The doctor had decided that I was now merely waiting transit back to England, I would be sent to a rest camp to await my berth aboard ship. The section of the camp that I was moved to was for those of us who were recovering either from wounds or operations.
It was here that I met with Piet de Klerk once again; he remembered that I had seen to his cigarette supply while in the main hospital and duly became a good friend.
Three or four Italian merchant seaman survivors were also stationed at the camp and, as before, Piet conceived a real hate for them. Seeing them just walking down the road was enough to raise his hackles.
One day he borrowed one of my walking sticks and strolled after the Italians during their midday saunter, I could foresee the events of the next few minutes and called for him to come back, but he pretended not to hear me. Fortunately the camp doctor saw him and ordered him back to camp. Piet confessed afterwards that his intention had been to get as near as he could to the I-ties and give them a little corrective stick work. I kept my sticks close to me after that.
One of the characters of the camp was a Liverpudlian, by name of Tanzy. He was up to all the tricks by which a serviceman might enlarge his income. He came to my bed one night; I had not long turned in. "Hey Sharkey," he called, "I'm in trouble." Knowing Tanzy this was sure to be a fact.
He told me his story: he had bought a bottle of Aquadiente, the Spanish firewater, from one of the Spanish workmen. It was a major offence for British servicemen to posses this fiery liquid; Tanzy really was in trouble. He had hoped to take it back to England with him, which was a foolish idea as apparently the senior sergeant of the camp had got wind of the scheme and was on Tanzy's trail. I advised him to drop the bottle onto the rocks outside the hut, then, when the sergeant checked, Tanzy would not have the incriminating evidence. He hesitated, but I pressed the argument. He still hesitated because he hated to part with anything without making a profit. I pointed out that possession of a bottle of Aquadiente was liable to get him ninety days in the glasshouse. Tanzy was eventually convinced and a few moment after he left me I heard the shatter of glass against rock; I heaved a sigh of relief.
Later I heard the sergeant lecturing my errant friend, he was satisfied on seeing the spilt liquid, but warned Tanzy to watch his step in future. It was a chastened but relieved man who greeted me the following day.
Piet de Klerk and I filled in the days by polishing up his English, and when fellow members of his submarine visited him and brought tinned fruit and cigarettes he would share them with me. To my eventual relief the Italian survivors were moved. Piet now relaxed, his vigilance over them was ended. We both vowed to write to one another but, like most wartime promises, the vow was broken. I often wonder if Piet came through the war safely.
After many days of lazing about, chasing the Gibraltarian lizards, throwing stones at the large repulsive looking spiders which haunted the rocks, we were told to be ready to move.
Army lorries conveyed us to the docks, there in the harbour were the ships HMS King George V and HMS Edinburgh, with many smaller craft in attendance. Our party, which was quite a large one, was split up and I was detailed to the Edinburgh. The Master at Arms found me a spot in one of the mess decks, number seven to be exact; this was to be my home for the passage to England.
The leading hand was, like me, a Birmingham man and he and my new messmates had to hear my yarn. After I had finished relating my story to them the leading hand, naturally called 'Hookey', said, "You'll be alright here mate." I knew I had found a good mess.
The Edinburgh was packed to overflowing with passengers returning to the UK. Many of us slept on the deck, this was no discomfort, the thought of returning home was all the compensation we needed.
That first night I slept like a log and when I woke we were heading out through the Straits of Gibraltar. The Edinburgh sailed alone, she was bound for England and home and her turbines were working at full speed. She seemed to sense our urgency, nothing would stop her.
We passengers were kept busy trying to keep out of the way of the crew, who were forever bustling about, with a ship as full as this one there was plenty to do.
The Edinburgh turned into the Bay of Biscay and, meeting heavier seas, she began to roll. Many of the Army personnel began to feel the effects; some of the Navy also had delicate stomachs. I noticed there were fewer seated for meal times.
On the following day, with the ship still pitching and rolling, we sat down to a typical rich navy stew. When the mess kid arrived at our table three army passengers left; Hookey started dishing out and four more of the mess decided they would wait until teatime. Just at this moment a soldier hastening to the upper deck could contain himself no longer and threw up just before he got to our table. There was immediately a general exodus.
Hookey and I faced each other over a large kid of stew. "You alright?" he asked. I had missed too many meals on the raft to be finicky, "I'm waiting for you to dish it out," I told him. He laughed out loud, "Hang on mate; I'll get some bigger plates."
He took great delight, later, in telling the other lads what a grand stew it had been. I'm afraid his reminiscences were not appreciated.
Three days had elapsed and the Irish coast came into view. We all lined the rail to watch as we sailed on. It was near noon when we berthed at Greenock and the usual noises of the bustle of a ship berthing filled the air. One or two of the lads in our mess were getting ready to go ashore. Ginger, who sported a real Captain Kettle beard, combed perfume into his adornment. Catching my eye he grinned, "The girls like it." I wished him well and he proceeded with his toilet, aided by a ribald comment from Hookey.
