M.B. Gordon # 1173 – 1941/42
ARGENTINA – SICILY – NORTH AFRICA
After finishing my time in the “General Botha” in December 1942, I had found my way back to England by signing on as an O.S. in a Geordie trampship. Three months later, after an eleven and a half thousand mile voyage, I arrived in Dundee and then travelled South to my parents home in Staffordshire.
Now it was time to commence my chosen career as a Navigating Officer in the Merchant Service, and I was lucky enough to be engaged as a Cadet in the Union-Castle Mail S.S. Company Ltd. Of course, their liners were no longer mailships but sailed as troopships. My first appointment, in April 1943, was to the brand-new “Rowallan Castle”, which was still in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast when I joined her together with three other cadets who had trained in “Conway”, “Worcester” and “Pangbourne”, And so, all four training ships were represented here. After undergoing a lifeboat, a first aid and an ack-ack gunnery course (which qualified me in the ‘firing, cleaning and oiling of a Marlin machine gun’), the ship underwent her trials in Belfast Lough, and then sailed to Argentina. Because of her superior speed she was able to sail independently. She was well-armed with ack-ack guns and a 6″ aft, and she was even fitted with radar and asdic, and carried four depth charges.
Picking up the pilot at the Practicos Recaladas, we docked in Berisso, not far from La Plata and the delights of Buenos Aires, where we loaded a full cargo of frozen meat. Returning via Montevideo, where we passed the wreck of the “Graf Spee”, we docked safely in Liverpool. Any thoughts I might have had about remaining in this ship and sampling the delights of the South American ports were dashed when I received instructions to go to Glasgow and join the “Arundel Castle”.
The old ‘Arundel’ was one of the peacetime ‘mailboats’ which left Southampton at 4 p.m. on a Friday and arrived in Cape Town a fortnight later. Most impressive, with their lavender coloured hulls and black and red funnels, those days had gone and these former liners now filled their new roles as troopships dressed in nondescript coats of wartime grey. A Harland & Wolff refit in the nineteen thirties had replaced the ‘Arundel’s’ straight bow with a curved clipper bow, and had removed her four tall thin funnels in favour of two heavier funnels. She was a beautiful and elegant ship. Her 686 foot length and 112 foot beam, together with a length of 109 feet from the stem to the break of the fo’csle head contributed much to this elegant appearance, although the resulting co-efficient of fine-ness did give her a tendency to roll. Her 175 foot masts were among the tallest I had ever seen.
She did not carry cadets in peacetime, and even now I was the only cadet on the Articles. I stood the 8-12 watch assisting the Third Officer, a Mr. Taylor who had recently lost his Lamport & Holt ship “Delius” to enemy action. I was told that my presence was merely to fulfil a wartime requirement to have two officers on the bridge in a ship of this size. In fact, my main function when sailing in convoy was to carry out all visual signalling requirements, and I became expert with the Aldis and the 10″ lamp, and I prided myself on my speed in getting a flag signal down and so providing the ‘Executive’.
There was no specific cadet accommodation and I quartered down below amongst the troopdecks, in what had been a pantry in peacetime, but which had been converted in a Spartan manner suitable to the limited needs of a cadet. To reach the bridge four decks above I had to weave through D2 troopdeck between the tiers of three-high wooden bunks and through the steaming mass of humanity lying about in various stages of undress; the troopdecks were hot and poorly ventilated. Wearing a dufflecoat, seaboots, tin hat and life jacket it was a push and shove job to make the return journey to the bridge twice a day, and it led to a couple of situations which could have been somewhat embarrassing had I not already had the excess sensitivity knocked out of me in the Bothie and in my first ship.
The first situation arose when our full complement of 3,000 troops, loaded in the Clyde for East Africa, included a contingent of some hundreds of A.T.S. girls enroute to Mombassa – God knows what they were going to do there, but that’s not relevant to this story. Troopdeck D2 was packed with these A.T.S. girls through whose sparsely clad and sweating bodies I had to thread my way four times daily. I didn’t complain mind you, but it was a far cry from the morning jostle through the showers in the Bothie with Chick Chapman shouting ‘Fly!’. Fresh water was turned on in the troop-decks for half an hour at a time, two or three times a day, and my small cabin – with permanently running water – was in constant demand by these young ladies with their ever present needs to wash out their ‘smalls’. This, I have to admit, led to certain collateral advantages for me, details of which will not be made available for publication.
