Bill - the National Serviceman

After two and a half years of involuntary servitude in the British army Billy was finally on the last leg of his journey home. He had spent a couple of weeks in a transit camp in Port Suez living on chocolate bars, because the food was atrocious and he couldn’t wait to enjoy a decent meal and see his family after being away for a year.

At only 6,000 tons the troopship was quite small and was packed to capacity with young soldiers who had completed their National Service. There was an infectious excitement amongst the troops as the little ship made its way through the Suez canal to Port Said and into the Mediterranean heading for Blighty.

The sweet pungent aroma of Port Said was not apparent until their arrival, so the prevailing wind must have been in their favour. After docking at Port Said, the ship was surrounded by the usual bumboats bobbing about in the water, with the vendors hoping to sell their goods to the occupants of the ship. Purchasing items from the bumboats was accomplished by a system of ropes over the side of the ship, which added to the allure. Billy considered exchanging his watch one more time, but decided to stop while he was ahead. It was the last chance to participate in this exciting ancient barter system, but he successfully fought off the temptation.

On the second day of the voyage there was a gigantic storm the likes of which had not been seen in the Mediterranean for many years. As the raging sea increased the small ship bobbed about in the water like a cork in a bathtub. Practically everyone aboard was sick on the first day, but Billy held out, eating plenty of good food, which was not only a novelty, but also recommended for combating seasickness. Finally when he was washing his mess tins at the hot water tanks, the sight in front of him was too much and he capitulated. Losing all control he almost fell down on the water soaked deck and could easily have disappeared through one of the openings in the side of the ship to swim with the fishes, had it not been for the intervention of a giant lad standing behind him. His saviour grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and held him up on his feet, while he did what he had to do.

Naturally Billy was very grateful and became friendly with this young man who was at least 6 feet 4 inches tall, with shoulders as wide as the proverbial barn door. It turned out that they had something in common; because the big fella had just been released from a detention barracks in Egypt. As the storm continued, everyone wanted to get into the centre of the ship on the top deck, because the movement there was less unsettling. Competition for these positions was very contentious, but as they say, ‘the 500 pound gorilla can sit anywhere he wants’ and the big fella always took Billy with him. They would while away their time playing cards and chewing the fat in the best seats of the house, which was the centre of the port side top deck overlooking the ocean.

The physical attributes of his new found friend was of particular value getting into the picture palace on the ship, because there were always more than three times as many soldiers waiting to get in, than the small room could accommodate.

Every day a large group would gather outside the cinema at least an hour before it was due to commence and at five minutes to opening time the big fella and his friend would leave the comfort of their cosy quarters and make their way to the movies. As the door opened and everyone fought to get in, the big fella would push his way through the crowd, dragging his friend behind him by the scruff of the neck, like parting the Red Sea. It was an exceptionally effective unconventional entrance and no one ever voiced an objection, because the outcome of a rumble with the big fella was a foregone conclusion.

The damaged pier at Malta was a reminder of the storm as they approached Valletta harbour, where the small ship dropped anchor for a few hours to take on supplies. The high scenic cliffs of the harbour were the background for one of the most thrilling sights Billy had ever witnessed. From the top deck of the small troop ship, he stood in awe of the large magnificent British Aircraft carrier slowly making its way into the calm protected water. The gigantic warship was so close that everything was visible through the openings of the lower decks, where aircraft with their folded wings sat in waiting. Royal Marines stood to attention on the upper deck in their splendid blue and red tunics with white webbing and helmets, presenting arms as the brass band played Land of Hope and Glory. It was truly a magnificent sight, which cannot adequately be described in words and produced an emotional response from all the onlookers. Billy was almost inspired to reenlist – Almost! Next stop Liverpool and the train to London!

The excitement was at fever pitch as the soldiers disembarked at Liverpool and waited in a single line to go through the customs. Billy quickly observed that he was the only one carrying two kitbags and felt uncomfortable, because one of them was filled with the Nuffield cigarettes, compliments of his friend the storekeeper. Billy’s anxiety increased as he approached the front of the line and noticed MPs standing with the customs inspectors. Low and behold his guardian angel appeared again in the form of the big fella, who was standing behind him without any luggage and was astute enough to size up the situation. Without saying a word the big fella grabbed one of the kitbags, placed it on his shoulder and in keeping with his normal aplomb, walked right to the front of the line passing the customs as though he had a special right of way.

The big fella then returned the kitbag and ran excitedly with all the other soldiers to the waiting train – Billy never saw him again and often wondered how his modus operandi fared in civilian life. He was a friend in need and a friend indeed - Ships passing in the night!

As the troop train chugged it’s way south, everyone in the carriage wanted to sit by a window and enjoy the view of the deep green rolling countryside, which they so obviously loved and didn’t realize until then how meaningful it was - A reunion, with ties so strong that dialogue was unnecessary. The contrast with the barren desert they left behind was a sharp reminder of their wonderful heritage and enveloped them in pride.

At London the men were taken to a place where they disposed of all their unnecessary equipment – It was like a side show at the fair, with the enthusiastic soldiers pitching water bottles in one large container, webbing here, mess tins there and overcoats in a big heap. They were only left with what they were standing in, which was their uniform, beret and of course their well maintained footwear.

Everyone was provided with a civilian suit including a shirt and tie, which were packed neatly in a little cardboard box with a carrying handle. The latest style in trilby hats was also dispensed to the would-be debonair. This outfit looking like it came right out of the front window from Burtons Clothing store was suitable attire for the billiard hall upstairs.

Last but not least they received the money they were due, a train ticket and ushered out the door without even a medal for surviving all that army grub! To Billy’s delight the whole demobilization process was over in less than half an hour and to all intents and purposes he was free.

The only remaining task, which was really a pleasure, was the satisfaction of burning his uniform at the bottom of the garden the following morning, while his bemused father, the ex-RSM looked on in silence. Billy has since regretted not saving the hat badge and his arm insignia and replacements would not be the same.

In the twilight we are left with our thoughts and the realisation that the only things we regret are the things we didn’t do.

Billy - The Civilian

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and sans End

Omar Khayyam

Copyright © Bill Hawksford.