Big thank you from

War time days in Fermanagh

THE phrase 'take a slow boat to China' is fairly well known, but no one can tell me what exactly is its significance.

It seemed to be used as an injunction to a pest to go away and keep going.

When I was faced with the necessity of getting to Enniskillen for 9.30am on a Monday morning in 1941, it seemed as bad as any slow boat to China to get there.

To travel by rail on Sunday was the only option. There was a train service, but what a service - slow, dilapidated, uncomfortable and umpteen changes finally jolting to a stop at near midnight in a wartime blackout, numb with cold, hungry and jaded.

Still only half awake there was the task of negotiating the main street, groping the way in the blacked-out thoroughfare and checking into a cold ill lit inhospitable 'leading hotel', kitchen closed of course, bed unheated and dampish.

In the morning all staff in formal dress (starched shirts and bow ties etc) but breakfast menu primitive, dinner a set meal - cold, one greasy lamb chop so bad that I had to go out to a coffee bar nearby for a cup of tea and buns as 'afters'.

The hotel had the problem (excuse) of food rationing. But enough of the misery. Needless to say, I didn't go back there the next time I needed accommodation in Enniskillen.

My office colleagues, especially the local manager Joe Edgar, looked after my booking.

My second visit in the summer was totally different. I was given a bike and invited to join some colleagues on a run around the lakes. Level as a billiard table, a lazy man's paradise. On other occasions Joe Edgar had me out on foot - a lovely scenic county.

One evening Joe headed for the rickety bridge over the river which carried a railway. I think it was the SL&NE ('slow late and never early' it was nicknamed).

I jibbed and asked Joe 'what happens if a train comes?' Ach he said 'there's only about two a day'. Well one of them caught us.

A slow noisy yoke, which had us clinging to the handrails. I was terrified but the train crew just laughed like heck. They could have shaken hands with us.

One beautiful summer evening a regiment of GIs (Yankee soldiers) arrived and planted themselves down around the Walker monument squatting in the semi-arch with kit bags etc while a chosen one went into the nearby pub and handed out drink.

They had a good booze up. (A nice way to fight a war). They were stationed at a nearby airfield. The phoney war was in progress.

The French had the Maginot Line and the Germans their equivalent. Each thought they were secure but of course the whole thing was a mirage.

Before long France and Belgium etc were overrun. That was the time that a German invasion of Britain seemed inevitable.

Happily the RAF and radar defences turned the tables - or was it Hitler's big mistake of taking on Russia? I'll leave that to historians.

By Pat Smyth
Ulster Star 18/02/05