Saturday, 3 November 2012

Robert S. Arbib Jnr. - Here we are together

Robert S. Arbib Jnr.
Courtesy Lois Gebhardt and
American Birds obituary, 1987
I have only recently discovered the recollections of an American serving with 820th Engineer Aviation Battalion, Staff Sergeant Robert S. Arbib, Jnr., called ‘Here we are together’.

Robert Arbib relates his experiences in Great Britain during WW2 when he and his unit came over to construct airfields for the US Army Air Force. He and 4,000 US service personnel arrived in Glasgow aboard 'Monterey' in August 1942, a ship designed to carry 700. Arrival was soon followed by a somewhat disastrous march from the ship to the railway station when, as part of the headquarters platoon, he was towards the front of his column and dropped his entire reserve of seven cartons of cigarettes and twelve packets of pipe tobacco. He managed to retrieve them all but at the expense of the derision of the remainder of his battalion as they marched past and the polite amusement of the Scottish audience as he scrabbled to gather up the scattered packets. As he relates, a good sergeant would have left them and marched on but he never professed to be a good sergeant and apparently his company commander entirely agreed.

His battalion took the long journey by train non-stop from Glasgow to Woodbridge, near the coast of Suffolk in East Anglia. There they were soon started on establishing the ground works for a new airfield at Debach (Station 152), just outside Woodbridge, living in tented accommodation in nearby woodland which they nicknamed ‘the maze’ before later building their own Nissen huts. Their training in airfield construction had been for the establishment of temporary airfields behind the moving front line of an advancing army, the sort of thing where air-strips were graded and rolled, and then metal matting was laid rather than the more permanent construction of concrete runways required for the heavy bomber airfields but within a few days the battalion was learning the hard way.

Much of their introduction to the customs and currency of the country was provided by the local beat constable whom they called ‘Sheriff’ Moody. They discovered their nearest pub., the Grundisburgh ‘Dog’, and the warm English beer. Some of the visiting Americans tended to stay on their base but many were to become more acquainted with their host country. Work on airfield building was dirty and hard and the impression is that ‘play’ in their time off, taken by most of them in Ipswich, was also hard. A truck would take as many as it could carry into the blacked out town to relax in the many pubs to be found there although he was a bit of a loner on these excusrions and found somewhere quieter. He later related how the drinking habits of the two countries differed a great deal.

Robert Arbib had trained as a camouflage expert and he soon found that he was redundant. There was no time to camouflage airfields under construction and he became the battalion postal clerk and errand boy, travelling daily to the clearing centre for all US mail at Sudbury. He and his driver would stop for a wash and shave in the luxury of hot water at the YMCA in Ipswich before breakfast and then going on to Sudbury, visiting banks, laundries, dry-cleaners and anywhere that official business sent him, and some places that it didn’t. He made a number of friends in Sudbury and names many of them, in particular those at the post office, at the bank and where he occasionally stayed when on an overnight pass, Gainsborough House.

Work progressed until late April 1943 when, with Debach still unfinished and with only one runway completed they were suddenly transferred to nearby Wattisham also in Suffolk, an old established RAF fighter airfield with grass runways where they were to build concrete ones for a new bomber and transport base. Here his unit had the luxury of purpose built RAF accommodation and the occupants Nissen Hut 7 at Debach found themselves in Flat 33 of the living quarters for married NCO’s at Wattisham. His visits to Sudbury continued but in May 1943 he was transferred to Watford into a new role as part of the Army Public Relations team.

This role took him to the many different US units under the administrative control of the Eastern Base Section, which was based in Watford but which was responsible for US army personnel from the Thames to the Scottish border, reporting on the many human interest stories. In Watford the members of the EBS were billeted in private houses and marched each day up Langley Road to their headquarters in a building which had been a school. At Watford he made many more friends and remembers with particular fondness the regulars of the public house ‘The Unicorn’where he learned the variety of English beers as well as making new English friends from the villages of Kings Langley and Chipperfield.

Included in the narrative Robert Arbib relates his impressions in more depth of many aspects of his experiences here. There are some sharply observed chapters on the personnel of the Observer Corps post at Grundisburgh, of a Sunday spent at Felixstowe, of a dance at Woodbridge as a guest of the warrant officers and sergeants of 7th Highland Light Infantry, of London and Sudbury at night and of the sight of the many searchlights, of the eccentric personnel of the Public Relations unit at Watford, of Kingston upon Hull as the reception port for much of the US equipment being landed here, of the homes and hospitality of the many English friends he made as well as accounts of visits to the countless places between London and Scotland that his public relations role took him.

This slim volume is a gem of a memoir about relatively unrecorded aspects of the war and relates the author’s sympathetic appreciation of the countryside, the buildings, the English and their heritage. It is also the only published account by an American that I have come across of this aspect of the US war effort in this country, when great numbers of airfields were built from scratch to accommodate the US Army Air Force.

