Wartime Memories of Anthony O’Connor

The following notes were written by Anthony O’Connor, born in 1933 in Singapore. They include his memories before the War, during the War and post-War up until he qualified at the Bar. There is also one short excerpt about a visit he and his first wife made to Moscow in 1969 or 1970.

Anthony made a sound recording of some of his life during 2016. This is presented here by kind permission of Lives on Record.

Excerpts from “MY EARLY LIFE”

My father’s father, the Reverend William O’Connor, an Anglican clergyman was born on 7th August 1862 in the West of Ireland, at Clifden near Westport, County Mayo. He died on 13th December 1951. My father’s mother, Emma Louisa O’Connor, was born on 12th August 1860 at Kilmore, County Monaghan. She died at Beaconsfield on 20th May 1919. M My father’s father, the Reverend William O’Connor, an Anglican clergyman was born on 7th August 1862 in the West of Ireland, at Clifden near Westport, County Mayo. He died on 13th December 1951. My father’s mother, Emma Louisa O’Connor, was born on 12th August 1860 at Kilmore, County Monaghan. She died at Beaconsfield on 20th May 1919.

My father was born on 21st December 1896 at Ranchi, Chota Nagpur in what was then British India. His father was then a missionary. My father was educated at St. Columba’s College near Dublin, and in England. He won a choral scholarship to Worcester Cathedral but was unable to take it up. In 1915 at the age of nineteen he volunteered to join the armed forces for service in World War I, saw active service on the North West Frontier of India and in Mesopotamia in a Sikh regiment fighting the Turks, was wounded, decorated with the Military Cross and mentioned in despatches in 1918. After a period of service in the Political Department in Mesopotamia and in the Foreign and Political Department of the Government of India, he retired from government service and read for the Bar in England. I believe that he got a First in the Bar Final and that the only other First that year was Hartley Shawcross (later Attorney General in the post-War Labour Government). My father was called to the Bar in 1924, practised in London in 1925 and in Singapore from 1926 to 1942 when he escaped after the fall to the Japanese in a small boat.

After the British re-occupation of Malaya and Singapore, my father became Attorney General of Malaya. Thereafter he served in the Colonial Legal Service as successively Attorney General Kenya, Chief Justice Jamaica, Chief Justice Kenya, and President of the Court of Appeal for Eastern Africa. He retired in 1962 and died in 1985. He is buried in the churchyard at Hedgerley, Buckinghamshire. So is his sister, my Aunt Dorothy, who got a First at the Sorbonne, Paris, not bad for an Englishwoman. My mother’s grave is in Sherborne. My mother’s father, Percy Furlong Wise of Loddiswell in the County of Devon was born on 23rd October 1866 at Rawal Pindee, India. He died in October 1940 [20th October 1940] at Plymouth. My mother’s mother Sophia Margaret Wise née Bather was born on 4th April 1880 at Wroxeter in the County of Shropshire and died on 5th June 1958.

My mother was born on 1st February 1905 at Kelantan, Malaya. The story is that she was born up the river because her mother could not get down to the hospital due to the monsoon rains having swollen the river, which was the only means of transport.

Her husband, my grandfather, Percy was then a rubber planter. He was a quiet chap, and was one of the two Assessors sitting up on either side of the Trial Judge in the notorious 1927 murder case immortalised by Somerset Maugham in his famous short story “The Letter”, also in the book “Murder on the Verandah” by Eric Lawlor, and recently on the West End stage with Jenny Seagrove as the accused and vengeful lover. At the end of the trial, when my grandfather was asked by the Judge for his verdict, my grandfather pronounced her guilty. The Judge and the other Assessor agreed, and she was duly sentenced to death, though the sentence was not, in fact, carried out. My grandmother on the other hand was a formidable woman and had very definite views on most subjects. She became tennis champion of Singapore.

My parents met at the Port Dickson Club near Kuala Lumpur which was situated on a beautiful stretch of coastline which no doubt contributed to the romance of the occasion. My father’s knowledge of those beaches was to prove important towards the end of the War when he was in London helping to plan the recapture of Malaya from the Japanese. The fleet of landing craft and other vessels was assembling in India and the chosen point of attack was to be the beaches round Port Dickson. However, the Atom Bombs fell and the Japanese surrendered shortly before the attack was due to go in. This was very fortunate, because it was later discovered that the Japanese knew exactly where they were due to land, having been tipped off by their many spies in India, and were waiting for them in force and would have annihilated a large number of our young men had the War not come to a premature end. Yet people still say that we should not have dropped the Atom Bombs.

I was born on 16th April 1933 in Singapore and was one of the world record breaking number of children born in one year at any one maternity hospital, namely Kandang Kerbau Maternity Hospital, Singapore. Among my early memories is of the house we had at Telok Paku (now under Changi Airport). The lawn sloped down to a little beach with overhanging palm trees and a bathing pagar (which was an enclosure of stakes and nets to keep the sharks at bay). The view of the overhanging palm trees was beautiful. My mother has painted a small oil of the scene. Up the south coast a little way were some large guns, I believe sixteen inch guns, trained out to sea against an approaching Japanese fleet which never arrived because the attack when it came was from the north of the island. We used to have to block our ears when the guns were fired in practice.

At the age of five or six I was sent to boarding school in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya. It was thought that the vertical rays of the sun were harmful for small European children. Clearly, the rays were more vertical in Singapore than up in the mountains of Malaya. I was very homesick and I know my mother hated leaving me there.

My father became worried about the deteriorating international situation. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria must have been one of the factors that decided him to ship us out of Singapore. By that time my brother Hugh had arrived on the scene and my mother and the two of us took a ship to Australia in about 1941 when I was eight and Hugh was one or two. We arrived at Fremantle and took the train to Sydney. I remember the steam engine between Fremantle and Perth could not cope with the gradient and we had to stop for several hours while they brought another steam engine along. This, and our subsequent trip from Perth to Adelaide over the Nullarbor Plain (some three hundred miles dead straight across the desert), was very exciting at my age.

We eventually arrived in Sydney and took a room or two in a boarding house on the Woolloomooloo Docks which were then in a rundown area (they are now, as I understand it, in a very expensive area). We cannot have had much money, possibly because it was all tied up in Singapore.

We then moved to Bowral, New South Wales, the home of the cricketer Don Bradman, whose house I visited and saw the concrete path on which he was alleged to be able to return a golf ball to the bowler using a cricket stump. My father joined us there and I remember many happy rides we took on horseback through the blue gums in the lovely hills above Bowral.

My father then returned to Singapore. By then, the Japanese had already landed in the North East of Malaya and were coming down the Peninsula fast. They were able to get through the rubber plantations more easily because they had built their troop carriers and tanks exactly the right size to pass between the serried ranks of rubber trees so methodically planted by the British. My father went back at this depressing and dangerous time because he was Chairman of the Straits Settlements Association, the equivalent of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce and several of its members had large numbers of Chinese labourers available in their companies and my father thought they could be utilised in building defences on the North Coast of the Island from which direction he was convinced the attack would come. However, the British Army in their wisdom refused the offer saying the Japanese would never attack through the swamps and jungles in the North but would come from the South and they had the big guns waiting for them. The attack came from the North. Once the Japanese had the mainland water supply within their grasp, it was only a matter of time before Singapore would surrender.

My father was in fact sitting in his office on the quayside waiting for the Island to surrender and almost certain incarceration when the telephone rang and a friend told him they had a boat leaving in half an hour: would he like to join them? He accepted with alacrity and when he arrived at the rendezvous, he found a small sailing boat with no engine, the wrong sails, a Boy Scout’s compass and a world atlas for a chart. After some adventures of which he has written a very good account, fending off rocky lee shores in lacerated tennis shoes and avoiding the Japanese who were then bombing and shooting refugees, he found his way to the West Coast of Sumatra where refugees were massing, the Japanese having landed in the North and South of Sumatra. He and a large number of other refugees were trapped in the middle. A military acquaintance offered him passage on a ship for India. He said he could not desert the other men he had come across with in the sailing boat. They drew lots. The lot fell to one of his friends who embarked on a ship the next morning which was promptly sunk with all hands.

My father got a subsequent passage and eventually made it to Bombay where he was met by an Indian who had been a sweeper in the office of Drew & Napier, his firm in Singapore (and later mine), who had left for India some months before. My father had made a point of being polite to all strata of society and this man was waiting for him on the quayside at Bombay and told him he had been meeting ships from Singapore for the past few months, hoping that he would find my father on one of them, which he now had. He invited Dad to spend the night with him in his humble abode which my father was very glad to accept. Next morning, wearing only what he had come from Singapore in, namely a grubby pair of shorts and shirt and canvas shoes to match, he went to the Bombay offices of Drew & Napier’s bankers, and asked if they could lend him enough for a shave and a bath. They were unwilling to do anything without further identification, so he asked to see the Manager, and suggested that the Manager look in his books where he would find a large remittance of money from Singapore (which had been in the firm’s client account), and which my father had recently sent to that bank to get it out of the hands of the approaching Japanese. The Manager looked at this, confirmed that it had been received but said that, in the absence of identification, he could not lend him anything. After the War, my father returned to Singapore and had a certain amount of pleasure in transferring the firm’s valuable account to a rival bank which is where it has remained ever since.

