Topic: James William Pratt (1921-1998) Flight Lieutenant WWII
Peter Pratt, writes "This is an unfinished story written in pencil in a cashbook by my eldest brother, Flight Lieutenant James William Pratt. His wife Margaret found the book after he died in 1998 aged 77. James was never one to talk about the war; he once said, it was a terrible experience Peter. Perhaps that is why his book hadn’t been completed. On the cover James had pencil-sketched a desert scene, a date palm, mosque and a Beaufighter in flight. Reading through my brothers hand written account of that gallant voyage to war, brought a lump to my throat. Also in the book are many photographs, some that I presume he took and a sketch of the tent he stayed in for two years 1941-43 while in the western desert. Turning another page, he had sketched the Troop Ship the M.V. Dominion Monarch, surrounded by her Royal Navy escorts while ploughing through the Atlantic towards Freetown West Africa. My sister-in-law also gave me photographs of James and his comrades taken in the countries he was based during the conflict: Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Italy. He joined the RAF in April 1939 as a 17 year old. Soon after joining James was transferred Wales for gunnery training at the Cardigan Bay bomb ranges, flying ‘Fairy Battles’. In 1940, he was stationed at Manston in Kent, then Croydon London and Milton. In 1941 he was attached to 501, 272 and 252 Squadron, Hurricanes Wellingtons and Beaufighter, bound for the Middle East".
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After the war James remained in active service; promoted to sergeant and spent two year tours while in RAF: Gibraltar, Tripoli, Cyprus, Kenya, Isle of Man and many other postings throughout the UK as a commissioned officer until he retired in 1974 as Flight Lieutenant.
What follows is is a transcription of James's book. To download the original book, click here (or archived at Perma CC here: https://perma.cc/XFD5-XSD3).
For the African Star
An Airman’s Story of a job that had to be done!
Scanned photograph of military tents in Bengazi 1943. Originally belonging to James William Pratt (1921-1998) of the RAF. Lent to Tauranga City Libraries for digitisation in 2015 by his brother Peter Pratt. Handwritten on reverse "Our tent Bengazi. Libya. 1943".
At Liverpool, on April 20 1941, it was raining very hard. We and our kits, were wet through. ‘What a morning,’ snuffled a course voice? We had just arrived by train, and had taken our own last glimpses of thisEnglandas we were carried swiftly and demon like through the many villages, verdant hills and vales. The moons beams shone on rooftops and village ponds; every thing was saturated by the rain, and as our train rumbled through this war- ridden land it must, undoubtedly, have awakened a few sleepers, telling them its deed for that day was to traffic airmen for service overseas.
Most of us had been through the Battle of Britain and now we were to embark on yet another undertaking, ‘The battle for Suez’. Mussolini had already marched on to Mersa-Mutrah, to be driven back again by the great General Wavell and his gallant thirty thousand men; who at this time were in need of supplies and reinforcements. We were to expand the desert Air force; the first of many thousands to follow, for our nations leaders expected the Luftwaffe to show-up on the Libyan front.
The troop-ship Dominion Monarch, or rather seemingly from out side appearance a luxury liner painted a war like grey, loomed up aloft over the quay on which we were standing as the rain dripped incessantly from our water logged garments. My eyes suddenly left this iron monster to focus on an adjacent type, a man of considerable age. He, as with the rest, was gazing agoof at the rivet studded iron shell, which was to be our veritable refuge and transport for six or more weeks. I thought that he may have been married, or perhaps to leave his mother or sweetheart in this our nations need, to extirpate the obnoxious Nazis and their obsequious co-partners. I saw, what it however appeared to be, a tear in the ‘Pinkish’ rims of his tired- although bright blue eyes, or perhaps again it was an escaping raindrop?
After much ado, and as it was neatly put, then, ‘Bull-dug,’ our kits found their tranquil space of rest in the ships salty damp holds. The ship looked indeed a Thirty Thousand Ton vessel, and we were apparently the first batch of troops ever to dirty its decks and scratch the paintwork. We were hurriedly dispatched in groups, to different parts of the ship. Some were fortunate enough to accommodate cabins - once sumptuously decorated for kings, viscounts and ‘con’ men. These cabins now refitted with as many wooden bunks as space would permit, but nevertheless, still a little more cosier than the damp holds, where some of the more unfortunate were hustled.
Furthermore, down in the crude holds one found not even a bunk on which to rest his weary frame, but a swinging hammock. In addition, if he looked at the red - painted ships iron sides he would have seen rivulets of condensation oozing down majestically. It proved that ventilation for such a throng had not been entered on the shipbuilder’s blueprints. Also, those in cabins still had toilets left intact, while those in the holds had but a few in comparison of their number. We had not been long at sea before this proved a problem - often one would have to wade ankle deep through water, and refuse that escaped the dainty porcelain pans that had once seen classier faces, than those of these rough and ready service men.
