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WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR ,DADDY ?
An abridged section of an autobiography by Kenneth.
Early in 1942 I applied to join the Merchant Navy. 16 years was the minimum age for deck hands and 16 for catering staff. I persuaded my mother to sign the necessary forms. In September 1942 I entrained at Paddington Station for Lydney, a small whistle stop near the Severn River railway bridge.
On arrival at Lydney I found about 30 other boys all enroute to the training ship. The hut, which comprised the station, was covered with the names and initials of past travellers. Later in the day a train arrived to take us over the Bridge to Sharpness Docks, and after a short walk we arrived at the TV"Vinditrix". The "Vindi" as she was affectionately known was an old German sailing ship and was now moored in the canal. Thirty boys arrived every Monday and the procedure was always the same. Allocation of a bunk on the bottom deck, then up to the mess deck for a supper of cold ham and bread & butter. This was great, but why did the rest of the trainees hang over our shoulders and ask "do you want that bit of fat ?"
Breakfast the next morning supplied the answer to this question. She was a hungry ship. A plate of porridge and a thick slice of bread with a mug of tea was the ration. Dinner and Tea comprised of equally sparse meals. Sausages, Potatoes, Cabbage and steamed puddings were the order of the day. On Sundays we were given a boiled egg or black sausage for breakfast. As each long table finished their tea there was a rush for the gangway. Down onto the pathway beside the canal, up the hill, over a field and into Sharpness Docks. The first five or six boys to arrive at the dockers canteen would be able to buy a plate of dinner, the next group could get the remaining sandwiches the next a slice of cake, the rest had to be content with a mug of tea. As I said earlier, a total of 30 boys joined the ship every Monday. By Friday morning there would be 15 left of the original group. To get away from the ship they crawled out of the bed deck portholes in the middle of the night and over a pontoon to the shore. They then walked to the next railway station down the line and caught a train home the next day. If they were older than 17 years the police were informed and Call Up papers would be issued, under this age nothing more was done. I personally would have liked to go home but that would have meant losing an awful lot of face. While I was there one boy was stabbed with a fork and one of the Training Officers was floored in a fight.
We were divided into two watches, and on alternate mornings one watch cleaned the decks and the other took part in physical exercises. The worse part of cleaning ship was emptying the sewage bin that had been used during the night by approximately 150 boys during the night. The physical exercises involved running about 2 miles to the Severn Bridge and back. The training officer in charge would run at the rear and use a branch of a tree to keep any stragglers moving. When you reached the ship there was a row of buckets waiting at the side of the canal. We were lined up in two rows and one line dipped their buckets in the water and proceeded to throw it over his opposite number. This was repeated for the benefit of the second line.
My experience of this rather basic hardening up procedure was somewhat acute as this was winter time. Discipline was strict and talking after lights out was a punishable offence. One night the Officer asked for the offender to come out, no movement, so the entire area of some 20 boys were marched out onto the deck in the cold November wind and made to holy stone the quarter deck for one hour. The training course was for five weeks, first week learning to box the compass, (to the uninitiated this meant learning the 32 points of the compass and being able to quote them in their correct order).
Second week learning knots and splicing (how I hated splicing the one inch freezing steel cable). Third week contents and stowing of gear in a lifeboat. Fourth week boat handling (how to sail a dipping lug). As part of the sailing lessons we rowed a lifeboat into the dock area to collect the days supply of bread. On one occasion the Officer turned his head away from us and in a split second one boy grabbed a loaf, a second tore a piece off and within seconds the loaf was torn to pieces and eaten without trace. The fifth week was for the lifeboat test.
Each boy was summoned to the Captains cabin where he questioned you on the lessons you had learnt. The last questions were based on boat navigation. He would place a piece of wood on the table and say "this is your boat" then another piece of wood which indicated the direction of the wind. He then instructed you to sail the boat giving him the sail and rudder orders as he changed the wind and destination directions. As I did the wrong thing on the third tack, he picked up the wood slammed it on the table and repeated the orders, I fouled it up for a second time.
"Get out of my cabin, you fool".
Now, once you had attempted your test and failed you were not allowed to leave the ship until you eventually passed the test. This meant no running to the dockers canteen. After dinner the Captain sent word that any boy who wished to try again that afternoon could come to his cabin. The thought of no extra food was greater than fear of Captain Mussard, so I went up to his cabin. I made no mistakes this time and breathed a sigh of relief when he asked, what we knew was always the last question, "What would you do if your mast and sails blew away ?". At the end of the training session we were given a weeks leave. Returning to Sharpness we worked at various jobs in the everyday running of the ship, such as cleaning the brass and cooking the meals.
British and Allied shipping was suffering tremendous losses in the North Atlantic at this time so replacement crews were urgently needed so early in the seventh week I received my orders. A train voucher, a letter to the Pool Office and a training report card. With a kitbag, bearing the painted insignia of crossed flags (a Union Jack and the Red Duster) a peaked hat (without any insignia) I left Sharpness and arrived in Liverpool at 4.00am in the morning. I was given a bed at the Lime Street Flying Angel Hostel, given some breakfast and instructions on how to find the Pool Office. Fingerprinted and issued with an Identity Card. My uniform, a plain silver coloured badge bearing the initials MN, was given to me.
Later that day I received instructions to report to the ss "Anglo African" berthed at Birkenhead. It was dark when I arrived at the ship and I found the geography of a 7000 ton merchantman something of a puzzle resulting in sore shins from hitting unidentified objects. Anyway this was what I had wanted and a life and world of travel lay ahead. Here I was a Galley Boy, pay £ 4.per month plus £10.per month Danger Money. Somebody told me my cabin was aft and that I would be sharing with the Cabin Boy.
The Cabin Boy told me that I should turn to at 6.30am in the galley and in the morning, still in darkness, showed me the way to go. I stood waiting, and at 7.00am the Second Cook arrived and wanted to know why I had not lit the galley fire and why I had not started getting things ready for breakfast. The Cook, somewhat hungover arrived soon after and asked the same questions. Apart from helping in any way the Cooks ordered, a Galley Boys job is to keep the galley clean, wash up, light the fires and peel the potatoes. Outside the warmth of the Galley it was cold and damp as we steamed slowly down the Mersey, past the Liver Building and out across the bar to the open sea.
The "Anglo African" had a big "S" on the funnel, the insignia of the Sir William Rearden Smith Line , but the crew said it stood for starvation. Before the war the life of Merchant Seamen was hard and poorly paid but since the beginning of the war all ships were run by the Ministry of War Transport and Board of Trade regulations which laid down minimum rations were strictly adhered to. The regulations called for the issue of 1lb Meat, 1lb Potatoes and 1lb Bread per man per day, 3ozs Tea; 3ozs Coffee and 3ozs Pickles per man per week. Eggs were to be supplied for breakfast twice a week. In actual fact the men did not collect these rations with the exception of the tea, coffee and pickles. All meals were cooked in the galley, collected by crew members and taken back to their quarters.
The "Anglo African" was considered to be a lucky ship. She was built in 1912, riveted hull (none of this welded stuff that the Kaiser Shipyards were producing in the United States at the rate on one ship per day) slow and solid. Flat out she could make 12 knots and was usually found at the back of the convoy at daybreak keeping company with the older Greek vessels, shepherded and cursed by the Royal Navy destroyers.
She had had two sister ships, the "Anglo Australian" which had been lost "by act of God" in the Pacific in 1938 and the "Anglo Saxon" which was torpedoed in the North Atlantic in 1941 and which made its way into the history books due to the fact that the only two survivors established a record for survival. They were 81 days adrift in a lifeboat before landing in the West Indies. One of them, the 3rd mate after a spell in hospital and three weeks leave was posted to the "Siamese Prince". Three days out from Liverpool she was "bumped" but this time he was not so lucky and did not survive. Why we were considered lucky when the other two "Anglos" had met watery graves, I do not know.
The crew comprised of the Captain, three Mates, three Wireless Operators, five Engineers, One Bosun, One Donkeyman, one Carpenter, eight Seamen, eight Firemen, One Chief Steward, one Second Steward, one Assistant Steward, One Cabin Boy, One Cook, One Assistant Cook and one Galley Boy. We also carried six Royal Navy ratings (DEM'S: Defence of Equipped Merchant Ships). The six DEM's were carried because we were armed with a 12 pounder and a 3.5 gun fitted on our stern and two Orliken Machine Guns on the wings of the bridge. As you can see from the above listing the Galley Boy is the lowest form of life on the ship. In fact there is one lower category, that is a Scullion. For the most severe penalty to be meted out to Cabin and Galley Boys would be the threat of demotion to Scullion whose rate of pay was one shilling per month.
Other than washing up all the dishes in the Galley and keeping the woodwork scrubbed down the never ending job was peeling potatoes. (Oh how I wish I had had one of todays potato peelers) Every morning I accompanied the cook down to the cold room to bring out the days meat. Sometimes I would hide a couple of eggs in my trouser pockets but the Cook was up to this trick and would give me a sharp slap as we ascended the companion way to the main deck. Scrabbled eggs in the pocket were no use to anyone. An early morning job was to pump up water to the Captains bathroom. The pump was in an exposed position on the deck and six o'clock in the morning, in the North Atlantic winter, was not the happiest of times.
Before leaving Liverpool the ship had been fitted with steam pipes to all outside cabins and the Merchant Navy Comforts Fund had distributed thick woolly jerseys and socks. Our cargo was mixed supplies together with bombs, ammunition and 493 tons of High Octane Fuel. Why 493 tons ? Because if a Merchant Ship carried over 500 tons they had to pay the crew an extra £ 1 .per month. As deck cargo we carried crated aeroplanes and two hugh locomotives. All this added up to one thing, we were bound for Russia and a very low chance of survival.
We joined a convoy of some sixty ships escorted by six Destroyers and several Corvettes and sailed North West up towards the Denmark Strait. Every night you would hear explosions and sometimes see hugh pillars of fire as some unfortunate merchant ship became a victim of the war in the Atlantic. In the morning you could see gaps in the lines of the convoy before the Royal Navy, acting like any good shepherd, put us all back into a more compact and manageable fleet. We turned South and eventually feeling the weather getting warmer we turned due East and sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar.
Part of our escort now comprised of Submarines.(I have never been able to figure this out). The German planes would sometimes strafe the lines of the convoy with machine gun fire. It was somewhat disconcerting to see the bullets sparking on the steel deck and to know that just below was the 493 tons of Gasoline surrounded by bombs and other firepower. I once had the opportunity to man the Orliken. The only problem was that when the magazine was emptied I didn't know how to reload.
About three days later we tied up in Algiers Harbour. The invasion of North Africa by the Allied troops had begun a few weeks before and we were the second convoy to arrive. For me the gates of the world were opening, this was my first step on foreign soil. When a person has been born and lived all ones life in a city and had very little exposure to the outside world everything one sees and hears is, or rather should be, of interest.To me the harbour and town of Algiers was no exception. At the far side of the dock area there were trees with Lemons growing on them. I had never seen a lemon tree before this. On the dusty streets the arab merchants sat on, or walked beside little carts drawn by donkeys. In the distance we could see the Caspah district. When we docked a British Army officer came on board and we were assembled on deck to hear him tell us of the dangers of visiting various bars and in particular the dangers that lurked in the Caspah. He told us that since the troops had landed there had been 54 murders of soldiers who frequented the Caspah. They had been killed for nothing else but their clothes and their boots.
Naturally the first place a sixteen year old boy made for was the Caspah. Across the Main Square past the Post Office and up a narrow street that wound upwards towards the top of the hill overlooking the town.. The rules were simple, don't go by yourself don't stay in the district after dark, don't get drunk. Passing the darkened doorways many voices call you to buy the many wares offered. The range was from the brassware to the dirty postcards and from the bars to the offers of young girls.
Having sold my old and somewhat dirty raincoat for the princely sum of 200.French Francs, the Second Cook asked me if I would sell his old suit for him. He said he wanted at least 400 Francs. I gave him 400 Francs and considered the extra 400 I received to be payment for the risk.
In port the work of the Galley Boy in peeling potatoes continued in its endless brainless daily task.. The Cook remained drunk most of the time. The saucepans in the racks in the Galley were filled with vino and the Cook always sang songs. He said he always sang so the Old Man would never know if the was drunk or not. The song "When in dreams it seems it's a memory, a memory of old San Antoine" was one of his favourites. Any scraps of food left on plates or scraped from cooking pans was a source of a deal with one of the Arab dock workers. I agreed to save all scraps in a tin and give it to him each night. In exchange he gave me his dagger. I still have that knife. It was made from an Italian bayonet, cut short and inserted into a wooden handle bound with copper wire and inserted into a wood and leather sheath. We discharged our cargo and left Algiers for home, or rather we thought we were going home.
