Interview of Tony Lord by his son, Thomas Lord, in which he details from the time that he was evacuated up until the end of the war when he was in the Navy.
My war started in August 1939 and the year before my mother had received a letter from the government along with all the other mothers and parents in London, did they wish their child to be evacuated? And rather to my disappointment, my mother snatched up the pen and consented that I should go away because I was a sort of awkward fourteen year old hanging around the house and it curtailed my mother’s love life a bit to have me there.
So anyway, at the end of August I packed my suitcase, toothbrush, Pyjamas and so on and went down to the school on Monday afternoon and played Ludo and all sorts of games until home time. I went home and my mother said ‘oh you’re back?’ and that went on for a week until Friday came and news came that Hitler’s army had invaded Poland and war was imminent so all of us marched down to the local station, Lewisham, and an old steam train was waiting there that they’d got out from the railway sheds and everything was incredibly dusty. When we sat down the carriage filled with a cloud of dust.
Anyway, off went the train and we didn’t know where we were going. Four hundred boys from the Grammar School and we passed through Heather Green, Seven Oaks Tunbridge onto Tunbridge Wells and the more knowledgeable boys said ‘oh we’re going to Hastings there’ll be cricket on the beach!’ and so on and so forth but then the train stopped at a station called Tunbridge Wells West where a lot of buses were waiting which ferried us up to the town and deposited us in various church halls and local schools and previously all the people in Tunbridge Wells with spare rooms had been asked if they would take us in, the evacuees. These people were called hosts and hostesses and I sat there for a long time because I wasn’t a very prepossessing sort of boy and the better looking boys all got taken away and I was left there with two other boys who were my friends and in came a lady called Margaret Feltham who was a cub mistress and the boys next to me both had scout badges in their lapels of their blazers and I didn’t so she said ‘I’ll take those two’. Which would meant I was alone in the hall waiting for goodness knows who and I piped up and said ‘they’re my friends can I come too?’ and she very generously, i’ve got great gratitude for her, she said ‘alright you come as well’ and I went and lived with her for three years in her very pleasant house which had, she had a motor, a cook and a gardener. So it was a taste for the highlife for me.
News came on the Sunday of course that we were at war and for a couple of weeks we had no lessons and did as we like more or less on the common at Tunbridge Wells and so on and so forth. Some of the boys had bikes and eventually I got one for £7 my mother forked out for that a Rudge Whitworth and then the headmaster had arranged for us to have lessons in Skinners School, a Grammar School, up in the centre of town and the Skinners boys went to school in the morning and we went to school in the afternoon and had our lessons either there or in the big houses the school had hired. And so time went along very pleasantly and little did we know that the coldest winter for a century was about to descend on us.
Nothing much happened in the war except the battle ship Graf Spee, a pocket battleship, belonging to the German Navy got trapped in Montevideo harbour and eventually after a great deal the Germans thought there was a big fleet waiting outside to annihilate them and so the crew had taken off and a few sailors had taken the big battleship out down the river and scuttled her and placed explosives in her and she sank and there was no battle.
Going on from there through the harsh winter the war was a bit of a stalemate and was called the phony war. German army, the French army and the British Expeditionary Force just dug in and survived the cold and did not very much until May 10th 1940 when Hitler surprised us by sending his army through the Arden Forest which was supposed to be impassable for tanks and infantry and swiftly conquered Belgium, Holland and France trapping the Expeditionary force, as you know, at Dunkirk who were miraculously rescued by the fleet of boats from Dover and Broadstairs and Sheerness.
Over back in England life went on normally in Tunbridge Wells but listening to the radio we couldn’t believe that Germans had reached places like Calais and were looking at places like the white cliffs of Dover because we had all been brought up to think about the Great War as a static line of trenches somewhere round Ypres and round the edge of Belgium. Anyway, Churchill rallied us with his fine speeches and ‘never surrender’, ‘we will fight on the beaches’ and ‘the landing ground’ and so on and then gradually we noticed, in August, that the sky occasionally had a white vapour trail which was the German reconnaissance planes having a look at the air fields in south east England, I presume. One morning, there was this droning noise and we ran into the garden to look up and see a formation of a hundred planes heading to London and then the noise of the anti aircraft guns on Pole Hill near Seven Oaks, where they were lined up, and the Germans went on and then occasionally you would hear the fighters arrive, the spitfires and hurricanes, and there would be a dogfight high overhead with a mass of white vapour trails and this went on day after day and gradually the…Margaret’s garage filled up with bits of German aeroplanes even the wheel of a Dornier 17.
There was one lunchtime, a memorial sort of time for me, we were sitting having lunch with the French windows open when a Messerschmitt 109 single seater fighter flew slowly overhead with clouds of smoke coming from it, only about one hundred feet up. So we leapt up to chase it down where it was going to crash maybe a mile away and as we left the table the ladies said ‘you haven’t had your dessert!’ and we thought bugger the dessert and disappeared down the road in the direction of the smoke and the plane had crash landed and skidded along the grass on the local golf course. Amazingly a soldier who must have been walking on the golf course had got the pilot out of the cockpit because the thing was so hot and the noise of crinkling heated metal we could hear and lying on the ground was the pilot in a beautiful uniform with silver wings on his breast and sheep skinned flying boots and he was moaning ‘mutter, mutter’, mother, mother and there was a whole in his face where he had been shot by a bullet, I presume, and with that we looked down at him and I regret now that I didn’t run over to the plane, get on the wing and get whatever was in the cockpit like his flying helmet or some souvenir of some kind but perhaps it was just as well as the plane was still very hot and could have burst into flame at any time. Anyway, suddenly the fire engine and ambulance arrived and we were ordered away, ‘go away you boys’ and we heard later that the pilot died in the Kent and Sussex Hospital up the road but it’s one of those memories that are indelible in your memory. I can see him now and what a waste of a young life he had probably been in Berlin a week before with girls hanging on his arm, the flying hero, little did he know what was going to happen to him.
So I stayed with my two hostesses for three years until 1942 when I left school, and at sixteen coming up to seventeen, and I knew that eventually a year later that I’d be called up into the armed services or become a coal miner, Bevin boys they were called. Every one in ten boys that were called up were sent down the mines and I didn’t fancy that at all so I attached myself to Regent Street Poly Art School because I always loved drawing and painting and I was accepted in there. Nobody quite knew who I was but I was in there for about eighteen months and then a letter arrived inviting me to go down to the local drill hall at Hither Green and so I presented myself there and joined a queue of lads who were eighteen and we all stripped off and a doctor looked at us and asked us to cough and he had a wandering lead light and he peered at all our groins and I said to the chap in front of me and I asked ‘what’s he doing?’ and the boy said ‘he’s looking for crabs’ and until that time I thought crabs lived on the beach! Anyway, they discovered I was colour blind, red and green colour blind, and I’d had no idea before even in art school I didn’t know I was colour blind. The chap said ‘I’m going to put you in the Royal Navy’, great relief but being colour blind you had the choice of being a cook, a sick berth attendant, a steward or a writer, which was another name for a secretary or an office worker, so I thought well if I become a sick bay tiffy, as they were called, then I might meet a pretty nurse in the hospital and anyway I will have a bed to sleep in somehow or a bunk in a ship anyway so that is what I did and a few months later a letter came inviting me to come to Butlins holiday camp in Skegness which was a dry land ship called Royal Arthur and there I was kitted out in the Navy uniform, did a bit of lectures and then a training as a sick berth tiffy at a hospital near Bristol, a mental hospital I might say, and then finished up after six months training, something like that, in Chatham barracks and waited there to be assigned to a ship.
