“I’m not going,” said Molly, stamping her foot.
Her mother sighed, took a deep breath and tried again.
“I know you want to help with the war effort, but you’re still too young. You have another term at school and you will be much more use if you finish your education.”
“I’m 17 and I can fly,” said Molly, sticking her lower lip out mulishly and looking about 12.
“I hardly think they’ll let you join the RAF and fly a bomber,” chuckled her mother, “but in any case, there are other reasons for this.”
“This” had been a letter from Fiona MacTavish’s brother, Bert Cameron, back once again in Vancouver. At the outbreak of war the previous September he had been recruited by an unnamed and secretive Government department, to liaise with a Canadian committee based in Victoria, BC. He was not at liberty to divulge the nature of his work, but his family did know that he was enjoying himself immensely, working with similarly eccentric men and combining their impressive brainpower on secret projects.
“Your Uncle Bert thinks that things are going to get a great deal worse for us here in Britain. He fears a massive air offensive by the Germans and we really are not too far from the dockyards in Glasgow, which will be a prime target.”
“Mother, that’s just rubbish,” exclaimed Molly, “we’re miles from Glasgow and unless those Germans are stupider than we think, even they couldn’t be so far off target as to be dropping bombs on us here in Plockton.”
The MacTavish home was on the west coast of Scotland, beside a large sea loch dotted with islands. It was a great place to sail and explore, and a wonderful place to grow up; remote enough, but Mrs. MacTavish knew from her brother’s letter, that bombers often went astray, missed their targets, or simply dumped bombs on their way back to their home bases. Plockton was only about 100 miles as the crow flies from the major city of Glasgow. It seemed perfectly safe, but people were beginning to get the sense that nowhere in Europe was safe.
Leticia had been quiet during this exchange, but now she spoke up.
“I think we should listen to what Mother has to say,” she said. “Uncle Bert knows a lot more than he lets on, and if he thinks it’s a good idea, we should at least think about it. I’m not too keen on having bombs dropped on us, I can tell you!”
“Oh, all right,” said Molly ungraciously, “If Uncle Bert wants us to turn tail and hot foot it back to Canada, I’ll consider it!”
Her mother forbore from pointing out that Molly really didn’t have much choice. She was still technically a child and had to do what her mother thought was best for her and her sister and brother. Knowing her daughter as well as she did, however, she decided to allow her the notion that she had some part in making decisions for the MacTavish family. Growing up with only a mother and an eccentric uncle (their father having died many years before) the MacTavish children had been brought up ahead of their time in terms of the ability to make their own decisions, guided, but not dictated to by the adults in their lives.
“Right, this is what he wants us to do,” said Mrs. MacTavish. “Apparently there are plans afoot by our government to evacuate children across the Atlantic to Canada and America. Those plans are not finalised yet, and Bert doesn’t want us to wait until they are. He’s arranged a passage aboard your old friend The Empress of Britain, for us four as well as the Phillips children.”
Molly jumped up in excitement.
“Well, that changes things,” she said, “it’ll be like old times ”“ all of us on another adventure!”
“Yes, it certainly will be an adventure,” said her mother, deciding not to mention the risk of crossing the Atlantic in wartime. Molly was the bravest child she knew, but Leticia was younger and more sensitive. Their brother, Mark, was now almost sixteen and would no doubt see the journey as more thrilling than any of the boys’ adventure stories he was addicted to.
“Mrs. Phillips will be staying in England,” continued Fiona. “You know that Commander Phillips now has a very important desk job with the Navy, and Ian is at sea on a destroyer patrolling the English Channel. She wants to be close for when he gets shore leave, but she is happy for Sophie, Harriet and Posy to join us. The Empress has been turned into a hospital ship and will be crossing to Canada to pick up a contingent of Canadian doctors and nurses to staff the ship, but on the way over they are taking families and some unaccompanied children to live in Canada for the duration of the war.”
Molly wasn’t giving in quite so easily. She sensed she might have some bargaining power here.
“Well,” she said, “I might consider it if I could have flying lessons when I get there.”
Molly had been taking flying lessons for three years, when she had turned fourteen and was able to get a student permit. She had been inspired by their first adventure on the west coast when the legendary BC coast pilot, Jim Spilsbury, had flown her to hospital after the villains on the Black Pearl had shot her. This had happened during their Brother XII adventure, when they had recovered a king’s ransom in gold coins. She was close to getting her pilot’s licence, but all recreational flying had been stopped when war had broken out the previous September.
Her mother appeared to consider this request, but in fact her brother, knowing his niece as well as he did, had written in his letter that he thought it would be easy for Molly to resume her flying lessons in Canada.
“Mm, well, we’ll think about it, but if you don’t put up any more fuss, and help me and your sister get things organized, I think your uncle may be able to arrange lessons for you when we get there.”
Molly gave in. Maybe sitting out the war in British Columbia, with its opportunities for adventure and the chance to get back in the air, wasn’t such a bad idea.
There was another reason that Bert Cameron was concerned for his family, but Fiona MacTavish decided not to mention this to her children. Bert was in a position to know a lot more about the situation in Germany than the general public, and he had heard disturbing rumours about the way Jews were being treated. Everyone had heard about the discrimination aimed towards those of the Jewish faith and Bert feared it was going to get much worse. His and Fiona’s mother had been Jewish, which made the MacTavish children a quarter Jewish. Bert was afraid that if the Germans invaded Britain, even those of mixed race could be targeted. He wanted his sister and her three children out of Britain, and was happy to include the Phillips children in the evacuation plans.
Two weeks later the Phillips and MacTavish families met once again at the massive docks in Southampton. This time the atmosphere was quite different from the two previous occasions when the children had been departing for a holiday in Canada. Then, the passengers accompanied by those coming to see them off on their trip, had stood around in groups chatting and laughing. Mounds of luggage had surrounded the smartly dressed passengers, and those who were lucky enough to be making the trip had mounted the gangplank and stood at the ship’s rail waving at those being left behind. There had been something of a carnival atmosphere about the departure of the great ship.
Now, there was a feeling of anxiety and gloom in the air. Groups of children, each holding a small suitcase, were standing around. There was a strict limit on the amount of luggage the passengers could bring, and it had been extremely difficult packing for an indefinite stay in Canada. Some of the departing children had weeping parents with them to see them off; others were with mothers or carers who would be looking after them on the voyage. This was going to be no voyage undertaken for the pleasure of an ocean crossing with a holiday waiting on the other side of the Atlantic.
Fiona MacTavish and Dinah Phillips stood with their combined families gazing up at the Empress of Britain. A broad green stripe had been painted all around the ship, with a large red cross inside a white circle on her side.
This time, no one not travelling was allowed aboard, so the Phillips children had to say goodbye to their mother on the dock. The three girls were inconsolable. They knew that staying in England would be dangerous for their mother, living as she did near a naval base. Also, this was no holiday with a definite end. They had no idea when they would be returning to England, although they knew it would not be until the war was over. Mrs. Phillips had plenty of practice saying goodbye to her husband, and now her son, as they had been posted aboard ships for long tours of duty. Her husband was no longer at sea, but her son, Ian, most certainly was and she knew the danger he and fellow crewmembers were in every day. However, saying goodbye to her three girls was a different kettle of fish. Posy was only 12, and although Sophie was now almost an adult, and at 17 more responsible than many adults she knew, Sophie was going to be no match for any enemy attacks they might encounter on their voyage.
“Remember what your father said,” she said, her arms around the girls, “you’re doing your part for the war effort by getting out of harms way. Once you get to Canada, no one will have to worry about you, or use valuable resources to take care of you.
“I know it’s a good theory,” sobbed Harriet, “but we don’t know when we’ll see you or Daddy or Ian again.”
There was no answering that, and finally Mrs. MacTavish gently pried the girls away from their mother. Molly and Leticia helped steer the Phillips children up the gangplank. All seven of the combined MacTavish and Phillips families stood at the rail, trying to pick Mrs. Phillips out of the crowd preparing to watch the ship leave. Harriet finally spotted her and the whole group yelled and waved their handkerchiefs as the ship was pulled away from the dock and guided out into the Solent by its accompanying tugs.
The Empress was no longer the luxury liner she had been before her reincarnation as a hospital ship. War had proved to be a great social leveller and cabins had been assigned randomly. Previously the children had travelled second class. Now the girls and Mrs. MacTavish found themselves in a first class suite, but the luxurious furnishings had been stripped and now all five girls shared what had been the large bedroom, now equipped with narrow cots. Mrs. MacTavish was accommodated in what had been a dressing room and they all shared the bathroom, which remained as splendid as it had always been. Mark was put into a cabin in a different part of the ship, down several decks, and shared with three small boys who were travelling with a larger group. The harassed looking adult in charge looked about ready to jump overboard as he tried to control the boys who were tearing up and down the corridor whooping and hollering.
“Any chance you could lend a hand with these holy terrors,” he asked Mark, running a hand through his hair. “I’m at my wits end! I’m a junior schoolmaster at a school in Kent ”“ couldn’t join the services because I’ve got a heart murmur. But fighting Hitler would be a doddle compared with keeping this lot in line!”
Mark put his fingers to his mouth and gave a piercing whistle. The boys skidded to a halt in front of the cabin door.
“Behave yourselves, or else,” he said, “I don’t fancy sharing my cabin with a bunch of hooligans, so shape up, or ship out.”
Mark was 4 or 5 years older than them and considerably bigger, and all the boys except one looked slightly awed at the prospect of sharing their cabin with a teenager. However, one boy wasn’t so easily won over.
“How’re you going to make us,” said the oldest and cheekiest looking of the bunch.
“I think I’ll use the carrot, rather than the stick,” grinned Mark. “All of you who behave will get a tour of the engine room, once we get close to Halifax.”
He wasn’t at all sure he could deliver on this promise, but on his last two crossings he had made friends with the crew who manned the engine room, and had spent a considerable amount of time down there ”˜helping’ with the running of the massive engines.
In any case, even the cheeky boy seemed impressed by Mark’s offer, and they filed into the cabin and sat on their bunks chatting while Mark unpacked his small suitcase.
Before the ship had cleared the harbour, the loudspeakers announced a lifeboat drill. Everyone headed up on deck and Mark was able to find the girls and his mother. No one was laughing and joking during the drill ”“ everyone listened to the instructions coming from the crews assigned to the various lifeboat stations. Even though the danger of crossing the Atlantic in wartime had been downplayed in order not to frighten the children, the adults were all very much aware that this was a dangerous business. In the event of any emergency, everyone needed to be well prepared.
The first class dining room had been turned into a mess hall. The passengers sat at long tables and the food was plentiful but basic. No more five course dinners served by tail coated waiters. Food was served buffet style, with each table assigned a number and every table given a turn at being served first.
The second-class dining room was already kitted out as an operating theatre, awaiting its Canadian contingent of doctors and nurses who would be boarding the ship in Halifax, after the evacuees had disembarked.
The only public space that appeared to be mostly unchanged was the library. The books were still in place, but the furniture had been moved around to make space for several large tables. Teachers were using it as a classroom, with groups of children given lessons in rotation. A timetable had been drawn up and the evacuees had a strict programme of lessons, supervised games, meals etc. The older children were roped into helping with the very young ones. This was not a problem for the motherly Sophie, but Molly almost mutinied when she was assigned a group of 5 year olds to entertain for two hours a day.
“What am I,” she demanded, “some kind of unpaid nanny?”
“All right, Molly,” said her mother, “that’s enough. It’s not much to ask of you, so just pull your weight like everyone else.”
