Monday, March 9, 2015

Britain at War: The spitfire fired all eight of his machine guns then dived and raked our roof

In 1938 I was on holiday from North London and staying in the Portsmouth area. I saw trenches being dug, searchlights being erected and barrage balloons being prepared. I was continuing my early training in the Post Office Engineering Department and had passed several City and Guilds certificates in Telecommunications and I celebrated my 21st birthday party. By now it was obvious to me that the Second World War was imminent. 

In 1938 I was on holiday from North London and staying in the Portsmouth area. I saw trenches being dug, searchlights being erected and barrage balloons being prepared. I was continuing my early training in the Post Office Engineering Department and had passed several City and Guilds certificates in Telecommunications and I celebrated my 21st birthday party. By now it was obvious to me that the Second World War was imminent.
During the Christmas period the weather was dry, cold and sunny. I was able to play tennis to club standard. I was playing with three male companions, on hard courts, in White Hart Club ground. The air raid sirens sounded for our first time. Fortunately there was not an actual raid. Our group of four all entered the armed services, two of us in the Army, one in the Navy and one in the Royal Air Force in technical duties.
Soon after Christmas 1939 the Armed Services told me to attend a medical centre to check on my physical condition. I was declared physically fit in A1 condition. Soon after that my employer, the Post Office Engineering Department (POED), must have declared me as eligible for release into the War Office because I was told that I would be in the Army as from 5th March 1940.
I reported to an Army establishment near Goodge Street in London. Then off to an Army territorial station at Atkins Road, Balham, South London. From there on my life changed for the worse, Army battle dress clothes, discipline, learning how to salute. The Army unit was Royal Corp of Signals (RCOS). I was given a number 2336117. The term "billet" was used to mean a civilian home to sleep in, wash, shave and if lucky a hot drink with a biscuit. I shared a billet with another new soldier, Les Reed number 2336130. I was relieved in being able to telephone my home and send my civilian clothes home.
I was shocked to learn that the Army’s equipment, especially communications was still of World War One vintage. Soldier's rifles short, magazine Lee Enfield – 303 calibres, anti-tank gun boys anti- tank rifle – 505 calibres. Soon a group of us were posted to Orpington, near Biggin Hill, Kent in army property known as The Grange and close by Darrids wood.
Being stationed in Kent the war became active. The better experiences were the station was an evacuated boarding school complete with cooking and lavatory facilities. Soldiers were able to sleep on palliasses two or three feet apart. Also now and then weekend passes were available, which permitted me to go to my home in North London. I continued to play tennis in a club. There wishing to enjoy some of the good things in life, I became engaged to Joan Hodgkinson.

My cousin "Fred Bass" was in the RAF as a navigator, his plane, a Wellington, was in a bombing raid over Germany in the spring of 1940. His plane was badly shot up and it crashed in Wales, all killed. The enemy increased its attacks on the airfields in southern England. Our unit was named 4th Air Formation Signal which meant that our job was to help maintain civilian and Army forces communications.

I remember being up a telephone pole at Biggin Hill when a Messerschmitts attacked the airfield which had British planes on the field. My descent down the pole was instant, resulting in plenty of pole splinters. Also there were WAAFS (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) trapped in a damaged air raid shelter, a harrowing experience in getting them out, several were injured. On another occasion I was with a group of soldiers inside a building with a corrugated iron sheet roof. A British pilot was chasing a German plane. The spitfire was firing all eight of his machine guns, dived and raked our roof.

Many of our pilots were Polish. When time permitted I used to visit these pilots who were in a nearby hospital, many of their injuries were resulting from eye injuries caused by enemy bullets puncturing plastic fuselage canopies. A British eye surgeon named Ridley or Radley, observed that eye structure did not react badly to plastic embedded in eyes. Both my eyes have had their lenses removed and plastic inserts have been inserted to overcome cataracts caused by exposure to later tropical sun glare and also age.

I have mentioned earlier that Royal Signals equipment was outdated. When time permitted, and to do something I liked, I used to run a small class on modern techniques for other members of our unit. I was provided with blackboard and chalk. To my surprise an officer attended. During one period a signalman named Ken Lloyd asked some searching questions. I spoke to him separately and found out in civilian life he was a school science teacher complete with a science degree. We became friends and years later he entered an examination in Swahili language and passed with 99 per cent result. The examination was in a Durban university and later he became a member of teaching staff. Overseas draft.

