Anthony Norman Billson – Transcript
- Q: How did you become involved with what became
known as the Blue Train, how did you join up for that element?
It was a voluntary arrangement, about ten or twelve of us flew out to
Italy, to Rome, firstly to Naples then we went by road to Rome, and
when we got to Rome we went for an interview and they asked for five
volunteers to go up to pick up the Blue Train in Forli and I was one
of the volunteers to go and do that.
- Q: How did it all start for you, when did you
join Cable and Wireless?
In 1943 on my birthday, I signed up as usual and I was expected to be
called up for anything, but nothing happened and nobody would give you
a job because you couldn’t say how long you’d be there. So I had friends
in Devon who had a farm and went down there and I helped with the farm.
Then I had a telegram, because phones were not very common in those days,
from my parents to say come home. I arranged to go back and they had a
friend who worked for Creeds who make teleprinters and the like. They
had a notice on their factory board about Cable and Wireless wanting
people; so I applied and father said go along, have an interview,
whatever, its worthwhile, you know. I did and I was taken on as an Operator
and started in January 1944.
- Q: Remind us what an Operator did?
Operating in those days; you were effectively touch typing on a keyboard
perforator for sending signals. You also had to learn Morse Code: sitting
with a typewriter and earphones on and type out whatever was coming in.
You used Morse Keys and Cable Keys – double keys – in cable work, and you
had to pass out at various speeds at different stages of your training.
- Q: How did you get from Cable and Wireless to being
The training was about a year, so we then set off for Italy.
- Q: Had you volunteered to go to Italy?
No, no, we had joined the Foreign Service and you were sent anywhere.
- Q: Where were you based for the training?
Training was at Electra House on the Embankment, in London, which of course
got bombed June or July and they actually bombed our training room – it
was in the early morning – so we got there and there was just a mess. We
spent a day or two helping to clear things up. Then we went up to the
sixth floor and continued our training there.
- Q: How do you hear that you’re off to Italy?
I can’t remember. We just got our instructions somehow and off we went.
- Q: How did you get out there, to Italy?
We were provided with uniform, army uniforms under the Telcom badge, then
we flew out from Lyneham and it was in a Warwick, which is actually a
passenger version of a Wellington bomber. We had a Polish pilot, and
Australian navigator and the other was an Englishman. We stopped at
various places on the way from engine trouble and the like. In fact I
think when you left, because of security you couldn’t tell anybody either
where you were or where you were going so we had a post card the Company
gave us which was put into a box at the last moment we possibly could so
that they would know we had gone. We didn’t actually arrive for three or
four days, and there was some concern as to whether we had been lost or
- Q: Was the post card for friends and family?
No, for the Office.
- Q: Can you describe the uniform?
It was an ordinary Army battledress, that was the initial uniform; we had
a similar status to a war correspondent (WC). You had to be in uniform
because if you were taken prisoner, you’d be shot as a spy. We had an
honorary officers status and did wear a peaked cap. The rest was just
ordinary uniform with a tie and a shirt.
- Q: Did you have a badge?
We had an epaulette badge, that had Telcom on it and a hat badge that had
Telcom on it.
- Q: So you were civilians in uniform in case of capture;
how did you feel about that?
I wasn’t too sure, I thought I should be out there fighting, if you know
what I mean. I had a word with a very dear friend in the Air Ministry and
he said ‘fine, carry on’. He was Air-Vice Marshal with lots of scrambled
eggs round his hat and he was very kind, he took the time to see me.
- Q: What conversation did you have?
Well I was wondering whether I should be doing what I was doing or whether
I should try and volunteer for something else that would be close to the
fighting. He said not to worry, and seemed to know how the war was going.
He had an inkling it was going our way and wouldn’t last too long. He said
‘you’re better off where you are’.
- Q: Initially you weren’t really sure it was an
important role, or you felt you should be doing something more
- Q: And did this view change, once you got underway,
in terms of how you saw the importance of what you were doing?
Yes, but the point being, we were only in Italy about a month before the
war finished. There wasn’t long out there. Whilst we were out there we
had one New Zealander with a couple of hundred prisoners asked if we
could help him out and look after them, as a non-combatant force we
couldn’t so, that was about it really. We saw lots and lots of prisoners
in various states, in fact they were coming along to try and get some
food. The interesting thing to me was that you saw a field full of
prisoners sitting quite calmly, and they were only guarded by one Ghurkha.
One Ghurkha would guard about five hundred prisoners and nobody would move.
- Q: Did you ever give them any food, were you able
We weren’t able to, no. They came not to us personally, they were quite
lost really to know what to do – they’d lost their command and support
- Q: Before you went to Italy, were you trained
specifically in the mobile equipment? How did you learn to use the
The instruments were the same; we had the keyboards which punched the tape
and we had a Great Northern transmitter, that was about all that was needed
from the point of view of sending messages. The vehicle was laid out in
such a way that where it joined on to the articulated part of the tractor,
the floor level went up and you couldn’t stand up in that area, and the
supervisor – George Timms – ex London man – he used to be able to switch
the thing on and off with his foot, and send a short message with the
Morse Key with his foot. It was convenient.
- Q: In a very basic way, can you tell us what the Blue
You followed the WC around and tried to find a convenient site close to
where they were. You then erected masts; they were nine section masts,
seventy two feet high and after one or two goes we were very adept at
putting these up. The transmitter was a Marconi swab 8 as we called it,
we could only run it up to 3.5Kw with the power that we had and then you
would contact London and we picked them up an ordinary receiver with a
not particularly great aerial because the traffic was all from Italy to
London. There was nothing coming from London to Italy; the only messages
that way were from the Editor of the paper telling off one of his
- Q: Do we know why it’s called the Blue Train?
It wasn’t our naming of it, it was something to do with the RAF who had
these units and we bought one from them. The origin of the name Blue Train
I cant be sure of.
- Q: Had you heard of this sort of unit before you
No. A lot of the staff went to usual places, Gibraltar, Portugal.
- Q: What are the first few things that you do when you
arrive in Italy?
We went by road from Naples where we landed to Rome where we volunteered
to go to the Blue Train then they sent us off to the Officers Shop to get
bedding roll, camp bed, a camp bath, washbasin, bucket, groundsheet and
that was our equipment for going into the tents. There were five of us to
a tent – which leaked terribly badly. I got up one morning completely
soaked; the only thing I could do was get dressed and go for a sharp walk
to get warm.
- Q: Had you met the men you were going to be working
The five of us were at the college together and knew each other well, but
the senior staff we hadn’t met before; they were very nice, very good.
- Q: You’ve arrived, there is a degree of training, is
Yes, they’re fairly straight forward, we just put them up and down. One of
the senior people managed to get them straight. They were eight sections
of nine foot tube that plugged in together and there was a way of rolling
them over and getting them up, all pulling on pulley’s and they went up,
not too straight, and then four of you stood at the stays and tightened
and slackened various wires to straighten the thing up. You were either
ashamed or proud of what you’d done.
- Q: How long on average could it take to put them up
and take them down?
Well experience, of course went with it, after a few runs you put them up
and down quite quickly.
- Q: What sort of lengths of time?
Certainly within an hour we’d have a mast up, maybe even less.
- Q: Did certain conditions make it harder, thinking
dark, rain, snow?
We didn’t have snow but we did have a lot of rain. The only point was you
had to drive in big posts – the stays – to hold the thing up and that
depended on the ground you were working on. If it was a nice ground you
could drive a stay in fine, but if it was hard you couldn’t drive them in.
We used a 7lb hammer and that actually eventually broke, the handle went
on it, and we were left with a 14lb hammer, it was the only one we had
left and that did take quite a lot of wielding.