The convoy was made up of about 20 merchant ships, travelling empty to Halifax where they would pick up supplies essential to the British war effort. Another 10 or so were troopships, again travelling empty. They would travel back to Britain full of Canadian troops. The convoy was escorted by a mixed bag of Royal Navy destroyers, sloops and corvettes, some brought out of retirement and put on North Atlantic escort duty. It was felt that a large body of ships would be harder for the German U-Boats to attack, and the escorting naval vessels were on high alert for any sign of the dreaded submarines. In addition, the Royal Air Force provided aerial surveillance, but once the convoy moved out of the range of airplanes in mid-Atlantic, that extra layer of protection was lost. Hospital ships were marked as such in the hope that the enemy would respect international law and leave them alone, but many thought that painting them white with great red crosses just made them more visible and better targets for the Germans.
Life on board ship settled down into a strict regimen of meals, lessons and recreation, supervised by the adults on board with the help of the older children. During games on deck, the children could see they were part of a large flotilla, with their protective Navy ships shepherding them across the Atlantic, much like a sheepdog with a flock of sheep. The route they took involved zigzagging which was supposed to confuse the enemy, but which in reality extended the crossing time by a day. At night anyone gazing out at the other ships would have thought it odd that they displayed no navigation lights. In fact the only ship that had lights was their own ”“ the red crosses on each side and the one on the top deck were illuminated, again to display to the enemy that they should not be targeted.
The children mostly did not realize the danger they were in and enjoyed the generous, albeit plain, meals (rationing had just become a fact of life in wartime Britain), a shortened school day and plenty of organized games and fun. Although Mrs. Dickens, the librarian who had uncovered the story of Brother XII for Harriet, was no longer part of the crew, the books were still on board and Harriet was able to spend a part of her day browsing the thousands of titles. She knew their destination was Victoria, not Vancouver, and found some photographs and maps of British Columbia’s capital city, as well as learning something of its history. At the end of their last visit to Canada, after their adventures on the cattle drive, they had had ten days cruising the waters of British Columbia on their old friend, South Islander. There had been some talk of making Victoria one of their stops, but as it had turned out, the weather had been so lovely that they all preferred to anchor in spots where there were beaches and opportunities for swimming. No one, with the possible exception of Captain Gunn, had had any interest in city sightseeing. Captain Gunn was the only one of the combined families who had been to Victoria, so Harriet felt it was up to her to learn something about its location and history. The others may be ignorant about their ultimate destination, but Harriet intended to arrive informed about the place where they may end up living for several years.
The arrival in Halifax of the convoy after 6 days at sea, involved several hours of organized chaos as tugs manoeuvred the individual ships into position on the dock. Many of them had to be tied up two or three abreast, which meant that those going ashore had to cross gangplanks between ships before descending to the dock itself. The children’s ship was found a spot right beside the dock, which was a heaving mass of people, troops in full battle kit, tractors towing trailers full of cargo with uniformed officials blowing whistles and attempting to direct traffic and people to the right ships. It made the children realize that Canada was as much at war as England, and was rushing across the Atlantic to help.
It took several hours of queuing and filling out forms but eventually all the groups of children had been processed and sent on by bus or train to their various destinations across Canada. The MacTavish/Phillips group was staying the night in a hotel, before boarding a plane to Vancouver. Since their last visit to Canada, there was a new, official way to travel to Vancouver. Trans Canada Airlines would fly them across the country, leaving Halifax mid morning, and arriving on the west coast at noon the following day, making several stops along the way. This would not be the first time they had flown across the country, but their previous flights had been aboard a cargo aircraft, now they would be one of the new elite group of airline flying passengers. Molly hoped she would still be able to visit the cockpit and chat with the pilots, but her mother told her not to count on it.
“I think I preferred the old way of flying,” commented Molly as they descended through the clouds towards Vancouver.
