Deolali, inland from Bombay, is a name to make hearts sink. For more than a century it was the transit camp where soldiers waited, week after week for the boat to take them home. Its official name was The Homeward Bound Trooping Centre. The slang word ‘doolally’ is derived from this hell-hole because it drove men mad. And it was to Deolali that, in October 1945, my mother, my brother and I we were sent to await a passenger boat to England. It was built much along the lines of a prison camp, with rows of wooden huts, a communal dining hall, nothing to do and nowhere to go outside the camp. The monsoon season had not long ended. Everywhere was still a quagmire. Daily, we and several hundred other families assembled in the dining hall to hear the names read out of the lucky ones who had been given a passage on the next boat out. Mud, flies, open drains, washing that wouldn’t dry, boredom, and officious little men in charge, all led to mounting despair as, day after day, our names were not read out. The question on the lips of every family was, ‘Will we be home for Christmas?’
To raise the morale of of the inmates, who were slowly being driven doolally, the Camp Commander decided to hold a concert, a sort of pre-Christmas celebration. People were recruited to do various turns. I remember two sergeants who sang a duet:
‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.’
Finally, we were allocated berths on the Durban Castle. Throughout the voyage, people who’d attended the concert were humming ‘You are my sunshine’. We did make it back to England in time for Christmas and for reunions with family after five long years of war. Whenever I hear that song I think of Deolali 1945.
- Submitted by Robin Lloyd-Jones, 86, Helensburgh