Elizabeth Watson (née Sladden) was born in Northumberland in 1933 and was on a ship (SS City of Simla) with her mother when it was torpedoed of the Northern Ireland coast in September 1940, while they were on their way to the Far East.
This transcript records her memories before and during World War 2 together with other experiences.
The transcript and the video are about 54 minutes long.
Recorded in Sheffield on 28th September 2018.
[Pauses indicated by ….]
Time codes on film indicated by Hour:Minute:Second for ease of reference between transcript and film on YouTube.
Elizabeth: Well, I was born in Gosforth in Northumberland and …. my father was Indian Army, firstly in the DLI [Durham Light Infantry] and then transferred to the Indian Army …. when he was stationed out there because he was a very good polo player and very much wanted to play polo. And it was, I think probably, cheaper to do it there than with an English, with an English sort of …. Here, he wouldn’t have been able to play at all. And so that was the reason we went back and forth, I think.
I was about nine months old when we first went out to India and …. back and forth about three times I think …. before the war. I know we were stationed at one time, I think it was around about my 5th birthday up near the Khyber Pass. I mean all the trouble with Afghanistan still going on. It has always done, they have always fought up there. And …. when we came home, we used to stay with grandparents, of course because we didn’t have a house here ….
And then, of course, when war broke out, I understand from what I was told, that the Indian Army officers because they had fought up on the North West Frontier …. Norway was going to be invaded by the Germans and that they would be good troops and army to be able to fight in the mountains.
And so, my father came home, and we followed …. but for some reason we were dropped off in Marseille, this is 1939, and I think we were one of the last trains …. to come up …. I don’t know why we couldn’t come round through the Bay of Biscay but …. and we came back to England that way ….
Michael: Was that immediately after the War had been declared, or just before?
Elizabeth: Yes, I think it was 1939, I am not quite sure, I have forgotten dates when war was actually declared.
Michael: I mean, people were still leaving the South of France even in the middle of 1939, I think ….
Elizabeth: Yes, yes …. I always remember my mother saying that they ran out of water on the train and people with babies had great difficulty with nappies and things, you know, that they were not able to do any washing and things like that. Just …. odd things I remember her saying about the journey up but …. and then we were living with my …. No, we joined my father, we stationed in Liverpool, I think then.
And that’s …. I was 7, that was …. by the time it was 1940, my birthday’s in February …. and that’s where I made my first communion and had my tonsils out and learned to ride a bike.
And that was, when you were 7, those were the sort of things that happened. And my grandfather had just given me, my father’s father, a little red two-wheeler bike which I learned to ride on in Liverpool. I don’t know where we were in Liverpool, somewhere just outside, I think. And, unfortunately, because we were torpedoed later that bicycle is now at the bottom of the sea.
Michael: Oh dear. Well we’ll come on to that a little while perhaps, but …. So, were you in Liverpool when it was decided that you ought to travel?
Elizabeth: It was their first, I was there when they had their first air raid, I remember that.
Michael: Yes, you might remember ….
Elizabeth: And then, of course, Norway fell. Would that be the end of ’39, I’m not sure. And so, all the Indian Army people went back but by then the Suez Canal was closed and so one had to go down via South Africa. And my father went off and on the 19th, I think, of September 1940, we sailed from Liverpool. And we were, I think …. one had to go up over the top of Ireland because they were worried about U-boats and things in Southern Ireland, but, unfortunately, we were torpedoed on the 20th at night-time. It was 9 o’clock at night I think, I know it was dark.
Michael: This was the SS City of Simla?
Elizabeth: The City of Simla, yes.
Michael: That’s right ….
Elizabeth: And we had a lot of lifeboat instruction and everything what to do but on that particular night, when all the sirens came on and the ship was hit in the stern …. And I was in bed, my mother I remember, she was still dressed because she had navy blue slacks on. Somehow, I remember that. And I was in my nightie, so we were to go upstairs to the saloon, the main saloon and I know we were going up the gangway, up the stairs, and my mother’s hands were shaking so much she couldn’t tie my lifebelt on, which was called a Mae West in those days. It was a sort of very big cork thing, back and front, with straps that had to be tied and I can remember somebody stopping halfway down, a man had tied me into mine. And then when we went into the saloon and then one of the sailors came and said, “Women and children first to the lifeboats ….” So, of course, we’d done training, so we knew where to go.