Meanwhile, we were in Australia. We knew Singapore had fallen but had no news of my father until we got a cable from Bombay about ten weeks after the fall, to say he had made it safely. He joined us about three months later by ship via South Africa.

We went to live at 47 Harrow Road, Adelaide. The house had a corrugated iron roof. We had no refrigerator and, during the hot weather (we had a week over 100 degrees which was regarded as pretty hot), we used to collect a large block of ice in a pram from the shop at the end of the road. I sat on top of it. There were trams down the middle of the road. Much later, during one of our B & B dinners at Tregoose, the lady sitting next to me said she lived in Adelaide, I enquired where and she said “49 Harrow Road”. When I told her we had lived at 47 during the war, she was quite surprised and even more surprised when I told her there were trams in that street. She was quite certain there were not but I managed to establish that there were through the help of one of Alison’s relations who lives in Australia.

We also lived at The Devon Guesthouse in Seacliff about fifteen miles east of Adelaide along the coast. We used to listen to the railway line to find out when a train was coming and put pennies on the line when we heard the metallic noise and the puffing of the engine and climb up the banks of the cutting to watch the train go through and then retrieve the flattened pennies.

I went to school at Prince Alfred’s College in Adelaide. At the age of nine I had a crush on the school mistress who taught me long division, and I acquired my insatiable love of cricket. By this time my father had joined us in Adelaide. One day we were walking past the Adelaide Oval. There was a cricket match in progress, and he lifted me on his shoulder to look over the wall and said, “Have a look at that chap batting at the far end. You will want to tell your grandchildren about this some time. His name is Don Bradman”. I watched him bat for a few minutes and, for want of any grandchildren (so far as I am aware), I am now telling my children.

My father found life at the bottom of the legal profession in Adelaide pretty boring after having been at the top of it in Singapore, and wrote to the Colonial Office in London who offered him a job as Crown Counsel in what was then Nyasaland, now Malawi. He went ahead and we followed in an enormous empty ship, the crack liner lie de France which had taken troops out to Australia and was now returning empty. Although the Indian Ocean was full of Japanese submarines, we had no escort but relied on speed and zigzagging to get through to Durban, and from Durban we made our way by train to Johannesburg and thence up through Southern Rhodesia and Mozambique, to Nyasaland where we joined my father.

We had a house on the slopes of the mountain in Zomba, with a lovely view across the valley to the famous Blue Mountains, and a stream running through the garden. My father rigged up a cricket net for me. I ate most of the fruit on a bush of banana passion fruit and swelled up like a Michelin man for several hours. My mother plunged me into a bath of permanganate of potash. We had two teaspoons of very bitter quinine to take every night against mosquitoes and malaria.

The centre of social activity was the Zomba Gymkhana Club. One day there was a band playing on the cricket field in front of the club with various marching demonstrations. My great friend Anthony Burden and I had spotted a nest of wild African bees in the club. We managed to dislodge this and beat a hasty retreat to the swimming pool from where we were able to hear the band suddenly stop playing, and saw that people had started running in all directions flapping their necks and heads. This seemed hilarious. We were duly hauled up before the secretary of the club and given a severe talking to. On a recent visit to Malawi we found the club and cricket field just as they were seventy years earlier.

I went off to school in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in the school train. This journey took three nights and four days at the beginning and end of every term. The giris were shut in the front half of the train and the boys in the rear half and there was a severe matriarch half way down to see that never the twain should meet, though why I am not sure. In any event the train went so slowly that we were easily able to run from the rear to the front portion while it was going and at the same time replenish our catapult stones with which we broke every pane of glass within fifty yards of the track. I have never lost my love of sleeping on trains from this date. One of the boys fell out in the middle of the night from a bunk which was beside an open window and was picked up the next morning quite unharmed walking along the track in his pyjamas. Fortunately, there were no lions about.

I went to Whitestone School in Bulawayo. This was then several miles out of Bulawayo in the bush and we had a great time building grass roof huts between boulders and learning a bit of bushcraft. I had a very good Latin master called Mr. Carroll who sowed the seeds of my love of English into Latin particularly. In the dormitory I used to snore because I had adenoids and the larger boys would wait until I was snoring steadily and then bash me with a pillow which was to say the least a bit tedious.

