Norky’s ramblings: episode 7

Scillonian run aground in bad weather, showing the author’s Dad and shipmates

True stories from ‘Norky’ who comes from Scapegoat Hill, a small, isolated farming village, high on the Pennines in West Yorkshire. You can catch up on his ramblings so far via his author page.

In the months following the end of the Second World War, millions of military personnel were returning to their homes, at least the lucky ones were, many to start relationships with their wives and husbands all over again.

My Dad, who’d married my mother in 1940, had been lucky in many respects, one of which was being in the Royal Navy, seconded on to merchant ships, a unit named the DEMS (Defence Equipped Merchant Ships). This meant that he had mainly sailed to and from British ports and therefore was able to be home on leave relatively often. However, the terrors of war came close and he and my mother had to call on all their inner strength and ingenuity to get through.

The war began in earnest for my Dad in December 1940 when he was called to report to HMS Raleigh, at Torpoint, in Cornwall. To a young man who had only previously travelled to the northern towns of Blackpool or Scarborough on day trips, it must have been equal to travelling the world today. He did three months’ training and became Able Seaman Gunnery. His first leave was in the following February, and he arrived home wearing his “tiddly” suit: a tailor-made fitted uniform (any sailor who could afford it and who wanted to look extra smart avoided the standard baggy issue clothing).

Mum and Dad, 1942

The following Easter, Mum was able to join Dad, as he was now stationed at HMS Royal Arthur at Pwllheli, in North Wales. Arrangements were made by telegram to meet under the station clock (a rose between the teeth wasn’t needed!). Mum set off from Huddersfield and had to change trains at Manchester, Chester, Bangor and Afon-wen. The last one apparently caused her some anxiety, as it was the train the sailors used (Afon-wen being the Royal Arthur station), and the thought was a bit intimidating, but all went well.

Dad was soon transferred to North Sea trawlers, sailing between Newcastle and the Thames station. He was one of two gunners on board the Teano, the other being Percival Fiddement. ‘Our Percy’ lived in London and, when they docked there, Percy went home while Dad kept watch, and Percy did the same for Dad when they were in Newcastle. The ‘Teanos’ under Captain Tutty (another splendid name) saw lots of action in the North Sea, as the Newcastle and London ports were often bombed by the German Luftwaffe.

During this time – perhaps following an “I may not be coming back” type of conversation – Mum became pregnant with Rhondda, my big sis. Granddad Norcliffe offered to pay Dad’s fare so that he could come home as often as possible, but when Mum was about six months pregnant, Dad was transferred to just outside Penzance, serving on Channel trawlers. One of their tasks was to drop secretive, mysterious figures carrying a suitcase and wearing a trilby on the occupied French coast at night. Dad often described these missions with a glint in his eye because, as they were ordered to remove their uniforms and identification during these crossings, there was an added risk and excitement involved. I think that would be all the excitement a twenty-two-year-old would need. I am sure if they had been captured by the Germans, he wouldn’t have been excited for long. 

The Channel ships saw lots of action and Dad was at sea when Rhondda was born. Contacting an individual on a military station during the war was no mean feat, but the two grandmas managed to phone his Cornwall station to let him know. Dad was given 48-hour compassionate leave and a short time later arrived in Huddersfield – unwashed and unshaven – the first family member to see Rhondda after Mum (something that was relived many times with a great deal of affection and gratitude by both Mum and Rhondda).

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Thus, at the height of the war in 1942, my parents embarked on a new phase in their lives as father and mother to a small child. Life with a new baby is never easy but the war brought huge additional challenges to bear on hard-pressed families. With her husband posted far from home, my mother’s fortitude and resourcefulness were to be put to the test.

When Rhondda was about three months old, Dad was transferred onto the Scillonian, the Scilly Isle ferry, which sailed between Penzance and the Isles of Scilly. The main photo for this article is of Dad and his three fellow royal navy shipmates, all leaning on the portside railing waiting for the tide to lift the ship afloat. The Scillonian crew had managed to run her aground in bad weather whilst trying to enter St. Mary’s dock. Mum and Dad discovered the photograph in a museum approximately forty years after the war, in a magazine of wartime photographs. Dad spotted it first and Mum didn’t believe it was him – but we later managed to contact the company who took the photograph for the local newspaper, and they were kind enough to send us an enlarged copy. There was then no doubt: Dad’s on the far right.

