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Homeward Bound

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Shortly before leaving Mombassa I found out that telegrams were being sent to our next of kin, informing them of the fate that had befallen their relatives in the action of April 5th. It's funny to recollect this point, but my parents weren't even aware that I'd been on Dorsetshire. The news of their son being involved in another sea-battle must have been a great shock to them, as one of the first things they told me on return home was that they'd no knowledge of my whereabouts, since the loss of Repulse. Mind you, it must have been reassuring for them to finally relax in the knowledge that I was ok.

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The telegram received by my parents, informing them of my well being; initially it went to the wrong address.

The Mendoza was quite a large transport ship and was packed to the gills with all manner of personnel; from survivors of our battle, to hundreds of prisoners, who'd previously been fighting alongside the Vichy French. In keeping with all merchant ships I'd been on during the last few months; this one was absolutely infested with cockroaches and stunk to high-heaven. One interesting point concerning this vessel was that earlier on in the war, Dorsetshire had captured her. It was ironic to realise that here she was, some time later saving the crew of the stricken warship, by transporting them to more hospitable climes. 

Our trio were still together and after a couple of days at sea we joined up with some other lads who'd also been on the Dorsetshire. Two of them in particular (Harry Cuffling and Bill Roberts, both P/O's) have remained life-long friends as we met regularly at the Dorsetshire and Cornwall annual reunions. We had no duties to perform onboard and the biggest problem encountered was dodging the cockroaches that constantly scurried across the decks. Mind you that was impossible, as after every walk around the ship I'd spend a good few minutes scraping countless remains of these horrible creatures from the soles of my shoes.

It was a relaxing journey with no action stations or alarms of any kind being sounded, after the traumas of the last few months the quietness seemed almost uncanny. Finally after a week or so we entered Durban Harbour, it was fantastic to hear the "Lady in White" singing our arrival as she'd done several months earlier with the arrival of Repulse. I tried not to think just how badly things had gone for us during the early phases of the war against Japan and I don't mind admitting that I wanted to get away from their rapidly expanding Empire as soon as possible. 

Once ashore and gathered into small groups, we three were sent to a rest camp located about six miles from the city named "Clairwood". On arrival we learnt it was actually an Army camp and the accommodation was somewhat spartan, as it consisted of hundreds of tents. Surprisingly it was almost deserted; subsequently the majority of the billets had collapsed, our main duties in the camp were to remedy this situation. We had to re-pitch the fallen tents and get the site back into some sort of habitable condition. Within a couple of hours we were put to task; without question it was the most boring and monotonous work I ever carried out. Our shift was from first light till 1600hrs every day. I'm not joking when I state that after a couple of days of this regime I'd have jumped at the chance of a draft back onto a warship; regardless of any hazardous situations it may encounter

A few days into these duties Geordie and Jack decided to contact a family that lived close to the camp, the lads had visited them earlier on in the war, when Dorsetshire had docked in Durban. This was the normal procedure adopted by natives of that country, families always welcomed allied servicemen into their homes whilst the lads were on leave. We always referred to these visits as staying with "Homers". 

Their surname was "Poilly" and the family consisted of a husband (Frank) his Dutch wife (Netta) and their young daughter (Maureen Rose). They also had a Zulu servant who went by the name of "Charlie" he helped with the running and general upkeep of their small settlement, which was located at a place called "Umbilo", situated a couple of miles outside the city. I have to add that it was the best idea my mates ever had, for these people were to make the remainder of my stay in South Africa one of the most enjoyable periods of my wartime memories. On the first of our all night leaves from the base one of the lads contacted Frank, inside of the hour he appeared in his car, taking us directly to Umbilo. The second we set foot through his door we were offered a cool glass of beer.

 

This was the beginning of the most generous hospitality I was ever to receive in a foreign country and after we freshened up, Netta laid on a fantastic meal. During the last few weeks the three of us had been living on any manner of food we could lay our hands on. The sweet smell of a freshly prepared meal was almost overwhelming and I relished every last mouthful. After consuming this feast Frank gave me some paper, I spent the next hour or so writing to Teresa and my family promising them, once more of my imminent return. 

