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4. Stomachs and sensibilities upset but brave Wren restores harmony

From the Derby Telegraph, Thursday 28 May 2009 www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk
RAF Sergeant Charles Mann kept his diary by his side as he went off to serve during World War Two in 1944. In the third extract to be serialised by the Derby Telegraph, he details a voyage aboard the cramped SS Strathmore, taking troops to Bombay, in India. Just days into the journey, seasickness spread through the ranks, but Sgt Mann recorded the highs and lows of the ship's slow and tiresome trek, including a dance which almost led to mutiny.

SEASICKNESS added no pleasantness to the voyage. As we headed further on the long convoy route into the north Atlantic, the ship heaved and rolled to the great swell, and stomachs began to heave and roll too.

The first signs of malady were observed in the late afternoon when greenish-faced ones sought rail space for a new reason.

Soon, mere loungers learned to make room quickly and leaning on lower deck rails became a hazardous matter as one knew not when somebody above would empty his insides.

I saw several unfortunates receive splashings in this way.

Worst of all were evenings below deck. We were served with an unappetising mess of yellowish, leathery fish for tea and there was a great deal of chaff against those of us whose queasy stomachs would not permit tackling the meal.

By lying still I staved off sickness for the night but awoke with a thick head to carry out my turn as one of the two mess orderlies.

When I shaved, the mirror revealed a pasty face but still I managed to fight down the nausea.

Mess orderlies paraded with buckets for tea and tins for food in the luxury foyer where the mess table's ration card was checked by a sergeant and, in proper order, one took a place in the queue.

One enterprising airman, choosing a moment when the stewards' attention was occupied elsewhere, nipped through the open door and stole not fruit, nor rolls, but one of the neatly printed menus.

This interesting document revealed that morning the officers would have a choice of two cereals, stewed fruit, bacon and eggs, fish, cold meats, tea and coffee.

Our breakfast? A suspicious odour wafted queasily from the galley and the suspicion was confirmed as the first orderlies to be served bore their trays past us. Kippers!

My stomach seemed to rise, then stalled and looped. I thrust the tea pail into my fellow orderly's hands, clapped a hand over my mouth and ran for the toilet.

ENTERING the Mediterranean had broken the monotony of the Atlantic voyage.

There was a large open space on C deck connecting the port and starboard promenades. This was a favourite spot for sing-songs and sentimentalists soon made their appearance as they invariably do when bodies of troops gather.

First a mouth organist took up the melody of our sing-songs and it was not long before we were accompanied by an accordion, then a violin, a saxophone, a clarinet, a trumpet and a guitar.

Musical instruments were allowed to be carried in addition to kit – even by lower ranks.

Obviously the next step was the formation of a band and after the band was formed it followed that there should be a dance. Great excitement prevailed on the lower decks.

At last, we would have the chance to mingle with the women passengers – wrens, nursing sisters and unclassified civilians who, up to now, we had seen only from the wrong side of a rope barrier as they promenaded with officers.

So we thought, but when the day of the dance came, we discovered the space had been roped off and we were barred from entering.

Like outcasts we had to keep our distance while the commissioned ranks gyrated to the music of our own band!

Feelings ran high. We, the 'other ranks', had put up with a lot up to now but this was too much. A crowd collected around the barriers and kicked up such a din that the band was drowned.

There were hoots and remarks whenever a couple took to the floor until eventually none dared to do so.

Up came the entertainment officer, a slim, elegant youngster who, as a distinguishing mark of his office, wore a pair of ghastly, bright trousers.

He attempted to appeal to our better natures but, it being amply demonstrated that we were not expected to have any, we disdained this approach and hooted at him.

A promise that our turn to dance would come appeased us not at all – we had expected a dance that day and a dance we wanted.

He then did the only sensible thing – he had the barrier removed and requested the band to strike up again.

There was a cheer and even louder cheers when, from the forbidden territory of the officers' promenade, a pretty wren stepped forward and asked a soldier to dance with her.

This was a stroke of genius, besides being a most courageous act, and it did more to overcome bad feelings than a thousand apologies could have done.

After the couple had made one circuit of the deck, other girls came forward and soon officers and men were rubbing shoulders happily and it was impossible to believe that a few minutes previously a situation almost amounting to mutiny had existed.

That wren's action was responsible for a better spirit in the ship and after that day it became a common sight to see girls in the company of the 'other ranks'.

In tomorrow's Derby Telegraph, Sgt Mann recounts the excitement and fear as a squadron of German fighter planes spring a dusk trap on the SS Strathmore and its convoy.

Source article: http://www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk/news/Stomachs-sensibilities-upset-brave-Wren-restores-harmony/article-1030630-detail/article.html

Next: 5. Before I grasped the significance of the affair, the Strathmore's guns split the dusk with a startling crack

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jules mann,
18 Jul 2009, 06:45
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