The Biggs' Boys
By Ken Stofer
Copyright 2005, 2006 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
Biography of Doris Walker
Driver, ATS, RA
I was matron at the Shawnigan Lake boys school on Vancouver Island. A heavy cloud hung over the school at the fall term. War had been declared early in September, 1939, and many of the school's Old Boys who wanted to make one of the Services their career had gone to Kingston Royal Military College, and would certainly be among the first to be put into action.
It didn't take long for our fears to be realized. On October 14th word was received that the battleship H.M.S. Royal Oak had been sunk in the North Sea and that one of "our" boys Midshipman Peter Piddington was missing presumed dead. He was 20 years old. An older brother Thomas, himself an Old Boy was a master in the school at the time in Groves House where I was Matron. This brought the war close to home and so my friend Marion (Georgie) Fenwick, Matron of Ripley's House, and I started to look into the possibilities of joining up. Nothing was available for women in Canada to do in that line yet, but we went to see a Capt. Seymour-Biggs. He had been interviewing boys for the RAF for months and arranging their passage to England. Capt. Biggs said he would start the ball rolling right away to get us overseas. We had to get school reports, passports, a medical examination and also references, and last but not least, the money for our fare! Mr. Lonsdale, the Headmaster at the school was very co-operative, even though it would not be easy to replace us at such short notice. As it turned out it was not at all easy to get a berth on a ship either, so we were able to finish out the term. A Peggy Fisher from Sooke joined us, and as far as I know we were the first women to be sent over by Capt. Biggs to join the RAF. Georgie's mother was living in Victoria so when the term ended, she stayed with her while she sold the car etc. and I took a room in the old nurses residence opposite the St. Josephs Hospital - known at this time as Osborne Court. Bill (my husband) had joined up in Port Alberni and was now stationed in Victoria with the Canadian Scottish. He moved in with me.
As the time of our departure drew nearer the going away parties and dinners accelerated. My mother came down from Royston and we got a room for her in our place. She wanted to come to Seattle with us to see us off on the train, which was great. As is always usual with wartime travel we had delays. One moment the sailing date of our ship from New York was cancelled and the next it was leaving as scheduled - and on and on. We decided to leave for New York anyhow, regardless, hoping to goodness our stay in the big city would not last too long. We had a very limited budget.
At 4:30 p.m. on the 19th of January, 1940, a large crowd was at the dock to wish us Bon Voyage. A very emotional scene indeed. Capt. Biggs was there also with last minute instructions for Georgie and I. It was getting dark and was bitterly cold. I stood on deck taking one last look at the city of Victoria.
On arrival in Seattle, some good friends, the Hockings took us in hand, entertaining us until our train departed at 10:30 p.m. Peggy Fisher was at the station so we all went aboard and settled down for the night. It wasn't luxury travel by any means. We rented a pillow for 25 cents and when the seat was let back it made a fairly comfortable recliner. The Porter dimmed the lights, and all one could hear was the train noises as we roared through the night.
We got to the washroom at 6:30 a.m. to have a good wash before others got up and then the porter came around soon after with coffee and sandwiches. The coffee was 5 cents, and we had our own sandwiches. Georgie and I had made a suitcase full, but we did go to the diner for lunch - 50 cents - the one meal a day we allowed ourselves.
We changed trains in Chicago, to a dirty smelly one. Our sandwiches were not too appealing at this stage, so we elected to have a meal of sorts in the diner. The ride from Pittsburg was unpleasant - lots of drinking and spitting on the floor.
We arrived in New York at 6:30 a.m. on the 24th of January and took a taxi to the Times Square Hotel. After checking in we went to Pier 54 where our ship Scythia was docked, and reported to Captain McKonikie. We were told to leave a message at the hotel wherever we went every hour of the day, so we could be reached and advised at the last minute of our ship's departure time. This was a security measure.
The Queen Mary was docked there too and did she ever look huge! Poor Normandie was at another dock - we walked passed her - she had been sabotaged and burned and was lying on her side completely and thoroughly scuttled. It put shivers up one's spine to think of what could happen from now on.
