Tales from End to End
A Freedom Tale from Sierra Leone
by Alistair Lawson
After the withdrawal from Dunkirk in 1940, it became apparent that the new war was not going to be resolved simply by sending an Expeditionary Force across the Channel for a brief engagement. Faced with a new and more serious set of imperatives, additional recruits – and volunteers – were sought. My father was one of those who responded.
After a period of basic Infantry training, he was transferred to the Royal Artillery, on the questionable Army logic that his training as an accountant and alleged aptitude for figures would make him useful at calculating angles of elevation, trajectories, fall of shot and the like. After further training, his unit were given embarkation leave, during which I was conceived, following which they reported to Southampton and were issued with desert kit.
Whereas the modern tourist, wishing to see a pyramid or two, is whisked directly from Britain to Egypt in a matter of 5 hours, comfortable air travel was not on offer to the troops in the 1940s – nor was comfortable anything, judging by reports of troopship conditions. A direct journey was likewise not on offer, as the waters of the Mediterranean were well patrolled by the navies of both Italy and Germany. The route to the Western Desert was, therefore, via the Cape and the Red Sea, but not before making an inordinate detour to the west, almost to the coast of Brazil, to avoid the U-boat packs in the North Atlantic and get out of their range. While cruising in the Tropics possibly had some attractions, those were worrying times, the enemy being unseen, unheard and unassailable until it was too late.
Having made such a long detour to the south-west, the troopships had used up most of their fuel and needed to put in to one of Britain’s West African colonies in order to refuel. For the troops, the first sight of Africa was Freetown harbour in Sierra Leone. One of the few wartime stories which we later heard was of the immense sense of freedom from the constant worry about the torpedo which might, at any moment, already be on its way. Freetown certainly lived up to its name in that sense.
The remainder of the journey was relatively carefree, aside of course from the distant worry about battle, which would be a first experience for almost everyone on board.
That experience duly became reality in the Western Desert of Egypt and Libya – an odd sort of reality for the Gunners, who didn’t see the enemy but simply hoped to pound them into submission before they themselves were pounded into submission. Enemy shells were like enemy torpedoes, unseen until it was too late. Worry was graded on a scale determined by whether one was facing Rommel’s best German troops or facing their generally ineffective Italian allies. Freedom this time came in the form of being withdrawn from the desert for redeployment to the Caucuses in case the Soviets failed to hold the Germans at Stalingrad. It was about this time that my father’s father (my grandfather) died and that his first child (me) was born. The army didn’t do compassionate leave, so my father was not at his father’s funeral, nor did he see me until several years later.
The Soviets did hold Stalingrad, freeing British troops in the Middle East for redeployment again, this time to the Burmese front. Travel this time was by troopship to Bombay then by slow, sweltering, clanking troop-train across India. From the dryness of the desert, via the cold of the Caucuses, it was now into the moist, steaming jungle and a new enemy. This time, the main worry was not enemy bullets, bayonets or shells, but the unimaginably awful prospect of being captured by the Japanese, who had a reputation for being masters of the stealth necessary for close-quarter jungle warfare. They also had a well-founded reputation for being masters of a whole range of unspeakably nasty methods of dealing with their prisoners. As with the shells and the torpedoes, the thick jungle and the well-laid ambushes meant that one didn’t necessarily know they were there until too late.
1945 duly arrived, Hiroshima and Nagasaki came and went, and suddenly it was all over. That final, longed-for moment of freedom was bestowed courtesy of the US Air Force over the skies of Japan.
Good soldiers become inured to worry, as they become inured to hardships, but it is the young, first-time soldier who feels worry the most. For that reason, the freedom – the release – of being set ashore in Freetown, Sierra Leone, remained a sweet moment which continued to be revisited and savoured long after the event.