Monday, December 15, 2008


On Wednesday 6th September 1939, South Africa, too, had entered the fray. General, J.C. Smuts had been leader of the opposition, but during an emergency sitting of parliament he defeated the old Boer War General, James Barrie Hertzog, by 84 votes to 67. Hitler, it is said, laughed when he heard that South Africa had declared war on Germany. (Neither his sense of geography nor history could have been very well developed!) Without the Cape sea-lane the Allies would not have held Egypt, the Middle East or India. Probably, and ironically, the Mediterranean would have been lost. Perhaps Russia too, as the Axis swept up from perhaps what was then Persia, through the back door. Pearl Harbour might have been unnecessary for the Japanese if they had taken India, thus —according to experts — there would have been no USA involvement.

Despite low numbers, the South African Springboks bundled the Italians out of Abyssinia in months, also thus probably saving Egypt, the Middle East, and India. (The only Allied victory in the opening years of the war.) This enabled O'Connor to drive the Italians out of Libya (only to be chased out in turn by Rommel). For all Hitler’s derision, the South Africans went on to do yeoman work. There were Saffers in the RAF, South Africans in the Royal Navy; even on the county class cruiser which chased the Graff Spee in the River Plate.

There would be many heroes among the forces of every allied country; and no doubt the young ‘Freddy’, who had been dreaming of glory since he was fourteen years old, hoped that he, too, would be given opportunities to distinguish himself.
His real name was Frederick Abinger Warder. According to his great-uncle Abinger, the ‘Abinger’ part, had come down through the generations from Sir James Scarlett, first Baron of Abinger, somehow associated with a place near London called ‘Abinger Hammer’; yet, from the moment he was born, he was always called ‘Tom’. Only his wife was known, on occasion to capture his immediate attention with an unexpected 'Fred-e-rick!'For Melissa to address her ‘Grandpa Tom’ as ‘Freddy' would take a sudden rush of overwhelming affection. It would spring from an impish boldness during a special time of closeness when one could dare to be half-teasing, half-familiar. Times when one was sitting on his knee, singing along with him as he played his mandolin, or when one was wheedling the story out of him.

……… where you played mandolin
on African Seas for the troops
so they wouldn't be scared when they hit the front line…”

The ship was already almost bursting at the seams when, just before his nineteenth birthday, he strode up the gangplank in Durban on May 13, 1944, to board the Monarch of Bermuda. In ‘Cleared for Take-off' Bogarde observed that, “among a good number of 'louts'”, were an equal number of “gentler, bewildered men who had been drawn willy-nilly into a world beyond all comprehension”, but for this lad there was nothing 'willy-nilly' about it. Displaying the familiar orange tabs denoting a South African volunteer, kitbag slung over shoulder and carrying a mandolin, he was eager and excited to be on the way to rejoining 27 Squadron SAAF ‘Up North’ — as his countrymen referred to the war zone. Oswald Chambers says that ‘songbirds sing in the dark', and with the mental picture of Bogarde’s ‘steaming hell’ now before one, it seems doubtful that Melissa’s Freddy played the mandolin for any other reason.

This was indeed the moment he had been waiting for and yet, as he would later confess, there was a tug at his heart that made him, at the same time, reluctant to leave. Less than three weeks earlier, while on embarkation leave, he had walked into a newspaper office and met a girl, a 16-year-old cub reporter. For him it had been love at first sight and, as Charles Magill would write in the Reader’s Digest* “dashing in his airforce uniform and extraordinarily handsome, with a deep tan and a magnificent physique, he had caught her eye at once. One day, she had told a co-worker, she would marry this man.”

Trailing behind him as they embarked on that chilly day in 1944, came his brother carrying a kitbag and a guitar. Though older by nearly three years, he was always the one who followed; Tom, the six-foot-something sibling (who had stretched the truth somewhat concerning his age so that they could enlist, one behind the other, on the same day) was the leader. He was the athletic one of whom it was said that he would have swum in the Olympics if the war had not intervened. The one who had spent hours sailing his small sailboat and loved the outdoors.

The brothers had music in their very DNA.They came from a home where someone was always playing some instrument or another. The family had their own, popular dance orchestra, and, since joining the South African Airforce two years previously, the ‘Warder Boys’ had taken their instruments with them everywhere. They had made music wherever they had been stationed, and once a plane had been sent to fetch a piano to complement the squadron’s band. The brothers had made a vow that, even if one of them were to be sick or wounded, nothing would be allowed to separate them. Tom kept that promise assiduously, even refusing promotion until they were home from the front.