- Q: Can you detail your progression up Italy, and
We started off, picked up the Blue Train at Forli and then continued to
various places along the route, we went on to Lavazzola, then St Martino
then crossed the Po over a pontoon bridge. We then moved up to Udine in
Northern Italy, then to Austria. Things got a little bit difficult there
because Tito, his men, his partisans were being a little bit of a nuisance,
posed a small threat and we didn’t want any firing to go on, you know,
because we didn’t have any spare valves for the transmitter. I don’t think
we were considered, but the transmitter was, so we returned to Udine for
a while. Eventually we went back to Austria, to a transit camp in Judenburg,
we were trying to get to Vienna – that was our goal. At the Russian border
they held us up for about ten or eleven hours. We were trying to get a pass
to get through there, and of course by this time it was dark. We had been
before that, while we were waiting time, we had been playing football in a
field nearby, until after about two or three hours of football we were
ordered out of there because it might be a minefield – rather late, of
course, but it could have been a minefield. Anyway, the problem with
leaving the Russian border was it was dark, and of course the old vehicles
we had had never used their lights since they were made and there was only
one with anything like decent headlights so we formed up a string of
vehicles with the best lights in front and we just followed each others
tail lights, and this was through very difficult country up until we got
to Vienna at about two in the morning. It was an old SS barracks behind
the Schoenbrunn Palace and we slept under the vehicles because there was
no time to put up tents, then the next day we managed to find flats –
people took us in. Two or three of us were posted to one flat, they
commandeered the accommodation there; they were very nice people the
Austrians there, fortunately the husband was a school teacher and spoke
very good English; we were able to converse with him. The difficulty was
with the Russians – they were a little bit gun happy. On Sunday we walked
up into the hills because it was kite flying day and watching the locals
with the kites, one of them was in the form of an eagle and standing next
to a Russian I said ‘oh, look at that’ and he took out his gun and let out
the full magazine at the kite, I backed off and left him to it.
- Q: How long did the progress through Italy take,
from the south to the north?
About a month to move up Italy.
- Q: Are you moving every day, every other day?
Possible every other day.
- Q: As you progress up Italy, what sorts of reactions
are you getting from local people.
Oh very good. They’re pleased to see us. I don’t think the Italians
themselves ever had their heart in the War. They were quite happy to see
us – there was no hostility whatsoever.
- Q: How did it show itself?
They were always smiling and perfectly happy. In Austria it was a little
more difficult; there was no fraternisation: orders. You couldn’t really
mix with them, although of course when we were in the flat with the people
you couldn’t not talk to them. The Italians were certainly very good.
- Q: How was it in the flat, was it awkward?
They were perfectly normal and quite happy for us to be there I think.
I think what worried them all, and worried us, was the Russians, you were
never quite sure what they were going to do. They were probably quite happy
to have us there, rather than the alternative.
- Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the key points
during the War, you’re progressing up and the War is coming to an end and
then ends. Tell us a little about that? Is it very clear that the Allies
are definitely winning as you’re progressing up?
Its difficult to remember. I don’t think we expected the war to end, but
it ended fairly abruptly and probably sooner than we expected. I cant
think of any signs that it was about to end. One point, we were moving so
fast, at one point we overtook the Eighth Army and got there first.
Everybody was rushing up, and we did have to stand aside one day with
hooters and bells going because General Alexander was on his way up and
went past in his Staff Car. I think it all happened so quickly in the end,
there was not really time to dwell on it. We of course had a party in the
evening – the WC invited us to the press camp the day that peace was
declared, and the next day we had our own little party in the field.
I’m sure it was only; we did have chicken, that’s right and there’s the
question of where the chicken came from… Some of the drivers found the
chicken somewhere… we didn’t ask too many questions.
- Q: Was chicken unusual, you had basic rations didn’t
We had bully beef a lot at the time. The food was good, we had a little
old Scotch chef who, whenever we stopped he always had his cast iron stove
out, he made a snack or a meal depending how long we would be there.
Brewed up coffee and tea – he was very good actually. I have no complaints
about the food.
- Q: Was that Army rations, presumably, you were
Yes. Bearing in mind we’d been in UK for a number of years on pretty tight
rations, we had become used to it.
