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The Return Trip to India.

The night before embarkation was spent at the Union Jack Club near Waterloo Station in London. There were several other military families there and all were due to embark on the same boat as us, which was the P&O “Strathnaver”. It was a troop-ship and one of a class of Strath- boats, like the Strathallen, Strathmore and Strathclyde and so on, which had been contracted for use by the government for transportation of troops and their families to the various outposts of the Raj. The “Strathnaver” was an electric ship as opposed to a coal-fired steamer and was, consequently, quite a speedy ship. So much so, in fact, that we were due to sail as a solo ship and not in a convoy as so many of the other vessels did.

“We’re too bloody fast to hang around with other ships.”, the captain had said. “We’ll be in a hurry, we’ll make all speed and make it to Bombay in 11 days.”. He was right, spot on target.

But that meant that we only stopped at Suez. In any case, there was no point in stretching out the trip. The war was on. Many of the shipping lanes were thought to be mined. U-Boats were known to be on the lookout for anything which could be thought of as carrying arms or ammunition to the Forces. In fact, after the voyage the captain told us that we had been chased twice during the voyage. But, as he said, it was probably only because they wanted to see what the rush was all about and what sort of vessel was performing so well.

We travelled in darkness at night and there was little or no entertainment even for the adults. Georgie Mold, the son of another serviceman, and I decided to have a concert on board and asked for the assistance of the Deck Officer.

He said, “Yeah, that’s OK. What play are you going to put on?”

We told him we were going to write the play ourselves and engage the services of a bunch of other kids as actors. It was going to be called “The King” and we wrote in parts for all the little blighters who wanted to take up the thespian way of life. It took about two days to write and twenty minutes to perform which, looking back on it, must have been quite an achievement for a couple of nine year-olds. There was this one fellow with whom we had difficulty. He was supposed to be one of the crowd when the King appeared, and to be surprised at His Majesty’s appearance.

His one line of dialogue, with surprise in his voice, was to have been “Cor, blimey boys. It’s the King!”

But the little sod refused to say the line, commenting that it actually meant, “God blind me.” And, “I don’t want to ask God to make me blind.”

Georgie and I were thoroughly pissed off with him but eventually allowed him to get away with…

“Oh, I say, chaps! Look, it’s His Majesty, the King”, or some such crap.

The play was put on in the afternoon, on “C” Deck, and most of the parent-adults were there, cheering on their little “Oscar celebs.” We thought it was a great success and the captain arranged for everyone who took part to have a dollop of ice-cream afterwards. Which, if you think about it, was no big deal since the food, including as much ice-cream as you could eat at the table at mealtimes, was free. However, it all went down very well, but nobody asked us to put on another show. That was a pity because Georgie and I had immediately got down to writing our next play and we did so want to exclude the fellow who had insisted on changing his lines.


Boat-drill on board “Strathnaver” —1939

When we got to Port Said, we went ashore with Mum and had a marvellous time shopping in this big department store called “Simon Artz”. I got an airplane construction kit. It was a DeHavilland DH108. I made it up successfully and played with it for the rest of the voyage but, I don’t know what happened to it after that. I’ve always been a sucker for aeroplanes.

A day or so later we stopped at Aden but, there was no shore-leave for anyone. Only people who were going to be staying there were allowed to disembark.

Another couple of days and we arrived at Karachi harbour where Dad met us. Dad had in the meantime been posted back to Karachi and took us straight to our quarters. You didn’t often see two-storey, semi-detached military houses in India, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that Dad had been allocated one. It was a three- or four-bedroom job with a nice sitting-room and dining-room downstairs. It had a nice front garden and in the back were the usual servants’ quarters and a couple of extra godowns

Our neighbours in the next door semi- were Sergeant Major Crowell, his wife and their only son, Derek. They were quite jolly people, but the son was a completely spoilt brat: He had everything and lots and lots of toys. For Christmas, 1939, he received even more presents and continually boasted about what he had.