But they had already lowered our lifeboat, so it meant climbing down a rope ladder and, you know, you had to do it on your own. I think it must have been terrifying for my mother to see a 7-year-old go over the rails and climbing down and somebody held the rope ladder at the bottom and so that you could jump into the lifeboat. One or two people slipped, I think, between the ship and the lifeboat and had to be hauled out of the water.
Many years later in London, my mother would always look up the side of Selfridges and say it had been like climbing down the side of Selfridges in the middle of the night, you know. And we were in a lifeboat, I don’t know for how long, but it was in the night and I can remember singing, I can remember everybody saying the Lord’s Prayer but also remember this one lady who kept pointing at my mother and saying it was not, you know, fair that she still had me. And her son was in the stern where the torpedo hit, and he was blown away.
Michael: Oh dear ….
Elizabeth: We were very lucky in that ship, only three people lost their lives. I think one member of the crew and two of the passengers, so I understand from seeing the statistics later. And, we were very, very lucky we were picked up, eventually, by another ship.
Apparently, the Captain had known that the City of Benares, the sister ship of the City of Simla, had gone down a week before, or a few days before, and it was full of children being taken to America. But many, well I think, a great number of them died because they were too small for the lifebelts also the time factor to get them into them. And I think the Captain knew this and that’s why he stopped, which was against orders, they weren’t allowed to stop and pick people up. It was broad moonlight and he was a sitting target from above and below. But I remember my mother telling me that he lost his command because he did this for us but I don’t know, I am sure that’s what she told me.
But getting out of the lifeboat and up onto this ship, it meant going up the rope ladder again and I remember so vividly two sailors pulling me over the side onto the deck and one of them putting his coat around me. And then the next person up was not my mother and I remember being really, really frightened about that. But they said, look we’re bringing up all the children first, you know, and then your mother will be up, so.
But of course, I was in a nightie as the other children were so I don’t remember what we did about sleeping or anything like that but I do remember the sailors giving us their thick white socks to put on because we hadn’t any shoes or slippers or anything and we played on the top of the holds which were covered in heavy canvass and, was it last year or the year before? I went to see, look round the Cutty Sark and it really took me back when I saw the holds and I could feel the canvass that was covering it. It was funny that, something I remember very vividly and then we were brought back to Gouroch …. in Scotland and the Red Cross met us and gave us clothes and money. I will always remember the Red Cross now because that was very good of them. I can remember so well that I was given a little green suit, a top and a bottom. I never wear green it’s not my colour, but I can remember this green suit and I can remember the shoes, these brown shoes, with a sort of leather thing, like a thong thing, with sort of strips of leather on. I can see them so clearly, I don’t know why I can remember that.
We weren’t allowed to contact my mother’s parents who lived in Tynemouth in Northumberland. Careless talk cost lives and all those sorts of things then. But we were given money when we got back to Newcastle station, I remember, so, we must have gone by train, but I don’t really know and having to ring up and say we weren’t on our way to …. on the ship. We were actually going to Burma not to India because my father was at that time in Rangoon and so, never got there again, going down around South Africa and that way but never made it of course.
Michael: So, you never went to Burma?
Elizabeth: No, No, No.
Michael: But …. What about your ….
Elizabeth: And of course, we …. Oh, I must say, when we got to the docks in Liverpool, they opened some of the luggage. My mother was a meticulous packer, she could get a lot into a suitcase that other people [couldn’t]. They opened our trunks, or a couple of them, and muddled up the clothes inside and I can remember her being very annoyed about that because it took time to get them back in again, you know, that was one thing and ….
I’m trying to think what else I was going to say …. about going to bed ….
