a pub while he took in enough Dutch courage to come with me to a dance later. One night in Bristol I had a heavy cold so I had drunk two or three scotches while Doug took on his customary four pints of beer. We finally landed at the Coliseum, a beautiful dance hall (with an ice skating rink on another storey). There was a good band operating, two baby grand pianos on stage, but no piano player. My courage bolstered by whisky no doubt, I finally went up to the band leader and asked if I could "sit in" on one of the pianos. He explained that the regular pianist was on overtime in his reserved occupation but would be in later, then said I could give it a go. The pianist turned up later and he and I operated in tandem for the rest of the evening. The leader then gave me a card with his signature on it, so that for the rest of the time I was in Bristol I obtained free admission.
The same leader also went to a lot of trouble organising small concert parties which went round local anti-aircraft batteries entertaining the troops from backs of lorries. I became quite involved in this activity and was finally given a badge of some sort for my participation. Sadly, said badge finished up with the Prince of Wales at the bottom of the South China Sea.
We were also involved in "fire watching". Many evenings, on a roster basis, some of us would be marched to different venues to look out for fire bombs in the sporadic air raids which were taking place then. My group always went to a girls' high school where we were billeted in the gym. This gym had a very good (but only four octave) piano which was used for providing music to which the girls did their gymnastic exercises. They would have been very surprised at some of the renderings it accompanied at night!
Johnny King, until recently British Empire Lightweight champion, and a bit of a "punchy", would not move from my side if I was playing that piano and, if I showed any sign of stopping, would rack his brains thinking of something else he could ask me to play … chain-smoking all the time.
One other memory sticks from Bristol - one of the men came up to me late one afternoon and asked if I was going ashore and I said "No.". Whereupon he said that it was his 21st birthday, his mother had sent him £10:00 and, if he bought the drinks, would I go and play the piano at the pub of his choice. Well, of course I did, and a good night it was. The pub he chose was full of people from Bristol Aircraft, most on overtime and making good money, and they joined in the singing and general carrying on. At the end of the evening, one of them took a hat around and I finished up with about 30 shillings!
In January 1941 we were drafted to the Prince of Wales and joined her at Rosyth. I was on the ship until she was sunk on 10 December 1941 and during this period the only piano playing I did was a pretty regular entirely voluntary stint in the "cinema flat" on board - a big open space between decks (from its name obviously used on cinema nights). There was also a "not bad" piano there.
On the way out east in November 1941 we had a run ashore in Colombo. Actually, I had intended staying on board but a couple friends of mine pointed out that we might not get the chance of seeing Colombo again, so off we went with (I remember clearly) about 30 shillings between us.
Tubby Willard's father was a retired London mounted policeman who ran a pub in Hounslow; so, once again, I am ashore with a mate who MUST have a beer before he'll consider anything else. I insisted that we first book a bed at the YMCA - 1 shilling each, which was 3 of our 30 shillings gone. Then, we went up the road to the Bristol Hotel and armed ourselves with a pint each. We were the only people there and played snooker to help make the beer last a bit longer but, of course, it was finally finished. At this stage Tubby opened a door to the next room and having discovered a piano there suggested I play it for a while to help pass the time away until we went to a cinema to watch Wallace Beery in a cowboy film. Naturally I obliged when, all of a sudden, a small crowd of people came in - there must have been 30 to 40 in the company. There were several chief P.O's and petty officers from the Prince of Wales together with members of the local police and families whom they had met on previous naval visits. So, I shut the piano and prepared to leave, whereupon one of the new arrivals asked me if I could play "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling". I could and I did, and once again stood up to shut the piano and take my leave. But, there were now three pints of beer on the piano, one for each of us.
Needless to say I continued playing for about another five pints but we finally came rolling out of the Bristol to go to the cinema. Not to be denied, Tubby placed himself in the middle of the main street, clapped his hands loudly several times and shouted "Rickshaw!" Well, they came from every direction and we finally reached this wretched cinema. Here, I finished up in an argument with the rickshaw driver about the fare and we were finally swearing at each other in our own languages. I knew I was being "done" because correct fares had been posted on a board in the YMCA. Finally, I put the correct fare and a small tip in my hand and said "Do you want it or don't you?" When he refused I pocketed the money and walked away. Inside the cinema Tubby discovered that they served beer (unfortunately!). Although I told him I didn't want any, in due course one was passed to me and I put it under my seat. I can just remember friend Wallace Beery riding hell for leather somewhere or other; the next minute someone is nudging me because they are playing "God Save the King". As a loyal citizen I leapt to attention, the spring-loaded seat did the same, and knocked over my beer!
