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3. This is it, we've had it now, we thought as we saw our ship

From the Derby Telegraph, Wednesday 27 May 2009 www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk

After being waved off by crowds of cheering women at a train station, Sergeant Charles Barton Mann wondered how the next chapter of his wartime life would unfold. He had given up his life in Derby in 1944 to enlist in the RAF, and now was on his way, with new comrades from his Lancashire barracks, to Liverpool's docklands. There stood the SS Strathmore, their troop ship and home for the foreseeable future. In the second extract of his Second World War diaries, now held at Derbyshire County Council's record office, he tells of his voyage to Bombay on the cramped ship.

FORTUNATELY, the journey was a short one. We tumbled, cramped from the train and were hustled into threes again and marched from Lime Street Station, in Liverpool, to the docks.

In all the films I have seen, embarking troops have marched to the dock with a swagger, with looks of self-conscious determination and cheerful resolve.

At any rate, they have always marched. We struggled. The air force pack is cunningly designed to prevent smart marching.

Add to this a round, unbalanceable kitbag, a rifle and ammunition packs and it becomes a feat even to walk.

My topee (pith helmet) dangling on the string of its cover, swung with unceasing oscillation from one end of the kitbag until it became unmanageable and I had to pause to stop its mad pendulum.

In doing this, the sling of the gun came adrift and the weapon clattered to the floor.

As I bent down to retrieve it, that accursed backpack dealt me a sharp blow at the back of the head and the kitbag fell. The squad was halted while I collected my belongings and my wits.

The gap between us and the preceding squad widened. Behind us, more struggling, perspiring squads halted gratefully and traffic in the street began to jam.

An officer, unburdened except by a sense of his own importance, bustled up with a face matching the red armband he wore and bade the overwhelmed sergeant to get his squad moving.

There was no demonstration on the part of the public. There had been troops ahead of us all morning and this was a scene they were accustomed to.

Apart from a few sentimentalists among the elderly women, who cried, "Good luck lads", we made no impression.

This, I thought, is how they cheer on the men who are going out to fight for them. Phooey to cavalcade!

When we passed through the dock gates, however, and I saw the grey war paint, guns grimly mounted, rafts lashed to the decks and superstructure, my heart began to beat faster.

"This is it," somebody said. "We've had it now."

Our docking berth, overshadowed by the bulk of the SS Strathmore, was gaily decorated with flags and bunting. A microphone and loudspeakers were mounted on a platform.

Ah, this is more like it, I thought. They are going to give us a right royal send off. I saw an officer in red-banded tat fussing around the decorations and felt confused.

But when we halted and stood waiting to embark, disillusionment came in the form of a talkative dock policeman who informed us that the decorations were part of the arrangements to welcome home a hospital ship full of repatriated prisoners of war due to dock slightly after our departure.

At the bottom of the gangplank I was handed a ticket and struggled aboard. I passed into a panelled hallway – my first glimpse of a large ship.

On one wall was a big world map designed in inlaid wood of various colours and grains. Above it, an austere modern clock.

On the left, opposite the map and behind double swinging doors was a vision of Fables with white layings, (tablecloths) sparkling glasses and gleaming cutlery.

Hmm! Not so bad. Not bad at all, I mused…

"Hey! You! Come along, airman, get moving!"

The quarrelous voice snapped me out of my reverie and I saw that the line ahead of me had moved and an officer was beckoning me on with irritable waves of his hand.

Moving in the direction indicated I turned sharply right out of the lobby and paused, taken aback, at the top of a steep companionway leading down to a dim hall.

"Get in. Get in, man! Don't hold up the traffic," snapped the irritable officer, so down I plunged.

Most of the men were depressed by the surroundings and a few were expressing their views on the place with the aid of those limited expletives which save the majority of sentiment for all occasions.

We eventually got things in some semblance of order and the next interest was food.

Apparently some effort had at last been made to provide some food and a party of volunteers had gone off to the galley, hopefully bearing the tin trays and pails which had been underneath the tables.

Some time later, nothing being forthcoming, we sent out scouts and they brought back the intelligence that grub was being dished out. At last it arrived, long loaves of white bread – the first white bread we had seen for a long time as nothing but national flour was at that time allowed in England. With the bread were two or three packets of butter.

Ours being the first table in the mess, and the bearers of the food being men allotted to our table, we naturally concluded that this was our share of the food and scrambled among the packs for our 'irons' – the term under which knife, fork and spoon were collectively known in the services.

We set in without awaiting any trimmings. Other tables waited on glumly. Those of us on Mess 87 were rapturously engorging slices of the fresh, light bread, thickly spread with the smooth butter, when orderlies from the other messes arrived back empty handed.

What a hubbub followed. We were soon surrounded by a clamouring crowd demanding a share of the bread and butter, for it appeared that what we had was the ration for the whole mess deck. We were inundated with waves of hungry airmen.

In that struggle against grabbing hands I became aware of what a fight with an octopus is like. What remained of the loaves quickly disappeared and when the bread was swept clean there were many who still went without.

WE SAILED without heroics, just slipped the moorings and were hauled and pushed into the Mersey by the tugs, then moved slowly up the river.

Liverpool in a cloak of brown-grey smoke was unconcerned with our going and we for our part gave no cheers. Further up river, where the smoke thinned and the city's buildings were low in the distance, it was announced through the loudspeakers that we would shortly pass the hospital ship and we were asked to give the returning prisoners a cheer.

These were the first batch of repatriates, most of them sick from more than two years in prison camps, many still suffering from wounds.

When the ship came into view, the sun was shining and she looked clean and graceful in her white and green paint bearing the red cross on her sides.

We gave her rousing cheers as she came abreast and waved and shouted to the figures on her decks. There were two ships in line behind us, both full of troops and the first took up the cheers where we left off and passed them on to the next as the hospital ship passed on to her flag-decked welcome and loudspeaker speeches.

We who were sailing away felt we knew better than many who would be at the dockside what it would be like to return after so long.

In tomorrow's extract from Sgt Mann's diaries, he recounts his struggle with seasickness and tells of how a mutiny of the troops was prevented by a single girl's dancing.

Source article: http://www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk/news/ve-thought-saw-ship/article-1023867-detail/article.html

Next: 4. Stomachs and sensibilities upset but brave Wren restores harmony

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