Michael: That was before departure ….
Elizabeth: Oh yes, then of course, within a couple of days all that was at the bottom of the sea. And there was no insurance or anything in those days, so we didn’t get anything back for it of course.
Michael: Yes and, of course, that included the red bike.
Elizabeth: And the red bike and on our way back from India in ’39, one of the ports of call would be Aden at the bottom of the Red Sea and the Port Said on the Suez Canal. And there’s a shop there, I am sure many people of my age would remember, is called Simon Arts and it was the shop to go to and I was bought a doll and I had that doll in my …. in bed with me the night we were torpedoed. And that’s something I regretted for a very long time. I wanted to go back and get her and, of course, I wasn’t allowed to. So, she too is at the bottom of the sea and the red bike that I’d just been given by my grandfather. So, as a child, those things are very important.
Michael: Was the red bike ever replaced?
Elizabeth: I suppose it must …. YES, because during the War when we came back, when we did come back, we stayed with my grandparents for the next five years in Tynemouth and …. I definitely had a bike because that’s what we did, we rode everywhere on bikes, so I must have been given it.
But my grandparents’ stay …. my mother was the oldest of ten children, not that they were all there in the house, but some were coming and going you know they were in the army or nursing and different things.
And so, my mother and I had one room to ourselves in which we had absolutely everything. And so, we had everything, as we accumulated the odd thing, of course we hadn’t anything when we arrived. And we had to put things under the bed and on the top of wardrobes and things and to this day I can’t bear putting anything under the bed or I have to have it tidied away. Because we lived like that for five years until we found our own …. and then, as I say, all our clothes were at the bottom of the sea but in Rangoon, my mother had all our china, glass, silver, all that sort of thing. And, of course, the Japs walked in and so, all that was gone as well. Except that I did hear that servants …. buried some of the silver in, in the garden. So, what happened to that, and who dug it up later, I don’t know. But my mother used to say that this ring was the only thing that she had left after the War.
Michael: Yes ….
Elizabeth: Because, unfortunately, my father met somebody else and …. so, he left us, but ….
Michael: So, you were still in England when that happened, were you?
Elizabeth: Yes, yes, I suppose it must have been over a period of time, I don’t know, because as I said to you before, children, things were you just told, I was just told he wouldn’t be coming back and I …. you know, I was never given any sort of explanation or anything about it. We did go back to India in, we were on the sea on VJ Day which is August 15th, 1945 and we went back to India. My mother’s sister and her husband were living in Calcutta at that time and we went and stayed with them. I never really knew why we went back but I surmise, my mother used to be going off to Delhi a lot and there were lots of tears and things and she eventually had a nervous breakdown. I think possibly she hoped to win my father back because I do know that he was in India by that time.
He escaped from, from the jungle with great difficulty I would imagine, you know, and he was back in India. So, he was there in that year that, ’45, ’46, I can’t remember when, when they moved the Japanese out of Burma again, and so I don’t remember the dates of that at all but ….
Michael: Presumably it was before VJ Day, I suppose?
Elizabeth: Yes, yes you see it must have been so that’s why he was back in …. so, I think that’s why we, why we went back again. And then we came home in May 1946 and came back to England.
Elizabeth: But …. although that was, must have been terrible for my mother, and I …. I used to hear grown-ups talking and mentioning a little girl’s name and I got it into my head that my father had left us because he preferred another little girl to me. And that was because, I do think it’s so good now that children are told what’s happening and they see their father and their mother and you know it is much better than not knowing anything and picking up totally the wrong details, you know, which of course wasn’t true at all but it did knock my confidence for many years.
But out of that came a very good thing because about twelve years ago, probably a bit more than that, a cousin of mine brought me some photographs from, my father had eight brothers and sisters, and he was the executor for one of his sisters and she’d got these photographs and he brought them and said I think this is your brother. I couldn’t believe it, you know, and I didn’t do anything about it because I still had aunts and uncles and people, I thought they might think I – and my mother died in 1966 and I thought they might think I was being a bit disloyal or something, I don’t know. Anyway, about twelve years ago, I heard a story almost the same as mine about, actually it was a sister this person found, and how it had been so exciting, you know, to find her father had left them and had another family and she hadn’t known. And I discovered that, one of my daughters lives in Bristol, and I discovered that this name was in Bath.