- Q: Can you tell us a little more about the various
parties to mark VE Day? First of all, how did you hear about VE Day?
We personally heard when the drivers came back from the press camp; they
normally came back with messages to be sent off and they were dancing
across the field telling us that it was all over, and that was the message
- Q: Did you hear any of the speeches on the radio?
The following day we heard the (8th/9th May) King and Churchill speak on
the end of the War in Europe – party at press conference that evening.
- Q: Can you remember listening to those speeches – the
King and Churchill?
Yes, we would have listened to it in the van with the radio on. We must
have had elation. I can’t think of anything specific – we were just pleased.
But also, a little mixed as to what was going to happen next. What did
follow was that we went to Vienna.
- Q: Do you have any recollections of either of the
parties, apart from the fact you had chicken?
I can’t remember much about the party at the press place. Our own party in
the field I do remember, we were just in the open air sitting at a long
table in the field; in those days we were not allowed to drink spirits
because we were not 21 and the Company rules said you couldn’t. So we all
had a ration through the army of a bottle of whiskey a month, which we
couldn’t drink but the senior staff were very pleased to take our bottle
of whiskey, for which they gave us a ration of beer, which we were allowed
to drink, so that was sorted out. We were at the beer that night. The only
thing you could have got drunk on was Italian vermouth or something which
we could have bought, but didn’t.
- Q: Can you tell us a little more about the vehicles
The vehicles consisted of four articulated, one somewhat larger than the
others which carried the transmitter van. One of the others was the
receiving van, another was the workshop van and a long stores to stack all
the tubes for the aerial. Apart from that we had a big Thorneycroft vehicle
with enormous tyres that you could walk underneath almost, and that had a
generator, a permanent generator on it. We had a lorry, which towed a
trailer with another generator on it and carried baggage. There were two
QL vehicles which, one was set out as a studio for voice casting and
things of that nature; we were also able to send pictures. The manager
had a little Hillman pickup – I think that was about all. About ten
vehicles in all.
- Q: Did the terrain pose any particular challenges,
I suppose considering the types of vehicles being used?
Bomb holes were difficult. You don’t want to stall – you have to keep
moving. They were a little bit underpowered, we did have two vehicles
that were four wheel drive, but they weren’t towing vehicles. Other than
that they really went quite well. The drivers were very good and very
well trained, for looking after the vehicles and the senior driver used
to have an inspection every few weeks of all vehicles to makes sure they
were in good order.
- Q: When you were underway, where did you personally
I tended to travel with the transmitter van, the big articulated vehicle.
Other than that, on the journey into Vienna I was travelling in the big
Thorneycroft, which was handy because when we got there I slept underneath
- Q: In convoy, when you were sitting up front in the
transmitter van, did you have any duties as the journey progressed?
Only when we were in rough terrain, when we had to shovel gravel under the
wheels to make sure they would grip and we didn’t stall, or skid, or spin.
Otherwise we just followed, there wasn’t anything, no problems really.
Everyone travelled in the vehicle, if there weren’t enough seats you had
to jump in the back of the baggage lorry and made yourself comfortable
- Q: How did these vehicles get petrol?
The drivers disappeared and got petrol; from where I don’t know. There
must have been a supply somewhere, but we never saw it.
- Q: How many of you are in the Blue Train?
There’s a Manager, and then a Number 2, who was R.F.Forest, he was a
younger man, trained in the late thirties. There were then two more watch
keepers for the transmitter van, then we had the senior operators which
consisted of mostly George Timms was the supervisor from London, and then
there was it varied, some came and went, probably three more seniors, and
at the time we were doing that we also had Conway Gordon the artist who
prepared a few plates for the book. Five volunteer junior staff as well,
nine, plus the cook and the drivers, so about twenty four in all.
- Q: How were relations between the Cable and Wireless
staff and the army personnel?
We had a lot of fun together. We had an army liaison officer, Captain
Austin, he would sort out any senior problems that needed sorting out.