If it was trying for every one of 3,000-plus soldiers to be cooped up down below, it was especially claustrophobic to have to sleep, hemmed in with hundreds, in the Monarch’s once famous swimming pool. It was bitterly ironic for a world-class swimmer. Without water in the pool, its walls made of it an airless cage. The vessel had cast off from Durban in comparatively cool weather, but, as it crossed the equator and proceeded north, late autumn very soon gave way to stifling summer. Many became ill from food that ‘went off' because it could not be properly stored. Dodging enemy submarines in unbearable, humid temperatures, the longer-than-normal voyage seemed endless. So, following in the tradition set by Irving Berlin’s troupe, and the many other musicians who had been on board the Monarch when it was dubbed the ‘SHOWBOAT’, those who could, now played music.

Like their grandparents, Melissa, now living in Los Angeles, and her brother, Dylan van der Schyff, an internationally acclaimed percussionist who makes his home in Vancouver, also have music in their genes. In song Melissa recalls the stories she and her brother have known for as long as they can remember; stories that fascinated them as completely as they had gripped their mother and uncle when they were young. She relives happy times with a gentle man who had come to join them in Canada because he loved them as much as they loved him. Not for them any mundane nursery rhyme. Again and again they clamoured to hear, ‘the one about The Monarch of Bermuda.’ He never told them about the misery, about the rotten, hard-boiled eggs that had turned green, or how some of the men were dead before they reached their destination. Only the funny parts. About how he and his brother gave a concert one night and blew all the lights on the ship with their cranked up sound equipment; about the pandemonium that ensued and about how everyone was terrified, thinking they had been torpedoed.

Saying nothing about the vicissitudes of war, he told them about how he had swum in the Mediterranean off the coast of Oran, but not, until they were older, about how he and a friend had brought the body of an American soldier ashore. He sang the songs that he and his brother had sung on the ship, and played the tunes they had played in the squadron band — named The Venturians because they flew ‘Venturas’. His youthful listeners thrilled to hear about how he had once or twice had a chance to play with some famous musicians from Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller’s bands; but he was never able to talk much about how pilots, returning from anti-submarine reconnaissance to the hopelessly too short emergency airstrip at Kalafrana in Malta, on occasion misjudged the distance to the precipice at the edge of the towering cliffs.

The Warder Boys came home from the war in Europe, having signed up for further service in Burma; Tom to court his girl while they waited to be shipped out to the Far East. Fortuitously, before the order came for them to leave, peace returned to the world on V J Day. Tom joined a commercial airline, married and settled down to raise a family, remaining fiercely proud of his squadron. After emigrating from South Africa in 1978, he joined the Royal Canadian Legion and became a member of the Army Navy and Airforce Veterans’ Association, retaining life membership of the South African Airforce Association. He gave his time, his energy and his money passionately, however, to help his wife establish an organization which has saved millions of lives in Canada and around the world by creating awareness of the most common genetic disorder of all: ‘Hemochromatosis’.

He has been described by physicians and patients alike as the ‘most courageous man’ they have ever known. When, with dreadful suddenness, that same genetic disorder caught up with him and he learnt that he was dying, he was faced with two almost overwhelming problems…He might not have time to write 'The Story of the Monarch', as he had promised the children; and the kind of money which a funeral might entail, was frozen in South Africa. Desperately he turned to the Legion and was advised to apply to Veterans Affairs in Vancouver, which he did — one cold rainy afternoon in April 1992. He stood patiently, dripping wet, until his turn came to state his case to the clerk behind the counter.
“I’m sorry,” said the young man, politely but firmly, shaking his head. “South Africa was never in the war!”

In May 1947, two months before the birth of Tom’s first child, word went out that the Monarch had been destroyed by fire at Hebburn-on-Tyne while being reconditioned for its return to passenger service. But the old chameleon was not staying down for ten. Closer inspection of what seemed a complete write-off revealed that it could be rebuilt. Renamed ‘New Australia’, it became an immigrant ship. In due course, the ‘Greek Line’ bought it, renamed it 'Arkadia', and as such it sailed as a tourist class vessel until finally being scrapped in Valencia, Spain.

Tom Warder, too, did not give up readily. His immediate need was great, but what was more important, his pride had been stung. He tried repeatedly to have his medals, discharge papers and other records of active service recognized. They were deemed to be inadequate, however, on the grounds that, although the month and the year were given, the exact dates of arrival and departure from war zones — for example, South West Africa (now Namibia), Oran and Malta — were not specified. Six weeks after his first visit to Veterans’ Affairs in Vancouver, in a greatly weakened state but determined to have his evidence validated, he managed, by utilizing his airline privileges, to make it back to South Africa. He followed up correspondence, sent ahead by him from Canada, with a personal visit to the records office in Pretoria. From there the necessary documentation was mailed to Canada, but he did not live long enough to know the outcome. He died in South Africa on July 9, 1992. Relevant documents were recently found among his personal papers—too late for his case to be resolved. One official document shows that his records had indeed been received; however, after 16 years his Canadian file is still marked ‘PENDING’.

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