Wednesday, December 24, 2014

When the Devil came to Wapping on Christmas Eve

When the Devil came to Wapping on Christmas Eve

Christmas around again and all is merry and bright, but there have always been some who think that it needs  a little bit of something different.
Before the war we lived in Wapping and were part of the fairly large Catholic community so that Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was quite a large event.  The church was full to overflowing and the the Parish Drum and Fife band played for the carols. After Mass there was the usual chinwagging outside the church before the congregation started to wend their way home to try the mince pies and the crackling off the roast pork.
We lived in a flat on the top floor of a building just down the road from the church so many of the congregation passed by as they went home.
My older brother Tom, about 16 or 17 at the time, a teenager but they weren't called that then, always good for a laugh, had acquired a cows skull, I know not from where, as cows head was not a common dish on east end tables.  So he dashed home immediately after the Mass and and put a lighted candle inside the skull and dangled it on a stick just like a fishing rod out of the window just as they first passers by approached.  He had tipped off his mate Leslie Munns about this and Leslie was supposed to just point it out as he came along.  Leslie though was as big a wag as Tom, he had a deformed back and used to do impressions of the Hunchback of Notre Dame so he did his performance whilst pointing out the skull floating mysteriously in the air.
 Difficult to imagine these days that anyone would be frightened by such a thing, but there was complete pandemonium in the street for some considerable time. It was not clear if it was the antics of Lesie or the skull which was more to blame, but one woman actually fainted and others ran screaming back to the church for protection.  Fortunately the candle soon blew out and the skull disappeared from sight so that those who had not seen it were doubtful that it had ever been there.
Tommy opined to me many years later that there must have been quite a few guilty consciences around that night for so many to imagine that the Devil had come to get them on Christmas Eve. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

1943 Mediterranean cruise with the Royal Navy

Mediterranean cruise.

Service on Board HMS Whimbrel between 1942 and 1946 almost amounted to a world cruise with visits to America and Canada, the Mediterranean, Russia and finally the Pacific.
June 1943 was a reasonably pleasant time on board. Whimbrel had recently been in the Clyde shipyard for a refit following a fairly hard winter serving as escort on the North Atlantic convoys. Refits of course meant that there was an opportunity for home leave, but the train journeys from Glasgow to London and then on the Guildford, mostly took a couple of days.  Many of the younger crew members for various reasons stayed in Glasgow.

 Following the refit and the usual workup trials they joined with a Naval  group escorting convoys from England to Gibraltar.
The weather was quite good and there was not a great deal of enemy activity on these trips. Arriving in Gibraltar Ernie learned that his eldest son was stationed there serving in the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, so he applied for shore leave to go ashore and visit him.  He was a bit surprised to find the request was granted, without question.
He went ashore and found where young Ernie was stationed and they spent the day together and the evening in the Naafi, having rather more to drink than they should perhaps, but it was an exceptional circumstance after all. Time approached to be back at the ship and young Ernie said that he could arrange for his Dad to be taken back to the docks. Going outside the Naafi, Dad was surprised to find a Military Police jeep waiting for him outside, the occupants of which were two lads, brothers, from Wapping. So a Military Police escort back to the docks.
The Petty Officer on duty at the gangplank naturally assumed that Dad had been arrested and was being brought back to be charged, so he was also surprised when the two MP's shook hands with Dad and wished him good luck, and “see you when we all get home.”
After Gibraltar the next port of call was the North African coast. The allied armies were being built up there in preparation for the landings in Sicily which were to take place the following month.

Serving in Tobruk at this time was second son Tommy, who learned that Whimbrel was in the area and made contact to let his father know where he was. This kind of information was not supposed to be passed around, especially in the lead up to a major operation, but there are always ways and means.
So once again an application for shore leave but this time he had to go up before the skipper.
“Do you think you are on some sort of Mediterranean cruise, going round to visit all your relatives?” he asked.
“No sir”
“Well all right, but come back without a police escort this time”
The story of the previous return to the ship had obviously filtered upwards.
As it turned out, there was no chance of an escort and only time for a quick drink together as Tommy could only get a couple of hours off, his C.O. being less accommodating than Whimbrel's skipper. There was however time to have a photo taken.