After this they took us for a drive to the "Valley of a Thousand Hills", which overlooks Durban, to this day it still rates as the most breathtaking sight I've ever seen. On our way back home Frank stopped off in Durban to let us watch a show and we rounded the evening off in fine style with a gigantic supper, before retiring into a beautiful clean bed. I slept the sleep of the dead.

The following morning before leaving for camp, I offered Frank some money for the food I'd eaten during my stay. He didn't want to know, although he was reasonably well off (being a successful egg dealer) it still must have cost a small fortune to feed the three of us for 24 hours, as all we did during that time was eat and drink. He justified his refusal by saying how much people such as he owed to the men who were fighting for his freedom. Finishing by telling us that this wasn't a one off visit and he expected our company every time we were on leave. They were marvellous people and understandably we took them up on the offer, whenever possible.

After a week or so most of the tents in the camp were now pitched correctly, although the entire area was still in some disarray. One-day, we'd been working for a couple of hours when it began to rain. This persisted along with a freshening wind and in no time at all a severe storm erupted. Initially we sheltered in one of the tents, although it soon became obvious that such was the ferocity of this downpour we'd better get inside more substantial surroundings. The only building offering this form of shelter was the canteen; so we grabbed our kit and ran across the devastated sight. Once inside the attendant plied us with tea and a short while later our attention was drawn to the arrival of a bus. The driver came inside, enquiring what was happening; as by this time the entire site was awash and all our hard work during the last week or so was in ruins. Duckboards could be seen floating down the main walkways, along with the hundreds of tents we'd previously slaved over. We soon began to wonder where we'd be sleeping that night, thankfully the driver ended our worries over this issue by saying "grab your kit and come with me".

Within half an hour we arrived at his home, whereupon his wife offered us some fresh kit, followed by a hearty meal. Afterwards he enquired, "did we have anywhere to stay" the only place we could think of was with Frank and his family. Without further words he told us to get on the bus and a short ride later we reached Umbilo. We thanked him for the lift and went to see if Frank could offer any help in taking us to Durban. Obviously we couldn't just walk away from the camp because it could easily be viewed as desertion. He immediately agreed but added it was too late in the evening to journey down to the barracks; subsequently he'd take us at first light, so we had yet another night in comfortable surroundings. 

The following morning we arrived at the base, after informing an officer of our plight, he gladdened our hearts by telling us to have a couple of weeks leave and forget about the duties we'd been performing in the camp. It was the best possible news we could have been given. Frank could tell we were overjoyed and once he was aware of our fortnight's leave, he told us that there was only one place to spend it; and that was with his family. We didn't need any persuading.
I have to add that he wouldn't allow us to do any work on his farm during our stay; it was our holiday and he made sure we enjoyed it. Sadly as with all good things they always come to a premature end, this was the case with my time in South Africa. As our leave drew to a close I received separate orders, to report to the docks, first thing in the morning, which meant our trio were finally parted. To this very day I've no-idea what became of Geordie and Jack, because I never saw them again. I found out many years later that a lot of lads off both cruisers were given drafts onto warships docked in Durban, the battleship Valiant taking a lot of men with her when she left. The word was that the only men destined for Britain where those that had been onboard either Repulse or Prince of Wales, along with one of the sister ships lost on April 5th. Apparently one horrific sinking wasn't enough to warrant a draft home! I still feel that this was a great injustice, the horrors experienced by the lads who'd survived the 30-hour ordeal in the Indian Ocean were beyond belief. In my opinion everyone should have been sent home to gather themselves for a short-while. However it never happened, subsequently many men suffered in further battles during the coming months.


The morning I left the Poilly's home is still clear in my mind, Charlie had pressed and cleaned my kit, and I remember being so touched by the sincerity of this man I gave him a big hug. Although having tears in his eyes he overcame this emotional moment with a humorous comment. His english wasn't' that good (although it was a damn sight better than my Afrikaans), nevertheless he shouted at the top of his voice "Joe Louis". The reason for this being, when we first came to their home, we told him the name of the World Heavyweight boxing champion also stating he was black. Once he knew this, he would shout his name whenever he seen us; always, I add with a beaming smile on his face. 

