Just One Other Passenger

Hi Everyone!  Today is Memorial Day and a fitting day for me to post the first of a series of my Dad’s stories from his WWII days. My Dad served as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, a branch of the British Royal Navy.

Just One Other Passenger: by J.A. Shipperlee

Tony - UniformcropWhen a very young, inexperienced, extremely new and junior officer, I was proceeding from the Portsmouth area on a brief visit to Oxford bearing an official rail pass issued by the Navy. Reaching one of the local stations, I found the Basingstoke & London train already at the platform and ready to depart. So I hurried to a 1st Class carriage (as entitled by the 1st class pass), opened the door of one of the six- seat compartments, pushed my case onto the floor and mounted the step into the compartment. Quickly I lifted the case up onto the rack and turned to sit in a spacious, comfortable seat beside a window.

Then it was that I had a full view of the only other occupant. His presence I had already been vaguely aware of, though I’d not really observed him as while lifting up my case my back had been towards him and previously, while clambering hastily into the carriage my eyes had been on the case and then on the rack.

He was a middle-aged to elderly naval officer, of stoutish but not plump build. Moderate or medium height, relaxed back into the corner seat opposite. With some surprise and a great deal of misgiving, I noticed on his sleeves the broad gold band below three normal bands – a full Admiral. The rapidly growing feeling of uneasiness prompted me to begin mumbling something in the nature of a question as to whether the compartment was reserved or if it were all right to sit there, but the Admiral was already intent on putting me at ease by smiling and asking if I were going on leave and where was my destination.

For a while he chatted pleasantly in a fatherly manner and I left that train with the distinct feeling that there was a most human and gentlemanly person, perhaps also possessing a kindly sense of humour. Later, on enquiring among more knowledgeable people, I learned that he was almost certainly Sir William James, Commander-in-Chief of the Portsmouth Division of the Home Fleet.

I wish I could meet that benevolent man again now to let him read my thoughts on this brief incident.

P.S. Since writing this anecdote, my wife Phyllis and I stayed in Oxford in 1991 with a friend, Sydney Brookfield, who was a Lieut-Commander in the Admiralty in WWII, designing parts of artificial harbours; on reading this account of the meeting with Admiral James, he told us that the Admiral, in WWII was still known in the Admiralty as “Bubbles”.

Bubbles was the little boy with blonde curly hair, who used to advertise Pears soap, a well-known poster depicting the boy holding a bowl of soap-suds and blowing bubbles with a clay pipe. Apparently the early photograph had earned the Admiral the name throughout his career. 

By the way, the posters of “Bubbles” were from a portrait painted by the little boy’s grandfather, Sir John Everett Millais, P.R.A., and exhibited at the Royal Academy. The painting was sold to The Illustrated London News, then later purchased by A & F Pears for two thousand guineas for use in their advertisement.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *