VE Day Nightmare

Some episodes in history are so momentous that we can remember ever after exactly what we were doing on that day. But for Colin Kitching, VE Day is particularly unforgettable. That was when he found himself in charge of forty drunken sailors on their way from Scotland to Portsmouth...

As a Lieutenant RNVR, I was stationed at a naval transit unit at Balloch, on the shores of Loch Lomond. Like everyone else there I was waiting to be sent to the Far East to fight the Japanese. During the morning of VE Day the CO told me I was to escort a draft of 40 ratings to Euston station, London, where an officer from Portsmouth would lake over. Given the inevitable euphoria of the day this promised to be an exceedingly fraught mission. But my representations along these lines were overruled - the war must go on.

The precise details of the timetable have long since escaped me. But I suppose it was about 4 pm that my party fell in outside the guardhouse - the word 'fell' being appropriate. It was only too obvious that nearly all hands had been celebrating victory in the time-honoured way. Just as I was about to give the order to embark in two trucks for the short trip to Balloch station, a man in the front rank took two paces forward and asked to speak to me.

I looked at him closely. Was he very drunk and didn't know what he was saying? Or was he trying to be funny? In fact he was comparatively sober and was so in earnest that it didn't seem Likely that he was taking the mickey. At this point I realised the debate was futile; moreover, time was passing. There was no alternative but to put my awkward customer under close arrest and to detail two of the less inebriated sailors as prisoner's escort.

From Balloch we arrived at Glasgow Central station some two hours before our overnight train was due to leave. What on earth was I to do with my merry men? There was no way of keeping them together, under control, on this night of all nights. Yet, if they were allowed to disperse for a time, would I ever see them again? A court martial stared me in the face.

In the end I addressed the party more or less as follows: "I've no option but to trust you. The choice is either to make bloody fools of yourselves by deserting; or you can have a meal and enjoy yourselves, be back here outside the Railway Transport Officer's office 30 minutes before the train leaves." And off they went, except for the prisoner

With him in tow I then reported to the RTO, who temporarily incarcerated the awkward customer. I myself had to check with the RTO that the party had reserved compartments for the journey. Even more important, had the luggage van arrived? This van, containing kitbags and hammocks, had left Balloch earlier in the day and was to be attached to our train. Yes, we had the compartments, but the RTO knew nothing about the luggage van.

I was by now in a somewhat stressed state, and blew my top. Instead of having time for a meal and a drink I had to pursue this damnable van. Telephone calls were made, and eventually the van was located al another Glasgow station. It would not arrive at Central in time for our departure but would be tacked on to another overnight train an hour or so later.

While all this was going on the sounds of revelry penetrated the station. It was obvious that the citizens of Glasgow were celebrating the great day with typical vigour.

The appointed hour arrived and I emerged from the RTO's office hungry, thirsty and apprehensive. Was it to be catastrophe and court martial lime? To my astonishment, a miracle occurred: my entire party reappeared in dribs and drabs, and by now hilariously inebriated. Apparently they had not paid for a single drink - Scottish hospitality had taken care of that.

My personal woes were overcome by a feeling of immense relief, bordering on gratitude. I poured my flock into the train where most of them were comatose within minutes. The journey was without incident and - including the prisoner - we reached Euston in the morning. There I handed the party over to the officer from Portsmouth; the train with the luggage van turned up a little later.

My mission was complete. I took the next train back to Glasgow and celebrated victory a day after everyone else.