Then the time came to leave for England. We departed from the port of Tanga in what was then Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in an elderly freighter and made our way up the coast and through the Red Sea where we joined a convoy at the northern end of the Suez Canal. The journey across the Mediterranean was very exciting. We had bad weather from time to time and our naval escorts seemed to disappear completely under the waves before emerging the other side. Anthony Burden and I shared a cabin with a rather mysterious man who spent a great deal of time looking through the porthole with binoculars trained on the naval escorts. He had a notebook in which he made numerous entries. This aroused our suspicion and our fears were confirmed when he was seen injecting himself with a needle. We went to the Captain and told him that we had a German spy in our cabin and suggested that he clap him in irons. The Captain promised to look into the matter. Later, he called us in to say that he could not do as we suggested because our cabin companion was a diabetic birdwatcher.

We arrived at Gibraltar on VE Day and saw a line of the dreaded German U-Boats surrendering with white flags up. Later we arrived at Liverpool on a glorious sunny day and saw the bomb damage, the City bloody but unbowed. We felt proud and it seemed that we had been through it all, although we had only seen it on newsreels. We then went to stay with my mother’s mother Granny Wise at Thurlestone in Devon. She had a little house called Redlands which is still the first house at the top of the village on the right as you go down. From the back we had a lovely view of the waves rolling into Bigbury Bay past the sand dunes and Bantham and up the river.

And then came the news of the two Atom Bombs and the Japanese surrender. When we later went to live in Singapore, we heard one or two stories about the Japanese occupation. One was that they were very strict on looting. Our amah, then a small girl, was walking along a street when a Chinese stooped to pick up a ten dollar note in the street. Two Japanese officers were walking behind and when the man stood up and started to walk off, one drew his sword and decapitated him. The body walked on a few paces and then dropped. One of my partners in Singapore told of how his father left their house when he was put into Changi Jail. He came back after the war to find it immaculate, just as he had left it. In fact, the only looters were the British on the re-occupation of Singapore after the surrender (other ranks only, of course).

Returning to the narrative, I was in England and about twelve. I was sent to Sherborne Preparatory School. I had to be prepared fast for Common Entrance to Sherborne School in about eighteen months’ time. I got into the first eleven at cricket fairly quickly, bowling slow out drifters and took eight wickets for fourteen runs in one school match. One of our opponents had a ferociously fast bowler called Beaky Turner. He was a year or two older and six foot tall even then. He skittled us out cheaply. He went on to Sherborne School proper as I did, and became the opening fast bowler for the 1st XI. I remember at the big school taking partial revenge for our prep school debacle by hitting him through mid-off for four in a house match. I had been Head Boy of the Prep but soon discovered that one’s first term at the big school was designed to knock any conceit out of one.

In September 1947 I went to Abbey House, Sherborne. The housemaster was Max Westlake, a well meaning but rather simple man who had been a boy in the house around the turn of the century i.e. at the end of the nineteenth century and saw no reason to change anything. He and the house were still in the Victorian era. Post war England was pretty bleak. Food rationing was still in force. There was very little fuel for heating. Cold baths were compulsory for the whole house and every morning we had to plunge into a cold communal pool measuring about fifteen feet by four feet. In the depths of winter the first one in often had to break the ice. The lavatories consisted of rows of seats with no doors and only half roofed, so one faced a line of people similarly engaged at rush hour after breakfast having dusted the snow off the seat if you were the first to use it.

New boys had a fortnight’s grace during which they had to learn the routine of the house, two long verses in Latin of the school song (which I can recite to this day), the names of all the houses, their whereabouts, the heads of all the houses and their housemasters, the names of the various playing fields and other details about the school. At the end of the fortnight, life began in earnest. Fagging was in full swing. When a prefect shouted “fag” from the top of the stairs, all the fags (that is to say all the small members of the community), had to run and the last person to get to the prefect got the job, whether it was cleaning his shoes or sweeping out his study or fetching something from the classrooms and suchlike. Timekeeping was strictly enforced and a few minutes lateness was severely punished, quite often by a beating administered by a prefect.

