Lady in White

 

By Dave O’Malley

If one spends any amount of time researching the stories, memoirs, photo albums, service records, operational record books, logbooks and sound recordings of men and women engaged in the services during the Second World War, one begins to detect threads of shared experience. One starts to sense a common quality of experience despite the millions of permutations and endless variations of personal history and the blindsiding of fate. Loneliness, fear, homesickness, battle stress, deprivation, testosterone-fired shenanigans, unit pride, love, frustration with leadership—these all course through the streams of memory of soldiers, sailors and airmen of that period.

Many times, a researcher will come across reference to a specific person or place in more than one memoir or reflection—a club off Piccadilly Circus, the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, a hard working troopship or an experience that left an indelible mark on the hearts of many.

For most readers, it appears that the Second World War was fought in Europe and the South Pacific and nowhere else. But for hundreds of thousands of combatants and millions of civilians, the war was Burma, Ceylon, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Trincomalee, Singapore, Chittagong, Kokoda, Buna, Corregidor, Sumatra and a thousand unheard of places at the end of the world. Places where heat, humidity, monsoons, insects and starvation were the norm and where battles were cruel and merciless beyond all imagination. Places where the smell of death hung in the air, clothes rotted from the back, and infection, dysentery and fever were the cohorts of the Japanese.

Men, women and supplies were convoyed over vast distances to the South East Asian Command’s (SEAC) battlefronts, which were dispersed over incredibly vast expanses of land and water. Convoys and military ships, bound for distant worlds in the SEAC would often round the Cape of Good Hope and then work northeast along the coast to Durban for re-victualling and chandling. Durban would quickly become the busiest seaport on the South African coast and a way station on the ocean highway to the war. Through Durban came Commonwealth soldiers and airmen en route from New Zealand, Australia and training bases throughout South Africa and Rhodesia bound for Europe and points far to the east; American servicemen bound for the jungles of Papua New Guinea, Buna and Gona; wounded soldiers on hospital ships; British and American naval ships by the hundreds and thousands of battered merchantmen.

These were the stories of hundreds of thousands of men and women—the warp and weft of history—all threaded together at one nexus point named Durban. While only a small percentage of the men who passed through this nexus point from April 1940 to the end of the war would one day put down their experiences on paper, all of those men would tell the story for the silent ones, and many would remember Durban as a place of not just bustling energy, but warmth and welcome.

There was a one woman who did more to establish this reputation for Durban than any other person, club or group of citizens. Her name was Perla Siedle Gibson and she would evoke powerful emotions and create lasting memories for, by all accounts, more than 250,000 men and women whose ships took them into and out of that safe haven on the Indian Ocean.

Perla Siedle was born in Durban in 1888 at the height of the Victorian Era. She was the daughter of a prominent Durbanite and wealthy shipping agent and shipowner. Her two brothers Karl and Jack were well known cricketers in South Africa. Karl was killed in the First World War and Jack went on to international fame as one of South Africa’s greatest test cricketers.

As a young woman in her late teens and early twenties, Perla, who had an artistic soul, studied music and fine art in Europe. Singing was her true passion. Many references on the internet state that she was a soprano, though others a contralto. She was not a well-known singer, but she did give recitals in London and New York before returning to Durban and raising a family. By the start of the Second World War, she was 50 years old, with her performance life well behind her and considerable worry ahead of her, for she had reared a military family. Her husband, Air Sergeant Jack Gibson was in the South African Air Force; her two sons, and only daughter, were in the army.

In April of 1940, with the war about to really take hold, she found herself dockside at Durban Harbour, seeing off a young Irish merchant seaman whom her family had entertained the day before. Legend has it that the young Irishman, at the rail as the ship pulled away, shouted down to her and across the water to sing for him something Irish—for it was no surprise to a young person who had stayed with the Gibsons that Perla loved to sing. She stood at the side of the dock and sang a rousing and wistful rendition of the classic “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” a song made popular around the time Perla was studying in Europe.