He was a very nice man, he came right through the war and he had a Jeep
which was rather nice. He very kindly used to take us down to the beach
when that was possible. When peace was declared several went to Venice,
we went to Trieste, under Yugoslavia, we then went back to Italy. We
enjoyed one or two trips of that nature.
- Q: What did you make of these places you were
We were able to see as we went up, we saw one or two nice places. We
couldn’t stop long, but we spent the odd hour here or there. Subsequently,
I went back to Rome from Vienna and spent several weeks there, and was able
to sight-see as well as work.
- Q: After the war, are you based in Rome with Cable
We were in Vienna and set up the office, and the senior staff stayed there
and were able to manage the amount of work. The masts went up and were left
permanently, so we went back down to Rome. It was the one and only time that
I have been on a plane that was so full, they actually had people standing,
it took off with people standing and hanging on – it was a Dakota. It was
one with bucket seats which were for parachutes so you had seats on either
side and rails down the middle. The Americans ran it once a day, every day
I think – it was run like a bus service. But we got there.
- Q: What role were you performing in Rome when you
Well the office was there and we were able to help in the office. It wasn’t
too long; we were there until November, but in November I got dysentery and
was put into an army hospital for ten or eleven days and then shortly
afterwards went to Ceylon. That taught me to never eat an apple without
- Q: What about the instruments you used within these
vans, describe what it would look like if you were going in to one?
You stepped into the vehicle from behind up a few steps, and there were
benches either side of you. You had the punch tape machine either side,
there wasn’t too much room. There were usually two people punching tape,
and could be three or more. Having punched the tape up, you fed it up into
the transmitter. None of it required much movement. This equipment would
stay in position so as soon as the van arrived all you needed to do really
was connect up power from the generators; it didn’t have to be unpacked –
it was safe, more or less, where it was.
- Q: Primarily you were sending, but on occasion you
were receiving, so there must have been some capacity to receive?
A pair of headphones, and there was a loud speaker monitor from London all
the time. Then he would say ‘stop’ or ‘repeat’ or ‘please put that in
again’, and of course any messages received would have to be written down
from what you hear on the Morse Code. There was one van for sending and
receiving, the others were support vehicles.
- Q: What specific instruments did you have there?
In the van you would only have the punch-tape instruments, plus the
transmitter itself. The transmitter is really quite a small business; the
Great Northern transmitter was quite a neat little unit, and you put tape
into it. It was usually running at a speed of about 80 wpm and of course
some of the old senior staff would feed it at 80 wpm with no trouble. You
put it in front of him, with the messages counted up, and he would just
keep a loop of tape between himself and the transmitter, and one of them
smoked a pipe and he would then accelerate a bit and form a nice big loop
on the floor, then sit back and fill his pipe while it caught up. The
old senior operators were very good.
- Q: Is it noisy inside this van?
Not particularly, there’d be the speaker going all the time with Morse on.
It wasn’t on loudly, it didn’t need to be – we all had young ears then.
- Q: What about spares or breakages?
The workshop van had spares of course, the punch machines we had – about
four – of which one or two were normally in use, we had 100% spares. I’m
sure we had a spare transmitter, they were quite small units – about 18’
wide, 9’ high and 9’ deep, and that was it. And you had a speed dial on
the top and you could run it up – I think the top speed was about 180 wpm
which we never used of course. They had it at 80 wpm.
- Q: Did it ever break down, it simply couldn’t
It always kept going, and we had a spare of course. They were, and are
reliable machines. The punch ones you can sharpen the punches themselves.
A spot of oil here and there, a bit of grease, Crimson Gear was the name
of the grease we used to put on the cams, but they were generally reliable
- Q: Did the conditions ever threaten them in a way –
you mentioned your tents leaked – were the vans a little more
The vans were watertight, no problems with leaking.
- Q: There’s a lot of movement, there’s a lot of dust,
there was heat, I don’t know if you got that, there was wet, did any of
that create problems for keeping this lot ticking over?
