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Bermuda 1952

The Last Recruit

For doctors who qualified too late to take part in the war, National Service was widely regarded as a tiresome interruption to a career that had scarcely begun.  My military service may have been totally undistinguished, but it had some bizarre aspects.  Called up into the Army in 1952, I was notified that I was to be posted to Bermuda as the last recruit to a garrison which had been continuously in existence for more than three hundred years.  Defence of the island was to pass to the Americans: British troops were to be withdrawn and my job was to provide medical services until evacuation took place. 

 I travelled from the RAMC depot in Hampshire to the London Assembly Centre in Goodge Street, which was entered through a door in a small concrete building guarded by a sentry. Inside, a lift descended for more than 150 feet before opening on to a tunnel. Used as an air raid shelter during the war, it was divided into compartments, some lined by camp beds and others with facilities for dining, washing or sitting at leisure. From here all overseas flights of servicemen were controlled. There was chronic uproar as people came and went at all hours, with a constant rattle and rumble as underground trains passed directly overhead. My arrival there coincided with the smog of December 1952, in which several thousand people died in London’s filthy, polluted atmosphere. Each morning I joined others awaiting overseas flights, and we crawled through the fog to Stansted airport by coach. Here I sat with hundreds of servicemen, women and children in a bare, chilly room for hours, returning to Goodge Street in the late afternoon when it became clear that the fog was not going to lift. All baggage was left at Stansted, so it was impossible to get even a clean handkerchief and I became steadily more filthy. It was a low point in my life.

Visibility improved briefly on the third afternoon, allowing just sufficient time for my plane to take off. Apart from me, there were thirty ”other ranks” aboard, all National Servicemen bound for Jamaica. The plane was an Avro York, the civilian version of the Lancaster bomber. It was slow, noisy and carried enough fuel to fly the Atlantic non-stop only if the wind was behind it. As it waas not, the first day ended at Shannon Airport in Ireland, where we were given “high tea” including a huge steak, an unfamiliar sight after 13 years of meat rationing. I ate it, but declined the waiter’s offer of a second one.

I had a very welcome bath and went to bed, to be awakened just after midnight as the light was switched on. A small bespectacled man wearing a porkpie hat stood in the doorway and asked me to remove “your boys” from the canteen, where they were making a lot of noise. I put on my uniform, wondering gloomily what I should do if the men refused my order; we were in a foreign country and I had no confidence in my military authority. But they were docile, and went to bed obediently.

Next day we were delayed by a fault on the plane, and so flew only as far as an American Air Force base in the Azores. After an undisturbed night there we took off once more, our erratic course taking us to Newfoundland, where we landed to refuel. Finally, after another eight hour flight, we reached Bermuda, where I alone disembarked and was met and driven to the garrison headquarters.

The first British settlers reached Bermuda in 1609. The Crown assumed control in1684, when a governor was appointed. Slave labour was imported to harvest tobacco and cane sugar, a practice which ended only when slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834. Descendants of slaves made up about half the population of the colony in 1952. A naval dockyard was constructed, the Royal Navy retaining a base there until 1951. In 1940 the Americans acquired an air force base in Bermuda on a 99 year lease.

With its warm, gentle climate, Bermuda is a picturesque place. 500 miles south-east of New York, most of its 181 islands are small and uninhabited; the larger ones, linked by bridges, are dotted with houses painted green, blue, white or pink. An almost landlocked bay, Harrington Sound, lies at its centre, and there are large natural harbours at either end of the islands. Hamilton, the capital, has smart shops and luxury hotels to cater for the many tourists, chiefly American, who throng Bermuda: St George’s, an older town, has a picturesque harbour and attractive old buildings including what is said to be the oldest church in the Western hemisphere. Few private cars were permitted in 1952, when traffic consisted chiefly of autocycles, taxis and horse-drawn carriages. Fishing, sailing and golf were popular tourist attractions.

I lived in the officers mess with five others: one unmarried officer, three QA nurses and a woman schoolteacher. Married officers lived out with their families but drifted into the mess at lunchtime. They were an odd collection. The CO, with whom I exchanged scarcely half a dozen words during my time there, was a lieutenant colonel granted the local rank of brigadier. Like most of the others, he was seeing out the last years of his service in this quiet backwater. I became so alarmed by their heavy drinking that I was virtually teetotal in Bermuda. One officer appeared every lunchtime in a state of apparent exhaustion, collapsing into a chair on arrival before ordering a double brandy.

