Royal Army Medical Corps
by E.F. McLellan
'I joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as Private Eric F McLellan no. 7406038 in 1942. I was 19 years old when I reported to Aldershot, and for half-a-crown, (12.5p) a day, I gave up the next five years of my life for King and Country. Five wasted years? I was never in the front line, I didn't have a gun and I never saw the enemy.'
The seventeenth of January 1944 was my twenty first birthday and here I was on this old tramp steamer in the middle of the Indian ocean with not a birthday card in sight, only the vastness of the sea. Flying fish lay on the deck waiting for the lackies to collect them up to cook for their breakfast. Harry Crowe was up and about. He was very thoughtful, giving me a pocket sized holy bible which was gratefully received, so I purchased from the ships canteen one tin of Victoria plums and one tin of carnation evaporated milk and we had them for our tea to celebrate.
After a few days passed, there on the horizon getting larger and larger was the coast of India. On going into the docks the next day in Bombay, we could see the large arched monument aptly named the "Gateway to the East". While disembarking from the boat and loading onto the train, we were told that we would be going to Deolali for distribution throughout India. The carriages were like converted cattle trucks with wooden seats. We had arrived in a country of 650,000,000 very poor people. The humidity was terrible and the carriages were crammed with sweaty young men.
Rolling out of the harbour, we slowly made our way, climbing gradually up the mountainside. What a lovely sight looking down the valley. Arriving at Kalyan, another train was attached and we set off climbing higher and higher until we eventually came to this huge holding camp at Deolali which was to be our home for two or three days while they sorted us out.
With so many troops in this tented village, all meals were served on the football pitch. What a to do. Unfortunately nobody told us about the birds. These were called kite hawks or scavengers and were always about at mealtimes. Us white-kneed rookies would line up with our dinner plates in one hand and our pudding plus mess tin full of tea in the other. We then had to cross the pitch to our tent to consume it. It was while walking and balancing plates that these birds would swoop down and claw everything off the plate leaving nothing. That was the first thing we learnt, always cover food up when in the open. We used to get our own back because of the meat being tough. We tied some meat to a long piece of string and a tin can full of stones to the other end. We'd throw it to the birds then down they'd come, snatch up the meat and fly away with the stones rattling behind them. Great fun, and just a little something to pass the time of day.
At last our postings came through. With a sad goodbye, Harry was sent up to Calcutta and I was destined to go to Poona. This was where all the pucka Sahibs used to brag about going to in the early thirties. (When I was in Poona, la-di-da) Eventually after a days journey I arrived at 3 I.B.G.H. (Indian Base General Hospital) which was spread over a wide area. About a dozen of us arrived and were duly put in number one ward, (general) which at that time was empty. Here we could choose our bed, called charpoys made of wood and strung with coya rope, but little did we know about bed bugs.
These little perishers were white and very difficult to spot and they must have been very hungry. At bedtime, tucking in the old mosquito net around the bed, sleep was heaven sent, but waking up next morning I was covered with little red bites all over me. The answer was in the corners of the mosey net. Hundreds of bugs bright red, filled to the brim with our blood! Talk about a transfusion service. Some of the lads were lucky enough to have iron beds, so armed with a blowlamp burnt all the little blighters hiding in all the nooks and crannies. Those of us with wooden
beds could only stand the four legs in tins filled with paraffin which didn't make a lot of difference, they still got to you.
Our wing for about half a dozen of us was section fifteen, the mental wing for servicemen who had nervous breakdowns and had cracked up in Burma and Singapore. The ward consisted of up to thirty six other ranks, also an officers ward of sixteen who also could not stand up to the strains of war and the discipline of army service. These were young soldiers from the front line who'd had nervous breakdowns and gone berserk. On both wards treatment was given, but in those days, there was no cure. ECT (electric convulsional therapy) was in its infancy and we used this to try and shake them out of their disturbed state of mind. Sometimes it worked, though more often than not it didn't. E.C.T. and Somnifane did help a few, but in the end they were all shipped out for eventual discharge or light duties back home.
