Army Service in Great Britain, 1944-1945

From the unpublished autobiograpy of James McNitt, 1992

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James McNitt's text Bill McNitt's annotations
We were assigned to the 51st Port Battalion, a prestigious outfit destined, we learned later, to take over the operations of the port of Antwerp. Our Commanding Officer was a Brigadier General. We were to sail aboard the Queen Elizabeth. Carrying my belongings in a barracks bag, which weighed in the vicinity of 100 pounds, I had to climb several flights of stairs to get to my stateroom. I was never so near collapse in my life. It was a small room, with two double-decker bunks, so I was sharing with three others. We were lucky at that; most of the troops were below deck in the hold, assigned to many-tiered hammocks.

The Queen Elizabeth leaving New York City

The Queen Elizabeth leaving New York City

There were about 15,000 troops aboard. We were fed in shifts. My only recollection of the meals is that we once had mutton, my least favorite meat. We sailed in December, 1944.  Since the Queen Elizabeth could outrun any submarines, we were not part of a convoy. Once during the voyage we were told that a submarine had been sighted, but nothing came of it. They sailed from New York on Dec. 16, 1944.
In six days we landed at Greenock in Scotland, where we were transferred to shore in smaller ships. We marched directly on to a waiting train, with Scottish lassies waiting to serve us with coffee and doughnuts. By now we had learned that we were not to go to Antwerp. The Battle of the Bulge had developed, and it was not thought advisable to shove green service troops into a critical area. They arrived on Dec. 23, 1944.
The train took off southward; we had no idea where we were headed, although rumors abounded. We were given K-rations to tide us over on the long journey ahead. For those unfamiliar with these, K-rations were packed in a heavily waxed box about the size and shape of a Crackerjacks container. A typical box would contain a couple cigarettes, a piece of chocolate or gum, a can of cheese or a Spam-like concoction, and a few hard crackers. There was also instant coffee or a powder for making a citrus drink. The latter was unpopular and was usually discarded.

K-rations

K-rations

Eventually we reached our destination in south Wales. Our group was loaded into trucks and taken to St. Donat's Castle, near St. Athans. This is a small, well-kept castle which then belonged to William Randolph Hearst, the millionaire American newspaper publisher. We did not stay in the castle, but in wooden shacks on the grounds, with straw ticks as mattresses. I thought it quite romantic that holly and ivy grew in abundance on the grounds, where I spent Christmas of 1944.

St. Donat's Castle

St. Donat's Castle

St Donat's Castle is a medieval castle in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales, overlooking the Bristol Channel in the village of St Donat's near Llantwit Major, and about 25 km west of Cardiff.
When our orders came, it was to take over operations of ports along the Bristol Channel, with installations at Bristol, Cardiff, Avenmouth, Swansea, and lastly, Barry, where I ended up. Our quarters were a couple miles out of town, actually closer to Cadoxton, where we could catch the train to Cardiff and other places. Here again we had wooden shacks, heated by small iron stoves which wouldn't hold the heat overnight. There was a foot of snow on the ground; according to the natives, it was the most snow in forty years. Just our luck!
I have said that we were to take over operations. This was not actually the case, as there was a sizeable contingent of British Army personnel already there, who were loath to turn over to us any of the work involved until we started to kick up a fuss. Otherwise we got on well with them, and picked up bits of knowledge about them, such as how to fill out a football pools ticket. Jack, a tall Yorkshireman, was a cricket expert. He was in charge of our section. The sole girl in the office had by default the job of making tea daily, for which we contributed a small amount.
On one occasion I was on duty all night. I recall at another time eating lunch on board a French merchant ship where I was checking cargo. It was accompanied by French beer, which surprised me, as the usual conception is that the French always drink wine.
While we were technically on duty seven days a week, in actuality we had plenty of free time. A truck from the camp went into Barry each night, and would return to pick us up about 11 P.M. British double summertime was in effect, which meant that it stayed light until about 9 P.M.
Beer and other drinks were strictly rationed. As a result the various pubs operated on a staggered basis, with only part of them open at any one time. Sometimes the beer ran out, and the evening would end early. I recall one unusual occasion when one pub had an allotment of whiskey. I indulged too well, and from the moment I left the pub until Jack Katowitz, a buddy with a cot next to mine, awoke me later in the evening, there was a complete blank. I had no idea how I got back to camp and into bed.
On another occasion the truck took us into Penarth, a seaside town some distance away. No alcohol was involved this time, but in some manner I missed the truck back to camp. There was no choice but to set out on the long walk back. Blackout conditions still were in effect. In almost total blackness I trudged along the road, through the village of Dinas Powis. I got back about 3 A.M., then had to fall out about 6.
On one foray to a small village, I got to talking to a couple Welsh girls at the railroad station. We rode back toward Barry together, and I made arrangements to see one of them, Ann Lewis, a few days later. She became my frequent companion thereafter. She lived in Barry, and sometimes was the cause of my missing the truck back to camp. There was a shortcut which took me through the dimly-lit dock area. Once a stranger stopped me, but only to ask for a light. As luck would have it, I carried a lighter - for no good reason, as I didn't smoke - and I was able to accommodate him. It made me a bit uneasy, though.
In April several of us were gathered in the kitchen of the mess hall enjoying an informal spaghetti snack when word was received that President Roosevelt had died. It was a shock to us all.
A few days later I went to London on a three-day pass, staying at a service club near Piccadilly Circus. Rumors were rife of peace, and it came as no surprise when the official announcement was made on the second day of my stay. That night was an occasion for rejoicing and celebration. A group of us went to a pub in Kentish Town, a London suburb, returning later to Piccadilly Circus to join in dancing to "Knees Up, Mother Brown" with the huge crowds gathered there. The next day I was part of the throng near Big Ben when an open car drove slowly by bearing the portly figure of Winston Churchill. He was beaming and making the V for Victory sign with his fingers.

VE Day VE Day

VE Dayin London, May 8, 1945

Here is a link to an article about VE Day celebrations in London.
The royal family was to appear on the palace balcony somewhat later, but I wanted to catch the late afternoon train back to Barry. Having allowed myself an hour to get to Paddington Station, I collected my belongings from the service club and went to the Piccadilly Circus Underground station. To my dismay, it was closed because of the crowds. I hurried to the nearest alternative several blocks away. From there it was possible to get to Paddington by an indirect route involving a transfer. The trains moved at a snail's pace, and by the time I reached the station, my train had been gone for 15 minutes.
The next train wasn't due for some time. I could have gone back to see the royal family, but chose instead to wait near Paddington station. The late train brought me into Cardiff at 3 A.M. with no connection to Cadoxton or Barry until the following morning after daybreak. I found a place on the floor of the local service club, where I curled up with other servicemen to await the train back to camp.
In July we were transferred to Newport. This city is actually in England, but is tied closely to Wales traditionally and spiritually. It was obvious that we were to be shipped to the Pacific; we were given tropical shots, were issued summer khakis, and our mail was being diverted to Panama for pickup there. Newport wasn't too far from Barry, and I continued to see Ann, although less often.
The Hiroshima bomb and subsequent events blew away all plans for our Pacific transfer. We marked time for a while. A point system was developed to establish priorities for the return and discharge of the armed forces, with high points given for combat service and also for length of service. My point total was low, so it was decided to send me and others like me to the continent for cleanup operations.

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