Bill was enlisted for National Service in late 1952, when he joined the Suffolk Regiment and given the service number 22668356. Following twelve weeks of basic training he was then transferred to the Northamptonshire Regiment, who at the time were stationed in Trieste, Italy, and joined their military band as a cornet player. Bill was no stranger to the musical instrument, having played the cornet back in Brandon at the Green Bros. Works Brass Band. Bill was later transferred to the Essex Regiment ‘Corps of Drums’, with sixteen weeks combat training in readiness to be deployed to Korea.
It was while Bill was enroute to Korea that a very tentative ceasefire was brokered. Bill’s role, along with that of his Essex Regiment comrades, was changed from a war footing to entering into ‘No Man’s Land’, a demilitarised corridor between North Korean forces and the UN, to recover equipment and body parts. To this day, tensions between North and South Korea remain and the Demilitarised Zone is still required. Bill’s most notable experience during his National Service, was after his deployment to Korea and during his journey home.
Bill in a trench during the Korean conflict,
Bill, by this time a corporal in the Essex Regiment, left Korea and was sent to Japan for some Rest and Recuperation (R&R). From here he boarded the SS Empire Windrush, the same ship that brought the ‘Windrush Generation’ to the UK a few years earlier, and made his way home to be demobbed. Here is his story, in his own words, written on 9th June, 2004…
“We were picked up at Kure, in Japan, to be taken back to the UK. After only a few days we started to have engine trouble, the ship that was capable of about 16-18 knots, was only managing 11-12 knots. On three occasions we had to pull into foreign docks, such as Singapore, for temporary repair and the ship limped on in this way until we came out of the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean. We were advised the ship would be running on only one engine at about 8-9 knots to try to get to Gibraltar for repairs.
On Sunday 25th (March 1954), after leaving the Suez Canal, at about 3am, we were called to our Fire Stations. We believed this to be yet another drill. I pulled on a pair of socks, PT shoes, trousers and a pullover, and made my way up to my station on ‘B’ deck. It was then that we found out this was no fire drill. It seemed a fuel line to the remaining engine had ruptured, causing an explosion in the engine room. Black smoke and fire was coming out of the exhaust funnels. Life boats were lowered and the women and children on board were taken away from the ship for their safety. Two hours later it became clear that the fire was out of control and because of heavy smoke we had to leave our Fire Station on ‘B’ deck and move to the stern of the ship on ‘C’ deck. A short time after we had moved, ‘B’ deck collapsed.
Many of the lifeboats on ‘A’ and ‘B’ decks could not be lowered correctly due to generators damaged in the explosion and fire that now reached ‘A’ deck through the funnels. The boats that could be reached had to be cut free and dropped into the sea, being such an old ship, many shattered on impact. We were given life jackets and told to abandon ship. At this stage the ship was listing, or dipping, at the bow, and as I dropped some 40-feet, I remember seeing props and rudder out of the water and thinking this is getting serious.
I am not sure how long I was in the water, as I had no watch, but it was approximately five hours or so before we were picked up, by a Dutch cargo vessel, and taken to French Algiers. We spent two days in a French army camp, until a destroyer and an aircraft carrier were sent to take us to Gibraltar. One week later, we were flown by the R.A.F. back to England.
The burnt out Windrush was taken into tow some five days after the fire, by the destroyer, H.M.S. Saintes, but then sank under tow at 00.30 on March 30th 1954. Some of the ship’s crew were lost, they may have died in the explosion or been trapped below the watertight bulkheads when they were closed to contain the fire after the explosion. I believe the small loss of life was due to three factors:
- The ship did not sink right away with people still in the water.
- The sea was very calm and warm.
- There were many ships available in the busy Mediterranean shipping lanes to come to our rescue.
There was no counselling in those days. I received £125 compensation, six weeks ‘Survivor’s Leave’ and sent home. Its almost a tradition for the troops all over the world to give anyone or anything a nickname. Well the ‘Empire Windrush’ was no exception, she was named the ‘Imperial Fart’!”
FOOTNOTE: A later inquiry into the sinking concluded the fire likely started in the funnels when red hot soot fell back into the engine room and ignited leaking oil. Four seaman died in the sinking which the inquiry decided was due to asphyxiation when the fire spread so rapidly that it consumed oxygen in the engine room and replace the atmosphere in there with noxious gases. Despite one of those killed writing to his father before the journey saying the ship was unfit for service, the inquiry decided the ship was in fact seaworthy.