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Bob at Radlett 1940

I was evacuated to New Zealand in August 1940. At that time we were living in Brighton and were having regular air raids. My family had friends in New Zealand and had persuaded them to let me come to stay with them there. This was all organized by the C.O.R.B. (Children's Overseas Reception Board) which had Lady Duff Cooper as its head. She, I believe was the wife of a Member of Parliament at that time. About the first or second week in August my parents took me up to Euston Station, London to start the journey. We said goodbye there with a few tears but having been to boarding school I was used to partings. There was a train full of other children waiting there, all with labels tied on to their coats and being loaded onto the train to Liverpool. We arrived in Liverpool late afternoon and were taken by a fleet of double decker buses to some empty boarding schools. These were empty as it was summer holidays and the normal boarders were away.

There we were to sit and wait for our ship to be ready. While there, we spent most of our nights in the air-raid shelters, as there were regular air raids in progress at that time. After a day or two I went to the person in charge to ask why I was the only one going to New Zealand when everybody else was going to Canada? This caused quite a stir, as it seemed they had mixed me up with the wrong group on arrival. Another big double decker bus complete with conductor was called and it then drove me, by myself, to another school where the N.Z. contingent was housed.

A day or two later, during the afternoon of 26-8-40 we were taken by bus to meet our ship. She was moored beside the Liver Building at the passenger wharf and was the R.M.S. Rangitata, a New Zealand Shipping Company vessel of 17000 tons. Once loaded we were put in six berth cabins in the bowels of the ship just above the water line. We had a porthole but these were permanently shut and blacked out due to the war and lighting security problems. The ship sailed that evening and we watched as she joined up with a convoy assembling outside the harbour. Our ship was the Vice-Commodore's and the Commodore's was the Volendam positioned on our starboard side and forward by half a ship's length. During that night the convoy moved out and in the early morning we watched the Isle of Man pass by on our starboard side. There were immediate boat drills carried out which were repeated a number of times. We also had to carry our life jackets with us all the time, as the cabins were too far away to leave them there. Destroyers were going up and down sorting out the ships of which some appeared pretty old. Overhead Avro Ansons, then the main planes available, flew up and down all day.

The third or fourth night out, about 29 or 30 -8- 40 at 22.00 hours, we were woken by the emergency bells ringing. We were collected by the escorts and rushed up endless staircases to the top boat deck. It seemed U-boats had attacked the convoy and a number of ships were hit. We could see fires in the area and the Commodore Ship had stopped in the water with lighting on. We were later told that the torpedo had missed our bows by two yards and hit the Commodore ship. This was the ship carrying the children going to Canada that I had luckily missed being on. The next convoy, sailing about two weeks later and on the 15-9-40 was also attacked. The ship, City Of Benares carrying children to Canada was torpedoed on a very rough night; 250 died including 77 children.

We were taken into the first class lounge that was on the top deck to wait and see what was going to happen next. When things settled down the stewards brought up loads of mattresses for us to sleep on, on the floor. The next morning the ship was on its own going flat out as the slow convoy had split up .The old boats were holding everyone back to about 8 or so knots and that had made it vulnerable to attack. We were, we were told, going at 17 knots in fairly rough Atlantic weather and allowing for that it was considered a pretty good speed. This also meant that I was seasick for the two weeks we were moving like that. I will never forget the smell of people being sea-sick in little straw baskets in the cabin, the swaying curtains at the door that was never allowed to be closed, the smell of oil everywhere especially at the entrance to the dining room. The ship was armed with a six-inch gun on the stern with two Oerlikon 20mm cannons further forward and machine guns up in the bridge area. I believe we also had depth charges at the stern too. These guns were all practice fired whilst we were still in the Atlantic. I seem to remember the 20mm fired at balloons fired up by rockets.

Our next meeting was with a U.S Navy destroyer outside the Panama Canal not long before we docked at Colon. America wasn't yet in the war and the civilians were very happy to see these 'poor children' (their own words) and gave us all a wonderful day out. We were taken out in big cars to see their homes and have a big feed then shown all around the area. This included the Golden Alter that had been sacked by Henry Morgan the pirate in 1671. All the kids had a great day and this was followed by a day trip through the canal which allowed us all to see the locks in operation. After a short stay in Panama itself we went out into the Pacific. We crossed the Equator on the 16 -9-44 where we had the usual celebrations and certificates given (I still have mine).

Crossing the Equator certificate 1940

Part of the celebrations was a concert in the first class lounge for the other passengers by the children. Our ship was diverted on the trip to N.Z. to call in at Pitcairn Island where somebody required a doctor. The ship was moored off the Island and the local people came out in a large rowing boat to come aboard. They brought out with them things that they hoped to sell or swap for something useful. We, the kids didn't have much but managed to get carved walking sticks and painted skeleton leaves for ship's soap. They, it seems had to make their own and this was considered a luxury. Some time later we arrived in Wellington New Zealand to a big welcome. We were the second group of children to arrive from UK in a short period of time. The first lot had arrived about the 11-9-40 and were mainly a privately sponsored group of 170 in all. In our group there was 126 children arrived and this did not including the grown ups in charge and some young mums with babies.