The dining hall had practically been laid bare; all the furniture had been removed, as again for the delightful benefit of the troops who were about to stare death in the face. The only inkling of the previous existing luxury was an irremovable buffet, which was apparently left to the glorious administrations or even criticisms. Anyhow, it appeared that the ship-magnates had thought, that instead of ordering its destructive removal they had concluded that the troops might have engineered the task, by spontaneous digs at its highly polished sides, with wilful misuse of their heavy armoured boots. Of course, if anyone wanted to gaze at something, that the Air Ministry had not undertaken to do in the airdrome dining rooms; one could gaze quite at ease, on the sculptured ceilings, hidden lights and symmetrical carvings, oil paintings; and diverse attractions for the exploring flies.
We sat down, twelve to a table, and as we were all hungry, everyone tore silently and indiscriminately through the copious meal laid before them. This was our first meal for many hours - hence the absence of comments; even the fastidious were devouring without discovering fault. Everyone on finishing the long awaited repast dropped his cutlery with a languid air of profound satisfaction. Then, slowly and ponderously each person made his winding way up to the open deck to gaze on the world they knew so well-or, not so well, as the case may be, for the last time.
The starboard side was crowded, for this was the side nearest the quay. Hundreds of men representing the youth of Britain, and from all walks of life; rich men’s sons and poor men’s sons, some married and some single; some big, some puny but all none too happy as they all gazed down from those mighty iron plates, over the roof-tops. Church spires rose saintly and rigid whilst distance clock towers ebbed away the time, meticulously and indifferent.
As the sun dropped lower into the ulterior, we became ready to cast off. For how long? This question was undoubtedly in every man’s mind. How long before we see again those happy village greens and rustic settings, only found here in England: how long before we rush through the busy city throng at lunch hour and make for the sea-side on foot, pedal, or even car…at well earned week-ends.
I had time to reflect thoughts of my family in Grimsby, my poor mother, four sisters and three brothers, perhaps even now huddled in the damp ‘Anderson Shelter’ or under the stairs, and Kenny, who at sixteen had joined the Merchant Navy as cabin-boy against our father’s wishes who himself was on those dreadful Atlantic convoys. The deafening blast from the ships horn and the vibration under my feet brought me back to reality. We soon found ourselves making our way down the Fairway, silently and swiftly.
Farewell England, Farewell those verdant slopes and village inns. We shall soon be back. Tarry not, for we go to rid the world of this Nazi scum, that is endangering our Empire…Farewell and God Bless you all.
Two days offFreetown, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, during the early hours of the morning. We were all sound asleep when we were frightfully awakened by what we imagined to be a shuddering explosion, that seemed powerful enough to tear our gallant ship asunder. Our first thoughts were that a marauding force had hit us; and as orderly and quickly as possible, we made our way, groping in the darkness to our allotted boat and raft stations. It was apparently four o’clock in the morning and except for a single beam of a searchlight shining over the turbulent waters, it was pitch black.
The searchlight swayed, in turn from one vessel to another, as if counting our numbers. When it was flashed onto our ship, it allowed us to glance about and some individual, quick in perception soon let us know that our ships bridge was lop sided; whilst another of equal talent pointed to what was once a reinforced gun-pit; now a heap of rubble. It was a little time before we all realised that, not for one moment did our engines stop, for during the whole incident we were slowly ploughing our weary way through these truculent seas. It wasn’t until we gathered up speed again and told to return to our beds as everything was all right that we realised this.
Making our way down to breakfast later on, we learned that we had collided with another of our convoy. There was a terrific rent in our starboard amidships; the bridge was twisted to incongruity. Furthermore, several men occupying the cabins along the starboard side was thrown from their bunks, although there were comparatively few casualties.
West African Coast
On our arrival at Freetown, West Africa; our ship hurriedly underwent a series of makeshift repairs; at least good-enough until we reached South Africa and change ships for the remaining part of our journey to the Nile. AtFreetown, the natives sparingly dressed paddled their way in their frail looking craft, in and out of our monstrous iron sides, offering fruit for sale. The boys were soon buying fruit in vast superabundant quantities. The natives would hurl a rope up for the prospective buyer, who would in turn place enough money, for an already stipulated amount of fruit in the attached basket-so as to speak, money first…the Woolworth fashion! Other natives provided the on looking crowd with light entertainment, by diving into the depths for coins. ‘How about a Glessgie tanner,’ some would repeat. Sometimes a man athletically, would throw the coin far away from the diver’s canoe, but the jolly native would dive in to reappear with the coin set between his strong set of flashing white teeth.
Around the Cape of Good Hope
Durban was our next port of call, and after battling our way through the famous roaring forties, those two great oceans meet, those once dreaded seas that dominate at the foot of South Africa, we arrived safe and sound.
