Joan Zilva

Text Box: An  account of a 14 year old’s WW2 overseas evacuation based on her letters home



CHAPTER 12 -TRAVELLING HOME Mid-May to May 28th 1943

Text Box: So I bade goodbye to Toronto, my home for nearly three very formative years.  I was not to see it again until, in August 1965 just over 22 years later, I attended a conference at Mont Tremblant in the Laurentians and took the opportunity of an expenses paid trip to Canada to revisit Toronto.  Even then it was much changed from when I had got to know it so well delivering telegrams for Canadian National.  Rosemary put my mother (my father was dead by then) and  me up in Toronto, drove us up to the cottage in Muskoka and took us to a very different Niagara from the one to which I had hitchhiked while fruit picking: now  it was all tourists, candyfloss and trips on the Maid of the Mist. There was no longer the chance of sitting on the banks of the river in relative solitude and feeling the spray on our faces.  We also identified the farm where we “farmerettes” were billeted.  Much later I stayed with Dave and Betty at their holiday cottage on Grand Manan, an island off the New Brunswick coast. In 2006 I visited Betty (Dave was dead by then) in her home near Ottawa in Manotik and we both visited Toronto again.  It had changed even more than when I last saw it. It is now a multicultural city, engulfing Willowdale, where Ed still lives.  In 1943 there was no subway: when I revisited in the mid 1960s there was just one line under Yonge Street.  Now there is an extensive network.  It is probably a mistake to revisit one’s past.  It is better to keep one’s memories intact.

No surviving letters document my multistage return journey. 

The first step was a rail journey to Montreal. Although I can’t remember exactly when I boarded the train, the date of the last letter written from Toronto (May 8th) and that of departure from Halifax (May 15th) show that it was probably during the first to second week in May 1943.  This first leg of the journey lasted about six hours.  I was met there by friends of the Bartletts, who took me out to dinner.  They were very hospitable - so much so that, although I knew that we were running it uncomfortably close for catching the connection to Halifax, I was as ever too polite or, more accurately, shy to show my anxiety.  I boarded just as the whistle was blowing.

The second leg of the trip, from Montreal to Halifax, took a about two days. I can’t remember now the exact length, but know that I spent more than one night on the train.  At bedtime black attendants in smart uniforms pulled down our bunks from above our seats, remaking them and returning them to position in the morning.  This reference is a factual, not a politically incorrect one, reflecting the truth that in those days there were no white train attendants on Canadian trains.  This was almost the only context in which I saw non-whites.  Luckily things have moved on (for women too) since then.  We pulled curtains around us to dress and undress.  Visits to the roomy observation car were my only form of exercise.  As we followed the banks of the Saint Lawrence eastward I watched the countryside change.  I noticed the little white houses as I had three years earlier: this countryside was as foreign to me, accustomed only to the area of Ontario around the Great Lakes, as the whole country had been on the journey out.  We stopped briefly at a small station: this was probably on the lower slopes of the Laurentian mountains, because when I got out to stretch my legs, even in May, it was still cold and frosty.  I realised once more the vastness of Canada and how little of it I had seen: some of the passengers had been on the train since leaving Vancouver - I think for about a week.

At last we arrived in Halifax, where I was met by more friends of the Bartletts who gave me bed and board.  For security reasons we weren’t told when I would sail and had to visit the shipping office each morning to see if today was the day.  Meanwhile these friends, who had never met me before, continued to put me up. It must have been very difficult for them, especially as it was an open-ended commitment: for all we knew, it might be a week or more before I sailed.  To make it worse for them, the couple were newly married.  He was a Canadian naval officer, briefly home on leave.  In his uniform he seemed to me to be the handsomest man I had ever seen.  I shared a bed with a friend of the wife who was, I think, living there; this arrangement was not ideal for either of us and I hardly slept.  Everyone was, once again, making big sacrifices for me. 

Luckily, only two days later I was told to board and the third and longest phase started.  We sailed on May 15th. I had already left Toronto and was now leaving Canada.

The ship, formerly the Rheingold, was a freighter of 4,957 tons (compare with Chapter 2, letter of July 19th) which had been captured from the Germans. The word Eßzimmer remained over the door of the mess and there was a pale patch on the wall where Hitler’s portrait was said to have hung. It was renamed, defiantly, the Empire Mariner. The rough seas broke over the 117 (according to the records at the Public Records Office) tarpaulin clad tanks, probably being carried from America under the Lend Lease Agreement.  By complete contrast with the journey out (See letter Chapter 2, July 22nd to 23rd” ) we were in the middle of a convoy of 44 ships. Now that the Americans were in the war there were enough ships to convoy the whole journey.

