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AND SO ...

12. RETURN HOME ..... flying to Wing, on to London and Plymouth

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Arriving at the airfield controlled by the British forces, we said our goodbyes, thanks and good luck to our departing friends, the like of which I shall never meet again. In next to no time we were back in the arms of discipline. Instead of wanting to discover our identities, we were paraded by officious British Army sergeants and marched into a hut where we were deloused by having white DDT powder pumped down the backs of our necks, over our heads and up the legs of our trousers. The whole experience was like becoming a Prisoner of War all over again. I fully expected to hear the familiar "Los! Los! ‘Raus! ‘Raus!" when we finally exited from that building, looking like baker’s assistants covered in flour.

 We were then barked at, to be told to find a trestle table, behind which would be an N.C.O. who would register our identities and allocate an aircraft number. When these numbers were put on a large notice board, that would signify that the holder could board the plane on the runway. But on the runway there were no planes in evidence and there seemed to be crowds of ragtail uniforms crowding the grounds. I found the trestle table and the Army corporal began entering my particulars into a ledger. He asked where I came from and when I answered: "Plymouth", he remarked that he came from Taunton, saying that we ‘Westho’s’ must look after one another. He would put my name against a low number flight so I wouldn’t have to wait too long to be on my way home. Big deal. He also told me that there was another sailor, called Venning, from Plymouth to whom he had given the same flight number. Upon completing these formalities and literally being set free to my own devices, it was time to get my bearings about the place.

The first thing I noticed was that there were no trestle tables laden with goodies, with uniformed ladies imploring me: "Help yourself, honey!" It seemed to be a case of find yourself a billet for the night, listen for the call at meal time and be prepared for that magic number to appear on the large notice board. One thing I did observe was that the last number on the notice board was far higher than mine, but at the time I gave it little thought; perhaps certain types of aircraft available had certain sets of numbers. The meal towards the end of that day was a mess tin of good thick stew, a packet of biscuits and my KLIM tin mug filled with hot, sweet tea and I had no complaints.

During the next day planes came and left with bodies who filed on board according to the numbers on the notice board. And then the penny dropped; the numbers were increasing in numerical order and there was no sign of any lower numbers. Nor was there any sign of Mr. Helpful when I went to a trestle table to be told that my plane number had gone before I had even registered! That meant re-registering with a higher number and an even longer wait. Then I met Venning, whom I recognised, but had not known his name. After commiserating with one another he told me that he had observed an aircraft standing apart from the runway with its engines running and a fellow with a clipboard who was obviously waiting for somebody. With nothing to lose, we ambled over to the aircraft and enquired of the clipboard-holder as to the chances of a flight. He was an R.A.F. officer who had once served on an aircraft carrier, so when we told him we were Navy, he told us to stick around. They were waiting for two R.A.F. officers, but if they didn’t arrive by a certain time, then the places were ours. The waiting time was only going to be a matter of minutes because of air traffic control, but as we waited, hoping the two bods wouldn’t turn up, those minutes seemed endless. Finally, with no sign of the missing pair, we were told to scramble on board. I ditched my French frying pan and my KLIM tin mug and, together with my well-filled rucksack, was pulled up into the aircraft with Venning close behind me. Even with the aircraft door closed, it was some time before the plane moved and all I could think of was the two missing bods turning up and we two being bumped off. But it didn’t happen, and we were U.K. bound.

Card issued by combined Red Cross organisations to released POW's, April 1945

he aircraft landed at a place called Wing, where we were loaded into a covered Air Force lorry and taken to a large house somewhere in London. Venning and I had said we were Navy and somebody in authority must have presumed that we were Naval officers. Upon entering the building, I was asked my name, then a WAAF orderly came to tell me that she was my orderly and would show me to my room. The officer who had taken my name told me to make the most of it and I would be handed over to the Navy the next day. The WAAF orderly showed me to a room and asked me if there was anything I wanted. "Yes please. A cup of tea and a hot bath." In no time she brought in tea and biscuits on a tray, telling me that a bath was being prepared.

