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Article: A Wartime Story - We'll Meet Again

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    A Wartime Story - We'll Meet Again

    1 Comments by Doc Vernon Published on 11th August 2020 10:02 AM
    Dougie’s duties at Drem were varied. He had patrols to safeguard officers and the camp against German saboteurs. He had security duties on the gate. Everyone had to be challenged and identified. One of Dougie’s comrades let a high-ranking officer through unchallenged. The camp’s commanding officer took steps to tighten everything up. One day Dougie was on duty when a big staff car rolled up. Having identified the driver, he challenged the high-ranking officer in the back “Identification please sir.” “You don‘t need it” came the reply. “Yes sir I do” Dougie replied. “Dammit man, don’t you know who I am?” came the retort. “Yes sir, but I still need identification sir” Dougie persisted. The officer then bellowed, “Enough of this. Driver, drive on!” “Guard, stop this car” Dougie yelled. Two armed guards sprang forth, weapons leveled at the occupants of the car. Airman Renwick had arrested one of the RAF’s top brass! Two hours later he was ordered, “Report to the camp commander’s office.” “What now?” he thought. However, he was there to receive a commendation for his action. It had been a set up to test camp security. Dougie’s other main duty was even more hazardous. There were pilots to be wakened. Patrols, comprising of three Spitfires had to be kept in the air at all times ready to counter any threat from the enemy. Pilots were billeted in huts all around the airfield in the hope that in the event of a German bombing raid some the pilots would survive. Fighter pilots were the scarcest but most vital commodity in the British war machine in 1940. It was these young men of whom Churchill would say after the battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” They were a fighting breed, especially when they had to be wakened at 5 am for duty, as Dougie found out. He not only had to waken them but also had to get them to sign their name to say that they had been wakened! The pilots’ words were unrepeatable. Boots flew through the air! “Get me a cup of tea,” some demanded. “Sorry, you’re not in the Dorchester now Sir.” Dougie just got out in time to hear the thud of a boot on the back of the door. It was a hazardous job but it had to be done. Dougie did a lot of it, cycling from billet to billet round the airfield. He would remember Drem for other reasons too. He met King George VI at Drem. The king had a drink in the mess hall with some of the lads. “First of all I must apologise for coming onto an RAF station in naval uniform,” announced His Majesty. (He had just come from an appointment at Rosyth, one of the main Royal Navy bases in Scotland.) Moving among the lads, he asked Dougie, “And where are you from?” “Galashiels, in the Borders, Sir” said Dougie. “Ah, I know the Borders well, beautiful countryside,” replied the King. “And have you just enlisted?” inquired the king. “Just volunteered Sir,” Dougie responded. “Good, good!” said the king before moving on. After that, Drem would soon be just a memory. However, it had been noted how Dougie performed his various duties and soon a new posting came.
    “You’re being sent to Military Police College at Uxbridge for a course on policing and security.” There Dougie met the first of his two best mates, Frank Humphrey from the West Country. The course lasted for six months from May to September. It introduced Dougie to intelligence and security work. These things would make for some interesting assignments for him later in the war. In the meantime the Battle of Britain and then the Blitz were raging as the RAF took on the Luftwaffe. At the end of the course, there was a passing out parade. The lads were lined up, “We’re looking for volunteers for special assignments,” they were told. “Volunteers step forward!” A few did. Then, the reply, “Nice of you chaps to volunteer but you’re all going.” They were given a whole raft of inoculations so he guessed that the destination was overseas. He had also been promoted to corporal but neither he nor Frank could sew on the stripes straight! They gave up and went to a Jewish tailor in Aldgate who did the job. Dougie and Frank now had to check in to an office in London, little better than a wooden hut, every day to see about their posting. Day after day, nothing came in so they had lots of free time in London. Dougie shared in the Londoners experience of the Blitz. He remembered "You could set your watch by it. Nine pm, the sirens would go off and here came the Nazi bombers." Each night it could last through until dawn. Then, finally, news, "You're being sent to Liverpool to join a unit that's being formed." That was all he was told. Once there he was told “You’re in AMES 220 shipping out immediately” Again, that was all he was told. He knew nothing of what he would be doing or where he would be going.