We went to Radio City in the afternoon. The next day the Cunard Line called and said it could be several days before we sailed. We got the wind up, thinking of our pocketbooks. I phoned a friend, Lilian, who ran the YWCA in Jersey City to see if we could get "put up" there. She said "Yes, come on over." After receiving instructions on how to get there, and a phone call to Cunard to report a change of address, off we went. It was very nice seeing Lilian Hocking again after so long and we received a warm welcome from her. She whisked us off to stay in her apartment. No way would she consider letting us stay at the "Y". Lilian's friends rallied round and we were wined, dined; cocktails - luncheons - shows. One friend was connected with the Jersey City Journal and we gave an interview on the strict understanding that nothing be published until our ship was well on its way across the Atlantic. That part of the bargain was faithfully kept, but our well-meaning friends took us to a theatre where we were introduced from the stage and welcomed as "three Canadian women on their way to England to fight the war." We were shocked to say the least. Fenwick was furious. No one seemed to realize the need for security. If they had, the poor old Normandie might not have been sabotaged.
Our wonderful hosts had a good reason for publicizing us. They belonged to a group who were campaigning for "Aid for Britain". Lilian Hocking and Jersey City did us proud.
Early on Monday the 29th of January we got our call from the Cunard people and left Jersey City at 8 a.m., grabbed a quick breakfast and were on board the Scythia at 10:30 a.m. She sailed at 11 a.m. It was bitterly cold but we stayed on deck long enough to see the Statue of Liberty. Later we had emergency drill and prepared our gear in readiness. The trip was very calm and much the same as any ocean voyage but for the blackout and our zig-zag course. One soon learned to be near a railing when walking about the ship, because without notice the ship suddenly turned to right angles and back again a few minutes later. Our ship was unconvoyed so this was the procedure, but we made good time, in spite of two-stepping all across the Atlantic. Seagulls accompanied us all the way. Peggy Fisher was lucky at horse racing. I won at Bingo once. We had boat drill regularly.
On our arrival in the U.K. we had to anchor off the Mersey River all night, because the submarine fence had been put across for the night. We would have much rather been sitting on the other side for comfort's sake. However all was well and we went up the river at 10:30 a.m. next morning. It was 2:30 p.m. before the tender took us off in the fog. We were 2 hours in customs. After that everyone sent cables home five shilling sixpence to say "Arrived Safely". A fleet of taxi cabs was waiting to take passengers to the "boat train" at Lime Street station, which left Liverpool at 5 p.m. The English cabs could carry anything and everything. There were three of us with a steamer trunk each, plus suitcases and there was still room to spare for another passenger. The space next to the driver was for large trunks etc.- no passenger seat. Many a time we would see a serviceman draped over all of his gear piled in this section. Georgie, on her home turf, took charge of currency, tips, luggage etc. Dinner on the train wasn't bad. We were a happy crew, probably from relief at having landed safely. Time passed quickly and at 10:30 pm. we arrived at Euston Station in London. The whole city was dark - what an eerie feeling in a city the size of London! This is our first experience of the blackout on land. Occasionally, I suppose at strategic points, we would come on a small blue light like a mushroom covered on top with a cap.
The first hotel Georgie picked was closed so she told the cabbie to go to the Strand Palace. It looked as if it might be closed too, it was all in darkness - not a glimmer of light. However, after going through a door and then three sets of heavy black curtains, we walked into a brightly lit lobby, packed with people, laughing and talking. Many were in uniform - men and women - some in strange uniforms from other countries, but the atmosphere was very warm and happy.
We noticed signs everywhere: "The walls have ears" - warning people not to talk about the war effort. "You don't know who may be listening" - Another sign stated, "Guests must carry gas masks with them at all times" - (we didn't have ours yet). Another sign told guests: "This way to the air raid shelter". It was all very impressive. While registering we enquired of the clerk what we should do if there was an air raid at any time. He just laughed and said, "You won't have to do anything - the Germans can never bomb London. The city is covered with barrage balloons and anti-aircraft emplacements are everywhere." We were taking the war very seriously. Some months later was to prove that clerk so very wrong and I came to the conclusion that the balloons' only job was to hold England afloat in the incessant heavy rains and the weight of the hundreds of thousands of service people who were on the move 24 hours a day.
