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Chapter 3. – Going Home on Leave — 1938

Until the end of the Second World War the mode of transport for the troops from England to India and back again was by sea. Dad used to get one year’s home (UK) leave every few years in addition to his local (India) leave of about four to six weeks annually.

Although I had been christened and baptised in England in May 1930 while Dad was on one of these “home leaves” with Mum, Kathy and me, — I was born in Bangalore in Feb.1930 — I was unable to recollect what it was like. Now, here was the forthcoming experience and the journey ahead.

We loved travelling ; the kids, that is. Train, boat, car, anything was a great experience to be looked forward to. In 1938 there were four of us kids, Kathy, me, Phil and Mary.

For mother, on the other hand, it must have been a real trial. It always seemed to be her responsibility to get the packing done. Of course, she had the servants to help, but transferring postings and going on Home Leave needed close supervision. You just can’t travel for three or four weeks and wind up at your destination to find that you had left some important kit behind. I must say that the likelihood of that happening was very small indeed. After all, we travelled like “strolling players” for the most part with just our personal belongings. Any furniture or other stuff that the family had acquired was left in storage to be retrieved when we returned from the year’s leave.

Our departure was to be from Karachi which was three days and two nights travel from Quetta. The train journey between Quetta and Karachi was remarkable in that there were so many hills to be climbed and descended. Most of the time there were three locomotives involved — two pushing from behind and one pulling. If the train was descending, the two engines at the rear were there to applying braking assistance.

On our arrival in Karachi we spent the night in a big hotel where other military families were ensconced and after dinner the families sat out in the balmy night drinking and talking.

This was the first time I was aware of this subject called “Home Rule” for India. I probably would not have taken any notice, but for the fact that one of the grown-up children, Harold, — I can’t remember his surname for the moment, — I suppose he must have been eighteen or so, kept on nervously scratching his scrotum, picking his shorts out of the crack in his backside, shuffling from one foot to the other, and then picking his nose and rubbing his eyes and repeating over and over again, “Mrs Perry says it’s Home Rule, Home Rule.” I was fascinated by the way he kept on doing and saying the same thing. What the hell was this “Home Rule?” business.

I told my parents about it the next morning and asked what Home Rule was. I also demonstrated what the lad had been doing. They fell about laughing at his antics, more interested in the demonstration than explaining what Home Rule was all about. Years and years later I could still elicit hearty laughs from them when I gave them further demonstrations of Harold’s performance that last night in India.

The next day we embarked on the “Barpeta”, a coastal steamer, from Kemari, the sea port of Karachi en route to Bombay, there to pick up the liner T.S.S. California for our final leg to the UK.


But, as I have said, in order to get from Quetta to Karachi we had had to travel by train for three days and two nights. The Indian rail system — the design and supervised construction of which is a British legacy — is quite the largest and most complex in the world. They have three different ‘gauges’, that is, the distance between the tracks. There is the narrow-gauge, the metre-gauge and the broad-gauge. The gauge used is mostly dependent on the kind of terrain over which the track is built. Narrow-gauge is for hilly country and broad-gauge is mainly for travel over plains and deserts. Metre-gauge is used when there is a mixture of terrain which does not demand the use of the other two gauges. Naturally, the different gauges also call for rolling-stock of different specifications and so, since journeys could be over thousands of miles, the chances are that travelling by train could entail several changes.

Most first- and second-class carriages in the days of the Raj were compartmentalized as opposed to having a corridor connecting them one to the other. Rarely, they would be two-berth compartments, more often they would be four- or even six-berth compartments. As far as possible on overnight journeys, the military MCO ( Movement Control Officer) would book a complete compartment for a family.

There were fold-up upper bunks and these could be let down when required for sleeping purposes. Additionally, the windows of the compartments offered a choice of glass, louvre blind, draw-blind and wire-netting screens, all adaptable to the terrain through which one travelled. There was a wash-room cum toilet and, for those really hot journeys, while there was no such thing as air-conditioning, it was always possible to purchase a two- to three-cubic foot block of ice at a rail station en route. This would be set in an open-top crate for placement into the centre of the carriage floor. The electric fans on the ceilings of the carriages would then be directed onto the ice block and… Presto!, Raj-type “air-conditioning”.

