We were dropped on the quay near the old wooden hulk of the 'Cormorant', I was the last of the crowd to go over the side and George and Frank were waiting to wish me farewell, for they were to go to barracks and I was bound once more for hospital. The lads would soon be taken back to England, I was to await a Medical Officer's report before I could hope to see home again.
I sat on a bollard to await the ambulance and I felt very lonely, all those who I had known were now as far away as if a thousand miles separated us. The ambulance was not long coming, just enough to allow me to think, no longer would I be the only wounded one among a group of survivors, I was now one of the thousands of war-wounded and would filter through the hospitals. Sic transit ...
Such is the protocol of the reception of wounded in the services that I was not even allowed to walk up the quay to the ambulance, oh no! I had to lie on a stretcher and be duly carried, I should now be sent to bed until permitted by the MO to use my legs again.
Already inside the ambulance were a corporal of Marines and a Naval rating, the corporal due for treatment for cartilage trouble and the rating for the removal of his appendix.
It was the corporal who told me that there were some ships in the harbour due to return to England, I realised that I would be lucky if I saw George, Frank or Arkinstall again.
It was nearing dusk when we arrived at the main Military Hospital, the duty Officer was a Major Crawford, tall, well-built, ginger-haired and very pleasant. While a clerk took the usual particulars: name, number, rank, etc., the Major chatted to us. He wanted to know why I was in civilian clothing, when I explained to him that I was a survivor he, of course, wanted to know the whole story. Halfway through the yarn he took out his cigarette case, extracted a cigarette and offered me the case. I was dying for a smoke and accepted gratefully.
When I had finished the tale, Major Crawford asked the others if they had ever seen a man go mad, they all said they had not, "Neither have I," he said. Turning to me he said, "You've had an experience few men go through." He went on to say that he doubted if I should be operated on while in Gibraltar, he expected that I would be sent home to England and in due course invalided out of the Navy. The decision to send me home had to come from Major D'Abreu, who was apparently the senior surgeon.
A sick berth attendant came in with a wheelchair and I was quietly whisked away to the now darkened ward, only the pilot light gave a dim glow as I was shepherded to a bed. In the bed on my left lay a prone figure, moaning and muttering. I asked the attendant what ailed this patient. "Oh he'll go quiet about two o'clock," he replied. He was right, I woke up in the night to see quiet figures lifting the now silent form onto a trolley and wheel it away, he had died in the early hours. He had been a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy, torpedoed while in convoy, he had been in the water for a little while and had swallowed some diesel oil. The result was inflamed lungs and eventually death. These details were furnished by the occupant of the bed on my right.
Early next morning, after Sister had done her rounds, I was visited by a Catholic Padre; he wanted to know if I needed anything. I felt bound to tell him that I was not of his faith, he grinned at me, "It won't worry me if it doesn't worry you, old man," and away he went to bring me toothbrush, soap, cigarettes, razor and blades and a Gibraltarian pound note. He also left a message for the Church of England Padre, who came later in the day; I wished afterwards that I had settled for the Catholic.
Later the same morning Major D'Abreu examined my leg, and passed judgement, "I suppose you fancy going home laddie," he said, looking at me quizzically. I did not wish to appear too eager, on the other hand I did not fancy spending months incarcerated in hospital, so I gave some hopeful reply and he continued on his rounds. It was the following morning the Major gave me the good news, he told me they were sending me home for further operations on my leg. This of course was my official release from my recumbent posture. I was in this ward for a further fortnight and therefore able to move around and chat to some of the other men.
Three days had passed and many of the beds were empty, men had improved and left their sickbeds for other patients to use when needed. It was late one afternoon when Sister and her assistants started bustling round, preparing and tidying beds. One of the lads who was a long term resident said, "Some convoy has run into trouble." Sure enough he was right, late that night they were brought in; there had been six empty beds, now there were none. As I was able to move around I visited the newcomers to see if any of them were awake. One who most impressed me was Billy Bell, a Glasgow lad. He lay in bed, stiff, maimed, his right arm broken in two places, his lower left leg also broken as well as the upper bones of his right leg. His greeting was typical, "Got a fag?" I lit one for him and placed it in his mouth. He could move his left arm and after a few hefty draws on the cigarette he removed it from his mouth. I then went to the kitchen to get him a drink, Sister met me at the office, "Who have you been talking to?" she asked. I told her and said that Billy was having a fag, she smiled approvingly, "He'll be alright," she said and poured him a large glass of glucose.
When I returned with the drink Billy told me of his adventures. He was the gunner aboard a corvette, they had been in escort to a convoy, Nazi torpedo bombers had attacked them and brisk action had taken place. Their corvette had been struck by a torpedo and the hit had been directly beneath Billy's gun platform, the shock had knocked him unconscious. The order was given to abandon ship, someone in their attempt to take to the side had trodden on Billy, the pain brought him round and he had struggled along the deck and slid over the side. It was not until he had been dragged into the long boat that he realised he was injured, but he was now in hospital and content. Billy did not regard himself as possessing courage, there was a war on and boys acted the part of men and men admired.
