M.B. GORDON #1173 – 1941/42

“Hey ! On the dock there ! Are ye the new hand ?”

The hail came in stentorian tones from the bridge of a grimy freighter moored astern of a smart Swedish ship. Not my lucky day; it was the grimy Geordie trampship I’d come to join. The dock was deserted. Except for me.

“Aye sir”, I shouted back.

Leaning over the starboard wing, the questioner – wearing a battered peaked cap and a well worn uniform jacket carrying three salt-corroded gold rings with a diamond – was obviously the Chief Mate. I’d learnt that much in the Bothie and I reckoned he deserved a ‘Sir’.

“Well, sling ye’re gear over then lad, move yerself now, jildi”.

I heaved my seabag and an old leather suitcase of my father’s (origin Hamburg 1921, the Reichmarks change from a £1 note filled the suitcase !) over on to the rusty iron deck by No. 2 hold, where they landed amongst the untidy coils of the inboard surplus of the backspring. Straddling the oily and rubbish-filled water slopping between the quay and the ship’s side, I got a foothold in a freeing port and heaved myself over the bulwark, to be confronted by the Mate, who had descended from the bridge.

“Name?” he demanded. “Gordon, Sir” I answered, remembering just in time to omit the ‘1173’, which had been attached to my name for the past two years. “Ye’re bunking in with the Apprentice, abaft the bridge, port side”, he said, “What’s that gear ye’re wearing ?”. “Training Ship uniform”, I replied, “I’ve got no civvies”.

“Well, ye won’t be needing those gladrags aboard this ship, get bunked in and into working gear. Turn to in the morning and report to the bo’sun. Shepherd – he’s the apprentice – he’ll show ye where to get some grub”.

He turned and left me to mull over this speech.

I went aft to No. 3 and banged on the heavy outside weather door of the only obvious cabin. It was opened by a heavily stubbled apparition wearing a blue jersey, dungaree trousers, thighboots, and a Woodbine dangling from it’s mouth. “Yer?” it said. “Shepherd, apprentice?”, I asked. “I’m ‘im, name ‘o Bob”, the apparition said, eyeing my glorious attire with a mixture of amazement and contempt. “First-tripper?” said Bob. I ashamedly admitted that I was. “I only wore this because I’ve got no civvies”. I felt suddenly overdressed and thought I should explain. “I’ve got my number threes in my seabag, hope they’ll do”.

Bob stood aside and I climbed over the high weather step and entered what was to be my home for the next eighty-one days. He was good-hearted, was Bob, and he didn’t hold my fancy togs, my training ship background and my lack of sea experience against me. He’d been at sea for a year, torpedoed once, in the Western Approaches, and he was seventeen. I’d been in the Bothie for two years and I was just sixteen. I felt that, give or take, we weren’t too far apart.

The date was 18th December 1942, the place was Cape Town, the ship was the S.S. “Langleebrook”, a rust-stained flushdecked trampship of 3.000 tons, registered in South Shields, and crewed almost to a man by Geordies, the seamen that is. I had never encountered the endearing regional accent, but I came to understand it perfectly during the next three months, as I did a multitude of other accents and snippets of languages during my ensuing service at sea.

The “Langleebrook” was out of Calcutta with a cargo of jute for Dundee and she had just steamed, unescorted and miraculously unharmed, across the Indian Ocean, contemptuous of Japanese submarines and German surface raiders. She was about to perform the same trick across the South Atlantic Ocean, to Port of Spain, Trinidad, the first leg of a long and arduous passage to England (sorry, must get it right, Scotland!). She had docked in Cape Town for coal bunkers and to land an Ordinary Seaman (O.S.) who had broken a leg in a fall on deck, which was fortunate for me if not for him, because I needed to find a passage home to England (got it right this time).

I had come to South Africa in 1940 with my mother and sister, guests of my grandfather, F.W. Longmore, who owned a men’s outfitters in Longmarket Street, and who supplied the uniforms for the cadets in the “General Botha”. He made possible my long held desire to go to sea. He died in 1942, and my mother was forced to return to England, encountering, incidentally, nearly as much enemy action enroute as I did during the next three years. My final term in the Bothie ended in December 1942. I was sixteen, alone in Cape Town, and needed to return to England to take up my sea career. Reporting to the Shipping Master, I was lucky enough to obtain this berth as an O.S. within a couple of weeks.