Minor infringements were punished by a few days “calling”. This involved leaping out of bed the moment the wake-up bell sounded at 7.15 each morning, rushing downstairs, plunging into the cold bath (often breaking the ice), running upstairs, getting dressed which entailed struggling with a stiff collar, collar studs and tie, and then rushing to the prefect’s bedside to report. All this had to be done by 7.20 am, i.e. within five minutes. If you were a moment late, you were then given a few more days “calling”. There were numerous, seemingly petty, rules which had to be strictly obeyed. When I became more senior, two of my own “fags”, John Hardy and Martin Gan-od, later rose at different times to be the top Marines and were knighted, so I suppose the system did some good to someone.

We had to cycle to rugby on the games fields about a mile away, in all weathers and with minimum clothing. Rugby was fiercely contested. I remember one small boy bravely tackling a much larger boy and being completely knocked out or concussed and having to be carried off. I was very light for my age (8 stone when I left at the age of eighteen though my family will not believe this) and I did not shine at rugby though I did later captain the fourth fifteen. We had one match, against the third fifteen.

All this kept us very fit. In the dormitory there was a metal bar fixed out of reach of most people which one had to hang from and then swing one’s legs forward, up and over so one was left stretched out on top of the bar in a more or less horizontal position. One then came down and, without touching the ground, did it again for as many times as was specified by the dormitory prefect. This exercise was known as “upward circles” and in my case at least, resulted in my having two parallel “ropes” of muscles down my stomach, which meant that I could invite anyone to hit me as hard as they liked in the stomach without my feeling any ill-effects even round the solar plexus. This was useful because boxing was compulsory. We were expected to go in for the school knockout competition (aptly named) and I remember going to some lengths to lose a bout when I discovered the size of the boy I would have met in the next round if I had won.

New boys had to undergo a procedure called “boxing”. In the comer of the day room was a built in rubbish box about 3 ft x 2 ft. The new boy was stuffed into this and required to dig down through the rubbish and get out through a narrow opening at the bottom. Any claustrophobic panicking had to be overcome. By devious means I managed to avoid being boxed. The food in the dining room was pretty awful. I suppose the cooks did what they could but, as food was rationed, we got plenty of gruel, and bread like wood, practically no butter and a minimum of jam which one had to provide oneself. When occasionally one was allowed to be ill, one visited the eighteen stone matron who did not suffer fools gladly. If you got on the wrong side of her, you were set to pumping up her bicycle tyres, which had of course to be like steel before they would carry her weight, and when they burst sounded like a pistol shot.

Occasionally one of the new boys could not cope with it all and was quietly removed by his anxious mother. I remember one boy trying to practise the violin and being told in no uncertain terms to take himself off to an empty unheated classroom in the depths of winter. I remember another small boy in tears.

My parents were abroad throughout my school life. This had advantages however because I spent exciting summer holidays with them abroad. At about the age of fifteen I boarded a flying boat at anchor in Southampton Water. This was a Short Sunderland (or was it a Solent?) which had two decks, connected by a short stairway, with a small bar and plate glass observation window, half way up the stairs. When we started to taxi across the water, spray covered the lower deck windows, but stopped suddenly as soon as we had gathered enough speed to become airborne.

The first stop was Marseille, where we were taken ashore and given lunch with a litre of vin rose amongst four people at the table. I drank most of the wine myself with disastrous consequences shortly after takeoff when I was suddenly violently ill, partly over a very pretty girl in the seat in front of me, who did not seem to mind and who unfortunately disembarked at Alexandria. Our next stop was Malta where we were taken by launch to the best hotel on the Island. In the morning we set off again and came down that evening in Alexandria where once again we were taken by launch to a good hotel, off next morning following the Nile southwards until we reached Khartoum where again we were taken by launch to the shore and thence to a lovely hotel where as usual we had a first-class dinner. We were woken at dawn and I shall not forget the sight of the sun coming up over the desert and General Charles Gordon’s statue on camelback in the foreground, with the great white bird sitting on the Nile and waiting for us in the background.

After breakfast on the balcony outside the hotel room we climbed aboard and took off flying down the Nile bound for romantic places to the south. As we followed the Nile at about 180 mph, one could sit at the bar half way up the stairs and look out of the observation window at hippo, crocodile and other big game. We came down at Entebbe on Lake Victoria where I remember the deafening noise of frogs. Next morning we took off for Kenya. However we had first to negotiate an 8,000 ft escarpment. The ceiling of those flying boats, fully laden as we were, was about 8,500 ft, so with all engines revving, we just cleared the trees below, and later came down on Lake Naivasha, some fifty miles from Nairobi, to be welcomed by parents.

