UK and on to Africa and India
On the 16th Dec 1942 Tony was at home for a day or so and apparently went back to Chester. This may have been the time that he was at Oswestry, Salop, on more Officer Training. The next period of Tony’s Army career during 1943 is vague
It probably that Tony went to Unst Shetland for a few months early in 1943. There is one letter from Tony to his mother from Shetland in which he tells us that he has been quite ill.
“… ill – first time in the Army. This was nothing compared to my efforts 11 years ago. Told Doctor to listen round the left lung - he fished out a stethoscope a hundred years old and pronounce “sound - as - a bell”. There are, I believe, a number of Chronic Consumptives in Shetland labouring under a similar happy delusion…”
In this letter he says how well he is looked after by his batman who has the perspicacity of a women without the small talk and finds him a variety of foods.
From this comment and from previous descriptions of his activities in Poolewe we see that Tony as settled nicely into the role of officer taking for granted aspects of that role that include being waited on and people doing as he asked or ordered, as well as the responsibility laid on him by the job.
There are records referring to Mrs Priest in Shetland who wrote to Joan after the war asking after her and family. It is presumed that Tony met her while up there.
On 11th March 1943 Raoul was born. Tony did get down from Shetland to Streatham a couple of days later and in April was able to get leave for 16 days.
Fortunately for Joan at that time her brother, Peter was able to get leave for 9 days. And during May, Tony was getting short 2 and 3 day leaves. June likewise was a time when both got a reasonable amount of leave. What happened between June and September for Tony is unknown until his embarkation leave in September 1943, before going to Asia Command. It was during this leave that Peter died in Lymington on 28th September 1943 after an army lorry accident. This date is the six month anniversary of when his parents died in 1933. Although in later life Joan seldom if ever made reference to such anniversaries, the mounting up of emotional events and grief in her life will have made all these anniversaries of considerable significance.
Study of letters now gives a clue as to the course of events. The first communication after the event was from British North Africa in the form of an Airgraph.
This was the first of four which were photographed letters written on forms and then sent as film by airplane. ( Kodak had the contract for running this process for the British Government). The first was written on 19th Nov 1943 or a little earlier in which he mentions not only the beauty of North Africa but also close encounter with death.
“Have been, once again near death… a trifle … but yet another and further love has been born.”
The exact ship that he was sailing in is still unknown but, by date, it was not the Rohna or Birmingham.
After a short time in North Africa either Morocco, Algeria or more likely Tunisia, (because of the reference to French speaking and by this time England had taken possession of much of North Africa) some details of which are included in the four airgraphs archived he travelled on to India arriving there just before Christmas 1943.
v See Appendix 5 - Airgraphs
A few more details the sinking are giving in Tony’s first airmail letter from India to Joan in which he gives some details of how he managed.
In his first letter from India he writes about his ship being torpedoed and the process of abandoning ship in the Mediterranean selecting a few items to swim with but there is limited detail for obvious security reasons.
Letter From India - 26th December 1943
“Was not allowed to date letters on board ship. The first letters I wrote I left on the ship when we were torpedoed !! = Between Phillpeville and India I think I wrote about 7 letters and sent one cable = Phillpeville is the place we stayed at in B.N.A. ( British North Africa) Managed to get a little kit there to replace the lost articles but am taking great care not to amass any items of value .. It broken my heart to leave behind my field boots and breeches and all those carefully selected pieces of kit , I did not think I could swim with field boots very well!! Anyway am not risking losing kit of any value again … Incidentally I was a lot luckier that any of the other lads … or more provident .. because after we were hit I knew it would be some time before we had to abandon ship so I changed into S. dress and put my Sam Browne on ( I was the only officer to save his belt and have been ragged mercilessly about it ) .. I then spent a nightmarish ten minutes trying to select articles of use that I though I should be able to swim with … do you remember that awful BBC game “ What records or books would you choose to have on a desert island , limited to 8 or something ‘Well my limit was weight’
My choice was the following:
And that is all I have left of my original kit. … But I can still go on parade dressed as I would at Woolwich, in fact ½ hour after we were picked up, I had had a bath, shaved found somebody to clean my buttons and belt and was asked by a Colonel if I was a bloody survivor, because I did not look like one !! A pretty compliment but oh !! for all that kit. Ah me !!”
Sadly the only way that those in England will have got reports of this time in Africa and the details of the troops ship sinking or being damaged would have been from those who returned to England. Letters under no circumstances would have included any such details.
v See letter 26th December 1943
We do get a little more detail in a letter of the 7th Feb 1944 in which there is the following comment in response to a question from Joan in one of her letters
“ 3. I did not forget toilet rolls! Did I not tell you I was assigned to a raft and that means swimming!! Soap would soon melt – the raft was like those heavy things you saw in the Noel Coward film “In Which We Serve” fortunately at the last moment a boat came and took us off but it had no oars or anything – the propeller choked with wreckage – so we just drifted until a little 14 footer came and fetched us- actually that was one of the exciting moments jumping across several feet of deep, deep sea from a 20 foot life boat to 14 footer , the swell was so terrific that the relative movement of the boats was about 10 feet – one being so much smaller than the other. So we waited until the lifeboat was on top then jumped down – almost as easy as that.!! What wasn’t so easy was jumping from a 14 foot boat on to a 23000 tonner of course the little craft was at times nearly under the keel of the ship and the next moment 20 foot above up to the port holes. When it came to my turn to jump, I just managed the bottom rung of the iron ladder .. a poor do. Several men were lost by being crushed between the boats and the ship.
But enough of this - am wasting paper.”