The boat had shipped a lot of water during this latter period and many of the men had been victims of seasickness. Sometimes the waves appeared like mountains as the riding surf gave them a snow-capped appearance; they also felt like mountains, as they dashed down onto the decks with a ponderous fury, shaking the ship from stem to stern. Other ships in the convoy more spread out, were bobbing up and down on the tumultuous waters, as if they were corks.
After we left the Southern waters and began to sail in a northerly direction the weather became much more quiescent and it was not long before we sighted the African coast nearDurban.Durbanis the chief seaport of Natal SouthAfrica, and nestles amongst picturesque scenery. As we approached the harbour, the translucent water hardly moved, whilst the sky beheld not a cloud, and was of the deepest blue. Kitty-hawks and other birds circled and squawked about the ships masts. Everything seemed so celestial, as our bows sliced gently through the water, hardly making a ripple.
All the Empire had heard of how the Royal Air Force, as it was then, very small, had fought and won the air battles, day after day overBritain. This is why the people ofSouth Africagave a warm welcome to the ‘boys in blue’. They flocked in their sumptuous, high-horse-powered cars to the docksides every day, offering invitations to their homes and parties. After the first day ashore, the men related to one another various experiences of that day and how kind they thought the South Africans to be. They were so liberal and gay and after we had spent our three weeks ashore at Durban, many of the men were becoming intimately attached to many of the families and vouched that they would return after the war.
The greatest attraction seemed to be, to ride in one of the rickshaws, drawn by a massive jet - black Zulu who are colourfully dressed in all the tribal regalia of a witch doctor, complete with horns and leopard, skins. All the other transport within the town was free to all the servicemen, whilst other entertainment has only cost half price to the man in uniform. Trolley buses glide placidly down the spacious boulevards and tranquillising herbaceous esplanades, while sleek cars more, often than not driven by blithe slips of girls, headed for the open country; perhaps to play tennis or to meet their boyfriends at some clandestine spot.
Durban throughout the world is advertised as a millionaire’s playground and it really is. Although it has many modern buildings, cinemas or “bioscopes” as the South African says and theatres, there are delightfully built housing estates, built on symmetrical lines, the ulterior still mingle with the intriguing past. Not far from the town, one could see Zulu camps and animal haunts just as they were years ago - monkeys, and snakes haunt the forests, as did their predecessors.
Often one would see a Zulu Chief and all his household come to town on a shopping tour. All her ‘ladies in waiting’ accompanied his favourite wife walking by his side. She would almost be six-foot, and stood erect, her black skin shining like patent leather; I suppose she was very beautiful as far as a black man is concerned.
As one passed through residential suburbs one would notice how devotedly the blacks work for their white employers. One would see the Negro nursemaids looking after the baby in the colourful gardens whilst perhaps her Negro husband was driving madam about in town shopping or tending the lush gardens. Usually the black servants occupy a little, but modern bungalow, which is reserved for this purpose at the rear of the house. The natives also had their own markets and fairs, and occasionally one would hear of knife and knobkerrie duels-possibly over wives!
On the last day we were due to leave, hundreds of people crowded the quaysides, to wave us good-by. Many of the men had made sweethearts and even in that short time, some had become engaged. The sky was exquisitely blue and the sea divinely beautiful when we sailed away from this land of dreams, and as when we left England only six weeks before many a tear was shed.
As we approached the equator on the east - side ofAfrica, in theIndian Ocean, the heat became humid, and it was not until we had passedAdenand was sailing up theRed Sea, that we enjoyed an occasional breeze. All danger of being torpedoed had passed now and we felt a little safer.
It was exactly two months ago since we leftBritain; we were anchored in the peaceful – looking waters that wash the white sands ofSuez. For the majority on board these last two months had been full of new excitement, and longing - longing to set foot on terra-firma again. We had only been four days out of theportofLiverpool, when it was learned that we were being snared by packs of U-Boats. Those were anxious days, but we had an efficient escort, comprising of several war-ships of no light displacement. One day it was flashed around the convoy that two enemy submarines had been extirpated by their dextrous tactics; loud cheers arose on hearing this, and everyone began to feel a little more confident in the ability of the, ‘Senior Service.’
The Nile Delta
The Egyptian delta begins atCairoand spreads out towards the sea covering a wide area.Alexandriais at one corner andPort Saidon the other. In this triangle of green vegetation, the majority of the Egyptian population exists. The following will portray a little of what goes on in the land where many a British boy fell fighting for his country and the sort of people we were compelled to tolerate for three years or more. In the large towns, you often see many of them dressed in European garb, but their minds were never different. I thought the majority to be the lowest, dirtiest, immoral, double-talking sharks I have ever met in my life.
