After Iíd been home a day or two the Far East war ended and we were finally at peace. To sum up my war service, I was prepared at all times to do anything that was asked of me but not very much was. Your life was totally out of your own control. A clerk in some office hundreds of miles away put your name on one list rather than another and that could make the difference over whether you survived or not. When we were in England there was a rumour once that we were moving to London but it didnít happen and I was never anywhere that was bombed to any extent.
My home city of Nottingham was only bombed once although it had air raid warnings almost every night. German bombers used to follow the River Trent to Nottingham and then swing north to their targets in Sheffield, Manchester or Liverpool. Our city was probably too useful as a navigation point to risk attracting large anti aircraft defences to it. There were some. When the massed planes, heavily laden, came over slowly the guns stayed silent but they opened up when the planes, empty, faster and probably higher were going home. It was mostly a waste of time and effort. There were also smoke pots lined up along the top of ridges. I donít know what they burned, probably kerosene, but the smoke smelled terrible and the soldiers tending to them looked as if theyíd been working down a coalmine. Iím not sure the smoke served any useful purpose but, again, it showed willing. Similarly the city of Lincoln wasnít bombed when I was there. The cathedral on the top of the hill was probably a useful landmark. I was in the theatre once when the sirens went off. Most of the audience up and left. I waited to see if the show went on. It did and I felt that if they were prepared to stick it out I should do the same.
I think it was probably before I left Italy to go home on leave that somebody in the British army had a bright idea (for which he was probably court martialled such things not being expected or encouraged.) They built a very big open air theatre and engaged La Scala to put on a season of three operas. As their home theatre was closed for repairs dozens of out-of-work singers and musicians flocked to the project and Iím sure the company was twice its normal size. Iíd only seen two or three operas by that time and Iíd have liked to have seen something different but the duty roster only made it possible for me to attend a performance of La Boheme. The weather was threatening and they announced that if rained the musicians would stop playing to protect their instruments. I felt that if they did they were being wimps not understanding that many of their instruments were probably extremely old, fragile and costly. But the rain held off and the entire enormous cast of principals and members of the chorus in costume lined up two or three deep in front of the curtains across the wide stage and sang a dirge.
Having seen La Boheme before I thought I knew how it began but I didnít remember this bit. However that had been a touring company during wartime and they might have had to make cuts. After a while it dawned on me that what the heavily augmented singers and musicians of La Scala, probably the most famous opera company in the world, all conducted by a Signor Wolf Ferrari, were singing and playing so solemnly and slowly was ď Ees a long vay to TeeperaryĒ. No doubt they thought it was a British patriotic anthem and as such it should be treated with the proper degree of respect and gravity. Itís basically a fairly small scale opera but it does have its larger moments.
In the cafť scene a stage band marches across. For this production there was a real band with real musicians playing real instruments. Although it didnít rain there were distant flashes of lightning in the dark sky beyond the stage. It was magic.
Back to England. Now that the war was over my sole ambition was to get out of the army and start my life proper. I didnít realise it at the time but it would be another 10 months before that happened. When our leave was over we were shunted around various transit camps, including one near Morpeth in Northumberland, while the authorities tried to work out what to do with us. Everywhere we went we were told to remove our divisional flashes from our uniforms but we said that we werenít really in transit but merely waiting to return to our unit. Eventually they decided to send us back to Italy overland.
One of the lads had overstayed his leave. He was by no means a deserter but he was technically under arrest. My mate and myself were detailed to be his escorts. That was a farcical arrangement. Everytime the person in charge called a roll at stations etc the prisoner was there but his escorts were missing. Our last night in England was spent at Newhaven. We were due to sail across the Channel in the morning which made us feel that we should drink as much English beer as we could the night before. In the small hours I had to get up to go to the toilet. It was dark but I was able to count the beds. Mine was the 6th on the left which meant that when I came back in it would be the 6th on the right. I came back in, counted the beds, climbed in and went to sleep. Next morning I was surprised to find the prisoner in bed with me. What was he doing in my bed? It turned out that I was actually in his bed. He said that heíd thought I was being rather keen. The hut had a door at each end. In my slightly befuddled state Iíd gone out one door and back in the other.
I donít remember much about the trip from Newhaven to Dieppe. It canít have been rough otherwise I should have remembered. There we boarded a steam train for Paris where we walked across from one station to another for another steam train that would take us to Italy. We lumbered across France very slowly until we reached the Swiss border where the French steam engine was replaced by a Swiss electric locomotive which whizzed us across Switzerland in a flash. We did stop at a station, I think it was Lausanne.
From the station we could look down at one of the main streets. Switzerland had been neutral during the war. The street and shop windows were brightly lit. Polished cars and smartly dressed people were there. After many years of wartime lighting restrictions it was like fairyland. It made us realise that possibly England would be like that again someday.
Our unit was stationed at a town called Lodi not far from Milan. My mate and I were able to pay a short visit to Milan. When we came to La Scala, which was closed, we gave some cigarettes to a workman and he let us go in and look around. There was a hole in the roof where a bomb had come through but no other obvious damage. Soon we were heading south again to get on to another P and O liner, this time a slightly smaller one called the SS Maloja. I donít recall whether this was at Bari or Taranto but more probably Bari which was the larger port. Because there were only a handful of white soldiers on board we were allowed to take our meals at a table set aside for us at the other side of the officers mess. The food was marvellous with printed menus and Lascar stewards to wait on us. My only uncomfortable moment during the voyage was when I had to walk through a deck occupied by Sikhs. I donít know how true this is but our belief was that in the Sikh religion it was thought that the Son of God would be born of a man and that, consequently, sodomy was part of that religion. As a young white soldier I was studied intensely. I suppose I felt much as a girl from the office felt when she had walk past dozens of male employees on the factory floor.
The old soldiers who were made to spend 20 to 30 years in India without home leave used to say that what we saw when we arrived in the country was the most beautiful sight in the world Ė Bombay from the arse end of a ship. There was an enormous banner alongside the whole length of a warehouse saying ďWelcome Home to India.Ē The Bombay police band marched and countermarched up and down the quay. Meanwhile we rather unhappy Brits reflected on the fact that the war was over but we were now thousands of miles further from home. next