Dr Bobby Headley interview: Overseas deployment

Was there any provision of anaesthesia that you had to prepare as you sailed for overseas deployment?

No. Not really. We were going on a ship and were going to pick up our gear at the other end. We didn’t know where we were going, we hadn’t a clue. It wasn’t very long before we embarked from Liverpool on the 29th May 1942 – another 29! We went on a ship called the Orontes which had been on the Australia run. Strange to reflect, it was a lovely ship and would have been larger. A troop ship in those days, to start with they had all the luxury on and then they stripped it each time of more and more stuff until finally the decks were just bare and the unfortunate troops who were there slept on hammocks. All they had was a table taking about 15 or 20 from here to there. That was where they spent their whole lives.

They were allowed to go on deck to some extent but they weren’t allowed to show any lights and weren’t allowed to smoke but about a quarter of them – about two or three thousand - were able to sleep in the open. The heat was awful. I don’t think there was any air conditioning. The Orontes was rather a jolly boat, it was beautifully equipped. I suddenly saw this postcard in the shop – must be about 60 or 70 years old now. The Orontes was a lovely ship. So we set out from Liverpool on 29th May 1942 for where? I may say we arrived in Suez on 22nd July so that meant it took us two months to get to Suez. It’s not the way to go today. It would take about six hours to get there today.

So where did you go?

We start off here from Liverpool and then what do we do? We go due west for about a week in a very rough sea with umpteen thousand troops on board, at least half of them being very sick. It was a week to ten days. They really were desperate and some of them couldn’t believe it. We did pretty well to the Caribbean. I may say we were a convoy of umpteen ships plus a lot of battleships -  terrifying,  submarines and things like that. Nothing attacked us I’m glad to say. Then we came back after two weeks to Freetown here. A bit of Africa that sticks out. It’s a long way. We put in at Freetown. Having gone right over there we were in the Saragossa Sea for a bit. Then we came back to Freetown. There was a British military hospital there. When we went out again there were umpteen of us and umpteen ships we all had to sit on the ships. We had three days there [Freetown] I suppose refuelling but nobody got off. Several of the chaps got a thing called the tamu tamu fly there – have you heard of it?  It lays its eggs on your leg or some bit of skin so if you sit on the deck sunbathing you wouldn’t know about. Its egg hatches out and a bug goes under the skin. Then it creates a sort of mess and you get an abscess coming up. Then after about a few days there’s a buzzing noise and another tamu tamu  fly flies out of your leg. I’m afraid that’s what happens there but other than that it was quite nice, a real tropical place.

What was it like on board ship?

We set off from there after three days with less of a convoy system because we were getting further away – although some of the German submarines did get around this side actually. Not a particularly nice thing to happen but for the most part we didn’t see [anything]. The thing I remember most about there was that you were travelling at night in complete darkness without a light of any kind except the stars. We all got very proficient in looking at the stars – the Southern Cross comes into action, Orion and all the others. Something to look at. Quite a lot of the time flying fish zoomed around the boat – a few porpoises or something around the front. The flying fish – when the waves broke you go a sort of phosphorescent effect. It was all lit up as you went along.  Quite something. You could just sit and gaze at it. And the soldiers – in order to keep them amused as well as giving them a bit of static drill or give them some sport or food they used to play a game called Housey Housey – Lotto. A group of about 40 or 50 would put a few pence in and that gave them an interest in the game. Passes the time away. It’s a long time to be at sea.