The docks of Durban, South Africa as seen from the deck of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Unicorn. As Unicorn made fast to the dock this day, she would have been serenaded by Perla as a welcome to the city and to remind her crew of home and what they were fighting for so far from it. Photo via Richard Mallory Allnutt Collection

A photo from an unknown photographer aboard HMS Unicorn captures the welcoming sight of Durban Harbour and the city beyond. Photo via Richard Mallory Allnutt Collection

Two wonderful photos by the same unknown photographer of the previous images show Perla standing next to a bollard and singing or perhaps calling out to men on a troopship, and then later (right) enjoying the warmth and admiration of young men off to war. The look on her face shows the joy she found in her goal to sing to every ship entering and leaving the harbour during the war. There must exist hundreds if not thousands of photographs of Perla from this perspective hidden in personal and family photo albums around the world. One wonders how many have gone to the landfill. Photos via Richard Mallory Allnutt Collection

The emotional effect on both the young man and his crew mates and Perla was so powerful that she decided that she would sing to every departing and arriving ship related to the war. This soon would mean every ship that entered the harbor or shaped a course from its safety.

From her small home on a hillside overlooking the harbor, she could see the daily comings and goings in the harbor—ships rounding the point, working up steam at the dock, or preparing to cast off. She would immediately get into her big Buick sedan and drive down the dockside. While security would not allow her to know in advance of ship movements, she was given a special entertainer pass that allowed her access to the secure docks. She took to wearing a sort of uniform—a plain white dress, a wide brimmed red hat and a red necklace. Whether this was a deliberate choice to allow sailors and servicemen to see her from far away as she sang them off, or was simply a wise choice to stay comfortable in hot African weather, we will never know. Soon however, her singing, her joyous personality and her great white and red presence earned her the admiration of everyone, worldwide fame and the title “The Lady in White.”

Perla would go on to sing to every ship that sailed into or out of Durban from April 1940 to August 1945 and beyond. It is estimated that she sang to more than 5,000 merchant and naval ships and more than 250,000 Allied servicemen. She sang her husband, two sons and daughter off to the war and when she got a telegram that her 26-year-old son Second Lieutenant Clement Roy Gibson was killed on 14 March 1944 while serving with the Black Watch, she put away the telegram and drove to the harbor and sang to departing ships. One can only imagine the sorrow she felt for her son, but also these young men heading into danger some four years after she had started singing.

If you look at any photographs of Perla addressing the troops and the crews from the war, you see immediately how genuine was her welcome, how much she loved these young men and how much this meant to her personally. It is likely that she was swept up by the response she received and the love that came back from over the rails. It became her passion for five years and she made a huge difference for many young people far from their homes.

Perla’s heartfelt love for all Allied servicemen would make her one of the great legends of the war years, a white and red thread that wove in and out of the lives of a quarter million people. Her name was not known to most, just the sobriquet “The Lady in White,” but she would create vibrant and emotional memories for these vulnerable young people that would outlast many bad memories of those days.

LIFE magazine ran a short piece on her in 1944, cementing her fame around the world. Young men bound westward to North Africa and eastward to South East Asia Command had heard of her and would line the rails to catch a glimpse of her and catch her voice on the wind. The piece in LIFE magazine is transcribed here:

Dockside Diva by John Barkham—First published in LIFE magazine in 1944

52-year-old Perla Siedle is South Africa’s No. 1 dockside morale-builder. Yanks call her “Kate Smith” and “Ma”; Poles have named her the “South African Nightingale”; and to Britishers she is the “Soldier’s Sweetheart” and the “Lady in White.”

The Lady in White has sung in and out of Durban Harbour more that 5,000 troopships carrying an estimated quarter of a million servicemen of all Allied nations. Standing on the quay in Durban, South Africa’s busiest wartime port, always wearing an immaculate white dress and red hat, this onetime Wagnerian dramatic soprano sings request songs by the dozen through a shop’s megaphone in a powerful, vibrant voice which carries far across the waters of Durban Harbour. Her megaphone comes from a torpedoed liner and is a gift from grateful Tommies who salvaged it for her.