I palled up with a chap called Andrews (Andy) who was a mental nurse from Norfolk, but to see and hear him with his Norfolk accent, you would think he was a country farmer. He was in charge of the animals in the section, a pony, pigs and also a few chickens. Every day he would get the old pony and cart out and go round all the wards to collect swill for the pigs. After fattening them up he would sell them to people outside, the money going to the patients amenities fund for fruit, cigarettes and sweets etc. From time to time I would help Andy kill a young pig or to scold it, scrape it and gut it ready for the officers mess if they were having a party or some bigwig was visiting for an inspection. He was a good mate.
On the section we had different Indians working. Cooks, sweepers, bearers, char wallahs, dobi wallahs and the barber who used to call every day to give us chaps a shave. This cost three rupees a week and he could even shave you while being asleep. The bearer would look after you laying your clothes out for the day, making up the bed, and generally tidying up the barrack room. The sweeper would sweep around the building keeping it clean and tidy. The dobi wallah would call each day to collect the dirty washing, (we all wore whites) take it away, wash it, iron it and return it later in the evening for which he charged two rupees a day.
The char wallah would come at seven in the morning with his urn of tea and wads, keeping it hot with charcoal burning under the urn. Here he would remain all day, thus presenting us with stewed tea until the evening, but nevertheless it tickled the old tonsils and tasted good. The wads he sold us were a kind of bun made with atter (flour). These buns were infested with weevils, a small black beetle. By the time you picked them all out there was nothing left, so we ate them, weevils and all. It didn't appear to do us any harm.
The food in general was not bad. Curry and rice was always on the menu, all rather hot but we soon got used to it. Then there was chicken, goats meat or sheep. There was not a lot of difference but at least there was the good old banger. All these dishes were served up with sweet potatoes, peas and cabbage to make a meal to stop the worms from biting. Another strange thing was the soya link which was a kind of sausage made from soya beans. They tasted like sawdust mixed with flour but we still ate them.
Fruit was plentiful. Oranges, limes, bananas, mangoes and a thing called custard apple. These were about the size of a lemon which, when cut in half were full of pips in a creamy substance. They were quite tasty.
After a few weeks had passed, more orderlies arrived replacing those who were off escorting patients on the hospital ship sailing home. Bill Green was one of the chaps who came to the section having previously been in the airborne regiment and was transferred to the medics. He was a grand lad, (and still is). I well remember the days when he and his wife Beryl were expecting their second child back in Leicester. Poor old Bill was naturally worried as to how she was faring, but good news came with the arrival of a baby girl to be named Avril, to go with Paul their son. It certainly put his mind at rest to know that both were doing well.
Bill, Andy and myself would often go swimming together with others to the Willingdon pool, spending a couple of relaxing hours amid pleasant surroundings along with Tubby, Scotty, Dave and Paddy. After our swim we would wander down to Poona town about a mile away and head for the Chinese Kamling restaurant there to fill ourselves with a lovely American chop suey meal together with sweet, iced coffee. It sure was very filling.
Another time we went to the hospital recreation hall for a musical evening of light classics. We sat on raised seats looking down to the empty stage, except for one large radiogram placed in the centre lit by two spotlights beaming down in a darkened hall. The first piece of music played was Finlandia followed by more works from different composers. Sitting in the dark with the old mince pies (eyes) closed, one thought of many things appertaining to heaven.
The climate during the summer season was of course very hot and humid. Everywhere being dry, bare and very dusty. Cows and bullocks roamed around freely all over the place. They were sacred and not killed for their meat like goats and sheep. All cow pats were collected up and the women would mix them with straw using their hands to make big round pats which were stuck on the outside walls of their huts to dry. This they later used for fuelling the fires while cooking food etc.
The wettest part of the year was the monsoon season with nearly three months of almost continual rain. It was then you could see the change in the countryside with everything coming into bloom. Flowers, trees, bushes and lovely green grass which the animals enjoyed. One could see them grow fatter everyday. Then there was tea and scones with strawberry jam and a thick layer of buffaloes cream on top. It makes the old mouth water just thinking about it.
