My First Twenty-Five Years
By Finch Mellor
Copyright 2015 Finch Mellor
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I do not wish to glamorize these times, but to tell it as it was with the high points and the low ones falling where they may. My recollections of dates may not be exact, but as close as my memory serves me now. Looking back over these times makes me realize that I have had an eventful life and, if asked, would do it all over again. I was fortunate to survive some of the events and always think of those others, some of them shipmates of mine, who didn’t make it.
One man, Adolf Hitler, caused all of this chaos. Let’s hope that no other person achieves such power to cause such devastation again. My writing might not be as good as it should be, and my grammar not quite correct, but the intent is here.
I came into this world on February 20th 1921 in my Grandfather’s house in the village of Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire, England. This was my father’s house now and he worked as a horseman by vocation. We lived with him on farmland as my father was wounded in the 1914-1918 Great War, and was unable to work. He was part of the Second Battle of the Somme with the British Third Army during the Allies one hundred days offensive and advance to victory. Sometime during August 31 and September 03 1918 while battling alongside Canadian forces my father caught shrapnel up and down the left side of his body. This injury nearly killed him and most certainly put him into a wheelchair for the remainder of his short life. My mother’s folk were also farm folk and they came from Suffolk in East Anglia. Wherever my Grandfather moved to we went with him and my first recollections of life were when we lived at Grazeley Green in Berkshire and I started school in a country school of Burghfield.
After a couple of years my Grandfather was forced to retire and we had to give up the farm cottage and we moved to Sonning-on-Thames. My father, during most of this time, was in hospital in London and in the spring of 1932 he came home. He was always on crutches and had an invalid chair with hand pedals. He only lasted a few months at home and finally passed away on November 10th 1932. My mother received no pension, as she had married him after he was wounded, and therefore the British government didn’t see fit to grant her one. We therefore survived on Grandfather’s old age pension and mother had to go out daily doing housework. Looking back, I don’t know how she managed to clothe and feed us and pay the rent as well. Only a year went by and Grandfather then passed away and Mum and I were on our own.
I delivered groceries on Saturdays for the local store, Miss South, and for the day’s work received one Shilling and Six-Pence. The Shilling went to Mum and I could keep the Six Pence. Once a month we had a treat, we walked to Reading, three miles, saw a movie and took the bus home. I won a scholarship at school in Reading. I sang in the choir, played second Cornet in the band and joined the Boy Scouts.
In 1937 I left school and had a job as office manager in the gravel pit owned by the Ham River Fruit Company. I was the only one in the office so there wasn’t much to manage. This job paid fourteen Shillings per week, but the drawback was that I had to go to work in hip boots as the whole area was mud and water. After a few months I started another job in Reading at a Real Estate Company called Haslam, Peters & Mann. Mr. Mann was our Scout Master and he got me the job. It was a much better job, but again after a few months I decided I didn’t want to spend all my life pushing a pen and licking stamps for a living. I had made up my mind that I wanted some adventure, so one morning I “borrowed” the office manager’s bike and biked to the Royal Naval Recruiting Office to join up. Mr. Machin, the office manager fired me for this. I thought I had passed all the exams and was on my way to Slowness Naval Base as a gunners mate recruit. They called me back to the Naval Recruiting Office and I had a physical exam. This I failed as I had curvature of the spine. This meant that my spine was not perfectly vertical and I thought they were a bit fussy. They gave me some forms to fill in if I wanted to pursue a Naval career and with the help of an uncle of mine, who gave my mother the train fare, I was off to the Heswall Naval Training School in Cheshire.
My mother then had to give up her home in Sonning and moved in with a family called Johnstones as housekeeper and cook. She was allowed to take our old dog Jack with her, which pleased me.
Heswall Naval Training School or H.N.T.S. as we called it consisted of about one hundred boys of my age group. Lt. Comm. Jardine commanded it and we had Royal Marine and Royal Naval instructors. It was a tough life, up at 6:00am, cold shower and on parade at 6:30am. Within this half hour we had to make our beds and polish the dormitory floor until we could see our faces in it. We had a march pass everyday and then attended classes on seamanship and signaling. The food was plentiful, but nothing fancy and we were given one set of working clothes and the regular naval uniform for parades. I went home to Sonning on leave once in the summer and again at Christmas. I was a member of the band there and one week each month I had to rise at 5:30am and sound reveille in the parade square. We were paid all the time we were there and this money was kept until we went on leave or when we left.
After a little more than a year at H.N.T.S. and with the fear that Germany was ready for war some of my mates left for Portsmouth and Plymouth to join ships.