The next day February 9th, we went to the RAF recruiting offices on Kingsway St. armed with our letters from Capt. Seymour-Biggs. We were welcomed politely but the only openings available were jobs underground - telephonists - trackers and such which Georgie and I didn't really feel comfortable with. Our decision to decline was a lucky one. The girls who were taken on, were sent to France. Some had unfortunate experiences when France fell. Peggy Fisher joined the RAF. Georgie and I headed for N0. 5 Great Scotland Yard to ATS offices (Auxilliary Territorial Service) where everyone was so nice. No, they didn't need drivers right now but seeing we were from the "Colonies" and had come so far to join up, they would try and find us a spot! Georgie straightened them out on the "Colonies" remark in no uncertain terms. Everybody had a good laugh over it. We were given forms to fill out with a promise they would contact us in two or three weeks. This was not at all what we expected of a recruiting centre in a country at war and which desperately needed everything from tanks planes, ships to personnel. Maybe they had to cable Canada and check us out.
It was almost a month later that we were called to Headquarters to receive our orders. Meanwhile we took a train to Andover and went by taxi to "Bywell", Georgies home in Abbots Ann. Miss Fenwick, "Aunt Annie" was a dear little lady of 80 years who thought nothing of walking the two and a half miles into Andover and back to shop. Later, towards the end of February I left Andover for Leyton Stone to Bank House to visit with my Uncle Frank and Aunt Liz. While I was there a special delivery letter came for me from my Uncle Edward inviting me to spend the week-end with them at Croydon.
Georgie and I met in London and went for our interview with the A.T.S. where we were served tea and had a medical examination. They accepted us and wanted us to go as telephonists, which for the most part would mean working underground. This didn't appeal to us at all and we asked if it wouldn't be possible to get into transport driving any kind of vehicle. It was finally settled and we went to Brighton for basic training. All we did there was go on route marches in our new shoes and get great sore blisters on our feet to prepare us for driving hours on end sitting on our rear end.
On April 4, 1940 we left Brighton for Attenborough by train and then bus to Chiliwell a large military centre, near Nottingham. On arrival we learned the A.T.S. needed 600 drivers badly. All we were asked about, (as Canadians), was our ability to drive on the left. Fenwick of course being English was used to it, but to save a hassle I said yes too. In fact it was no problem - as new recruits we just had to follow the vehicle ahead and by the time we got to leading a convoy it was easy. I had, as others did, a bit of difficulty changing gears left handed, especially in new trucks just out from the factory. As drivers we could not live in barracks because of our abnormal hours. We needed an early breakfast to get on the road on schedule, maybe returning that night, maybe not. The trucks were certainly not weatherproof and if they were just out of the factory they had no cushions on the seats either. Sometimes we came in soaking wet, tired and cold, very late in the morning. What did we get? Cucumber sandwiches! Night driving was very nervewracking, with such a small slit of light from the headlights. Pedestrians could see us, so automatically thought we could see them. Such was not the case and a lot of them were killed. Although required to travel at a certain speed, we sometimes had to high-ball it, to get trucks to a port in time to catch the sailing. On one occasion we hadn't had time to have dinner. It was cold and dark. It's lonely travelling alone in such conditions. The convoy had become spaced out. We were more or less following tail lights. I came to an intersection with traffic lights. When the green light came on and I followed the tailights in front and found myself in a driveway, behind a car going into its own garage. In much haste I returned to the intersection to catch the convoy. Stopped at the red light I yelled at the pedestrians, "Which way did the convoy go?" No one would answer because they might be giving information to the enemy. All they'd say was "sorry". We had to solve the problem ourselves.
On the afternoon of another trip we were alerted by our motorcycle escort that there was an ALERT(air raid), so we all pulled over three pole lengths apart and headed for cover. The seat in the truck was too close to the gas tank for my liking. I headed for cover in a ditch, under a hedge. A single Jerry plane came into view, strafed our convoy and splattered a small school at the bottom of the hill. Almost immediately a couple of Spitfires went after him and the last we saw was Jerry in smoke heading for the ground. A great cheer went up from our group.