The monsoon lasted from about July to September and was nice to sit out in a pair of shorts thinking that you were under a lovely warm shower. Playing football was also a bit of alright in the rain. This wet time was when the snakes were about and the most dangerous was the krait. Talking of snakes, a few travellers would pass from time to time carrying a small sack and basket. When he had a few people around him, he would produce a snake and a mongoose to do battle with each other. Of course, the mongoose would always win, so after collecting a few annas from the folks, went on his merry way, no doubt to buy a small bottle (about four ounces) of toddy. This was the sap from a certain tree which, when gathered was milky white in appearance and was medicinal, they said for aches and pains. When it was clear like gin it was very potent alcoholically and plenty of Indians were seen dead drunk after drinking their little bottle. Beetlenut was the chewing habit of the east and was a laurel-like leaf which when chewed continuously made the mouth and teeth all red which they spat about all over the place. They said it was to clean the teeth, keeping them white. Filthy habit!
From time to time a hospital train would arrive at Poona to collect patients bound for home. Our job was to escort them to Bombay and see them safely on to the hospital ship. This is where we saw a lot of crafty kids. They would climb up the telephone poles at the side of the railway track
level with the carriage windows. Naturally, interested passengers being shunted slowly into the dock areas popped their heads out of the windows, and as the train went slowly by, those wearing glasses had them snatched off their faces, then to be seen the next day in the optician's shop window in Bombay. Those kids would do anything for a few rupees.
After dispatching patients on to the ship, time was ours to do as we pleased until midnight so we popped along to the swimming pool at Colarba, just outside Bombay. This was to cool ourselves down, it beingvery hot and sticky, humidity being very high, you could cut it with a knife. After our swim and something to eat we would perhaps go to the cinema to cool off. It was like going into a fridge, lovely and cool, passing the time away. Another time we were in town, a few lads went up to the Y.M.C.A. canteen for something to eat. With us was Taffy Jones. After the meal he got up on the stage and began to play the piano.
What a lovely pianist playing some of the classics, then he sang and what a beautiful tenor voice he had. We all sat there in amazement at his range and richness with songs like Jerusalem, Because, Trees, You are my hearts delight and many more. He was wonderful and it was while he played that he was approached by someone from all India radio and was heard a few times broadcasting. E.N.S.A. soon took him away to entertain the troops and the last I heard of him was that he had caught black fever in Germany and was sent home.
Another thing I noticed while in Bombay was the Parsee Sect. These were known at the time as white Indians because of their skin being nearly white as opposed to the others being brown. They were very clean indeed and very pretty. All the women wore their immaculate pure white silk sahrees with edged embroidery of many colours looking like new pins amidst the dirt and rubbish strewn streets of Bombay. Then at the end of the day after visiting different places, we made our way to the station, catching the midnight train back to Poona, arriving at about seven o clock next
A very posh train that ran from Poona to Bombay was the "Deccan Queen". The journey took four hours non stop, leaving at seven in the morning and arriving at eleven. I say posh because it didn't have passengers hanging on the sides or sitting on the roof like other trains. It was very clean and bright with a restaurant car attached, and said to be the fastest short haul train in the country.
My first escort job was to take an Anglo-Indian discharged from the army back to Jullundur, near Lahore. He was, of course, from a mixed marriage and his people were very kind to me during my week long stay with them. I then had to report to the R.T.O. (Rail Transport Officer). Here he would book me a ticket and a seat for me to return to Poona. They kindly invited me to stay again any time I was passing and this I did several times on my different assignments. They were all very kind and I enjoyed their company. This my first trip was the start of many to different parts of India which eventually proved to be a lot of miles. Madras, Cochin, Kandy in Ceylon, Mhow and Agra. Taking in the Taj Mahal. What an incredible building, more so in the moonlight standing there all white in the darkness. It was constructed of what appeared to be white marble and was built for the Shah Jehan in memory of his favourite wife who died in 1629. It took twenty thousand workers, twenty years to build. It was also said that everyone who worked on the Taj was killed so that another would not be built. It is really a magnificent piece of architecture.
Hyderabad state was a very nice place and ruled by the Nassim of Hyderabad who at that time was said to be one of the richest men in the world. Apparently there were railway trucks in the palace grounds filled with gold bars all overgrown with weeds and an underground cave where he went every year to count all his money, jewels and wealth.
Another trip was to a place called Mhow. As the train wound it's way between the hillside, monkeys and apes ran alongside hoping for some titbits. On nearing our journeys end, darkness had fallen. Passing different trees, they would light up with millions of fireflies winking in flight, making another incredible sight. Having delivered my patient to the hospital, a visit to the local town was called for. I set off, and while waiting for my train, I noticed an officer coming towards me. I
could tell he hadn't been in India very long owing to his new tropical kit and white knees, so I pulled out my handkerchief and started blowing my nose. As he passed by, I heard "Hey soldier!" I turned round to see him calling me so I walked back towards him. He said "Don't you know thatyou're supposed to salute and officer?" I replied that I was in an awkward predicament blowing my nose at the time and was unable to do so at your passing. He looked at me and then at my R.A.M.C. eppulettes and must have thought I belonged to the local hospital. "Next time you pass an officer you salute him or you'll be for it." With that, he turned on his heels and went. What a pompous twit and rookie I thought.
Back at the section life drifted slowly by, then one evening Bill, Andy and myself went for a stroll and came across a lot of horses being exercised in some lavish grounds. After watching them for about half an hour a very smart, well dressed Anglo-Indian came up to us and asked if we were interested in horses. We of course said yes, but really just for a bit of conversation. He then asked would we like to come in and see the horses. Oh yes please, so we tramped in after him and stood in the centre of this large ring of horses. He then began to name every horse, which race and how much money each had won. There were about forty horses walking around. He said he had about one hundred and eleven altogether to be kept in for training or breeding.
He then introduced himself as Major Jedhav who had been leading trainer for the last eight years to the Maharaja of Gwalior. He was certainly a very interesting man to listen to but then to our surprise he asked if we would like to see his highness's holy temple, him not being in residence at the time. This was the icing on the cake. The temple stood in the grounds opposite the stables and was a beautiful white gleaming building similar to a mini Taj in design. The roof consisted of a huge dome in the middle with about eight pencil like towers all around it and on top of each was a golden ball, said to be solid gold. Down the path we trod between colourful flower beds until we reached the door. Here we took off our shoes and entered there to stand and take in the wonder before us. Casting an eye upwards to the domed ceiling, one thought of being in the cistine chapel at Rome. Magnificent paintings with colours of all beauty. The walls bedecked with pictures seemed to be inlaid ceramics in white and coloured marble depicting the Gwalior dynasty. They certainly were an eye catcher. The floor itself was of mosaic design and perfectly laid making the whole building so cool and refined. Flowers were everywhere and incense was burning, giving a scented aroma about the place. Then we came face to face with a huge Buddha statue in black and gold, studded with hundreds of diamonds and jewels surrounded in a wrought iron cage finished in black with gold leaf design.
Such riches, elegance, cleanliness and beauty in the palace grounds and temple. One found it hard facing the real world of overcrowding, homelessness, poverty, dirt and disease where ordinary people just scraped a living. Rabid beggars, and there were many, bitten by rabid dogs, crawling around on stumps of legs and arms. A pitiful sight after all the splendour we had seen. They say that we don't know how the other half of the world lives, but here we saw it at its grimmest.
When the Poona races were on, all the elite showed themselves. The Maharaja of Gwalior and Baroda would be there together with their jockeys Britt and Roberts, then on to other meetings in different parts of India. When the Indian summer season finished they would come over to England and ride the flat season there.