We who were British were not alone in the battle against Nazism, it was not we alone who suffered, also in the ward there arrived a Dutch submarine Petty Officer, his name was Piet de Klerk. I first noticed that the Doctor, on his rounds, seemed to be having a little trouble making himself understood. He was talking to Piet in German, which most Dutch understand perfectly. Eventually a Dutch Officer was brought in and the Doctor was then able to make his diagnosis.
It later became known that Piet understood German perfectly but would not converse in that language, the Dutch had sworn never to use the German language after the invasion of Holland. Piet's hatred of the Nazis was equalled only by his contempt of the Italians. It appeared he was suffering from appendicitis and his unwillingness to talk to the doctor may well have cost him his life.
As was often the case with our allies, Piet had picked up quite a little stock of English words. Unfortunately ninety percent of them were swear words, our conversations therefore were spicy if not progressive. There would be times when Piet would give vent to a phrase and then ask, "Is it a good word Alpret?" He never did learn to pronounce my name correctly.
Piet was a member of the crew of the Dutch naval submarine O.24, this sub and the O.20 were stationed in the Dutch East Indies and on the invasion of Holland had sailed for England. They were now based in Gibraltar, their sub had sunk one or two Italian ships and they were happy to be in action.
The British Admiralty, ever cautious, had asked for proof of the sinkings so, the next journey out, the O.20 had sunk another Italian vessel and unusually picked up survivors. On return to Gibraltar they had sent a message that they had proof of a sinking. When the officials arrived to check they found the Italians dead, the smell of cordite still in the air. The Captain had kept them alive until they reached port, he did not want dead bodies on his sub, on the other hand he had no intention of keeping Italians alive for too long. The Admiralty did not ask for further proof of any sinkings.
In hospitals one is constantly surprised at the ability of young bodies to recover from the most terrible wounds. I was to see during my tour of various hospitals the many types of patient the nursing profession has to deal with. The quiet suffering types, the nervy ones, the brave and the unbrave, and in this ward I was to see one of the brave. I had now been moved out to the verandah which ran along the one side of the ward, about halfway down. In the bed by the doors there was a Petty Officer RN, he was in a pretty bad way, he had been aboard a destroyer which had been torpedoed and he had had to swim for it through blazing oil. He now sat propped up in bed, his face once bearded and moustached was now cindery black, his chest burnt by oil, matted and suppurating, his eyes had a dead flat look to them and he never moved.
I thought of him as a man already dead, the nurses fed him with spoons of white pulp and dashed on to their next patient. I would go along to him and brush the ever present flies away and draw down the gauze screen. Then one day his bed was empty, he had been moved to another ward, one that we referred to as the "Death Cells". According to popular belief those who went in did not come out alive. Imagine my amazement some weeks later seeing an apparently young PO enter the ward and approach me. Introducing himself he was my badly burned Petty Officer. His burns, untreated due to his low condition had healed wonderfully, his scars had peeled away, leaving beneath a clean, pink baby skin, only his elbows were cracked and these would heal in time.
I was delighted to see him; he told me that he had been determined not to die and for proof here he was. "I remember you," he said, "You were the bloke who kept those damned flies off me." We grinned at each other and shook hands. His awareness of me while he had been far gone was strange and astonishing but not unusual; Billy Bell had been aware of the events aboard the corvette, even though his shipmates had thought him to be dead. I too had recollected that George and Frank had visited me on the Cabo de Hornos, though George swore afterwards that I was delirious and could have recognised no one. I think that in times of severe illness or injury some other perception comes to the fore, even though sight and other senses are dimmed.
One morning while we still lay in bed, there was a hustle and bustle going on, the ward orderlies dashed round straightening beds and tidying everything in sight. The reason was apparent in a very short time.
Through the top entrance came the Colonel, the Surgeon in Charge of the hospital, and with him a red-faced man in the uniform of an Admiral of the Navy.
"Blimey," said the chap in the next bed, "Admiral Somerville," and indeed it was. Somerville, the sailor's Admiral, bluff, tough and always spoiling for action, here was the man who loved fighting ships and all the men who sailed them.
He spoke to the man in the next bed and then came to mine, "So you were bitten by a shark, eh?" He waited for me to fill him in with the details and when I had finished he said, "By God boy, you'll have a tale to tell your grandchildren," and away he went to talk to some of the other chaps.
Soon after the Admiral's visit a photographer came to see me, he was the official photographer to the hospital. My wound was to be entered in the official records; apparently it was the first of its kind known so far. I was tempted to ask the photographer for a copy, but why did I need a copy if I had the original?