Originally published by Longman’s Green in 1946 'Here we are together' was also issued by the Right Book Club in 1947 but remains quite an uncommon book in either edition. It appears from other sources that Robert Arbib went on to become a respected ornithologist and it is apparent throughout this account that his skill in observation was already acute during those early years. Do look out for a copy.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

RNPS Commando - Petty Officer Harold Hiscock

PO. Harold Hiscock, courtesy
Commando Veterans website
I was recently talking to a colleague, a retired British Army Major who now leads battlefield tours in Europe and who had been investigating the records of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, in what was East Germany. He had come across a reference to an Royal Naval Patrol Service member, apparently a commando, who had been executed there in 1945 and who is mentioned on the Addenda Panel of our Memorial in Belle Vue Park, Lowestoft. Knowing my interest in RNPS matters he mentioned the details to me.

I had not heard anything about him and I checked with those at ‘the Nest’ (Sparrows Nest Gardens, Lowestoft where the RNPS Museum is situated) and they hadn’t either so I have been trying to follow it up. The name on the Addenda Panel is Petty Officer H. Hiscock and the details of the Commonwealth War Graves record of him as ‘of Newfoundland’, his service no: LT/JX 217862, his date of death: as 02/02/1945 and that he was attached to HMS Quebec.

Isn’t Google wonderful! Cutting a long story short(er) it appears from a WWW search that PO. Hiscock was a member of a seven strong team trained at the Combined Forces Training Centre at Inverary (HMS Quebec), operating as part of No. 14 (Arctic) Commando who were sent to Norway in Operation Checkmate to attack Axis shipping by attaching limpet mines to them. In mid April 1943 the team, a fishing coble and two canoes were dropped by an MTB on a small island north of Stavanger from where they operated, attacking and sinking a number of ships at Haugesund.

Subsequent details are somewhat sketchy but it appears that the whole team was captured by the German Army over a period of several days in mid May, with the aid of the police and Norwegian civilians. The team were operating in uniform and should have been regarded as prisoners of war but for Hitler’s notorious ‘Commando Order’ of October 1942 ordering the execution of any commandos. They were handed over to the Security Service (SD) and after spending some time in Grini Concentration Camp in Norway they were transferred to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just outside Berlin. There they underwent forced labour, marching 30 miles per day over cobbles breaking in army boots for a number of months.

PO Harold Hiscock recorded on the
RNPS Memorial in Belle Vue Park, Lowestoft
Except for two the almost exclusively naval team were executed at Sachsenhausen on 2nd February 1945. The team comprised Lieutenant John Godwin, RNVR (in command), Sgt. Victor John Cox (on attachment from No. 12 Commando), Petty Officers Alfred John Roe and Harold Hiscock, and three Able Seamen, Neville Arthur Burgess, Keith Mayor and Andrew Anthony West. Two of the team, PO. Alfred J. Roe and AB. Keith Mayor, were transferred to Belsen where PO. Roe was executed on 7th April 1945 and Mayor died there from typhus.

As is the sad way with these things the men who served together and mostly died together are commemorated separately on a number of different memorials for those with no known grave. Lt. Godwin is mentioned on the Portsmouth Memorial, Sgt. Cox at the Brookwood Memorial, PO. Roe at Portsmouth, PO. Hiscock at Lowestoft, AB. Burgess at Chatham and ABs. Mayor and West at Plymouth.

So much time has passed that it may be too late but PO. Hiscock was a Newfoundlander and it would be great to hear of any recollections of him from any surviving RNPS members, other wartime colleagues or from any of his family in Canada or elsewhere.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

RNPS Silver Badge File (II)

The front and back of the original RNPS Silver Badge,
about the same size as an old shilling or new 10p
On delving deeper into the file about the Royal Naval Patrol Service Silver Badge in the National Archives (the account of the discovery of which was first published in the RNPS Newsletter), we find it lays to rest some of the folklore about the reason for the change of design of the Badge, from the original pin type to the later four-eye type, with a rather more mundane account.

Traditionally the reason for the change was that Badges of the original pin type were too easily detached from clothing. So many were being reported lost or stolen, when in fact many were probably being given away as sweetheart brooches, that the design was changed to make them more securely attached. The facts are a little different.

The initial production run in 1940 had been of 20,000 Badges and by late September 1941 the Commander of the Patrol Service Central Depot, Commodore Daniel de Pass, anticipated that the supply would be exhausted by the end of the month and he requested the Admiral Commanding Reserves for the supply of a further 10,000. He also noted that it was possible that there was 'a certain amount of trafficking in these Badges' and suggested that future replacements, which could be obtained for sixpence, should be noted in the rating's pay book with the date of issue, date of replacement and issuing signature.

