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At long last, going home

 

map of palestine
By the Mediterranean

As I sit by the shore I ponder
O'er the horizon my thoughts drift afar
To the peace and goodwill over yonder
Which is far from the threat of war.

The waves are so calm and serene
And don't bear a sign of the strife
Or the trouble and danger between
The Arabs and Jews way of life

There's Haifa o'er there in the distance
And a ship's stately form leaves the quay
With men who have made an existence
Like I have the same ruddy way.

But the sun very shortly will shine
And homewards from there I'll be led
So I'll rise from this rest place of mine
And go back and lie on my bed.
Ronnie 'Jock' Swan, 1st RHA
 

 

troopship empire test
HMT Empire Test
Suez Veterans' Assn

""How many times, in the late forties and fifties, did one see a sober citizen in his office throw aside his pencil and stare at the window and exclaim: "Oh, God, I wish the war was still on! It is a strange echo now: who could possibly want to be at war? Nobody in his right mind, and of course the sober citizen wasn't longing for battle and sudden death, but remembering the freedom of service life, the strange sights and smells of places just like this, the uncertainty of tomorrow, and the romance of distant lands and seas. They have their hazards, but once you've trodden the wild ways you never quite get them out of your system." Quartered Safe out Here, George MacDonald Fraser.

Preparation

When the war ended in 1945 all five million troops scattered around the world were impatient to get home and those in Palestine were no exception. It was impossible to release them immediately, especially those in Palestine, so a system was devised whereby everyone was given a number which depended mainly on age and years of service: the lower the number, the sooner you were demobbed. Conscripts and National Service men were brought in to replace them and they too were impatient for their time to end.

To prepare for life out of the army, education and training was available and courses in accountancy or carpentry were typical. Many soldiers had also learnt useful skills during their service, driving, fixing vehicles or electrics, basic medical skills, book-keeping, typing or administration, as well as taking responsibility and managing others. Subsidised private correspondence courses were also available. Many soldiers had had their education cut short but some on return were able to continue with university, others had had their jobs kept open for them though this was not the rule. Service women were offered classes in housewifely duties and some looked forward to a normal life with husband and children in their own home. Others did not, being unwilling to give up the independence, responsibility and challenges they had become accustomed to. All went home to a changed country and an uncertain future.

Your notion of daddy is still a bit dim,
Though Mummy has told you a lot about him!
I'm sorry I have to be so far away,
But I'm doing my best to work for the day
When I help you to learn all those beautiful words
Like seaside and swimming and mountains and birds,
My hope and my prayer are that you never may
Give some words the meanings that we use today,
You'll think of brick walls when you hear the word mortar,
And tanks will be vessels for storing up water,
A line will be something you use with a rod,
And shelling mean taking the peas from a pod,
If this can come true I shall think it worthwhile
To have spent so much time in the land of the Nile.
Daddy, 1943.
To an Unseen Child, Sidney Stainthorp, Oasis.

Some wartime marriages didn't stand the separation, or collapsed once the couple were back together, and children often resented this unknown man who suddenly turned up and expected to take charge. Women had become used to having sole responsibility and managing their own affairs and families found that their child had matured and was different to the one who had left and was unlikely to submit to the authority of a father. They had become used to responsibility and danger and had endured more than the parents were likely to understand. Everyone had been changed by war and reality didn't always live up to expectation. Women without children, either wives at home, or serving abroad had become used to the freedom of independence and had worked, sometimes in vital positions, and were not happy with the sudden loss of money in their pocket and the status of a responsible job. Others, of course, were only too pleased to go back to the home; not everyone had had interesting or enjoyable war work.

Before you could leave it was necessary to go round all army offices and get signed off to confirm that nothing was outstanding, otherwise practical preparations for going home were simple, possessions modest:

"January 13th 1948. Drawn my pay, had my medical, documentation all in order. Like all ORs I can have my full kit packed and be on the move to anywhere inside 10 minutes. My mates are all on duty, I have the tent to myself. After checking the contents of my wallet, I spread the rest of my personal possessions on the bed. Cigarettes, matches, coins, including a silver theepenny bit, francs and piastres. Two Army knives, a leaking fountain pen, an indelible pencil, some photos and a wad of useless large-denomination drachma notes, printed by the German Occupation forces in Greece." Enduring the Hour, Trevor Hall

Men were being killed right up to withdrawal and so there was also the real risk that at the last minute, having managed to survive Palestine so far, you still might not get home safely:

"My last duty before demob early 1948 was i/c ten ton trucks loaded with high explosive shells from Gaza to Haifa for shipment out. Everything OK until entry to Haifa Port where we were caught in an ambush. We had one wounded guardsman who survived." Letter from Basil Davie, Irish Guards, May 2010.