    Dougie had been assigned to a radar unit. At the time, radar was top secret and it was never referred to by that name. Officially, he was part of an AMES unit - Air Ministry Experimental Station - although sometimes they used the name M.R.U. Mobile Radio Unit or R.T.U. Radio Transport Unit. The rumour was that AMES 220 was shipping out to somewhere in the Middle East. They assembled on Liverpool docks. First came the bad news, “The Med is closed boys, it’s going to be the long way round.” The Mediterranean was indeed closed due to the activity of the Italian Air Force. The long way round was via the Cape of Good Hope, all the way round Africa. That was ten weeks at sea! The good news was “We’re on the Athlone Castle.” She was a luxury liner of the Union Castle Line, a cruise ship for the rich and famous. Along with her sister ship, the Stirling castle, her regular route had been back and forth to Australia. There had been no time to convert her to a troop ship so she remained a floating palace, with a complete peacetime crew including stewards. The service was fabulous. The stewards, with a manner trained to wait upon the rich, attended to ‘the boys’ every need. It was a new experience, a different world for Douglas, a boy from a small Scottish Border town. Dougie stood at the stern watching the last trace of land fade from view wondering when he would ever see these shores again.
    The Athlone Castle joined a convoy and they took up convoy formation, zigzagging as they went, steaming at the speed of the slowest ship. As they steamed down the west coast of Africa, it was easy to forget there was a war on. Dinner followed on to lunch, which followed on to breakfast. The tropical sun made the winter of Carlisle seem like another world. It would have been idyllic but for one thing. They were on the Atlantic Ocean and the ship pitched up and down, bow to stern, like a cork on the mighty swell. “Breakfast this morning sir?” The stewards would ask, “Or shall I save you the trouble and throw it over the side?” This made an interesting choice for a lot of the intrepid servicemen. Many could not even face a meal. They spent much of their time at the rail of the ship retching and heaving. Douglas was one of them. Many of his comrades, with complexions all sorts of shades of white and green, would rush to the side with him. You had to go to the right side too. The wrong one would mean the wind would throw it back in your face. Quite a few had that experience. Some of Dougie’s comrades were not affected and they laughed at the others and ate heartily. “How come some lads are okay and I’m in this state?” Dougie asked a steward. “Just wait until we round the Cape,” came the reply. They were prophetic words.
    The convoy stopped off at Freetown, West Africa. There was some problem with the Athlone Castle’s propeller. The convoy went on ahead. Those on the Athlone Castle were assured that at full speed she would soon catch up. Submarine danger too would be minimised by the speed of the Athlone Castle. No submarine could keep up so the only way they could run into a problem was if a sub was in position lying in wait. That was re-assuring! At Freetown, youngsters from the villages along the coast would swim out to the ship and dive for coins thrown from the side. It was an interesting diversion on route to the main stop, Cape Town. One day Dougie was awakened by a steward, “Did you feel that bump last night?” A little alarmed Dougie asked, “What bump?” The steward laughed, “The bump as we crossed the equator!” After breakfast that morning, there were the traditional ceremonies for crossing the bar. Lads were held in a chair, soaped up and then catapulted backwards into the swimming pool. In the pool a bunch of lads were ready to administer a good few ‘duckings’ before the new boys were released from the initiation ceremony.
    Finally, they arrived off the Simonstown naval base at Cape Town. There, they put in to take on fuel and supplies. The bonus was a few days ashore. Cape Town was a different world. Indeed, to a young man who had pushed a painter’s barrow round the towns of the Scottish Borders in the cold and the rain, it was a paradise with blue skies and sunshine, lovely temperatures and flowers and fruit in abundance. Local families would play host to 'the boys.' Dougie met the Lee family who had emigrated to South Africa from Manchester. They had a luxurious home in the rich neighbourhood of Seapoint. Residents had their yacht down at the marina. It was fabulous. An excursion up Table Mountain, courtesy of the Lee’s, was breathtaking. Dougie and Frank were invited to the Lee’s son's 21st birthday. Dougie would keep in touch with these kind people who had ‘adopted’ him for a few days.
    Back at sea, once the cape had been rounded, it was north through the Mozambique Channel and up the East Coast of Africa. The Indian Ocean caused a different motion in the ship. Instead of pitching, she rolled from side to side. Lads who had been fine in the Atlantic were now as sick as dogs. Dougie was fine. Meal times were wonderful. With the other half of the lads at the rail, there was plenty of room in the dining salon and there was plenty of food, always enough for second helpings. The only thing was that you hardly ate from the same plate twice because you never knew exactly whose dinner you were eating as plates slid past you from side to side along the tables. Only the edging on the tables kept it all from crashing to the floor. This notwithstanding, it was a lovely voyage through the tropical climes of the Indian Ocean all the way to their final destination.