After a short while there came a knock on the door; the orderly was waiting to show me to the bathroom, and there was a white bath full of steaming hot water! There was a large white towel, soap and a sponge; so first I had a shave then, look out bath, here I come! Stepping into that water, the temperature just right, was a beautiful foretaste of anticipation. But no sooner had I sat in the bath than I had to scramble to my feet again in agony. The bones in my backside were protruding so far that I could not sit on the bottom of the bath. It was a case of kneeling, which was not so comfortable, but all in all better than nothing and the hot water was so pleasant, even to remove some of the DDT powder. Then I had a look at my bare body and, boy, could I see bones! I was thin, thin, where my muscles had gone and my knee joints stood out like Indian war clubs. ‘Twas time to abandon my good friends the pyjama trousers which had served me well over those past months. What a story they could tell in times of plenty of newspaper and those of no newspaper. Goodbye, friends! I left them in a waste basket. I searched the bathroom for cleaning gear to clean the bath. A loud knock came on the door, then a voice telling me that dinner was being served. I opened the door and explained to the orderly that I could not find any bath cleaning gear; she told me that she would take care of that and was ready to show me the dining-room.

There were not very many sitting down to dinner and I must admit I was uncomfortable, sitting at the table and being addressed as ‘Sir’ each time I was asked after my particular likes. But it was heavenly just the same. After the meal, about which I remember very little, we adjourned to a bar, where we were allowed two pints of beer, compliments of the RAF, to welcome us home. The bath and the meal had made me feel very tired, so I took a newspaper to my room and turned in to a bed with white sheets - something about which I had forgotten. I must have just about had time to look at the newspaper headlines and then knew no more until I was awakened by the orderly knocking on the door, telling me that a cup of tea was outside and that breakfast was ready whenever I chose. On reaching the dining room I found that there were kippers for breakfast together with, of all things, white bread! Wonders would never cease. Venning and I sat together at the table and after breakfast we were asked to report to the reception room in the hall, where we were told that when we were ready a car would be waiting to take us to Paddington Station. Upon returning to my room to collect my rucksack, blanket and greatcoat, I found the orderly stripping the bed. When I thanked her for her assistance, she replied that it was part of her duties. I asked her if she smoked cigarettes and when she said she did I gave her several packets of Camels. She took them and began to cry, expressing her thanks. And as I said goodbye she told me to hurry and put on some more weight.

Venning and I were then taken in an RAF car to Paddington Station, where we were told that we would find a Railway Transport Officer. Here at the station entrance was a Naval Master at Arms who had obviously been advised about us by RAF House. Now, being clean of face, but oh so scruffily uniformed, we must have left him wondering who we really were. But when we began giving him our Naval service numbers he began to laugh loudly, saying: "You pair of beauties have been putting it over the RAF, pretending to be Naval officers." Of course we hadn’t, but it had been nice all the same. We were the first two ex-P.O.W.s he had handled so, telling a Wren in the office to make tea, he sat us down and asked us to tell him something about when and where each of us had been put in the bag. After some time he produced a Travel Warrant and Meal Voucher for each of us, giving us the time of the train to Plymouth. The train would leave from Platform 1 and we bagged seats for ourselves and our packs, just sitting there for a while, talking and slowly recovering from the excitement of the past few days.

Whilst chatting we noticed that a pair of red-capped Army policemen were walking up and down in front of us, looking suspiciously at us each time they passed. Venning quietly said: "We’re going to have some fun here." Both of us was attired in something resembling Army uniforms. I was wearing an Army uniform and an over-large Army greatcoat, which was nearly white from the DDT-spraying at the Army airfield, and shod in American parachutist boots. Like me, Venning was clad in a motley collection of clothing, also covered in white powder; in addition, neither of us had had a haircut for a long time. Those Redcaps just couldn’t resist their curiosity any longer. One came to stand behind us while the other stood in front of us, saying: "Show me your AB 64s." In a put-on accent Venning replied: "Never had one, old chap." An AB 64 was a soldier’s identity book; not being able to produce it meant that the Redcap had his hands on a couple of deserters. He looked at me and made the same demand. "Ich nicht verstehen," I said and the fellow behind us said: "Blimey! He sounds like a Jerry." Front Redcap told the other one to watch us while he went to the RTO to phone for a wagon, whereupon the other one came to our front, telling Venning not to move and that the game was up. After a while Redcap Number One came out of the RTO and the Master at Arms came to the doorway and gave a thumbs-up sign. He called to the other: "They are a couple of bloody matelots; leave them alone." And so we were left in peace. (What a lovely word that is; just let it blow off the lips.)

We decided it was time to make use of the Meal Vouchers so, collecting our bags, we went into the station buffet. It being war-time we did not really know what we expected to find on the menu, and anyhow a Pusser’s Meal Voucher wouldn’t run to anything spectacular. The buffet was empty except for an elderly lady assistant and when she saw Venning and me, two rather disreputable specimens of manhood, she could not help but exclaim: "My Gawd! Where have you two come from?" We showed the vouchers and explained that we were returning Prisoners of War and please could we have something to eat? "There’s nothing here good enough for you boys," she said, then excused herself as she walked out of the buffet, shouting for somebody. She returned with an elderly porter and directed us to follow him. He took us to the station staff’s canteen and she followed, to tell everybody there that we were P.O.W’s and were to be looked after.