This was the first time that I had witnessed the ribaldry shown by women enmasse towards a lone male in their midst. “It’s an experience”, the Chief Officer told me, “and all experience is good for you”. I couldn’t argue with that ! I have digressed, and must return to where I was instructed to join the “Arundel Castle” in Glasgow. I found her in King George V dock, embarking about 3,000 Canadian troops. We were bound for the Sicily invasion, although most of us didn’t know that until the night before the event when we found ourselves killing time (or waiting for zero hour I suppose) by steaming in squares until dawn. We lay off Porto Palo on the South-Eastern tip of Sicily. It was a scene of great activity with ships of all types anchored nearby. A direct hit on a ammunition ship in the next bay produced a towering column of smoke, sixteen inch shells from H.M.S. ‘Nelson’ (or was it ‘Rodney?’), fired from a point on the horizon passed overhead to explode amongst the mayhem just beyond our men ashore.
The soldiers were disembarked into L.C.L’s alongside, some down the accommodation ladders, but most of them down scrambling nets. Standing on the bridge peering shorewards through binoculars at the sight of masses of soldiers scrambling ashore, and attired in clean white shirt and shorts, it seemed incongruous to hear over the ships loudspeaker system the soft tones of the gong announcing the serving of afternoon tea in the saloon. Those Army officers still on board duly sat down and took tea and delicately cut sandwiches before climbing into the landing craft and heading off into whatever lay before them.
For the next few months following Sicily, the ship was on what can only be described as a ferry run between various North African ports and Italy, transferring many thousands of troops northwards across the Mediterranean. In Port Said, we lay alongside Mountbatten’s Headquarters ship “Bulolo” for awhile, awaiting the Italian capitulation, and when it came we went round to Alexandria for a full load of Indian troops, Punjabis, Gurkas, Sikhs, Bengal Lancers, the lot. These men were taken to Taranto, where we went through the narrow cutting in the town centre into the vast landlocked harbour, which was filled with the pride of the Italian Navy – most of it capsized !
I did the Algiers to Naples trip so often and regularly that I could make firm dates with a WREN in Caserta and an ENSA girl in Algiers, and I was never late ! Unfortunately it didn’t do my studies a lot of good.
December 31st 1943 found the ship at anchor in Gibraltar. I had read somewhere about the youngest member of the crew sounding sixteen bells at midnight on 31st December. I was the youngest. In an excess of zeal I sounded off sixteen hearty bells. I was shocked at the clamour they made, audible even over the regular crump of the small underwater charges which were dropped by patrolling harbour craft to deter Italian frogmen coming from Algeciras to fix limpet mines on ship’s hulls. The Old Man appeared on the bridge at the double. “What’s the meaning of this ? Who rang those bells ?, he demanded. There wasn’t much doubt about it; I was the only one there. The Third and Chief Officers turned up. Then a Quartermaster reported that a Naval Officer had boarded from a patrol craft and wished to speak to the Captain with regard to the unauthorised sounding of bells within the anchorage. I thought vaguely about jumping over the side, certain that my career at sea had come to an abrupt and untimely end. I was lucky. A strong reprimand ensued but there was no permanent blot on my record, and for some time afterwards I was referred to as the ‘bell boy’.
And so we entered 1944.
The Cunard liners “Queen Mary” and “Queen Elizabeth” had been trooping since the early days of the war. They could each carry approximately 20,000 soldiers and, given that the average ex-liner carried about 3,000 men, I could certainly believe this. I remembered seeing them in Cape Town in 1941/42 when ’round the Cape’ was the only route for maintaining the supply of Allied soldiers to the Middle East..
By now – 1944 – the ‘Queens’ were the backbone of the operation to carry to England the many thousands of American soldiers needed for the Second Front. And then the incident in which the Queen Mary collided with and sank the cruiser, H.M.S. “Curacao”, with great loss of life, took her out of service for repairs to the severe damage she had sustained to her bows.