My wage was £5.16.3d a month plus – oh riches ! – £10 a month War Risk Bonus. All this ceased, of course, if you were so careless as to lose your ship through enemy action, ships articles being ‘deemed to have expired’ at that date, as indeed had half your shipmates as like as not. I was blissfully unaware of this; I had not yet become a cynic, that came later in life. I was about to commence earning the first wages of my career.

The cabin contained two wooden bunks. Bob shifted all his dirty gear (which was waiting to be dhobied) off the unoccupied bunk onto the deck, and told me to see the one and only steward for a donkey’s breakfast, a thin straw mattress, which wasn’t a patch on my comfortable old Bothie hammock.

The ship went out to the anchorage for the night, and I stood in the Oerlikon gunpit on the bridge, in a silence broken only by the lapping of the water alongside, gazing at the flickering shore lights and at the silhouettes of Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head, on the slopes of which I had lived. I pondered all that had passed in the thirty months since I had left England, wondering if I would ever return, and considering the unknown which lay ahead of me. It was the end of an era and the beginning of my new life. I had mixed feelings – some slight apprehension which usually accompanies the unknown at that age – but tinged with excitement. The latter feeling was the stronger, and I experienced it often in the years to come.

I slept well and turned to at 8 bells. Wordlessly, the bo’sun put a chipping hammer in my hand and pointed to a rusty area of the foredeck which obviously needed my attention. So it was that I spent the first working day of my life banging away at the foredeck, and picking pieces of rusty ironwork out of my eyes. Goggles ? Unheard of, only American seamen did that, and wore working gloves to handle stranded wire ropes!

We sailed that evening, having taken aboard Christmas parcels from the Merchant Navy Comforts Service. I’d been put on the Middle Watch and reported to the 2nd Mate on the bridge at midnight. Naturally he couldn’t put me on the wheel that first night, and I spent the watch on lookout. But I was on the wheel the next afternoon, being introduced to the mysteries of the compass card, learning to hold a steady course and how to anticipate the yawing effects of a quarter-sea or of heading into a sea on the bow. I soon became adept at spraying anyone crossing the foredeck by giving the wheel a quick half spoke as the bow fell into a trough.

The course was North-Westerly towards the coast of Brazil, which may not sound like a direct route to the U.K. It was not. And for very good reasons, most them submerged. The ubiquitous U-boat, together with the Folke Wulf Kondor bombers forced all voyages to and from the British Isles to take a wide sweep Westwards. The 6,000 miles from Cape Town to England was thereby lengthened to 11,500 miles.

The calm seas and endless sunshine on this leg of the passage were idyllic and, after the firm discipline of the “General Botha”, this new routine put me mind of the old saying about being ‘on your Daddy’s yacht’. The ‘Langleebrook’ was a hard ship in her own way, but the Bothie training and discipline had stood me in good stead and I have thanked God for it all my life. A few weeks later, up North in the Western Ocean with the ship pitching, rolling and half-submerged, the 2nd Mate – a grizzled old product of North Sea and Baltic trading – said to me, “Lad, I’ve never held with training ships, thought them a waste of time. Now this ship, she’s a hard’un, she’d have broken many a lad straight out of school, but you, you’ve taken to it without blinking an eye. All that discipline and stuff they teach you, must be something in it.” I treasure the memory of that little speech, coming uncharacteristically from such an unlikely source. I felt proud of the Bothie then and I still do.

Although I was signed on Ordinary Seaman, the Old Man treated me like an Apprentice, and I fed in the wee saloon along with Bob and the Mates and Engineers. Christmas dinner was quite well done considering we had a Hong Kong cook. I had mine at 7 bells since I was on the middle, and for that reason I didn’t have the beer, one bottle of which was issued by the Old Man, a teetotaller himself. But hard drink had been brought on board in Cape Town. Sounds of revelry reached the bridge during the afternoon. Eight bells (1600 hours) arrived but our reliefs did not. At 1800 hours the Old Man relieved the 2nd Mate for half an hour for a meal. I stayed on the wheel. At 2000 hours a bleary eyed 3rd mate arrived to relieve the 2nd Mate, but no seamen. I stayed on the wheel, and an hour later I was relieved after a nine hour stint. The Old Man later logged all transgressors, threatening them with D.R.s when we paid off.