At the time of the sinking in December '41, with a few others, I was a volunteer for a Radio Mechanic's course. Because the Royal Navy was in desperate need of Radio Mechanics, five of us were among those who were on the Erinpura, the first evacuation ship out of Singapore about 9 or 10 days after the sinking.
One of these
five men, Frank Sugden, tells his story about this episode here
Conditions were bad on this
rat infested coal burner, built on the Clyde at the turn of the century - but nobody was grumbling at this stage! We left Singapore with about a dozen and a half sheep and goats on the poop deck. One of these was slaughtered daily and a soup made for the 500-600 people on board. So your main meal of the day was a bowl of water with a few blobs of grease floating round on the top of it and hard tack - a ship's biscuit. Whilst we were at sea en route for Colombo, a RNVR officer off the Repulse who had been a boy chorister at St Paul's Cathedral organised a ship's concert on Christmas Day. This was a welcome relief for me and I was the only pianist aboard (or the only one who owned up to it!). One of the people I accompanied was a Welsh boy seaman also from Repulse who had a lovely treble voice. (To my great delight, he has suddenly turned up this year as a resident of Sydney, and I am looking forward very much to meeting Taff Bowen again in Albury in December 1997 (56 years later!!). The only other memory I have of that concert is receiving a gin and tonic afterwards from the Repulse officer who also tried very hard to persuade me to apply for a commission when I got back to England.
We finally arrived in Colombo and eventually finished up billeted in what had been an aquarium up near Galle Face. (When I was next in Colombo in 1945 it had become a RAF officers' mess). On a Sunday morning shortly after arrival there, I was lying on my bed reading a paper and waiting for lunch when Taffy Bowen, the Welsh boy with the treble voice, came rushing in after church parade (I cannot remember the particular swindle which got me out of that one!). He had attended a service conducted by the Naval Chaplain and the latter must have heard this lovely voice soaring above all the others … In those days many radio stations concluded their Sunday broadcasting with a "Requiem", a religious interlude of about 15 minutes including a short address, a few prayers and perhaps a couple of verses of different hymns. Apparently the chaplain was conducting the Requiem that particular Sunday on Colombo Radio and asked young Taff if he would go along and sing the hymns. To which my young Welsh friend replied "Yes, if he could bring his piano player!". So that evening we were both picked up in a taxi by the Chaplain, taken to the Fleet Club for a very nice dinner, and then on to the Broadcasting Station. Shortly afterwards the three of us are in this studio, the Chaplain and the "Voice" at the microphones and me at the most beautiful grand piano I had ever seen in my life (or so it seemed at the time). You must remember that at this stage I hadn't even seen a piano for about a month (I definitely had withdrawal symptoms!) and all of a sudden I am at this magnificent instrument with the brakes fully on playing one verse of Lead Kindly Light, Abide With Me and so on, when I really wanted to get stuck into the thing with some of the tunes to which Ken Gamble had introduced me a few years earlier.
Give a man a uniform and put him in a foreign country in war time and he thinks he can get away with just about anything. I certainly developed a "courage" which, on reflection, at times was nothing more than a mixture of bravado and effrontery. Because of this phenomenon, immediately following the "Requiem" broadcast, I approached the producer and asked if I could have an audition playing piano.
To this day, I can honestly say that all I wanted to do was to get back at that piano and have an open go to play what I liked, how I liked, as loud or soft as I liked …
About four days later, I received a card from a Mr da Silva, the Station Manager, asking me to give him a ring to arrange an interview, and a few days later fronted at his office. He treated me very kindly, and we had a long chat and a couple of glasses of arrack before he invited me along to this beautiful instrument. I sat down and started playing, and within five minutes or so had completely forgotten he was there. I'm sure any muso reading this who has ever been as "starved" as I was at that particular time will understand this situation. I suppose a half hour must have gone by when Mr de Silva asked me if I could play something or other, and I had to say I couldn't. This was repeated three times before he hit the jackpot, by which time I had been reminded that this was supposed to be an audition. Because it had been going on for so long I suddenly felt that I was barely measuring up to required standards and was beginning to feel foolish over the original effrontery which had landed me in this embarrassing situation. All of a sudden he jumped up with the remark "I love the piano, I could sit here and listen all day!" - and gave me my own weekly quarter hour radio programme for which I was paid 10 rupees (or 15 shillings).