I don’t remember any serious problems. There could be, but the instruments
had covers on them. The punches weren’t well sealed, the transmitters were.
I think they could tolerate quite a lot. Otherwise, they just kept going.
- Q: As you’re moving up through Italy, you’re moving up
through a recently liberated country, are you right at the head of that
We followed the WC and the idea was that we were several hours behind the
main army, but it got so, people were moving so quickly towards the end
that we, there was no marker, nobody put down a line, it was just where
you were. We were ahead of the army, they caught us up after a while,
what we would have done I don’t know.
- Q: Did you have any guns?
- Q: Did the drivers, who were regular army?
No, not officially. They might have had something quietly in the corner,
but none of us had guns.
- Q: And there’s no unit with you or alongside you that
is acting as protection?
- Q: Did you ever feel that this was a bit
I never felt threatened. Only in Vienna did I ever feel uncomfortable with
the Russians, but otherwise not in Italy.
- Q: Would you say it wasn’t dangerous?
We did have one night when a German aircraft came over and, my story might
not necessarily agree with everybody else, but anyway, we were sitting
there with a 3.5Kw transmitter on, and anybody who wanted to find us could,
quite easily, a few bombs were dropped one night, but the story is that
they were heading for somewhere else, but I’m not sure. Anyway, the next
day we dug a few trenches in case they started machine gunning, otherwise
I didn’t feel threatened.
- Q: You didn’t normally dig trenches or make any kind
of defences, it was pop the tent up and get in?
Yes, we didn’t have time to dig – it was get the mast up and away. We
weren’t threatened really.
- Q: You mentioned playing football on what could have
been a minefield, was that a danger, were mines or the potential for booby
traps - was that a concern?
It obviously didn’t concern us because we played football, but what they
were saying was it hadn’t been swept or checked. The fact was, there wasn’t
anything there. I think we’d have found it if there was.
- Q: Generally speaking, if everything is moving so
fast, sometimes you would be on roads that hadn’t been swept – was there
a concern about mines?
I don’t think so. Obviously we in modern times, we hear a lot about booby
traps and mines. I don’t think they were used to that extent. I think
people were moving too quickly to lay them. There were areas where they
used to use the flail tanks to get rid of them, but we never came across
- Q: What about when you entered Yugoslavia? You
mentioned Tito’s men?
When you catch up with someone who looks like a Mexican bandit with bullets
and guns and belts all over them, you do get a little nervous perhaps, as
you’ve got nothing. They didn’t pose a real threat, but they looked quite
- Q: Was that when the decision was taken that it would
be better to head back into Italy?
That was the idea, yes. They were worried about the transmitter van – a
bullet through the transmitter tube and that would have put us out of
- Q: If you have arrived and put the mast up, are you
on a shift system?
Yes, there was a shift or watch system. Obviously with everyone in the
transmitting van it would have been overloaded if we were all in there.
There was probably two or three young ones, and it wouldn’t be more than
two seniors in there at a time.
- Q: How was it structured?
You just take it as it comes. I don’t think there was any problem really.
You lived in a different world in those days – you did what was needed.
The supervisor would have said you two come on and the other two come on
later – there was no strict rule about it.
- Q: How did you tend to spend the time when you weren’t
Good question, I can’t remember. There might have been a van going into
town and two or three of us would jump aboard. Not to really do much, just
to have a look around, a look at the shops. Apart from that I don’t think
there was any great activity. A lot of them used to play Bridge – we all
used to play Bridge. It seemed to be the only thing to do, particularly if
it was raining outside and you’re sitting in a tent there’s not a lot you
can do. You haven’t got any light particularly, so reading is difficult.
So we played Bridge.
- Q: Did you mix much, especially with the Italians,
with the locals?