My brother, now, kept his mother’s name and I never knew why that was, but it was the only one in the book, it’s very unusual the name. And I was going down to Bristol and I thought I’m going to write there’s nobody now, everybody had died and it’s not going to hurt anybody, and I wrote and said I think I might be your sister …. and would you be interested in us meeting up? If not, I wish you lots of luck.
And …. so I posted the letter straight away without thinking anymore about it and I got an immediate reply. And he had been brought up with my father and his mother, but he always thought that his mother’s first husband was his father. He never knew that Andrew, my father, was his as well until after his mother died and he’d just discovered that in actual fact, Andrew was his father and he was trying on the Internet to find this family, you know …. when he got my letter. So, he was really, really delighted about that and we met up about ten days later and it was really wonderful to, you know, and we’ve been in contact ever since so that’s lovely. So that’s one very positive thing, I had no brothers and sisters so now I have a half-brother, I know but …. that came out of that. So that was, that was good.
Michael: Yes indeed. Just going back to the War, itself, and you were in the north east of England at that time, do you have any recollections whilst you were, because you were living with your grandparents all through that period. Do you have recollections about what was going on with the War at that time?
Elizabeth: Well …. we were torpedoed on the 20th September, and when we went back to my grandparents …. my mother had great friends, a GP and his wife and children living in Marton outside Middlesbrough. And half-term in October came up and they said, “Look ….” She had three girls, one of them was exactly the same age as myself and she said, “Look, why don’t you come and stay with us for half-term, away from the bombs on Tyneside ….” which every night we were up. We had to give the dining room over to, was it the Anderson shelter – a big metal table thing with wire sides and I could remember they always had – there was always chewing gum in there to eat every night. Every night we used to ….
Michael: Was that a public one or ….
Elizabeth: I beg your pardon?
Michael: Was that a public one or was that in your own Garden?
Elizabeth: No, no, we had to give up our – my grandmother had to give up the dining room in order to put this great big thing and we used to go down and sit in this shelter and then back up every night and my grandfather used to chortle when we got back up. He would not get up and go down. And one night the …. a bomb fell at the top of the road where the golf course was, and he was literally blown out of bed but not hurt at all, but he still never went in the shelter.
Anyway we, we went to stay with these friends in, in near Middlesbrough and of course they had lots of clothes that I could have they passed on. And when it came to the end of half-term, they persuaded my mother to go, to let me go to boarding school in Richmond in Yorkshire which was much safer than Tyneside.
And they rang up the, it was a convent, they rang the nuns and said I had no uniform or anything of course, but would they take me. And that’s how I, how I went literally at half-term and eventually my uniform arrived from London, but the nuns always told me that I was terrified of water, that it took them a long time to persuade me to go for swimming lessons. We didn’t have a swimming pool at school, we used to swim in Catterick at what was the Sandes Soldiers Home. It was where all the …. those who’d been wounded. They wore bright blue sort of uniform I can see that now, and …. and we used to swim there and eventually I got to love swimming, so that was good.
Michael: But that would have gone back to when you were torpedoed presumably?
Elizabeth: Exactly, yes, yes. I think I don’t like deep water even now. I love to swim but …. I’m not very fond of very deep water. It’s something that makes me stand back, I think a bit, yes.
Michael: So, you went to boarding school ….
Elizabeth: Yes, and then and that was for the five years of the War and then as I say we went back to, to India for that year and then I went back to the same school and didn’t leave until 1951.
Michael: Golly, so you were there quite a long time ….
Elizabeth: A long time yes. Eleven years or ten years, yes ….
Michael: So, they catered for youngsters for, well, for 10 years-worth of education ….