Opening the first broadcast, I was introduced as a survivor from the Prince of Wales and this introduction produced quite dramatic results. Two days later someone 'phoned the aquarium (yes, we were still there) and asked if I would be a dinner guest and entertain by playing the piano afterwards. Now it was my turn, and I replied that I would be delighted if I could bring my young Welsh vocalist. I can remember that on this occasion the lady's name was Green, that she was a daughter of the Chief Justice, and married to the General Manager of Lever Bros. This started a round of engagements like that over the next five or six weeks - one lady even hired a piano for the occasion. There was no pay involved, we just went out and sang for our dinner. Later my radio programme was combined with another programme where local Singhalese people came to the Station to speak to relatives who were with the Forces in India. My involvement with Colombo Radio went on for about a couple of months. Our engagements at local dinner parties ceased when Taff was drafted to the Exeter. He couldn't have served on her for very long as she was sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea on 28 February 1942, and he was taken prisoner-of-war. About the same time (at the end of February 1942), I took a passage back to Britain on the Carthage, a P&O passenger liner which had been converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser and which had just finished a two-year stint in the Indian Ocean. She was going back to Britain for a refit and to have radar fitted. So the Lascar seamen were taken off and 70-80 of us, seamen, stokers, signalmen, writers etc (all going back for courses and a variety of other reasons) worked the ship home - we arrived in Gourock on Good Friday, 1942.
On the Carthage the swimming pool was still operational and there were three pianos including a small grand in the first class lounge, reserved for officers needless to say.
I cannot remember anyone playing it for the whole trip.
The bosun, an employee of the P&O Company, was fond of jazz music, and when entering or leaving harbour, instead of deck duties he often contrived to have me playing a piano near where he was working. During the trip home, if there was some jazz on his radio (usually American jazz), he would invite me to his cabin for a listen, and I was invariably given a coffee well laced with rum before I left. (He was a non-drinker himself, but drew his tot daily, and saved it!). Following my subsequent radio training, I have often thought that using his radio whilst at sea during a war could have resulted in a Court Martial!
After survivor's leave and a short spell in Devonport Barracks, five of us, all survivors from Prince of Wales were sent to Rutherford Technical College at Newcastle-on-Tyne to do the radio mechanic's course. There were weekly dances at the Assembly Rooms and the band consisted mostly of ex-professional musicians. Many of them had been in dance bands in London before the war, and had obtained positions in light industry such as munitions in the hope of protecting their most important asset - their fingers. At the interval, most of them left the stage for a beer and a smoke, leaving just the piano player and a violinist who played nothing but waltzes for 20 to 30 minutes, then had their break. About the second time I was there, I was allowed to sit in when the pianist was taking his break and in no time this became a regular jam session, which always went down well following the interval of waltzes! As at Bristol, I was given a free pass for the rest of the time I was in Newcastle. There was also a very nice ballroom called the Oxford Gallery which ran a tea dance on a Wednesday afternoon. On Wednesday afternoons our radio mechanic's class was supposed to go swimming; we would fall in with our towels and bathing trunks tucked under our arms and march to the swimming pool. I cannot remember where it was because I never went there. Two of us (and occasionally a few more) would march about half-way, then duck round a corner on a conveniently sharp bend and take ourselves off to the Oxford. The only reason I tell this anecdote is that the band leader, Peter ?? [I cannot remember his surname] would sometimes allow servicemen to "sit in" and on one memorable afternoon I was allowed to play a bracket with Kathleen Hobart, a tremendous professional tenor sax player. That really was a wonderful experience.
After 6 months in Newcastle we went to Douglas in the Isle of Man for 6 weeks' radar training and for most of the time I was there I played piano in the band at the Palais de Danse.