The majority of the population rises early in the morning and carryout their business before the sun becomes too hot. In the afternoon, almost everyone has a siesta, even the donkey, dog and oxen. The typical Egyptian market place is a throng with people, shoeshine boys are the worst for pestering one, and a good kick up the rear was favourite report. One could see the Egyptian butcher selling his meat, joints hung up in bright sunshine but the hordes of marauding flies did not seem to bother the buyers. Basket makers sat happily with cross legs weaving this way and that to complete fine looking baskets. Further along was the barber shaving a client, knife sharpener, and sandal makers sat cross-legged, happily sewing.
There’s never any shortage of materials for salads inEgypt. Tomato, lettuce, radishes cucumbers, peppers, beetroot, potatoes, carrots can be all bought during the summer and autumn months, and there are also a super- abundance of poultry and subsequently eggs. So, this will give you some idea of how important the Egyptian farmers became to the British war effort. When theMediterraneanwas closed toEnglandbound convoys most of our supplies were fromEgyptand the surrounding countries. Naturally, in consequence the British serviceman had to stomach food that he had never before assimilated in his life before! He will well remember ‘yellow potatoes’, and ‘meat covered with flies’ and the scavenging dogs.
In Egypt, they use, chiefly, the irrigation ditches and canals for the conveyance of heavy goods from town to town. As for farming, the same old primitive methods are still popular. This being partly because the Egyptians have no time for the easy, modern methods – he has so many children that he has enough labour to sow and gather his crops. One often sees children of all ages-between five and fourteen working as hard as any adult. The children neither are, nor really compelled to go to school. I always found the farm children happy and content. Just like any other kids.
When the day’s work was done in the fields, it was a common sight to see the Egyptians happily bathing with their donkeys and oxen in opaque dykes. Men, women and children, it made no difference; this is their life, and they thrive on it. Often we have been witness to such luxurious partaking. In the evenings and several times a day, they pray to ‘Allah.’
The Western Desert
For the majority of our race, the term ‘WesternDesert’ must seem to them a place there is little or no civilisation at all. That was, at least, what I conceived at the beginning and after three or more years of trials and vicissitudes, I drew the definite conclusion that the majority of our people are right.
Perhaps, had it not been for Adolf Hitler - to a much lesser degree, Mussolini, the sands ofEgyptandLibyawould never have lost their dormant poise. However, because they were destined to become bloody battlefields and, subsequently, burial grounds for our fallen heroes, their dormant lassitude was rifled with cannon-fire and bombs for two years.
On leaving Alexandria, the Western Desert begins on the Western suburbs of the afore said modern city. Mex is the name best known to the average person, who is acquainted with this conglomerated area of modern, and not so modern area? For when one is travelling through Mex to reach the first approaches of the desert, one has to without any option, run the obnoxious gauntlet, comprising chiefly of rickety, rat infested, skin and hide markets. On passing no doubt, as quickly as possible, one can see thousands of these hides hanging in the sunshine. These places are also noted for their breed of particularly attentive fly, which loves the blood of an Englishman.
Silence is Golden.
I believe, that which I hear with my own ears
And believe, that which I see with my own eyes
I must never listen to rumours or advice of information
Or advice of information from those who I consider enemies
I must judge for myself but not advertise the result.
Poem by J.W. Pratt.
Looking through a pile of photos taken in Egypt 1941-43 and Italy in 1943-45, each one has dates and information what they are. In Italy James was attached to 19 S.A.A.F. South African Beaufighter Squadron, based in Campo Marino: Rome and Naples. It was while in Campo Marino the squadron took over a school and made one of the classrooms the mess. Most of the servicemen in the photograph are S.A.A.F.
James wrote notes on the back of each photo. He told his wife that the place was so dreary that he set too and painted a mural of aSouth Seasdancing girl on one wall and a typical English cottage garden on the other. ‘I had to brighten the place up, as it was a depressing time’.
On his return to England in April 1945, James married Joy, his girl friend who waited for him to return. He continued his career in the RAF stationed mostly in overseas posts: Gibraltar: Cyprus: Kenya: Isle of Man and Libya.
James retired from the RAF as Flt Lt Senior Catering Officer in 1974. One of his career highlight was being responsible for all the catering arrangements for the Royal Opening of the Hendon RAF Museum in November 15, 1972. He received a letter of thanks from his Wing Commander Peter Clubbe, AMBIM RAF.
Back in civilian life, James continued his career as Catering Manager with CISCO Westcott attached to the RAF in Abingdon. In 1979, he moved up to his birth town Grimsby as Catering Manager for Findus Foods and finally retired 1983. James being used to travelling and speaking several languages travelledEuropewith his second wife Margaret. James died suddenly in 1998 aged 77, his story unfinished.
Peter Pratt James’s young brother.
Photograph of James Pratt's WWII Medals.
This page archived in Sptember of 2016 here: https://perma.cc/J52A-Z4GA