In a small convoy we made our way back to Gibraltar where we lay at anchor for nearly a week and were not allowed ashore. When we eventually steamed out through the Straits in convoy we turned South. This was not the way home. Six days later we were in Freetown Harbour in Sierra Leone .It was hot and sticky and during the three weeks we sat anchored off shore we were only allowed ashore for one afternoon. The Freetown that I saw was a very dirty town, open sewers and unmade roads, dogs roamed everywhere and children played in the rain sodden dirt and filth. I bought a beer that was served in a "glass" made from the bottom half of a bottle. I understand they pour oil into the bottle and then splinter the glass at the level of the oil with a red hot piece of metal. One hot afternoon soon after we arrived, several of the crew dived over the side for a swim. We were very quickly ordered out of the water and threatened with dire punishment. Why ? Because not only did the harbour contain all the effluent from the town, it was home to many sharks. I rate this episode as one of the more stupid thing I have done in my life.
We fished and caught large Catfish. If you boiled all the flesh off the head of the fish the bone structure resembled a crucifix. One afternoon while the Chief Engineer was having his siesta we hooked a fine specimen on his line, by its tail. He was not amused. Several of us caught Malaria in this country which was once known as the white mans grave. Two crew members died from Blackwater fever and I caught a type that remained with me on a recurring basis for many years.
At long last we left Freetown and joined a convoy of 19 ships steaming South. After about three days each ship received their orders as to their destination. Under cover of darkness the convoy was scattered and Captains ordered to maintain radio silence and to steam as fast as they were able if they sighted the smoke of another vessel.. We learnt that this last order was because the pocket battleship "Admiral Sheer" was raiding merchant ships in the South Atlantic. As most of the ships were not capable of any great speed it was a somewhat unnecessary instruction. During the journey South we only saw smoke on the horizon once. The old "Anglo African" did all of her 12 ½ knots that night. The very rivets seemed to shake as we sped along. It was probably another ship of our original convoy but neither ship would ever know.
Being consumed with the never ending task of peeling potatoes and knowing that in the storeroom there were cartons containing tinned potatoes, I evolved a plan to cut down on the hated task. For every spud peeled I threw one over the side. We did eventually run out of potatoes but only within a couple of days of reaching port.
As we entered the Rio de la Plata the Radio Officers were picking up messages and sending our own signals for supplies to be ready on the dock.. Remember we had embarked on what was to be a six week trip two weeks out, two weeks in port, and two weeks home. Now we were already almost twelve weeks from home. In the Rio de la Plata we saw the "Graf Spree" lying scuttled in the main channel within sight of the coast of Montivideo. The Uruguaian and Argentine authorities were both neutral although pro German. All Merchantmen, armed as we were with a 12 pounder and a 3.5, had to remove the breach blocks from the guns and the customs sealed the magazines.
On arrival in Buenos Aires we found that the ship in the next berth to us was flying a swastika on her stern. The British Embassy sent a man to give us instructions as to how we should behave and which bars and establishments were used by the Germans. After the blackouted cities at home and in North Africa it was good to walk through the brightly lit streets of the capital of this vibrant South American city. One night I was with the cook in a bar with a somewhat unsavoury reputation. It was either the Derby Bar or the Colon Bar, in the Passe Colon. (I'm not sure which, but the reputation of both was much the same.) Late in the evening they short changed the Cook who by this time was feeling no pain. His reaction was to pick up the table, full of empty glasses, and hurl it across the room. In the fight that followed (there were other crew members present) the Police arrived and arrested the Cook. Somebody had pushed me into a taxi and returned me to the ship and it was not until I awoke the next morning I had any recollection of the previous nights activity, nor did I know what had happened to my teeth. They were missing from my mouth. Since a ship cannot function without the Cook, the Captain secured his release and after a day in a BA jail cell he was returned to the ship.
The Liberty Inn was a club established for the use of Allied Seamen. It was run by a very large lady named Big Kitty. I think she was a Londoner now living in the Argentine. The evening after the bar episode she served me with a drink and then proceeded to upbraid me, a silly 16 year old boy for drinking, getting drunk, causing disturbances and losing my teeth. At the end of her tirade she said to come to the bar to see her at 10.00 o'clock. At the appointed time I was introduce to an Englishman who presented me with an envelope containing my false teeth. It appears that the teeth had been arrested with the Cook but that this man, who ever he was, had been able to secure their release with further questions.
The shops in Buenos Aires were full of all the things that were either unobtainable or rationed in England. The ship was fumigated while we were in port and we were loaded with hides as was the German ship tied up ahead of us. While we were in Buenos Aires the government of the day (the Ramirez government if I remember correctly) was overturned and I witnessed the riots in the Plaza del Mayo where buses and trams were wrecked and set on fire.
After leaving BA we went to Montevideo to load a cargo of canned dehydrated beef before steaming North back to Freetown. In spite of the fumigating in BA the ship was alive with rats within two or three days at sea. They must have come aboard in the hides. We used to chase them round the deck with clubs of wood and throw their carcases to the sharks that always followed the ship. A convoy was formed at Freetown and we returned to Liverpool some three weeks later.
I had developed a hernia while trying to move a large barrel of flour in the storeroom and left the "Anglo African" after "working by" the ship while other crew members went on leave. I had purchased a large stalk of bananas in Freetown to take home to my Mother and each day I carefully removed any of the overripe fruit. The end result was one banana packed in cotton wool and protected in an empty Bournville cocoa tin sent by mail to Mum. I doubt if she was able to eat this blackened offering. The hernia, which turned out to be a double hernia, was dealt with at Dulwich Hospital. I had had visions of the thing strangulating at sea and the Chief Steward operating on me on the saloon dining table, and reading how to do it from some medical book. About this time I suffered my first recurrent attacks of Malaria. Every third evening about seven o'clock I would start shivering, running a high temperature and singing songs (like "Ten little men with hammers keep hitting me on the head . By eleven o'clock all was normal and I slept all night and awoke the next morning feeling somewhat weak. The funniest thing was when I went to the local cinema and at the appointed time my teeth started to chatter and nothing could be done to stop it. We had to leave the show and go home.. Eventually a visit to the Doctor stopped the evening entertainment by the administration of Quinine tablets. These interludes continued for many years at ever decreasing intervals.
On reporting to the Pool Office in London I was posted to the "Fort St James", a new freighter of some 7,000 tons. I joined the ship as Cabin Boy. Now I was one step up from the bottom.. The ship was in dry dock for repairs to her propeller and as the London Docks were a prime target for the nightly air raids the noise was unbelievable as the anti aircraft guns fired continuously into the air and bombs landed nearby. You felt like a pea being shaken in a tin can.. We left London and travelled up the East Coast to Immingham Docks (near Grimsby). From here we continued up the coast, round the top of Scotland, and into Oban to await a convoy.
A Cabin Boys work started a 6.00am when he balanced and staggered his way up to the bridge with a mug of tea for the First Mate. Washing up the dishes, keeping the pantry clean, cleaning the silver and helping the other Stewards were my main duties.
As the U-Boats were still very active in the Atlantic the convoys travelled vast distances on zig zag courses and so again it was half way to America before turning South and through the Straits of Gibraltar to Port Said. I swam ashore one night and had to wait a long time on the bank to get back to the ship as a playful porpoise was cavorting between me and the ship. They only want to play but in doing so will rub all your skin off with their rough skin. I don't think we went ashore very much as we remained at anchor, some distance from the town for most of the time and had to pay a water taxi to ferry us to the dock.. On one trip ashore the Arab tried to take two of us up some dark waterway and had to be forcibly returned to the main waterway. Mind you, they could not be blamed for attempting to extract compensation from the us, A group of soldiers, sailors or merchant seamen could wreck havoc to their shops and stalls. The main problem was that their means of adjusting the situation was usually somewhat drastic and final. The bum boats would come alongside and a rope would be lowered for the Arab trader to tie to a basket in which he would send up his goods. After a great deal of argument a deal would be struck and the money placed in the basket and lowered to Arab. One day I saw one of the crew, who rightly or wrongly felt he had been swindled, drop a heavy lump of iron straight down into the traders boat.. It went straight through the hull and a column of water shot into the air. Here was an Arab looking for some unfortunate and possibly unsuspecting merchant seaman to wander into a dark alley that night. In the streets the Arabs offered " dirty pictures " for sale. These copies of scantily dressed females were printed in sepia colours on cheap post cards. Production and Art work. circa 1920.
Our cargo of war supplies, shells, bombs, vehicles, etc was discharged onto lighters at Port Said and after about two weeks we steamed South down through the canal. As warships and tankers had a priority of way we were required to stop in the Great Bitter Lakes to make way for these vessels to pass ahead of us. This gave the opportunity to dive off the ship into the crystal clear warm water. In these salt lakes it is almost impossible to drown as you just float on top of the water.
Continuing down through the Red Sea and along the coast of Africa we visited Mombasa and finally docked at Lourenco Marques in Mozambique. We sat alongside the dock in Lourenco Marques for four weeks waiting to load our cargo. Eventually a shipment of coal from the South African mines arrived in big railroad trucks on the dockside. Giant cranes (by l944 standards) lifted each truck and deposited its contents into our holds. We were loaded in 24 hours. On the way back North we again stopped in Mombasa harbour but were not allowed ashore. The local traders came out in their boats and were given permission to spread their wares on top of the hatch covers. One of the items for sale were green parrots in hand made wicker cages and when it came time for the ship to leave one trader was missing one of his parrots.. He was finally ejected from the ship minus his bird and it was not until we discharged cargo that a somewhat flattened parrot was found beneath a heavy crate. A seaman had tossed the cage into the tween decks and while cargo was being stowed a heavy crate had been repositioned..
When I joined my first ship, the "Anglo African" in Liverpool I had purchased a secondhand wind up gramophone together with two records, "Paddy McGintys Goat" and the "Halleluh Chorus" for the sum of £1.. I also bought the "Warsaw Concerto" for 4/-d. In Mombasa I sold the lot for £ 8. Why we were in Cagliari Harbour (in Sardinia) I do not know how but I do know that I was infected by the bugs that infested our bunks and the Harbour Doctor diagnosed Impetigo and Scabies. This meant I could not work or keep company with other crew members. I slept in the wheel house and applied ointment provided. During the day I went ashore and caught a tram (or rather hung onto its sides like the locals) to a sandy beach outside the town and lay in the warm Mediterranean sunshine, dipping in and out of the clear blue warm water. The medication and salt water and sunshine did a quick job and I was back at work in three days.
Our next port of call was Bizerte on the North African coast where our cargo of coal was discharged. Not in 24 hours as it was loaded but two weeks. An endless chain of women worked throughout the day and night shovelling it into wicker baskets, passing it to the next person, out of the hold, up to the deck, across to the side and down to the dockside. I should explain that passage of baskets out of the hold was by way of women standing on crudely made ladders and down to the dock by a series of wooden platforms fastened to the side of the ship.
Outside Bizerete Harbour we joined an American convoy, not to go home, but for the journey to the United States. The convoy comprised of the usual 6O ships but the big difference was the number of escorting warships. Not that this made a great deal of difference as we lost several ships during the Atlantic crossing.
Our destination was Baltimore, Maryland where we picked up a cargo of foodstuffs destined for England. During the two weeks in port I did not go ashore a great deal as a Cabin Boys pay did not go very far on American prices. I went to a movie that started at midnight and when it finished about three in the morning I had Bacon and Eggs in a cafe. Nothing ever seemed to stop or close up. In the foyer of the cinema I put a dime in a drink machine and held out my hand for the expected bottle but received instead a flow of liquid.. I should have seen the paper cups installed on the side of the machine. This is not quite as silly as it appears because these machines were new and not generally known outside the U.S., at that time. Two of our crew ended up in jail after setting fire to the Stars and Stripes hanging outside a Mariners Club. North to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join a convoy for England.
Halifax Harbour presented a strange sight of half ships. During the war the Americans evolved a program to build a ship a day. They were called Liberty Ships and one of the reasons for the speed of construction was that they were welded hulls. The problem was that in rough weather they broke their backs and split in two. Often one half, usually the stern, was towed back to port. We used to say they were only good for 11 trips, 1out and 1 home.