From Douglas it was down to the Signal School at Portsmouth for about a month on receivers and transmitters, then three of us were sent to Scarborough to get experience in a big war time radio receiving station which had been installed on the racecourse. Whilst there, I played piano occasionally in the lounge at the County Hotel. This was not a paid engagement; there was a small grand piano there and it wasn't difficult to get permission to use it.
From Scarborough I was sent to a big house on the edge of Wimbledon Common for a two week crash course on high frequency direction finding (HFDF) equipment. I was snatched off the course after 10 days and put on immediate draft for Mombasa, taking the place of the original draftee who had apparently contracted appendicitis whilst on draft leave. Needless to say, I missed out on my draft leave and shortly afterwards found myself on an American troop ship in the Clyde en route to Mombasa via Capetown and Durban.
A lot of us who disembarked at Durban were sent to a transit camp at Pietermaritzberg which in those days was a one horse coal mining town if there is such a thing and everyone was bored to tears. The camp was very cold and very basic but, in contrast, had a good garrison theatre with two new upright pianos on stage. I was there for only about two weeks and one evening about 200 to 300 of us were in the theatre waiting for a Durban Concert Party to entertain us. During their 60 to 70 mile journey from Durban there was a violent lightning storm which delayed the Concert Party and blacked out the camp. Eventually an officer appeared on stage carrying two lighted candles very gingerly and asked if there was anyone in the audience who could play a piano. Continuing my lifelong role of shrinking violet (and obeying the basic rule of Service life - "never volunteer for anything"), I was sliding slowly down in my seat when one of my "friends" sitting next to me volunteered that I could. So I finished up on stage "flood lit" by two candles leading a sing-song and a typical Royal Navy "Sod's Opera" which continued until the arrival of the Concert Party.
A few days later we were returned to Durban then shipped to Mombasa where I was to remain for about two years.
I went quite a spell without getting anywhere near a piano and cannot for the life of me remember how I started playing piano in Mombasa but think it might have been an odd session at the YMCA. Eventually someone in the RAF spoke to me - he was going back to England and asked if I would like to take his place playing every weeknight for two hours at the Nelson Restaurant. And so started a partnership with my very good friend Haydn Taylor who played drums to my piano. Haydn lives in Manchester; we are still in touch and I met him in England in 1990, 1993 and 1994. We must have played together at the "Nelson" for at least 18 months.
A short while after starting at the "Nelson" I also started playing piano with what was left of a small band formed from Naval personnel, and I am still in touch with two members of that group - Idwal (Taffy) Price who played violin and Tony Woodham who played double bass. I should perhaps point out that as the war moved east so did personnel and Mombasa was constantly being depleted for much of the time that I was there.
This transference of service personnel meant that in Mombasa we finished up with a dance band made up of musicians from the Navy as well as the RAF. It was only a small group of 7 or 8 but we put on a stage show at the Garrison Theatre in Mombasa and on two occasions provided incidental music for plays produced by a local dramatic society.
We played for dances at various Officers' Mess functions. The big Officers' Mess was down Kilindini Road below the "Nelson" Restaurant. On the last occasion we played there, Taffy Price was "soloing" an encore to the last waltz a couple of minutes after midnight, when this pompous little Commander who must have been Mess President or something came running on to the floor pointing vigorously at his watch and yelling "Stop the music, it is after midnight". So we did, and refused ever to play there again. Every time they got in touch with me to provide a band I told them we weren't interested after the rudeness of that Commander. Unfortunately, as a radio mechanic, I usually seemed to be detailed to go to the Mess to fix up the amplifiers so that they could dance to recorded music! Our favourite gig was at the Dockyard Officers' Mess. These people were nearly all artisans of some sort or another, recruited more or less like we servicemen, then sent overseas to provide dockyard facilities where necessary. They were much closer to our wavelength than the run of the mill Naval Officer and there was always a crate of cold beer on the stage to get us going.
Whilst at Mombasa I had two spells of a fortnight's leave "up country". The second leave turned out to be quite something. There were three of us, myself, Don Martin (another radio mechanic) and Bobby Davidson (a good trumpet player from the RAF band I referred to earlier). We went by rail via Nairobi to Kisumu on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria and there, boarded a small flat-bottomed steamboat in which we crossed Lake Victoria overnight. The accommodation was surprisingly good - we each had individual cabins and washing facilities and the food was an improvement on mess rations! The following morning we disembarked at Entebbe on the Ugandan side of the lake and went by taxi to Kampala where we stayed at the Imperial Hotel. This had been a transit hotel for a BOA Flying Boat service to Australia before the war and, to us, was absolute luxury. Our first evening there we went for a stroll around Kampala and before long found ourselves outside the "Congo" Nightclub.