Then one day the Staff Captain called me into his office and said there was an opening on the Canadian Pacific Liner, SS Duchess of York if I wanted it? I jumped at the chance and the next day, dressed in a new navy suit they provided me, the Commander Lt. Com. Jardine drove his Jaguar with me in the back seat to Woodside Station in Birkenhead and left me. I can see it now, he in his RN dress uniform saluting me and me returning his salute and he said, “Best of luck, Tarry!” I have never felt so lonely as I did then. Standing with my cardboard suitcase they had supplied, with my working gear in it at the river’s edge awaiting the ferry to Liverpool and not knowing what was ahead.
I crossed the river, took the overhead railway to Galdstone Dock and found the Duchess of York all twenty-two thousand tons of her. The only thing I had been afloat in prior to this was a six-foot dinghy on the Thames at Sonning. We left the dock soon after I got on board, and then we took on passengers at the Pier Head and then sailed for Halifax and St. John via Greenock. The basin asked for my discharge book and I told him it had been lost, but they let me sign on as an ordinary seaman, which meant I had previous sea experience.
I was seasick for the complete trip to Halifax, six days, and when we went on watch I used to hide in the rope locker. When we docked in Halifax the basin came to me and said, “So, you’ve been to sea before?” I said, “Yes sir” to which he replied “Bullshit!” He was about six foot five, around two hundred and fifty pounds and was a wrestler in Liverpool under the name, “Tiger Smart.”
All our duties at sea were cleaning the decks. This was done with water, sand and then dragging what were called “Holy Stones” back and forth across wooden decks. These “Holy Stones” were slabs of granite in a frame with long handles on them, both weighing about sixty pounds.
There wasn’t too much seamanship needed in that work, but I stuck it out for four round trips, two to Halifax and Saint John and two to Quebec City and Montreal when the ice was out of the St. Lawrence. After these four trips, when war was imminent with Germany they decided to take the ship and convert her into an armed cruiser. This was done to many of the medium size passenger ships, the larger ones converted into troop carriers.
We are now in the summer of 1939 and after I arrived in Sonning to stay at the Johnstone’s with my mother I reported to the Manning Pool Office, which had been set up in London. I was told I was then under orders from the Ministry of War Transport and had to report to the SS Denpark at Barry Dock in South Wales. What a shock I received! After leaving the Duchess of York (22,000 tons) I now set foot on the Denpark (3,400 tons). She was a tramp ship and had been hauling coal and iron ore all her life. She had recently been sold for scrap, but the government had stopped the sale as was starting. The previous ship I was on had a crew of five hundred and the dear old Denpark had a crew of thirty-two including eleven Arab firemen. She was a coal burner and with a good tale wind could race along at about eight knots (approx. ten miles per hour). The Park Shipping Company of Glasgow owned the Denpark. They had only one other ship called the Broompark.
We sailed from Barry Dock with a full load of coal for Algiers. Our quarters for six deck hands were approximately twelve feet long by six feet wide. We had to sleep, eat and do everything else in this area. Water leaked from the rudder port and ran into the quarters and to fix it they drilled holes in the bulkhead to let it out on to the deck outside. For heat we had a potbelly stove, wired to the far wall, and once in a while the wire would break and hot coals would spill out on to the water. We then had a built-in steam bath. Whenever I got out of my bunk I slid right into my sea-boots or get wet feet. There were as many rats on board as there were crew and they used to run from rope locker, behind my bunk, out to the deck at night and sometimes I could feel them as they ran past. The Denpark was a “well deck” ship, which is explained at the end of this tale. The gully was amidships and the food (that’s another story) had to be carried from the gully back to our quarters. Most times by the time we got our meal it was cold and many times it was lost over the side. No one was able to walk along the deck without a harness fixed to a wire that ran the length of the ship. This would prevent a crewmember from being washed overboard if they lost their footing in bad weather. When carrying iron ore, the ship was constantly rolling like a pendulum on a clock. The deck crew and firemen had no toilets and for washing we had a space on deck equipped with a drain where we could shower. Water had to come from a hand pump outside the galley amidships. We were rationed to one bucket per man per day. This included making tea and washing. It didn’t bother us much as the only time we had a decent wash or shower was if we went ashore. We seldom washed at sea and never showered. We had to sleep in our clothes all the time and after a couple of days at sea we got used to the smells. The Board of Trade, which governed our rations, limited us to one pound of sugar each month and two tins of condensed milk every three weeks. We had to draw our rations from the storeroom and keep it locked up. The galley supplied us with tea at each meal.
Upon arriving in Algiers we commenced discharging the coal and after a couple of days we were told to move to sea again. France had catapulted to the Germans and as this was a French port we had to get out. We went along the coast to a small fishing port called Djidjelli where we got rid of the rest of the coal. I remember going ashore in this port and three other shipmates with me. We found the only hotel in town and each had a seven-course meal, with fresh bread between each course and a bottle of wine. All the chef wanted was a tin of fifty English cigarettes. From there we went back to Gibraltar and then to Cartagena, Spain to load iron ore. At the same time we were loading at the pier another ship was loading on the opposite side. She was flying the German flag and was taking it up the coast to Marseilles. Seeing that Spain was neutral nothing could be done about it.