The fame of Perla Siedle has spread across the world in soldier talk. When troops spy her stocky figure, calls pour in from the crowded rails for favourites like Home, Sweet Home, When the Lights Go On Again, The White Cliffs of Dover, Annie Laurie and Gounod’s Ave Maria. Captain usually stands on the bridge and salute her as the ship glides by. Czechs and Poles aboard ship click their heels and stand at rigid attention.

Perla kicks off with a few mellifluous cooees, to which the soldiers reply with thunderous echoes. Then comes the first song and it is inevitably the same—Land of Hope and Glory.

Perla welcomes Yanks with God Bless America, The Star Spangled Banner, Negro spirituals and new song hits. Sometimes their requests stump her; for example, she didn’t know The Marines’ Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma…” But Perla makes a point of learning any song new to her before it is requested again.

The Yanks never ask for hymns although the British sometimes do. Australians always want Waltzing Matilda. South Africans like their own Afrikaans folksongs like Sarie Marais. Czechs, Poles, Greeks and other Continentals prefer opera, so for them she does arias from Wagner, Verdi, Puccini. For hospital ships, Perla gives extra long performances.

The No.1 British favourite is There’ll Always Be an England. Says Perla Siedle: “I adore British Tommies. They make you sing and sing and never let you stop. I once sang six hours at a stretch for them.” She never sings God Save the King because it is too formal and the men would have to stand at attention.

A wealthy, benevolent socialite, Perla Siedle is energetic, bright-eyed, big bosomed and good-natured and has a pudgy plump figure. She likes laughing and singing, and looks like a streamlined Kate Smith. Because of her matronly appearance, sentimental British troops invariably ask her to sing Mother o’Mine. She is married to Air Sergeant Jack Gibson, last stationed at Foggia, Italy and has two sons and one daughter in the South African Army. All four have heard her sing them goodbye. Durban-born, Berlin-trained, the daughter of a rich South African shipowner, Perla Siedle in her youth sang in London for Granville Bantock [a British Composer] and Henry Wood [a conductor], and once gave a recital in New York.

A photo from the March 1944 LIFE magazine article about Perla Siedle showing her waving farewell to a cargo-troopship as it slides past her with its rails lined with admiring sailors and soldiers bound for the war. Photo: LIFE magazine

A joyful scene. Sailors cheer and Perla laughs as she shouts a few “cooees” to an arriving ship dockside at Durban Harbour. Note the faces smiling out from the portholes along the bottom of the photo. One can only imagine the emotional effect of seeing the Lady in White for the first time after having heard of her throughout the journey to Durban. Photo: LIFE magazine

What she calls her “wharfside work” began on April 16, 1940, when she was bidding farewell to a young Irish seaman her family had entertained the day before. Across the water he yelled, “Please sing something Irish,” and through cupped hands she obliged with When Irish Eyes are smiling. That started her on her dockside career and she has sung to every troopship that has come in or out of Durban Harbour since.

In London, New York, Bombay, Singapore and Cairo servicemen talk about her, write her fan letters and send her souvenirs. The first U.S. troops to arrive in Durban threw to the quay packets of precious chewing gum, which Perla promptly sent to her sons in the Middle East.

For security reasons, the British Navy won’t tell her of ship movements, but from the broad porch of her tiny Dutch-gabled villa on Berea Hill (“my crow’s nest”) Perla can see when convoys are in or readying to go. When that happens, she speeds to the docks in her Buick sedan with a special entertainment pass issued her by the Navy, who rate her morale-building value high. Usually it is near dawn or dusk, and the men are either glad to come or sad to go. She sings till the ships are docked or beyond range of her voice and never turns her back on a departing vessel.

At first, when the ship is untied, the men join in so heartily that when an onshore breeze is blowing the song fest can be heard in central Durban a mile away. But by the time the ship is out over the bar, Perla is singing alone. Farewells are always charged with heavy, misty-eyed emotions on both sides. One particularly touching Durban farewell was thus described by a magazine published on board a British troopship en route to India: “A deeper feeling gripped all of us soldiers, a strange contracting of the throat. A chorus started, wavered, fell away and at the end of the jetty that white-clad figure started Auld Lang Syne. As the gap grew, just snatches of the words came to us, and finally, just a picture of that solitary figure in white waving to us, and we swear she was still singing. We may forget many things of this war, but never the songs of Durban’s Lady in White.”

