From Southhampton to Durban - Joyce Mitchell nee Gibbs

Joyce Mitchell nee Gibbs (as told to Allan Jackson)

In 1946 Joyce Gibbs was a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in Britain and, coming home one day, was informed that the family, being sick of war and rationing, had decided to emigrate to South Africa. Her father Stanley and brother Derek got berths on a ship coming out to South Africa but she and her mother Peggy were not able to do so because all the available spaces were being allocated to men and, in particular, to troops being returned to South Africa after the war.

The two women were going to have to wait until space became available but one day, when Joyce was in London, she passed the BOAC offices and noticed that there were seats available on the Flying Boat service to Durban. Her mother was able to come up with the money (Joyce believes that the cost was £120 each, one way) and the seats were booked on the flight leaving Southampton on Sunday, 9 August 1946. The ATS granted her request for early demobilisation and she was free to leave Britain.

After the required inoculations, including one for Yellow Fever, they left on schedule from Poole aboard one of BOAC's Empire Class flying boats. The flying boat suffered an engine failure when approaching Cairo and, when a second engine caught fire, the journey was aborted and the passengers accommodated on houseboats on the Nile. The next day they transferred to another flying boat, the Caledonia, and set out the next day for Khartoum where they spent the night in the utterly luxurious Grand Hotel. Peggy was extremely impressed when, after pressing what she took to be the light switch, a large Arab arrived in her room to tuck her up in bed and arrange her mosquito net for her.

Joyce had been used to food rationing in England during the war where luxuries had been non-existent and took to raiding the fridge aboard the flying boat for grapes. On one trip to the fridge, she witnessed steward Eric Mitchell attempting to dispose of a cup of cocoa by emptying it out of the galley window. The aircraft was airborne at the time and, predictably enough, the slipstream blew the cocoa back inside and all over Eric's immaculate white jacket.

The flying boats were the last word in comfort but the journeys could sometimes be a bit rough and another amusing incident took place when Joyce and Peggy realised that they were the only ones, out of the 27 passengers aboard, who had not needed an airsickness bag. They were inclined to boast of this fact and the steward, Eric Mitchell again, plonked down a maggotty pat of butter on the table in front of Peggy to see if that would make her sick. Without turning a hair, she said she'd prefer a beer and drank it with every appearance of enjoyment.

Another amusing incident occurred when Peggy and Joyce had retired to a space in the tail of the aircraft to enjoy a cigarette and were joined by both the pilot and co-pilot. When Peggy indignantly asked who was flying the plane, she was told not to worry because George was looking after everything. It was probably as well for the ladies' peace of mind that they didn't find out, until years later, that George was the auto-pilot.

Joyce doesn't remember exactly where, but somewhere in central or east Africa, the aircraft landed to be refuelled and was sprayed with insecticide against yellow fever. The passengers were taken to the shore of the lake by launch and were offered warm lemonade as a refreshment. Peggy and Joyce needed to use the toilet and were escorted by two armed British soldiers to a privy deep in the bush.

The passengers had experienced fairly rough conditions when flying over desert near the pyramids in Egypt. On a number of occasions the aircraft fell a hundred or more feet, as the result of an air pocket, flinging the passengers about. The same happened after leaving Dar-es-Salaam and a coconut, given to Joyce by the manager of the hotel in Dar-es-Salaam, fell from where it had been stored, and narrowly missed the head of a sleeping baby.

Joyce told me that the whole trip was marked by the superb hotels that they stayed in every night, the comfort and service that they experienced while aboard the aircraft and the spirit of fun which characterised the relations between passengers and crew. Finally, the trip came to an end when Calendonia settled on to the waters of Durban Bay and Peggy and Joyce (firmly clutching her coconut, were met on wharf by her father and brother.

Also on the wharf that day were Eric Mitchell's family, who had recently migrated to Durban, and who became friendly with the Gibbs family. Eric Mitchell had one further important role play in Joyce's life, when he acted as best man at her marriage to his brother Trevor on 9 August 1947, a year to the day after she set out from Southampton aboard a flying boat on the way to Durban. Stanley Gibbs eventually opened Gibbs Engravers in Fenton Lane in Durban.

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