Jottings Index

During WW2, no less than 3500 merchant ships of all nations were sent to their watery graves. Almost half of these were American. It is therefore no surprise to learn that some merchant seamen decided to leave their ships and take up employment ashore.

I had the dubious pleasure of working alongside two such men. They could not have been more different in their appearance and their behaviours. One was a Dane by the name of Viggo, and the other was David, (not his real name), a Welshman. They were both ex Radio Officers.

The work we were engaged in was testing, calibrating and fault finding on marine communication receivers and direction finders for the Royal and Merchant Navies.

In order to carry out these tests we needed to work in a “radio clean” environment, like being in a sound proof room for audio tests. To achieve this environment, it was necessary to work inside cages constructed of two closely separated layers of wire mesh, rather like chicken wire. Even the doors were made of the same materials. Each cage measured approximately 3 X 4 metres and normally accommodated two operators together with all the necessary test equipment. This enabled us to work without interference from spurious outside signals, and perhaps more importantly, to prevent the signals that we generated from being transmitted outside.

Viggo was a very tall and smartly dressed man who took a great pride in his work. He was at sea when the German army over ran his country, so his ship put into Tilbury instead of returning to Copenhagen. His only wartime contact with his wife was the by very rare and brief messages via the International Red Cross. Viggo was living in lodgings, and at that time I was thrown out of my lodgings (a long story), so he kindly persuaded his landlady to offer me a room. Viggo encouraged me to date a local young lady who later became my wife. We enjoyed a 70-year marriage. Thank you, Viggo!

The Welshman, David was a very scruffy individual, he was often late for work and gave the appearance of being unwashed and unshaven. Some days he would be absent without offering any reason or excuse to the department chief. He would even take a week off, again with no explanation. He would suddenly reappear and carry on his work just where he left off, and not say a word to anyone. Because it was very difficult to sack someone engaged in vital war-work, he was allowed to continue.

We did not know where David lived other than it was out in the Essex countryside and that he kept ducks. One day before coming to work he delivered some live ducks to the local market. Unfortunately for the ducks, he had bundled them all into a large sack. This was noticed by the market supervisor who reported him to the police. He was fined for the ill treatment of livestock, and it made interesting reading in the local newspaper. David became a laughing stock among those who worked in the department and cruelly he sometimes received anonymous phone calls which when he picked up the phone, all he heard was “Quack, quack, quack”.

David often suffered colds, and to everyone’s disgust, he would dry his filthy handkerchief on his desk lamp. David failed to turn up for work one day, and was never heard of again. No one regretted his departure.

My colleague H, and I, who he called B, shared one of the cages. H had been with me during the Radio Engineering Course which we completed prior to our joining the Marconi Company and we joined the company on the same day. H was the best man at my wedding, but tragically died two years later at the young age of 23. We had been together during our studies and employment for five years, so I very much missed his company. Because our digs had no bath rooms, we used to meet at the Marconi Social club every Friday evening for a game of billiards, a bath, and a beer afterwards. One night there was an air raid when we were both having a bath in separate cubicles. The lights went out, so we just soaked in total darkness until the raid had passed.

As able-bodied citizens we were expected to join some form of civil defense. Such as air raid warden, home guard or fire brigade. I chose the latter. There were numerous air raids and when at work I was expected to report to one of the “fire posts” dotted around the factory. Whenever the air raid siren sounded, workers made their way to shelters. Being firemen, we were allowed to stand outside of our post unless danger was imminent. Those in the shelters could only hear the sounds of aircraft, gunfire and bombs, which must have been alarming at times. When the doodlebugs (V1s) started, it was reassuring to be outside and see the direction they were travelling. Only on rare occasions did one of their engines cut out within our sight, and even then, we could usually see it would not fall anywhere near us.

Sometimes, when at home, we were on so called “standby”. On one such night at about 2am there was a raid, and I quickly cycled to my fire post. Glad to be wearing a steel helmet because of the falling shrapnel from the AA guns. On arrival I was “allocated” a well alight bomb in the cycle sheds and ordered to make sure that it burnt out safely.

At the sound of the “all clear” we reported to the canteen for a “char and a wad” (tea and bread roll) before returning to our lodgings for a couple of hours sleep. Reporting to work at 8.30 next morning we were shocked to see a large hole in the canteen roof where unseen and unheard by us as we enjoyed our late-night (early morning) refreshment, an incendiary bomb was doing the job it was designed to do, just a few feet above our heads.

We were strictly only allowed to attend fires on company premises, but on one occasion a nearby suet factory was on fire, and the blaze was horrendous. The rules were relaxed and we assisted the town fire brigade. The scene was chaotic. The fire was completely out of control and the building was utterly destroyed. If after that night any item of equipment went missing, it was always said to have been “lost in the suet factory”.

P.S. After the war, Viggo returned to Copenhagen to rejoin his wife and he kept his promise to invite me to visit him. By this time, I was not only married, but we had two small sons. Viggo said you must all come, and were made most welcome by everyone we met. “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen”, remember the lyric? It was our first ever foreign holiday.