Patients still arrived from time to time and along with one batch came my mate of the boat Harry Crowe. But this was not the Harry I left at Deolali, this was very much a changed man. He had been sent to a unit in Calcutta and eventually became a patient himself suffering a mental breakdown. When we chatted he would break down and cry, becoming very depressed he kept saying he could take no more. I asked if I could look after him and took him over the O.T. (occupational therapy) workshop giving him little jobs to do and having many chats until his departure for home. Alas, he was a sorry sight to see and I was never able to find out what happened to him on his return. A week before another trip to Bombay, we heard that an ammunition ship had blown up with over six thousand casualties and more than half dead. (English newspapers reported three hundred killed) Going slowly into the harbour and dock area one could see the devastation caused. The stench of burnt flesh and bodies hung over Bombay for very many weeks.
One night while travelling back from Bombay to Poona, I managed to get a glimpse of Mahatma Ghandi. He joined the same train as me, crammed with passengers inside as well as others hanging from the outside and sitting up on the roof. The train kept stopping and starting at every station, level crossing, road and gate for him to wave at the thousands of people who had come to see this frail, loinclothed grand old man with metal rimmed glasses and stick who advocated change by non-violent means and towhom everyone had put their faith in. I watched from the window in my crowded carriage, about sixty feet away as he stood on the train step in the doorway waving and talking to the gathered crowd who chanted Mahatma, Mahatma in the cool evening. Each stop would last between five and ten minutes. What a long night it was. The journey would normally take six hours but with all the stops and starts it took about nine hours before we finally pulled in to Poona station.
Andy at the section had been left a dachshund (sausage dog) by a patient who said he wasn't allowed to take it home with him owing to its age. Ruddy was his name and was very good company. Andy, Bill and I very often would take him to the patients dining room to sort out the wild cats who came for scraps of food left by the patients. Another search was for a coypu like rodent called a Bandicoot. These were found in the drains and drainpipes. Ruddy used to sort them out and kill them because they were a pest and a danger to health.
Then my name came up for priority leave. This applied to all who had been abroad for two years or more so with the thought of going home, it was down to Poona to pick up a few presents for the folks back home. A well serviced plane awaited us upon our arrival at Poona aerodrome. Soon it was up into the skies over the gats (mountains) to Karachi where we had a meal while the aeroplane was refuelled, then on to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf (Habbaniyah) then to Lyyd for another stop. Next it was to El Adam in Libya flying through an electrical storm over the sea near Port Said. After picking up six chap during our short stay, we made our way to Sardinia for an overnight stop. Two or three of us sloped off to the pictures in the evening but the film was Italian and we couldn't understand a word of it. Nevertheless, it passed a couple of hours away.
The next day we were on our final journey to Britain, landing at Brize Norton.
Although my escort duties took me to many parts of India, some journeys lasting two or three days, my last assignment was a nine day train journey. I took an Indian officer discharged from the army to his home and handed him over to his brother who was to look after him. At certain stations along the way we would stop for about two hours enabling the train crew to fill up with coal and water. Many families whose home was a small square of the platform ran to the engine to get hot water for their cooking and some coal which fell while loading the train.
All our meals were ordered in advance which we ate in the station restaurant. There was a little boy sitting in the corner pulling a rope attached to a big fan cooling us down while we ate and at the same time kept the flies moving.
During the night and unbeknown to me while I slept, the train had stopped and my patient officer had gone. This was the first time that I had lost a patient, so getting off at the next stop, I caught the next train back to Poona. Luck was with me that morning. We stopped at a small station to pick up more travellers when I saw my patient standing there all alone dressed in Indian white clothes. Where he got them from I do not know, however bundling my things and his from the train, I grabbed him and so continued our journey. On the fifth day our train came to a stop and the guard was calling for a medical man as the train had knocked someone down. I went along to see if I could help and found an old man with the back of his skull sliced off and was dead. Wrapping up his head and body, the engine driver stopped at the next station to drop the body off. It must have been a blind and deaf old tramp walking along the line.
Continuing our journey, there was not a lot to see except the plains rolling by brown, dusty and bare little hamlets of a few people around a water hole with their poor little donkey or camel walking backwards and forwards pulling up buckets of water. I felt sorry for theanimals in the heat of the day.