I think you could, we didn’t, we were younger then. I know one of the
watch-keepers for the transmitter van was very good actually. We had a
problem in Udine and we were in the little Hillman van, and it was a very
wide road and an Italian child of about four or five years old ran across
the road. We stopped and were stationary, but the child wasn’t looking
where he was going and was looking at his mother and just ran into the
vehicle. We were worried about this and said ‘right, we’ll take him and
his mother to the general hospital’. And we did, halfway through the
conversation between our chap and the mother she stopped and said ‘are you
Italian’ and he did speak perfect Italian and I think he learned it on the
way by having Italian girlfriends – the usual way! But he did speak very
good Italian. He was a bit older and knew the ropes, we were very green,
shall we say? The mother didn’t blame us, she was calling the child and we
were stationary, and he went straight into the side of us, running.
- Q: What are you sending in the Blue Train,
communications from WC?
WC almost entirely, nothing else, other than Cable and Wireless message
between the offices. They used to come in by dispatch rider from the Press
Camp and then we would count them up, you always had to count the words,
and every fifty words would have a mark on it, so you could put the whole
thing together. That would be punched up and sent off, that was about it
really. We as youngsters tended to do the counting up, then put it in front
of one of the senior chaps. Who managed to keep the transmitter going by
- Q: What form are the articles from the WC, is it in
plain text or…
Not encoded, plain language. They were mostly typewritten; the old WC were
always very good with miniature typewriters, and it would come in
typewritten and we would send it from there.
- Q: How long were they?
On average, you were about 100-150 words. They could be a lot longer,
but never too long, unless there had been some big event.
- Q: Which papers were they for, did you know?
You only knew from the WC themselves: Buckley was the Telegraph chap,
Clifford, I can’t remember and of course Moore Edwards was a freelance
and anyone could use him. He was very good. They were the three big boys.
- Q: So you’re getting these despatches from the front,
is what they’re writing recognisably what’s happening around you?
Not necessarily. Like all WC its coloured a little bit. I can vouch for
that myself, when we’ve been abroad in areas that have had a little bit
of trouble, if you listen to the BBC you’d think you’re in real trouble,
but in fact, they’re always a bit over the top. But, generally speaking
they were basically true. You often didn’t quite know where the front was,
you expected to be 2-3 miles behind the front, as such you really couldn’t
tell what was happening. What the WC did, I don’t know. They had their
own methods of sorting things out.
- Q: Were you interested in what they were saying?
You were interested, because that’s the only way of finding things out. You
couldn’t tell how true they were, you weren’t in a position to judge.
Although you were very near, you weren’t quite there.
- Q: How many of these messages are you sending?
Could be a dozen or so, it depended on what was happening. When you had a
big push, of course you get a whole load of messages, several in one day
from the same person. Towards the end of course, it got pretty quiet,
there wasn’t a great deal going on in the way of the news. We then shut
down, if necessary – turn the thing off.
- Q: As you neared Vienna, did the nature of what you
were sending change?
Oh yes, later it was totally different, because there wasn’t a war on. You
were in a civilian situation with the Russians on one side, and we were
allowed in there. It was their sector, it was their rules at the time.
I don’t think the Russians were necessarily keen on us staying in Vienna,
we all wanted to go home.
- Q: Your role in Vienna – are you still transmitting
messages from WC?
I’m not sure, I don’t think we necessarily were, but that was the idea.
We’d send messages for anybody, we were the link between Vienna and UK and
therefore could take correspondence from anybody.
- Q: Were you encoded in Vienna or still in plain
Still in plain. The only encoded messages would be Government or Military
messages. I’m trying to think if we were subject to censorship there. The
office was only half set up when we left; they were setting it up, but we
juniors – I’m not sure we sent messages in Vienna, it was mostly the
seniors who were setting up for more of a commercial venture there really.
- Q: When you were on the Blue Train, some message were
coming back and these were editors telling their WC off…
They would get their instructions from their Head Office, something like
‘one correspondent made a big story out of it and you sent next to nothing’.
That’s the sort of thing, ‘you’d better get going’, you know, ‘get out of
your chair and go find out what’s happening’.
- Q: Did you meet the WC?