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The journey home

21.12.45. Entrain Alexandria main station
to-night for Port Said and embark there
for Toulon. Arr. Port Said 12.30 after
5 hours at Benha. Embarked on Italian
ship Gradisca 13.00 hrs.
Ship newly fitted out as a Trooper.
Very good accommodation. Aircraft
carrier Victorious steamed
into the Suez Canal. Pulled out of
Port Said and the Middle East
at 17.00 hrs ?Lights ablaze and
music playing." Raymond Coslett's diary

At least going home was quicker and safer than coming out and the journey to a UK port was now under two weeks though the Medloc route was still used for a time. Most travelled by rail to Egypt and then by sea from Port Said. There was a shortage of ships, however, and transit in Egypt could mean an impatient wait. This was not resented to let prisoners of war who had survived the barbarism of Japanese camps take priority, but troops were not so happy to give way to foreign brides. Rumours about sailings and reasons for delays were rife. Some might be delayed much longer than expected and when Charlie Powell went home in September 1947 on the El Kantara two men were unable to embark at all as they had had their rifles stolen and were sent back to Acre for Court Martial.

PP John Foster's girlfriend in the ATS, Dot, used her delay to snatch a quick trip back to Jerusalem:

"I travelled to Ismalia only to find that no troopship was waiting for me and that it might be some weeks before a sailing date was available. I considered that being in Egypt and John in Jerusalem was not ideal so requested to go back to Jerusalem. I was told that I could only have a rail warrant for one way and opted for the return from Jerusalem to Egypt. The only way back to Jerusalem was to go to the entry/exit point where Red Caps inspected everyone's papers. I asked if I could wait for transport to Jerusalem and when a lieutenant in the Royal Signals came in for clearance to Jerusalem I asked him if he would be good enough to let me accompany his convoy. I crossed the Sinai desert in an army convoy and on arriving in Allenby Barracks telephoned John who was amazed that I was back. That trip was an experience, crossing the desert at night needs to have been done to understand the thrill but also anxiousness which it carried with it." by email January 2010

Going home was rarely a smooth or quick journey as John Hicks and Donald Ensom both discovered. And then there were the hammocks:

"Hanging them on the rails provided was simple enough even without a maritime knowledge of knots. The difficulty was getting in and out without disaster. Once in they were indeed very comfortable though any movement called for care. With a lot of good-humoured banter we all eventually hung from the ceiling like a colony of bats and drifted into sleep with lovely thoughts of home and the coming pleasures of a Mediterranean cruise." A Private Viewing, WR Garrett.

The journey home seemed long but was sometimes broken up by putting in to various ports dropping off and picking up personnel - including war brides. Naples being one where from the decks of the Dunnottar Castle Bill Garrett saw the volcano Stromboli erupt and the harbour full of sunken ships and cranes (Toulon was the same). Some ships went through the Straits of Gibraltar to the UK, others disembarked troops at Toulon for the rest of the Medloc route where there was a not particularly successful non-fraternization rule.

newIain Craig, KDGs, went home by a most circuitous route: North Africa for a few months then Malta before reaching the UK where they were "welcomed at Southhampton by hordes of small boats with flags and whistles".

Then, at long last ...

"February 12th was when a yell rent the air and arms were pointing excitedly and there it was - a long way off yet but it could be no other but the Cornish coast. Some were talking to their friends unusually fast and loud, some seemed to doubt that what they saw was real. Others were silent as they quietly struggled with their emotions, lest they break loose in a show of unmanly tears. What a lovely ship was the Dunottar Castle. Bless her, she knew the way after all. A Private Viewing, WR Garrett.

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Home, demob — and adjustment

ex-WAAF in civilian suit
WAAF Daphne Mawby in
her demob suit

With demob came a change of clothes and a couple of months or so of leave to help you get settled. Centres were all over the UK including Fulford Barracks, York:

"In York the Army did me proud. I went in wearing a uniform of khaki and came out clad in a double breasted grey pinstripe suit, grey tie, grey trilby, grey socks and black shoes. Strange as it may seem so did the guardsman, the paratrooper, the signaller and half a dozen others. The only repeatable remark from those waiting to go in likened us to Al Capone's gang. We all promptly changed back into khaki for the journey home!" 'Enduring the Hour' by Ted Hall.

It didn't always run very smoothly but considering what a huge logistical and administrative operation it was, generally things worked out all right.

"Within a few weeks I went back to the Oxford City Council to reclaim my position still during my outstanding leave from the PP from which I had resigned. At the end of my leave I received a notice recalling me to the Army at Woolwich Barracks for demobilisation (my demob number was 29 and this was well past as they were demobbing members with a number well into the hundreds). Nothing however goes smoothly. I was told that all my papers were not yet available (I think it was my dental card which was missing) so the Staff Sergeant suggested that as they didn't want me cluttering up Woolwich Barracks and they certainly didn't want me walking about there in civilian clothes, that I find somewhere to stay and report each morning until my papers were complete." PP John Foster, by email January 2010

Memories and remembering — sometimes more than you want

For many adjusting to life in civvy street was hard and they missed the close comradeship and, indeed, excitement of life in Palestine. Those who had been wounded had to recover, some never did and died before their time. There were also the invisible wounds of surviving when your friend next to you didn't, of perhaps having to live with what you may have done in the heat and fear of a moment. There was little psychiatric support and people were often told not to talk about it. Many children never knew about this period in a father's life until decades afterwards.