No sooner were we seated than an elderly lady came to us, stifling her tears, wanting to know why we were home and not her son. Did we know him and had we met him? What could have happened to him? Naturally we tried our best to placate her, telling her there was no reason why the lad wouldn’t show up at any time.

Our packs were taken from us, and when we removed our greatcoats there came a gasp as they saw our uniforms hanging from our bodies. "Feed ‘em up" became the order of the day, but of course we could only eat so much and I believe we disappointed them when they wanted to force so much food into us. There couldn’t have been many of the station staff available on the platform for a while because in no time the canteen was filled with them, wanting to have a look at us, ask us where we had come from and, the inevitable, what was it like? Several cups of tea later, when we seemed to have satisfied their curiosity, the first assistant whom we had met came to the table and on it put several pounds in silver coins. There had been a collection amongst all the staff at Paddington Station for Venning and me! Can you imagine how we felt? We must have been the first of our kind to pass through the hands of that crowd. We shook many hands, received many kisses and "God bless you" when we went back to our seat on the platform.

Tucked away near the entrance to Platform One I spied a small confectioner’s shop. Now that I had money I thought about buying a box of chocolates for my Mabel. I went in as bold as brass, receiving some strange looks from the elderly assistant. Upon looking round the sparse contents of the shelves I saw a large box of chocolates and, taking the money from my pocket, said I would have the box. The lady brought the box to the counter, quoted the price and said something about so many sweet coupons. At the time I really took little notice, busily counting out the amount required, but with the money on the counter, she still kept her hand firmly on the box and again asked for a number of sweet coupons. I asked her what she meant by sweet coupons; came the inevitable: "Where have you been all these years?" When I apologised for not knowing about coupons and explained what I was and where I had been for such a long time, she gave a gasp and said she would have to see what she could do about that. She went to that same staff canteen to tell her story and returned with more than enough coupons to cover the amount required. Another "God bless you" followed me as I left the shop with the box of chocolates neatly parcelled.

We boarded the train which would take us to Plymouth North Road Station, for onward transport to the Royal Naval Barracks. During the long and tedious journey we could not but help strike up a conversation with a Petty Officer in our compartment; he had obviously been burning with curiosity over our appearance and our conversation about what to expect when we entered the barracks at Keyham. Recognising us as sailors, he wanted to know some of our history and then he worked out roughly how much back-pay we might expect to receive. I was told to expect an initial sum of one hundred pounds! I must have lost my breath for a couple of moments as I heard this - a sum beyond all expectation, and to be told that this would be only an initial payment, with more to follow.

And so the train finally arrived at North Road Station and one of us telephoned to the Officer of the Day requesting transport - only to be told to hop on a bus. We were back in the Navy. I suppose if we had said we had no money for bus fare we would have been told to walk. So hop on a bus we did and arrive at the barracks we did, to be told to report to the gymnasium. I had visions of being told "Top of the wallbars, go!" at the tender mercies of a Muscle Bosun. But no, somebody in authority had ordered that we be held incommunicado until debriefed sometime the next day and the gymnasium was held to be a suitable isolation post. As you can imagine, all the excitement of arriving home had disappeared as we two specimens entered the domain of the Royal Naval Barracks. Our entry was greeted by a momentary hush, possibly due to their amazement. Then a lieutenant said in disbelief at the sight greeting his eyes: "What in the bloody hell are you two?" All of my daydreams of arriving home had now vanished; I don’t know whether I expected a brass band or a handshake or a pleasant greeting, but after four years of being Raus’d and Los’d, sometimes at the end of a bayonet, I was to be put in isolation. And this time I hadn’t stolen any Pudding-Pulver! Venning and I just looked at one another, gave a shrug and I said: "Just a couple of ex-Prisoners of War obeying orders, Sir." He looked round to a couple of P.T.I’s standing nearby and they shook their heads. Obviously he had heard nothing about our orders and soon came back down to earth. Asking us if we lived in the Plymouth area and we affirming, he took us back to the Officer of the Day and said we should be allowed home and he would take the responsibility for us. He was the only one to shake hands with us, took us past the guard house, with instructions to report back to him next morning in the gymnasium at nine o’ clock.