Elizabeth: Indeed, yes, yes. Yes, it was …. made lots of friends that I still keep up with now we still have old girls’ reunions every, every two years and things which is great. But so that was lucky I think because I was an only child, I think it was a good thing for me to be I had friends and things. In fact it was my mother that used to be in tears on the station when I went back and I used to be quite, you know, think, “Oh Dear, I am longing to go back and be with all my friends”, because when you’re at boarding school you don’t have friends at home, particularly if it’s not your own home and you haven’t established a, you know grown up there or anything. So ….
Michael: Callous youth really ….
Elizabeth: Yes, yes, yes [giggle]
Michael: So, you left school in 1951, what happened then?
Elizabeth: I went to the RVI [Royal Victoria Infirmary] in Newcastle to do physiotherapy and …. I met my husband …. I’m trying to think, 1954, the end of ’54 I think or ’55 which totally restored my confidence of things, it was wonderful to have a wonderful husband who, and you know, he cared about me and things and we had three lovely children and I’m very lucky and I’ve got eight grandchildren now so, from being just me, we were quite a lot of us which is lovely, yes.
Michael: Yes …. so, you were married I think in 1956?
Elizabeth: 1956, yes ….
Michael: That’s right ….
Elizabeth: in September ….
Michael: And did you stay in Tynemouth at that time?
Elizabeth: Yes, we had a flat down near the sea to start off with and then and …. watched a house …. they did a lot of building. During the War when I was with my grandparents in Tynemouth …. I used to ride on Sundays at a farm and I had to walk along this farm track to get to the farm to ride and our house was built sort of almost exactly where this farm track and the farm used to be. It’s totally gone now, a completely new housing estate and we used to wander round each night and watch the bricks go up. It was so strange because they’d had all the Ack-Ack guns in this field and …. our house had one of the concrete bases for the, in the garden ,at the front garden and so we were rather lucky they said there was no way they could remove this emplacement thing and so they brought an awful lot of topsoil and, and rose trees and put those in for us so we didn’t have to do anything about the front garden it was where these guns had been, that I used to wander along past during the War. It was really quite strange that. But that’s how it, how we turned out to be living on that very bit, yes, so that was lovely.
My husband was, I was at school in Richmond and actually so was he, but many years before. He was at Richmond School which was a boarding school then and …. during the War he had been, his parents lived in Hexham and he was at prep school there. And then he went to Richmond School …. because his, I don’t think he was boarding there and then his father who was a bank manager was sent to Richmond and he did the bank in Catterick, and they were there while I was at school. But Ian was thirteen year older than I was and so he was in at the beginning of the War at the age of nineteen. It was so funny that his parents lived there while I was at school and …. you know, the coincidence was very strange really.
And then he was in the desert, he was a Desert Rat, and he was away for five years.
Michael: Are you able to recount any of the experiences that your husband had in the Desert Rats?
Elizabeth: Yes, one which was very strange …. He was, he said he was lucky. He was never taken prisoner of war for I think he …. and then he said except for a matter of hours. And it was the Italians who put a whole lot of them, from what I remember him saying, in a cave. But somebody, one of the soldiers, went to the back of the cave and discovered that if you walked far enough, it opened out onto the beach. So, they all quietly escaped.
Michael and Elizabeth: [Laughing]
Elizabeth: Then I don’t know I wish, you know, I’d written down more about that. So that was his just few hours of being, and also, he got jaundice at one time and so …. he was …. Now, where would he be, on the beach in Egypt and he was attached to an American …. lot of the army and he, because he could ride, he was asked if he would exercise the Arab horses. So, he had really quite a good few weeks at that point exercising the horses on the beach.
Elizabeth: So, but I wish I had asked him more but, you know, time goes by and you don’t talk about it and I really don’t know. He was at Monte Cassino but I don’t know, see, people didn’t talk about the War at all then of their experiences much. And now I wish I’d, you know, asked him more. He died in, twenty-five years ago, in 1993.
Elizabeth: So …. I haven’t got many reminiscences of him in the War.