As I went to Frank's car, Netta gave me a parcel for Teresa insisting I take of it, because it was a wedding present, after more hugs and tears, I was on my way. Neither Frank, nor I spoke much on the short journey down to the docks; it was a solemn trip. Although I reassured him that I'd make sure to visit them whenever I was back in Durban. As you're aware, I'd have absolutely no-way of knowing what I'd be doing tomorrow, so the chances of returning to their country in the near-future were very slim. Needless to say, it was the last time I was ever to see these wonderful people.

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Happy times in "Umbilo". Geordie on the left, Jack on the right and myself, relaxing outside the Poilly's home. Our clothes were supplied by the W.V.S.

 

On stepping out of the car I noticed that the entire area around the docks was bustling with life; then turning towards Frank I gave him the most sincere handshake I've ever offered anyone to this very day. With that I had to turn and walk away because I was choking back so many tears, if I'd started to cry, I would never have been able to control myself. Thankfully at this emotion charged time I was soon to have my spirits lifted. On the quay alongside a merchant ship was a large group of matelot's, I immediately realised that some of them were from Repulse, within seconds we began reminiscing of days gone by. My previously solemn mood was replaced by the kind of laughter I'd always enjoyed whilst serving onboard the sadly missed battlecruiser. A few minutes later I had more reason to be happy, for there looking straight at me was my old oppo from the Dorsetshire, "Shiner Wright"; was I pleased to see him looking fit and full of life.

Not long after our reunion we were ordered to board a merchant ship, which went by the name of the "Orangi", once settled in all hands were informed that we'd be leaving Durban almost immediately. Whereupon we'd join up with a convoy whose final destination was Capetown. We were given some light duties whilst on this journey, again mine was that of lookout. Thankfully it was a very quiet trip with no-signs of any hostile forces and within a few days we'd reached our destination. For the first time I now began to feel apprehensive, as it hadn't been confirmed that our final destination would be the U.K. However I realised Capetown could possibly be the final hurdle to overcome; if I left here on the right ship; I'd soon be back in Thurnscoe.

I had little time to contemplate the fate that would befall me, a matter of hours after docking we were taken onboard another merchantman named "Oransay". I now had no-doubts as to our final destination; this ship was in a large food carrying convoy, whose final destination was Britain. At the time I felt a great weight lifting from my shoulders; however this journey did have a few scary episodes, courtesy of other men onboard from earlier times. A short while after slipping anchor, I recognised the same prisoners who'd travelled with me on the "Mendoza" a few weeks earlier. We would now have to guard them for the entire journey and because there were so many of them, a wooden compound had been erected on the upper deck to hold the overflow that couldn't be contained below decks. My guard duties would be to watch over the men held in this compound, we did this work in two-hour stints and for protection we were issued with a rifle and distress whistle, which I tied around my neck. You may think that these duties would present few problems; I agree, they wouldn't have done, if some bright spark hadn't ordered us to watch over the men from inside the compound.

The structure was full to bursting point and once inside the situation was very worrying; you couldn't relax for a second. I'd been in some dodgy predicaments during the past few months, but I tell you one thing; none were any more nerve racking than this one. If we'd only been allowed to guard them from outside the compound, matters would have been fine, but as things were, you took your life in your hands every time you entered the hold. It was whilst steaming up the West Coast of Africa that the first bit of trouble erupted.

I was on duty and all was quiet, until I began to hear the odd voice muttering away at the far side of the compound. Within minutes, whispers became a constant stream of words; accompanied by the odd steely glance directed towards me. In a spilt second of activity I thrust my bayonet straight through one of the prisoners shoulders with such force that the point of the blade embedded itself in the wooden rail surrounding the compound. I can still vividly recall his screams of agony. I'm afraid I couldn't have cared less for him; my only concerns were for personal safety.
I still can't remember exactly what prompted my violent reaction, he may have been completely innocent and I'd misread the situation (with dire consequences for him). All I can add is that it certainly calmed them down, because once this man was taken out of the compound (to receive medical attention), not one word was whispered by the rest of them for the remainder of my shift. I still have to laugh at a comment made by one of our officers, with reference to the previous fracas. He said, "you should have done the job right and finished him off, because we've got to take the sod down to sick bay and waste some bandages on him".