Remarkably, my Dad arrived outside the barracks just as I was leaving - such a coincidence. Our eyes watered as we hugged one another and together in a taxi we went HOME. Once indoors, the first memory I have is of seeing a large picture of my Mother, dressed in her best cherry-coloured velvet dress and wearing on her wrist a large watch, about which we had often teased her. My Dad said: "Yes, I often sit and look at it." And that was the best welcome home I could have wished for. We talked and we talked about this and that. I laughed when I heard that he had been shunted out of the Police service; perhaps the incident of firing the rifle helped; he was now employed in the Naval Dockyard.

I was pleased to be able to take off all my clothing. Dad had carefully stored all my civilian clothes and it was a delight to put on clean underwear, shirt and trousers, which all hung from my body and made him gasp when he saw the difference. I emptied my pack and his eyes sparkled when he saw the packs of American Camel cigarettes; there was rationing of almost everything here. Even the pubs ran out of beer early each evening. Next morning Dad woke me as he was going to work and, after having a ‘K’ Ration breakfast pack, I donned my bedraggled uniform and caught a bus to return to barracks.

Once inside the gates, where the guardroom was a hive of activity, I was stopped, goggled at and asked questions. I really enjoyed the feeling of creating such amazement. There I was, a bedraggled, long-haired specimen, surrounded by neatly dressed, uniformed members of the service, blancoed, belted and gaitered, wondering how I could even enter the gates, dressed as I was. It was most enjoyable and more than compensated for the treatment of the previous evening. I told the duty Petty Officer to phone the Lieutenant in the gymnasium and in no time I was escorted there. Obviously that officer had been making enquiries about the incommunicado business because he worriedly asked if I had spoken to any newspaper people and was relieved when I told him I had only been with my Father. He inspected me in a dubious manner but there was no way he was going to smarten my appearance, in spite of the fact that I was going to be interviewed by the Commodore of the barracks at the first opportunity.

He took me to the Commodore’s office. I was asked to be seated, coffee was brought in and he asked for a résumé of my years in captivity. His secretary was taking notes of the conversation and, when I had given him the information he was seeking, I was given a Commodore’s priority card, which for that day would put me in the front of any queue I would encounter. The first stop was the sickbay for a joining routine medical examination. The Medical Officer could hardly believe his eyes when I was stripped naked for the exam. First, on the scales, where I hardly weighed eight stone. I had also developed a harsh cough. As a result of the medical, I was allowed to go on leave, with an appointment at a certain date for a specialist examination in the Royal Naval Hospital.

But first, just like that joining the Navy routine, I had to be kitted out completely once more. The priority card placed me at the front of each line. My new kitbag, with the kit I did not require, together with new hammock and bedding, all suitably name-tagged, was put into the Long Leave store. Then to the Pay Office to collect pay and Leave Pass. There was some searching of ledgers when it was learned that my last payment was in January 1941. And so, as the Petty Officer on the train had forecast, I collected one hundred pounds as a part payment, a Leave Pass for one hundred and eleven days’ leave, plus double ration coupons for that leave, authorised by the sick bay because of my under-nourished frame.

The expediencies of war determined that, instead of ditty boxes being issued to survivors and new entries, small attaché cases would become part of the kit issue. In no time Jolly Jack had found a nickname for them and they were dubbed ‘Oggie Hampers’. With my ‘oggie hamper’ I went to the NAAFI canteen to see what was on offer in those rationed times. Because it was nearing ‘Stand Easy’, a large queue had formed, waiting for the doors to open. The queue was controlled by a C.P.O., adorned in gaiters and belt as a sign of authority. I went to open the doors and was promptly told by Chiefy where to go, namely to the back of the queue - and smartly at that. At this I produced the magical Commodore’s Priority Card and, after a suspicious look of disbelief, Chiefy opened the canteen door for me, at the same time shouting to ‘stand fast’ to the head of the queue, who must have thought that opening time had come. Because of not knowing what was available in the shops in town, I asked a lady server what was in short supply. She queried why I was in the canteen alone and when I produced the card again the Manageress took a look and said: "Let him have what he wants." Strangely enough, Brylcreem was considered to be the most difficult commodity to obtain, so I was offered two jars! With about sixteen weeks of leave ahead of me, I purchased an ample supply of toilet essentials. The ladies asked me why I was having such a long leave, and there were lots of good wishes from them when they learned the reason. Knowing that I had yet to purchase my leave allowance of tobacco, I asked the ladies for a brown paper carrier bag and that left space in the ‘oggie hamper’ for the tobacco.