Our landlady ran a good billet. She had 10 ATS drivers with her. The only complaint we had was the food. Cucumber sandwiches at 2 or 3 a.m. when one is cold and wet doesn't do much for ones dispostion. Hot soup would have been super of course, but the cucumbers came from the Victory Garden.
It was a very cold winter. We had a long-standing battle with the powers that be in the military office requesting we be issued with battle-dress; trousers and warm jacket, like the army men wore. The trucks left on a convoy with tops down, and if a sudden squall came up we didn't always have time to stop and put the top up. In any case it wasn't much help. There were two small panes of glass for a windshield and very little other protection. We didn't get the battle dress. However, the high steps up into the cab of the trucks enabled an easy inspection to make sure we had our khaki knickers on. I'll give the army credit though; they issued battle dress eventually - in the summer - when it was hot! along with orders that battle dress must be worn on convoy and jackets must not be removed. We didn't pay any attention to the latter.
We had another beef. The men drivers who followed our convoy by bus to return us to base or take us to the next day's rendezvous, were civilians and received much higher pay than us. So, even if we were sitting in wet greatcoats, tired and hungry, they took us home by a route twice as long and they got paid twice as much. It wasn't very long before they were found out and the use of civilian drivers was discontinued. They had to join up to keep their jobs. Up to this point there wasn't much happening. It was a sort of "a cold war". Rumours of a possible German invasion were flying around. All the road signs were being removed as well as railway station signs. It was most confusing. Great cement barriers were built along main roads, requiring a vehicle to slow down and zig-zag through a small opening in order to continue along the road. The only thing wrong with that was the fact that a very large truck couldn't go through and the whole convoy came to a dead stop. Much time was wasted re-routing the whole convoy.
I note in my diary: May 10th, 1940 - Churchill is Prime Minister. In a short period of time we began to feel at last someone was at the helm. Things began to tighten up. All cars were investigated, even if we were stopped in convoy. Guards were doubled. Road blocks were set up. All leaves were cancelled and recalled. We couldn't go anywhere except in "full gear". We had an armed guard in each of our vehicles and civilian volunteers were called for to watch for German paratroopers. It seemed everyone suddenly straightened up and put their best foot forward. My diary tells me Germany invaded Holland and Belgium, May 10th. German parachutists in blue coveralls and invisible parachutes had been reported at Margate and watchers were doubled. Germans advancing quickly in Europe.
The Dunkirk evacuation began on May 26 and "last days of Dunkirk evacuation on June 3. We were not told the whys or wherefores, just to go to X in Dover, Folkstone, Hastings etc. It was as crowded on the coast as an August Bank Holiday because everyone who could was helping in some way to save the B.E.F. Rowboats, small launches, fishing boats, large boats, leaky boats, were plying their way across the channel to pick up men from the water. Some men waded out as far as they could to meet a boat. Some boats were hit by bombs and there were a lot of people in the water - dead and alive. It was a miracle how many were saved by those determined souls who took their little armadas out to sea and back - sometimes loaded to the limit. Navy ships were there - barges, yachts - anything that floated. We were told that never in the history of man had the English channel remained so calm for so long, so that too was a miracle. All sorts of organizations on the coast as well as local citizens, making tea, sandwiches, giving out blankets, etc. There were a lot of ambulances on hand too. Many men had been treated by First Aid but were quickly whisked away to hospitals. Our trucks took chaps to army units, Salvation Army hostels. Some of the poor chaps of the B.E.F. were like zombies they were so tired, hungry, wet and ragged. One man kept saying over and over, "Cardboard tanks and cardboard guns". They had been so long on the beach waiting for the boats to take them off without protection from bombing and strafing by the enemy - and what broke their hearts? - no air coverage from the R.A.F. That was a sore spot for a long time. They of course were not to know at the time that Britain had so few planes in the beginning the R.A.F. could only stretch itself so far.
June 10th - Italy declared war on us. Soldiers and Home Guard on duty meant business. When a guard called "Halt" he meant just that or else.