Michael: Going back to your own war experience, I mean there were things like rationing and so on did you have any involvement with that?
Elizabeth: Yes, I can remember distinctly on the table in the refectory at school and we all had a saucer and on it was square four ounces of horrible margarine, I never touch margarine now, two ounces of butter and your flag in the top and my school number was 109 on, written on the flag, a little plastic flag thing and a little jar of sugar, I can’t, I think there was four ounces of sugar in that and you had to make that last the week. And that was actually the ration in those days.
Because when we came back from India in 1946, we were given a booklet and I remember my mother, because everybody else in the ship had been in India during the War years and because we she was invalided home we were very lucky she was the only person in the ship who had been in England during the War and she was asked if she would give a little talk and I remember her saying what the ration was and the sort of one egg and make a bosom pal of your butcher and you might get the extra sausage and things.
But, in the blackout, all the windows …. in the house had to have masking tape or what it was called then, criss-crossed so that if there was a blast at least they’d sort of hold together even if they cracked. And the blackout curtains of course and the wardens going past and the slightest chink of light, you know, they’d knock on the door. And to go out at night we had little, we had torches and we had sort of green tissue paper that you had to put under the glass, you know, so that it barely shone but at least you weren’t falling over, because I suppose there weren’t any street lights or anything. I remember my torch with its little green piece of paper in. But I …. I don’t remember, we weren’t … we didn’t appear to be starving in any way, I mean the food at boarding school was not good anyway but I think we were always fed enough you know.
Michael: You don’t think that the diet that you …. were subjected to during the War would have had any effect on your future life at all?
Elizabeth: We often talked about that with friends, you know, that I was at school with then and I suppose we had a fairly balanced diet, you know, there was just …. so much. We had that ghastly Haliborange stuff that they gave to babies I can’t think what it did to their insides …. and they made it into a sort of marmalade. It was very bitter, and I can remember that. And the other thing that made life palatable …. food palatable at school was HP sauce. We all had HP sauce, you know to …. to try and make it taste better. But I think there was plenty of it, you know, I suppose it was perhaps a lot of potatoes and stuff but …. I remember the vegetables. And I, you know, it was OK. I think we had Italian nuns in the kitchen and who really didn’t know how to cook our food, you know, I remember the rice being cooked as though it were arborio rice you know very sticky and horrid not the way we do it now, nice and fluffy and things.
Michael: Interesting you had Italian nuns, I mean weren’t they affected by internment?
Elizabeth: Well that’s what I, I don’t know why I think that but definitely foreign nuns …. it is a Belgian Order, actually, but a lot of the nuns were English. And a lot of …. ordinary staff, you know, were …. they were English but yes, that’s strange. I don’t know why we always that they were Italian, perhaps they weren’t. Perhaps they were Spanish or but they certainly were …. not English in the kitchen.
Michael: And definitely not very good at cooking by the sounds of things.
Elizabeth: Well I’m sure they were, they didn’t have the right stuff to cook with, oh dear.
Michael: You did physiotherapy I think you said ….
Elizabeth: I did, yes ….
Michael: Did that become a career, or did that suddenly come to an end?
Elizabeth: No, unfortunately I didn’t finish my training. I got married and it’s been the one big regret, I wish I had, I loved it.
Michael: So, if you’d had your time again?
Elizabeth: Yes, I think it’s a great job for any, anybody, I wish that I had managed to …. you know, to carry on with that but I didn’t so ….
Michael: Can you think of any other things that you would like to mention?
Elizabeth: I don’t know why, talking about food, I suddenly remembered that when we went back in 1945 to India and we were in, it took three weeks then by sea, of course, you couldn’t do it by plane. And we landed in Bombay but my aunt that we were going to stay with was in Calcutta and it was two days across India by train. No air conditioning or anything and I can remember having this zinc bath on the floor in our compartment and every so often, we’d stopped endlessly at stations, we would take on a great big block of ice and one kept, you know, tins of juice or grapefruit and things on that to try and keep it cold. Just thinking of food, yes.
