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Memoirs of a Nonagenarian. Chapter 6: My WWII Train Journey Across South Africa
Dining Car on a South African Train circa 1940
WW2 Wireless Radio Communications
I was onshore in Durban in November 1943, undergoing training in HR/DF telegraphy at the HMS Assegai Combined Operations Signals School whilst I waited to be posted to my next ship, when I saw an urgent notice which asked for volunteers to come forward for posts on ‘a safe but lonely island’. I figured that my luck at sea wouldn’t last for much longer, so I jumped at the chance of the posting. Who, at the age of nineteen, and in my position, wouldn’t? After the briefest interview, I was hastily promoted to the rank of Leading Telegraphist and my pay increased to three shillings and threepence per day. I was instructed to pack my kit and be ready to move at first light.
At dawn the next day, in an atmosphere of deep secrecy, a small group of around twelve of us was loaded into a truck. The nervous silence was almost palpable. I had anticipated that we would be driven to the docks but we were transported to the railway station and ushered on board a sleeper train. South African troops and their kit were packed tightly into every available space and corridor in the train. Our group was ushered into reserved compartments, each of which had four couchettes. The Official Secrets Act was hurriedly read out to us, followed by a stern warning that we were now bound by the Act, and the train set off.
A few hours and several hundred miles down the track my stomach was starting to signal that it needed something solid when an African attendant in a pristine white uniform knocked on the door, announced that dinner was being served, and asked if we would like to be shown to our tables. My travelling companion ‘Cockney’ and I lurched after him to an elegant dining car and were shown to a table already occupied by a South African Air Force pilot and his wife. We were introduced to them as ‘British Navy’ and edged into our seats.
‘Strike a light! All these knives ‘n fawks!’ bellowed Cockney into the hushed carriage. ‘Which do we use first’?
I felt my already hot face reddening. South African Pilot’s Wife flashed a sympathetic smile towards me and murmured ‘Start from the outside and work inwards’.
I had never before experienced anything like that meal. I had been raised on a staple diet of bread and dripping for breakfast and sheep’s-head broth with dumpling for supper. Now I was being served a five-course silver-service dinner, with wine, by servants of the South African Railway. More cosseting was to follow: when we crawled back to our compartment after an evening of carousing with the expat passengers in the dining car (who had plied us with drinks as an incentive to interminably sing folk songs from their homeland) we fell into beds had already been made up for us, the starched white linen sheets turned back in readiness for our first night on the train.
It transpired that we had embarked on a journey of more than 1200 miles that took five days and nights to complete, passing through the Orange Free State, making a steep climb to Bethlehem, 5600 feet above sea level, where the train paused briefly for the guards to throw out mail bags. When the temperature approached 80 degrees Fahrenheit I opened the window to let in some air. An hour later and further along the line the train was forced to make an unscheduled stop because one of our chaps was suffering from anaphylactic shock. It was rumoured that he was suffering from peach fever, which I supposed was a form of hay fever, as a consequence of pollen that had been blown into the carriage. He was taken off for emergency medical treatment and the train moved on to Bloemfontein without him.
Route of my Rail Journey from Durban to Cape Town
At Bloemfontein we had a couple of hours to kill whilst the engines were swapped. The Senior Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge shoved his way through the crowded corridor, issuing a permission to dismount from the train -with a warning tagged on:
’You can stretch your legs here for a couple of hours. But stay in large groups and don’t get involved with the locals. A lot of the folk here support Hitler.
Around eighty men uniformed men disembarked from the train and broke up into small groups. Our party ducked into the nearest bar.
‘By God, it’s good to see some friendly faces,’ exclaimed a ginger haired man with a strong Scottish accent, rubbing his hands together as he stepped from behind his bar to shake each of us by the hand. He introduced himself as a Scottish Highlander who had been settled in Bloemfontein since the twenties. We were soon sitting together around a large table, bottles of whisky and rum in front of us.
Our host glanced around to make sure that nobody was eavesdropping and leant forward on the table to speak in a low voice.
‘These are dangerous times for Brits in the Orange Free State. The Afrikaners set up the Ossewabrandwag, a paramilitary organisation; anti-British and pro-German. Stick together while you’re in town and avoid getting into a scrap.’
We decided to finish our drinks and get back to the train before we found ourselves in bother. Trying to appear nonchalant we walked at a brisk pace past the shaven-headed local boys.
Able Seaman Just Nuisance
At the end of a five- day drunken journey, we were nursing bad hangovers as the train pulled into Simonstown. Craning his neck from a window, Cockney suddenly yelled out,
“Bleedin' ell! Look at that animal! It’s a bleedin’ monster.”
‘The dog’s friendly’, said the bloke crammed up next to him in the corridor. ‘It’s Just Nuisance. He’s friendly - 'specially to our lot, 'cause we feed 'im’.
The dog was a Great Dane who had befriended sailors once he had caught on that they would feed him and take him for walks. He jumped on trains with them and travelled back and forth, up and down the Simonstown to Cape Town line. Some say it was to make sure that the lads got back to ship unharmed after a drunken night on the town. He had a habit of escorting men up the gangplank and planting himself at the top - causing a massive obstruction for the crew to navigate. That’s what earned him the name Nuisance – the dog stood six feet six inches on his hind legs and was impossible to shift if he didn’t want to move. But despite being a nuisance he became a mascot. When officials of the South African Railway Company eventually became irritated by him travelling on the trains and suggested that he would have to be put down the Navy, in typical style, came up with a solution. The dog was enlisted as Able Seaman Nuisance and given the first name Just. His status as a serving member of the forces ensured that he was entitled to free public transport and he continued to travel up and down the line with the lads. But despite the glowing reports I still took care to steer clear of Just Nuisance.
Later in the war I heard through the grapevine that Just Nuisance died at the Royal Naval Hospital in April 1944 and that he was buried with full military honours.
Just Nuisance Grave
The train journey from Cape Town to Simonstown took just over an hour. Just Nuisance would regularly accompany men who had been to town on a pass back to base.
We had to wait around in Simonstown for seven days before our ship came in. In the meantime, we were allocated berths in HMS Thames, an ancient hulk that had recently been used as a training centre for South African cadets. A week on the rotting ship was not a high point in our journey. The experience was made even worse when we were ordered to spend an entire day loading coal from rowing boats on to the ship. Our ship eventually came in and we boarded the merchant trailer Eastgate which would carry us, God willing, to our unknown destination – a safe, but lonely island - wherever that might be.
Now Read Earlier Chapters of Memoirs of a Nonagenarian
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Memories of a ninety-year old man who joined the Royal Navy, and left a small market town to became a telegraphist on a secret monitoring station situated on the world's most remote inhabited island