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Norm's war memories

The memories of Wrigglesworth, as told to Elizabeth Ash

As a well-known long time resident of Richmond and a veteran of World War II, I would like to share my memories with the readers of the Richmond News.

Answering the call to enlist in the military at the height of World War II, I joined the British Navy at 17.

Upon joining the navy, we, the recruits, were given the basic essentials: two sets of naval uniforms, underwear, towel, toothbrush, toothpaste and half pound of tobacco, which started me smoking and took years to quit.

After a 12-week training covering all kinds of naval topics and rigorous manoeuvres, we boarded an old, huge troopship called the Al Cantara at Liverpool bound for the Mediterranean Sea.

There were 3,000 seamen, mostly 17-yearolds, aboard the Al Cantara, including some Americans. The troopship was overcrowded.

Two sittings for meals were required and it took about two hours for each seaman to reach the serving counter. The Americans always complained about the bad food.

I said to them, "If you don't like the food, pass it on to me." So I had my fill with the extra meals. I was always hungry as a lad of 17.

There were so many troops aboard that right away after dinner, the other seaman and I had to stake a spot on decks to sleep for the night or we would have to sleep on hammocks or under the dining tables.

There were plenty of cockroaches running around the floor of the dining tables and kitchen. It was difficult for us to eliminate the cockroaches as they hid in all the cracks of the huge troopship.

There was at least one death a day on the Al Cantara and other ships I served. We soon got used to the routine call to line up, dressed in uniforms, to salute the dead and witness the lowering down of the coffin into the sea.

There was always a water shortage on board while sailing. Often water was rationed to just washing our face and hands and not for bathing or washing clothes. Sometimes we did not bathe for weeks until the water was replenished in the next port of call.

After a month of sailing, Al Cantara reached Port Said, Egypt, where we boarded a train to Alexandria and were housed in tents for a month. With the hot temperature there hovering around 40 F, thousands of flies flew into our tents, constantly buzzing in our ears and we could not sleep every night and became irritable and sick.

The authorities then bussed us to one of the deposed King Farouk's palaces in Alexandria, for relief. There we found luxury at last.

The palace was air-conditioned, the floors were marbled, the beds were comfortable, the food was excellent and there was plenty of hot water for us to bathe and wash our clothes. We slept well and felt rested for a change. But that lasted only two days.

We then boarded a warship called Exmoor, which plied the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and became our war base. We docked mostly in Alexandria, Egypt and some ports in Italy. The Exmoor became our home for the next two years.

Being tall at six foot one, I was always assigned to guard prisoners: navy deserters, robbers, sexual offenders, the enemy - Germans and Austrians - captured in Greece and taken to Alexandria.

To deceive and confuse the enemy, it was a naval policy to paint and repaint warships every month or less, in a different colour each time with no name displayed on the ship. I took part in repainting our ship many times under very hot weather.

Once, when the Exmoor was docked in Alexandria, it was bombed by the Germans, and we got the scare of our lives. It was my job to continually lift the heavy cannon balls to feed the guns to fire back at our enemy.

At another time when the Exmoor was doing a minesweeping job, I was blown away and almost died.

After the war ended, I continued to serve the navy for two more years and was assigned to serve on HMS Queen which took me to Australia and back, to the British colony of Hong Kong and back, to the British colony of Ceylon and back, to all the British colonies in Africa, rounding the continent, and back. So I saw most of the world by joining the navy.

The British government rewarded all the war veterans with a subsidy to emigrate to any British Commonwealth country if they wish. At first, I chose Australia where I stayed three years learning carpentry and house-building and graduated to become a master in those two trades.

While holidaying in England, I decided to emigrate to Canada instead of returning to Australia, as Canada has a shorter distance to travel than Australia by boat from England.

Also, I was travelling with my passion - my motorcycle.

I first landed in Toronto in 1953 at the age of 25 and stayed there for three years. In 1956 I drove from Toronto to Vancouver and Richmond, which became my permanent home. I have now lived in Richmond for the past 55 years, living in the same house I built with my own hands in 1956.