World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Martin Wyatt 

Wartime travel with a small child

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: E.V. (Don) Wyatt, Nora Dixon
Location of story: South Africa, Lagos, Victoria Falls, Luluabourg, Belgian Congo, Port Francqui, Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). Dambarene, Dowala, Gibraltar, Gourock, Scotland, Newcastle
Background to story: Civilian


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Martin Wyatt.

Wartime travel with a small child
E.V. (Don) Wyatt
This is an extract from the autobiographical memoir of E.V. (Don) Wyatt.

When Martin was eleven months Rex [A.E. Wyatt, my husband] arrived in South Africa from Lagos. The idea was that Rex should have a short leave and return with Martin and me to Lagos, as by that time, Europeans were bringing out their children rather than leave them among air raids and food shortages at home. However, there seemed to be no way of traveling to Lagos.

Eventually, after seven months, we booked to travel by train to Luluabourg in the Belgian Congo and from there by plane to Lagos. How differently it turned out! After four days in the train, we thankfully detrained at Victoria Falls where we were refreshed in the luxurious Victoria Falls Hotel for 24 hours and were able to see the Victoria Falls and walk in the Rain Forest.
Unfortunately Martin [aged 18 months] was too young to remember this experience.

We had another four days and nights in the train to Luluabourg, which was a very small wretched town with one hotel, one shop and a railway station. As soon as possible, Rex went to the Airways office to find out about our booked flight to Lagos, only to find that there were no air tickets for us. We discovered afterwards from people who had travelled on the same train, that their travelling companions by name Wyatt-Tilby, had said that they had not booked on the plane to Lagos, but that they would be all right for a plane. They must have known that the Belgian Congo officials were at that time susceptible to bribes, for they got their seats on the plane while we were left to languish in the one miserable hotel for a week. The food was unsuitable for Martin and he suffered from tummy trouble.
When it became clear that there would not be another plane for at least three weeks, we decided to go by train to Port Francqui where we could get a river steamer to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). It was another 18 hours in the train. When we went aboard a river steamer on the River Kasai, we were allotted a very small cabin with two very narrow wall bunks and nowhere for Martin to sleep. We spent a very restless night trying not to smother Martin. The steamer was wood burning, so every night it was tied up and huge logs thrown on board. That noise, the constant battle against mosquitoes (in spite of nets) and the rowdy parties held by the drunken Captain made sleep almost impossible. By the second night, though, a cot of a kind had been found for Martin. It was a wooden structure with a cloth bag hanging from it. We had to pad the bottom so that Martin could be on the top and not smother in the well. It was a terrible voyage, though we tried to make the best of it. The food was very fatty and unsuitable for a child. The drinking water was undrinkable and we used it for washing ourselves. We drank bottled mineral water. The baths were disgusting so we never had a bath. When we arrived at Leopoldville and went into a Baptist Mission Guest House, it was like heaven. We were told we would have to wait three weeks for a plane but it proved to be only a week. It was a very flimsy ramshackle machine and my first flight, so I was very nervous besides feeling ill. We made two stops, at Dambarene and Dowala I think. At one of them our plane was thought to be carrying an important personage, and a band was out to meet us.

Each time we took off we wondered whether if the plane would make it. It was a great relief to arrive at Lagos Airport where a kind Nigerian boy lifted Martin from the plane. After the time of greeting our friends and fellow workers, we soon settled into a Bookshop house in Racecourse Road behind Broad Street, the main street in Lagos, and Rex returned to work at the CMS Bookshop.

The war was still on and food and other prices had risen in our absence. Lagos was an army base and the sellers in the market and shops had taken advantage of the army presence to raise prices. However, there was no shortage of food and we experienced little of the privations of war, whilst my family at home, to say the least, was having a very uncomfortable time.

In 1944 I was pregnant again and was losing weight. The doctor advised me to go home for the birth, so Martin and I were fitted out with trousers for the voyage, having been told we would have to sleep in our clothes because of enemy submarines.
We were given berths, along with a few other civilian passengers, on a troopship
taking home military personnel. Martin [now aged 2½] and I shared a cabin with a missionary woman doctor who was badly seasick and kept to her bunk the whole of
the voyage, except when the ship was hove-to outside Gibraltar. The voyage was uneventful as far as Gibraltar, though the ship was crowded and the food indifferent,
but it was wartime. At Gibraltar it was rumoured that the ship had been followed by
submarines, and so we were going to stay there for some days, which would include
Christmas Day, so some of the women, including myself, were given permission to go ashore to buy presents for the children.

In this way I saw Gibraltar, but on Christmas morning, we sailed again having been eight days at Gibraltar. The sea was very rough and I, with my doctor cabin mate, was very seasick. Martin was taken down to the dining room for Christmas dinner by kind friends who looked after him whilst I was laid low.

We arrived at blacked out Gourock, Scotland, late on New Year's Eve. We were
going to stay with my sister Nora [Dixon] and her husband in Newcastle and the
Disembarkation Officer said it would be impossible to find accommodation in Glasgow; it would be advisable to go on to Newcastle. We were taken to Glasgow Station by car where we boarded a train to Newcastle via Edinburgh.

Martin had a terrible cold and was crying with cold or coughing, and I had luggage
and a pram to cope with besides being very cold, so it was not the most happy of journeys. At Newcastle, we had to wait a long time for a taxi and then shared one
with several people for various destinations. Eventually we arrived about 2.30 a.m. and a very astonished Nora opened the door to us. Of course I had not been able to let her know when we would be arriving. Nora was dismayed at my appearance and was bent on fattening me up.