Our journey took us through Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar then by Tonga to a little place called Zaid, really out in the wilds and near the northwest frontier. A few miles before Zaid an army jeep pulled up and asked what I was doing and where I was going. I explained and showed them my papers and they said that they would take me the rest of the way as it could be dangerous. On reaching our destination, I signed over my patient to his brother and returned to the jeep. The lads in the jeep turned out to be Gurkhas who were on manoeuvres but could not take me back to Peshawar for another couple of days so I stayed with them and found them to be a very nice bunch of lads living under canvas.
My, couldn't they make a cup of tea. Strong, thick and tasting like nectar from the gods. After being taken back to Peshawar, I reported to the R.T.O. stopping off at Lahore for another stay with my friends at Jullunder, smashing, then back to Poona.
Well even with the war being over, work of looking after patients continued and in the meantime I had been playing football and unfortunately got a twisted left knee which blew up like a balloon thus putting me in hospital for about three weeks until it went down. With my leg still bandaged, I plodded about like peg legged Pete doing light duties. As time went by, the process of demobilisation came through. Andy returned home and left me with Ruddy the dog. Bill had also gone home and my turn was hopefully coming up in the near future.
As the days rolled by waiting for my turn, I had a shock one morning. There under my bed lay Ruddy in a pool of blood. How he made his way back to the billet I do not know. Somebody had shot him and the bullet had passed through his stomach, coming out the other side, poor old lad. I rushed him to the vets in town and they did a very good job, sewing him up with a dressing around his middle like a belly warmer. I'm glad to say he was soon up and about recovering well.
At last news came through of our demob, so collecting a few more presents for the old kitbag, the next thing was how to pack all the odds and ends collected over the last two and a half years. We also heard that
kitbags, boxes and parcels were carried on the boat yourself. Anything you dropped was left behind and lost, which I suppose was fair enough. After finishing all my packing, I found that I had a tin case, two kit bags sewn together, one normal sized kitbag plus my ukelele. I was hoping I could manage it all.
Arriving at the dockside I found our ship to be H.M.S. Georgic carrying about three thousand troops. I loaded myself up, small kitbag across my backpack, tin box in one hand, enlarged kitbag under my arm together with my uke and trusting my leg would stand the strain. I prepared to board. Walking on to the high step of the gangway, my small kitbag fell off and to my horror I knew that was it. I said to the guard on duty at the bottom of the gangway that I had just come out of hospital with a gammy leg and would he be kind enough to replace the bag on my back? Instead he said "I'll bring this one." How relieved I was to have that bag on the boat.
So my last long boat journey began by crossing the Indian ocean travelling once more through the Red sea, up the Suez canal to Port Said. Still the boat traders were busy doing their work and many of the chaps picked up last minute mementos to take home. It was on through the Mediterranean, across the Bay of Biscay, our final destination being Liverpool.
The next worry was Customs and Excise. Would they go through our kit? No, all ordinary ranks were lucky, but the customs men went through all the officers' kit with a fine tooth comb.
One of the unlucky things was after carrying my uke halfway round the world, enjoying musical evenings and sing songs, I dropped it down the gangway into the river, never to be seen again. We boarded the train to take us down to London where we were each decked out in a demob suit and then off home as a civilian to catch up with life lost owing to nearly five years of army service.
Over the years since the war, many named places have changed or do not even exist any more. Ceylon is now Sri Lanka. India split up after independence becoming India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. When asked "What did you do in the war?" I just say "Not a lot!"
But I did see a small part of the other side of the world. How people lived, worked and played. After seeing dirt, disease, squalor, homelessness, putting up with the heat, flies, bugs, mosquitoes, sands of the deserts, the bareness of the ground for eight or nine months of the year, it was good to be back amid the greenery of the English countryside with the four seasons winter, spring, summer and autumn. Yes it certainly was good to be back home.
Taken from 'Tales and Memories of the contributions made by a young Essex lad for his King and Country during World War ll'
Copyright © E. F. McLellan 1991