Durban, South Africa
In Durban our huge convoy of thousands of soldiers and R.A.F. were greeted on the dockside by the welcoming singing of 'The Lady In White', an opera singer who gave all her best songs to all Allied troops passing through the port, and became renowned for this uplifting effort. As soon as I could in Durban, I went to the authorities with Jack Moreland, the sick voyager who I had looked after. He was gaunt and looked like death warmed up. I explained to the medical officer what had happened, and he told me that he would get a complete discharge. I know one thing; he would never make a sailor and was lucky to be alive.
Some of us who weren't going on to India with the convoy were taken to a huge tented camp (it was a hot Summer) on the outskirts of Durban, and made very welcome. We went into the city soon after arrival, to the marvellous 'Victoria Club' for the forces. The food (selection and quantity) was like we hadn't had since pre-war war, and a full fry-up was served by young ladies with complexions like peaches and cream, of course they had only heard about the war! We stayed the night at this club but couldn't sleep because of the heat, it didn't seem to get cool at all even though there were big fans in the roof, and we weren't used to the lovely climate. Back at the transit camp I put my name down for a British cricket team to play a South African regiment, newly arrived on leave from fighting in the North African Desert. The attraction for me was that the match was to be played on the Durban Test Match ground. It was not to be however; the next day a jeep came and took me down to the harbour, to board the Express. On the way to the docks the streets were lined with crowds of people cheering and waving flags. Not for me, but for the soldiers returning from the desert fighting, I felt like a VIP, kidding myself.
With my usual accoutrements, kit bag, hammock, and suitcase, I boarded the Destroyer saluting the quarterdeck, and reported to the 'buffer' (regulating Petty Officer). He allocated me to the Signalmen's Mess in the very sharp end of the ship and I was given my station card, for the starboard watch. The Express was just the Royal Navy fighting ship I had expected, Pom-Pom Ack-Ack guns, 4.5 inch guns, torpedoes at the ready, mine laying equipment at the stern, 2 funnels, and the famous H61 Pathé News number on her bows. She was painted in light tropical grey camouflage, and looked lovely, reflected in the water in the strong South African sun.
Two or three chaps came into the mess deck while I was sorting my gear out, wanting to know who I was, and what was happening in England, especially the bombing. One chap, Able Seaman Jack Farrington, was delighted when he found out I was from Birmingham, as he was from Handsworth, and we soon got together. He was known on board as 'The Major' because he liked marching up and down to loud organ music. This was only natural because he was formerly a cinema projectionist at the 'Odeon' New Street, Birmingham.
He was also the carer of the ships mascot 'A.B' Nuisance, a large black and white dog who did nothing aboard ship, only his business!
I soon got to know the rest of the lads and heard first hand the epic stories of the tragic sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse and how they cared for survivors, with blankets and hot drinks! 'Jacko', one of the signalmen had helped a seaman out of the water and given him his own dry clothes, hammock, and rum with hot drinks. It transpired that the survivor worked at one of the same Co-ops as 'Jacko', and when he told his story to their monthly magazine he never even mentioned his rescuer, there's gratitude for you! They also told me of the horrors of the battle of the Java Sea, and how they had to lie flat and silent all night laying mines to trap the Japanese warships when they left.
I asked about shore leave in Durban that day, I wanted some more of that tasty fare. Yes, you could have leave, but as it was after midday you had to be dressed in full white tropical rig with blue badges. Well off I went in mine feeling like an 'Ansells Barman'. On my way out through the dockyard to get to the town, striding alongside me was a Royal Navy Lieutenant, also in white. He turned out to be Lt. Sandow, Signal Officer of the Express, my officer in charge. He asked me a few questions, Radar Mechanics were a new luxury, and then told me he was going to the Ballet, and was I going? Would I care to share his taxi? The polite answer was "No thank you, Sir" on all counts.
In Durban all service men were making for this fine 'Victoria Club' and me too! After a 'Full House' meal I again stayed the night, but had hardly any sleep, as it was too hot, but it was a relief to get that 'Tropical White' suit off. I vowed there and then never to go out after midday, but in the morning wearing shorts.