I shared a cabin with a girl of my age called Helen Kittermaster, also returning to England and travelling to Beaconsfield.  We got on well. She was an Honourable whose father had had something to do with General Smuts - I’m hazy about the details.
Text Box: Compare the number of passengers on this list with that on my voyage out in Chapter 2.
According to the records at Kew the ship was salvaged in January 1941 because of boiler trouble, having had engine trouble twice before while in British hands.  A note says that, because it was an “ex-German prize”, built in1922, the present owners, Hogarth and Sons of Glasgow, couldn’t be held entirely responsible for its poor condition.  Records suggest that it was captured in 1940.  I shudder to think that I was on it when even older by two years!  Then it was operated by the Elder Dempster Lines Ltd.  Perhaps they had pulled it up by its bootstrings. 
The crew were sex-starved Scots, many of whom had been rescued on earlier voyages from vessels sunk by U-boats.  Unlike their also Scottish captain, they were pleased (a little too pleased) to have young females on board.  However, apart from a necessarily chaste flirtation between Helen and one of them (he called her his Mexicali Rose), things went no further - luckily there was no private space and I was in the upper bunk. The main excitement was provided when one of the seamen on another ship had suspected appendicitis.  Our ship was the only one (or the one nearest to the patient) with a doctor, so, after much semaphore signalling which I tried to decipher, he was transferred in a dinghy and hauled on board with two interested young females hanging over the side!  If our doctor’s diagnosis was correct he was only suffering from constipation and he was ignominiously returned to base.

After several days the sight of the grey, rough, cold sea becomes very boring, especially if there is nothing to do on board, so we were glad finally to reach Liverpool on May 28th. There may have been more excitement than I thought.  I vaguely remember being told that there had been activity on the margin of the convoy - two or three miles away from us. I now read that the 21-year-old son of General Dönitz, Commander in Chief of the German Navy, died when his U-boat was sunk by Convoy SC130 on May 19th. The accounts in Public Records Office of the aftermath of the U-boat sinking are gruesome. Documents there also show that we were in Convoy HX239, which left Halifax four days before this event and which also experienced U-boat and air activity in the vicinity. On May 24th, four days before we arrived in Liverpool, Dönitz withdrew all German U-boats from the North Atlantic.  I was blissfully unaware of all this then - and, thankfully, so were my parents.

We had returned to England.  The next step for both of us was to get to London.

Our first task was to send telegrams to our parents who, of course, didn’t even know we had left Canada: it was not possible to telephone from Liverpool to London. Mine attracted the attention of the ever vigilant censor - perhaps the foreign surname didn’t help.
Text Box: We must have disembarked in the early morning.  After checking on train times we treated ourselves to tea in the Adelphi Hotel, frequented by very English very upper class ladies.  We had been in Canada long enough to be irreverent about their customs and I think must have scandalized our fellow tea drinkers.  We knew that we were behaving badly, but had to let off steam somehow. 

We boarded a very crowded train full of tired soldiers, with standing room only.  By this time my knowledge of England was from films and I had to keep telling myself that the accents around us were real.  I think we had to change at Crewe, but eventually arrived at Euston Station.  

Our arrival in London brought us near our final goals - to get to our respective homes.  We parted company, swearing eternal friendship, to get ourselves across London to different stations for the final leg of our journeys.  Despite our sincere resolutions we lost touch after one exchange of letters.

At Victoria Station I could at last telephone home.  During the excitement of hearing my parents’ voices I realised for the first time that my father had a foreign accent.  I provoked hollow laughter, firstly by saying that I looked forward to a breakfast of bacon and eggs (at that time the ration was one egg a week per person and bacon was virtually unavailable) and secondly by asking to be met at Sanderstead Station with the car (no petrol).  I had a lot to learn about my new life.     

As the train wended its way from Victoria to Sanderstead, inevitably stopping at East Croydon, I looked out of the window at the dingy houses and gardens backing onto the line. It was very vaguely familiar, but still strange.  I had to pinch myself to be sure that I was about to arrive home again. 

Arrival at Sanderstead Station was the penultimate stage of the long journey. I remember now that all signposts and, I think, station names had been removed on June 30th, 1940, after Dunkirk, lest German invaders or parachutists used them to confirm their position.  Permission for them to be restored was given soon after I returned, on June 30th, 1943, although I remember their absence for longer. I must, presumably, have recognized the station by memory.  

I had expected to see both my parents, but on the almost deserted platform was my father, but not my mother.  She had been ordered to stay at home in case I phoned.  My father and I did not kiss, touch or show outward emotion and as we walked home I can remember my sinking heart as he said that he couldn’t understand my accent.  Here I was, after years of waiting, battling and longing, at home and yet a foreigner in my own country.

Then the final goal was achieved. As we turned into our own drive, so long remembered and longed for, my mother was waiting impatiently on the doorstep and I got the first hug and kiss since I had  left Liverpool nearly three years earlier.  The cat was on the windowsill unmoved but not frightened of me.  I was really home!
One thing remained.  Mrs Bartlett, with the best of intentions, had bought me a frilly dress especially to come home in.  Frilly clothes have never suited me and I could see that my parents didn’t like it either.  When I appeared on the next morning dressed in my usual clothes they said “That’s more like the Joan we know!”. I thought I was back to normal, but there was a lot of adjustment to come. 
Text Box:  The very important, telegram. Note that the censor has repeated “BEWARE ACCENT” at the bottom. He probably thought that it was code.
Text Box: Copy of document held at Public Records Office, Kew: Ref BT26 12020