This event was followed by a further incident later on in the day, this time with the men being held below decks. They were being watched over by several guards, one of which was to say the least "bomb happy" this had been caused by the trauma's he'd been through during the last few months. Even though everyone knew he was itching for trouble, our officer put him in charge of a Lewis machine gun. For some time before the incident he was constantly taunting the prisoners, eventually they erupted; then he cut loose, firing at point-blank range directly into the mass of men. Miraculously there was only one casualty, a lad who'd been badly injured in his legs, how the hell no one was killed is beyond belief. After this incident I don't recollect seeing my shipmate again; I think he spent the remainder of the voyage in the sick bay.

A few nights later we had our final scare; one of our lookouts noticed a flashing light from another ship, which was also carrying prisoners. He felt that they were signalling to our ship. Someone must have had their wits about them as the alarms weren't sounded, instead they decoded the message. It stated that the men under guard where going to attempt a take-over of the ships in convoy. If successful with this coup they'd take the captured vessels to "Vichy" held Dakar. Once their intentions were clear, we scoured the entire area for weapons, I think it shocked the living daylights out of the prisoners and must have caught them completely cold, as we had quite a substantial weapons haul. I must add that if they'd been successful with there operation, I don't think l'd be able to recollect my memoirs to you today, rather I think every last one of us would have been slaughtered. On completion of the search we were escorted to Freetown and all the prisoners were taken ashore. Thankfully it was the last we ever saw of them. 

Once the dust settled we resumed our journey and a day or two later we entered waters which were the hunting grounds of the many "U" boats that prowled this part of the world. From here onwards-extra lookouts were posted. I kept on expecting to hear deafening explosions at any moment, which would signal a wolf pack tearing into our convoy. Thankfully it never happened, although it was a nerve racking final few days until land was sighted. Mercifully we were home, this was greeted by a huge cheer throughout the ship. I have to add that just like the great Repulse, for the remainder of my wartime years, I was never on any convoy that lost ships to hostile forces.

The final few miles of our journey up the Mersey estuary to Liverpool were just fantastic I couldn't believe it, after six months of sheer hell it would only be a matter of hours till I got back to Teresa and my family. I was a very lucky man, many lads who'd left Rosyth on Repulse in the late summer of 1941 would never return. There was no rapturous welcome awaiting our arrival at the docks, in fact the personal in charge of disembarkation almost bundled us off the Oransay and onto a small fleet of waiting trucks. From there we went straight to Lime Street station, our next destination was the naval barracks in 'Gus' (Devonport). I have to add that it was frustrating to be a matter of hours from home and having to travel hundreds of miles before I could commence my leave.

 

However it was just a small inconvenience to bare and anyway the atmosphere on the train was tremendous; we all knew that inside the next 24 hours we'd be enjoying the comforts of home life once more. We arrived in barracks somewhere in the region of 23.00hours with little time to gather ourselves the officers in charge ordered us directly to the mess-hall, where a meal lay in wait. Whilst eating our food the news we were praying for was announced; anyone wishing to commence their leave that night must report to the 'pay office' to collect their travel warrant, ration card and money due, I had no-doubts as to what I was going to do. Although sadly this is where I was parted from 'Shiner'. 

He checked on the train times, discovering he couldn't get a connection to his destination of Gloucester until early next morning, we shook hands and wished each other good luck, that was the last I saw of him for the remainder of the war. Mind you it was great to meet up with him again at the 'Cornwall and Dorsetshire' reunions. I have to add that by this time we were a lot older but it was as if we had never lost touch. One thing life has taught me is that time never diminishes true friendship.

 

 

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