My Godfather's Brother, who was an M.P, based in the N.Z. Government at that time met me. The next day we took an 8-hour, 120-mile train trip to Hawera where he and his brother lived. These two brothers had done very well by working hard, clearing bush and farming since the 1880's. Neither, up to that time, had married and were 70 years old at the time I met them. A middle-aged lady, an ex-nurse who wasn't too keen on the arrival of this youngster, looked after the house. At their ages an 11-year-old 'Pommy' kid in long socks, pink blazer and school cap turning up was outside their normal life style and experience. The house out in the country was old by N.Z. standards having been built in 1867 during the Maori wartime. It was all on wooden piles, single story with about 27 rooms. Add to this a coach house; big separate laundry sheds and cowsheds etc. and it was quite a big place. The home property was only 25 acres as the larger farms they owned were well out of town. I was given a small room with bed and a clothing rack with a curtain in front. I wasn't allowed to have a light globe fitted as I might have read in bed. After being shown around and getting settled I had my jobs allocated to me. Feed the chooks; bring in the firewood and kindling; separate the milk (put it through the Laval Separator to get the cream off and leave skim milk only) The skim milk was put out to curdle and get rid of the whey. This was left out to get the flies on it and let them lay eggs. The morning chook (chicken) food was mixture of chicken bran and the 'meaty' mixture. The evenings food for them was maize (home grown) and wheat thrown around the grass in the paddock to make them scratch. Added to that, when I learnt how, milk the house-cow in the evenings and weekends. After a few weeks they booked me into a boarding school which my parents paid for from England. This was the New Zealand Friends' School, a Quaker school in Wanganui about 50 miles away. I stayed in that school for three years until 1943 and this was a quite a good time for me.

When the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor I was back in the war again and we started digging air raid shelters. Not long after that there was lots of air activity as the RNZAF practiced overhead and N.Z. became a large base for the U.S. Marines. They were everywhere. I know our market for beef from the farm improved to feed the troops there and up in the Islands. I only went back to the relatives for some holidays and spent many of them with school friends, at their homes. The New Zealand people were very friendly and welcoming to me and treated me as one of their own. These places I stayed varied from out-back farms, 15 miles from town, up in the ranges (mountains) with no electricity or gas, with water from the creek, to dairy farms, sheep farms, small country towns and so on. One especially nice Xmas was up at Rotorua where the then ex M.P brother who had retired now lived. This was right on the lake with plenty of trout fishing, boats to mess around with and other youngsters to go around with. This company was something I rather missed at the Hawera home. I was on my own on the farm there with no children living nearby. A few books etc had been mailed out from UK but most didn't make it as the ships were sunk on the way. I had been given two Boys Own Annual's which were OK but a bit dated, 1911. The only contact with England the whole five years was by special letters called 'Aerograms' and the odd sea mail. These Aerograms as they were called were photographed onto large rolls of film and sent by air. This saved weight and was more likely to arrive at its destination. The big day of the week was Thursday when we went into Hawera to the cattle sale-yards. On these afternoons I was given sixpence to spend if I had been good. During my five years there I went to the pictures once and that was a school outing to see Fantasia. The old people had never had much to do with films and never went to the pictures.

