|Contributed on:||10 January 2006|
End June, 1942
I nearly faced a Court Martial today. It happened because yesterday afternoon I needed a Top Secret file and had it booked out to me. I extracted some information and put the file back in the wire tray for filing. This morning someone else needed the file. It was not in its correct place, nor was it still in the filing tray. The file had disappeared and I was the last person known to have had it.
I spent a long morning in acute apprehension while the military police conducted a thorough search and found nothing. It only ended when one of the typists got up to go to lunch and exclaimed, "Oh, I forgot. I've been sitting on it. My seat was too low and I borrowed it to sit on."
* * * * *
El Alamein: 3rd July, 1942: The Afrika Corps advance towards Cairo has been halted by sandstorms, air attacks and carefully placed British artillery.
* * * * *
April, 1945From the East the Russians are reclaiming their homeland and pushing on at speed towards Germany. From the West Allied Forces, by land, sea and air are liberating large swathes of occupied Europe and racing towards the Third Reich. All over Scandinavia and the Continent there is rejoicing and agents all over Europe are making contact in plain language instead of coded morse. There is an air of jubilation and in the middle of this, one morning, my telephone rang. It was one of the men in London with whom I had worked on the end of the telephone.
"Hello" he said. "Are you doing anything next time the Packard comes to town?"
'No. I hadn't thought of anything. I think it's going up on Thursday.'
"Yes. Well, we've worked together for a while and we've never met. We're just voices on the telephone. We've decided we must do something to celebrate and we want to take you out for lunch. Can you come?"
'Oh, I'd love to. What a brilliant idea!'
"We'll meet you where the utility docks. Good. Look forward to it."
When the comfortable old Packard reached the end of its journey in central London and its passengers disembarked I found five naval officers waiting for me in a group. They were tall and handsome young men, impeccably smart, and they had decided upon lunch at the Berkeley. A car was waiting.
I had never set foot before in one of London's most prestigious hotels and, after five years of fire and flood and bombardment, the comfort and the quiet efficiency were magical.
We had a wonderful lunch with much chat and laughter and when coffee and liqueurs had brought it to an end, the senior officer looked at his watch and said, "It's a lovely afternoon. We've got an hour or so yet. Why don't we have a walk in the park?"
We stepped forth into the sunshine and walked in two groups to St. James' Park. There, people were feeding the ducks, lying on the grass, sitting chatting; green willows leaned towards the lake, nannies pushed prams and little boys rode small bicycles. It was a pre-war summer scene.
But I was aware of a curious sensation round my waist. Something was coming loose. In a few more paces I realised what it was. My knickers! The elastic must have gone and they were gradually slipping down. Help! In a reflex jerk I put my hand on my companion's sleeve and slowed him to a halt.
"Could you bend down?" He did so and I whispered in his ear, conscious of the blood rushing up my cheeks. 'Oh my!' he exclaimed, 'Stand right here. Don't move.'
I stood. He strode off and joined his friends. They all stopped and had an earnest discussion without the flicker of a smile. Then they all came walking back to me and without a word formed a circle with their backs towards me while I thankfully stepped out of my panties and stashed them in my shirt pocket. Then we all set off again as though nothing untoward had happened, and I thought, and still think, what gentlemen they were.
Early February, 1945:
Since our return from the London course I am feeling that life as we knew it is ending here. So many people are being transferred to other places and the underground movements on the Continent are coming to the surface and there is very little to do here now. One morning I asked if I could see Pop. He sat behind his big desk and smiled at me kindly.
"And what can I do for you?"
'Well, Pop, the trouble is that I haven't anything much to do now. I wondered whether I could be sent somewhere where there's still a war going on?'
His smile broadened and his eyes twinkled. "Leave it with me. I'll see what I can do. Come and see me in a week's time."
A week later I sat in front of him again. "Well now, Evelyn, there's only one place where someone is needed and that is Calcutta. That would be the same job as you are doing now but concerning Burma." He beamed at me and then said, "But I advise you not to go. Calcutta's an awful place. Steamy heat. And you'll get cholera and that microbe that starts in your toe and eats its way up your bones. Much better stay here."
But I was not to be deflected. Microbe or no, Calcutta was better than boredom and Pop reluctantly agreed to let me go.
By April 1945 I was ready to depart for India.
At Hurn Airport I had the first glimpse of the Sunderland flying boat which was to take me to India. She lay tranquilly on the water, small but sturdy, and I felt that we should all be perfectly safe and that she would get us there. There were twelve of us on board — officers of mixed rank and services — and I was the only girl and perhaps the only AT in India, or so I had been told. We each had a single seat beside a window so there was an unrestricted view of the scene below. Where there was something of particular interest the pilot came down lower so that we could see better. Towards late afternoon we arrived at Bahrain and were taken ashore by dinghy and that night I had the first sensation of sleeping under a mosquito net in real heat. The following night we spent in Cairo, the one after that in Karachi; then came the flight across the great continent of India where the pilot came down low so that we could see the herds of animals stampeding away from the noise of the engine. Finally we reached Calcutta, came down on the Hooghli, were transferred ashore and conveyed to the railway station where I was being met and my fellow passengers could take trains to wherever they were going. I think we were all sorry when the journey ended. As they shook hands to say farewell, each one asked again if I would be alright and could safely be left and were reassured before they walked away, leaving me on a seat by the station entrance where I could see and be seen.
For a while I sat peacefully waiting to be collected and watching with interest the family groups sitting on the floor of this great station foyer and feeling the strangeness of life in a continent on the other side of the world. After a while, though, I began to feel uneasy. It was over an hour since we had arrived. I was entirely alone in this enormous city where I knew no-one, and the only clue I had to where I was meant to be was a set of initials. I had no idea what they stood for.
As the minutes ticked by and no-one came I began to think about what to do. On the station I had noticed a sign saying "RTO", standing for "Railway Transit Officer" and was on the point of going to seek his help when I saw, to my relief, one of the army officers who had been a passenger on the Sunderland. He was walking towards the station exit when he saw me and came over with a look of surprise.
"Hello! You're still here! I thought you said you were being collected?"
'Yes, I thought I was, but no-one's come.'
"Oh Lord! Well, I've got a jeep outside. I'll take you. Where are you going?"
'I don't know.'
His face expressed wry disbelief. "Haven't you got any address?"
'No. Only some initials.'
"What are they?"
I told him. His face cleared. "Well, you're in luck. I should think I'm the only man in Calcutta, outside your own outfit, who knows what they stand for. And what's more, I know where they are. Come on, I'll get you there."
We sped off in the jeep, through the bustling streets, where rickshaws competed with cars, overloaded buses, army transport and the defensive gestures of policemen on platforms desperately trying to control it all. In time this gave way to a residential area where large houses and gardens lined the roads. At one of these we stopped and rang the bell. The door was opened by a white clad youth and in the hall behind him I saw the familiar, portly figure of Major Sharpe, my colleague from Whaddon. Oh the relief!
Once assured that I was safe and in the right place my rescuer drove away and Sharpie led me into a comfortable room and sent for some refreshment. He seemed very surprised to see me. "I thought you were due to arrive next week" he said, "I'd no idea you were coming today."
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