The reader will have realised that I had no intention of deserting the Army but I also wanted to see my family and my fiancée. The Army was keen to get me to Africa and provided me with an escort to make sure that I got there! This resulted in some amusing incidents. We arrived in Scotland one frosty morning and my escort promptly fell over on a railway line, so I held his rifle while he regained his composure. He was a friend called Sergeant Robinson.

We got on a troopship named RMS Strathaird. I was placed in a prison cell in the bottom regions of the ship. As later we went to sea the door of the cell was not locked, in case the ship was torpedoed but there was a guard keeping an eye on me! I noticed the adjacent cell was padded, so I used the padded floor as a soft mattress, much to the amusement of my guard. We sailed from the river Clyde.
Our unit was named 11th East African Divisional Signals so we knew then where we were going. Apart from us there were thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers.

By now I was resigned to Army life at sea, our route was way in to the Atlantic, trying to keep clear of enemy submarines. We had a naval escort but life was hazardous. Our ship not showing any lights at night. Now and then the sporadic crumps of a depth charge reminded us of war at sea. We slept on the floor or in hammocks. When an outbreak of measles took place some of us elected to sleep on decks but that was difficult in the complete dark. In the early morning the sound 'washee decky’ meant deck was being hose-piped, keep your bedding blankets dry. Day time was lifeboat drills and army routines, food very poor, a bright instance was at daybreak we could buy a mug of tea. Sadly we had to attend two burials for colonial soldiers who had left their native lands to fight for England. We reached Durban, South Africa after many weeks at sea.

Captain Anthony asked me if I would attempt to leave the unit but I was resigned to behave myself. So I was allowed to enjoy three days, not nights in Durban. The people of South Africa were very generous. We only had to put our heads in a pub, then drinks were free and so were cigarettes but I have never smoked. When our ship left Durban a lady ran along a breakwater structure singing "Wish you luck as we say goodbye”.

Our troopship went via the Red Sea and Suez Canal to a major port probably Alexandria, then by train to Cairo with Mena camp on its perimeter. There we were in tents partly submerged in the sand. We were given leave to see Cairo town and the Pyramid and Sphinx at Gizeh. So far we had received no mail at all from our homes. We could write letters but they were censored before being put on surface mail to England. With a view to better food I volunteered to serve in the officers’ mess.

We were told to get our kit packed and provide the officers’ mess at about 4am. This we did and I, as a precaution, filled a kit bag with food for me and my mates. Then on to an Egyptian town to a sea port. We boarded troopship "Strathnaver.” We soon realised that something special was ahead. We were placed in cabins with actual beds! The food was good and our military training increased. Our journey took us to Mombasa and straight on to a train, still wondering what was to happen.

After a very uncomfortable night in passenger seats, tired, hungry and thirsty we arrived at Nairobi railway station. There I noticed a pair of huge elephant tusks suspended from the ceiling. Then we had a trip by lorry to Waterworks Army camp. At last food and drink, then ordered to change into the tropical kit. Still no mail from home, although we were worried because of the German bombing in England. To our annoyance an East African in charge of the camp said no passes to the town.

Fortunately one of our own officers overruled the East African and those who wanted to went by lorry to Nairobi town and that included me. There was the equivalent of a Navy, Army and Air Force (NAAFI) canteen where we could buy food and drink.

Those who could drive, not me, were formed up with non-drivers. Vans, lorries etc, were loaded with 40 gallon petrol drums, ammunition, food such as tins of bully beef and hard Army biscuits. The officers were organised with better quality food and drink. Many of the drivers were native Africans.

Only the leading vehicles knew where we were heading and they had hastily prepared diagrammatic sketches! We began to notice the extreme heat and we knew that our ration of water was very limited, usually to three pints a day for drinking, washing etc, sanitation primitive, often a fallen tree trunk over a pit with a fire below, smoke to keep the flies away.

Eventually we were told that as a signals unit we were to co-operate with the Army and deal with all types of communication aspects. Our equipment was cable, Army telephones and radio transmitting and receiving sets. My particular job was line telephone cables. I found myself helping to keep the various infantry and mobile units including armoured cars and tank units keep in touch with each other.

I had managed to learn kings African Swahili for oral purposes. On one occasion I was behind enemy lines connecting enemy cables to our signal office. I had two Swahili kings Africans with me. I also had a tin of Italian baked beans which I heated without puncturing the can. Resulting in a loud explosion followed by enemy rifle fire and a hasty exit by me!