The ATS drivers at Chiliwell were becoming very tired and discouraged by things like orders to report at 7 a.m. only to find on arrival that the notice board said 7:30 a.m. so we crawled into a truck and slept. Then we'd be told to come back at 9 a.m. When we did we were told orders had been changed and we could go back to our billet. We did - and slept. Our ATS officers were just super human beings, but they had to obey orders too.
In June, Fenwick (Georgie) and I tried to get a transfer to a Canadian outfit. There were no C.W.A.C.'s in the U.K. yet and the Canadian Army was coming over. However our communications with Gen. McNaughton's office gave us no encouragement at that time so we gave up hope in that direction.
When I left Victoria my husband Bill, was in the 16th Scottish. Rumours were flying around about Canadian Forces landing in all sorts of places like Iceland and Hong Kong.
On June 25th we were billeted in Carlisle. On the 26th we took a trip to Glasgow, 260 ATS and 150 men. Glasgow was my husband's birth place so I sent a letter off to his parents on Vancouver Island, postmarked "Glasgow". We were treated royally and found Glasgow a sort of home base for soldiers, sailors and airmen, from all over - French, Polish, Belgium - all waiting to join British forces. They said they had been betrayed and wanted to get even with Jerry.
Another long trip we made was to Stranraer, with a big convoy and armed guards. The guards took the trucks to Ireland on the ferry, a captured French ship, and we returned to our next assignment by our buses. I enjoyed our trips through Wales. My parents were of Welsh descent, but I had never been there before on the two trips "home" we had when I was younger. I think the terrain we went through reminded me of Vancouver Island more than anything. We had one memorable trip to Plymouth, driving all night. It had to be a fast trip in the blackout, to get the convoy to the ships before sailing time. Our vehicles were painted a sand-colour (wonder where could they be going?). Men loaded the trucks on the ships. We were billeted in a hotel and dog-tired fell asleep without undressing. In spite of our supposedly secret night travelling, Jerry found out and pounded the docks. We didn't hear any results of the raid in the morning, but our windows had been blown in during the night and we hadn't heard a thing. The Plymouth trip started us wondering if we could transfer to an ambulance corps, but that too was turned down.
We went to our next rendezvous by train and were lucky enough to get a compartment where four or five of us slept all the way.
On August 6th I received a wire from husband Bill saying he had arrived in England. This was happy news because I had heard rumours that the 16th Scottish had gone to Hong Kong. However, Bill was now in the Princess Pats and his commanding officer had written to my commanding officer asking if it would be possible for me to have leave coinciding with Bill's five day landing leave. It was and we did. We spent leave in London and also visiting relatives. Bill's first introduction to an air raid was when we visited a portly uncle and equally portly aunt who lived right beside the fence on the Croydon airport. At the dinner hour the sirens went. In the backyard was an air raid shelter built to fit two well endowed elderly people. Aunt Wyn grabbed the bottle of Scotch and out we went. Suddenly Wyn remembered the gas oven was not turned off. The joint would be in danger of being burnt. Edward ran back in, turned off the oven, ran back and squeezed into the shelter. Bill was the last in, but the top part of his body was all he could get in. We laughed while imagining what would take place if he got a piece of hot shrapnel on his exposed rear end. The raid didn't last too long but Croydon was certainly a mess, as were roads, railways and all methods of transportation for miles around. We spent the night there, having no other choice.
Around the middle of August much secrecy and mysterious movements turned out to be mass activity on the coast. Many of our friends left England with no advance notice. It seemed the air raids never stopped. The day Jerry set fire to London we were billeted in a hotel in Earles Court. Masses of planes came over before dark, dropping incendiaries and starting fires everywhere. After dark they came back to a very lit up London and did a vast amount of damage. It was sure a noisy night. We were ordered downstairs and spent the night below, much against our will, but when the ALL CLEAR went and we returned to our rooms we were glad we had gone. Our windows were blown in, the drapes torn and in the very centre of Fenwick's bed was a piece of shrapnel about the size of a carrot. It had burnt a hole in the sheet. The next morning our bus took us to the East India docks, but it was impossible to continue. The area was pulverized and some of the sights we saw made us positively ill. People living in that area lost everything; homes, families and sometimes, no doubt, their sanity. We had a discussion in the bus when we turned to go back to base. What were we doing feeling sorry for ourselves just because we were always tired, mostly cold and wet and afraid of killing someone when driving in the blackout? It was a good lesson for us. (Mrs. J's cucumber sandwiches at two or three in the morning were still very hard to take.) On arriving at our depot we found Jerry had been there too. Two ATS killed and one man.