The last 18 months, from when I was 15, I was back living with the relatives, because they wanted me to stay and help out on the farm etc. My parents heard about this and insisted I keep going to school so the relatives then booked me into the Hawera Technical High School, a government school, five miles away, in town. Each day I had to get up early, start the fire, start the porridge, and feed the chooks, before going the half a mile down the drive to catch the school bus. I took my lunch with me as they said that I might waste money if they gave it to me and not buy a lunch in town that cost 1/6. We, the pupils, were lucky then as the N.Z. government gave schools free apples and pints of milk, as much as you wanted. To buy apples the price was 4/6 a 40 pound case or 6/6 a 40 pound case of Golden Delicious, then the top of the range. The government was paying farmers the going rate for their produce during the war years so to save wasting it, gave a lot of it to the schools. After school, the school bus dropped me back on the road about 4 O'clock so I could walk half a mile through the pine plantation up to the house. This was usually delayed a bit by my going round to check up on the cattle and sheep in the paddocks on the way. Then it was change into an old pair of dungarees and gumboots, feed the 'chooks', cut some wood, take in the kindling, milk the cow and separate the milk etc. There were always the large lawns round the house to mow or the many earth paths to hoe. Another big job was 'schucking' the corn. These maize cobs were all picked and stored up high in the maize bin to dry off. When it was really dry you had to remove the outer leaves and remove all the grains of maize grains by hand,done by twisting them round hard in your hands. The long term benefit of this was really made your hands strong with skin like leather. No food was allowed when I got home (She actually measured the bread!), but I was allowed an apple from a case of them that they bought. Our own fruit supply wasn't bad but the Possums got a lot of it. Tea was at six on the dot and rarely a heavy meal. We would have cobs of corn as a special when it was in season. But mostly our own grown stuff and our own meat; that was as it was for most meals. We made our own butter in a wooden butter churn from our own cream. Our meat other than chicken which I sometimes had to kill with a tomahawk, was sent down from one of the back farms they owned. All the vegetables were home grown, corn, asparagus, tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, fruit etc. All they bought was tea, flour etc. They had relatives there who sent then down a 220-lb bag of sugar from Fiji when they could. Breakfast was a plate of porridge and three only pieces of toast. On this we had our own butter and wild honey we collected from the walls of the out buildings. The evenings were taken up in the fruit season by going out shooting Possums by torchlight or setting gin traps to catch them. This I didn't like much as sometimes I would be sent to go round the traps the next morning. Any caught, usually by a leg in the trap, I had to kill by hitting them on the head with an axe handle. These were often skinned as a skin would get 4/6 for a brown one or 6/6 for a silver gray. At 9 p.m. we would listen to the radio from the UK or locally transcribed if the reception was bad. Endless stories about the war in North Africa, Italy and of course how the Japs were going. There was always the list of how many of our aircraft had failed to return. Our water came via a small self-acting pump down in the creek. This pump called a 'ram pump' put the water up onto the top of the hill and it gravity fed to the house. I was sent to church every Sunday to study for confirmation at Sunday school before church started. To do this I had to leave early and walk to the local township Mokoia. Which was about two plus miles away. It consisted of a cheese factory, a store a few houses, sheep yards, church and local whistle stop railway station. They, the relatives came on later by car for the normal service which I had to go to as well.

In 1945 they offered me the chance to stay on in N.Z. and go to Fielding Agricultural College but I said I wanted to go home and see my parents. I really declined for as far as I could see; living on a farm was unpaid slavery with a big dept hanging over your head to pay for it. In 1945 just after V.E. day the return home was organised by the C.O.R.B. representatives in N.Z. I was to be in Wellington in a couple of weeks later to catch the boat home. I wasn't sorry to be going home though I felt I would miss the good friends I had made over there. The relatives put me on the train in Hawera and the government representative at Wellington station met me that evening. They weren't happy to see that I was being sent home with the same overcoat I had on arrival five years before, plus it was a bit small, to say the least. The next morning they took me into town and bought me a new one at government expense. The night of our arrival we were put up in a small hotel in town and I saw my second movie in five years. This I remember was 'Thirty seconds over Tokyo' the first war type film I'd seen. The same 126 now teenage children were all in Wellington waiting for the boat home. I then heard that a number of the youngsters had not had a really happy time. Some had been moved a few times from family to family. The ship turned out to be a very old one named Themisticles. It was a Blue Funnel ship built about 1926 that had survived trips all round the world during the war. We were half way across the Pacific on V.J. day 14-8-1945 and were able to open the portholes for the first time for five years. The trip back wasn't the smoothest and took over seven weeks; I was sick for at least the first three of them. We made stops in Panama City and at the Atlantic end of the canal then a few days in Kingston, Jamaica to load coal for the ship and sugar. Arrival in Liverpool was September and at the same wharf we left from five years before. It was then we saw for the first time all the wartime damage and also went onto English food and clothing rations. Strangely enough I then started to grow and went up six inches in height in a year. I feel I learnt a lot over this time and looking back on that time feel it was a good thing to have happened. Problem was I never settled in U.K. again and didn't feel I belonged there. My parents were lovely people but to me now with a very Kiwi accent they were so English with a BBC accent. I went into a cramming college to catch up my education and to sit my matriculation or Cambridge exam but couldn't take it seriously. Most of the youngsters there felt the same and were in the same boat. They had been in the USA, Canada, Africa etc and lived through all the changes and turmoil and excitement; history, math's, trig, English lit' etc seemed so unimportant then. I joined the RAF in 1946, as soon as I was old enough and spent six of the ten years in Germany and the Far East then left the Service in 1956 in Malaya. I came from Singapore to Perth in Western Australia and have lived in Australia ever since. I've been back to U.K twice and N.Z. four times and love both places but they have changed so much I had trouble recognising them. In N.Z. the school was gone, the house I'd lived in was gone (the next door 'cocky' had bulldozed it down for cow shed material.) It is a small world as when walking through Charing Cross Station in 1949 I actually collided with some one in the crowd who turned out to be a fellow evacuee from the wartime trip.

Bob Ashley.

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