Mau Mau was starting to boil up. My father was Attorney General of Kenya at the time and left shortly before Mau Mau broke out to be Chief Justice, Jamaica. I remember him saying later that the Administration was largely unprepared for Mau Mau because of its habit of moving District Officers from one village or area which they had just got to know, to another, every six months. So there was no proper intelligence about the oath-taking which had started. I remember riding through the African reserve with a friend of mine and noticing the sullen faces of the Africans. I do not blame them; we were riding through their reserves and, incidentally, fishing for trout in some beautiful rivers that ran off the mountains, again through their reserves. I had some lovely school holidays in Kenya. We went to the coast on one occasion by train in the Governor’s coach through the country made famous by Robert Redford (who, of course, bore no resemblance to Denys Finch Hatton who was bald as a coot) and Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa”.

On another occasion we took a launch up Lake Albert. Big game abounded on the lake shores. I particularly remember enormous crocodiles lying in the sun with their mouths wide open, presumably because it was cooler and so that little birds could pick their teeth. As we got nearer the north-east comer of the lake, we must have passed a spot where Samuel and Florence Baker, two of the many intrepid explorers endeavouring to find the source of the Nile, were paddling in crude dugout canoes when in 1863 they were charged by a hippopotamus bull which lifted their boat half out of the river. Despite the hippo and the crocodiles, they managed to reach the bank. A short distance north-eastwards they, and we about a hundred years later, came upon a spectacular waterfall, which they named the Murchison Falls in honour of the President of the Royal Geographical Society of the day. Here, the entire Victoria Nile plunges through a 23 ft wide ravine, and emerges like a burst water main, falling into Lake Albert 140 ft below. I was told that the young bloods of the local tribe had to prove their manhood by leaping across the gap. Thinking back to my long-jumping days at school, twenty three feet is quite a leap, with no soft sand to land on.

Big game, snow-capped mountains, glorious beaches, water skiing, cricket, tennis, squash, polo, log fires at night, carnations and strawberries – what more could one want?

I used to spend most of my other school holidays at Aileron, a rambling country house in South Devon in which lived CD. Wise, then I suppose in his late seventies and his daughter Stella (otherwise known as “Twee”). I used to bicycle to Thurlestone, about 10 miles away, golf clubs, tennis and squash rackets on back. There was a long hill up the drive. Then a long hill down to the river and Loddiswell Station at the bottom of the hill. A little steam railway ran along the river valley from South Brent to Kingsbridge. The engine driver would wait for you if he saw you walking across the fields with a suitcase, and if you caught the 8.30 train on Saturday mornings from Paddington and got in the last coach, this would be slipped at South Brent and you would go off in the opposite direction on the Kingsbridge line, following the river, to Loddiswell, the station for Aileron. Alas, the line is no more.

However, back to bicycles. Having crossed the river and toiled to the top of a second long hill, one then bicycled nine miles along comparatively flat roads to Thuriestone, played eighteen holes of golf with friends in the morning, another eighteen in the afternoon, several hard games of squash or tennis, and then bicycled back, still carrying clubs and rackets.

When not at Aileron and not visiting parents in exciting places abroad, I sometimes spent my holidays with a family in Taunton. I later learnt that my parents had advertised in The Times for a good home for me. I suspect they had one or two replies thinking I was a dog. The Morgans, as my surrogate parents were called, regarded me as the sporting son they never had, and arranged for me to have cricket coaching on the County Ground in Taunton from the great men of the Somerset county side. I later played for Somerset Colts in their under sixteen side, without I think much success. That was the year that my cricket coach at Sherborne, MM Walford, regarded by some as the greatest amateur sportsman Britain had ever produced, made 247 not out for Somerset against Hampshire.

I managed to get onto the first eleven at Sherborne in 1950 and again in 1951, playing against among others David Sheppard and Ted Dexter. I am afraid I did not fulfil my early promise.

After leaving Sherborne in 1951, I went to King’s College, London University (not Oxford or Cambridge as I would have liked) to read Law. King’s College was then a rather grey and slightly grubby building off The Strand and most of our lectures were in the basement. I did not realise this but a few doors along in the basement Rosalind Franklin was conducting her experiments with X-rays which resulted in the momentous discovery of DNA, later exploited by Crick and Watson without giving her due credit. She later died of cancer, thought to have been brought on by the X-rays in the basement at Kings College.

I lived in a hostel on Clapham Common, which was then a poor neighbourhood with not a single house costing over £10,000. On one occasion we had a complete blackout at midday, due not to an electricity failure but to accumulations of smog, in the days before the Clean Air Act. I remember walking down the pavement to try and find my way to the tube when in the pitch black I was startled by the sudden cough of somebody walking in the opposite direction and about to collide. Being midday, there were no street lights.

