Doug Rawlinson: Evacuation from London and service in the Far East

Doug Rawlinson pictured in 2006
Doug Rawlinson pictured in 2006

Douglas Rawlinson, known as Doug, was born in Fulham in 1927 not far from Craven Cottage, Fulham’s football ground, and the river Thames. His home was typical ordinary working class accommodation in those days. There were no cars, deliveries were by horse and cart, and trams ran along the road at the top of the street.

At the age of 11 Doug won a scholarship to Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, but war interrupted his education. On 1 September 1939 he was evacuated. The schoolchildren were taken by train to Old Windsor station and dispersed among the occupants of various villages around Slough. Doug was billeted with two different families but both proved to be unhappy experiences. At one of the houses the family were abusive about his parents; he had to go to bed with a candle, as he was not allowed an electric light. He was very pleased to return home in 1940. His school had been relocated to the Slough area and were using a previously condemned school building. With so many boys returning home and travelling to Slough each day, the school also returned to London.

The start of the London blitz meant Doug was evacuated again. He was billeted in two different homes and enjoyed neither of them. He felt quite traumatised by it all, so when he was 14 his father took him out of that school – a move Doug regretted for the rest of his life. His parents then moved to Brighton as his father’s work was relocated there so Doug went with them.

Doug volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1944 at the age of 17. In order to join the navy it was necessary for him to have connections with someone in that service. He had a brother who had been in the navy for three years and an uncle who had served for 20 years plus. He joined with the rank of a boy as he wasn’t quite 17½. His pay was 10 shillings per fortnight. When he reached the age of 17½ he became a probationary supply assistant and had to report to the old Butlin’s holiday camp at Skegness, then known as HMS Royal Arthur. [The Admiralty requisitioned the camp on 22 September 1939. It was used as a central reception area for new naval recruits, which closed in 1946.] There was a motto on the entrance gate, which caused some amusement: ‘Our aim is all for your enjoyment’. There were about 5,000 matelots (sailors) in the camp but there was a shortage of uniforms, so the men had to wear their pullovers back to front to hide the fact that they didn’t have any shirts. It turned out to be a bitterly cold winter. There was a tubular heater in the flimsy huts they lived in, which was on for about 2 hours per day. At night they left their daytime clothes on and put their pyjamas over the top for warmth.

One day Doug was summoned to the divisional officer because his brother, Leading Signalman John Edwin Rawlinson, who had returned from abroad after 2½ years wanted Doug to be his best man at his wedding and was requesting compassionate leave for him. Doug knew nothing of this but the divisional officer was suspicious that Doug had put him up to it. Permission was refused. Sadly Doug never saw his brother again as he was killed on HMS Goodall off the north Russian ports on 29 April 1945; a U-boat fired a torpedo at the frigate, causing its ammunition magazine to blow up. The captain was killed with 111 other members of the crew; there were 44 survivors. This was the last ship to be sunk before the end of the European war – it was just eight days before VE Day.

Doug was stationed at Skegness for 2–3 months then went to Malvern for his seaman’s training, then back to Skegness to do his training for the supply branch. The common name for sailors in the supply branch was ‘Jack Dusty’, which came from the fact that they often had to carry bags of flour.

On VE Day Doug was in Skegness getting ready to go home on leave, having completed his training when he received a letter from his father to say that his brother had died. His brother’s wife, Dorothy, was actually her husband’s next of kin but the Navy hadn’t caught up with the fact. So when his father sent a letter of condolence to his daughter-in-law it came as a big shock to her, especially as she was pregnant. Her son, who never knew his father, was born in October 1945.

After qualifying Doug was sent to the Royal Navy Barracks at Portsmouth and was there for several months. He went home most evenings to Brighton catching the train back at 4.30 each morning to return for 7 o’clock. It cost him two shillings for a working man’s return ticket.