The flow of U.S. Troops had to be maintained at all costs, and so it was that a number of troopships were diverted to the North Atlantic to keep up the momentum. It took about six such ships to carry the same number of men as the Queen Mary alone, and that did not take account of their slower speed. Some of the ships involved were transatlantic liners with enclosed promenade decks, suitable for the foul North Atlantic weather we experienced that winter. Others were fair-weather ships such as “Orion” and “Strathmore” with open promenade decks, suitable for tropical latitudes but highly uncomfortable for the many hundreds of men who had to sleep out on the open decks, the troop accommodation being inadequate for the number of men that had to be carried.
Upon our first arrival in New York, the U.S. Military Authorities inspected our troop accommodation which was poorly ventilated, had inadequate washing facilities and was fitted with three tier wooden bunks which, after the many thousands of men who had occupied them, were understandably in a very poor state. They decided that it was sub-standard and quite unfit to provide passage to Uncle Sam’s finest. So they stripped us out and refitted the ship, including four-tier tubular framed bunks with canvas inserts, like trampolines. Suddenly the ‘Arundel’ was a 4,000 + complement troopship. And we had enjoyed a two-week break in New York, which wrecked my personal finances. Although I have to admit that the Apprentices Club did me proud.
I never knew how long it took to carry out the repairs to the “Queen Mary”, but after about five round passages across the Western Ocean it seemed that we had played our part adequately, and it was back to the Mediterranean for a spot of sunshine and a few more runs between Algiers and Naples.
In August 1944 we went to Bombay to pick up a complement of time-expired soldiers from the pre-war Imperial Army. They had been many years in India and had been due to go home when the outbreak of war in 1939 had trapped them there, and many of them had subsequently seen service with the 14th Army in Burma. Arriving back in Liverpool, I watched them march off along Princess Pier led by military bands, and then I set off home for a short leave.
After a day or two I received a telegram telling me that the ship had moved to Glasgow and that I should re-join her immediately. Autumn was drawing in, and I knew well the cold, dark, night train from Birmingham to Glasgow Central. Trains were always packed and it seemed as if the entire Armed Forces of the Crown were on the move. A vacant seat was out of the question and the corridors were seething with servicemen and their kit bags, gas masks and rifles. The atmosphere was thick, windows being closed and fitted with blackout blinds. There was no heating and dim light was provided by little blue bulbs. No matter where you were going, you almost invariably changed at Crewe, and I had often sat on my seabag on a Crewe platform for two or three hours in the early hours of the morning. When an air raid was in progress at some town in the vicinity of the train, it would halt and remain stationary for the duration of the raid in the silent blackness of the surrounding empty countryside. It was a relief to emerge into what passed for fresh air at Glasgow Central in the grey half-light of a freezing wet morning (it always seemed to be wet and cold, although there must have been fine weather once in a blue moon), and to seek out a W.V.S. tea trolley for a cup of hot char and a wad. Then on to a clanking tram, through the Ibrox, past the grimy pubs and rundown dwellings of the bicycle-chain wielding fraternity (whose favourite headgear had razorblades sewn into the peaks). And so to K.G.V. Dock, where the snack wagon in the shed sold meat pies with sunken tops filled with baked beans.
Through the massive sliding doors in the shed, I could see a section of the side of the ship. She was my home this ship, and I felt comfortable in her. But the section I saw through the doors was coloured red. I approached and some blue came into view. Was this my ship ? What had they done to here ? She certainly didn’t look like the ship I had left a couple of days earlier. For a start she had an enormous Union flag painted on each side, must have been fifty or sixty feet long. And then I discovered that red, white and blue stripes – each about ten feet wide – had been painted athwartships across the fore and after decks. And where were our guns ? Barrels had been removed from each of our sixteen Oerlikons, the Bofors and the three 12-pounders, whilst some kind of structure surrounded the 6-inch.