Another common experience while travelling over long distances by train, was the “pot of tea”, trick. When the trains stopped at a watering stop to top up their boilers, Dad or Mum often sent me to the engine driver to request a pot of boiling water for a quick brew-up of tea. Watering stops could often be miles from anywhere and so, there being no conventional rail-platform handy, it was necessary to climb down from the door of the compartment which was about six feet above the track. Then it was a quick run along the railway track to talk to the engine-driver and request a pot of hot water to make the tea. Sometimes I would have to run eight or ten carriage-lengths along the track to get to the engine. I never knew if the train would start to move while I was off it, and so it was a helter-skelter, panting run both ways followed by this precarious climb back into the carriage.

Railway discipline in India is very relaxed to the point of being non-existent. Many poorer people will travel — free, of course — sitting on top of the carriages or clinging on to the sides of the compartments. The Railway Police are supposed to stop these practices, but they never bother unless there is a Railway Manager or other VIP aboard. People find their way and walk alongside the track from one town to another only stepping off the track when a train is approaching. Unlike in Britain, there are no barriers to prevent people from easy access to the railway-line. On the front of the locomotives, there is a so-called “cow catcher”, which I presume is for that purpose though I have never seen a cow caught in one of the devices. The unfortunate beast would probably have been killed on impact anyway.

Have you ever noticed that British trains are the only ones in the world which do not have a searchlight on the front of the engine?


Mum, Dad and another officer were once travelling overnight in a railway compartment. It was hot and so the windows had been left open – this is a dangerous practice because it is quite common for a passenger to have something snatched by a thief from outside, day or night, as the train pulls out of a station. Dad and the other officer had been having a drinking session and, probably a bit worse for wear, eventually pulled down a couple of bunks and turned in for the night.

They were all fast asleep when Mum was disturbed and awoken by a peculiar smell. She opened her eyes, looked up and saw a thief, clad only in a loin-cloth and heavily smeared with grease and oil, in the compartment. He was going through the pockets of the clothing which hung in the carriage. She screamed.

Dad and his colleague jumped up, realised what was happening and tried to catch the thief. But since he was smothered in oil and grease they could not hold onto him. He opened the door and slipped onto one of the foot-steps under the carriage, hoping no doubt, to make a getaway when the train slowed down. Dad, however, was up to the trick and quickly laid himself on the floor of the carriage leaning out of the door and wielding an empty whisky bottle over the thief’s head.

The other officer, pulled the alarm-chain and the train stopped — it was way out in the middle of nowhere. Dad and he both jumped out of the carriage and further threatened the thief until the guard and some assistants came along and apprehended the unfortunate blighter. They probably then dealt him a measure of their own punishment — a kick in the ass or a clout around the ear — and sent him on his way. That would have been about par for the course in those days


The “Barpeta” was a lovely boat — a coastal steamer. It had about fifteen four-berth cabins and four or five twin-berth cabins for passengers. We children were duly installed in our respective cabins and were then allowed to come on deck to look around for “only an hour or so, children.” Our parents told us to have dinner on our own and then to go to bed. Meanwhile, they went ashore and probably got a few gin and tonics into their systems. All of us kids got to know each other and then retired to bed.

I don’t know much about “coastal” steamer. The following morning we were up bright and early and feeling the thump, thump of the engines, we rushed up on deck. I somehow expected to see land on our port side. No way ; we were in the middle of the ocean as far as I could make out and, when one of the deck-hands explained that land was only forty or fifty miles to port beyond the horizon, I got my first “pukka” [1] demonstration of the earth being round.

It took us a couple of days or so to reach Bombay where we embarked on the TSS California bound for Liverpool. This was a bigger ship of about 17,000 tons, if I remember correctly.

The voyage to Liverpool was glorious. We children spent many happy hours playing deck-quoits, hide-and-seek, and occasionally, cowboys and Indians. Sometimes the games became boisterous and we would fill drinking-straws with water and blow it at our “enemies”. One of the girls filled a straw with ink and blew it at me, but missed completely. However, at the same and for the first time, she noticed my birth-mark, a dark patch on my ear, and concluded that she had scored a direct hit. The next day she accused me of not having had a wash that morning “because you have still got the ink that I hit you with on your ear”. It took ages and ages trying to persuade her that it was my birth-mark and that she had missed. But the little bitch would not believe it, or pretended not to believe it, and throughout the rest of the voyage she would chide me on not having washed my ears.

Meal-times on board ship were a marvellous experience. There were childrens’ sittings first and then the parents and adults had the “second sitting”. We could order off a crisp newly typed and dated menu and have as much or as little to eat as we wanted. There were lovely breads, fruit and cheeses laid out on the table and the meals were really tasty and enticing. The waiter was an amusing Goan [2] chap who got to know my regular lunch and dinner order.

“Yes sir, I am knowing it what you are wanting – mixed cold meats, boiled ‘batatas’ and salad. Is it not?” And I would say:

“Yes, please.” though, by the end of the second day of the voyage I had started to tire of the sameness and began to get adventurous –

“No boiled ‘batatas’ today, but I’d like some ‘batata’ salad instead.”, and the rest of the kids at the table, realizing that I was taking the “micky” out of the steward, would snigger.


There was one young fellow of about twelve who was a show-off. He would sit on the ship’s railing with his feet drawn up on the railing too, and boast of how good he was at balancing. Most of us kids were in awe of the little “blighter”, but would not be lured into taking such a risk. I, for my part, was not a good swimmer and certainly didn’t fancy falling over the side of the ship.

But one day we heard the alarm and shouts from the crew, “Man overboard! Man overboard!”, and everyone on deck ran to the side of the ship to look over. The ship circled the area a couple of times and then continued on its way. I never saw anyone pulled out of the water and figured the show-off had fallen overboard and been drowned. But he appeared at lunch at first-sitting and I was disappointed. So were many of the other kids, but the good effect of the alarm was that he did not sit atop the rails anymore.


We saw flying fish for the first time and occasionally there were other “jumpers” like porpoises. The arab dhows followed the same shipping lanes as we did and we would wave to them from the ship. We saw several each day and I wondered at the bravery of their crews – maybe three or four men – by themselves on the tiny craft and way out in the middle of the Arabian Sea.

At night, there were thousands of luminescent flecks on the surface of the sea as though silver and gold pieces of paper were floating about and, when we passed a dhow or, even on a couple of occasions, another ship going towards Bombay with its deck- and cabin-lights lit, the display was something spectacular even for an eight-year old.

It was early autumn and it would have been the “chota [3] season” after the monsoons in India. The nights were clear and warm. From the ship’s ballroom we could hear the strains of music from the ship’s orchestra. On the top deck, couples were kissing and fondling each other. But during the day the top deck, or sun deck, was the preserve of sunbathers, drinkers and tombola players. Most did all three though, some just lay on their deck-chairs or their towels and snoozed.

We arrived at Aden during the day and saw passengers disembarking and new ones embarking. There were servicemen and their families, a few civil servants no doubt and, even though this was a troopship, there were a few civilians and merchants. In Suez it was a similar picture and then came the Suez Canal.

We took a day and a half to negotiate the Canal which was yet another eye-opener. Most of it was very narrow to our eyes which had become accustomed to the broad openness of the sea of the past few days. We could see desert on both sides but there were camel caravans traversing the edges and Arabs with their faces half-covered to protect them from the sun and occasional small sand-storm. If they were awake, they waved in friendly acknowledgement. But most were either asleep on their beasts or couldn’t be bothered to use the energy. — Coming back to England in 1947, it was a different “kettle of poisson” altogether ; they mostly “mooned” us or waved their “dicks” at us.