Certain minutes seeking Treasury approval then follow until a letter from the Royal Mint on 31st October which states that while there is no problem with producing the Badges, the contractors who supply the pins and catches are having difficulties in obtaining them. The reason for this is not given but it can only be assumed that the steel for pins is of a high quality, and it is known from other sources that high quality steel was in short supply and probably reserved for more warlike purposes.

Before the difficulty in the supply of pins and catches was resolved the Commander Minesweeping - Peterhead, Cdr. J. P. Dobson, submitted a suggestion, on 20th March 1942, that because of damage to clothing the Badge be remodelled with two eyes so that it could be sewn to the sleeve. This was amended to 'four small loops' by the Flag Officer-in-Charge - Aberdeen, so that the Badge would lie flatter, and submitted through the Commander-in-Chief - Rosyth to the Secretary of the Admiralty and recommended for the concurrence of Their Lordships, a copy being received by the Silver Badge Office at Lowestoft on 30th March 1942. There is also a copy of the concurrence of Commodore Daniel de Pass with this proposal.

The later version of the RNPS Silver badge
Not surprisingly with such support subsequent Badges were produced to this new pattern with four eyes which overcame the problem of the shortage of pins and helped to prevent damage to ratings' clothing. By 25th August 1942 there is a note that an initial supply of the new style Badges has been received at Lowestoft.

There is correspondence in the file between the Naval Branch at the Admiralty and The Treasury about the recall of old style Badges for exchange for the new, which was eventually agreed but only on a voluntary basis. Also in the file is a new Admiralty Fleet Order dated 3rd September 1942 amending the description of the Badge and specifying that it is to be sewn onto the sleeve, and on 4th March 1943 a new AFO incorporating the old Orders specifying the qualification for receipt of the Badge as well as the new description.

As a matter of interest the initial production of 20,000 Badges had been achieved at a total cost of £569.00, of which £329.00 had been for the silver bullion and 50 guineas (1 guinea = £1.05) the design cost paid to Kruger Gray. There is no record of whether the cost of silver bullion had risen by May 1942 when the new style Badge was produced.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Fr. Anthony E. Sketch

Fr. Tony on the 40th annivesary of his
ordination in 2002, on the sanctuary of
Our Lady Star of the Sea, Lowestoft
On 10th October we said goodbye to Fr. Tony Sketch who had been our parish priest for nearly twenty years and who had, in his own words and after a long illness, 'gone home to God'. The formal occasion of his Requiem Mass was marked with a packed church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Lowestoft, with over 30 of his fellow priests from all over East Anglia concelebrating and led, in the absence of a bishop since the death of our Bishop Michael last year, by our diocesan administrator Fr. David Bagstaff. This was followed by a private burial attended by his family at Kirkley Cemetary and a wake for everyone in the Stella Maris Hall, when memories of and anecdotes about him were swapped.

Fr. Tony came to Lowestoft in 1982 and soon became a popular figure having an impact on the town with his support for the ecumenical Christians Together movement and with his work in the chaplaincy at Blundeston Prison. His greatest impact however was amongst his parishioners with his humanity and his impish sense of humour. With many he soon came to be regarded as an extra member of the family, someone who would be invited to family celebrations as a matter of course and who would come and be a welcome guest. At times a deeply spiritual man he also had an appreciation of many of the fine arts, a love of music and of the culinary arts both as a consumer and as an experimental cook.

During his time in  Lowestoft his was the moving force for the renovation of the Presbytery, the remodelling and re-decorating of the Sanctuary at Our Lady's as well as the repair and restoration of its tower, and for the purchase of a new home for St. Nicholas Church to replace the 'temporary' one serving the parish in South Lowestoft.

We would lose him from the parish from time to time as he was also an international director of the shrine at Lourdes and his administrative duties took him away from us for short periods but his familiarity with Lourdes also meant that he led several parish pilgrimages there as well as to the Holy Land.

A serious road accident when he had been a young man took its toll on him in later years and from time to time he was dogged by ill-health. Ordained in 1962 he served as Parish Priest at Lowestoft from 1982 until 1998 when he continued as assistant for a while. After retiring to a flat overlooking the sea he was eventually unable to care for himself any longer and was admitted to a care home where he died peacefully on 26th September at the age of 75 years.

Fr Tony worked publicly for the material improvement of the fabric of the parish but, unseen by most, he also brought back to the Church many who had lapsed as well new members, through his quiet spiritual ministry. He was not a conventional Catholic priest but he was no fool either; he was his own man and not always entirely at peace with some of the church hierarchy. He was, however, a 'larger than life' character and it is sad to think that he is no longer with us in body but his sense of humour will be with us still and I am sure that we will continue to hear him chuckling over our shoulders at some of the absurdities of life.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Lowestoft ChurchFest

Now that the event has finished I have edited this post slightly to bring it up to date but an amazing couple of weeks has come to an end. In that time some 38 churches in the district from the Baptist, Bethel, Church of England, Community Church, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventist, Society of Friends, United Reformed traditions have together opened their doors, put on special events and invited everyone in.

