Chapter 7: Leave in Advance of Python

Discussion in 'North Irish Horse' started by Gerry Chester, Jul 24, 2006.

  1. Gerry Chester

    Gerry Chester WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    The North Irish Horse - By Gerry Chester

    At this juncture it should be explained that the British Army code name for return to civilian status was Python this being incorporated in the name of two leave plans, Leave in Advance of Python and Leave in Lieu of Python. The latter was designed to compensate those whose tour of duty had expired but, due to ongoing demands, their discharge was on hold. The former, for which I had been fortunate to be chosen, was granted to those who met certain criteria, primarily having been wounded and/or received recognition for meritorious service. I remember thinking that my two minor wounds hardly qualified me for leave, but, I suppose, a wound is a wound is a wound and I was not about to query my good fortune - it was only after returning from leave that I found I had been Mentioned in Despatches.

    After formalities had been completed at RHQ a jeep transported me to a small transit camp, on the outskirts of Rimini, for a stay of several days while others bound for home arrived. When the time came to depart on the next leg of the journey, we were paraded before an officer of the Military Police who told us, in no uncertain terms, that we were not to engage in selling anything to Italian civilians at any stopping points on the long journey south. Despite this warning, two people got hauled off the train by MPs, while stopped near Ancona, for doing the very thing we had been told not to do!

    We stopped for the night on reaching Foggia (near where the Regiment had been so long ago) taking off the next morning for the journey through the mountains to Naples where we took up residence in a Transit Camp for the next couple of weeks. At last, on Tuesday,1st May, were ordered to parade before the Transit Camp's OC. After wishing one and all "bon voyage" the OC handed over to a Warrant Officer who, through a megaphone, started to call the roll. As our names were called we were instructed to board an awaiting Bedford 3-tonner for transportation to the quayside where our ship was waiting.
    As with Army protocol, the names of men were called in the seniority of the Regiments in which they served. At very last, came Popski's Private Army. During the trip to the ship I was able to chat with the chap from PPA about the exploits of his legendary unit. Arriving at the quayside, we were soon aboard the twin-stacked Holland Amerika liner that was to take us home. If memory serves correctly, it was the Volendam.

    Finally all were aboard, the ship's engines came to life and, when the mooring ropes were removed from bollards, she gradually moved into the Bay of Naples. Soon thereafter, as darkness was falling, we steamed out into the open waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea - at last, the voyage home was underway.

    My recollection is that few aboard slept that first night. Before daylight came, the decks were crowded and remained so even after the call to breakfast was heard over the ship's loudspeakers. Later in the day the southern coast of Sardinia could be seen off the starboard bow, as our ship made its way steadily westwards towards the broader waters of the Mediterranean.

    Some hours later came an announcement from OC Troops, "The German forces in Italy have unconditionally surrendered. The agreement to do so, signed in Caserta on Saturday last, has been honoured." Even before the cheers had died down, the loudspeakers crackled alive again, it was the ship's Orderly Officer calling for the attention of all mess orderlies. Our expectations of hearing something special, to celebrate the end of hostilities in Italy, fell with a dull thud when the order came to "Dump your rubbish, dump it now!" Although we were sailing unescorted, it was a blunt reminder that the war was not over and that U-Boats may still be lurking below the surface.

    For the voyage through the Mediterranean we kept close to the Algerian coastline which we could see on our port side. Before reaching the Rock of Gibraltar, we were joined by another ship and, after traversing the Strait, by a friendly destroyer which accompanied us all the way home.
    Everyone quickly settled down to enjoy what turned out to be a peaceful voyage. After the obligatory daily stand-to, it was on deck to enjoy the wonderful weather that accompanied us all the way home. My favourite spot was atop a hatch cover at the aft end of the ship where, additional to reading books from the ship's library, many hours were spent playing cribbage, cribbage and more cribbage.

    Although not victualed as well as the Duchess of York the meals on board were consistantly good. Obviously the infamous "M & V" was not part of the seamen's diet and deservedly so! Surprisngly, a few grumbled about the lack of canteen facilities - I suppose some will never be satisfied!
    To stay clear of trouble, after leaving Gibraltar, we steamed to the west for a day before turning to the north, thereafter, although the days stayed warm, each one became a little cooler than its predecessor. The position of the sun gave us a fair idea of the direction of the voyage and, as we steadily sailed northwards, there was much conjecture as to where we would be disembarking. I heard that two entrepeneurs, from another mess deck, had set up a small book, Liverpool as the favourite with Glasgow close behind. On endeavouring to place a modest one shilling bet on the former, I was told the book was open to only those of the mess deck.
    Towards the end of the voyage our ship suddenly changed direction towards the west, shortly thereafter word came over the loudspeakers that the coast of Northern Ireland could be seen off the starboard bow. Turning to the north once again there was much rejoicing on the part of those who had bet on Glasgow. However, when the ship eventually tied up at a Greenock pier, after a voyage of some ten days, it became obvious that the book-makers had made a killing!