Says the Lady in White: “I’ll go right on singing as long as ships keep sailing, and when our boys come back after victory I’ll be there to sing them welcome home again.”

—from LIFE Magazine, March, 1943

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There are more than a few memoirs of the war years on the internet that describe encounters with Perla. It seems the brief encounters with the Lady in White left a powerful memory of a poignant moment in a life of worry and stress. Here are a few:

From My First Trip to Sea, Part Six—a memoir by Merchant Seaman Gordon Sollors

“The next thing I observed was one of those enduring memories, which we all have. As we sailed (majestically I thought) into the harbour, I had a vague idea that “something was happening” on the quayside. When I finally looked down and took notice of what was going on, I could see a person standing there, holding what appeared to be a megaphone (no such thing as loud hailers then!) The person was a “large” lady, dressed in a long, flowing white dress, and wearing an ENORMOUS wide brimmed red hat. Although she looked quite out of place among all the cranes, railway trucks, and all the other things that generally litter a quayside, she looked absolutely stunning. She stood on the dock side calling “Hello there” through the megaphone to the soldiers as the ship came nearer to the quay. Once the soldiers heard her, and called back, she started singing the “patriotic” music hall type songs popular in those days such as Tipperary, Roll Out The Barrel, Pack Up Your Troubles and Bless ’em All. She did all this in a superb voice through her megaphone. Had there been a roof, I’m sure she would have brought it down as the soldiers enthusiastically joined in. Not only was it a diversion from the very boring day to day life of the last four or five weeks on board the ship, it was somebody going out of her way to entertain them. There was also a nostalgic touch of “Old England” in the content of the songs. Such a performance would never have taken place in England, not only because of the secrecy, which necessarily shrouded troop movements there, but also because in general, the public was absolutely barred from dockside areas. It was a very moving occasion indeed.

I later discovered she was known as “The Lady in White” and I understand her name was Perla Gibson. She was a retired opera singer who made it her business to come down to the dockside in Durban, and sing to the soldiers on board the troopships as they entered the port. Many stories surrounded her performances on the dockside. There were many German sympathizers in South Africa during the war, and some people claimed that she was a spy! how else would she know just when the troop convoys were due to arrive?

The truth is that Durban is an extremely “open” port, and from the promenade or beach, approaching ships can be seen quite easily, long before they reach the docks. Especially a large group of ships such as go to make up a troop ship convoy. All “The Lady in White” had to do was to go down to the beach each morning and look out for a few hours. If the ships were coming in, they would soon be in evidence!

A year or so later, I was to sail again from Durban on the M.V. Highland Brigade, with about 2,000 South African soldiers on board bound for Suez and eventually, the Italian Campaign. The Lady in White was there again, along with several hundred relatives, giving the soldiers a rousing, and emotional send off. This time she sang all the South African and Afrikaner songs, - Bokkie - Sarie Marais etc. There was hardly a dry eye on the wharf! (Or on the ship I strongly suspect!)”

Commonwealth soldiers line the stern rail of a troopship in Durban Harbour as Perla belts out a song while standing at the edge of the pier. Photo via rememberussa.co.za

 

From John Myers, Voluntary War Service, BBC’s WW2 People’s War

“We called at numerous places round the African coast. I think the first port of call was Gibraltar where we saw ‘the flying fish’ but didn’t get the chance to see ‘the Barbary Apes.’ Freetown was our next call. We didn’t see much there and were glad to get away from it. It’s said to be a bad place for malaria, and has a terrible climate. After that we crossed the Equator where we played the traditional games being dumped in the water painted etc. As we rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the Southern end of Africa the sea was very rough. Then we travelled on to Durban (South Africa) where we rested for four days at Claywood, a couple of miles outside the main town.

As we approached Durban we saw and heard a lady dressed all in white with a beautiful and powerful voice standing on the Quay singing all the Patriotic songs to the troops. The songs included “Land of hope and glory,” “I belong to Glasgow,” “Men of Harlech” and “It’s a long long way to Tipperary.” It was a great wartime morale booster. She was still there singing through her loud-hailer when we left Durban four or five days later. We didn’t know who she was at the time, but always referred to her as “The Lady In White.” Many years later I read in the papers that she was Perla Siedle Gibson, an international concert star, classical pianist and Royal Academy portrait painter. Apparently she never missed a vessel from 1940 to 1945. Even on the day she heard her son had been killed she was still on the quayside singing through her loud-hailer to the ships. She died in 1971.

Another troopship arrives or is about to depart dockside at Durban. While Perla would sing them into and out of the harbour, she also spent considerable time chatting to the young men and women, getting to know where they came from and where they thought they were bound. In many respects she was a mother of a quarter million children. Photo via remeberussa.co.za

From Civilian to Sailor WW2 1940–1946, By R.H. Nicklin (rather free form style here)

“The port of Durban is our next calling stop which is not a great distance from Cape Town and like the Cape the lads say it is always a blaze of lights, after a long spell at sea they say a run ashore here is just what’s needed to recharge your batteries, it’s more like a seaside place than Cape Town. The thing that makes Durban stand out above all other places, and the thing that will always be remembered by me and every sailor that enters this harbour is “The Lady in White” and why? As Dorsetshire sailed into the harbour for the first time though the entrance I could see people standing on the jetty, but what stood out from all these people is a figure standing on something higher than the rest and dressed all in white. As we closed into our berth on the jetty I could see distinctly that the figure is that of a woman and she could be plainly heard singing through a microphone [sic] loud and clear “Land of Hope and Glory.” I can tell you that there wasn’t many sailors who didn’t have a tear in their eyes or a lump in their throat, I know that I did, to me it is so unexpected, such a wonderful thing, most of the lads on the ship had heard her singing before, the Lady is famously known by all sailors as “Durban’s lady in White” the South African lads told me that she greets all our Royal Navy ships entering the harbour with a song and apparently her favourite British ones say the lads are “There Will Always Be An England,” “White Cliffs Of Dover” and her most favourite of all “Land Of Hope And Glory,” her voice is so lovely to hear I asked the lads on the mess “does this lady do this for British Ships only,” no one could give me an answer.

But I know one thing she certainly gave my moral [sic] a boost and I only hope that I hear her a lot more times

A Son Remembers his father's story of Perla

In 1944 my late father, Flight Lieutenant H.E. ‘Ted’ Baker RAF, was posted to Rhodesia as an A2 QFI teaching students on PT19 Cornells and Harvards at Mount Hampden FTS located at Salisbury (now Bulawayo) airport. 

When he returned to the UK I clearly recall him telling my mother, my sister and me about “The Lady in White” who sang his ship into the Durban docks and also when he was returning to the England later that year.  I remember clearly the name of the troopship that took him to South Africa, it was the MV Reina del Pacifico.  I think the name of the ship on the return journey was a Dutch liner the Oranjeboom but I’m not sure.

What I do know is that my father was deeply impressed by Perla’s singing and he spoke of it often during his lifetime.— David Baker

A Reader Remembers a Respected Colleague's Recollection of Perla — by Bud Hightower.

I have, just this minute, finally gotten to reading your essay about Perla Siedle Gibson. Like nearly every one of your pieces, I was moved by the story of the person, and the lives touched by her during the war. 

This one hit me with a wallop, ringing the memory bank quite loudly. A vivid “eye-lid movie” began playing as I read of this wonderful woman, and what she did for all those sailors, soldiers and air crews who would find her serenading them as they came to, or left from, her city’s docklands. The “movie" is of my late friend, and former Principle (long retired), Jim White. 

Navy through and through, Jim had a nickname which none of the staff at the Secondary School where he “Skippered our ship” dared use in his presence. He was known as “the Admiral”. Jim never, actually, made officer rank. He retired as a Petty Officer (“PO-1”, he called it).