Well, I soon discovered what it was all about. This was to be voyage which did have some unusual features about it and which provided experiences which I still recall as being unique. Remember, this was mid-1944, England was in the throes of a war with Germany and, to a young cadet not really ‘in the know’, there were no obvious signs that the Germans were weakening. So I was surprised to learn that we would be embarking some thousands of German servicemen. But these fellows (and women, because there was a contingent of German army nurses who had been captured at St. Malo), were prisoners-of-war, and virtually all of them had suffered wounds so serious as to theoretically render them incapable of taking any further part in hostilities. They were to be repatriated to Germany by way of neutral Sweden, and would be exchanged for exactly the same number of British servicemen who has been taken prisoner by the Germans and were similarly wounded. The prisoner exchanges had been arranged by the Red Cross, and three shiploads of POWs were involved. Our two sailing companions were to be the Swedish ships “Drottningholm” and “Gripsholm”, which were similarly painted in their national colours (of blue and gold), although as neutral ships this was a permanent feature of their livery. Having thus been prettily painted and disarmed we went to Liverpool where our ‘customers’ were embarked.
Many of them were on stretchers and many were limbless to some degree, and they were accompanied by Red Cross personnel and RAMC soldiers. Many wore British battledress with large, coloured sewn-on circles which denoted ‘POW’, whilst those captured more recently wore their uniforms, some looking very smart and impressive, particularly a group of Wafffen SS Panzer men. But buttons and insignia were often missing having been ‘liberated’ by British soldiers as souvenirs. I noted the long black leather great coats worn by the naval officers, and thought that one of them might be a decided improvement on the old duffle coat which I wore on cold night watches.
The whole range of German uniforms was present from U-Boat survivors of the Kriegsmarine, shot-down aircrew of the Luftwaffe and soldiers of the Wehrmacht captured at all stages of the war. Whatever many of them might have felt about returning to a Germany which some must have realised was approaching doom and chaos, there seemed to be a general air of pleasurable anticipation; they were, after all, going home. The O.C. Troops was our usual Grenadier Guards Colonel, but on this occasion his right-hand man was a senior Wehrmacht officer who, apart from an artificial, gloved hand, seemed unwounded and of good bearing. Announcements and instructions purred through the ships loudspeaker system, prefaced by ‘Achtung, Achtung!’. One could almost have been serving in a German troopship.
The three ships sailed from Liverpool on the night of 4th September 1944, floodlights illuminating the national flags painted on the sides of the hulls, and headed Northwards past Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre, like enormous lit-up Christmas trees. It seemed weird after years of strictly enforced wartime blackout, when it was even forbidden to smoke on deck behind cupped hands lest it might alert a U-Boat.
The route lay North to the Faeroes, then East to a landfall off the Norwegian coast and Southwards along that coast to the Skagerrack. Occasional British aircraft – Blenheims and Sunderlands of Coastal Command – flew over us during the Northern leg. Then nothing, until two Messerschmitt ME409’s roared over the ships from dead ahead. All three ships went to the anchorage in Kristiansand, where a small flotilla of launches carrying German military personnel surrounded us, curious to see the British ship and intent on waving to their compatriots.
A large naval launch came alongside and a number of German naval officers and seamen came up the accommodation ladder and were escorted to the bridge. All British personnel, except the Captain and Chief Officer, were sent off the bridge. The Germans put one of their Quartermasters on the wheel and navigated the ship through their extensive minefields, which had been laid in the Skagerrack and Kattegat. This, of course, was to ensure that we could not record the swept channel through the minefields.
Arriving eventually of Stromstad on the Swedish coast, the German naval party were taken off, and we followed a Swedish destroyer into the West coast port of Gothenburg. The first visitor to board the ship was the Swedish Crown Prince accompanied by his wife, the German born Princess Sybilla, who ignored the British ship’s officers and enthusiastically greeted the German officers we carried. In hindsight, this was quite understandable, if bad mannered.
It was during this outward passage that my twice daily return trips through troopdeck D2 gave rise to some slightly embarrassing moments. Packed with seamen of the Kreigsmarine, ribald comments pursued me as I struggled through this mass of seamen. Most of it seemed polite enough and appeared to consist of good natured joking about my youthful appearance. “Morgen, junge, wie geht’s? Ho, ho, hier bist ein alte seeman, ja!”. I soon learned to laugh it off, perhaps somewhat red-faced though!