The ”˜old’ way had involved sitting in rickety seats surrounded by air cargo, such as cans of salmon, mailbags and other miscellaneous freight. There had been no ”˜inflight service’ of any kind, and they had picked up sandwiches and drinks at their various stops along the way. This time, they had been treated as if they were royalty, with meals served on fine linen and bone china and with comfortable reclining seats. They had made stops at Montreal, Ottawa, Kapuskasing, Winnipeg and Lethbridge, before finally crossing the Rockies and reaching their final destination in Vancouver. Except that this time it wasn’t their final destination, as they still had to travel further west to Victoria. Uncle Bert was meeting them in Vancouver and had arranged the final leg of their journey, although they still did not know exactly how they were getting from Vancouver to Victoria.
Molly had found the flying enjoyable just because she was in an airplane, but she had not been able to visit the cockpit and was feeling that flying as a passenger was, in fact, quite boring. She vowed to work hard to finish her flight training and acquire her pilot’s licence.
As promised, Uncle Bert was waiting for them in Vancouver. No one had seen him since the previous September, but he looked as he always did ”“ eccentric. He was dressed in shabby flannel trousers, striped shirt, bright braces, jaunty cravat, open toed leather sandals and a straw Panama hat with an eagle feather stuck in its band. He greeted his family and the Phillips children with hugs, handshakes and claps on the back.
“I’ve been looking forward to seeing you lot,” he said. “Can’t wait for my dear sister here to start feeding me some of her excellent home cooking!”
“How’re we getting over Georgia Strait to Victoria?” asked Harriet, the only one who had a good grasp of the local geography, or indeed who had shown much interest in the actual location of Victoria. For the others, although they had known that their journey would not end in Vancouver, where precisely Victoria was and how they were going to get there had not occupied their thoughts much. In any case they were pretty sure Uncle Bert would know the way!
“Ah ha,” said Uncle Bert, who was known
mostly by his nieces and their friends as Captain Gunn. “Thought I’d call in a
favour, and save us some time getting to Victoria.
Come along, I’ve got a couple of taxis waiting.”
Knowing that asking more questions would elicit no satisfactory answers, the group headed out of the air terminal and into the waiting taxis. Within a few minutes, the taxis were pulling up at the riverside, where Molly was thrilled to see a large seaplane tied to the dock, with her old friend, Jim Spilsbury, standing beside a shiny white and red float plane.
“I’ve been able to get Jim a fair bit of work with my buddies that run the department I’ve been working for,” said Captain Gunn.
“What kind of work?” asked Molly.
“Sorry, it’s all top secret,” said her uncle tapping his nose, “but old Jim here’s been getting lots of practice in his new plane.”
Molly ran down the ramp and greeted Jim with a vigorous handshake.
“What a super airplane,” she said, “it’s much bigger than your old one. What is it?”
“It’s a Norseman,” replied Jim, “and it’s proving a great money maker. I can use it for passengers, or take the seats out and fly freight anywhere where’s there’s a patch of water to land on. Come on, let’s get you and your gear aboard. I’ll have you in downtown Victoria in 20 minutes.”
Their seven small suitcases were soon stowed in the luggage compartment, and Jim and his eight passengers climbed aboard. Molly, of course, took the co-pilot’s seat to the right of Jim, and donned her headphones like a pro. The plane taxied out on the river, where Jim gave it full throttle. Within seconds it was airborne and soaring out over Georgia Strait.
As promised, within 20 minutes, they had crossed the strait, circled over the city of Victoria, and swooped down to land in the harbour.
The new arrivals gazed out of the plane windows at the two massive buildings that dominated the area in front of the harbour. One had a large sign across its front proclaiming it was The Empress Hotel, the other, over to their right fronted by a wide expanse of lawn, was, as Captain Gunn shouted at them over the roar of the engine, the British Columbia Provincial Legislative Building.
Jim steered the plane over to a dock, cut the engine, hopped out and secured his pride and joy to the dock.
The evacuees had arrived.