I found this no hardship, any many a time in the years ahead I worked the clock round. The incident is only mentioned because it was my first encounter with the “demon drink”. It was not the last.

The next encounter with old red-eye occurred a few days later when we arrived in Port – of Spain, Trinidad, famous for good dark rum at about 106% proof, real ‘knife and fork’ stuff, and this was yet another first for me – the first time I succumbed to the evil. Whilst in the anchorage I went aft and visited the DEMS gunners in the small mess they occupied (beneath the 4.7″ gun which they served), and spotted a number of bottles of this local product on the mess table. “Have a drink Snowball” they chorused – (as a first-tripper, I had to suffer the indignity of being called ‘Snowball’ or ‘Sunshine’.) In the company of such hairy and experienced matelots, there was only one thing to do – toss down a large neat tot. And, for an encore, another.

I awoke from this, my first raging hangover (I wish I could say it was my last), to be introduced to the ceremony of cleaning out the double-bottomed tanks. Anyone who hasn’t done this, hasn’t lived. Wearing underpants only, and carrying an inspection lamp and a wire scrubber, I was inserted into the tank through an 18″ oval manhole cover and exhorted to ‘give it a good clean out’. Lying in about 12 inches of stinking, noxious fluid of unknown composition, in a temperature exceeding 100, I found myself idly wondering if it had been such a good idea to go to sea after all (remember, I had a hangover at the time.) But then I thought, “Come on, Gordon, if you can dangle on a bo’sun’s chair on the Bothie, directly beneath a blocked heads outflow, shove a broomhandle up it and receive the resulting unmentionable clearance on top of your head, you can beat this double bottom tank”.

As the ‘lad’, it was my privilege to carry the messtins and great brown kettle from the galley amidships to the seamen’s mess aft, not an easy task in heavy weather with the ship corkscrewing in a quartersea, the deck awash, and the lee rails carried away. Two hands for the messroom gear and none for yourself, was the way of it, crabbing your way along the deck trying to hook yourself upright by sticking a foot under the steering rods which were moving up against the hatch coaming. If I lost a messtin over the side, or the lid blew off the kettle which then got topped up with seawater, I was put in fear of my life by the resulting uproar in the messroom. But, an angel protects the first-tripper in the shape of his self-appointed ‘Sea-Daddy’. Mine was a squareshaped elderly A.B. called Albert, who was six inches shorter than me, smoked a clay pipe, and never removed his clothes or seaboots during the three months I knew him. There was nothing improper in this relationship, and Albert kept a weather eye open for me and showed me the ropes. But, there’s no such thing as a ‘free lunch’. This informal arrangement was somewhat one-sided since occasional favours were expected of me. This included exchanging my ‘standby’ period during the watch (when I had a chance to get dry and warm in the galley) for Albert’s lookout stint in the crowsnest. This, not surprisingly, tended to occur during the filthiest of weather, or – to use the terminology – ‘during fog, mist, falling snow and heavy rainstorms’.

In Port-of-Spain we joined a small convoy for New York, where the ship lay for a week at 20th Street Pier, Brooklyn. My main duty here was to go ashore to fetch beer for the Mate, who remained comatose in his bunk throughout the stay. But, I did manage to get up into Manhattan by using the subway and the elevated train up the East Side, to East 14th Street, where I just happened to know an Estonian nurse at Belle Vue Hospital.

I managed to visit the Empire State Building, Radio City Music Hall and the Rockefeller Centre, and I saw ‘Gone with the Wind’ at an all-night cinema on 42nd Street. I accomplished all this and much more on $20 (£4.19.4d).

All too soon it was time to start earning our keep again, and to join a very large and very slow U.K. bound convoy. It was January 1943, and snowing heavily, as we made our way past Governor’s Island and through The Narrows, with other ships joining on until at last, off Coney Island, we assembled into a convoy of – I believe – about sixty ships, a mixture of freighters and tankers. The convoy cruising order seemed to be about seven columns of eight or nine ships, columns five cables apart, two or three rescue ships astern and half a dozen corvettes hopping about. Our pennant was 36 which left us in a comforting position, surrounded by ships. Cruising speed was a magnificent seven knots, which left us with about half a knot in hand !

