Another Christmas for a war weary World

Christmas dinner and celebrations in the wardroom of HMS MALAYA. The ship is based at Scapa Flow.

Christmas dinner and celebrations in the wardroom of HMS MALAYA. The ship is based at Scapa Flow.

Major Denis Forman was rather keen to get away from his remote base in Shetland and spend Christmas at home in Scotland. He managed to get a lift on an RAF plane and then made slow progress travelling down to Inverness by an Army lorry that his colleague Michael had ‘arranged’ by dubious means:

By now the night train had gone, but we boarded the fish train and were lucky enough to find an empty van, where Michael sat in one corner, I in another and my Shetland collie Robin disdainfully pacing the space between, sneezing and coughing through the overpowering smell of fish. After an eternity of shunting, crawling up gradients, stopping, starting and shunting again, we reached Perth.

It was daylight on Christmas Day, and as we emerged from our van we saw a passenger train about to depart. It was pointing south and we made a dash for it. Robin, whom I had released so that he might relieve himself before the next leg, still half-crazed by his ordeal by fish, turned and bit a small girl in the leg. She sent up a great squawk, but there was no time for niceties so, grabbing the dog by the neck, we sprinted for the train and jumped aboard.

Again our progress was slow, but comfortable, for, although the train was packed with troops on leave, we smelled so strongly of fish that we were accorded a decent amount of space. It was not possible to discover whether or not our train stopped at Beattock, our home station, but it did, and we jumped off and arrived home in good time for Christmas dinner. The trip would have formed a good initiative exercise for our students, we told each other.

See Denis Forman: To Reason Why

Out in Egypt Royal Artillery officer Jack Swaab had just learnt that he was being posted to a front line unit and that he had a limited time left to hand in those personal effects that he could not take with him:

And now it is ending, this rather miserable, rather nostalgic Xmas Day It has been a terrible rush. I nearly went mad when the B.Q.M.S of the Unit Kit Store refused to accept my tin box – saved from the rubbish heap – on the grounds that it was ‘govt. property’. Some men love the letter of the law I had to go out and buy a suitcase, which D. is very kindly having painted up for me and will hand in.

In the afternoon all the officers in the mess listened to the King`s speech. We all stood bolt upright for the National anthem, and it was all vaguely impressive. We go out at 0630 tomorrow morning.

See Jack Swaab: Field of Fire

In Malta harbour, conditions had eased just a little with the arrival of the latest convoy. The Royal Navy could celebrate with watery beer:

There is a Christmas Day tradition in the navy that the most junior sailor be made captain for the day, and be allowed, within reason, to do whatever he pleases. He dons a captain‘s uniform and can order drinks from the officer‘s mess and have a special dinner. He goes around the ship being entertained by all and sundry.

The senior officers always pay visits to the decorated mess- decks, where they swap jokes with the crew. On this occasion, every man onboard had been issued with a bottle of watery beer. I had a hand in getting the Malta brewery temporarily reopened to produce a bottle of beer for every soldier, sailor and airman on the island.

see Frank Wade: A Midshipman’s War

Leading Seaman becomes Captain for Christmas Day only. 25 December 1942, On Board Hms Dunluce Castle, of The Home Fleet. Leading Seaman V Mccann of Belfast was allowed to impersonate the Captain during Inspection

Leading Seaman becomes Captain for Christmas Day only. 25 December 1942, On Board Hms Dunluce Castle, of The Home Fleet. Leading Seaman V Mccann of Belfast was allowed to impersonate the Captain during Inspection.

On the Eastern Front Sergeant Major Rigoni was with one of the Alpini Divisions of the Italian Army. Some of the 130,000 Italians in Russia were already in trouble as the Don Front began to unravel, but his position was still quite secure. He went out to look at the Russian positions opposite in the sunshine and examine the hare tracks in the deep snow:

It was too cold to be standing there and I went up the trench and re-entered my dugout.