I was fairly hard up. My father gave me £300 a year to cover university fees, hostel fees, travel and other expenses. I was too proud to ask him for more and would walk to the next bus stop to save a farthing, which was then the lowest coin of the realm. I earned some money by helping to get the rain covers on and off at Wimbledon. I saw at close range Maureen Connolly win the Ladies’ Singles by dint of excellent baseline driving as she hardly ever went to the net.

I also worked on British Rail, getting up at 5.00 in the morning and travelling to a dingy station called Maiden Lane somewhere near Euston, in tube trains full of workmen moving below London all with their satchels containing packed lunches, and reading Daily Mirrors. I had no idea this population existed. Our work consisted of unloading mailbags from one train and putting them into another. In between, as my fellow workers were largely Polish, we played bridge in Polish. All good experience, as Granny Wise used to say, especially as we played for money.

Then one summer I left the drizzly streets of London and boarded a banana boat at Avonmouth near Bristol bound for the West Indies and a glorious ten weeks staying with my parents there (my father was then Chief Justice of Jamaica) – polo, tennis and beaches. I acquired an old motorbike and rode it, I remember, into the Blue Mountains to an ex-army hill station called Newcastle, parents watching anxiously from the hills above. At the end of a glorious ten weeks I boarded another banana boat bound for Bristol and my motorbike was emptied of petrol and put in the hold. On arrival at Avonmouth it was deposited on the quayside, covered in small green caterpillars which seemed to prefer it to the bananas in the hold. As there was no petrol in the tank, I had to push this heavy old ex-army Matchless 350 along the longest wharf in Britain before I could put petrol in it and get it back to Clapham.

The motorbike spent the winter parked outside the Clapham hostel and the next summer vacation I rode it to stay with Granny Wise in Thurlestone. I remember doing the breathtaking speed of 60 mph for ten miles across Salisbury Plain and pulling into a petrol station. I was about to dismount when the engine gave a convulsive jerk and stopped. I took off the cover of the chain case to discover the chains (of which there were several) in a complete tangle and the driving wheels locked. Had this happened a minute earlier when I was doing 60 mph, I might still be in orbit. I had no lights, so the latter part of the journey when it was dark was rather hairy. Running low on petrol, I bought a round of drinks at a pub and borrowed a tube from the owner of a car who let me siphon petrol out of his tank and into mine by way of a jam jar.

At about this time, I was asked to go over to play tennis with some people called Huntley-Flint who had a court nearby. One of the other guests was Douglas Bader, the legless, ex-Spitfire fighter pilot. When I partnered him, I was expected to leap about at the net, while he took one stride to the right on his tin legs and more or less covered the right hand side of the back of the court, and another large step to the left to cover the left hand tramline.

Having spent a delightful few days at Thurlestone, playing golf and joining in tennis tournaments at the Club, the time came to return to London. I took the precaution of joining the AA and set off in high spirits, and at the bottom of Haldon Hill outside Exeter, I found the engine was revving beautifully but I was going slower and slower. Dismounting, I found that the clutch was slipping badly. In those days clutch friction was provided by cork insets which had worn badly and I was stuck. Shortly afterwards, a cheerful AA patrolman arrived and managed to locate some more bits of cork somewhere in the Midlands. The only way of getting them down to me was to pass them from one AA patrol to another. I waited by the roadside most of the day until the spares duly arrived and enabled me to find somewhere to spend the night. The next day I remember drawing up on the nearside of a lorry which was pulling into the middle of the road, thinking it was turning right when it suddenly turned left, and I was knocked off. Fortunately unhurt, I resumed my journey, arriving somewhat later than expected at the other end.

I then left Clapham and went to some delightful digs at 30 Cranley Gardens near Gloucester Road tube station. There was a stockbroker on the ground floor, a solicitor on the first floor, a doctor on the second floor, a businessman on the third floor and I on the fourth floor. Dear Mrs. Bailey brought me a tray of cereal, toast and bacon and eggs every morning and I could have a delicious three course evening meal on a tray for three shillings, if required. I had a nice little private balcony overlooking the tree tops, and after I left Kings College with a degree in Law (my best subject was Jurisprudence where I got a first but nothing else to speak of), I read for the Bar in my rooms at Cranley Gardens without attending lectures.