Sixth of April 1941. While Jack Thomas and I were in the back of an open truck travelling at speed to Addis Ababa, a friendly South African truck overtook us causing our vehicle to swerve from side to side, on our left a precipice, on the right huge boulders. Not wishing to be thrown out of the truck I held on until my right arm separated at the elbow and I was ejected from the truck followed by Jack Thomas. Whilst flying through the air my thoughts were about my parents and fiancée. I blacked out from pain and shock. I came to with Jack lying on me. Jack had blood coming from his ear which apparently is a symptom of a fractured skull. My right arm had its forearm dangling loosely.

Eventually we got to a casualty clearing station, just stretchers on the ground. An Army surgeon asked me my name and told me to count to ten. Chloroform was being dripped on my nose. When I woke up my elbow joint had been reunited. I had much pain and my arm was swollen to twice the normal size. Jack had recovered and we journeyed to an Italian hospital Regina Elina. The war with the Italian enemy still firing at our troops. Our ambulance broke down so we had to change vehicles!
On arriving at the hospital we were welcomed by an Italian doctor with a large glass of Cognac! After x-rays were taken Jack and I were given the luxury of beds and Italian bed wear, – night shirts!

Another English soldier woke up in the morning convinced that he was in heaven, Italian nurses speaking Italian. When the boiled spinach arrived for breakfast he soon realised where he was! I had earlier noticed that the Italian language had certain similarities to my schoolboy French. Jack and I were still suffering from our injuries, Jack's bleeding had stopped but he had severe headaches. My arm was badly swollen and I could not hold a pen as I had damaged the tendons. Jack and I in hospital garb visited our Army unit and enjoyed British food. Jack and I rejoined our Army unit and we were put on 'light' duty, I was excused saluting.

Jack and I were billeted in Addis Ababa automatic telephone exchange, a civilian building. The exchange catered for 800 civilian and military lines. Because of my City and Guilds qualifications, I was capable of keeping the exchange in service much to the amazement of the Italian engineers. I was reasonably happy to get away from the Army discipline. The Emperor of Abyssinia Hailie Selassie came to thank us. I still have photographs of his visit.

Jack Thomas and I knew of an Italian café where we could get food to supplement our Army rations. Italian liqueurs, Chartreuse and a sort of doughnut! We even asked the two daughters of the owner out for a cycle ride around Addis Ababa!

All good things have to come to an end. Our signals unit was needed for more operations so we headed back to Nairobi, but of course by then the Italian army had capitulated so no enemy activity, but the African natives were not at all peaceful. One night our vehicle broke down in the dark, six of us were on our own, four in the back of an open van, two in the driver's and passenger seats. We decided to stay the night, lights out. There was not a sign of other human beings. We did have our rifles close to hand. Hours later one of us realised that something was happening. We awoke and tried to grab the intruders but they were covered in slippery grease! Fortunately one of us fired a rifle and the intruders fled, after that we made sure of a guard! In the daylight we repaired the vehicle, motored on and joined the rest of our unit.

The universal worry was lack of news from home. We knew that our homes were being bombed and that food was severely rationed. What little mail from home, was weeks old and our own mail took weeks if it arrived at all. A further worry was would we ever get back home, also would we lose the war. Some men had left England with their wives or partners pregnant. My right arm was 50 per cent OK. Most of us had suffered from dysentery. Mr McSweeney, my fiancee’s friend had been killed by a grenade. I had the sad job of informing my fiancée. I too was suffering from depression and gave my fiancée her freedom. Later I heard she married a chap in the RAF. It was obvious that the various tropical diseases were taking their toll, loss of weight, shortage of medical attention such as dental and optical attention.

Arrive at Nairobi and I was stationed at Archers Post. With about six of our signals unit. The station was notorious for malaria and doo doo bug infection. The fly penetrated my skin and laid an insect egg without me knowing! After a time the insect grub tried to escape its host – me! Severe itching and the best treatment, by a native worker, just squeezing to get the grub out! Our work task was digging holes for telephone poles and erecting them for telephone wires. Unpleasant, very hot and scorpions abounded.

I developed malaria, type known as Sub Tertian. When, again no longer semi-conscious, hospital life was good, white nurses, pyjamas, a bed to sleep in and better food and drink! Back to Archers Post – one day a captain in a staff car arrived looking for me! My services were needed in Mombasa.
A good car journey, to Mombasa, Kilindi road billet. Accommodated in what was a posh school or reputed to be a Harem! Spacious, showers and bedrooms with beds! My first job of work was in Mombasa telephone automatic exchange, plus a four position switch room. The officer in charge was Mr Robins, seconded from British Post Office; his duties included managing the automatic exchange, its power plant with a Lister standby diesel engine. He also had to manage the maintenance of the two overhead telephone lines to Nairobi about 360 miles away. His staff for the exchange was Indians. The staff for the telephone lines was African.