As well as being an opportunity for those who don't attend any church to have a look inside somewhere they might have wondered about or for those who are lapsed churchgoers to renew their acquaintance, it is has been an opportunity for members of the different congregations to meet on each others ground and find out how similar we all are rather than how different! So soon after the event it is impossible to say how successful the 'back to church' final theme has been but time might tell. You can't drag people back to church but you can try and offer the opportunity to those who have an unfilled spiritual need in their lives.

We already have an excellent ecumenical tradition in Lowestoft with Christians Together. Some of us are also part of the Men's Christian Network which meets at 8.00am several times a year at a variety of venues to listen, after a full cooked English breakfast, to a guest speaker relating aspects of his work, life and/or experiences in relation to Christianity. I won't suggest that without the breakfast it is would be quite as popular but that at Pakefield Church Hall, the first event of the Fest, was very well attended to hear the speaker, the moving force behind the ChurchFest, Canon Ian Bentley.

Many of us also heard Ian speak at the dinner arranged by Our Lady Star of the Sea the following evening. A very full programme continued throughout the week and with church-sitting in my own church for two mornings I managed to visit only a few but they included a Yarmouth Brass concert at St. Mark's Oulton Broad, Spinners and Weavers at Our Lady Star of the Sea (as well as a visit to the top of the church tower), a vegetarian lunch at the Seventh Day Adventists, an attempt to 'Meet the New Minister' at the South Lowestoft Methodist Church (but I arrived just too late) and a presentation about the Eighth Air Force at St. Edmund's Church Hall, Kessingland by Bob Collis on behalf of Gisleham Holy Trinity - and there were another 43 events I didn't manage to visit in just the first week! The following week started with a Harvest Thanksgiving service at the United Reformed Church and has gone on in like manner to week one.

Many congratulations to Rev'd. Canon Ian Bentley for a remarkable achievement in bringing all the churches together, albeit very willingly, and to the churches themselves for the effort that went in to make the Lowestoft ChurchFest truly memorable.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Lady Emma Kitchener, LVO

At the Lord Kitchener Memorial Holiday Centre we were delighted to learn that Lady Emma Kitchener, aka Lady Fellowes of West Stafford, has agreed to be our new Patron following the death of her uncle, and our previous Patron, Lord Kitchener.

Sadly she was not able to be with us at our Annual General Meeting this year as her husband, the Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, possibly better known as the writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, had commitments in Los Angeles at the Emmy Awards.

We look forward to perhaps seeing both of them at our next Annual General Meeting!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Graeme Roberts (only a death seems to prompt a post)

It's a sad fact of life that you older you get, the less time you seem to have to cover all the tasks you set yourself. As a result this blog has been sadly neglected. This year I have allowed such uplifting events as attending the memorial service for Lord Kitchener in Westminster and talking to the visitors from our twin town of Plaisir about the Royal Naval Patrol Service pass by without comment. Some events, however, are so hard hitting that time must be found.

Graeme, courtesy Andrew Wood
I lost a friend yesterday. Graeme Roberts was a bookseller, a unique one in my experience with a divi's eye for any sort of collectable book and a vast experience of sci-fi. When I first knew him he was trading as Magpie Books at 53 Brushfield Street, Spitalfields and then at The Clerk's House at 118½ Shoreditch High Street. Based in the wilds of Suffolk I had known him only remotely since the early 1990's as a fellow bookseller but I got to know him properly with the coming of the world wide web. The internet gave us much better opportunities for contact, for the exchange of views on books, on bookselling and on the world in general, which had not been possible when buying and selling from each other by post.

In the late 1990's, concerned with the increasing avarice of some of the major bookselling websites, a small group of us, led by Graeme, explored the possibilities of a cooperative of independent booksellers. That group came into being and briefly flourished but the nature of cooperation was always going to be a difficulty with such independent and somewhat eccentric people as booksellers and it gradually declined.

During this time Graeme had left his roots in the east end of London for West Yorkshire and after a spell near Todmorden ended up at Hebden Bridge. Graeme had some relationship and financial difficulties and I lost touch with him for a while but I am pleased to say that we picked up the pieces again last year and were in infrequent but regular touch. He was due to visit his mother's grave in Essex and had promised to bend his route to come and stay and be introduced to our local micro-brewery.

Graeme was outspoken, a trait which sometimes got him into trouble but a trait which made him who he was, a genuine man with no pretentiousness. He made mistakes - don't we all - but he made efforts to correct them and although in his last few years he was probably less financially secure than at any other time of his life, I hope and believe that he was content, amongst some real friends at Hebden Bridge. Rest in Peace, Graeme.