“So there we were, in Africa, waiting to board a ship to Burma,” said Dad, “and down comes the Colonel”.
“He gets to me and says, ‘You’re the soldier who plays the Warsaw Concerto in the NAAFI. Well we can’t have you buzzing off to Burma. We need you to keep the men’s morale up.’ And he sends me back to the barracks. Three miles outside the harbour, the ship was torpedoed.”
Whether or not that story was true, I never found out. What was true was that Dad spent 1943 t to l945 in West Africa. I sometimes wondered what the British Army was doing there on a front you rarely hear mentioned. When Dad died I discovered his scrapbooks, and remembered him saying,
“A place like that could drive you mad if you didn’t occupy your mind. Some of the blokes took up needlework. I kept scrapbooks.”
British forces were in West Africa to train native soldiers in case of a German attack through Senegal to the north, or by sea, but this was not nearly as interesting to me as Dad’s photographs, scribbled notes and watercolours.
They helped me piece together a personal account of life in ‘the White Man’s Grave’.
Dad was conscripted in 1940 into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and shipped overseas in November 1943. He wrote a letter to my mother, handing it to their lodger with instructions to pass it on should he not be home at Christmas…
Regent Road, Freetown, in the 1940s.
My darling wife.This year’s Christmas wishes are being penned under the most trying circumstances. I may be with you as you read this letter, and again a thousand miles of unsympathetic ocean may separate our bodies. Be assured, however, that although our arms may not span the intervening gap, our hearts will unite, and in the glowing haze of memory, we shall be as one.
By the time those words were being (tearfully) read on Christmas Day 1943, Dad was 3,000 miles away after weeks on a troopship, surrounded by seasick soldiers. Through a porthole, he saw the tropical sun blazing down on a harbour full of small boats. Behind it lay a sprawling colonial town and a church with a square tower, resembling some English village.
A fist view of Freetown harbour painted by Sid
He was looking at Freetown on the coast of Sierra Leone and the church was actually a cathedral. He marched through the market where medicine men dealt with their patients and long-gowned Africans sold mirrors, cigarettes, tropical fruits, nuts, prayer mats, slippers, leather curios and hippopotamus teeth, while over it all hung the smell of dried fish, the local delicacy, and the whirring sound of scores of sewing machines, operated by jabbering tailors.
He soon settled in to what must have been a fairly tedious existence. From May until October rain fell in a solid sheet. When the rain ended, the sun would shine blazingly hot, accompanied by a dry and dusty trade wind from the Sahara, the Harmattan. The Harmattan blew until the rainy season began again.
As well as dysentery and the threat of malaria from mosquitoes, the men suffered blackwater fever, a heavy parasitisation of red blood cells that led to kidney failure. Yellow fever, an acute viral disease was equally prevalent.
It was also known as black vomit. And don’t forget dhobi itch, a fungal infection causing intense itching and inflammation of the groin.
Throughout it all, the soldiers worked on, dressed in light tropical shirts, shorts and broad-brimmed bush hats, plus knee-length, suede mosquito boots at night.Dad was also the proud owner of a thick, woollen balaclava, knitted by his mother and sent to Portsmouth. It caught up with him as he sweltered in Africa.
Soldiers in West Africa had their own servants, each fiercely loyal.
Dad’s boy was called Sorry Commara. He taught Dad pidgin English. Dad particularly enjoyed telling the story of asking Sorry if he had seen his mate Tommy. He went to look, and returned to say, “Tommy, him belly walk fine fashion, him legs no agree at all.” What a wonderful description of a drunk.
Dad taught Sorry the art of cockney rhyming slang. After that, if any of the boys were asked the whereabouts of someone, the likely reply would be, “Him go for ball of chalk down frog and toad”.
Many of the natives had been given, or had adopted, names which they thought of as being typically English, and it wasn’t unusual for Dad to meet someone called Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare or even Oxford English.
Home seemed never to be far from the soldiers’ thoughts, never better expressed than in a poem, found in Dad’s scrapbook…
When blossoms blaze with every vivid hue,
And whispering waves reflect the sky’s deep blue.
It seems as though these
things should never be.
For beauty now is meaningless to me.
I know that there will be a happier day.
I’ll gaze with joy at skies of sombre grey.
To feel the cutting sting of wind-blown rain.
I’ll feel once more, I shall be home again.
In Dad’s letters there was a barely suppressed longing to go home…
When home, I shall have to wear all my special thick clothing and carry on taking medicines which are supplied before we leave here.
Actually, it is as risky a business to come to England as it is to come out here.
Dad came home in time for his 31st birthday in March 1945. A few mornings later my mother was rudely awoken by a loud thumping noise and found Dad bashing his boots on the bedroom floor to chase the spiders and scorpions out… and this in deepest Essex. Nine months later, on Christmas Day, his first son was born. That was me.
For better or worse, he never forgot Africa. Years after he returned, when he thought no one was listening, I would sometimes catch him humming a song from his army days as, to the tune of The Mountains of Mourne, he would quietly sing…
“Oh I shall be happy, wherever I roam.
When I’m 10,000 miles from Sierra Leone.”