“I was introduced to the English education system. I recall going for half days, as half the schools were in use as hospitals for the victims of that most brutal and senseless war. My early years bring many memories of seemingly endless processions of blind, legless and armless men. Although I was too young to understand it all, the memory of the bitterness among the population still lingers with me. On top of this the “Land fit for Heroes” was utterly incapable of providing even a modest living for its returned heroes. At this stage of my life, four and a half years or so, school occupied most of my time, but I have very few memories of the first two or three years. However, I do recall being given a slate and a slate pencil and with these tools we all laboured at our first attempts to print, write and spell, and I can still hear the teeth-jarring squeals as we scraped up and down our slates.”

***

“A sidelight of a funeral in those days was that after returning from the cemetery, everyone gathered at the home of the bereaved and sat down in the living room, kids and all, to a feast that would have done justice to a good wedding. A saying common in those days was, “I’d rather go to a funeral than a wedding, you don’t have to take a gift.” It was what you would call a cold supper: ham, tongue, salmon, biscuits, tea, and fruit. For those days it was a real spread, and of course, lots of whisky and beer and by the end of it very few were sober. Fights and arguments were not uncommon. We kids, being wise to this, got out of the way while men and women went for one another in drunken rages. It usually was ended by a kindly policeman coming in and throwing the men out into the street and holding the women back … The next day, everybody would be big pals again, but there’d be a fine assortment of black eyes, split lips and more around the neighbourhood.”

***

“Life for your mum had become a most trying business. Practically everything was tightly rationed and it became increasingly difficult to maintain even a semblance of civilized life. Food, except for the most basic necessities, became almost non-existent. Your mum had to develop dishes from the weirdest ingredients and on top of that her income dropped to less than half with my departure into the army. To this day we both have a guilty feeling when we sit down to a steak dinner. I remember my mother in Canada sending a food parcel to my lass. Olga wrote me telling me about the silly little tea bags she’d received in the parcel and the difficulty she’d had unstitching them all. Tea in England was sold in loose tins! Still she was delighted and grateful. The parcel also had a pound of lard in it. This item was literally worth crowing about. She melted it down and savoured once again real chips, or French fries as you call them here. That pan of lard made its way to every house in the street and everybody had the luxury of real hot chips. Your mum didn’t hoard her good luck!”

***

“The North Atlantic in spring is no place for landlubbers. Before one day was out a gale had sprung up and about 90 per cent of us were flattened by seasickness. The conditions on that boat after four or five days still stick in my mind as the most horrible I ever endured. The deck was awash in vomit and other bodily wastes. No one was capable of standing let alone cleaning! The smell was beyond description and we all wished ourselves in Hell where it must surely have been better than that boat deck. Around the fourth or fifth day I must have felt a little better as I struggled out of the hammock and was immediately detailed for gun duty. I crawled out into the sunshine and was placed in a circular steel pit sticking out over the side of the ship, complete with a heavy artillery gun and a bunch of shells and I was told to keep a sharp eye open for submarines. The first thing I did was look at the sea. This was an error in judgment. The sea was fifty feet below and tossing like mad. I promptly threw up again. I think that if the whole German navy had shown up I wouldn’t have seen it!”

***

“The next morning around came my truck with sealed orders for my new C.O. and we set out for Bari, a small seaport in S.E. Italy on the Adriatic about a hundred miles away. All the driver could or would tell me was I was to be delivered to Special Services there. After thinking about this news for a while I came to the conclusion that I may have been a little hasty in volunteering, but that there was nothing I could do about it now. I also knew that this outfit went in for commando raids across the Adriatic around Albania, the Greek Islands and Yugoslav coast, which did little to cheer me up. I’m a terrible sailor and the thought of going to sea almost turned my stomach there and then. However, having developed a thoroughly philosophical attitude to life in general, I got the driver to stop for a gourmet lunch of army biscuits, bully beef and water and put the whole problem out of my mind. We sat by the side of the road and exchanged pleasantries with some local farmers, swapped cigarettes for red wine, figs and oranges and after a pleasant enough hour we carried on with our journey and arrived in the early evening.”

Codebreaker Memoirs

2 thoughts on “Code breaker: Excerpts from Bill Graham’s memoirs

  1. I grew up on Wickens Ave in Aldershot and remember delivering the Spectator to the Graham’.very interesting reading,

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