Finally, we arrived at Port Said where most of the adults went ashore. The children, for the most part, were left on board to amuse themselves. There were “bum-boats” with traders selling silks and crocheted table- and bed-linen. Passengers on the deck would negotiate a price with the traders and a basket would be lowered and laden with the purchase. Then the money for the purchases would be sent or thrown down.

It was quite fascinating because every so often, either by accident or design, the money would fall into the sea and immediately a host of young Arab boys would dive in to retrieve it. Later on, this became a game with the passengers who would just throw money into the sea without bothering to purchase anything, just to watch the recovery operation carried out.

The swimmers were astoundingly brave and capable and invariably made successful retrievals. To test their ability, passengers even threw coins off the other side of the ship and watched the young swimmers swim under the keel and still retrieve the money.

By late evening passengers began to return from their shore trips. Mum and Dad came in after we had retired and we were sad not to see them that night. However, the next morning when we were already at sea again, they gave us the presents they had bought for us – boxes of Turkish Delight. None of us had ever seen, leave alone tasted Turkish Delight, and we made pigs of ourselves with this new sweetmeat. I have loved the stuff ever since.

A couple of days later we anchored just off Valetta, Malta, and Mum and Dad went ashore again leaving us kids to our own devices. I guess four of us would have been too much for them to handle, but I had wanted be with my parents and see Malta. I was more than a little disappointed. Anyway, I have since visited Malta on a number of occasions.

By daybreak we were again at sea and headed for Gibraltar where the routine was the same ; kids stayed on board while the parents went ashore. This was getting monotonous and I said to myself. “When I grow up I will take my children wherever I go abroad.” It has been the case and, Karl and Kieron, our two sons, have travelled the world with us.

We went through the Bay of Biscay in very heavy seas and I felt queasy all the way. I would go up and lie down on the sun-deck and watch the ship’s masts describing circles around the horizon and then pitching through the diameters, fore and aft. Even if I could have had it, I didn’t want any “cold meats and ‘batatas’. I really was sick to my stomach but, by the time we passed through the English Channel and entered the Irish Sea, which were both rough, I had got my sea legs and was not bothered any more.

A day later and early in the morning, we docked at Liverpool and were met by one of Dad’s army friends and taken to their house for the day. There we awaited our crossing on the “Leinster” to Dun Laoghire that night.

The following morning we disembarked and took the train to Wicklow. It was a miserable grey and foggy day, yet we were all excited at the prospect of staying in this new country for a while. There was a man in our carriage who talked to Dad as though he had known him all his life. Who the heck was he? I wondered, and asked Dad the question when we got to Wicklow and de-trained.

“I’ve never met him before in my life”, Dad said. “He’s just a friendly fellow.”

I’ve thought of that many times since and discovered that the Irish really are one of the friendliest nations in the world.


We were to stay with Mrs Dowling in Wentworth Place, Wicklow. She was a grand lady, a widow, who lived in a large Victorian house and had let the ground floor and the basement to us for the duration of our stay. She and her two daughters, Mirette and Peggy, took the upstairs flat. Mirette, then seventeen years old, was beautiful and talented and played the piano and violin. In later years she became a director of the Dublin Symphony Orchestra.

Peggy, unfortunately, suffered from Down’s Syndrome and though she was very kind and harmless, I always felt a bit afraid of her. She tended to shout when she spoke and, not understanding what she was saying, I thought she was telling me off or about to attack me. I tried to stay out of her way as much as possible, but one day when I had been given Mrs Dowling’s permission to “go and select some apples from the loft above the garden shed”, and was deep into the selection process, Peggy appeared at the door. I was cornered. Then Peggy started to thrash about and select some apples for me, I later discovered, and kept shouting in her incomprehensible tones.

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[1] Hindi for Real, Correct, Ripe.

[2] A Portuguese-Indian colonial. A resident of Goa.

[3] Small, little. Probably the best season to visit India.


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