Phil, especially, was very upset at his boasting and bragging and spoke to Dad about it. We were quite poor at the time. Here we were, just back from leave in England and Dad’s finances were in an awful state, even to the extent that Auntie Theo was tapped for a loan of a few hundred “chips [1] ” to tide us over. A rupee was made up of three pies to a pice, four pice to one anna and sixteen annas to one rupee. At that time it was worth about Rs. 13 and 8 annas to the pound — it has since been decimalised and the current exchange rate is approximately Rs.65 to the -stg.

Our Christmas presents had been a bar of chocolate, some loose sweets and an orange each. Mum was heavily carrying Sean, and our cash-strapped Dad told Phil to say to Derek, “Well, we’re going to have a new baby soon, and you don’t have one of those. Do you?” It worked, because there was no more said by Derek. Thinking back on the episode, I think his parents were getting on a bit and had probably only just managed to have Derek before his mother was past it. Sean was born on February 17th. 1940 — the same birthday as our poor little Michael about eight years earlier, — and then Phil was happy.


Although Mum had several sisters – Theo, Brunie, Dimple, Babs, Margot,– our favourite was Theo. She was widowed quite early but never married again. Instead, taking on the role of the eldest sister mother-figure, which she was, she spent her time visiting the rest of the huge family who lived in many different and distant parts of India. She could tell us stories the like of which we would never hear from anyone else. Sometimes they would be fairy stories, sometimes true stories with a funny ending, but mostly they were frightening stories of witches, wild and dangerous animals, and “beware and be careful, children”, sorts of stories.

One of Theo’s Stories

“When I was a little girl living in Mah there were lots of snakes in the garden and we were frightened to play without shoes because our mother’s help, Chaplay, had said that most of them were poisonous. The cobra is a very faithful, loyal snake and only ever has one mate. They always stay near each other and if the daddy one has to go out hunting for food the other one, his wife, sits in their home pining for his return.

“We had a pair of cobras in our garden and we were very afraid of them and their poisonous fangs.”

By this time we kids would be snuggled up to her, listening half scared, but unable to resist the frightening part which would surely come. We drew even closer.

“One day when the daddy cobra was out reconnoitring for food, maybe a dead bird or a squirrel to take home to his wife and children, he was spotted by a labourer working nearby. The labourer called his work-mates and together they threw rocks at the snake. One of the workmen hit the snake with a stone and while it was wriggling with pain the others all set upon it with their pick-axes and shovels and killed it.

“The mummy snake waited and waited for the daddy, but there was no sign of him. Eventually, she decided that she had to go out and look for him. So she took her babies around to the neighbouring snake’s house and left them with her to look after. Then she started her search. She looked high and low for day after day, but there was no sign of him.

“Finally, she came into our house looking for him. She slithered along the floor and, finding that the “doolie [2] ”, door was open, she had a piece of cold chicken for her breakfast before carrying on with her search.

“I was sitting on the bed and listening to the gramophone playing a lovely waltz and swinging one leg off the bed and from side to side to keep time to the music. The cobra came along under the bed and sat up listening to the music and started swaying from side to side too.

At this point she would fold her arm up from the elbow and mimic the swaying of the cobra with her hand formed into the shape of the snake’s head. She continued.

“I could feel something touching my leg each time I moved it, but I didn’t think anything of it other than that maybe it was the quilt dangling off the side of the bed. What was really happening was that I was banging my foot against the cobra on every swing.

“Chaplay came to the door of the bedroom and immediately saw the cobra swaying dangerously. The music had nearly stopped playing and if it stopped the cobra would have struck and killed me


By this time we were terrified. What was going to happen to our auntie? Tell us, tell us, we wanted to shout, but we were so terrified lest we frighten the snake in the story and cause it to bite our auntie. We held our breaths.

“But Chaplay kept very calm and told me in a gentle voice to lift my leg slowly onto the bed and stay there quietly. When I had done so, she jumped up and frightened the snake away and I was saved.”

Aunt Theo.

Phil, Mary and Kathy — Karachi, 1940

Mum with our new baby, Sean — Karachi, 1940

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[1] Rupees. The Indian currency.

[2] Ice-box


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