Eleven a.m. was signalled by six bells being struck and that was getting near ‘tot time’, when the daily issue of rum was made. To purchase my soap and tobacco ration meant that I had to visit the main victualling store and - surprise, surprise - I arrived just as the rum was being drawn from the spirit store. This drawing of the rum, alas no longer carried out, was a ritual supervised by an officer. The rum was pumped by hand-operated pump into the measures for the daily requirement. It has been known for an unscrupulous pump operator to complete the pump action so that the pump handle was partly on the up-stroke. With an unsuspecting supervisor, the pump wielder had an amount of neat rum at his disposal, the lucky sod - that is, of course, if he could get away with it! On this day I was an intruder to that circle, but as one says in the service: "Act green, keep clean." I acted as green as a new entry and showed my priority card to the officer, who immediately softened in his attitude. In any confined space like the spirit store in a warship or in a barracks the opening of a cask of neat rum gave off a strong heady aroma which, when permeating through a ship via the ventilating system, caused the senses to develop a hunger; thus one always knew when ‘tot time’ was near. I hadn’t had any liquor for many a year and when that daily procedure was completed I was handed over to the Supply C.P.O. He would sell me my ration of soap and tobacco, as allowed for going on a normal leave period. First question from him was: "Did you draw your tot?" followed by: "How long is your leave?" He was intrigued by the sight of the priority card and when he learned the story and saw the number of days leave allowed on my Leave Pass, he gave me a tot of neat rum. With great bravado I gulped it down in one draught, which was the recognised action when consuming one’s tot. The next moment I had to sit down, when that potent liquid hit my stomach! Generally the consumption of the tot created two sensations: a sense of bonhommie, where conversation abounded, and a sense of hunger where one could "eat a horse and chase the rider", as the saying goes. For me that first tot after so many years took away all feelings from my legs and I just sat there in a feeling of euphoria. The Chief was talking away about the hardships of the war but I didn’t hear a word he was saying. I believe that if Feldwebel Weiblinger had walked into the room I would have greeted him civily. Slowly, oh so slowly, my body began to respond to my brain and I realised that the Chief was talking about the soap and tobacco allowance for the leave period. For up to fourteen days leave one was allowed to purchase a half pound of tobacco and a large bar of soap. Seeing that I had such a large number of days leave, the Supply Chief suggested that the allowance wouldn’t be enough and if I had enough money I could purchase extra, which I did, filling my ‘oggie hamper’. He told me to leave my goods with him and go to the dining hall for dinner, reporting back at one thirty to collect and then proceed on leave.

At the dining hall I met Venning, similarly dressed in a New Entry uniform with no badges on the arms. At the door we were questioned by a gaitered and belted Chief who, in all authority conferred by those items of uniform, demanded in a voice that could be heard at the barracks’ gates: "What are you and where do you think you are going?" "Leading Stoker Venning, going to have my dinner, Chief": answered Venning. "Leading Stoker Siddall, going to have my dinner, Chief": I parroted. Now a New Entry uniform is described thus: it fits where it touches; if it’s on the small side it will stretch in the wash; if it’s too big the wearer will grow into it. In addition, we sported no departmental badges or NCO’s badges on our arms. Chiefy was ready to perform his act of authority on this pair of loons until, like a music hall act, we produced our leave passes and priority cards. "Open Sesame". All he could counter with was the time-honoured censure: "Get your hair cut."

After tea in the NAAFI canteen and collecting my rations of soap and tobacco, I went to the Guardroom, through which one passed when going on leave. Before I had time to show my leave pass a Master at Arms, on seeing me, queried: "What are you then, laddie?" I showed him my priority card and leave pass and, after wishing me well, he ushered me out of the barracks.

And so I had once more entered the realms of society; I would be home for at least one hundred and eleven days!

Almost forty years after my return home I was given the following poem, written by a returning ‘Kriegie’. It sums up everything that a ‘Westho’ could feel at the end of ‘picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down’ when approaching freedom road.


Cliffs breaking thro’ the haze and a narrowing sea,
Soon will my eager gaze have sight of thee.
England, the lovelier now for absence long,
Soon shall I see your brow, hear a skylark’s song.
Heart curb thy beating - there Channel cliffs grow.
Eddystone, Plymouth, where Drake mounts the Hoe.
Red of the Devon loam, green of the hills,
And I am home. God, my heart thrills.
Far have I travelled and great beauty seen.
But oh! Out of England is anywhere so green?
Thankful and thankful again as never before,
One of the Englishmen comes home to his shore.


(A prisoner of war on returning home to Devon.)


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revised 27/9/11