Jim was a crusty old salt who had the heart of a big teddy. As an example, when the Board of Education began thinking that a dedicated classroom  within a regular school structure for hard to serve teens was a worthwhile idea, it was Jim who lobbied the Board to place the class in his school. Along with a wonderful teacher, and friend, and I was asked to set it in place, and develop the programme. Jim was instrumental in the making it work, and to ensure we had all the backing we needed throughout the five years I was there, and beyond. He, also, ran interference with authorities (Board wise and legal) in an effort to see our charges had a chance to make it work for themselves.

During one of the many conversations Jim and I had about life, and the military, he began talking about his time in the transporting of men, and materiel, to the S/E Asian theatre of war. He said that the one, most powerful, memory he came back with was of the first time he saw the woman he called, “the dockside Angel in the white dress” who was singing on the dock as his ship came in to Durban Harbour. He said it was his first time there, the first of perhaps twenty transits, but he said the image, and her voice, were as clear to him that day in the staffroom as it was when he witnessed it ’40s.

At the time, I had no idea who the woman was that he was telling me about. Thanks to you, and your essay on this magnificent woman, that afternoon in the staffroom with my late friend has come back in living colour. I can understand what an emotional memory Jim held of Perla Siedle Gibson, and how he was moved by her caring for all the troops who came through Durban’s Harbour.

For a moment, “the Admiral” was here, telling the story, again—Bud Hightower

 

I remember this lady as though it were yesterday !! by Michael Gregory

Perla Gibson continued serenading long after the war—always to a warship or troopship. 

In early 1957 I was posted from the RAF trade training station at Compton Bassett in Wiltshire, England to RAF Butterworth in upstate Malaya.

We shipped out of Southampton on  M.T. Empire Orwell, a 22,000 ton former German liner converted to a British troopship after being seized as part of the post-war reparations (I wish they had kept it !!) The six-week voyage itinerary included the Canary Islands, Cape Town, north to Durban and Colombo (then Ceylon), finally docking in Singapore.

On entering Durban we were greeted by "The Lady In White" who, as the ship was slid into its allotted berth, sang operatic arias to us through her huge megaphone while we leaned over the rails and cheering and applauding.Although the majority of the troops on board were probably more attuned to Radio Luxembourg and the Top Ten, they showed great respect for her vocal performance and the arias sung with full mellow voice, elegance, and grace.

The remainder of the day was ours to peruse the spectacular city of Cape Town although we were informed not to venture into the District Six of the city as this was off-limits recalling that apartheid was in effect at that time.

Wandering the town we inadvertently entered into District Six and found it to be most interesting, intriguing, colourful, vibrant, even though obviously a "Soweto" of that era..

We kept our eyes open for MPs and others returning safely to the ship after an adventurous day. 

In the evening we set sail for the beautiful city of Durban. The ship slipped its moorings and the portly figure of Perla Gibson resplendent in her sparkling white dress and megaphone in hand walked alongside us dockside singing her heart out and wishing us Godspeed.

As the tugs moved us out into the main channel we left this grand lady

Michael Gregory

Perla Siedle Gibson meets with that other inspirational chanteuse of the war—Dame Vera Lynn (left). Here both ladies meet after the war at the Warrior’s Gate MOTH Shrine and Museum (MOTH—Memorable Order of the Tin Hat) in Durban. They pose with Moth Harold Clark. Perla wears her South African Legion and MOTH Tin Hat badges on her signature white dress. Photo: Travers Barret via moth.org.za

By war’s end, Perla was indeed a world celebrity. Here, in 1957, she appears to be reprising her act while surrounded by soldiers in summer kit. It seems as though she had acquired a number of different loud hailers/megaphones during her “wharfside work”, this one being somewhat larger than the one she was often pictured with during the war. Photos via 35-ofp-kluang.co.uk

In 1995, a statue of Perla Siedle Gibson was erected dockside in Durban Harbour and unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II. It stands near the Ocean Terminal pier, where she spent the war years bringing cheer and warmth to ships full of lonely young men and women. The statue was designed by Perla’s niece, and it seems she may have been kind to her aunt in the weight department. Photo: Allan Jackson

Two book covers from Perla’s biography

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