One lunchtime a senior officer, having consumed several pink gins, held forth in the mess. The Korean War was in progress and provided, he said, a splendid opportunity to train National Servicemen to fight, since we were sure to have a war with Russia before long; meanwhile we should have a go at the Egyptians, since this would be an easy campaign (this was three years before Suez). Listening to him, I wondered uneasily how many others shared his opinions. Yet he was a kind, warm-hearted and popular man, and I developed quite an affection for him as he was the only person I was always able to beat at chess. Perhaps this was an indication of his inadequate grasp of strategy.

My introduction to colonial life involved attendance at Government House to sign the visitors’ book. Work consisted of daily sick parades followed by surgeries for service families. I was responsible for the care of military and naval personnel admitted to the small British Military Hospital at Prospect, where I also gave anaesthetics for operations, a nerve-wracking business since my only previous experience had been as a student under instruction. The surgeon was an American civilian resident in Hamilton contracted to operate at the BMH when necessary.  My CO was a Scot, a GP who had joined the Army at the outbreak of war and after it felt that he was too old to return to civilian practice. He assisted the surgeon but left most of the clinical work to me.

There were some unusual incidents. One night I was called out to Hamilton in pouring rain, and had to scramble over the deck of an American submarine to board a Canadian minesweeper on which a seaman was sick. An outbreak of tuberculosis among Indian seamen aboard a Fleet auxiliary also kept me busy. I held weekly local authority welfare clinics for mothers and babies, all of them black and living in small shacks. For this I was paid £1 per session by the government of Bermuda.

I bought a second-hand autocycle and careered about in my leisure time visiting historic sites and beauty spots. On Ireland Island, close to the abandoned dockyard, was a graveyard in which were buried many men who had died from yellow fever, some while serving sentences on prison hulks. With the spring Bermuda grew warmer: I swam in the sea, where shoals of brightly coloured fish were visible against the pale coral sea bottom. Trees and bushes flowered, brilliant red cardinals sang from the trees, and there was a constant background of piping from tree frogs

Slowly the size of the garrison dwindled as personnel returned home. The school closed and the last service families left. The hospital shut and the QA nurses and most of the RAMC detachment departed, among them my CO and the lab technician, a corporal appropriately named Blood. Trooping to the Caribbean by air had been suspended after a plane was lost over the Atlantic with all on board including some servicemen and families, and it was decided to bring the garrison home by sea.  The mess was abandoned and I, together with the other unmarried officer, rented a room in a small bungalow, the “hurm” as they called it in the local accent, of a delightful elderly couple. Full board cost 35/- (£1-75) daily. I was astonished to find that I was being paid, with a cost of living allowance, at the rate of £2000 a year. This continued for only a month, but compared with my earnings as an NHS houseman it seemed a vast income.

On April 25th 1953, the garrison marched from Prospect to Hamilton to be inspected by the Governor. Crowds lined the streets to watch us go. We were led by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, their kilts swinging, while a piper played a  lament and ships in the harbour sounded their sirens. Our ship was an old liner, the Georgic, which had been bombed and sunk during the war. After being salvaged it was loaned by the Ministry of Transport to the Cunard Company on what was described as “an austerity basis”, which meant that it was shabby and dilapidated. Cunard used it to offer cheap transatlantic passages, and it was diverted from New York to Bermuda to pick us up as not all its 2000 berths were occupied. Among the passengers were Americans, many of them returning to visit former homes in Ireland or Britain; Jews emigrating to Israel; and many West Indians hoping for a better life in Britain. I shared a cabin with three garrison officers.

I was befriended by an American boy of 21 on his way to a monastery in southern France to begin a career as a monk. Another American, a hypomanic medical student, attached himself to me and wanted to talk all day. Others who became familiar included a man who spent most of his time polishing his dentures, several who were never sober, and a white-haired ancient, bent nearly double and wearing a peaked cap, who paced the deck slowly and interminably. His appearance suggested that he must be a retired seaman, so I was amazed when he paused from his perambulation to ask me, in a thick Irish accent, “Can you tell me which is the back end of this ship?”

The Georgic  called first at Cobh, where the Irish-American contingent disembarked, and then at Cherbourg where more passengers left. On May 4th 1953, after nine days at sea, we docked at Southampton. I went by train to the RAMC depot, where I was sent home on leave to await a passage to the Far East. So ended my Bermuda experience, which with time has come to seem quite unreal. But my leave was made memorable, for while I was at home my girlfriend agreed to marry me. It was not until 1955 that our wedding took place. But that is another story.