Michael: Very practical.
Elizabeth: Yes, yes, I can remember that very well ….
Michael: A couple of questions really, one is do you think that the experiences that you had, I know you mentioned that you had a fear of swimming as a result of the torpedoing of the boat but were there any sort of effects that you can think of that as a result of the War that may have influenced you later on?
Elizabeth: Other than as I said, you know, with my father going, I, you know, always ….
Michael: Yes, of course, that was absolutely disastrous ….
Elizabeth: Yes, I lacked confidence, I never again won prizes at school or anything. When we came back after that year away, I had to go into a class below, of course ….
Michael: To catch up ….
Elizabeth: Eventually, but I found that very difficult to start with. But I had a terrible fear of being disliked or, you know which I wasn’t, but I mean …. I always tried to smile and put my best foot forward because …. I had this sort of strange feeling as I say that my father had left us for another little girl that he preferred which is such a shame because that wasn’t it at all and I understand now that it was the War and we weren’t there and Mark’s mother was and I think he was born, I have forgotten what year, in, nearly, in the 40’s anyway. So, and the child’s name that I, I kept hearing the little girl’s name, is his sister, his mother and her first husband’s child, you know ….
Michael: So not related to you?
Elizabeth: So, there was a child, but it was nothing to do with my father preferring her to me or anything like. And that certainly, I think, had a very big influence for some time. But as I say, when I met my lovely husband all that changed.
Michael: Yes, yes and there was a future ahead of you ….
Elizabeth: Indeed, yes.
Michael: Yes, indeed
Elizabeth: So that was good. My father had, I know from my brother now …. one or two odd experiences, he was with Field Marshal Slim in Burma and they were good friends. And I’ve got a letter that the Field Marshal wrote to my father’s sister when he died.
Michael: Yes ….
Elizabeth: And …. …. I think he …. what happened …. he was, he was going along at one point in the jungle and came across a chap with a bow and arrow and everything and thought well this is it. I’m going to be, you know, shot and my head’s going to be shrunk and hung on a wall. And to his astonishment the chap put his bow and arrow behind him, walked forward, shook hands and in perfect English greeted my father and it turned out he had actually been studying in Oxford but had been called back to his tribe when, you know, when the War started. So that’s a funny experience ….
Michael: I mean that’s not the sort of story you could write in fiction and get away with.
Elizabeth: Well, exactly. And another incident, he was in the jungle, and he came across a bungalow and, you know, sitting on the veranda was a chap, an Englishman, sitting having afternoon tea and to his astonishment he was invited to go and sit and have a cup of tea with this chap and then said well …. I really must get on, you know, get on with the War, and just in the middle of the jungle, all of a sudden.
And another incident he had, apparently, he liked to drive and so his driver was in the passenger seat and a sniper shot at the car. But it was the driver that got killed, he was shooting at the officers, yes, and so he was lucky there and did escape and I think was very ill …. you know, when he eventually got back to India.
Oh, and another thing my brother told me that, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Elephant Bill?
Elizabeth: Well he was, I think he was about in his seventies when Burma was under trouble from the Japs but he was asked to go to deal with the elephants who saved so many lives getting people across rivers and things like that and he’d trained elephants and all sorts in other parts of the world and in, you know, I’ve got his book and it’s really most interesting …. and my father worked with him for a little while to learn how to deal with the elephants in order to make them useful to getting people out of Burma. So that was another, another thing.
Michael: It’s sad that you weren’t part of that ….
Elizabeth: Yes, I mean the euphoria when I met Mark was terrific, you know, that was just so amazing we sort of clicked straight away and he knew nothing about the family I was able to tell him about, all the aunts and uncles that he would have had, you know, that had now died and I took him up to Norton on Tees where our father is buried and where my grandfather, my father’s father lived, and where we used to go for so many leaves and different things, you know. He was lovely, he looked very much like Father Christmas with a big white beard and I was very fond of him and he was very fond of my mother …. and …. I’ve forgotten what I was saying ….