Dad thought Mum could spend some time on the Isles of Scilly, to speed up her recovery following Rhondda’s birth, and he rented them two rooms (a bedroom and a front room) in a house for five months. The journey was quite something, leaving Scapegoat Hill at 7.45pm on Thursday and arriving Friday 3.30pm. For most civilians, travelling during wartime was very difficult, particularly for people who’d previously been no further than Blackpool. Mum described the journey to the Scillies as like going to another world.

The train was packed. Most of the passengers were soldiers going on or returning from leave, but they were more than happy to give up their seats and looked after Mum and her baby for the whole journey. Mum had no way of keeping Rhondda’s baby food bottle warm but, being very adaptable, she’d pre-prepared bottles of groats milk (a thin and runny porridge) and cut larger holes in the teat to allow the thicker mixture to pass through. The mixture was cold by the time it was given to Rhondda, but she was apparently quite content. 

Train journeys during wartime were long and difficult. No civilians were allowed on board when full military units were being transferred, or when trains were used for carrying armaments or munitions needed for the war effort, which often meant long delays while these trains were given priority. In addition, many railway personnel had been called up to active duty, which left very few staff available to drive, carry, load, maintain and manage the railway. And to save fuel and staff numbers each train was fitted with more coaches; instead of the normal thirteen, there would be twenty or twenty-one, making the journey much slower.

Not unusually for that time, there were only candles to light their rented rooms. Rainwater was caught in a huge container, so they had to be careful not to waste any, and laundry was also restricted. Even so, Mum loved the place. When the air raid sirens would sound during the night and everyone rushed into the communal shelter down the road, Mum went armed with Rhondda’s dummy and a jar of jam, which kept her quiet and content. The jam and poor diet of that period would have been a great contributing factor to Rhondda’s poor teeth. By the time my sister reached the age of 21, the fashion in the dentistry profession was to remove problem teeth, not to try to save them; therefore, for my sister’s 21st. birthday present, she was treated to a new set of false teeth. I wonder how far up the birthday wish list that would be for any 18 or 21 year-olds today!

Mum spent the days wheeling the pram around the Island and sunbathing; both got brown. Lunch would be cooked on a ‘blue flame’, a kind of Tilly type paraffin stove. Preparing a full meal on just the one ‘blue flame was quite a task and pans would often boil over, which would ruin the burner. Mum had to buy quite a few during their five months’ stay in the Scillies. All the time she was cooking, she would be keeping an eye out for Dad’s barrage balloon coming around the Island. The balloon was anchored to the ship to discourage dive-bombers. It was the gunners’ job to anchor the balloon to the quayside every time they were in dock, which was a time-consuming and difficult job, and sometimes the balloon would escape and float away never to be seen again. Mum would often hear the motor torpedo boats roaring out of the harbour on patrol with their huge bow wave, cutting a very impressive, dashing figure as they went.

Rhondda, 1944

When Mum noticed there was something wrong with Rhondda’s foot, she decided it would be best to come home to Huddersfield and get advice. The problem was diagnosed as ‘club foot’ (talipes). Doctor Hall, the family’s own GP in Golcar, skilfully strapped Rhondda’s foot and leg for a time until the problem was rectified. (Incidentally, I think I’m correct is saying that Norman (Nim) Hall, Doctor Hall’s son, held the record for the longest place kick in Rugby Union.)

Mum was very confident and had a tremendous sense of adventure.  Some may describe it as foolhardy, for not only did she take her baby daughter to the Isles of Scilly during a time when the German military was preparing to invade Britain, but she also took her to London to stay with the family of one of Dad’s shipmates in 1945. Although the blitz period was then past and bomber air raids were not as common as in previous years, there was still a very serious danger from V1 and V2 rockets. Approximately 8,900 people died, and 25,000 injuries were caused by the V1 doodlebug and V2 rocket attacks on London between June 1944 and March 1945.  Some 2,419 V1 and over 500 V2 rockets were launched, destroying many areas of London. I’m sure Mum didn’t deliberately put herself or Rhondda in danger, but it was her first (and potentially only) opportunity to see the rest of the country.

Mum loved to travel, and later took many foreign holidays to Europe and America, journeys which were no doubt easily taken in her stride by a woman who travelled from Huddersfield to Penzance with a new baby at the height of wartime.

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