We passengers were ushered to waiting lorries. Some other service personnel and I were on our way to hospital once more.
A Petty Officer who was in charge of the party halted the lorry en route, with good reason: he had spotted a public house. We were, on this occasion, a nimble lot of cripples. I was not the first inside but I was certainly not the last. Greatly refreshed we proceeded on our way.
The hospital at which we arrived was called Mearnskirk, and we were well received by the staff. Our few days' stay was made very pleasant by reason of having sunny weather and the gentle care of soft-voiced Scots nurses.
A Surgeon Commander RNVR gave us the news that we were to be moved again. He was as reasonable as possible; each man was sent to the military hospital nearest his own home. The commander looked at me, "I'm sorry old man, there's no naval hospital in Birmingham, you'll have to go to Haslor, Portsmouth." There was no alternative, to Haslor I had to go.
We started the following afternoon, our train left from Central Station, Glasgow, and was due out at 11.00 pm. Prior to leaving, a Petty Officer and I spent the last two hours tipping up the whisky bottle to protect us against the chill of travelling.
I slept nearly all the way on this journey to the south of England. Eventually the long haul to Portsmouth drew to a close; we slowed down as the train approached Pompey. Many of the chaps were Portsmouth men and they crowded the windows as we slowly drew into the station. A savage quiet gripped them as they surveyed the bomb devastated ruins. The comments were vitriolic and vengeful.
Those of us who were bound for hospital gathered together and made our way to the jetty to await the cutter from the main hospital at Haslor. When it arrived, to my amazement, the first man to get off was Lt Cox; we looked at one another in surprise. The Lt broke the silence, "Good God, have you only just got back?" He with the others had of course travelled faster than me. We chatted for a few seconds and then boarded the cutter. I was to read, later, his tale in the London Illustrated. Knowing Lt Cox and the soldier's dislike of the sea, I could have imagined his story, "Sharks my boy, the bloody sea was full of them."
The reception office at Haslor put us through the usual routine: name, rank, when wounded, where wounded, are you hungry? I realised I was back in England when we were issued with gasmasks. O England, my England!
Once more to bed, to allow official permission to be given for me to walk. Our surgeon was once more a Naval Commander, strict, meticulous, efficient and under his hard exterior a kind and gentle man.
His entry into the ward was auspicious. Making his rounds he spotted a minute bit of fluff under one of the beds. "Growing tomatoes, Sister?" he asked, without taking his eyes off the small speck. Sister made no comment but a warm tide of colour suffused he cheeks. I had expected another battle of Culloden, but the incident passed.
He came to my bed and examined my leg closely. He asked how I felt; I told him I had been mobile for some time.
"Have you been home yet, laddie?"
"Then I'm sending you home at once for a fortnight."
The following day I appeared on Commander's request to hear him grant leave.
From the hospital I was sent to barracks and there I had to wait overnight before I could proceed. At long last I was on my way to the station, on my way home. The journey dragged, the wheels were surely in reverse. At last the old sight of Birmingham came into view. Leaving the train I was fortunate in getting a taxi, "62 Clarence Road, Erdington," I told the driver, and relaxed back in the seat. The Birmingham I passed through had been well bombed and I wondered if all was well at home. I sat up and looked eagerly at the old familiar streets flashing by.
'Home, home, home like a singing bird'.
The taxi pulled up in front of that familiar door, number 62, and I was soon out and hammering on the knocker. I waited and waited and waited for what seemed like hours and my heart sank to my boots. My God, after all this time of waiting and hoping and longing to be here, there was nobody at home to greet me. I was just about to turn away and the door opened. Vera's young brother opened it wider, "Hello Bill," I said. He looked at me half awake, I didn't realise at the time but he was working nights and my knocking had brought him from his bed. "Where's Vera?" I asked. He told me that she had gone to the local picture house with her mother. I had told no one I was coming home; I knew how easy it was for wartime leave to be cancelled at the last minute.
I went round to the cinema and asked if they would notify my wife of my arrival, but I was told that the main feature had started and so my request was declined. I was tired and in no mood to argue or tell them my life story. I made my way back to my mother's house, hoping for a better reception. My journey was not in vain for I was met at the door by my mother; I was hugged, kissed, patted and made much of. "But where's Vera?" mother wanted to know. When I told her, my sister in law Ivy waxed indignant. Hurtling into a coat she dashed round to the picture house to see the manager and put a flea in his ear.
It seemed a long time before I heard footsteps on the path. Mother opened the door and there she was: my wife of such a short time. She smiled and the tears filled her eyes. I was overcome with emotion myself and hard put to control my own tears. Vera put her arms round me and I knew I was really home at last.