Eventually the orders came that we were to join a ship with an Italian named Gerusalemme which sounded a funny name for a war ship but it turned out it was a hospital ship and we took the train in the night not knowing where and finished up in Liverpool. We got on the ship, sailed away in a convoy across the Atlantic. Left the convoy somewhere off the Bahamas and went down to Panama Canal and across the Pacific to Sydney Harbour and waited there for orders which turned out to be ‘get on a train at Sydney Central Station with your kit bags and hammocks’. So we got on this crowded train which was almost full of these Australian soldiers and headed off across New South Wales, through Melbourne, through Adelaide and out into the Australian desert on a long straight line a thousand miles long. The steam train had kitchen cart on the front and for our meals the train stopped and we walked through the sands and the prickly bushes of the desert and collected what was on offer like sausages and chips or something like that, easy to cook. Out to the wilderness came groups of Aborigines, really primitive with flies crawling over their faces, dressed in rags and they begged us for the scraps for food that we had left over and we were very angry with the engine driver as he got down with a gun and drove them away which we thought was odd and one or two of the Aborigines demanded a shilling to have their photo taken standing with us and I was left wondering what you would do with a shilling in the middle of a trackless desert but there you are.
Now the train went on from Western Australia down to Freemantle where we got off after five days in the train and we got to the barracks at Freemantle and put our hammocks and bags down and had something to eat and then all of us flaked out on bunks for about fifteen hours and caught up with our sleep. I’ve never slept so long in my life. After a few days of pleasant sunbathing on the beach there a message came saying our ship the Gerusalemme had arrived and looking out towards Rottnest Island off Freemantle we could see the white ship that awaited us. Out we went, clambered up the side with our kit, with some difficulty, and settled in on the ship. There were great crosses painted on the side, the ship was white and it was illuminated with grey light crosses up by the funnel and so on and I remember remarking to my mate Sid, ‘my god what a target we are with this floating around with all these lights on and all the Jap submarines lurking around’ not that there were many of them left at that time this being 1945. So unbelievably coming all this way across Australia by train where did we go…back to Sydney to pick up fuel and supplies and then steamed up the East Coast of Australia to a small island in the Admiralty group called Manus Island and anchored in the lagoon there and stayed there for some weeks looking at films and occasional a party of American entertainers and listening to American radio which was featuring Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and people like that. A very pleasant interlude. One quite knowledgeable fellow said ‘the sharks don’t come in over the reef’ so we were all happily swimming around day after day and I’m sure there must have been sharks around but nobody was attacked fortunately so we were a bit lucky not to lose a leg or an arm or something.
Then news came of the bomb, Hiroshima, and the Japanese surrender a few days later and a message came that we were to proceed to Hong Kong and to wait for orders there and so we steamed away and I haven’t mentioned that the old ship we were on was an old Italian cruise liner that did cruises up and down the peaceful Adriatic sea in peacetime and she was only capable of doing eight knots which is nine miles an hour so it took us ages to get anywhere but eventually we got to Hong Kong and we were led in by minesweeper along the swept channel because there were still mines under the water by the Japanese and the next thing was that we were all allowed ashore and Hong Kong then was just a mass of small buildings and the older married men in the party said ‘let’s go to a brothel’. So I tagged along and a little boy led us to a place where he assured us there were very clean girls and we went up, and they were rather like council flats in East London, and two poor girls of about fourteen/fifteen in filthy black pyjamas were offered to us and I just went away because I was a Grammar School boy and believed that you had to love somebody to have sex with them so I wandered about Hong Kong exploring and a week later all the fellows that had been with me attended sick bay with gonorrhoea!
At last we got some orders to do something useful and proceeded to Hainan Island, off China, and out came some launchers carrying Australian soldiers that had been prisoners of war for three or four years and it was pitiful to see them dressed in rags, struggling to get aboard and being hoisted up by the ships derek’s on ships stretchers. When we weighed them they all weighed six stones a piece in old money they had been starving all that time and were so grateful to lie in a clean bed and be attending by us and the QARNS sisters that we had aboard and we took them down to Freemantle, very slowly I might add again, and there was a touching scene on the jetty because the jetty was full of cars of the soldiers families. News had been radioed ahead of who they were and so on and somehow their families had come to greet them and unbelievably these crippled men, just skeletons lined up on the jetty, and gave us three cheers, ‘three cheers for the Gerusalemme!’ and they stood up and saluted us which was a very moving moment and another one I haven’t forgotten.