Smell is a powerful memory trigger: "For me, the scent of orange blossom is powerfully evocative. When I smell orange blossom I immediately think of Palestine. Col Vernon Newton: Gunners in Palestine November 2003. Charlie Powell remembers the all-pervading smell of the Haifa fire he had helped fight which was so hot it caused a nearby house to be evacuated as walls cracked dangerously. The smell as well as the fire lasted for days.

Others remember places: the beautiful, tree-clad hills around Jerusalem (now stripped, concreted, and uglified with settlements), tortuous roads through desolate countryside, the rush of cyclamen, anemones, small irises and other wild flowers in the Spring after winter rain. Andrew Gibson-Watt remembers:

"The first sight of the Sea of Galilee, lying calm and blue amid its encircling hills: the way the shadows sprang to life as evening came on in Palestine, the white houses of the Arab villages standing out among the olive trees in the softening light: the velvet black night itself, the air, in high summer, warm and as thick as treacle, with the constant noise of the Jewish settlements' water-pumps as background: the great scarp of the Mountains of Moab rising from the Jordan valley up to the Syrian desert plain: the mighty ashlar-block walls of the sea-girt Templar castle at Athlit — all these things, and many more, I remember with clarity." An Undistinguished Life, Andrew Gibson-Watt

Everyone remembers the good friends they made and those they lost.

However, it wasn't easy to shake the bad memories of Palestine out of your life. So many veterans had experiences that they were never able to talk about and suffered from what now is recognized as post traumatic stress. Even in his 60s Private Tom Barker, 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, was experiencing flashbacks to the war:

"One day I went out to mow the back lawn only to find a bloke hanging by the neck strung up by barbed wire to the clothes hoist. I was back to square one. I found out later my wife had washed our son's Army uniform and hung it out to dry."

And even walking over his Derbyshire moor, Ted Hall was often haunted by Palestine:

"As in the past, from nearby quarries the blasts still come to shake doors, rattle windows and tremble the ground beneath my feet. None of these things bothered me before, but now the coming of each one makes me jump in some alarm. When I cross the moor, the sudden flight of a flushed bird and the springing up of a startled hare, the sights of which once gave me joy, now make me catch my breath and tighten up. In a night's darkness, the snap of a rotten twig underfoot fingers with a moment's fright that sets my heart pounding." Enduring the Hour, Ted Hall

On the whole though, in spite of the bad memories, most veterans remember Palestine with affection though few were happy with leaving the Palestinian Arabs to their fate. Bill Greenfield provided the following parody which, while about Egypt, could also apply to Palestine and the Middle East in general, author unknown, but one of many in circulation — most unprintable.

Thanks for the memory,
Of sun and desert heat, and of hot perspiring feet,
Of beauties that we heard about, but never seemed to meet,
How lovely it was ...
And thanks for the memory,
of dysentery and lice, and sandfly fever twice,
The playful disposition of those charming little flies,
How lovely it was.

Many's the time we've bought things
And many's the time we have been swindled
And oh! how our ackers have dwindled,
In ones and twos, till mafeesh faloosh.
And thanks for the memory,
Of horrors in the night,
Of things that crawl and bite,
That drove us mad, and made us glad
Of early morning light,
So thank you so much.

Thanks for the memory, Of months up in the Blue, and that eternal stew,
Nights that we would gladly give our wages for a drink,
And very little water for the cooks to boil a brew,
How lovely that was.
And thanks for the memory,
Of souvenirs we bought and of Arabic self taught,
And arguments with dhobi firms about that missing pair of shorts,
How lovely that was.

Gentlemen selling Nicewallets,
Or if you preferred a fly swish,
And books in astonishing English,
They aren't quite clean, you know what I mean,
Thanks for the memory,
of cabarets and bars, and thirsty little stars
Of nights spent in Berka Street,
Just looking round Bazaars,
How lovely, it all was ...
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soldier with kitbag walking up path
Off on demob
It had all been a wonderful experience but the call of my native land was now a constant inner ache. The yearn to re-enter the family fold and divest myself of military trappings was becoming over-powering." A Private Viewing, WR Garrett

young women clustered around a table on which a dressmaking pattern and material is laid out
Dressmaking course
long advertisement for training courses in many subjects by the international correspondence school, cairo
Preparing for home
Image: Orient
"Young men counting the days until you could go home then when you did get home it all seemed a bit dull. And raining." Terence Foley interview

photo of troopship
Dunnottar Castle
photo of huge rock of gibraltar
Passing Gibraltar
menu card for RMS rangitata
RMS Rangitata menu cover
menu card for RMS rangitata
RMS Rangitata menu
two palestine policem, one holding a small boy
Arrival in Liverpool, 1946
soldier embracing young woman on doorstep of bomb-damaged house
Home at last!
back view of soldier walking dejectedly in the pouring rain
Jerusalem
Image: Duggout Doggerel
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