It was an uneventful trip home across the North Atlantic until two days out from Liverpool when a tanker fully laden with Aviation fuel was hit. She was in the next lane to us and I was asleep. The explosion rocked us and I was out of my bunk, into life jacket and up to the lifeboat in seconds. I thought it was us. The tanker completely disappeared. What did annoy me was that a week later the Government announced that during the month there had been no Allied shipping losses in the North Atlantic the previous month. So much for propaganda. Our lifejackets comprised of soft kapok filled jackets that you slipped on like a coat and tied the ribbons at the front. In the pocket of my jacket I carried an airtight tin (a 2oz tobacco tin) which contained a bottle of Chlorodyne, some asprins, sticking plaster and my lucky mascot. The theory being something for the stomach, something for the head and something for cuts.
November 1944 was cold, damp and miserable as the Fort St James left the Mersey with a cargo of war supplies including NAFFI items like cigarettes and whisky for the Far East. I had been promoted to Assistant Steward and could now forget the potatoes and the washing up sink. My job was now to look after the cabins of the three Mates and the three Radio Officers and to serve meals to the Officers in the Saloon. General duties included helping the Chief Steward with the issue of the tea, coffee, sugar, etc and the sale of cigarettes and beer to the crew. One day I decided to make a fancy dessert to make up for some of the offerings supplied from the galley. I asked Fred Teasdale, a 17 stone happy Ships Cook from Hull, to make me some pastry cases. I filled them with tinned fruit and jelly, put them in the Pantry fridge and departed for my afternoon siesta. At three o'clock I found a soggy mess where the jelly had soaked through the pastry. Not withstanding this diaster, ingenuity prevailed. I quickly made another jelly, put it in the freezer, and an hour later chopped the solid jelly into the pastry cases, topped with cream and was duly acclaimed for serving something different.
The Mediterranean was now securely in Allied control and Churchill was attending a meeting in Athens. One night the Mate on watch found the sailor on the wheel was steering due North for the coast of Crete. When questioned he said he wanted to see Churchill. The bottle of lemonade he had in his pocket was in fact full of whisky. The next day a full search of the ship was made and pilfered goods confiscated. The Mate did request the sailors to dispose of empty boxes left in the hold and not take a few bottles from each box. "If you are going to take it, take a box at a time and throw the empty box over the side".
Port Said, through the Canal to Suez and on down the Red Sea to Aden. A few days later we were in Karachi. My only memory of Karachi was walking along a crowded street in the dock area with a Garry (a horse drawn open coach) trotting beside me with the driver offering to take me to all sorts of enjoyment offered to sailors. I eventually got rid of him by giving a sharp jab to the flank of his horse with the point of a penknife. His horse took off and the last I saw of him he was disappearing down the street at a very fast pace. Needless to say I also quickly disappeared from the immediate area. From a sailors viewpoint, in the dock area (which I suppose is the most that is generally seen, by seamen,) the streets were dirty, the people poor and buildings run down. Like all Indian cities (Karachi is of course now ín Pakistan) the sacred cows roam the streets at will and children and beggars hold hands outstretched. The beggars are in many instances badly handicapped in one form or another and present themselves in all manners of grotesque ways. The children accost you calling out "no mama, no papa". You can only reply "no annas" or simply ignore them, as one small offering would bring every child and beggar within miles upon you.
Two days down the coast to Bombay where the balance of our cargo was destined I found a similar city to Karachi, bigger and maybe just a little cleaner. In the evenings you could walk the streets, drink Indian beer or sweet drinks, or strong black coffee in the many bars and cafes. The cafes served many varieties of sweet cakes and ones ears were constantly assailed by loud Indian music.
Leaving Bombay we proceeded in ballast to Mauritius,--- An Island in the Indian Ocean called by Charles Darwin,: " an opulent jewel set in a scintillating sea, " an Island that was a prison for Matthew Flinders, an Island that was home to the now extinct Dodo bird, an Island that held the key to my future.
Port Louis harbour was on the shores of a crystal clear sunlit sea with a background of two high mountain peaks. I remember it as a small rather dirty native village, nothing to see or visit except run down bars. We swam in the warm sea and lighters carried out a cargo of Sugar that was loaded into our holds.
After two weeks we sailed for Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). One day out from Colombo I went sick with a very high temperature and was suspected a suffering from an attack of my recurring Malaria. When we arrived in port the Port Doctor recommended that I be sent ashore to Hospital for a few days. It was very hot in my small cabin and a constant noise from the donkey engines working the derricks unloading the bags of sugar was not the place for a sick man. The date was 11th March.1945. I was taken by launch and car to the Colombo General Hospital and put into a cool clean bed in the Memorial Ward. There must now be a gap in the story as the events of the next few days are obscure, forgotten or maybe never consciously known. From the medical notes it appears that I had fever and headache together with pain in joints. The usual fever would subside on third day. but this fever continued. The diagnosis was Anterior Poliomyelitis.(Polio) At first I was not told what was wrong with me. T The Doctors did not tell me, but during a visit to the Hospital by Lady Mountbatten, the Doctor was asked what was wrong with this patient. Now I knew.
Two Tamil boys were assigned to look after me at all times. Sidde Wadderman was the dayboy and the other the night boy. The night boy slept on the floor under my bed. One of Sidde's duties was to take me to the bathroom and place me in a salt bath each day. He was not very strong and one day dropped me on the floor as he lifted me out of the wheel chair. I was not very heavy, as I had lost about 15 kilos in weight One problem that developed was that Sidde did not use knives and forks, etc and he himself did not eat European food. He therefore was not at all sure how to feed me. The result was that I would receive all the potato first then all the greens followed by all the meat. To remedy this situation I requested eggs on toast for all meals. So it was two eggs for breakfast, two for lunch and two for dinner. After a week of this the Sister (a European) came and fed me and gave the boy a few lessons.
In Ceylon I was given treatment in accordance with the Kenny treatment developed by an Australian, Sister Kenny. A form of treatment that involved keeping all limbs moving and not allowing any form of immobilisation. Siddi would lift me into a wheel chair and take me down to the wall alongside the road where I could watch the ever-changing scene. Beggars, children, saffron clothed Monks and people, people, always more people.. The Merchant Navy Comforts Fund kept me well supplied with cigarettes and I was able to contribute to the boy's meagre wages with gifts of tins of 50. Wills Woodbines.
My Medical notes read "He was repatriated to the United Kingdom as a cot case." I was taken to the docks and out into the harbour. They then strapped me in a stretcher, lowered a rope or chain from the deck and having hooked the stretcher onto the chain "loaded " me onboard. I remember thinking " what if the rope breaks". A watery grave at the bottom of Colombo Harbour.
The ship was the 22,000 ton "Reina del Pacifico". a troop ship bound for England. I think somebody made a mistake when allocating quarters as I was installed in the Officers section. I think my status of 2nd Steward had been mistaken for that of 2nd Lieutenant. Two days out an Army Officer in a bunk near me died from Typhus. The entire ward was placed in quarantine and a section of the outside deck allocated exclusively for our use.
The war in Europe ended during the trip home but during the time we were crossing the Indian Ocean I was not at all happy at the thought of being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and not being able to do anything for myself. We arrived in Liverpool about 12th June.1945. My pay stopped. This was the end of a short, but happy career at sea during the latter years of World War 2.
Footnote as at 25th October.2003.
For 58 years I have been attempting to obtain a Disability Pension from the British Government, but they still maintain that it was a normal occupational hazard and not a war risk injury. An eigthteenth century poet wrote:
God and our sailors we adore,
When danger threatens, not before.
When dangers over both are requited
God forgotten, sailor slighted.
I was a 16 1/2 yr old boy who volunteered to be trained as a merchant marine seaman in October 1944 by the U.S. Maritime Service. My first ship was a Liberty ship that sailed in a convoy from New York city to Liverpool, England. The convoy was attacked by German submarines but we made it okay. Our second voyage from NYC went to Swansea, Wales thence to Cherbourg,France alongside German submarine pens where we loaded 500 German POWs which were bound for the U.S.A.. When we were north of the Azore Islands, the ship encountered a hurricane and the ship's crew had to lock the hatch to the hold where the POWs were in as there were not enough life boats or rafts for them and our crew plus the Navy Armed Guards. After 5 days, the ship came thru it okay. We off loaded the POWs in NYC.
My next ship was a Tanker that loaded up with P-38 fighter aircraft on the main deck and avgas at Texas City, Texas. We went thru the Panama Canal and out to the Pacific Islands unescorted where we unloaded the planes & avgas. On the way back to the Panama Canal, we heard on the radio about the atomic bombs being dropped. After passing thru the canal, the Japanese and Germany surrendered. I continued being a seaman until October 1946 when I returned to high school in Oledo,Ohio.
I served in the Merchant Navy from 1938 to 1949. At the outbreak of WW2 I was aboard the SS "Otranto" one of the Orient Line ships, which was laying off Port Moresby. New Guinea.The ship was ordered back to Sydney, Australia, where all passengers disembarked. The ship was painted a drab battleship grey,guns were mounted before we sailed for Britain,carrying many army/navy personnel.
A short time after our arrival in UK, we again sailed for Australia,on this occasion we left Sydney Harbour with the first contingent of Australian troops en route for Lake Timsah in the Bitter Lakes, Suez.Where our Captain Baxter greeted Anthony Eden (Foreign Secretary)Our departure from Sydney was a most memorable and emotional event. "Gracie" of the Palms night-club in Sydney sang "The Maoris Farewell" (Now is the hour)from a small boat with a megaphone. Small tugs, along with numerous other boats sounded their hooters and sirens "bidding their lads, good luck" Our ship was one of a huge convoy of over 20 liners to sail for Suez Canal. I sailed in various convoys aboard different ships, (of which four were subsequently sunk)these voyages included crossing the Atlantic,and partaking in Russian convoy. I survived WW2 and consider myself an extremely lucky individual. One ship I left in Hull was torpedoed off N. Ireland the following voyage, with all hands. I am hoping to have my book published sometime this year, entitled, "Seeing the world thro' a porthole" I dedicated my book to those many "Shipmates" with whom I shared their lives, their anguish and joys, so many perished and have only a watery grave "somewhere"
I am proud to wear my M. N. Lapel badge, and to have shared so many happy memories with those "Shipmates" despite there having been a war in progress.
Gilbert John Townsend
CHRISTMAS IN AMERICA
The British Faith was my second ship. I had been a Deck Boy on the previous ship, and I was about to find out that the life and job of a deck boy on a tanker is very different to the life and job of a deck boy on a troop ship which had been my last job. I was sent to Birkenhead from the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool in Liverpool to sign on the M.V.British Faith on a cold, wet, November afternoon in 1942. After the hustle and bustle of a large passenger ship, going aboard a relatively small tanker which had just been laid up for repairs was a doleful experience.
Birkenhead Docks in November is a cheerless place, or so it seemed to me at that time. The ship was high out of the water, I lugged my case and kit bag up the gangway, and on to the after deck. As it happened, the first person I spoke to was the Bosun, he directed me to the Seamen's Fo'c'sle, which was on the starboard side for'ard. When I entered the fo’c’sle, there were other crew members already there. I soon had my duties spelled out to me. I was to be the Seamen's “Peggy”. My primary duties were to bring the food from the galley, wash up the dishes, and to keep the messroom and fo’c’sle in a clean condition at all times. I was directed to the bunk that was to be mine. No choice, just “That's your bunk kid”. It was the top bunk, furthest for'ard, on the outboard side of the fo’c’sle, and next to a porthole.
We left Birkenhead that evening, the ship took in ballast, to put us lower in the water. For docking purposes, my station was aft. I was to appreciate this later. Being winter, it was always cold, but whilst waiting for the ship to manoeuvre alongside, we could stand in the engine room fidley, which was always nice and warm. It was whilst stood in the doorway that I learned that a motor ship is actually started with a blast of compressed air. When the telegraph rang, there would be a huge belch of compressed air, which I suppose overcomes the inertia of the propeller until the diesel combustion process takes over. Then the tall, slotted air intakes - one to each cylinder - would shake and rattle until the propeller shaft was turning smoothly. I was fascinated.
We made our way from the River Mersey, to the River Clyde, where we waited for other ships with which we would form a convoy. I think we stayed in the Clyde for a few days, during which time the sailors erected huge wind sails in some of the tanks to ventilate them. One sailor tried to tell me that these were used sometimes as a means of helping the ship along in order to conserve fuel! He didn't fool me. I knew they couldn't work whilst we had the anchor down!