In December 1945 Doug sailed on HMS Victorious, an aircraft carrier, to Sydney. It took her a month and Doug remembers it was 12,208 miles via the Suez Canal. He spent Christmas on the Red Sea. The ship took on fresh provisions in Sydney, which meant that the sailors could have some time ashore. The Australians were very hospitable and Doug visited the homes of some of them. He was able to have meals with his hosts, stay overnight, and go on sightseeing tours with them. Their homes were nothing pretentious as they were usually made of corrugated iron. The father in one of these families had been a sailor and Doug used to stay there quite a lot. After the war Doug seriously thought of emigrating and this family would have sponsored him, but he got married instead. The sailors, while in Sydney, were stationed at HMS Golden Hind on what used to part of the racecourse.

Doug’s next ship was the HMS Newfoundland. It went via New Guinea to Japan where they dropped anchor at Kure on the Japanese inland sea. His next vessel was the depot ship, HMS Mull of Kintyre, which had been built in Canada for work in the Pacific. Doug was very impressed by it. Everything on board was better than on British ships. Kure was part of an industrial area in Japan and it was very badly damaged during the war. It was a port and most of the ships in the harbour had been scuttled or damaged. All the Japanese ships that were moored alongside had had their superstructure removed.

Doug’s crew were there to create a naval base after the Americans had left. Sometimes they were moored alongside the harbour but sometimes outside. Once they had to moor away from the dockside because a typhoon was expected, but it never materialised. The sailors were not allowed to eat or drink anything onshore and if they did go ashore they had to return before it was dark. They had Japanese men on board to do the heavy work and doing such things as cleaning the decks, etc. Also they had a contingent of Chinese on board for training but the Japanese, who disliked them, beat them up on shore.

While in Japan Doug was allowed to go on a Japanese tugboat to Miyajima, one of the holiest places for followers of the Shinto religion. Here there were temples and a beautiful sea arch. The Sun shone through the arch to the elaborate temple at a certain time of the day. Doug was able to watch the Japanese at prayer. He thought the name of one of the temples translated as the ‘temple of a thousand mattresses’. Inside it, there were lots of large wooden bats rather like table tennis bats. Doug kept one and thinks it was probably a prayer bat.

On one occasion he went to Hiroshima, which was about 10 miles away. This was on what was considered to be a bullet train; even then as it went very fast. Doug didn’t pay as he stood beside the driver. Hiroshima station was by the side of a river; he crossed the river by a bridge and was confronted by lots and lots of wooden stalls where the Japanese were selling souvenirs relating to the atomic bomb damage. He bought quite a few postcards showing damage to the city. There were no restrictions on walking about, and he doesn’t know if there was any radioactivity even though it was only about six months after the bomb had dropped. He wandered around streets that had been cleared with rubble piled up at the side. As far as the eye could see there was devastation. Most of the buildings had been flattened. The building with the dome, which is still standing as a memorial, was there. Little Japanese children came running up to him and gave him a Chinese figure and some fused glass that had been fused by the bomb. Doug had witnessed the severe damage caused in London during the Blitz and so knew what devastation was like.

When he was out in Japan he thought he could be demobbed at an earlier date in Australia. Then he found he would still have to serve his full time and so he came back to Britain.

Doug left Japan in September 1946 and came back on board the HMS Mull of Kintyre via Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo (in what was then Ceylon) and the Suez Canal. He was then based at Gare Loch on the River Clyde where the ship was involved with midget submarine trials. Sailing along the west coast of Scotland he saw lots of ships being mothballed.

While on leave for Christmas Doug got a telegram saying he had to report back to the ship on Boxing Day. He travelled overnight on a train and when he got there he was told to report back to Portsmouth for demobilisation! He never got the full records of his naval career because they were lost. He only got a précis of when he joined and when he was demobbed. His gratuity was enough to enable him to buy a bicycle. In early 1947 he left the Navy and returned to Brighton. He married June on 23 December 1950. Doug died in 2020 just before his 93rd birthday.

Interviewed by Eric Blanks on 23 February 2006