We then returned to Gibraltar to await a convoy back to Britain. We discharged the ore in Grangemouth in Scotland, moved to Newcastle where we loaded coal again. The next trip was to St. Vincent in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. This was a very eventful trip as I saw two German U boats on the way out. The first one surfaced right in front of us at 11:00pm while I was on the lookout. I reported it to the 3rd mate, who was Officer of the Watch, and then ran around all of the quarters calling everyone out. We had no alarm system. When I returned to the bridge I found the 2nd and 3rd mates leafing through a signal book of about two hundred and fifty pages trying to decide what signal should be given to the other ships in the convoy. No decision was ever made and as far as I know the U boat is still there.
Other ships must have seen it because we all started to change course in different ways and the next morning when daylight came we could only see one other and she was the SS Sandsend from Whitly in Yorkshire. She stayed with us, both searching for a sight of the rest of the convoy, until just after lunch when she was hit by a torpedo and sank. We could see a lot of fellows getting in the lifeboats and rafts, but I’m sure many didn’t survive. We couldn’t do anything about it as if we stopped we would have been hit. At this point we were close to Cape Farewell at the south end of Greenland and were heading for the Cape Verde Islands. Just take a look at a map!
That evening our Arab firemen, being scared, refused to go on watch and shovel coal and packed their clothes and sat on the boat deck near the lifeboats, chanting and praying. After a lot of threats and arguing the oldest one, whom we called “Ali number one” volunteered and went down on his own. He shoveled coal for about eight hours solid and, if the SS Denpark ever did ten knots, she did then, and we got away from danger. After eight hours all the other firemen returned to their various duties and “Ali number one” came up. He was praised by all and literally carried up to the bridge for the skipper to congratulate him. Now the Arabs are supposed to shun liquor, but the skipper gave him a full tumbler of rum, which “Ali” drank right down. “Give me another sir and I will go down for another eight hours he said.” We found out later that he was married to a Scottish girl and was not as religious as his mates.
Two days later, while on our own, and heading south to our destination, another sub was sighted on the surface in broad daylight. We started a zigzag course and managed to elude him, but we think he was on the surface charging his batteries. In those days they used to run at night and then they had to come up to charge batteries with diesel motors.
We arrived in St. Vincent many days overdue and discharged our coal at anchor. I had a toothache since leaving England, about three weeks before, and the skipper took me ashore where I had it taken out. The population there is Portuguese and the dentist just yanked the tooth out, no anesthetic and surprisingly no pain. From there we sailed to Freetown in West Africa to load iron ore. Freetown was called the “White Man’s Grave” in the olden days and when the British Army was sent abroad to different postings they usually went for three years. Not so in Freetown as it was such an unbearable climate and full of malaria. It’s not much north of the equator and is very hot at all times. We did not go ashore there, but lay at anchor in the large river mouth. I was there for three weeks on one trip awaiting enough ships to make up a convoy. It was the monsoon season where it rains all day and then thunders and the sky is full of lightning all night. When I say rain, I don’t mean a drizzle, but torrential rain. The air is so clear there at night that you see hundreds of shooting stars at night. I managed to get the night watchman’s job and used to sleep in a hammock, outside under the gun deck all day and then be on watch at night. In the early mornings the African natives would come down the river in their dugout canoes with all their goods for the market. At evening you would see them returning back upstream into the jungle. I often wonder why they would sing and chant on their morning trip, but were silent at night.
During the daytime we used to do business with them, bartering old pants and shirts for mangos, limes and other fruit. The whole river mouth was full of sharks and the natives would hit the surfacing sharks with their paddles. The seagulls around there either had only one leg or were legless due to the sharks. This was a fascinating place and I saw a Manta Ray fighting with a large shark once quite near our ship. To load iron ore we had to sail up the river for about forty miles to a settlement called Pepel where a large conveyor belt brought the ore from the mine inland. We would leave Freetown in the morning, load the ore and be back in the evening at anchor. The river was quite narrow at Pepel and the jungle trees hung over the ship with all kinds of wildlife. On the two trips I went there we always had a few monkeys on board when we sailed for Britain. A few survived the trip home, but some died when it colder and one had to be shot. He got into the chart room one day and was caught chewing up all the official papers and secret codes. One other fell down inside the funnel when being chased by another.
As I said before, Malaria was rampant in this area and we were given quinine tablets and told to drink limejuice as a medicine against it. In spite of this I contracted it on our second trip there and was sick the entire trip home. We arrived home in January 1941 and discharged our ore in Middlesborough and were told we could not have leave as the Germans were on the brink of invading Britain and we had to be ready to sail again as soon as we loaded coal.