They were based somewhere different, we only met them when we had a party,
that sort of thing. They were interesting people really, one went on to
write books like the White Nile and the Blue Nile. Poor old Clifford, he
died, another chap got shot in Korea.
- Q: Are you able to send communications to friends and
family, or Cable and Wireless people back at home?
It wasn’t done. Head Office were very good at keeping the family informed.
When you arrive in a place they’d always send a message to your family –
that was company policy. Most places you can send a message out – you
wouldn’t get it free, you get a preferential rate. I don’t think we were
able to do that in Italy. At least not while the war was on.
- Q: Are your family by this point aware of what you’re
They would know from the newspapers.
- Q: Did you ever talk about this with them?
When you got back it was six or eight months later, it was old news, old
hat. I don’t remember talking specifically about it. They obviously wanted
to know what you did there, and how it went and so on, of course by that
time we could send letters, there was no censorship.
- Q: Did you have any feelings at the time about what
you were doing and the messages you were sending?
I don’t think we had much feeling about them – we just sent them, that was
our job. As for the content, we could read them all of course, and apart
from that it was – I don’t think any of us had any hard feeling about it.
- Q: You mentioned Vienna was a different role, partly
setting up the Cable and Wireless station?
Yes that was it, setting up a fixed station from Vienna to London. There
had been a gap of five or six years when we hadn’t had a connection with
Vienna and so it was quite a thing to have it back again. The senior staff
stayed on and were quite comfortable in Vienna. The idea of us moving on
to Ceylon and opening up the Far East, they were expecting to need us
opening up these new places. When we were in Ceylon, at Rangoon for
instance, they would come in on radio, but sometime later they managed to
get Rangoon on permanent circuit basis, we had just a radio circuit. I
can’t think of the other places we went to other than Rangoon. The cable
was only working at 40wpm then, because there was a bit of a mix up, the
cable being chopped and changed because of the war. The other thing, that
saved them, was to give them a radio circuit, which was a double current
cable code which would take the same tape as a cable, and we were able to
clear a lot more. 60wpm, or if it was very good conditions for radio we
would be able to clear 120wpm. You go into the office in Colombo and you
could bury yourself in paper tape, it was everywhere, after a nights hard
work. If you were hot and sticky on the tape, which you could do if there
was nothing doing – if we’d finished everything – then all the green ink
from the tape would be across your face.
- Q: When you finished in Vienna, was there a sense that
the Blue Train had concluded?
I suppose I felt a bit down about it in a way, you were all geared up to
go almost anywhere, doing anything, then suddenly it was all stopped and
stationary. Then being sent back to Rome, I wasn’t enthusiastic about it,
I wanted to see Rome of course, but as you say, you wondered about what was
happening, how much work there was there. We worked quite hard… A lot of
the senior staff everywhere were overdue for leave, and so they did, and
we were able to relieve a lot of people. From the thirties, the Company
hadn’t taken on many people because they weren’t needed, from the slump
days, then they found there was a big gap in the number of people that
were around, of course, people abroad who were just due for leave in 1939
and couldn’t go because of the war found themselves several years overdue.
The accumulated several years of leave, so they needed to relieve these
people. In the end, they paid them off, there weren’t enough people,
which people were quite happy with.
- Q: Is there a sense that the Blue Train had been
disbanded and broken up?
Some of the Blue Trains went on and on to Palestine, and I keep thinking
of Korea. There was more than one Blue Train, I think there were two; we
were the most famous one of course.
- Q: Can you recall saying goodbye?
I cant really; people just sort of disappeared. I don’t know what happened
to the drivers, or the vans.
- Q: What about your Cable and Wireless colleagues?
All the junior staff went back down to Rome, all of us, the senior staff
stayed in Vienna. I don’t think any junior staff stayed in Vienna.
- Q: Looking back on it now, how do you view it?
Difficult to say; enjoyable time of my life to be honest. It had its dangers,
everything has its dangers. We certainly enjoyed it, we felt part of what
we were doing, and we made the best of it.