    After what seeemd to be an age, word came over the ship's loudspeakers that disembarkment would be by mess deck then, after going through Customs, we were to report to the RTO (Rail Transportation Officer) to collect passes, ration vouchers and tickets for home.

    Clearing Customs was a slow process as everyone had to empty everything being carried. While doing so - whatever it was they expected to find - there were many less than polite comments from the soldiery. By contrast, the RTO people went about their work most expeditiously then it was aboard a train bound for Glasgow whence, at last, everyone went their separate ways.

    As my parents had no idea that I was on the way home, during the short time while waiting in Glasgow for the Liverpool bound train to arrive, I tried several times to call them without success. On de-training at Liverpool's Lime Street station, another attempt to telephone home was equally unsuccessful.

    [​IMG] The final leg of my journey was before me. First a tram-ride to Liverpool's Pier Head, then aboard a ferry boat to Wallasey's Seacombe Ferry, thence to catch a Number 17 bus for a ride to the stop nearest to my home, or more correctly, the house next door. Although Wallasey is virtually all residential, due to the Borough's close proximity to Liverpool it suffered badly during the Blitz, mainly due to wayward parachute mines intended for the River Mersey. A total of 340 people were killed and many more injured in the raids - over 18,000 houses were damaged many to the extent that over 10,000 were rendered homeless. The bomb that had destroyed 13 Cliff Road (unfortunately killing the occupants) also blew off the roof of our home. As the house next door number 11, was vacant, the owner (who had evacuated to Southport) agreed to lease it to us. Fortunately, the local authorities quickly placed a large tarpaulin over our home before rain could damage anything of significance. Although I was aware that my parents had not moved back into our home, I was somewhat surprised to find it looking the same as when I last saw it, tarpaulin and all.

    I do not remember much of what happened during the ensuing four weeks. The big event was of course the announcement of Germany's surrender that came over the BBC during my first full day at home. What I do recall was the weather being perfect and playing a lot of golf, always hoping not to hit any of the sheep that were busily cropping the grass. But first a story from a few years earlier. When the professional of our Golf Club (West Cheshire) Bert Gadd, a good friend of Dad's, returned home victorious after winning the Irish Open he gave all his clubs away. His gift to me was his 4 Iron (by George Nicholl, the legendary Scottish clubmaker) and his putter. Those two clubs had a magic of their own especially the putter, so much so, it was not long before the Handicap Committee decided henceforth I would be playing off eight. Continuing the saga. To celebrate my fifteenth birthday, Dad arranged that he and I would play a fourball match, at Wallasey Golf Club, with his good friend Henry Hall (one time Mayor of Wallasey) and Emyrs Evans (Town Clerk). So vivid is my recollection of the match that I know it was played on Thursday. While approaching the tee of a par three hole, Henry Hall said, "There's a £1 note for anyone who gets down in two." Playing second, using my beloved 4 iron, my ball ended up less than a foot from the flagstick. So excited was I, at the prospect of purchasing a new three-speed bicycle (£1 was worth a lot back then) that I missed normally what is a gimme - one of the few times that the trusty putter let me down!

    Now to the point. A day or so later, upon opening my locker at the clubhouse, I was astonished to find a brand new matched-set of clubs in my bag. Turned out that Bert Gadd had pleaded with Dad, to ask me to give him his putter back, as he had lost his putting touch - seemed that Dad had wangled a full set out of Bert by telling him that he was sure that I would not part with it. At the time I was delighted, however, even when I was playing off scratch, never did I putt as well as in those pre-war days!
    Only too quickly came the time to return to Greenock to board a ship (I cannot recall its name) bound for Italy. The war with Germany being over, it was not necessary for our ship to sail well into the Atlantic before heading south and, not being in convoy, could steam at her own rate of knots. My recollection is that the voyage to Naples was two, possibly three, days shorter than the one homeward bound. Once on Italian soil we spent a day in the Naples Transit Camp before everyone went on their separate ways - in my case to rejoin the Regiment encamped just north of Rimini.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 19, 2018

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