I was nearly content but still worried about my family and me getting home. By now Japan had declared war on us. The consequent need was to have good communications in Mombasa and Nairobi, my task was to install a carrier system to provide additional telephone and teleprinter channels. All new to me but my City and Guilds experience helped. An intermediate repeater station at Mtito Andei was created and in due course the service (?) Mombasa and Nairobi worked.

Maintenance was needed and it kept me busy. One day I was working at a Royal Navy Station and a large petty officer asked me if my name was Ralph Bass, I replied yes and he said speak to the WREN over there, which I did, she was a friend of my sister, her name was Rosemary Bolton. Good news so I made an appointment for a meal with her. What I did not know was that she was at least six feet tall and I am five feet eight inches high. My Army mates were amused but never the less we made several such dates. Eventually she was transferred to HMS High Flyer Ceylon.

Because of my special knowledge about the Mombasa carrier system, I often showed high ranking officers around the installation. Major Tebby said I must attend the above course because it was not suitable for a mere signalman to do such things! I was not keen on attending the course because if I had to be in Africa, my present duties were pleasant and also I had joined a civilian tennis club named MVITA. One of the players was named by us as gunner Fitt, in civilian life he was a member of Perry's team. Perry was then world champion. It was an experience playing against Fitt, although my right arm never fully recovered its full strength. Fitt as a member of the club played in many matches especially against the Army, Navy and Air Force. I never saw him beaten! I was ordered to attend the Foreman of Signals course which was delayed because of a major battle known as E L Alamein. Meanwhile I developed malaria, this time a variety called Clinical.

I was the only signalman eligible to compete in the Foreman of Signals course, three more were from Nairobi unit. I travelled on my own as a civilian on a flying boat to Lake Victoria where I had to give up my place on the flying boat and stay for three days in a luxurious hotel – wonderful food and drink, then off to Mardi camp, Cairo where I met the rest of the course. The subjects were mathematics, technical studies, vehicle maintenance, Army discipline including parade ground and voluntary workshop practice. The course lasted four months with test and examinations. As I recall 33 of us out of 40 passed. So I was now a Warrant Officer Company Quartermaster Sergeant Foreman of Signals War Office Appointment, the technical part (FOS) important to me.

We had a few technical duties for the Eighth Army, then four of us: Syd Walton, Bob Powell and Ron Hill boarded a "pleasure" launch going up the Nile towards its source; the launch was a paddle boat with wooden paddles that could be repaired when damaged as they often were, due to floating tree trunks, crocodiles and shallow waters. The engine was diesel made by Lister's of England. After a week or so big waterfalls ahead meant we had to resort to Army vehicles, then we were told two of us were to go to the Italian Theatre of war and Bob Powell and Ron Hill to Italy. Syd Walton went to Nairobi, me to Nanyuki camp, east Africa.

This was a signals training centre for natives of Africa together with a unit from England. My duties were for overseeing vehicle maintenance, carpenters workshop, radio and telephone communications. The vehicle part was a bit tricky because the NCO in charge was in civil life a garage owner but I was prepared to and did learn. The radio section was staffed by Italian prisoners of War (POW). I got on well with POW engineers, partly because of their love of my type of music, light classical male singers, Caruso and Tito Gobi. I found Italian language easy to learn, some similarities with French. I even spent some evenings constructing radios, I enjoyed the greater comforts of a Warrant Officers and Sergeants eating and sleeping accommodation.

I used to visit the POW's barracks with a bottle of wine for the radio engineers so I could listen to their Italian gramophone records. My companions who had left England about three years ago were like me very concerned about our future and those we had left behind at home. Many chaps received bad news such as wives deserting their husbands for American soldiers, one chap tried to commit suicide by rolling himself in a carpet and setting fire to himself. Others in a lonely camp played Russian roulette with a pistol with five rounds of blank ammunition and one live. I had almost forgotten what my parents looked like and the appearance of my home. requested photographs which took months to arrive. I still have the photos.

One day I was transported away to Hargeisha, sometimes spelt HARGEISA. This was a camp of about ten Europeans guarded by dense scrub and a few soldiers. It was an important radio station but its only link was by radio. There I was relatively content being concerned with technicalities. One interesting sergeant was a ballet dancer in civilian life, and we had many interesting conversations about England. From the radio traffic I was able to deduce that we were an important link with England, Middle and Far East. Eventually we heard that those of us who had left England in 1940 were to be repatriated. I was one of the few and as I recall plus 1 CSM and some signalmen. The year was about late 1944.