Michael: Yes, it was about not being able to share part of the ….
Elizabeth: Yes, I was able to share with him and show him the house, you know, which is now being made into several smaller ones and things but …. I was able to show him all that which he knew nothing about. And now I’m a bit sad to think we missed out, you know as children, I never knew him then but …. so the euphoria goes a little bit because it would have been lovely to have grown up together but there we are. So at least I see him now and his two boys and two grandchildren. So, my …. daughter that lives quite near him sees him more than I do, you know, so this, this is great. Yes.
Michael: Yes, given your time again and also thinking about the generations that are now growing up, what advice would you think you would give to them for a successful and happy future?
Elizabeth: Well, I think it’s got to be give and take hasn’t it? You know you’ve got to work at any marriage or anything, it’s you know or you know you’ve got to just give and take and talk about things rather than …. I must say with my husband …. if ever there was something to, not argue about, you know something that was a problem, we never let the sun go down on it, never. I can say that in all truthfulness. We never let things rancour for several days or anything like that. I can’t think of anything that did but you know I do remember we always talked it through and I’m sure that’s, that’s the way, to talk it through and not build up an animosity about things because it’s sometimes difficult to break through it afterwards.
Michael: Yes ….
Elizabeth: And, I, so many, sadly, marriages fall apart nowadays I suppose it’s because people are able to move about more and they meet more people and everything. But, always to explain things, I mean, to children. I think it’s better for them they, they know the situation and then they’ll deal with it. Children, if you tell them straight then they will deal with it, it just becomes a practicality.
Michael: Yes, I mean that was definitely something that was missing for you.
Elizabeth: Oh absolutely. Yes, and for Mark too. To think that his, my father died in 1965 the year before my mother. I think, I think she had always in the background had a faint hope that she might see him again, you know, or something because when she heard about his death, she gave up really. She had cancer I know but I think she didn’t attempt to fight it or anything. I know she, I just get that feeling, you know, that it was, it changed her in that last year. So ….
Michael: It’s easy enough to say what if the War hadn’t taken place, would they have? One just doesn’t know does one really?
Elizabeth: No. I mean I can, I don’t remember much about him, but I do remember perhaps from the age of five and six we had …. a cocker spaniel and my father was a great rugby player as was his brothers …. and …. as were his brothers and this spaniel, it was in a place called Sialkot in India and it terribly long ears and he used to put his scrum cap on the dog whenever it had its dinner. Now that’s a very strong memory.
Michael: To stop the ears from falling in the dinner, yes?
Elizabeth: Yes, yes. So, I remember him with, you know, only I suppose because we were Army, you know, we must have spent a lot of time apart anyway, but you followed the drum as I say we went up and we were stationed in Kohat which was up near the North West Frontier. I can remember that it was a sort of dark place, but I don’t know why I remember that, and I remember, I think it was my fifth birthday, and the cook made me a sugar-spun house with fruit in it. I can see that, you know, just odd things like that. But I never remember him being in any way unpleasant or never heard my mother and father quarrelling or anything but of course I have so vague memories. They’re quite pleasant ones, you know, with the dog and things ….
Michael: I mean the picture of the dog with the ears up, you know, that’s going to linger with me forever, I think.
Elizabeth: Yes, I can see it now. I can see the material it was made of that scrum cap, oh dear.
Michael: Elizabeth, I think we’ll finish at that point but thank you very much for, for sharing that
Elizabeth: Well thank you for coming, Michael, thank you
Michael: It’s been very interesting ….
Elizabeth: I hope it’s interesting, yes.
Michael: Oh, it is. Thank you very much indeed
Elizabeth: My grandchildren are always saying please write it down Granny, so this they will be pleased about.
End of Transcription
Footnote: Elizabeth’s half brother died, sadly of a heart attack, not long after this interview.
Interview recorded by Michael Thompson, Hardy Productions UK, Manchester, for WarGen. Transcription by Tom Humphrey.