I sat the Bar Final in the Great Hall in Lincoln’s Inn and the seating was arranged in alphabetical order. Since my name began with “O”, I found I was surrounded by black gentlemen, Messrs Ogwo, Owolowu and plain Mr. O, to name some of them. At the end of the last paper, I observed a white man making his way through the throng of Africans with his hand held out: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” On the day the results were published in the newspapers, my landlady appeared with the breakfast tray looking very concerned. When I asked her if anything was the matter, she said that she had not found my name in the list of people passing the Bar Final. She showed me the paper: fortunately she had only looked among the passes and I had got an upper second (ninth out of five hundred). This made me think that I was God’s gift to the legal profession until after a year in my first job in Nairobi, my boss and now my old friend Lee Harragin, told me over a cup of coffee that I was of less use to him than his secretary. So I started to work from then on.

[Anthony goes on to join the legal profession and spends much of his life working overseas, mainly in Africa and the Far East and meets his first wife, Penny. They didn’t have children of their own, but adopted two. The second and last excerpt from his story is in connection with a visit to Russia during the Cold War c.1969/1970.]

Before we adopted Sophie, we had decided to go back on leave via Moscow. Aeroflot were offering a cheap fare to London via Moscow and we could see why, because after take off when no sustenance of any kind arrived, we were offered what we had to content ourselves with for the whole flight, namely, warm coca cola and caviar. We got a little tired of this after a few hours in the air, so were glad to arrive at Moscow Airport.

It took about two hours to get through Immigration and Customs and we then arrived at the Hotel Russia. At the bottom of the lift sat a grim looking policeman of some kind to whom we had to present our passports, and at the top of the lift (the hotel was only three storeys high but occupied a vast area), we had to pass more scrutiny, this time of a hatchet-faced woman who clearly had a revolver in the drawer of her desk, before we were allowed to proceed down the corridor and find our room. After dinner which consisted, as did every meal including breakfast, of borsch, cabbage soup, fish soup and one other item, I think caviar again, we went back to our room and shortly afterwards, we heard a man screaming in the passage outside our room. The screams diminished in volume as he was clearly being taken down the corridor for questioning about something.

At breakfast the next morning we were joined by a pleasant gentleman who explained that he was a West German businessman and he had missed his flight and he offered to take us round and show us the sights of Moscow, which we readily accepted. The first place we visited was the Museum of Russian Achievement in Agriculture which consisted of a number of dreary and obsolete looking tractors and other farm implements. After a bit, we realised that our companion was not a West German businessman, but had been sent to find out exactly why we were in Moscow. This was at the height of the Cold War. We managed to shake him off and went to the Kremlin to see the relics of the Tsars, which were indeed quite splendid. Our guide would always tell us how many meals each valuable item would have provided for a starving worker, before taking us to the next exhibit. On our way out of the Kremlin we were crossing the road and heard a whistle blow somewhere in the distance. We walked quietly on when we noticed that everything – cars, pedestrians and buses – had come to a stop. Striding towards us was an enormous Russian policeman in a light blue overcoat covered in gold braid who harangued us fiercely in Russian, presumably for not stopping. We looked blankly at him. It was not until his eye alighted on Giles, then small and blond-haired, that he paused and his face broke into a smile and he allowed us to proceed. We then came upon a long queue about ten deep of people filing past the embalmed body of Lenin in Red Square, which we resisted the temptation to join.

When the time came to leave, we arrived at the airport in good time and presented our passports. Penny had a British passport on which Giles was entered, but I had a Singapore passport. Singapore was then a capitalist country in the middle of the Communist Far East and the guard took one look at my passport, slammed the grille shut and disappeared with it. Penny got her passport back, and went into the departure lounge. The flight departure was announced and I shouted to her to go ahead and leave me if necessary. This she did, and she and Giles went through the barrier and disappeared. Time passed and the plane was about to take off when the grille opened and a sour-faced, bullet-headed soldier flung the passport at me. I grabbed it, got through the barrier and covered the distance across the tarmac to the plane in Olympic time. As I ran up the boarding steps which were about to be detached, I caught a glimpse of the Union Jack on the tail of the aircraft. At the top of the steps were a pair of long mini-skirted legs and I heard a voice saying, “Ah, Mr. O’Connor, we wondered what had happened to you. Champagne or whiskey?” I knew I was home.

Notes written by Anthony O’Connor. Edited by Michael Thompson for WarGen.


Author: mjthompson2017

Since retiring from Civil Engineering some years ago, I took up film making professionally. Now, I have retired from that but will continue to work with WarGen filming War Memories as long as I can, even though I am in my 70s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.