Once clear of St. Johns N.F., the course was North-Easterly, for Iceland. The weather deteriorated rapidly, and became worse than anything I have experienced since, even to this day. Mountainous following seas crashed down on to the after deck, and – being a flushdecker – the ship was swept overall, carrying away rails and bridge ladders. The ramshackle rod and chain steering gear broke down more than once, and the steering quadrant was operated with tackles, pulley-hauley, the Old Man on the Bridge leaning into the wind, and giving instructions with the semaphore flags. Mangled goats and chickens (belonging to the Arab firemen) washed around the 4.7″ gun and the quadrant, and the spud locker went over the side. Despite it not being good U-boat weather, ships were ‘bumped’. I saw flashes at different locations in the convoy, and the deep red of fires. Our neighbour in the next column, a Norwegian tanker, went up with an almighty explosion, and her burning wreckage dropped quickly astern. No clothes were removed throughout the passage, and a limited wash obtained by stumbling down to the engine room with a bucket of seawater, inserting a steam pipe to warm it, loosening odd places of clothing, and mopping strategic parts of the body. Normal wear on the bridge comprised pyjama pants under trousers, three heavy sea jerseys, warm sock under seaboot stockings, a bath towel around the neck under a duffle coat, a balaclava under a tin hat, and thighboots, It was either get onto a liferaft if sunk and if lucky, and freeze to death if insufficiently clad, or go into the sea in all that gear and be dragged down by the sheer weight of it !

Approaching the beginning of the Denmark Straight, our steering gear really played up, we were wandering about, flanking ships were getting nervous, and we fell behind the convoy. This was not to be recommended. In fact, due to enemy action and the effects of the appalling weather, the convoy was involuntarily dispersing. The commodore gave the formal order to disperse and to make for Reykjavik to re-group.

I have never been so cold as I was in Reykjavik, in 62 degrees North Latitude. Ships of the dispersed convoy were re-assembling, and I had heard that there were luckily no sinkings from amongst the stragglers. As the ‘lad’, I inevitably found myself on the fo’c’sle head during anchor watch, armed with a steam hose in order to prevent the windlass from icing up. Every-one else then went down below and huddled round the bogie in a fug. I found it difficult to believe that only a few weeks before I had been lying on the beach at Hout Bay !

From Reykjavik it wasn’t such a long haul to Loch Ewe, a barren and almost deserted convoy assembly/dispersal anchorage on the West coast of Scotland, where a barrage balloon was attached to the mainmast (!) and we were tacked on to a small coastal convoy for the ‘North about’ passage to Dundee. The weather in the Pentland Firth was almost as bad as the Western Ocean and, during even this short passage, the ship managed to loose the starboard boat and Hotchkiss gunpit to pounding head seas. The balloon had a short merry life and we lost it before it could be reeled in and secured. But in this weather, we had no low – flying JU88s to deter; they knew better and the pilots were probably sitting in a fug around their own bogies in huts, somewhere in Norway.

My feelings upon sighting the redbrick buildings of the industrial city of Dundee were mixed. It is not a beautiful city and, in the teeming rain, as I humped my gear through the coal wagons lining the quayside to the railway station, any comparisons I might have made with Cape Town were too painful to bear. But, on the other hand, I was grateful to have returned home in one piece, and I was pleased to be within sight of commencing my sea career.

This, my first voyage, was my introduction to a seafaring life. It provided enduring impressions and incomparable experiences and, combined with my two years in the “General Botha”, shaped me and prepared me for life in the best possible way that any man could wish for.

I paid off with £39.3.0d, my first earnings, and I still treasure the payslip. I was given a rail warrant to my parent’s home. After eighteen days at sea they had given me up for lost. I hadn’t seen my father for three years. As he told my mother later, “young Mike left home a schoolboy and returned a man”.

I bought a bridgecoat and other items of uniform clothing with my payoff, went to Liverpool to acquire a Discharge Book, No. R273587, and then to Glasgow to the offices of Union-Castle, where I was engaged as a cadet.

Thence to Belfast to join the brand-new “Rowallan Castle” at Harland & Wolff, and so to Argentina for meat …….. but, that’s another story, along with stories of the next three years trooping in the “Arundel Castle”, the Sicily landings, post-war voyaging as Third Mate, service in the Police, then in Desert Locust Control in Arabia, then Canada and the States ….. etc.