Monday, January 19, 2009

Thursday-Friday 23rd -24th December 1943

Deadlights opened. “Atlantis” still moving gently in smooth waters. Going down a narrow channel between lit buoys. Dim grey light. A convoy, with naval escort came creeping by stealthily. They might have been ghost ships from their silence and apparently deserted decks, as they slunk past us towards the sea. Land closing in on both sides... cranes and factory chimneys rearing above the cold haze.

Liverpool dockside; an English policeman. Impassive, white faces of “dockies”, gazing incuriously at the ship, with cigarettes drooping from their mouths.

We waited; the deadlights were closed. We had lunch. “We five will keep together!” That was Nobby, William, Horrocks, Parkes and myself. Off – and onto the land. Through a station... puddles of water... no glass left on the station roof... evidence of an old fire. Comfortable and un-crowded pullman coach. We five sat down together. Women in blue uniforms came up and gave each man five Woodbines and a copy of the day's newspaper.

Orderlies with us – appreciated white bread which was served as a final gift from “Atlantis”. “You never get white bread in England, mate.” “Where are you taking us, orderly?” asked someone. “To Oxford, mate. It's alright there, so they say. You ought to be home on leave within a few days.”

Crawling through the Liverpool area. Shunting. Grim-faced women leaned out of a warehouse window and waved. Tea time. Then the train really moved. Dingy rows of houses, dusk and open country. No sense of strangeness – I might have left it only yesterday. Looked very damp and grey. Water showed dully in the hollows, through the grass. Telegraph wires beside the line, seemed to flicker up and down, as they did when I was a boy and going to the seaside.

After the black-out blinds were drawn I went out and stood in the dark corridor, where windows were open. Many bridges, much water. Occasional faint lights in house windows.

Cards, chess, and back to the window. At Birmingham, some women came with hot tea, sausage rolls and 10 cigarettes per man. (They had paid for these themselves.) We were ordered to cheer by the Sgt. Major i/c the train. Cheering by numbers was impossible but we did appreciate the kindness of these ladies. (They spoke like Londoners, not “Brum” folk, by the way.)

Silhouettes from the black-out: bare trees and country that rose and fell. Really, not dissimilar to France as it seemed in a February 1940 dawn twilight.

Coventry. Bletchley, at 1a.m. A red-faced, middle-aged woman with strong Midland accent, came on distributing tea. Funny! All English civilian women seemed beautiful and sort of – different. Even that hard-faced old woman in the warehouse at Liverpool seemed beautiful.

Oxford in the early hours and we were packed into an ordinary Army lorry. “Good sign – that!” I said (too hopefully), “No ambulances!” Glimpse of two dim lit signs in an empty Oxford street, as the lorries roared through - “FIRE” and “SHELTER”.

A few miles clear of Oxford, the small convoy slowed down and turned into a yard which appeared to be surrounded by big blocks of buildings. Torches flashed and voices cried, “Righto! This way, lads!” All feeling happy and jovial, we followed into a doorway, up stairs and through another door – to a rude awakening in a room which, ironically enough, was decorated in Xmas fashion with bunches of holly.

We found ourselves in the middle of a hard-faced group of orderlies – I've never seen so many gathered together at once! - and everything was taken from us. When men were naked, even identity discs and wristlet watches were removed – but I did keep my silver ring. Each man's belongings were stuffed into a canvas sack, which was then taken away. Then each man was given a pair of pyjamas, ancient slippers and a blue dressing-gown. My pyjama trousers had only one and a half legs, by the way!

I was taken out by an orderly (maybe two, I wasn't quite sure of the details by this time!), down some steps and into a huge and shadowy ward. Slippers and gown were whipped off me and someone said, “Get into bed.” I lay down uneasily. They left me then and attended to others who came down, in a similar way. About 5a.m. I fell asleep.

Was awakened at 6a.m. and found a table of grim instruments beside my bed – hypodermic syringes etc. To my relief this table was carried away after a while.
I was given a towel, upon which I got out of bed and went into the annexe. A man – one of the regular inmates – was standing naked to have a wash. His body looked somehow repulsive – wasted as though by some long and serious mental disease.
God! It seemed terrible cold out there! There was piping hot water in the taps however.

Breakfast – quite a good one – was served in bed. Another table of horrible-looking instruments was now beside my bed. Presently the famous electric shock apparatus also appeared and screams were heard in an adjoining ward. Appetising.

After breakfast I looked around. Three decidedly mentally-afflicted men were sweeping the ward. My companions from Egypt were peeping from their beds, each looked apprehensive and dismayed. Buff and brown paint, high ceilings, bare walls and big, comfortless windows with a view of high iron railings beyond a square of asphalt and sad, dingy grass. Institution? Asylum? Workhouse? I was pleased to see Grindall, the Boat-Toucher, look in from the adjacent ward. He grinned apparently as happy as ever and made a sort of salute.

But – this England!

Presently the MO came round. After a few words he decided I was well enough not only to get up, but to move upstairs into a convalescent ward. I thanked my gods. The ward I'd slept in seemed to be the new admissions ward whilst the one adjoining was for acute cases. Twelve others were detailed to go upstairs also, but unfortunately my four companions were not among these.

I was glad to find myself dressed and in the new ward. It was much less dark and sinister, and watery sunshine came in feebly through the windows. Some horrible, pitiful cases downstairs; white, wasted, idiot-faces. Ex 41 General men who came here earlier, now greeted me and said patients usually remained here one month or more and then went home.

My clothes were: trousers, pants, vest, thin shirt and jacket and ancient slippers. Everything was too small by several inches (in length) except the shirt. Some of the men who had just arrived from the Middle East had no vest or pants. There were radiators in the ward but according to a thermometer on the wall, the temperature was 56 degrees – only 24 degrees above freezing point! Our feet were very cold, and we were all sniffing and lacked a handkerchief. At midday we were each given 10 Woodbines; very welcome.

Taken down to the canteen to buy our week's ration of cigarettes, we were told that it was against Army Council Instructions for money to be lent to us; we were too late for pay this week and our own money is in our confiscated kits, so the orderly who'd taken us down said “Sorry, boys!” and brought us back without cigarettes. In the afternoon we received socks. Money after Christmas – perhaps; books to read, the same. That song, “Dreaming of a White Christmas – just like the one's we used to know...” is now being sung on the radio. It stings!

Downstairs to the sinister ward to see MO. Even Grindall said soberly, “I'm very disappointed, mate!” I look like an idiot myself in my ill-fitting clothes, with untidy hair, dirty teeth, a beard and running nose. Doctor said, “We'll try and get you out of here as soon as possible...”

I'm sorry for the others. Three of them are still in Admissions but poor William is in the acute ward. He is nervy; Nobby is bitter; Horrocks secretive; Parkes quiet, face drawn, eyes frightened. I felt almost affectionate towards Parkes, for once!
Christmas carols on the radio - “A bloody mockery!” said Nobby, just as someone else had once spoken at Egham, years ago, of Remembrance Day.

In the evening we all shaved, using common blade, brush and razor and lathering with ordinary washing soap. Special Xmas privilege – we were allowed to smoke until 9:30p.m.! The orderlies up here seem much more pleasant than those downstairs.

Doors are constantly being locked and unlocked. There is a device to stop the windows being opened wide. Part of this place is a workhouse I think! From my window is a view of the pauper's graveyard and some dingy acres of this England.


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