Inside we could see a small bandstand with a piano, double bass and drum kit, plenty of tables laid for dinner, but no people. Outside there was this enormous black doorman in flowing white robes and a bright red fez perched on his head. Through him we established contact with the "boss" who had apparently been playing barman and drinker by himself at the bar at the back of the nightclub. He invited us in for a drink and soon learnt that two of us were muso's.
The boss' chauffeur was summoned to take Bobby back to the Imperial to fetch his trumpet and, with the boss on drums (he was pretty good), we settled down for a bit of a jam session. Bobby could play a bit of piano and I could still play double bass - a good time was had by all!!
That double bass was quite unique. The boss was a half-share owner of the big garage in Kampala and had his own tyre retreading plant run for him by Italian prisoners of war from Firestone, Pirelli etc back in Italy. These Italians were very clever with their hands; at this time there was a Symphony Orchestra in Nairobi where I believe some of the violins etc had actually been made by the people who played them. Anyway, the boss at some time had decided that he would like a double bass. So how do you get measurements for such an undertaking in Kampala in the middle of a war? Simple; you get hold of an old Boosey and Hawkes catalogue, find a picture of a double bass, multiply all measurements until it looks about right, then go ahead and make one out of aluminium! I expect I played that instrument for about a half hour and would have been proud to have played it anywhere it was so responsive.
By the end of this introductory session the boss had ascertained that we were on leave and Bobby and I agreed to provide some dance music on Wednesday of the following week. [Apparently there had been no "live" music at the Congo for 18 months.] In return, the boss placed his car and black chauffeur at our disposal and the three of us went to all sorts of places we might not have seen otherwise. I can remember visiting an enormous African native hut (I have forgotten the native word for it), where Kings of Buganda who had died were taken for certain ceremonies before burial. When we were there we saw a few native women engaged in craft of various kinds and were told they were mourning a deceased King. We were also taken to a part of the shore of Lake Victoria where a native could call an alligator from the lake and feed it from strips of meat hanging on a rope strung between two poles.
The boss advertised and made a few 'phone calls and the following Wednesday the "Congo" was packed with some 180 people. He sat in on drums and the occasion became a memorable finish to a superb leave.
Also, whilst at Mombasa, I was sent twice to the Seychelles Islands to repair snags on an HFDH installation, which was situated at Bel Air on the Island of Mahe. On each visit I played solo piano for dances at a hall at the end of the passenger jetty. Despite it being what I now know to be a specialist undertaking, I also tuned a piano belonging to a delightful French lady who was married to a British Army major (retired), whose property was next to the HFDH station.
The major lived mostly at Bel Air but his wife had a big house down in the town (Victoria). She was active with other ladies in organising the weekly dances where I first met her. After tuning her piano I was invited to a dinner party where the Naval Paymaster was also a guest. I remember that he became rather embarrassed when, in front of me (a humble Petty Officer), our hostess thanked him profusely for a recent gift of a big cheese!
My second visit to the Seychelles was extended because in addition to fixing the HFDF problem I also installed a fairly extensive earthing grid for a transmitting station in the course of construction at English Point. Also, in the last few days I was there, I installed and checked ten receivers so that local Seychellois could listen to the daily slow "Teaching" Morse Code transmissions from the Admiralty. Whilst engaged in this exercise I happened to hear the first broadcast of the news that D Day [June 6th 1944] was in progress and stopped work for a while to become a sort of Town Crier.
Another (not so pleasant!) memory of Mombasa is of Christmas 1944 when Haydn Taylor and I had accepted an invitation to play at the Christmas night dance at the Mombasa Yacht Club. Part of the deal was that we would receive a full conventional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. Mess food wasn't too bad I suppose but contained a great deal of dehydrated stuff such as egg, potato, milk and so on, so that one was not properly prepared for turkey, fresh vegetables and Christmas pudding with brandy sauce … I thoroughly enjoyed myself and, needless to say, woke up early the following morning with a violent bout of vomiting. Two hours later it was still on and the Signals Officer refused to accept my explanation of over indulgence the night before and insisted on taking me to the Sick Bay on the grounds that I must have malaria. He meant well, but my temperature, raised slightly on admission to hospital, was normal the following day and never showed any signs of the double 104° F curve characteristic of this complaint. So, I missed a pre-organised New Year party, compensation for which came in the form of a bottle of gin smuggled into hospital by a couple of my fellow radio mechanics.