‘Happy Christmas,’ I said. ‘Happy Christmas!’
Meschini was grinding the coffee in his helmet with the handle of his bayonet. Bodei was boiling up the lice. Giuanin was crouching in his corner near the stove. Moreschi was mending his socks. The ones who’d been on the last guard were asleep.

There was a strong smell inside there; of coffee, dirty vests and pants boiling with the lice, and lots of other things. At midday Moreschi sent for our supplies. But as they weren’t Christmas rations we decided to make polenta. Meschini fanned up the fire, and Bodei went to wash out the pot in which he’d boiled the lice.

See Mario Rigoni Stern: The Sergeant in the Snow

George Silk's classic picture taken at Buna, New Guinea, on Christmas Day, 1942. An Australian soldier, Private George "Dick" Whittington is aided by a Papuan orderly, Raphael Oimbari. Whittington died in February 1943 from typhus.

George Silk’s classic picture taken at Buna, New Guinea, on Christmas Day, 1942. An Australian soldier, Private George “Dick” Whittington is aided by a Papuan orderly, Raphael Oimbari. Whittington died in February 1943 from typhus.

On New Guinea the native islanders were winning a reputation for their assistance to Allied troops, Australian and American, becoming known as the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’:

Picking their way very carefully with expressions of solemn responsibility, came native carriers with the badly wounded. Some of these forms under their coverings were horribly mutilated and might not survive long … The natives moved softly and silently, handling the stretchers with a surprising deftness in rough places in order to save their human burden from the slightest jolt. Their homely faces were soft with pity and concern. They would carry these poor wounded along such a route as I have described, through mud and slush and morass, along the razor backs …

See Geoffrey Hamlyn-Harris: Through Mud and Blood to Victory, Wild & Woolley, Sydney, 1993.

Also on New Guinea Chaplain Hartley describes extricating 13 wounded, eight of them stretcher cases, along jungle tracks on Christmas day:

We were astir early and cooked our breakfast . We got over the problem of smoke from our fires by using cordite from the captured enemy shells … It was a slow, tedious and nerve-racking journey. The patients were heavy. Four men were required for each stretcher. These bearers had to carry their arms in their free hands… There were times when, to our strained hearing, the noise along the track sounded like a herd of elephants crashing through the undergrowth… Whenever there was a stop for rest, armed men would penetrate the jungle off the track and silently watch against a possible ambush… As we came nearer to Huggins’ it became easier going… We now came into view of the Jap camp that had been shot up on 1st December [30th November]… There were mangled and rottin g corpses scattered everywhere. Blank-eyed skeletons stared with sightless eyes from beneath broken shelters. Bones of horses with their saddles and harness rotting round them shone white as the morning sun peering through the creepers caught them in her beams. We actually welcomed this gory sight. It was to us a sign post. It meant that Huggins’ was but a hundred yards beyond.

See Australian Official History

Out in the Far East Dr Robert Hardie was trying to do his best for his fellow prisoners who the Japanese were using as forced labour to build the Burma Siam Railway. Conditions were bad and getting worse:

There was some carol singing last night and this morning. One can’t but feel a certain melancholy at spending Christmas in this depressing camp. An almost intolerable sense of oppression and futility overcomes one at times, as month after wasted month passes.

At this time, of course, one thinks much of home, and one realises they must be going through a period of anxiety. And there are many at home who have yet to learn that their relatives out here are already dead. Henry Mills, whom Ian and I knew well and who was wounded badly in Perak and marked for evacuation from Malaya (but wasn’t, because of the incompetence of the medical arrangements in Singapore) has died up-river, we have heard. And there are 20 graves already in this camp alone.

See Dr Robert Hardie:The Burma Siam Railway

The Regimental Sergeant Major and other members of the 5th Cameron Highlanders preparing Christmas puddings in the Western Desert, 28 December 1942.

The Regimental Sergeant Major and other members of the 5th Cameron Highlanders preparing Christmas puddings in the Western Desert, 28 December 1942.

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: