Saturday, 9 May 2015

For #VEDay70

When the war in Europe ended, my dad was stationed at a transit camp in Sidney, Australia waiting for onward transport to join his unit in the British Pacific Fleet.

He wrote in his diary:

On Tuesday 8th May 1945 the newspapers were head-lined "It’s all over in Europe" and gave histories of the last five years.

Flags were flying in Sydney but no crowds surged through the streets. We made sure our rooms were booked at the British Centre and went for a drink to celebrate Victory. A couple of drunken sailors were the only signs of the momentous day it was.

At seven o’clock we were steaming out of Central Station just as the city began to warm up and celebrate. Australian trains are horrible. They are uncomfortable, slow, draughty and Heaven knows what else, in fact not a patch on the good old L.M.S. [London, Midland and Scottish Railway.]

The only interesting part of the journey was an old man of 83 who got on at Penorth and who had emigrated here when he was 19. He had many interesting stories of the old days.

We arrived at Katoomba, highest point in the Blue Mountains about 10p.m. and after eating – the inevitable steak – got to our hotel just in time to hear Churchill’s speech.

Soon we were in bed, well wrapped up as this is very much colder than Sydney.

I found this clip of Churchill's speech on Youtube. I thought it was interesting that as well as announcing the end of the war in Europe Churchill went on to talk about the Japanese threat in the Pacific.

At the time of VE Day the war in the Pacific against Japan wasn't regarded as particularly important by the British public or indeed the majority of Britain's serving men and women. The Government propaganda machine had to work hard to persuade people to support the Pacific War. 

My dad was a radio mechanic in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. He travelled on a troop ship from Liverpool via the Panama Canal to Australia. The journey took about four weeks. He had to wait in Sidney, Australia for a further six weeks before he sailed on HMS Arbiter to Ponam Island, a tiny coral island about 2000 miles north of Australia. His unit was based on Ponam Island providing back-up for the British Pacific Fleet.

There are some more photos of Ponam Island if you follow this link.

I Think I Prefer the Tinned Variety: The Diary of a Petty Officer in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II

Monday, 16 March 2015

Anthony Gross, official war artist, and the Convoy series of drawings

I've recently discovered an amazing official war artist named Anthony Gross.

In 1942 he was sent on a troop carrier, the m.v. Highland Monarch, from England to Egypt via Sierra Leone and the Indian Ocean. He made a series of drawings during the voyage, which took around eight weeks, which are a fantastic record of daily life on board. Some of Gross' drawings have provided me with real in-sights into my father's diary.

For example, on Thursday 14th October 1943 Norman recorded:

"Transport arrived, picked us up and dumped us on the wharf alongside "S.S. Orbita" an armed merchant cruiser used as a troop carrier.

Climbed the stairs (damned if I know the nautical name) and then, after finding ourselves on the top deck, tried to find our mess, which we were told was "just forrard".

Eventually discovered it and found it to be a place about the size of a single tennis court where 360 of us were to eat and sleep for Heavens knows how long – not a very pleasant prospect."

Gross' drawing of m.v. Highland Monarch at Avonmouth gives a real sense of what it must have been like to arrive at the dockyard and see the vessel you were going to board.

By Gross, Anthony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And these drawings have a great feel of the congestion and overcrowding below decks that Norman described at the start of his journey to Sierra Leone in 1943.

By Gross, Anthony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Gross, Anthony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I'm planning to add some more of these fantastic drawings to future blogposts but if you want to check them out for yourself just click this link.

Friday, 6 February 2015

An Interview

Some months ago I was interviewed on Words UnLimited about I Think I Prefer the Tinned Variety and the questions asked were very interesting to answer. The website has closed now so I thought I would post some of the Q&As here today.

Hi Cathy! Your father's war diaries sound particularly fascinating. Where did the title come from?

The title? Well, it was originally The Diary of a Petty Officer in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II but I thought that was too boring so I asked Michael (my husband) for suggestions and he said, "Look in the book and you'll find it in there waiting for you."

So that's what I did.