The other big musical event in which I was involved in Mombasa was a production by the Navy Signals Sports Club of the pantomime "Aladdin", the first of its kind in East Africa. For some reason which escapes me, I wasn't too keen to take part, but as it turned out, I wouldn't have missed it. There were so many very clever people involved, stimulating each other to greater efforts, that the whole show became a real challenge and, while rehearsals were putting it together, almost a way of life.
I was convinced that three of the leading characters would find careers on the stage after the war, whilst people responsible for scenery, costumes, lighting etc proved to be equally professional. One of the Club members wrote a basic script; after that it was amended a thousand times as someone thought of a new gag, or a fresh tune to add to the show. It was finally presented at the Regal Theatre, Mombasa on 4th and 5th January 1944, two shows each day.
The principal "boy" Aladdin was played by Wren Irene ("Twinx") Almond and I can remember clearly the occasions when she would stand or sit by the piano, singing a tune I didn't know time and time again until I did know it. (After a great deal of effort by a few people in UK, Twinx was finally run to earth living in Oxfordshire, and I lunched with her at her home in 1993. She and her husband joined our small Mombasa reunion in 1994.) During the production of the pantomime, I was given the lordly title of Musical Director which at the time embarrassed me quite a lot. But looking back on that show, it was probably fair enough - all of us worked relentlessly for many weeks and I think the final standard proved it. Someone tried very hard to get the show up to Nairobi for a couple of nights but there was a war on after all and many of us were watchkeeping so Nairobi missed out.
The Mombasa HFDF installation was finally closed down and I was drafted to our HQ at Colombo [HMS Anderson] in March 1945. This was a big direction finding installation on Colombo racecourse covering a large acreage. On the troopship to Colombo we rapidly organised a typical RN Sods' Opera which was largely put together and compered by Stuart Wagstaff who made quite a name for himself after the war on stage and in television shows in Britain and Australia. Many years later (1969) when my family was resident in Australia, I wrote to Stuart who clearly remembered this ship's concert - we had dinner together on the strength of it and have met sporadically since.
In Colombo with little or nothing to do I rapidly became very bored. In the middle of this depressing interlude I heard one day that there was some English beer available in the general canteen. Although we were issued with rum, I normally didn't drink mine because if I did I usually wanted to sleep for the rest of the afternoon! I usually bottled it for a future occasion so, armed with a quarter bottle of rum in my hip pocket, I set off in search of some UK beer. I found it all right - it was more like gravy than beer.
You couldn't see far enough into it to describe the colour even, so I nipped outside, poured about an eighth of it away and topped it up with rum. This was a slight improvement but it was still a pretty poor substitute for a wholesome brew and after an hour it had done little to relieve my overall depression. Feeling as miserable as I was, I finally found the canteen piano, put my disgusting cocktail on the top, sat down and started playing a slow 12 bar blues. Feeling as I did, it is quite probable that this was the best rendition of the blues I ever played in my life!
After about 10 minutes, I became aware that I had been joined by a drummer, a little later a guitarist appeared on the scene and we finished up with piano, drums, two guitars, tenor sax and clarinet and literally didn't stop playing for three hours. It was one of those spontaneous occasions which you never forget.
I was in Colombo this time for about 5 or 6 weeks and a few of us were regular weekly visitors to the newly formed Colombo Rhythm Club. There were two black musicians who were playing in the Galle Face Hotel band; they had once been members of the Duke Ellington band in America and they were regular visitors to the Rhythm Club. One rumour suggested that they were dodging the US draft but there was another, which said that they had been sacked by Ellington for actually swearing at lady dancers whilst playing their instruments! I can believe this - they could make their instruments talk they were so above any standard I had ever played with before; in fact, if they were present at a Rhythm Club meeting, I would retire to the farthest corner of the room and hope that other keyboard players would fill the bill!!