This was a difficult trip due to faulty tyres, we even had to stuff two with parched grass and tie with steel wire. On arriving at Nairobi I had to form part of a fixed bayonet burial party. It was very strange, an army Lieutenant had tried to force his attentions On ATS (female soldier), and she shot him dead! While in the military cemetery I was shocked to see how many men had left the British Isles and died from enemy action, diseases and accidents. It made me pleased to be alive.

Our next part of the journey was to be by air from Nairobi airport on a Dakota aeroplane, troop carrier. We had heard that the British Isles were short of clothes. For my family I packed civilian clothes in a metal trunk to go by sea, but being only 81/2 stone in weight actually wore two raincoats. A friend Jock Dinsmore, had bought about 10 bottles of whiskey, the limit on board the plane was two so we helped him to consume all but two!

Our Dakota plane had a partial crash landing outside Khartoum. Rather scary after the Germans, Italians and tropical diseases had tried to finish us off! We continued to Alexandria then by troopship to Southampton, England. Train journey via Wood Green, my home town! Enormous temptation to pull the emergency cord and go to my civilian home but went on to Thirsk racecourse in Yorkshire; We stayed one night under the course stand. Having being given leave passes, ration books and train tickets, I went by rail to London, Kings Cross Station with a Royal Signal friend, Charlie Parker. No trains to Wood Green, only as far as Finsbury Park, so we took a taxi to my home, 255 Alexandra Park Road, Charlie stayed on in the taxi to his home.

I met my mother and sister after five years separation. My father came home in the evening. It was a bit of a shock to see him, we had all aged but at least we had survived the war so far. After renewing friendships and places I had not seen for five years it was a shock to see the damage done by the Germans, our enemy. I was posted to Crownhill Fort, Plymouth. There, my duties were in the signals station and various coastal gun emplacements. By a lucky stroke of good fortune the WREN that I knew in Mombasa was stationed in Plymouth. The war with Japan was going well for us and the Americans. I spent a night in Pendeniss Castle, Falmouth working on telephone equipment.

I was then transferred to Portsmouth. In Hilsea at an Army switchboard, I met the operator, Margaret Wright, better known as "Sally.” She was to become my wife for 63 years. The first time I met her family at their home I had cycled over in civilian clothes. They said: “Where is your uniform Ralph"? Instantly I replied: "I do not like the army or its uniform"! A big mistake, when I looked around, and saw uniforms, regular Army, Royal Navy and Royal Marines. Sally's father, brother and brother-in-law respectively, all at least six feet tall, I was five foot eight inches, nevertheless I was made welcome. Later I had difficulty in persuading Sally that I was not married! So I invited her and her mother to my home to meet my mother and sister. They convinced them that I was single! Also that I was soon to be demobbed. I had a job to go back to, something of a rarity in those days.

Communications work included gun sites, Fort Nelson, Hayling Island, Isle of Wight, and the sea front structure some way off shore. A new cable was required to one and I had no particular knowledge of the laying of such a cable. With maritime help we did it.

Month of May 1946. A silly officer said "It has not been too bad" meaning Army service. I nearly said you fool, six years away from my family, numerous illnesses and a right arm that prevents me playing competitive tennis. As my main concern was to leave the Army I kept quiet! I returned as a civilian to my family and fiancée, Sally. My discharge papers read, an excellent technician and disciplinarian, the latter part only true because I never expected chaps to do what I could not do.

Sally and I planned our marriage and I returned to my home in London. I bought a motor cycle AJS 500cc registration MMC 753. Back to my employer – Post Office Engineer at Euston telephone exchange. I learnt that 400 engineers had gone in to the services, 40 had been killed, some injured. I had lost a cousin – Fred Bass, also a neighbour – Norman Francis. My parents had suffered because of food shortages and German bombing and many homes and buildings familiar to me were damaged. My career had been badly affected. Our enemies: German, Italians and Japanese were all responsible and never forgiven by me. At least I was alive and hopefully free of the army and I had a wife to look forward to.

A great shock to me, my wife and by now we had our baby daughter "Julia”. It happened 7th June 1952 for three weeks. Reporting to Woolwich Barracks, London then to Brize Norton. A horrible feeling being back in uniform. I travelled home during the middle weekend. The training was mainly technical. The only good thing was that my employer allowed me paid leave and the Army also paid me, a help to my mortgage payments.

It became obvious that too many technicians had been demobbed, in other words my War Office appointment as Company Quartermaster Sergeant Foreman of Signals has a special meaning.
R A A Bass


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