We engaged in this sort of rescue work for some months and then went to the island of Sumatra and picked up unbelievably a hundred Japanese invalids. Others, some of them were amputees and others were terminally ill and we steamed up through the Japanese island sea to a port called Kure which had been completely wrecked by conventional bombing by the Americans and we had buried three or four of the Japanese before at sea, the shipped had stopped and we lowered them gently into the sea and left them to sink to the bottom, and when we disposed of the others a word went round that Hiroshima was only ten miles up the road who wanted to go and I got in, I was the only one of our Royal Naval contingent that were interested the others all wanted to get drunk on a drink called Saki, which is a very potent thing I believe, it turns milky when you add water to it and you get drunk quickly apparently but being a clean living boy I went to Hiroshima with the merchant naval officers we had on board and I wandered around and looked at tram lines melted into the road, still shops with shelves loaded with fused bottles that had melted in the intense heat. I looked at the famous shadow of the man on the bridge and then coming out back from Hiroshima and trying to get a lift by a lorry or a wagon or some kind I stopped at a shop which must have been a very edge of the explosion and an old man was standing in the door way and I could see little kids playing in the back and I bought a block of chocolate with me, Cadburys Milk Tray from the naffy, and I said to him would you like this chocolate and in the window were two carved heads, which I have still got and can see across my room now, very heavy wooden heads that must have been there when the explosion happened. Then I went back to the ship and then we received orders to go down to Saigon which was a French colony at that time, French Indo China, to pick up a lot of ladies who were the French farmers wives and things were getting pretty hot in Vietnam with the Viet Cong and the ladies were all in danger or being raped and killed and so we were ordered to take them back to take them back to the naval base in France, down the bottom, Toulon and so off we went with this crowd of nice ladies. We couldn’t believe our luck with this female contingent on board and I think various liaisons took place in the x-ray theatre which was about the only private place that was on the ship for us. Needless to say being a Grammar school boy I didn’t get involved in this!
We called at Trincomalee in Ceylon, as it was then, then up through the Suez Canal and then eventually arrived at Toulon where we disembarked the ladies who were very tearful farewells from some of the married men who should have been ashamed of themselves and then we loaded our hammocks and kit bags, still with us, on, I had the best sleep of my life on that hammock and swaying under the tropical nights, I had a very good war really and this train took us up through France, very slowly. We said goodbye to the old ship that had been our home for nearly two years and finished up at Calais where there was a huge contingent of soldiers and sailors and air force men who were waiting to take passage along the channel and off I went to, I think it was, Dover and onwards to Chatham barracks and then on home to Greenwich to my mother and step father who were out when I arrived. There was no hero’s welcome for me and so I had a way of getting through the kitchen window which I did and I settled down on the sofa with a big black beard and waiting for them to come home from wherever they’d been and of course I switched the radio on listening and I was amazed to hear a weather forecast which I hadn’t heard for five years because the Germans must know about our weather apparently and then the key turned in the door and in came the two of them and I heard my mother say, ‘oh I must have left the radio on’, and then she came in the door and saw me and had a bit of a shock I should think because she saw me, this strange bearded man reclining on her sofa. Then the penny dropped and she said, ‘oh you’re back?’ and all that time I hadn’t written a letter to her or received a letter. Really strange close knit family don’t you think? And so I finished a few weeks up in Gillingham Naval Hospital and was discharged with a demobbed suit and £30 gratuity and that was the end of my war service and a very good time I had had to! Bye Bye.
Transcribed by Zoe Booton, 13/8/18