    The infamous, “Barren Rocks” of Aden lived up to their reputation. The dream ended and reality kicked in with a vengeance. Temperatures soared to 120 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun blazed down mercilessly. Everything was baked, burnt and bleached. There was no respite. If the wind blew, it offered no cooling for it was a hot, scorching wind. It carried sand, which got everywhere. Accommodation was in the huts of the old married quarters. They were like giant ovens. Water was in short supply. Water pipes couldn’t be sunk into the ground due to the rock formations and they lay on the surface. Consequently, what water was available was always warm. A long cool drink was out of the question. With water rationing, a shower was a rare luxury. The fifty men of the radar unit and their commanding officer, Flight Lieutenant Whitford, made the best of it. If it wasn’t a matter of acclimatisation it was “Aden gut,” too unpleasant to describe. Grub was basic but wholesome, if monotonous. New arrivals were required to stay out of the sun at the hottest part of the day until they acclimatised. “Get sunburn or worse, sunstroke and you’re on a charge.” That was made plain. After all, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun. Still they sweated like pigs. The smell of sweat permeated everything. They were not used to such heat, their clothes were not designed for it and their bodies could barely cope. The Arabs laughed at them. Some new boys would say, “Look at me I’m not sweating.” A few days later, they would be in the hospital. January 1941 saw Dougie in hospital too with a poisoned toe. The hospital was like a tented village and the dark, heavy canvas of the tents drew the heat and almost cooked the patients. It was also close to the border with Yemen, which was marked with lines of barbed wire and trenches. They were warned never to go near it. As he recovered, Dougie was given hospital patrol duty. Their C.O. had asked if any of the lads wanted to volunteer for some patrol duty. Most did, as otherwise life was pretty quiet and boring. The radar unit was non-operational as the Italians had been driven out of Eritrea and that settled things down considerably in the Red Sea region. It was lonely out there on patrol during night at the Yemeni border under the clear, starry desert skies. Dougie was glad to get back to the main camp. However he was soon drawn up by the command “You two, report to Police Headquarters at 18:30.” Dougie wondered what was happening but he and his pal Frank Humphrey duly reported. They were taken by a Provo-sergeant to the front street of Steamerpoint. It was in the middle of the ‘entertainment district.’ “Right lads, patrol this street and keep out any army and navy, this section is for Air Force personnel only." After their patrol, the Provo-sergeant inquired “Cup of tea lads?” What a shock they got when they entered the station! Inside there was a whole bunch of black women, chatting away. They were beautiful girls with jet-black hair and skin as black as could be. They all had loads of make-up and were rather scantily dressed. Dougie had no idea who they were or what they were doing there. “Who are they,” he whispered to the Provo-sergeant. “Prostitutes” came the reply.” “What are they doing here?” “Having a cup of tea!” the Provo-sergeant laughed. “We pull them in from time to time and take them up to the hospital for a check up.” “Right girls, money on the table,” the Provo-sergeant motioned. “We take some of their money to pay for medical services,” the Provo-sergeant said to Dougie and Frank. Communication was limited. However, as the girls came forward to put their money on the table, smiles and signs communicated that they wanted to be friends! However, Dougie and Frank had to dash. They had arranged to meet a couple of nursing sisters from the hospital for a night out on the town. These nursing sisters were effectively officers, holding the rank of flight lieutenants and they were posh, classy ladies. They were regulars and had been in the Middle East for years. Consequently, they were always keen for a date with any new arrivals from home so that they could catch up on all the news. They met up and Dougie was standing with his date for the evening when a truck went past. What a clamour broke out! “Saeeda Jock - Jock, Jock, saeeda - saeeda Jock, saeeda offendi,” they shouted. It was all the prostitutes on the way to the hospital! Saeeda is hello and offendi is friend. It was the most embarrassing moment of Dougie’s life. He didn’t know what to say or where to look. What could he say? The two nursing sisters walked away. That was the end of that evening! From there it was just back to the base and routine duties. Flight Lieutenant Whitford was a decent enough C.O. and they all endured.

    With Thanks to The Peoples War for allowing this .
    Senior Member and Friend of this Website


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    Default Re: A Wartime Story - We'll Meet Again

    Very interesting, thanks Doc.

    "Our veterans did not forget about us .... Let's not forget about them." From Michael Levesque

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