The Germans were disembarked and trainloads of British servicemen came alongside the ship the next day. They had all been in German POW camps, and were in a similar state of health to the men they had been exchanged for. The one thing which had impressed them was the hospitable treatment they had received from the Swedes during the period they had been in Swedish internment camps awaiting our arrival. Plenty of good food and Swedish beer had done wonders for the lads.
The homeward voyage was intended to follow the reciprocal course of the outward one but, within an hour of our sailing from Gothenburg with our Swedish destroyer escort, a dramatic hitch occurred. A few British soldiers (nothing to do with our legally embarked men) had escaped from POW camps in Germany and had been amazingly lucky in crossing the water to Sweden where they were interned. Internment in Sweden was relatively pleasant and relaxed affair, allowing internees almost unrestricted liberty. It was said – although I cannot vouch for the truth of it ! – that it was not unknown for American bombers to make a ‘navigational error’ when on a raid over Germany resulting in a ‘forced’ landing in Sweden, where the crews then sat out the remainder of the war in safety, relative comfort – and burning desire to be back over Germany, flying through heavy flak over Hamburg !
Well, two or three of these British soldiers, escapees from Germany and internees of Sweden, had managed to stowaway on the “Arundel Caste”, almost certainly with the connivance of soldiers on repatriation, which was very understandable but misguided and ill-informed as regards the possible consequences. They made the mistake of coming out of hiding as soon as the ship was out at sea (but still in Swedish waters), declaring themselves, and anticipating that they would be welcomed with open arms. But they had not thought it through. They had put the ship and all aboard her at risk, albeit unwittingly. The agreed arrangement had been to exchange precisely the same number of service personnel, and between nations at war this was a most serious matter. The unofficial presence of these extra men rendered void our ‘Protected’ status, and would inevitably have become known to the German authorities, who would have seized the ship and everybody aboard her. The Captain had no alternative but to hand these British soldiers over to the escorting Swedish destroyer for re-internment. This decision was resented vociferously by all the troops who were legitimately on board, but the O.C. Troops explained the situation over the loudspeaker system and defused the ‘revolt’.
However, the matter was not entirely finished with. The transfer to the Swedish destroyer had not gone unnoticed, and as soon as we left Swedish waters and reached the position where we expected the German naval party to rejoin us, the ship was boarded not only by that party but by a contingent of German troops, both regular Army and SS. To cap it all, a surfaced U-Boat came alongside. The mission of these men was to establish that we were carrying precisely the right number of men, and so all our troops and our crew were mustered on deck for a roll call and a head count. Some stretcher cases remained below, but otherwise the accommodation was vacated. The Germans conducted a thorough search of all the accommodation areas – and she was a big ship – whilst the counting was going on topsides.
I was called to the bridge and told by the Captain to conduct two German officers around the crew ‘s quarters in the fo’csle, and off I went with two rather large officers in black uniforms and jackboots, along with two ordinary soldiers in field grey. I was fervently hoping, and so was everyone else I should imagine, that no more British escapees would be discovered, thus landing us all in a German Stalag !
None were found. After a long delay the count was pronounced correct. We steamed round the Norwegian Coast, back through the Faeroes and then South to England, where we arrived without further incident on 15th September 1944, disembarking our repatriates at Liverpool’s Princess Landing Stage to a great welcome.
Then it was time to take the ship back to Glasgow ready to embark our next load of customers, but first the glorious red, white and blue had to be painted out and restored to the gloomy wartime grey, and the guns had to be put back into good working order.
It was back to the Algiers – Naples ferry round with odd trips to Bombay and Aden thrown in, and in this way the rest of 1944 passed and the Spring of 1945 approached.
After Sweden, the “Arundel Castle” had returned to the Algiers-Naples ferry run for a while, had been to Bombay once and had taken part in another repatriation voyage, this time to Marseilles. Again, it was an exchange of German and British POWs, but this time the elaborate paint jobs and gun disarming was not carried out. It was a smaller operation altogether.