VE day and VJ day
After my relatively short stay in Colombo I was sent to Calcutta with an Admiralty civilian employee named Phillips to build a new HFDF station. It was a most interesting assignment which started by a bit of exploring around the environs of the city before requisitioning an enormous acreage of paddy fields about 30 miles out on the Johore Road.
Two days after I arrived was VE Day - May 8th 1945. There was only a small RN contingent in Calcutta billeted in a beautiful old Bank building, but on VE night they made enough noise for the rest of the Navy put together. At this stage I knew absolutely nobody there so sat and wrote overdue letters until about 2 o'clock in the morning when I went to bed with a vague possibility of getting some sleep! I vowed there and then that I would get myself organised in case VJ Day came along while I was still in Calcutta.
Not much happened in the musical line in Calcutta. We soon had a trio going - piano, drums and a very good reeds player from Bristol called Maurice something. We managed to persuade the powers that be to buy him a tenor sax out of canteen funds and played pretty regularly in the rec space/dining room.
By the time VJ Day came along, the new HFDF station was, I suppose three parts complete. At this stage I was driving a covered utility daily out to the site with about 10 labourers in the back with the foreman from Chittagong with me in the cab; we usually got back to Calcutta about 5:00pm.
On VJ Day, 14th August 1945, we were duly caught up in peak hour traffic in Calcutta, stopping and starting quite slowly working our way along Chowringee. The latter was one of the main thoroughfares, a wide street with some good quality shops and hotels on one side, and tramlines away over the other side. All of a sudden the traffic came to a halt again while two army officers came out of one of the big hotels then being used for officers in transit. They were carrying a big "Ali Baba" brass vase between them with another officer inside it. The entourage duly crossed Chowringee and dumped the vase and contents between the tramlines on the other side of the road, needless to say laughing their heads off. My reaction was pretty normal for a humble Petty Officer looking forward to a shower etc after a long day slogging in the humid climate of Calcutta and there was some choice lower deck language describing all Army officers in no uncertain terms. Shortly afterwards I arrived at our Navy "Bank" and was told to hurry with my shower because the Commander was clearing lower deck at 1800 hours and wanted out trio at the ready with the music so to speak. I started in again with some of the lower deck stuff only this time it was Naval Officers who were copping it.
Finally of course I learned that the Army officers in Chowringee and our own Commander were getting into celebrations for VJ Day; I had been out of Calcutta since early morning and knew nothing about it. We played in our own canteen that evening for about three hours, after which I went to a dance at a local Army Sergeants' Club: yes, I kept good my promise to be well organised for celebrations by the time VJ Day arrived.
Another radio mechanic finally relieved me in Calcutta and I was sent back to Colombo to await passage home for demobilisation. In the transit camp I rapidly became bored and very bravely volunteered to join a concert party (which was actually about three concert parties). This avoided falling in for work instructions twice daily; instead I went to the Camp Garrison Theatre and rehearsed and finally received orders for any evening activities. We went round various hospitals in Colombo entertaining the patients and nurses. After VE Day I had seen pictures of emaciated prisoners of war in Europe and had found it very hard to believe what I was looking at. When I saw the Jap POW's in these hospitals in Colombo I was horrified to realise that the pictures earlier from Europe had been all too factual. Many of the fellows I saw were wheeled into the ward where we were entertaining, still on their beds, often with an intravenous drip and often with a personal nurse in attendance. Many of them, I am sure, would never live to leave Colombo. I was involved in this activity for 3-4 weeks until sent home via the Red Sea.
There were a number of very good entertainers aboard the troopship (all Service people of some sort), resulting in a high class concert party. I can remember a male vocalist who had performed with the Joe Loss Band in London before the war and was hoping to get a job with the Band after demob. Apart from playing piano in the "pit orchestra" I was privileged to accompany a lass with a beautiful trained voice who sang "One Fine Day" from Madame Butterfly. Perhaps I may be permitted a small boast when I say that I was the fourth piano player she tried. In fact I imagine she finally looked in my direction in desperation because at that stage she had only heard me playing four-in-a-bar staff. The problem was the accompaniment to "One Fine Day" which was in five flats; I must have made less a mess of it than the other three piano players!
And that was the last occasion I played the piano in uniform.
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James (Ray's daughter)
at the 1993 reunion in Plymouth