Convoy work had its lighter moments. One day our convoy was going through a fair-sized village. The streets were narrow. Cars parked on the sidewalk. I was driving just behind Fenwick as we came to a bit of a bend in the street and on our right was a fish monger's shop. A nice striped awning reaching out over the sidewalk. Georgie tried to guide her truck between the awning on one side and a parked car on the other. She apparently thought she had managed, but, just behind her I saw the whole scenario - Fish monger jumping up and down on the sidewalk, shaking his fist and yelling blue murder and Georgie disappearing into the West happily ignoring all our honking, totally unaware of the awning flapping from the top rear of her truck. We didn't stop. Matters like that were attended to by the convoy escort.
Another time Fenwick broke down and I stopped to offer help. We started off again at a good pace trying to catch up with the convoy. As I whipped around a country corner, immediately in front of me at an intersection, was a small mini Austin, stopped on the road and another one just behind it. Both were full of children. It was too late to stop! The only route open to me was to cross the other lane, but a car was approaching. I headed straight across the road into a hedge, hit a pole and came to a sudden stop. The pole fell in slow motion landing against the frame of the roof just above my shoulder. Kind people in the nearby house took us in and offered us the British remedy for all occasions - tea. It was indeed just what was needed. Shortly the escort came along and dealt with the truck's removal. I rode with Fenwick as passenger. Apparently the two small Austins were transporting a group of pre-schoolers and had stopped to ask directions. At this time, because of the threat of invasion, all road signs and place names had been removed. The thought of what could have happened upset me more than the accident.
Some of our billets earned a laugh or two, but not at the time. Fenwick and I were lucky most times, but once I was shown my "room" in a hallway; a cupboard door resting on a couple of saw horses with a pallet for a mattress. Another girl was shown to her room which her hostess proudly announced as "Just as the dear BEF boys left it". Indeed it was - muddy sheets and all. People were paid for having us billeted and also there was a matter of ration coupons. There was a bit of gain to be made from them. We had a super billet at Shrewsbury. A Mrs. Stokes, on Berwick Road. She and her husband went out of their way to make two Canucks at home. We had a large bedroom with twin beds, telephone and a sitting room, overlooking the Mersey River. A maid brought us tea in bed every morning. Once we were in and out of Shrewsbury for two weeks - short trips. On time off we lay in the sun on the lawn which was like velvet, right to the river's edge. Paradise! Mr. Stokes died soon after the war - Mrs. Stokes moved to Devon and we corresponded long after the war up to the time she died.
One day on arrival back at Chiliwell there was a message for Fenwick and I to report to our ATS Company Officer which we did. We were told we had been chosen for an officer's training course at Edinburgh starting in October. Believe it or not we were too tired to celebrate, but Fenwick said, "At least it should be quieter up there." As it happened I hadn't been feeling well, so when I went to the M.O. my suspicions were confirmed. I was pregnant. I requested and got an immediate discharge knowing full well that bouncing around on lorries would be detrimental. Having lost a baby a couple of years back I didn't want to take any chances. Fenwick went up to Scotland alone. Finding a place to live was very difficult of course. Bill was still in Aldershot and there wasn't a thing to be had there, so I stayed with three spinster aunts in Redhill for awhile. It was very noisy, however it was as close as I could get to the Canadian Army. Many of the boys there were friends of ours from home, and the elderly aunts loved having them around, especially when they arrived with steaks, butter etc. and as there were raids incessantly, they felt safer too, with men around. One night an incendiary bomb fell on a house a few doors away. The three Canadian soldiers having dinner with us, ran out immediately to see if anyone needed help, and entered an upstairs room where an incendiary had set fire to a large feather bed. On their return we couldn't help laughing at their appearance. They were sooty and covered in feathers head to foot, looking like large crows.
