The Second World War seems to have been an unrecognised source of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder for many of the survivors. It was not trendy then for men to show their feelings nor was it regarded as ‘manly’ to express the results of the five years of continual stress felt by the many who suffered in that long conflict. Many families will have members who could have recalled much, but chose not to speak of the horrors they experienced. Maybe that was why my father, Bishwa, was never motivated to either write about his experiences nor to discuss how he felt about them.
I’ve been able to trace some of the convoys he was on and some of the ships on which he was a surgeon. The North Atlantic convoys I suspect were the worst but he was in the Med and the Pacific too. He certainly spent the first eighteen months on the ‘Menelaus’ out of Liverpool. He did stints on a converted aircraft carrier, the ‘Empire Lagan’ and the Diomed. The latter ship, though my father was not on board at the time, was at Dunkirk. How he and the others put up with the constant stress one can only wonder at though my mother often said the war changed him.
VE day came and he once described disembarking at the docks in Liverpool. Standing in the queue with his warrant card waiting for it to be stamped, memories of my mother came to him and his anticipation grew. An end to the war and a journey to Sweden. He wondered perhaps whether the war had changed him, whether his feelings would change and where all those miles across seas and oceans had gone.
In New York, he had bought a watch. Every day he passed a jeweler’s shop where a fish-tank stood in the window. Inside the tank was a watch, advertised to be water-proof, shock-resistant and automatic. On one occasion he saw the jeweller take the watch out and wind it by shaking it. It kept perfect time that watch and on the day Bishwa left, he walked into the shop and asked for the watch. The jeweller offered him a watch and Bishwa insisted on taking the one in the window. The jeweller enquired why he wanted that one. Bishwa said it was because he knew that watch was both water-proof and kept good time. Maybe that stood him in good stead floating in a life-jacket on the Mediterranean. It was a Swiss watch made by ‘Giroxa’.
I can imagine the excitement Martha must have felt waiting on the station plarform for the train to come. Maybe she met him in Gothenburg on the docks. No details of that survived so my thoughts about it are all conjectural. I do know my mother was always insistent that one should be met after travelling – airports, docks and station platforms. She spent a lot of time greeting guests and friends, perhaps because she more than most, understood that feeling of seeing a familiar face.
When they got married, Martha and Bishwa featured in the local newspapers. A home-grown Swedish girl marrying an Asian was newsworthy in those days. Within a few weeks of getting married, they moved to London, to Surrey Docks in Bermonsey, to be precise where my dad bought a practice. In those days there was no night-time relief service and a GP was on duty for his patients around the clock.
The rest of the story is perhaps mundane, but I’ve enjoyed reviewing how they met and what they did during the war. They were brave people, cultured and intelligent who had travelled and against the odds, came through the war and made a good life - both of them foreign, in a country where neither of them was 100% at home. One example is my mother going to the butcher’s on Lower Road and reading her list of requirements. The butcher, Geof, listened with patience then smiled and said, ‘Awright Missus Naff, can we ‘ave it in Engish now?’