Eventually we got under way, and out into the North Atlantic. Word soon spread that New York was to be our destination. I was elated. At last I would see all those wonderful sights we saw in the pictures, and hear real Americans speak! For the first week out from the U.K., whilst we were still within range of air attack, ALL deck department personnel, had to do a gun watch. This included even me! We had D.E.M.S. gunners aboard, but they were just not enough to man all the guns all of the time. Again, I was quite excited, and saw myself shooting them down like flies. An hour on watch in the freezing gun pit soon put paid to those images! For my first watch, I was put in a pit with a single gun which really looked no more than a Le Enfield rifle mounted on a pole with some armour plate just big enough to cover me as I stood. From memory, I was told it was a Hotchkiss gun. I had never heard of them before - nor since! Readers should be aware that this was 1942, and there were still ships that had not yet been fitted with the more up to date Oerlikon gun which was to become the standard. The gunner showed me what to do to fire the gun. It had a bolt action which could be set for either single shots or `rapid fire'. The bullets were contained in a brass belt, with a hinge at about every third bullet. The gunner told me that should the gun jamb, I should let it go, and make myself as small as possible in the gun pit!
The next gun pit I was allocated to contained guns just as ancient. This one had twin guns mounted on a swivel. I think they were Vickers or Browning. They had fluted barrels with what I thought were water-cooling hoses attached. I only spent one watch on these, then it was back to the Hotchkiss. With the poor weather, it was almost impossible to walk around the gun pit to keep warm. I was frozen stiff for most of the time. I doubt whether my fingers could have fired the gun had it been necessary! After one week of this, the thought of a return to messroom duties seemed almost exotic by comparison. We kept the same vigil on our return journey.
After about three weeks of constant movement, I awoke one morning to that eerie silence which is the difference from being at sea, to being in port. I hadn't even woke up when the anchor went down! I almost fell out of my bunk, got speedily dressed, and went out to have a look. It was still dark - it was about 6.45 AM, and it was about mid December. But there it was - the Great City itself! There was a tender alongside, and I could hear real American accents! Boy, this was really living! In my pitifully naive imagination, I could see Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Betty Grable et. al. walking down Broadway, smiling at all and sundry - myself among the sundry. Then back to the voice of reality – “Hey kid, where’s that seven bells' breakfast?”
We up anchored, and left New York that day. We joined a coastal convoy from which we were to drop off at Delaware Bay for Philadelphia, and a load of aviation fuel. There had been a lot of `U' boat activity at that time on the East Coast of America. (I have read since that that particular period was called “The Happy Time” by the U Boat commanders!) We were given a substantial escort, including a U.S.Navy Airship! This would come out, hover around for some time, then go back to base. As it happened, it wasn't the Germans who put our nose out of joint. We successfully grounded the ship in Delaware Bay. This was fortuitous, because it meant that instead of going to Marcus Hook in Philadelphia as planned, we had to go hard a port into a canal which took us to Baltimore, where the ship had to be dry docked for inspection.
Since Christmas was only a week or so away, no one had any arguments with that! We tied up at the huge Bethlehem Steel Shipyards, where Liberty ships were turned out by the dozen. We could see all the ship parts lying on the shore, all ready for installation on the next ship. There were rudderposts, rudders, anchors and propellers by the dozen. Miles of anchor chain, all laid out, and ready to be hauled aboard the next ship. My first night ashore almost turned into a disaster. In keeping with my naivety with all things American, I wanted a Ronson Cigarette Lighter. Well, Spencer Tracy used them, and that was good enough for me! At that time, the English pound was worth four American dollars, and a few cents. I had drawn out two pounds ten, which gave me just over ten dollars. Move over Rupert Murdoch!
I went ashore with the Ordinary Seaman. At sixteen, he was a year older than me. We walked along the silent quayside, knee deep in snow. The guard on the gate was most cheery. At that time, English people were `flavour of the month' over there. What with the blitz, and everything. In fact, had we but known, pieces of bomb shrapnel which were common enough in England, were selling for about $5 in the U.S. If one was lucky enough to have a piece with German writing on, (which hadn't actually killed one!) then the price was considerably higher! We were hardly out of the gates when a hearty voice called over “Hi there you guys, wanna lift?” Did we ever! He had a big black car, and we were invited to “jump in” The conversation was full of praise for the war effort, he was constantly telling us how brave the Brits were.
Before long, he pulled up in a brightly-lit street, and opened the door for us. “Most of your guys come here for their clothes when they come ashore” he said indicating a large shop. Not wishing to be discourteous we followed him in. Then the “Big Sell” began. Not that the stuff was rubbish, far from it. It was just that, well, we really hadn't intended buying those things at this time! He had (Levi) dungarees with rivets and triple stitching at a dollar (five bob) a pair. (Anything up to $100 these days!) The price was not all that much different from U.K., but they were the REAL THING, i.e., American!! We were, as they say, putty in his hands. About fifteen minutes later, we left the shop, each with a large parcel, and MUCH lighter pockets. We hadn't been robbed, we hadn't been cheated, all the clothes were of excellent quality. We had been manoeuvred. It was just that almost without our realising it, our priorities had been changed for us. I think we had a couple of dollars each left, so we had a cup of coffee and a doughnut each, then found our way back to the ship.
The ship was ‘run down’ ready for dry-docking. We had no heat, or light, and the condensation in the fo'c'sle turned to ice on the bulkheads. We had to sleep fully dressed! Later we were sent ashore, and put up in the Baltimore Hotel. Undreamed of luxury!! Taffy, (the Ordinary Seaman) and myself were a little bit more cagey when we went ‘ashore’ from the hotel. We went to the Missions to Seamen where we were given a wonderful meal for a few cents. A lady came from the office, and offered us free cinema tickets.
The Americans really couldn't do enough for us. On Christmas Day, through the Missions to Seamen, we were invited to dinner with a couple who had two children and lived on the outskirts of Baltimore. We were even given free tram tickets to get there. The people were kindness itself, but on reflection, I think they were expecting two older “men” who possibly, could have provided a more mature conversation than we were capable of. As it was, Taffy and I were only a few years older than their own children, and we paid rather more attention to watching our `P's and `Q's than trying to make interesting conversation. Our hosts were exceptionally nice, and had wrapped a small gift each for us. I had a small wallet and a carton of “Lucky Strike” cigarettes (I wasn't legally old enough to smoke!) Sadly, I lost the wallet some time later, and in it the address of the people who treated us so kindly that Christmas.
We eventually loaded up with aviation spirit at Philadelphia and made our way out to the Atlantic where we joined a convoy bound for England. After about three weeks in America, there were several things that I had grown to like. Commercial radio (practically unheard of in England at that time) was not one of them. We were not allowed radios in our quarters, so we were dependent upon the Radio Operator tuning in the ship's radio. As the miles between the U.S.A. and us increased, so mercifully the blare of commercial radio decreased, and the sanity of the BBC News and Forces Favourites took over again!
We arrived in Swansea without incident in early February. I tried my best not to speak with an American accent when we went ashore, but then, with accents like one hears in Wales, who would have known the difference? (PS. I eventually married a Welsh girl, and lived there for nearly twenty years. Both my children are Welsh. I seem to be the foreigner in the family!)
How many of us remember the first time we wrapped our grubby little fingers around the spokes of a ship's steering wheel? I don't mean those occasions when, as deck boys if we chanced to be working in or near the wheelhouse whilst the ship was safely tied up in port, we would surreptitiously stand at the wheel, imagining that we were actually steering the ship. I mean the "real thing" when after a few days, weeks, even months if the voyage was long enough, we finally talked one of the AB's who happened to be on the twelve to four watch on a Saturday afternoon to ask the second mate if the deck boy could have a few minutes at the wheel during the watch.
My own "first time" was a never-to-be-forgotten disaster. It took place on the same ship that I wrote about above. I was a deck boy on the MV British Faith. We had loaded aviation fuel in Philadelphia, and were part of a homeward bound convoy in January 1943. For this Saturday afternoon in particular, the weather must have been relatively mild, otherwise I feel sure that I would never have been allowed near the wheel. Jock was a softly spoken AB who often went out of his way to explain things to me. It had not occurred to me to ask about having a turn at the wheel until he mentioned it. I suppose that everyone has to start somewhere. Jock said he would ask the second mate (twelve to four watch) if I could come up there on the next Saturday if the weather was decent. Sure enough, Jock arranged for me to go to the wheelhouse on the next Saturday afternoon at two thirty. I suppose that even in wartime, and in convoy, people have to learn to steer, otherwise there would have been a severe shortage of capable helmsmen before too long.
Saturday afternoon came around, the weather was reasonably decent, (there were no waves breaking over the fo'c's'le head!) I finished clearing up the dinner things and made everything ready for "smoko" tea at three o'clock. I wanted everything to be right so that no one would be asking, "Where's that bloody peggy?" I put on my best pair of dungarees, - now called "jeans" - and a big woolly jersey - I had been told I would be cold, standing at the wheel for some time. I had also been told I would only be at the wheel for about ten minutes for the first time. I took the large brown teapot to the galley, all ready to be filled with hot water and taken to the mess on my way back from my first steering lesson. I was most anxious that I should not be seen to be neglecting my "Peggy boy" duties for such frivolous things as learning to steer!
At the prescribed time I presented to the second mate and humbly asked if I could have a turn on the wheel, as "Jock was willing to teach me" The second mate was a big man, and without a word to me he put his head into the wheelhouse, (he had been on the wing of the bridge) and said to Jock "Here he is Jock, keep an eye on him!" Jock went to some lengths to explain to me about the 'midships spoke, (the one with the brass cap, or sometimes the "Turk's Head" on), and the amount of helm she was taking at that time. Since it was my first time at the wheel, he also went on to explain in as much detail as he thought I could absorb about the relationship between the "Lubbers Line", (the mark on the brass rim of the compass, or sometimes, a little pointer fixed inside the compass denoting the ship's head,) and the mark on the compass card (number of degrees) which was the given course. He also explained to me that although we were in convoy, we were steering a given course, and not "keeping the ship ahead fine on the port bow" or whatever.
I eventually stood at the wheel of the ship and felt myself to be the most important person in the world, being responsible for steering this load of about five or six thousand tons of aviation fuel back to Britain single-handed! (I think the British Faith could be carried with ease on part of the fore deck of one of today's supertankers!) Jock stood at my side, keeping a fatherly eye on my efforts. As the ship swung off course slightly, he was there to advise on how much helm to apply to "bring her back on course". Each time the head swung away two or three degrees, say to port, I would apply two or three spokes of wheel to starboard until I could "feel" (and of course, see) the ship answering the helm. At the crucial moment, I would 'midships the wheel, and watch for the next swing away from the prescribed course. A quick look at the ship ahead confirmed that it was still "fine on the port bow" where it was supposed to be. I felt great! This was real power! After what only seemed like a few moments, the second mate popped his head into the wheelhouse and asked, "How's he doing Jock?" Jock was pleased to reply that I was doing fine. The second mate then told Jock he could go and have a smoke for a few minutes. I felt ten feet tall!
Jock had only been gone a few moments when I started to get confused between the movement of the lubber's mark and the compass card. As the ship swung say to port, the compass card (which actually remains "still") appeared to be swinging to starboard. I immediately put on port helm, making the situation much worse. I was so engrossed in what was going on within the binnacle that I didn't hear the second mate rush into the wheelhouse. I soon felt his weight as he shouldered me off the wheel yelling a few choice epithets ending up with "Get Jock up here straight away". As I left the wheelhouse, I could see that the ship was out of line, but gently swinging back on course. The second mate had been keeping a watchful eye on my steering, so I had not been allowed to stray too far. I was devastated, and went aft to the galley where Jock, oblivious to the drama, was having a quiet smoke. I told him what had happened, but he was off before I had finished. No damage had been done, even the other man on watch who was on lookout, had not noticed anything untoward. Jock kept it quiet, so I was allowed to live down my own "shame".
The next time I stood at the wheel of a ship was "for real", - and more than a year later. The ship I was on in the intervening year was the "Highland "Brigade". I was an Ordinary Seaman on her, but she carried quartermasters, so not even the AB's had to steer. On April 1 1944, I joined the S.S.St.Clears as a "Senior Ordinary Seaman". We had aeroplanes (in boxes) on top of all hatches, and a giant steam train on either side of the fore deck. Plus two more steam engines, one on either side of the after deck. We were bound for Abadan, and the cargo would be taken from there overland by rail, to Russia. As a senior ordinary seaman, I was expected to take my turn at the wheel. The subject of my ability at the wheel just never arose. It was assumed that as a senior ordinary seaman, I "had the knowledge". We left Liverpool and joined a large convoy. Bound, as we discovered, for Abadan via Port Said and the Suez Canal. Whatever had happened to me in the intervening year I can't say, but my steering, without any further coaching turned out to be at least, OK Having had one disastrous experience, I was better armed to avoid another!
After about three weeks at sea, we arrived at Port Said, and duly took our place in the queue of ships in the southbound convoy to Port Tewfik at the other end of the Canal. All sorts of stories went around about Canal Pilots who sent down helmsman after helmsman until the entire deck department had been tried. In our case at least, such stories remained just that, - stories! I took my turn at the wheel, and was overjoyed at the experience. Here was me, not yet seventeen, steering this lot through this famous waterway, I could hardly believe it! It was a wonderful experience, sailing as it were, through the desert with groups of British soldiers every few miles along the banks, in gun emplacements, calling out to us to throw out any old firewood! Nights are cold in Egypt! After the Canal came the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Shat al Arab River to Abadan. By this time, I even considered myself to be "experienced". Steering ships in these confined waterways never ceased to be a thrill for me. After Abadan came Karachi, Mombassa, and Dar es Salaam. I have travelled these waterways many times since, but the experience of steering a large ship through them never ceased to thrill me.
The largest ship I ever steered was the "Empress of Scotland". Liverpool to Quebec with returning Canadian soldiers in September 1945. Four days for the voyage each way, at a speed of some twenty odd knots. Using a Gyrocompass, we were allowed about two degrees "latitude" off course. More than that and a red light flashed in the wheelhouse, warning the helmsman that "big brother" was watching! If one was careless enough to stray about five degrees off course, then a bell rang out, telling all and sundry that the helmsman was asleep.
The nicest steering experience was steering a "Liberty" ship up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal in the summer of 1947. On liberty ships, there is a duplicate wheel on the Monkey Island which can quite easily be connected. Steering a liberty ship from such a high vantage point whilst travelling at a steady ten knots up this most beautiful waterway was unforgettable. The weather was hot, but up on the Monkey Island, we had the benefit of a cooling breeze. The pilot would give the helmsman a landmark to keep "fine on the port bow" or whatever, and retire to the wing of the bridge. I felt as if I was steering my private yacht up there! Of course, to offset all this grandiloquent rhetoric are those countless, boring hours one has spent whilst on the wheel, gazing almost mesmerised into the little cavity of the binnacle, the large brass dome which contains the Compass, or listening to the chatter of the gyro compass as it signals yet another departure from the straight and narrow. All this whilst one is trying to take one's mind off the boring subject of steering the ship whilst one is thinking about the beautiful girl friend one was chatting up in the last port of call.
"Here you are son." Bert had to shout to be heard above the combined din of the weather outside, and the continual throb of the ship's engines directly below his galley. "If they want any "afters," they will have to come for it themselves." Bert Wheeler was the ship's cook, and where the handling of food was concerned, his word was law. The "they" in his statement referred to the sailors for whom I, as a Deck Boy, had to fetch and carry at meal times. I was the sailor's "Peggy."
The place was mid North Atlantic, and the time was December 1942. A gale was blowing, which even by North Atlantic standards was severe. We were part of a convoy of some forty odd ships bound for New York. The ship, The M.V.British Faith was a fairly ancient tanker, built sometime in the 1920's. It had no shelter decks, and my journeys back and forth from the mess room to the galley had to be made via the very exposed flying bridge. Even in ballast, the old ship sat so low in the water her decks were almost continually awash, making my job - even with "one hand for myself, and one for the ship" - a health hazard!
The prevailing conditions of gale force winds and mountainous seas, of decks constantly awash with hundreds of tons of water, made the spray almost as lethal as buckshot. Because of this, my journeys along the flying bridge, whether carrying food or not, were not always in the best interests of my general health and welfare, nor, as you can imagine, to the edibility of the food by the time it reached the mess room table! These circumstances, although entirely beyond my control, often presented some of the less mature sailors with all the justification they needed to make my life even more miserable than did the elements! Bert the cook was a kindly man. After a previous incident in which I had been forced to abandon the food to the sea in order to save myself from the possibility of being washed overboard, he had made a rule that during such lousy weather he would only allow me to make one trip per meal with food. If the sailors wanted their "afters" and hot water for tea and washing up, they would have to come to fetch it themselves. Sentiments need I add, with which I wholeheartedly - although secretly - agreed.
On several occasions during that trip, when I had returned to the galley for the rest of the sailors' meal, Bert would just put a plate of food for me on the galley table, and tell me to "get stuck into that." No amount of protest on my part would shift him, he would just say, "They will be down in a minute," and usually, they were! Some of them didn't like it, but Bert was a good cook. I don't think they wanted to get on the wrong side of him.
When presenting for duty in such weather, I probably looked a slightly ridiculous figure. All five foot three of me. I wore thigh boots which were kept up by rope yarns tied to my belt. I wore a huge oilskin coat which was brand new, and was as stiff as a board. I had to gather the coat around my waist with a short length of thin rope. Otherwise I'm sure that, had the wind got under it, I would have become airborne! I could not afford the niceties of an oilskin with elasticated cuffs, so I had to have someone tie the sleeve ends with rope yarns to prevent the discomfort of water blowing up my arms, and again, possible lift off! To cap it all, I wore a large sou'wester which would have done justice to a John West Salmon advert, tied firmly under my chin. All of which protective clothing, essential as it was to my general well being, lessened my agility, which did not help my on-going contest with the elements. After many days of such weather, I became proficient at timing my runs along the flying bridge to avoid further disasters with the sailors' food. I'm sure you've all done it.
From the relative safety of the leeward side of the bridge housing, I would watch the bow lunging in and out of the waves, and each resultant wall of water crashing over the windlass. Even as the last wave was breaking over the windlass, I would be up and running, kits swinging as little as possible. Across the fore part of the bridge, on to the flying bridge. As the bow would be pointing to the sky, and perpendicular to the horizon, (wherever THAT may have been), I would be rounding the mast, and heading like a bat out of hell for the fo'c's'le head, turning round to whichever was the leeward side, down the ladder, and into the safety of the fo'c's'le. All this, one hoped, without spilling a drop of soup!!!. I became adept at dodging, but never contemptuous of the elements. Should I have mistimed my run on any occasion, I risked the very real danger of being caught by a wall of water, and hurled down to the deck below like a bag of rags. The sailors would then have had to have collected their own lunch!!! Despite the very real dangers inherent in exposure to such weather, there is a certain excitement in watching the on-going struggle between the ship and nature. To say that watching the continuing struggle between the ship and the elements was breathtaking, or even magnificent, is almost an understatement. Probably because, lurking in the back of one's mind was the thought that any one of those waves could quite easily have achieved the unthinkable...
Bert Wheeler. Cook extraordinaire. Probably mid thirties. Short on stature, tall in humanitarian principles. Balding. Invariably a smile. If he was married, I hope he had children. I'm sure he would have been an excellent father. I hope you achieved your cafe in Weymouth after the war, Bert!
John O'Hara. Bos'un. About 40. Accent as Irish as a shillelagh. Shaved now and then. Red to purple face. Good at his job. Worked like a Navvy and expected everyone else to do the same. Attitude to me quite good.
Jock. A.B. I'm sure he had a surname, but I never knew it. Man in his 50's. Kindly disposition. Softly spoken. Always considerate toward me. Liked his Scotch.
Gordon Sollors: Peggy, Sometime Deck Boy, Ordinary Seaman, E.D.H., and Able Seaman.
In those days, I was from the U.K. For the last thirty years have lived in Australia. Would like to hear of or from Mr.Francis Whiting of Tamworth NSW. He was an Ordinary Seaman on the S.S.Marvia with me in 1944-5. We paid off in Malta in April 1945. Last seen at Princess Landing Stage, Liverpool.
Article on Tom Barron for his family - 12 May 2001
It has been remarked upon before, so this is not an original thought, that decisions we sometimes make, small and insignificant in themselves though they may be, often have consequences far beyond those which we might have foreseen. Such was a decision that I made in the summer of 1999. It led to a poem published in a local newspaper, correspondence leading to Australia, and a visit to a church in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire. It was that summer that my wife and I in Portsmouth for a few days holiday decided to visit the Submarine museum at Gosport.
During World War 2 four of my boyhood friends lost their lives in the Royal Navy; HMS Barham, HMS Repulse, HMS Nigeria and, or so I thought, HM Submarine Thunderbolt. The 'Thunderbolt' was the salvaged, and renamed 'Thetis' which sank off Liverpool whilst on trials in June 1939 with almost her entire crew and the dockyard staff who were on board for the trials. I was convinced that my friend Tommy Barron went down on the 'Thunderbolt' when she was sunk by an Italian corvette off Sicily on 13 March 1943.
What convinced me of that I do not know. Having been boyhood friends, we were brought up on the Grove Hill council estate in Middlesbrough, a few hundred yards apart, it was inevitable that when by chance we were on leave together that we would meet and go around together for that leave. Tom was in submarines then and perhaps we talked about the 'Thunderbolt'. Whatever the reason, when I next came home on leave and I learned that Tom was missing, presumed killed, I was convinced that he went down with the 'Thunderbolt'.
And so we come to that day in 1999 that I visited the submarine museum. In the museum there is a book which visitors can look through, which contains the names of all the British submarines that were sunk in World War 2 and the names of their crews. Naturally I looked up the 'Thunderbolt' and was astonished not to find Tom's name there. When I returned home I wrote to the museum. Mrs Margaret Bidmead the Keeper of the Archives was an absolute treasure. She provided me with a lot of information which I will include in this article, and a two page extract from a book 'Beneath the Waves' by A.S.Evans.
Briefly; Tom was on HM Submarine P514. This was an American submarine, built in 1918, which was transferred in March 1942 to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease Agreement of 1941. On the 20th June 1942 P514 put to sea from the fishing village of Argentia on Canada's Eastern seaboard, en route to St John's in Newfoundland and escorted by the flower class corvette 'HMS Primrose'.
On the same day the Canadian minesweeper, 'HMCS Georgian' sailed from St John's at 10.30 am to meet an incoming convoy. There were reports of two U-boats in the vicinity. During the early hours of June 21st with visibility down to about 400 yards and P514 on the surface the Canadian minesweeper picked up the sound of a submarine. Unaware of the presence of P514 and not receiving a response to a challenge with a blue night lamp, she rammed the submarine sinking her with all hands.
This information, discounting my previous belief, had a strong emotional effect upon me and I put my feelings into a poem, 'No Reprise' which I sent to the poetry editor of the local Evening Gazette in the hope that it would be published and perhaps somebody in Tom's family might see it, and get some solace from it. It was published and was seen, not by a member of Tom's family, but a close friend of the family, Mrs Nichols who got in touch with me. We met at my house. She told me that two of Tom's brothers had emigrated to Australia and that she wanted my permission to send them a copy of the poem. Tom's sister, who had remained in Middlesbrough, had died.
In 1998, Mrs Nichols and her husband had visited Tom's brother Clifford in West Australia. They noticed a photograph of a Royal Navy seaman on display and Mr Nichols enquired who it was. He was told that it was Tom who had lost his life on a submarine in world war 2. And so, by these coincidences the lives of Clifford Barron, Mr and Mrs Nichols and myself, who had been previously unaware of each other, crossed. I gave Mrs Nichols copies of all the information that I had gathered and she sent it to Clifford Barron. He wrote to me including a photograph of Tom, copies of the letters from Buckingham Palace and the Commodore of Chatham Naval Barracks which was Tom's depot, to Tom's parents. Also a copy of a letter Tom had written to his sister. These are all attached below. He also told me that the family of Lieutenant Phillimore had dedicated a window to him in their local church, St Mary's Church, Swinbrook. My wife and I visited the church. There is a plaque on the wall "To the honoured memory of the Officers and ship's company of HM Submarine P514" with details of the tragedy. It refers to "her Commanding Officer Lieut. Walter Augustus Phillimore Royal Navy". There surely is some confusion here as the official list of P514's crew shows Lieutenant Commander RME Pain to be the Commanding Officer.
From Mrs Bidmead, the Keeper of the Archives at the museum I received a copy of Tom's record in submarines. These show that Leading Signalman Thomas Barron, C/JX 145688 joined submarines on 29.4.'41. His record card shows that he passed the Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus on 17 April 1941. He had joined HMS Dolphin, the submarine depot in Gosport in a training class on the second of April and on the 29th, already mentioned above, he is recorded as being 'additional crew'. On the 14th of May he is 'spare crew' at HMS Cyclops, a depot ship at Rothesay and on the first of July he joined HM Submarine Sunfish. His card also shows him in the shore base HMS Elfin at Blyth. My guess is that he was undergoing training on the 'Sunfish'. On the 28th November 1941 he is shown as back at Dolphin as additional crew. On the first of February 1942 he is spare crew at Saker 11, an accommodation address in New York for persons standing by ships being built or repaired in the USA during WW2. From Saker 11 he is next shown as being on HMS P514. Clearly he had travelled to the USA to stand by the P514 which was transferred to the Royal Navy in March. The next entry on the card is D-D 21-6-42
The 21 June 1942 is the date that P514 was sunk. Tom was promoted to Leading Signalman (Temporary) on 19.9.40, that is to say, one year before he volunteered for submarines.
From Mac Brodie the membership secretary of the HMS Ganges Association I learned that Tom joined HMS Ganges, the boys' training establishment at Shotley in Suffolk on 3 September 1935 and was in Rodney Division, 240 class, 15 mess. His instructor was Yeoman Price. All Ganges boys know that Rodney Division was located in 'the long covered way'. Leading Signalman Thomas Barron 12 April 1920 - 21 June 1942
I would like to thank and acknowledge the following for the assistance that they gave me in acquiring this information.
Mrs Margaret Bidmead, Keeper of the Archives at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum; Mrs B.Nichols; Clifford Barron; Reverend Richard Coombs St Mary's Church, Swinbrook; Mac Brodie Ganges Association; Clive Watts Ganges Association.
Buckingham PalaceGeorge R.I.
Letter of condolence from King George to Mrs. A. Barron
The Queen and I offer you our heartfelt sympathy in your great sorrow. We pray that your country's gratitude for a life so nobly given in its service may bring you some consolation.
27th June 1942
It is with very deep regret that I have to inform you that your son, Thomas Barron, (Leading Signalman, Temporary, C/JX 145688), has been reported as missing, presumed killed, while on war service, 21st June 1942. In order that information may be denied to the enemy, it is not at present possible to make public details of the operations during which your son became a casualty and I must ask you, therefore, to refrain from disclosing to those who do not already know it, the name of your son's ship, and to regard as confidential until such time as an official announcement can be made, anything beyond the fact that your son is missing, presumed killed, on war service. There can, I fear, be no hope that your son is still alive and I should, therefore, like to express, on behalf of the officers and men of the Royal Navy, the high traditions of which your son helped to maintain, sincere sympathy with you in your sad bereavement. I am, Madam,
Letter from Tom Barron to his sister.Ldg.Sig.T.BarronTommy. xx
HM Submarine "P514"
c/o GPO London
May 29th 1942
Just a few lines to say all is well over here, and of course, hoping you are all OK over there. I have a new hobby now, photograph painting, and I am really an expert at it now. Have you seen John lately and how is Little John keeping? I will be sending him a parcel of clothes when I get paid next so look out for them soon.
By the way you do not say whether you have received my first parcel yet. If you haven't I will send you another one, but I hope it hasn't got lost as it is pretty valuable. Have you and Blanche been to any dances just lately, I have seen some marvellous dance bands over here, I guess they have nothing to touch it at home.
Well Dot, I am having quite a good time where I am but I guess that after all there's no place like Home, and I am looking forward to going to St Chads with you all again soon, anyhow I guess I can go so far as to say I hope to be home again around Christmas. So till the next time I will say Cheerio, so write soon.
Your Loving Brother,
Plaque in St Mary's Church, Swinbrook, Oxfordshire.To the honoured memory of the Officers and Ship's company of HM Submarine P514 which was run down and sunk at 3am in a thick fog by an unwarned Convoy off the coast of Newfoundland 21 June 1942 and especially her Commanding Officer Lieut Walter Augustus Phillimore Royal Navy dearly loved son of Charles Augustus and Alice Phillimore of the Old Farm in this Parish in his 27th year.
We thank God for his happy life and the happiness he gave. Quam Dilectus
The deck it was their field
And Ocean was their grave.
Beneath the Waves by A.S.Evans page 320The loss of a submarine by accident or error is an occasion of particular regret. In 1942 the Royal Navy lost two submarines by means other than enemy action. One of them was the P514 (Lieutenant Commander R.M.E. Pain). The P514 was one of nine United States Navy submarines transferred to the Royal Navy under the Lend Lease Agreement of 1941. She had been launched as the R19 in January 1918. In June 1919 she arrived at Pearl Harbour to begin almost twelve years of training submariners and testing equipment. On 9 March 1942 she entered the service of His Majesty King George VI.
The P514 spent her remaining days operating with the Royal Canadian Navy, largely in the capacity of a training vessel. A Ship's Movement Card of two months into her service with the Royal Canadian Navy states: 'Arriving Argentia May 27. Will divide time between B and C Groups till L27 arrived in July. Then to B Group only.' On Canada's eastern seaboard, the fishing village of Argentia was where in August 1941 the Atlantic Charter was signed by Roosevelt and Churchill aboard ships off shore. And it was from Argentia that 32-year-old Lieutenant-Commander Richard Pain put to sea on the afternoon of 20 June. Escorted by the flower class corvette Primrose, P514 had been routed along the 'safest inshore route' to St John's, Newfoundland, 65 miles to the north. HMC Minesweeper Georgian lay alongside at St John's. Her log for 20 June shows that at 0815 hands were fell in to secure ship ready for sea. At 0945 the steering gear, telemotor, telegraphs, etc., were tested and found to be in order. By 1030 Georgian had slipped her lines; thirty minutes later she was passing the harbour entrance and making for a designated area to await the arrival of the six-ship convoy (CL43) she was to escort the 300 miles to Sydney, a small township of Cape Breton Island off Nova Scotia. The latest summary of U-boat dispositions had shown that two U-boats were in the vicinity of Cape Race. By 1430 that afternoon, convoy CL43 had arrived and the passage to Sydney was begun.
During the early hours of the 21st Lieutenant-Commander Stanley, RCN, Georgian's captain, picked up unmistakable diesel HE whilst listening for hydrophone effect of the convoy. At the same time sound signals from another convoy (SC88) were heard. Convoy SC88, routed along a line approximately eight miles southward of that followed by Georgian's convoy, was proceeding eastwards escorted by five RCN ships and was about ten miles to the north of its correct course. The two convoys and P514 with Primrose had arrived at the same time in position 46 33'N 53 40'W. Visibility was about 400 yards. Immediately after hearing SC88's sound signals, Georgian also picked up asdic transmissions. These were probably from an escort of SC88 as P514's oscillator frequency was too low to have been picked up by Georgian. The minesweeper's log records what happened next on that early morning encounter:
0303. Observed hydrophone effect and transmissions (bearing 260').
0305. Action stations.
0306. Hydrophone to starboard.
0306. Stopped engines.
0307 Full speed ahead. Stand by to ram.
0310. Rammed submarine.
0311. Half ahead.
0312 Slow ahead. Observed convoy to starboard.
0314. Full astern.
0320. Searching for survivors of submarine. East- and west-bound convoy scattered.
0410. Unable to locate submarine wreckage, or survivors.
Except for the corvette Primrose, no vessel in the area knew that P514 was at sea. Georgian had therefore assumed that the darkened shape crossing her bows from starboard to port was an enemy, especially when the vessel made no recognition signal. Consequently the minesweeper had rammed the submarine midships on the port side, broadside on. An attempt to locate and possibly rescue survivors was put in hand. Primrose, after dropping a buoy, made a search. From St John's the duty ship Dianthus was dispatched and by mid-afternoon had joined Primrose. The two vessels failed to establish contact with the submarines by A/S or hull tapping and after dusk they returned to St John's. The body of a man dressed in British submariner's clothing had been sighted but could not be recovered.
Lack of information by the ships at sea as to what vessels they could expect to encounter was a contributing factor of the accident. A disposition report warning Georgian of the presence of a Royal Navy submarine failed to reach her. One of the recommendations of an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding P154's loss was that up-to-date details of ship movements should be given to vessels prior to sailing, and that relevant information received too late to be included in sailing orders or the nightly situation report should be promulgated by special signal to those concerned. Considering the circumstances the action of Georgian's captain would appear to have been appropriate to the occasion.
Built By: Union Iron Works, America.
Laid Down: 28 January 1918
Launched: Not Known
Commissioned: Not Known
Displacement: 569 Tons Surfaced. 680 Tons Submerged.
Dimensions: Length 186 ft.
Beam 18 ft. 3 in.
Draught 14 ft. 6 in. Crew: Total of 33.
Propulsion: 2 x Sets Diesel Engines (880 BHP). 2 x Sets Electric Motors (934 H.P.). Twin Screws.
Armament: Four 21 -inch Bow Torpedo Tubes. One 3-inch (US) 50 calibre Mk.5. gun on (US) Mk.7. mounting.
Max Speed: 13.5 knots Surfaced.
C/Os: Lt.Cmdr. RME Pain
21 June 1942 : Lost while on passage from Argentina to St Johns, Newfoundland. Encountered one of own convoys and was rammed and sunk with all hands. Handed over to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease Agreement.
Lt.-Cmdr. RME Pain
Lt. WA Phillimore
Tempy Lt. CA Bentley RNR
Tempy Lt. J Taylor RNR
Tempy Lt. Engineering JF Magil RCNVR
PO. J McAlister
PO. HH Bowden
LS. J Gillan
LS. RF Burgess RFR
AB. GR Mason
AB. AWS Chambers
AB. DR Wilson
ERA. C Tall
ERA. J Steele
ERA. NC Bennett
SPO. BJ Black
SPO. J Gray
L Sto. RS James
AB. WH Worlock
AB. RWW Powell
AB. G Beal
AB. G Laing
AB. RW Allen
AB I N England
AB. H Goodwin
L Sto. JL Binns, Mentioned in Despatches
L Sto. G Dickson
L Sto. JR McDowell
Sto. T Battensby
Sto. E Curran
AB. F Holt
0 Sea. A Lidstone
PO.Tel. RH Carter
Tel. FC Ward
Tel. A Musgrave
Tel. H Patterson
L Sig. T Barron
Sto. JR Milford
Sto. AF Barnes
Sto. WJ Dawson
Sto. F Bakis
Sto. R Murray
Lost, on 21 June 1942. Rammed and sunk in error by minesweeper HMCS 'Georgian'
For Leading Signalman Thomas Barron 1920-1942. Lost with HM Submarine P514
We last met on leaveBert Ward November 1999
And drank, spun yarns
Then you were gone.
I thought you went down
in the Med,
I was sure I knew the spot on the map
Beneath the warm blue waters.
I was wrong
I now learn
You went down in the Western Atlantic
And I feel guilt
As if not knowing
Was not caring.
The Royal Ballet
Are putting on
The lights dim
The audience suddenly hush,
And from the pit
Overwhelms the tight packed rows.
In the Atlantic
The seas rise,
The wind reaches a crescendo
And whips the seas to a frenzy.
The curtains open
The dancers are on stage
Leaping and whirling
The stage aflame with colour.
And then its reprise
Advance and retreat
Advance and retreat
Advance and retreat.
As the audience applaud
Some shout bravo
And a lone voice shouts
From a thousand miles
I lay a garland of words
On the grey water above you.
We must not forget
We must not forget
We must not forget.
Our class went on draft leave at Christmas 1939, then to Pompey barracks, HMS Victory in Queen Street. We messed in the barracks but slept at Aggie Weston's in Commercial Rd. Aggies was two buildings separated by a side street but joined on the second or third floor by an enclosed bridge. We used to cross that bridge to our individual cabins. A petty officer and leading seaman were in charge of us.
We joined HMS Revenge in January at anchor in Plymouth Sound. Revenge was one of the five R Class battle wagons; Ramillies, Resolution, Royal Sovereign. Royal Oak had already been sunk in Scapa Flow. These ships were unmodernised. Top speed about 21 knots. Main armament eight 15inch guns; secondary armament twelve 6inch in two batteries Port and Starboard; AA eight four inch on four twin mountings; two eight barrelled pom poms; and two 4 barrelled point five inch machine guns.
Revenge was ammunitioning and sailed within a day or two for Greenock and the North Atlantic convoy run to Halifax Nova Scotia. I was lucky in that I was never sea-sick. On my first night at sea I felt a bit queasy and Bing Bingham gave me permission to leave the shell room, my action station, to go on to the upper deck. The fresh air and wind blew the feeling away and I never had it again.