They saved the house, though and the fire brigade finished the job. One of the boys Bud Graham from Comox, B.C., saw an incendiary on the front garden. He simply put his big foot down on it and drove it into the soft earth. It seemed that they were afraid of nothing. Bud was killed in Italy not too many months later.
On Oct. 29th I set out at 10 a.m. to go to Stratford-on-Avon, where a cousin lived. It took until after 7 p.m. to reach her house - trains late - re-routed - what a trip. But when I got there, Oh! the quiet! It was heaven. Cousin Joyce was so pleased to have me and she worked really hard to get me to decide to have the baby there. Apparently only the wealthy go to hospitals for child-birth. She hadn't been married too long and her husband was with the forces in the Middle East. She was very fond of children and had visions of looking after mine while I went back to the army. No way. This is what the army wanted - have the baby in the A.T.S. hospital and they raise it while you serve the rest of the war out - no way. Our officers were so kind though.
Meanwhile it was enjoyable at cousin Joyce's home. We attended many plays at the theatre and took long walks in the country, until November 14th - Coventry. There wasn't much in that city to warrant a raid but it was probably in retaliation for our bombing of Dresden. Coventry wasn't too heavily armed and what guns they had, seized up with constant firing. The raid lasted 12 1/2 hours - a bomb a minute was dropped - 1,000 killed and 10,000 injured. Those were the figures we heard next day. It was noisy enough in Stratford-on-Avon, no one could sleep and all the next day buses, lorries and all kinds of vehicles went through town with the injured. Poor Coventry, it really got blasted.
About this time Bill was sent to London and he started hunting for a flat for us. Finally he found an extra room in Chelsea, to live with another couple, and on Dec. 14 I arrived in London. That night there was a raid from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Bill was now in the Special Investigation Department and had to do a lot of night work, so on Dec. 21 he phoned to say he'd be on his way home and for me to go to Jack's basement suite and wait 10 minutes. Later a bomb fell and down came the skylight in the hall and every window broke. Bill was almost home when he had to dive into a doorway. His arms were full of Christmas parcels and were very much squashed.
Cousins of mine had a large farm near Saxmundham, Suffolk. They invited me to stay with them for awhile. Bill was pleased. He found it difficult to concentrate on night work while wondering what went on at "home". Sunday, Dec. 29, we took my luggage to Liverpool Street Station. That night there was another terrible raid, setting fire to the station. It was so smokey we almost choked, but finally got there next morning. The farm was close to the coast which was out of bounds. The beach was covered in acres of rolls of barbed wire. Lots of "tank traps" too. I spent 10 days there and very nearly froze to death. It was such a cold winter - below zero and with limited fuel to heat the small fireplaces in all the rooms of the large stone building! Most of the rooms were closed up as they were not in use.
I left Suffolk on January 9, 1941. Bill met me in London and we went down to an aunts at Redhill for the night. The aunties were holding Christmas parcels for me - presents for all! We celebrated with Christmas pudding - iced Christmas cake.
Bill and I had a back bedroom upstairs looking over the railway tracks and just after midnight a German plane flew low over the tracks strafing the row of houses, including the one we were in. But right on his tail was a Spitfire and he put finished to Jerry a few blocks farther on. Almost every night there were raids but somehow we managed without a SHELTER. A lot of baby knitting was done and we didn't spend many evenings alone. Two or three of the boys from camp came over, laden with gifts, rations, mostly ready to tease the aunties, who loved them dearly. It was a home away from home for them and they were homesick.
