Durban Has Changed
 

Some time ago I acquired a copy of the British Army newspaper Parade dated 3 March 1945, and was intrigued to find that it had an article on Durban in it. The newspaper was printed in Egypt and apparently sold to soldiers serving in Egypt, Cyrenaica, Malta, Palestine, Sicily, Italy, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Transjordan, Tripolitania and Turkey. It would have cost the serviceman or woman sixpence in Malta or 10 Lire in Italy.

Once he or she had finished reading it, they could roll it up, fill in the address details in the spaces provided on the back, stick a stamp on, and send it home to their families. My copy of the paper was evidently sent home in this manner because it is addressed to Mrs John H Little of Manchester, and carries a one-penny stamp as well as the military censor's rubber stamp and signature.

I'm sure that the article on Durban was included to bring the troops up to date with what was happening in Durban. Many of them would have passed through Durban when their troopships stopped over here on the way to the battlefront. By March 1945, the end of the war in Europe was in sight and things in Durban had slowed down enormously since earlier in the war, when the harbour and outer anchorage would have been crowded with warships and transports. Allan Jackson - 30 March 2006.


Durban Has Changed


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Click on the images to view enlargements. The pictures are 300-400Kb in size but you should be able to see the pictures OK.

 

Pictures and text courtesy
Parade, 3 March, 1945.

Durban's hospitality to troops became legendary. But today convoys no longer fill its harbour and HERBERT McWILLIAMS found a new austerity reigning in Natal.

Do you remember, after all those months of blackout, that blaze of light on the horizon as the troopship neared Durban? Or perhaps you arrived in daylight and saw the seaside sky scrapers jutting up out of the salty haze, with the dark green of the bush behind?
Today neon tubes and thousands of electric bulbs make night into day again - after a spell of really strict blackout - and the 17-storied blocks of flats look just as incongruous as ever, towering up among the bungalows.

For a long time now Durban people have been leading quiet lives. Convoys with dozens of troopships and thousands of men have become a memory of the past - of the days when the tide of battle ebbed and flowed along the North African sands, and the 'Med' was closed to our transports. Those times may hold memories of warm hospitality for you; for the inhabitants of Durban they meant a good deal of sacrifice and hard work.

Remote, out of danger, Durban felt that the least it could do was to make the short stay of those travel-worn men a little brighter and give them a few days ashore which they could always look back to with pleasure.

Although the greatest secrecy was supposed to be kept about the arrival of a convoy everybody seemed to know about it a day or two beforehand. Canteen workers would be warned to be on the top line; eggs and vegetables suddenly became scarce on the markets; there would probably be a notice in the papers to the effect that the bars would close early on such and such a night, or that certain foreign currency would not be accepted.

And then Durban would.awake to find the bay fined with giant grey-painted liners, some of which became so familiar that even from the Berea schoolboys would name them, swapping information about their speed and tonnage.

As the crowded ships passed into the harbour, men lining the landward rails saw a woman, dressed in white, singing powerfully through a megaphone such songs as "There'll Always be an England!" and "Land of Hope and Glory." A well-known local figure, she would drive down from her home on the Berea as soon as she could see that the ships were moving in.

Judging by the eager welcome given to each convoy one might have imagined that it was the first to have arrived. But for months on end, for years, the same thing went on. Business men gave up their time, housewives their spare rooms, working hard preparing extra items for the menu, arranging picnics and planning entertainments. Food was plentiful then; so was petrol.

Cars would queue up along the Dock Road ready to pick up a full load to take back to the homes where hot baths, iced beer, and delicious meals were already ordered. To introductions to attractive daughters and their friends, to dances and moonlight picnics, and perhaps even a night in a proper bed between cool sheets.

All the sights to which Service men used to be taken are still to be seen, but the non-stop clicking of turnstiles at places like the snake park and the zoo are things of the past. Along the shady drives in the suburbs, where the wild monkeys used to be fed to bursting point on bananas at two-a-penny a few rather thin, incredulous, monkeys leap out more eagerly at the approach of a car than their surfeited brothers did ,a couple of years ago.

Still a backwater as far as the war in concerned, Durban is having a taste of austerity now. Meat is carefully rationed and though there is only one official "meatless day" a week there are many homes where it is off the menu for three days at least; The bread is brown and uninteresting: the mustard pots are always empty. Drought or hail (troubles never come singly!) have reduced the amount of fruit and vegetables in the markets; the shops are bare of the luxuries that used to make Service men stand spellbound . at their windows.

To a people used to going everywhere by car, the petrol rationing was probably the biggest blow. (South Africa is said to have more cars per head of white population than even the United States.) All over the country now milage has to be kept to a minimum. Retreading and a noticeable improvement in driving help to eke out the life of the tyres on the family cars and keep them on the road. But pleasure jaunts are seldom if ever indulged in now.

The antiquated electric trams - long ago banished from the streets to make way for silent trolley buses on pneumatic tyres - have. Been brought out again to help with the problem of transport, and long queues for them line the pavements at rush hours. The rickshaw boys have come into their own once more. Once tolerated, with affection, as a diversion for tourists, and seldom patronised by local residents, they are now being gladly used by shoppers with large parcels.

Strangers always gape with amazement at the elaborate costume of the rickshaw boys; in spite of the hot climate they wear huge feather headdresses, dangling skins of wild animals, woollen and bead ornaments; and clusters of rattling seed-pods round their white-painted legs. As they swing along the soft hot tarmac, their loping strides and weird cries give the impression of some slow-motion nightmare. But many have given up this -savage display now that there is more work to be done, and money has to be earned by pulling instead of posing before a camera. An "austerity" costume of nothing but a kilt and a hat decorated with a few coloured ostrich feathers has been adopted.

In a city where there is so much novelty it probably used to seem quite natural to find in one of the most important streets a half-timbered building called "Ye Playhouse." Though imitation woodwork and the quainty-dainty whimsies of sham Elizabethan look out of place where palm and mango thrive, the "Play-house" provided "big eats" which must still be remembered by those who came straight from the United Kingdom and its strict. rationing. Steaks like doorsteps. piled high with eggs and chips. and soles that overlapped the plate are .not to be had there now, but you can still sip South African beer under those lowering concrete beams for all their unconvincing resemblance to oak. Out at Athlone Gardens dancing in the open air is as popular as it ever was,but the great expanse of oval floor is seldom crowded.

Durban is probably more important than ever as a naval base. Those who remember the harbour as it used to be would be astonished at the developments that have taken place recently; the new quays; the extensive dredging; the enormous new floating dock which nobody can pretend not to see - even from five miles away.

And every mail still brings a letter to someone there. who during those busy convoy days, played the part of "up homers" to some strange lad while he was ashore.

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