U boats in those early days did not get far out into the Atlantic. The danger was surface raiders as the sinking of the armed merchant cruisers Rawalapindi and Jervis Bay illustrate. Those ships were armed with six inch guns and stood no chance against the 11inch and 8inch of the German warships.
The routine was to escort a convoy from Halifax which was met by destroyers off Northern Ireland escorting an outward bound convoy. Revenge then turned round and escorted that convoy to Halifax., tied up alongside a jetty and took on provisions and oiled. We would be in harbour 48 hours and maybe a bit longer, then off again. Usually two to three weeks at sea.
My cruising station and defence station as a boy was look-out on the ADP (Air Defence Position). The R class had tripod foremasts on which, in the case of Revenge there was an open bridge. Above and abaft that was the ADP which was an open platform, and above that was the spotting top which was enclosed. That was the gunnery officer's action station. If my memory serves me right there were eight lookouts on the ADP, port and starboard, sweeping all sectors with glasses. An officer and petty officer were in charge.
The view from the ADP was quite dramatic, particularly in bad weather. With seas running high it was like mountains and valleys. For a boy just turned seventeen, first ship, to be up there when Revenge seemed to hang on a mountain top, then start to run down the side of the mountain heading for the bottom of the Atlantic, and looking down on the heads of the skipper in his captain's cap and duffel coat and other officers, not a bit concerned, and then the ship digging her bows into the wall of water on the other side of the valley, picking it up and throwing it up over bridge, was truly awe inspiring. When we were in the valley there were no other ships in sight. Then back on the top of the mountain with the convoy, or some of it in sight, we would hang for a moment, and then hell for leather down the other side. As we approached Northern Ireland we would sometimes see a Sunderland flying boat and wave to its crew, and later the American built Catalinas flying round the convoy.
Winter in the North Atlantic 1940 was very cold. The guard rails became solid ice, I have a photograph, and ice hung on the guns. To prevent them freezing up they were layed and trained every half hour.
Although Revenge did not have a loudspeaker system it did have wireless on the messdecks for getting the BBC and a system for records to be played. Operating from Halifax as we did the men responsible for playing records could buy the latest American disks in advance of them reaching the UK. 'Blueberry Hill' was one of them and even today, sixty years later, whenever I hear 'Blueberry Hill' I am carried back to the Revenge escorting a convoy from Halifax.
My action station was B shell room, just below the magazine. Every evening as dusk approached the ship went to action stations. There we practised until the order came down the voice pipe, second degree of readiness. Then watches would be set, I think we did an hour each in pairs, while the others slept. As dawn approached it was back to action stations and practising. And then cruising stations, breakfast, clean ship and quarters clean guns. Practice in a fifteen inch turret meant practising loading the guns. We could load a fifteen inch gun in one minute. That meant getting a one ton shell and four quarter charges from the shell room and magazine up to the gun house to be rammed into the breech.
A fifteen inch turret resembles a mushroom. The gun house and barbette are visible. The stalk or trunk extends to the bilges. The trunk is hollow, with footholds cut into the side for men to climb. Also a knotted rope hangs down the centre. Surrounding this hollow tube is another tube enclosing the port and starboard cages which carry the ammunition to the guns. When the turret revolves this means the entire structure revolves . Consequently, when the guns are trained on the beam the cages are no longer on the port and starboard sides but are fore and aft. The shells lay in rows in shell bins which were sunk into the deck with a coaming two or three feet above the deck. They were picked up and carried by grabs operated by hydraulics. Circling the trunk is a large gear or cog wheel. The port and a starboard cradles are moved round this by hand wheels. The shells are lowered on to the cradles in a fore and aft position, and then lined up with the lift doors, wound into the lift, the lift doors shut and the working chamber below the gunhouse informed. Above the shell cages are cages for the cordite charges loaded by the magazine crew. When the cages were loaded they were whisked up to the working chamber where the charges were pushed to the rear of the shells and sent up to the gun house.
At sea hammocks were not allowed to be slung. Everybody who could, slept at action stations. Exceptions were lookouts and the four inch guns crews who were allowed below where they slept on mess tables and stools, or the deck. The captain, 'Rammer' Archer slept in his sea cabin next to the bridge. In the shell room we slept on the shells, with our caps or lifebelts for pillows. It was bloody cold. But we had make and mend every day at sea.
The captain of B shell room was Petty Officer Bing Bingham. The trunk was towards the after end of the shell room and the lights on the bulkheads were in that area. The result was that the furthest end of the shell room was in perpetual gloom. The ladder down into the shell room was in the area near the trunk.
After reverting to second degree Bing would get his harmonica out and we would have a sing song. As sound carries under water we probably frightened Gerry off. The down side of that was that when the escorts were dropping depth charges it sounded like somebody hitting the hull with a giant hammer. We got used to it. Sometimes as I lay on the shells trying to get to sleep I used to wonder what would happen if we were torpedoed. Escape was impossible. Main hatches were clipped down and only escape hatches letting one man at a time through were open. I imagined the ship going down with lights on and we would be trapped. One night I dreamed we were torpedoed. As the ship sank she turned over and all the shells came tumbling out of the bins. So that was that problem solved.
The gun house crew gained access to the gun house through a hatch under the gun house. In bad weather that was not possible so they came down to the shell room and climbed the trunk. One boy who often came down to the shell room, even in good weather, to climb the trunk was Ginger Frith. He came from Devon or Cornwall and had their distinctive accent. The senior members of the shell room's crew would never allow Ginger to climb the trunk until he sang a song. And always he sang 'The Trail of the Lonesome Pine'. Then we would hear the sound of his boots as he dug them into the footholds in the trunk as he climbed to the gunhouse. I did hear that Bing, who I believe came from Portsmouth, was invalided with TB.
In 1940 there were fears of invasion. Revenge sailed for Plymouth where we ammunitioned with a special shell for bombarding. We were at anchor in the Sound when we had our first taste of bombing. A high flying formation came over. Somebody said, "They're ours." then we saw the bombs falling and the bugle was going 'There's a bomber overhead. There's a bomber overhead.' There were no hits or casualties although some bomb splinters came inboard chipping the paintwork. Incidentally, Revenge did not have a loudspeaker system. Orders were transmitted by pipe, call boys and the bosun's mate going round the ship, as well as 'Sticks' the bugler. I was a call boy and later bosun's mate.
I remember arriving in Halifax one morning. At sea we changed from morning to afternoon watch at 12. In harbour 12.30. As bosun's mate in harbour one of my duties was to ring the bell on the quarterdeck. I lost track of the fact that we were no longer at sea, and at 12.30 I rang eight bells. The security killick 'Bomber Thrower' said to me afterwards, "I heard two bells and turned round and you were getting ready to ring another two". We laughed about that but nobody had noticed.
To return to Plymouth. We sailed on 13th September 1940 and bombarded the invasion fleet assembling at Cherbourg. Then we headed for Pompey while at day break the German bombers headed for Plymouth. That must be the time that Pompey was blitzed. The county class cruiser 'Berwick' was in Pompey at the same time. I had a townie, in fact we came from the same street, Danny Wright, on the Berwick, so we had a run ashore. We walked up Queen Street and lost our bearings. The devastation was complete. Aggie Westons, a landmark had gone. We got well and truly drunk and walked, if that's the word, back down Queen Street singing 'Begin the Beguine'at the top of our voices. The best rendering of that song was by Chick Henderson. Forget about Hutch. We couldn't see a thing in the blackout and Danny fell down a bomb hole and lost his cap. There was a little pub at the top of Queen Street, the same side as the Victory and near the corner with Commercial Rd. It was only a small bar and it was always packed with Matelots. Its walls were covered with cap tallies. I wonder what happened to them. They would be a real history.
In November we had four days leave from Plymouth. Either the first or second day we got telegrams to report back on board in Greenock. The AMC (Armed merchant cruiser) Jervis Bay had been sunk on 5 November by the Admiral Scheer.
On Saturday the 24 May 1941 we were in Halifax and I had the morning watch as for'ard gangway sentry. Shortly after 4 am an oiler came alongside. The timing was unusual. Oilers never came alongside until the time was approaching for us to leave harbour and we had only just got in. So I knew that we were under sailing orders sooner than we had expected. I know now that at 5.56am on Saturday 24 May 1941 the Bismarck sank the Hood. We were at sea when a buzz went round the ship that the Hood had gone down. We speculated as to whether it was a U boat or dive bombers that sank her. Later we were told that the Bismarck was out and that we had to intercept her if she took a westward course. Then we learned that Bismarck had sunk the Hood. A very thick fog came down and we were steaming through it sounding our siren. Then we learned that we were out of the hunt. Ramillies was much nearer to the Bismarck but she was escorting a convoy to Halifax. She left the convoy and we picked it up.
After the French had surrendered, the French fleet had to be prevented from falling into German hands. I forget whether we were in Pompey or Devonport, but the old battleship Paris was tied up astern of Revenge and the submarine Surcouf was tied up a longside her. In the early hours of one morning we went to action stations and sent boarding parties to take both ships. The sentries on the Paris were taken by surprise. The first man down the ladder on the Surcouf was leading seaman Webb. He was shot and killed by a French officer. The British officer following Webb then killed the Frenchman.
Revenge was one of the ships carrying Britain's gold reserves to Halifax from Greenock. Security was tight. The boxes contained either four gold bars or bags of coins. Guess how Jack found that out. The gold arrived in Greenock harbour in railway box wagons. Marines were the guards. One officer checked the boxes, which were numbered out of the wagon. An officer checked them going into a boat. An officer checked them going on board Revenge, another checked them being lowered to the bomb room and another checked them arriving in the bomb room. The procedure was reversed in Halifax. We also carried the Polish General Sikorski to Halifax. I have a photograph of him leaving from the quarterdeck in Halifax.
Dhobeying and bathing on the Revenge was in buckets or hand basins. Access to the bathrooms, which consisted of a row of hand basins, was down through watertight hatches which were only open for certain times of day. Sometimes the valves, whether through somebody's carelessness or not I don't know, allowed the sea into the bathrooms and flooded them. So you raised the hatch on chain blocks and what you saw was the Atlantic. So it was move on to the next bathroom. The flooded bathrooms were then pumped out.
Between A and B turrets there was a main hatch. This hatch was watertight when the sea was flat and the sun shining, rare events in the North Atlantic in winter. So a large canvas bath was rigged up under the hatch with pumps to pump it out. A consequence was that in bad weather there was always water swishing around on the deck. The foc'sle and top mess decks were on the same deck so sea boots were essential at all times.
Another of Revenge's idiosyncrasies was the lower decks' heads which were right for'ard. The lavatories were two steps up from the deck, in cubicles with half doors on so that it was possible to see if they were occupied. They were flushed by pushing a large brass button. Unfortunately sometimes the valve which allowed the contents of the pan to be sent out into the ocean failed and the Atlantic came in. We could tell by the water surrounding such rogues which to avoid. But if a valve had not previously failed there was no way of knowing. In that case the Atlantic came in and the Matelot who was sitting there got a right slap in the face, so to speak.
The mess decks were open messdecks, not the small compartmentalised messes of the modern ships such as the KGV class. When I became an OD I moved into the top messdeck. Revenge was general messing which meant that we peeled the spuds but apart from that everything was done in the galley. We carried all meals from the galley to the mess. Everybody took a turn at cook of the day which meant collecting the food, dishing it out and washing up after the meal. The washing up water and gash were carried on to the upper deck and sent down the gash chute. If a piece of cutlery had been left in the water it could be heard hitting the sides of the chute as it went down. That was where I learned the ditty; "Tinkle tinkle little spoon, knife and fork will follow soon". Leading Seaman Telford, a decent man in one of the foc'sle messes had a weakness for rum. The rum, two and one, was poured into cups. Telford was known for always scrutinising the cups to see which he thought had the most in. So one day his mess mates filled one cup with vinegar, and they all waited for Telford to arrive. His eyes flickered over the cups and then he bit. There was uproar, with everybody laughing their heads off and Telford fuming and threatening all sorts of mayhem. But he was a decent sort and nothing came of it. Tasters, sippers, gulpers and swipers were the rewards on birthdays or for favours rendered.