Bill was stationed in London now, in the S.I.D. and he sent a wire telling me to report to his company's M.O., Captain Conn, next day. I did, armed with a letter from my Canadian doctor, Dr. Harold, forwarding reports on my last pregnancy. He sent three sets of the reports a couple of weeks apart in case one set was lost (sunk) en route. Dr. Conn recommended my returning to Canada. I had enough money to pay my way wherever I stayed, but it wasn't sufficient to 'set up' house, and as kind as people were I had too independent a nature to "put upon them". Bill had seven days leave at this point which was just as well, as the flat we were going to take was blown to bits. So I stayed at the Loftus. Bill was on night duty and the next day we left London for Stratford-upon-Avon and my cousin's house. After a very peaceful week, back to London to 24 William IV Street where two other detectives of the S.I.D. had an apartment and Bill too, so I was invited to stay while I waited for my passage home to come through. It was quite a place. A huge office building. The flat was the only one in the building. There were no windows left. Openings were covered with heavy black paper reinforced with lath. The boys nearly always worked at night and mostly in civvies - there was Chester (can't remember his last name) and Gordon Ayre. Gordon was a Canadian who had come over before the war and was a London Bobby until hostilities broke out and then he joined the S.I.D. They wouldn't let me share expenses, so I had a steady job polishing shoes, buttons, pressing uniforms.
At night no one but myself and the air raid warden on duty on the roof occupied the building. But I wasn't alone. I had Michael Mouse. When the raids started I would put the light out (so the Jerries couldn't see me?) and sit in the dark. There was a lot of scratching and rustling of paper going on in the waste paper box. I turned my flashlight into it to see two bright little eyes looking at me! A wee mouse, feasting on crumbs from paper wrappings, from parcels sent from home. The poor wee mite was hungry. I crumpled some cheese bits into the box. He ate it all and then silently stole away. Eventually he felt safe enough to come out in the open for his supper. I was leaving the light on. He entertained me by running up the wooden base of a standard lamp which had a loose hanging cord. He'd hit the cord with his front foot and watch it swing, then smack it again. I wished I had a camera. He never stayed long enough but it was nice to know he was there. When the boys came in I told them. They wouldn't believe it, of course and just laughed it off. However, one morning Bill was sitting on a chair lacing his shoes. Along comes Michael. I shushed Bill to remain still. Fascinated by the laces Michael batted them around like a kitten would - now they had to believe me.
I took my passport into Capt. Goad he was getting myself and four other women a passage home. Fenwick sent 60 pounds for my fare home which I repaid into her Canadian bank account in Victoria. On Feb. 22 I collected my passport and exit permit from C.M.H.Q. and bought my FIRST CLASS ticket to Victoria - 65 pounds. I am ready to go, have a date to sail, then a cancellation. Finally on the morning of February 28 I'm off to Princes Parade docks for customs, censor, immigration etc. I boarded the S.S. Bayano (a banana boat 6,000 tons) at 2 p.m. Only 100 passengers. There are six of us at the doctor's table -four men and another woman - Dorothy McMahn. She had started out to Canada earlier on the City of Benares carrying evacuated children to Canada. The ship was torpedoed and sunk. Dorothy was a survivor.
On March 2 we depart and meet up with other ships, 38 in all and four destroyers. Slow going. 8 knots calm weather. We are the lead ship - Commodore of the Convoy aboard. Dorothy was naturally apprehensive, especially at 5 a.m. when we had a sub attack. No one was allowed to undress so when the alarm sounded one grabbed one's life jacket and anything else left handy to carry, such as a purse, and hurried up to our allotted boat deck. We were well-trained with lifeboat drill every day, so there was no confusion, noise, or turmoil - only pitch black. We stood around for a very long time. Four ships were sunk.
The next day we were moving at a fairly good clip and all went well until shortly after midnight, when the subs attacked again - two more ships hit. From then on it was every ship for herself - disperse. The weather deteriorated - it was very rough. Goodness knows where we were. We went through ice floes. At 5 p.m. we sighted land but had to anchor outside the harbour at 5:30 pm. till daylight. But it was so nice to see all the lights! It was two weeks to the day since boarding the S.S. Bayano and most of that spent completely dressed even to top coat.
The Rev. Michael Coleman gave a Thanksgiving service - he was just super on the trip. There was dancing and games for all those who wanted them, while we were at sea and he joined in the fun with his fruit juice in his hand, while all the others had liquor. Once we anchored the communications people came aboard to take messages from the passengers for relatives across Canada. It was great to be home again.
----- Doris Walker
Copyright 2006 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
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