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The North African Deployment of Don Peckham

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posted on 2024-06-05, 18:14 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

When my Dad moved in with us, I was sorting through some papers and was about to throw away an old notebook. Leafing through it, I found 2 treasured items. First, I found a list of every place my dad visited or passed through during his service in the Royal Corps of Signals from July 1942 until December 1945, but I thought you might be more interested in the second item - this narrative written by my Dad on his travels at the end of 1942 from basic training in Thirsk to Port Tewfik in Egypt on the Queen Mary.

He wrote as follows:

The first [suggestion] we had that things were beginning to move was on Saturday 19th December [1942] when our sergeant woke us up in the morning and told us we had had the 'stand to' and we were all confined to barracks. Blankets were handed in on the Sunday, and we all collected in the Town Hall at Thirsk for a final talk and instructions. The CSM said a last few words to us finishing up with 'Cheerio and God bless you all'. As he walked down the centre aisle out of the hall amidst hearty cheers there were tears in his eyes. We all liked that cockney Sergeant Major, he was a decent chap.

The final meal was about 2100 hours and then we all collected in the Town Hall for the final roll call. Then came a march of about 2 miles to the station carrying all our kit. Our departure was no secret, the locals came out to wish us the best of luck. The train pulled out of Thirsk at 0100 hours on the Monday morning on its journey north. Everyone did their best to sleep a little and at Waverley Edinburgh the train stopped, and we were all served with a mess tin of tea. The train reached Glasgow in the early light of morning and thence up the banks of the Clyde, through the shipyards with work going on under arc lamps to journeys end which was the small town of Greenock at 0300 hours. We stood on the station for a considerable time looking out into the harbour at numerous ships, wondering which one was going to take us to our unknown destination. As we were taken out in a lighter it soon became obvious that the ship we were to sail in was the famous Queen Mary. On going aboard, we were taken to our quarters on E deck forward. This was at 1430 hours. The sleeping accommodation was hammocks and crowded at that but that was to be expected. After settling down there was a mad rush for the canteen, where everything was like peacetime, chocolate, biscuits and cigarettes at 1/8 for fifty, all made in America by the way. The chief difficulty at first was to find your way back to your billet, sometimes it took at least half an hour. We finally sailed at 0500 hours on Wednesday 23rd December 1942 and immediately hit some bad weather. Everybody around me was being sick but I managed to keep vertical and only missed two meals in the elaborate dining hall. In a few days the sea and the fellows' stomachs began to settle down and boxing was organised on the main deck aft.

Christmas day was just like any other day. In fact, like any other day there was nothing to do except sit about on deck (life jackets make good cushions). That may sound boring but being in the Army with nothing to do is a novelty on its own. In the evenings there was always the RAF Dance Band to listen to on the Promenade deck and if it came to the push you could go below and do your washing.

Saturday the 27th the ship's newspaper started, and I was a Mess Orderly.ie setting out the food for my fellow 'wolves'. Up to now there was a Sunderland flying boat still with us. Monday the 28th was much warmer and I put on my tropical shirt and shorts and got my first sunburn. Great excitement was caused by the sight of flying fish skimming over the water. Today Lockheed Hudsons were still to be seen occasionally. Tuesday the 29th we were alone in the sea that was as smooth as glass of a colour blue that had to be seen to be believed. Flying fish were still to be seen and schools of porpoises leaped high out of the sea.

Wednesday 30th a convoy was sighted and at 1500 hours, through the heat mist, the black outline of the mountains of Sierra Leone came into view. By 1700 hours we were anchored in Freetown harbour after coming into the bay through a gap in the submarine nets. The heat was terrific and below decks the sweat just rolled off continuously. The first impressions of Freetown was the colour, just like the vivid colours of technicolour films. The gold of the sand, the green of the trees and rising up at the back, the heat rising off the thickly wooded hills. Soon two tankers were alongside and some natives in their boats made out of hollowed tree trunks with a triangular sail, who dived for coins, nothing less than sixpence. At sunset we were not allowed on deck unless sleeves were down, and trousers tucked in socks and exposed portions smeared with anti-mosquito ointment as Sierra Leone is malaria-ridden.

Thursday 31st we left Freetown at 1200 hours with its colour, heat and malaria and crossed the [equator] line at 0770 hours on New Year's Day.

Sunday the 3rd January I went to a very good church service in the elaborate officer's lounge.

Tuesday the 5th we anchored in Cape Town at 0930 and were all 'browned off' by the news that we could not go ashore. It looked such a delightful town with its new buildings and houses rising up in a gentle slope to the foot of Table Mountain. Here again the colour was brought out by the strong sunlight. All the time stores and oil were being taken on while people in launches came out to have 'a look at us'. The most noticeable thing in these parts was the unbelievable speed with which the sun set.

Wednesday 6th a mist descended in the afternoon and at one time it looked as though someone had put a tablecloth on Table Mountain. When it lifted in the evening a silver light shone on the town, a very impressive sight.

Before leaving Cape Town we were each allowed to send a cable home. The anchor came up at 0430 hours on Thursday 7th and we sailed out with a destroyer escort which stayed with us for about 12 hours.

I celebrated my birthday [22nd] on the 10th with half a dozen oranges which I bought in the canteen.

Monday 11th was the hottest experienced. On going below sweat poured off in buckets. At meals you had to keep on mopping your face to prevent the sweat dropping in the tea and making it salty. We ate plenty of fruit and a favourite thing to do was to open a 2lb tin of fruit between two and eat it straight off.

Thursday 14th at 1400 hours we sighted an island of rocks and sand which I believe to be Socotra. Also all English money was called on and exchanged into Egyptian piastres.

Friday 15th the rocky coast of Arabia was sighted, and the anchor was weighed at 0930 outside Aden. Immediately the native boats made for us with goods to sell. Several queer hawk-like birds hovered over the ship. The land itself seemed to be nothing but mountains, rocks and sand. The stay in Aden was not very long and we pushed on into the Red Sea, through very hot weather. When the sun was in a certain spot there definitely was a red tinge on the water. I could hardly believe my eyes. Soon came the time for packing and changing back into battle dress. The Mary finally anchored on the 18th Jan '43 at 0800, a very fast and pleasant journey.

Dad served in North Africa, Greece, Italy and after VE Day in Germany.

History

Person the story/items relate to

Donald Peckham, Royal Corps of Signals

Person who shared the story/items

Steve Peckham

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

Father

Type of submission

Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

Record ID

92203