At some time in 1941 we escorted a troop convoy to the Indian ocean. Before we reached the Cape we were rammed by the troopship Orion. We had the usual ceremony for crossing the line. I have given copies of photographs to the museum. The sea hag was 'Guts Parritt'. That is the pronunciation, I am not sure of the spelling. Guts was a three badge AB, a roly poly man with a terrific sense of humour. On Christmas Day 1941 we were at sea and Guts came running round the messdecks wearing a children's cowboy outfit and waving a toy gun. I don't know the name of Neptune or his servants but they had a big parade round the upper deck and Neptune challenged the skipper for being on his territory then giving him permission to proceed. Everybody who had never crossed the line before had a good ducking.
I saw my first burial at sea when the sailmaker collapsed and died at sea. There was an amusing incident. The sailmaker was laid out on the boat deck with a white canvas sheet over him between the boats, which were on the same deck as the four inch guns. Sentries from the four inch were posted. During the night, and of course it was pitch black, a wind lifted the sheet. The unfortunate sentry took fright and ran to the four inch shouting that he had seen a ghost.
There were two fleet champion boxers on board. Bellamy who was a light heavy and Lord who was a fly weight. We were in three ramming incidents. Coming out of Halifax one evening we rammed the boom defence ship. One night at sea we were rammed by a tanker and as already mentioned the liner Orion during broad daylight. Captain Archer already had the nickname Rammer before these incidents so why he had that name I do not know.
April 9, 1944
Aboard U.S.S. Guadalcanal CVE60
A CVE is a small escort carrier, approximately 350 ft long, carrying a compliment of 900 men, and 27 planes. Our primary mission was to hunt and kill submarines. Our operating area on this deployment was between the Azores and Gibraltar. It was a known U boat lane. We kept going to Battle Stations. Our planes had spotted a sub on the surface, but it was too late to make a pass. The pilot could not get a shot at it. It was dark, and he saw it silhouetted. When he turned back it was gone. The Captain sent out another flight, and at 0130 hours (1:30AM) They spotted the sub again, and dropped depth charges. No luck. We secured from GQ for the night. 1300 hours(1 PM) our destroyers were pinging on the U boat again. At 1410 hours the Destroyer Escort Pope, dropped a depth charge pattern, and the U boat commander at 600 feet gave orders to blow all tanks, and prepare to abandon ship. We could see the sub from the bridge of our ship, and when he broke the surface, all ships fired at him. We couldn't tell if he was abandoning ship, or would try to torpedo us. Four minutes later the sub slowly reared herself up and sank. We fished forty five survivors out of the water. She was U 515. We found out later, that the crew of U 515 hated their Captain. He had frozen promotions on his boat to prevent any of his hand picked crew from being transferred. His name was Werner Henke, and the British wanted him for questioning about the British ship Ceramic, which was torpedoed and only one man survived to tell about it. Seems that Henke torpedoed the Ceramic, then surfaced. He had thought it was a troop transport, but it actually had dependants coming from Australia. The people were in the water, men, women and children. But the U boat could not take any aboard. No room. He did take one soldier back to Germany, to prove that he had sunk a transport. The rest of the survivors died in the water from exposure. Capt. Henge promised to co-operate with our skipper, if we did not turn him over to the British. However after we returned Stateside, Capt. Henge tried to escape, and was shot and killed. The U-515 had four sights on us, but our Cans (Destroyer Escorts) were doing their job, and the U Boat had to abort each time.
Dawn April 10, 1944.
Our planes caught another sub, on the surface. The lookout crew on the deck of the sub, never had a chance. Our planes came in from the darkside. I can just imagine the lookouts, watching the coming sunrise, and getting ready to slip beneath the waters, to safety. Our planes strafed and dropped depth charges. It went down immediately with all hands below deck, gone, to the same fate, they had given to merchant sailors, they had sunk. Our planes circled and detected much debris, oil, and three bobbing heads. They dropped rubber boats to the three survivors. But when we arrived, very shortly thereafter, only two men were in the water, and one young man was holding his buddy, with one hand, and holding on to the raft with the other. The other man was dead, and the other was badly wounded. His sub was U-68. We're doing pretty good. Hope no U boat gets us. Seems we are in the middle of a real U boat passageway to the convoy lanes. I felt funny about the sailors who went down with their sub. At what level does the boat crush? Are the crew drowned, or trapped ? As they taught us in Boot Camp, "Kill, or be killed." Still feel funny though. On the other hand, how many Allied lives have we saved. We found out that between the two U boats we sank on this cruise, they had sunk 55 Allied ships, and a total tonnage of 250,000 tons. How many of our men died? ( A footnote here: We had fished a German torpedo out of the water. I did not know about it. But a year later while in the Pacific, I received a piece of the torpedo with the inscription. " U 68 sunk 10th April 1944". I guess that Boot Camp slogan, "Kill or be killed" made sense. )
April 14-15, 1944.
Terrible storm. The" Can Do" does not take heavy weather very well. Waves are washing over the Island structure, and across the flight deck. We are listing badly, and several times I thought the ship was breaking up.
We sighted an Island of the Azore group. We are heading for Fayale Island to refuel. The sub situation is quiet. What a beautiful Island. It seems to rise right out of the sea. I noticed that the houses all have red roofs. The girls are beautiful. Saw some with bronze skin, and blond hair. Met some British sailors off a Corvette. We traded with them. Gave them fresh oranges, and they gave us Rum. Hope the officers don't find out.
April 23, 1944.
Heading home. Seas rough, weather stormy. Our water maker is broken, so we have fresh water only twice a day. Have to take salt water showers.
May 8, 1944.
Heading for the Cape Verde Islands. I am 18 today. Captain Gallery is practising night flying . We lost some planes and men. No sub contacts.
Casablanca, North Africa.
We have entered port to refuel. The French battleship Jean Bart is sitting in port, with a merchant ship, leaning against it. Seems the Bart tried to fire on our invasion force, and our battleships, took care of it. Went into the Medina( City of Sin), and almost got in trouble, when a couple of us, got into a court yard, and some big guy yelled at us. But when he saw were Americans, he smiled, and told us we were in a restricted area. Some kind of place where the Harem wives stayed. So we left, quickly. Then I had my picture taken with a monkey on my shoulder. Got the picture, but the monkey got everything out of my jumper pocket. Spare cash, and my Lucky Strikes. Rotten thief.
We spotted a U boat. I had been on the DAQ( direction finder) and when a U boat is with 15 miles, and they send a signal, a big green figure 8 comes up on the screen. I had reported one but it faded quickly. Our next watch another guy had a reading, and we went to GQ. But nothing. Captain Gallery was convinced we were on to something. We were heading north towards the Bay of Biscay. ( We did not know at the time, but our troops were going to invade Normandy in June, and we were supposed to kill subs going that way.) We kept getting noises on the sono-buoys, and strong transmissions from the subs radio frequency. We kept getting disappearing radar blips, and the Capt. mentioned that this sub was very cautious. I had volunteered for boarding party, that the Capt had set up in Norfolk, but the Capt took a lot of names off the list, including mine. He wanted only personnel who have some knowledge of batteries, diesel engines, or had served in submarines. Oh well.
June 4, 1944.
1110 hours ( 11 am)
I was in CIC( combat information centre), when suddenly the DE Chatelain, came over the squawk box, " Bluejay ,(that was us), this is Frenchy(Chatelain). They had a possible sound contact. That means close by. We went to GQ, but the hatch was open, and we could see out to starboard. We tried to get out of the area. As Capt. Gallery said, " A carrier in the middle of a sound contact, is like an old lady in the middle of a bar room brawl." We could see the Chatelain, with the Pillsbury and Jenks. The Chatelain started dropping hedgehogs. Suddenly we saw our planes started strafing the area where the hedgehogs were dropped. The sub started to surface, at 1121.
Our destroyers cut loose with machine guns, 20 mm and 40 mm. Capt Gallery yelled over the squawk box to the destroyers, " Capture that bastard, if possible." The crew of the U boat were jumping over the side, and only the conning tower and bow of sub was visible. Our boarding party was already on the way. A Lt.Jg. David, from the Pillsbury was on the deck of the sub. We later found out, that one dead German sailor was lying on the deck. His name was Hans Fisher, an original crewmember of the sub. Lt David, and two other men jumped down into the hatch of the submarine. What guts! One man heard water, and found a huge stream coming out of a valve. He found the cover, and put it back. We had captured a German U boat. Cdr. Troisano and Lt. David sent the rest of the boarding party topside while they looked for the scuttle charges, and tried to stop the engines. The submarine was circling. They did. They found 13 5# TNT charges, and disarmed them. One of our destroyers finally took it in tow, but the diving planes on the sub gashed her hull, so Guadalcanal took her in tow. Boy, were we proud to see Capt. Gallery on the conning tower, with the Stars and Stripes, flying over the swastika.
June 5, 1944.
Well, she is still afloat behind us. I had to go over with the Com officer, and bring back all kinds of publications. Guess, they think if the Germans know we captured her, we would have all the wolf packs in the Atlantic after us, and we would go the way of the Block Island, our sister ship sunk just north of us. Well, they keep telling me we are always one mile from land. Straight down. We are towing the sub back to the States. Lt. Mumford, our Com Officer had 12 seabags of captured German articles. Capt. Gallery had our fastest DE pick him up and they headed for Bermuda.
The Capt put up big signs " Keep your bowels open, and your mouth shut, when we get into port". (footnote: No one ever let it leak out, and a year later, they sent me a letter, saying I could write home about Junior( our nickname for U 505). The skipper of U 505 was Capt. Lange. A decent sort of guy. We put the German crew under the flight deck, in caged walkways. We let them out during the day, to play volleyball, when we lowered the elevators, and gave them good food, and gedunk(ice cream). Of course our boatswain's kept a tommy gun on them at all times. June 9,1944.
The Abnaki, a fleet tug, and the Kennebeck, met us, and refuelled us, and took U 505 in tow, for our 2500 mile trip home.
We arrive in Bermuda, and turned our 53 prisoners over to the local Naval Base Commander. The prisoners were kept on Bermuda, until after the war. As Capt. Gallery said to us," Our Task Group had a rendezvous set up in the book of destiny, and there was no avoiding it".
Norfolk, Va. Transferred to an Essex class carrier. U.S.S. Randolph CV15. Heading for the Pacific, and more adventure.
Extracts from WW2 Diary of V.J.Verdolini RM2/c U.S.Navy
19th June 2000
My name is William W. Cridland I currently live at Bolton MA USA, married to a US citizen. I was born in Newport Mon South Wales and spent most of my school days at Milford Haven Pembrokeshire South Wales.
I left high school at 16 and went to the South Wales Radio School at Caswell Bay near Swansea. After a 6-month training period I was recruited by the Marconi Company to operate their equipment on sea going ships. I spent three months ashore to pass my First Class PMG examination. The time frame was 1943 at the peak of the battle of the Atlantic. I made several crossings in convoy and was second radio officer on most of the ships.
The route usually was Glasgow to New York. A wire mesh boom to prevent submarines entering the channel enclosed New York harbour entrance. Needless to say my heart was in my mouth every time they raised this boom to let us out into the ocean.
The only action I saw on my trips was an adjacent ship had an unexploded torpedo lodged in the steel net mesh, which draped over the sides of each ship. I reported the problem to the first officer and with an Aldis lamp reported to the ship of the danger they were in! The ship in question cut the steel net loose and the net and torpedo went to the bottom.
For several crossings we were not allowed to use our radio equipment. That included just listening since it was suspected and reported that U-boats were homing in on the convoys via oscillatory signals emanating from the receiver equipment. Needless to say we did not transmit at anytime but used the Aldis Lamp to communicate. Since my duties as a second radio officer was temporarily zero I was assigned the task of inspecting all the lifeboat essentials such as water, food and medical supplies. I can still remember that on many of the lifeboats I reported that the food and medical supplies had been stolen.
The U-boats at first had to come to the surface to recharge their batteries and it made it easier for the escort's ships and Sunderland flying boats to locate and sink them. However the U-boat technology improved in that the later versions were equipped with a ' Snorkel' device at the periscope, which allowed air into the U-boat even when they were submerged so they could recharge their batteries.
While in New York I was invited by the US Navy to attend the routing of the convoy. There were many Allied navies represented and the routes plotted were consistent with the ability to obtain cover from the RCAF, the USAF or RAF/RAAF. Also the slowest ship in the convoy dictated the speed of the convoy.
As I mentioned before I was only 17 years old and did not think at all about dying, fortunately I did not experience any mishap but always remember other ships personnel who did not make in our convoys.
Finally hats off to the Allied escort destroyers for their protection and sacrifice to keep our tomorrows.
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