My dad was brought up in a coal mining village in South Yorkshire but after his initial training he was sent to an air-base in Sierra Leone, West Africa for over a year. The diary records his daily life there. On 20th January 1944 he wrote:
"The oranges' season is now well in and the crop is excellent. Pineapples are also in and I had my first the other day. They are quite juicy but rather woody. I think I prefer the tinned variety." I thought this encapsulated the complete contrast he was experiencing in his new life in West Africa. I speculate that his preference for the tinned variety was an expression of his home-sickness.

So that's how I found the title and what Michael said was true: it was right there waiting for me. I kept the original as the sub-title so readers would know what the book was about after, hopefully, being intrigued by the title.

It must have been emotional for you; reading the diary of a young man; his hopes, dreams, desires, even his fears, knowing this young man would become your father. How did you cope with that – were you able to detach yourself, or do you feel this personal relationship was an asset to interpreting your father's diaries? 

My dad never talked about his war-time experiences. Sadly he developed cancer and died when he was fifty four. I was in my late twenties at the time so I expended huge amounts of emotion many years ago. Discovering the diary and sharing it with my sisters was wonderful. We found a side to our dad that we'd never known. Thirty years after his death we were able to talk and laugh and joke about him in a way we'd never done before.

This was my inspiration and motivation to turn the diary into an ebook.

As I studied the diary I found myself constantly questioning what he meant. You know how it can be with a diary, the entries are meaningful to the author but an unintended reader has to try and piece it together. I also realised that my knowledge of WW2 was patchy and I had to do a lot of reading to try and match his experiences with the bigger picture.

I thought long and hard, and talked with my sisters, before I made the diary public. Norman hadn't written for an audience and we tried to imagine how he would feel about it and whether he would have agreed to publication if he'd still been alive. We decided that he would have been amazed by the opportunity of Internet publishing. He was an ambitious man and took advantage of the opportunities that came his way throughout life so we think he would have been pleased.

What discovery surprised you most about your father's teenage/young adult years?

Norman was a committed Christian all his life but I didn't know until I read the diary how much his faith had meant to him when he was young. I speculate that he might have gone into the church if the war hadn't intervened and sent him to the other side of the globe. In the last months of WW2 he was stationed on a tiny, tropical island in the South Pacific as part of the British Pacific Fleet. He was there when Enola Gay was dropped on Hiroshima which must have been a traumatic experience.

When I was doing the background research I discovered that before being sent out to join the British Pacific Fleet the training had included jungle survival and hand-to-hand combat. As Norman couldn't even manage to tie his hammock properly when he was on a troop ship I don't think he would have survived very long in the jungle. Fortunately, the island he was stationed on had been prepared to accommodate service personnel by the American SeaBees (the United States Navy Construction Battalion [CB]). There was even an outdoor cinema!

Norman is very much an ordinary person, living through extra-ordinary world changing events, the basis of all great literature – only Norman's story, is of course, all true – is there a particular message for readers?

The book isn't about battles or heroics. I think some readers have been disappointed by this but you know thousands of young men (and also some young women) had their lives completely turned upside-down by their war-time experiences even though they weren't on the front-line. All fighting forces need their logistics and back-up in order to succeed and I hope that readers get insights into what was going on in the background during those challenging years.

What emotions do you hope to inspire in readers?

That's a very interesting question. I didn't particularly plan for any emotional impact on the audience. I just wanted to share the diary and make it more accessible by explaining the background. I wasn't able to find much information about the West Africa part of the story so I hope my dad's diary is filling a gap in historical writing. Readers I've talked to who knew my dad have expressed surprise as they had no idea where he'd been during the war years. I hope that the book will inspire empathy towards all those who played their part in WW2 even if they weren't called on to make the ultimate sacrifice. An Amazon reviewer said: "It was like listening to my old workmates when I was a callow apprentice in the early sixties some of them had a very action packed war and some just got to go places they wouldn't have seen in their lifetimes. This reminded me of those wonderful people of a marvellous generation who will go down in history as a fantastic example of what ordinary human beings can achieve given the opportunity." I liked that a lot.