The inner harbour of Marseilles was littered with bombed wrecks and sunken hulks through which it was pretty difficult to navigate in order to moor alongside the overturned hull which had been designated as our jetty. Wooden gangways and platforms had been constructed to level out the curves of the hulls across which troops embarked and disembarked. This was common practice and I had seen it in Naples, Taranto and Catania amongst other ports.
The only episode of note occurred when the local Harbour Pilot became agitated, threw his uniform cap to the deck and jumped up and down on it, uttering such Gallic cries as “Sacre bleu, merde”, and the like, Although this was normal behaviour for pilots in these parts, it was a little worrying in view of the underwater obstructions. Captain Brown, a taciturn man of strong religious persuasions, regarded the pilot’s antics silently for a while, eventually telling me to show him to the chartroom and to station a large Hebridean quartermaster at the door to prevent any further shenanigans. The Captain then quietly and competently took the ship slowly into the inner harbour and made fast to our allotted wreck.
But this story is not about Marseilles. It took place a couple of months later, in June 1945.
The war in Europe was over. Hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, were on the move in all directors; DPs or displaced persons, former forced labourers of the Third Reich, armies of all kinds and nationalities, and released Prisoners of War. Europe was in chaos. Australian and New Zealand soldiers fought, not only in the Japanese theatre of operations, but all over the Middle East, North Africa, Italy and Northern Europe. Many thousands had been captured. And now they were being released from German POW camps and arrangements were being made to transport them home. About 2,500 troops were embarked in Liverpool. Most were Australian, but also included were a few hundred New Zealanders and a contingent of Dutch men and women soldiers who were bound for the Dutch East Indies.
Sailing Westwards across the Atlantic, we anchored in Colon where there was shore leave for the crew, but not for the troops. This was folly and naturally caused an almighty upset, Australians not being noted for their reticence. Just released after anything up to five years imprisonment, the men saw themselves as prisoners again, and soldiers of any nationality would have complained and felt resentment. Predictably, the Aussies rioted. The O.C. Troops, a slightly built and chinless British Officer of no presence or personality, was lost in this situation and narrowly escaped being thrown over the side. I thought it was a mistake to have allowed the crew shore leave, although I must admit that I did enjoy an evening in the USD in Christabel.
Masses of Australians reached the shore, either by swimming or in small boats sent out by the local people. Colon was wrecked. Panamanian Police and U.S. Military Police handled things in their normal heavy-handed manner, and a steady stream of bloodstained Aussies were returned to the ship during the night. When we passed through the Panama Canal the following day, some thirty of forty soldiers were missing and were left behind. It seemed that, by and large, the Australians looked upon it as a successful and highly enjoyable evening. It had been their first chance to let off steam. No action was taken, discretion being thought the better part of valour; little was seen of the O.C. Troops, although the adjutant, a large, hearty Captain of the King’s African Rifles, passed cheerily amongst the men, exchanging banter and succeeding in defusing any feeling of ill – will which was still harboured towards the British authorities.
Endless sunshine and glassy seas brought a sense of the idyllic to the long passage across the Southern Pacific Ocean. The ship rose and fell easily to the long smooth swells, every so often taking water up the hawsepipe with a rumble and cascade of spray over the fo’csle head.
Arrival in Wellington N.Z. was marked by the loss of yet another anchor, the third. The first had been lost at Greenock when we lifted an underwater cable and cut off all electric supply to Dunoon, something not even the Germans had been able to accomplish. The Second was left in Gibraltar Bay when discarded anti-submarine nets and their attached concrete blocks had hooked on to the anchor, and it had to be slipped and buoyed…. we did get that one back. We blamed this one on the Pilot, who decided not to use a tug to bring the ship alongside this very long wooden quayside. Steaming parallel to it, the Captain said sharply, “Pilot, we’re going too fast”. The Pilot made no response and a few seconds later the Captain threw the engine room telegraphs astern and ordered the Chief Officer on the fo’c’sle head to drop the anchor to help take headway off the ship. She was clattering and shaking now with the engines going astern, but she was not losing much headway. The anchor cable was by now leading astern, beneath the ship, and was rattling out through the hawsepipe, with dust, steam and chunks of rust flying about.
Raising the loud-hailer, the Captain bawled out “clear the fo’csle head!”. There was an almighty bang, the anchor cable broke and the fo’csle head shook and vibrated. The ship came to an eventual stop at the far end of the dock, the engines were stopped and tugs took us alongside. The Captain ordered me to write up all the movements and occurrences in the Log; I had been frantically jotting them down on a scrap of paper throughout the action. Then he went below to have a chat with the Pilot. The Bo’sun buoyed the spot where the anchor had disappeared, using a hatchboard as he had done twice before. He was becoming quite adept at this. And I had a run ashore to explore this slightly old-fashioned but delightful little town.
From Wellington it was just a 48-hour run to Sydney to disembark the Aussies, a number of whom had lost the best part of their five years back pay at their somewhat less than intellectual game of ‘two-up’. The local people were most hospitable (despite our having left a number of their soldiers behind )where I was introduced to the conga. We lay at Wooloomooloo beneath Sydney Bridge for a week, and then tied up at Circular Quay. This was before the Opera House was built there. A few Australian soldiers were still aboard when, having embarked a number of Hong Kong civilians, we sailed through the Great Australian Bight in very heavy seas, to Fremantle. Only one day was spent there, to unload these remaining Australian soldiers, but this was time enough to take a bus ride to Perth, another pleasantly old-fashioned town.
Heading North from Fremantle, we sailed via Jakarta and Colombo to Bombay. During this passage we hove the spare bower anchor from it’s home under the break of the fo’csle head, for’d to the empty hawsepipe. During the nineteen thirties refit when the ‘Arundel’ had been fitted with her swish new clipper bow, it had been such as to possess a pronounced flare. And the fo’c’sle head was 109 feet long. And so the shipping of this 25-ton anchor, during the course of a sea passage (albeit in a glassy calm) called for seagoing professionalism of a high order. I certainly learned from it.
We were now homeward bound via Aden and Suez, and world events moved swiftly during this passage. Just beyond Alexandria, on 8th August 1945, I had my 19th birthday. This was not the only world event that month. August was further celebrated in somewhat spectacular fashion by the detonations of the two atomic bombs which were dropped in Hiroshima on 6th August and on Nagasaki on, I think, 9th August, thus straddling my birthday.
On 15th August, abeam of Bizerta, we heard that the war was finally over. It was VJ Day. I vividly recall two things about that day. The Chief Officer ordered the drums of peacetime paint to be broken out of the paint locker, and started the crew painting the upperworks white, the funnels red and black and – even though we were at sea, but in smooth and fine weather – put seamen over the side in cradles to start applying the famous Union-Castle lavender paint to the hull. The familiar battleship grey was fast disappearing. The second thing was the sound of splintering wood as seamen used fire axes to chop down the blackout screens that had prevented inboard lights showing from accommodation doors out to seaward.
As on VE Day, I had mixed emotions. There was no question of regretting the end of the war, obviously. But I had become so used to it, to the comradeship and to the sometimes intense and exhilarating atmosphere, to the sense of living through and experiencing a way of life I should probably never know again. Of course it had all taken place during my formative years and so I had never known any other style of seagoing. My father, who went to sea in 1906 and experienced the Kaiser’s War as an interlude in his sea career, warned me that I should beware of becoming unsettled by it. He was right. I was. I knew I would miss it.
Arriving back in Liverpool, I calculated that I had put in sufficient seatime to sit for Second Mate. So, I left the Union-Castle Mail S.S. Co., after spending over two years in the “Arundel Castle”, and sailing 198,000 miles in her. She had been a good home and had provided me with many interesting experiences, some unique. And this final voyage, with the Antipodean lads, had provided what was to be my one and only circumnavigation of the globe.
I passed for Second Mate in Liverpool by Christmas 1945, and then, from January 1946, it became a case of: for ‘TROOPING’ read ‘TRAMPING’.
AUTHOR’S NOTE Should Kenneth McNish #1048 and Alan Hawkins #1176, erstwhile shipmates in the “Arundel Castle”, notice any slight discrepancies in dates etc., please don’t write in ! Put it down to either failing memory due to advancing age or poetic licence !