I seem to have taken a lot of time and space on this trip, but it was probably my most eventful one and Freetown, which is in the Protectorate of Sierra Leone, is a fascinating place. It’s off the beaten track and not many tourists ever go there, but it was a great place to form convoys. All shipping coming from South Africa, Australia and South America would head on their own, for Freetown. There the convoy would form, when enough ships were available, and sail with our escorts to Britain. A slow convoy would take about three weeks to reach Britain.
We sailed again and this trip we had a reasonably quiet trip to Secondi in the Gold Coast of Africa. Having discharged coal there we moved a few miles down the coast to Jaborandi where we loaded manganese ore. The ore was transported to the docks in carts, drawn by Yaks. These look like cows with oversized shoulders and heads. We must have been there two weeks as it was a very slow process. Then back to Freetown again to await convoy and eventually home to Middlesborough again. This second trip we had a new skipper, “Capt. Red Doyle.” He was a son-of-a-bitch, but they told us he was a saint compared to his brother “Capt. Black Doyle” who was skipper of the company’s other boat the SS Broompark. Our previous skipper, Capt. Paton, had been relieved of his duties, as he had been continually drunk in his cabin for over a month. While getting rid of our manganese ore in Middlesborough we were continually under air attack at night and some times during the day. There were a lot of steel mills on the river Tees and also a couple of shipyards. It is in the centre of the industrial North East of England.
Again, in January 1941 we sailed for Freetown for iron ore. This time we had no cargo outbound, but had a few hundred tons of slag ballast in the holds to weigh us down a bit. The ballast is the residue from steel mill smelting and is very heavy and hard. Most ships, when they carry such ballast, get rid of it in the port of their destination. Not the SS Denpark. They were too cheap and had us shoveling the slag into baskets as soon as we got into calmer waters in the South Atlantic we had to do our regular watch and then turn work to get this ballast over the side. We got no extra pay for this and our great skipper, sitting in his deck chair, drinking his scotch and soda, would be watching us every minute, the S.O.B. This was my fourth trip on this ship and I decided that I must change. However, when we returned to Britain and got rid of the iron ore in Middlesborough again we received a shock. Due to the threat of an invasion still we were not allowed to pay-off. Some of the men jumped ship and didn’t come back, but I stuck it out.
Then another shock awaited the rest of us. Some idiot, sitting in his office somewhere in London, and working for the Ministry of War Transport, decided to send the SS Denpark to Cuba to load raw sugar. Just imagine, the ship had carried coal and ore all her life, and now was expected to bring sugar home. On the outbound trip we had to work between our regular watches in hosing, scrubbing and washing down all the holds in readiness for loading sugar. We arrived in Havana harbor and were given orders to go to a small port called Tarija, which was about thirty miles up a river. The place was desolate with the only building we could see was a tavern on the wharf. The raw sugar came down on a rickety old rail line in hopper cars and we had to load with large buckets hoisted aboard with our denicks. All the lower holds were filled with unrefined sugar, mixed with a few tons of coal dust and ore that hadn’t been moved. We then moved to a larger port called Nuevitas where the rest of the holds were filled with bagged unrefined sugar. The town was quite modern and we could buy a bottle of rum for .50c and a Coke cost $1.00. Our second mate had his fill one night and decided to lay down in the park, near the docks. When he woke up in the morning his shoes and socks had disappeared.
I thought Cuba was a beautiful county and after Freetown, West Africa I guess it was. We arrived home, after sailing up to Halifax and then home in convoy and docked in London. I finally paid-off the SS Denpark August 05th 1941 after sailing a long tiring twenty-three months on her.
I subsequently found out that she was sunk on her next trip to West Africa. She was again loaded with ore and many of the crew was lost. Those that survived were picked up and landed in Trinidad. From there they were sent to Montreal and then given ships to transport them home.
Now let’s review what else was going on in the world. Germany had overrun Norway, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Holland, France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Italy under its dictator, Benito Mussolini, had joined Germany and invaded Albania, Greece and between them invaded Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and half of Egypt in North Africa.
The U.S.A. was still sitting on the fence and not willing to commit itself. It did, however, agree to supply Britain with arms and ships under a lend/lease agreement.
Then in June 1941 Germany invaded Russia. Looking back, this was a turning point in the war. As it advanced eastwards into Russia, it’s supply lines became so long that it could not hold on to its conquered territory.
In September 1941, I and about five hundred other seamen were sent from London to Greenock, in Scotland and we boarded a large French passenger liner called the SS Louis Pasteur. She was about 50,000 tons and a modern liner. Together with about two thousand Royal Air Force men who were coming to Canada to train as pilots and navigators we crossed the Atlantic to Halifax. We were coming over to man the ships that the U.S.A. were building and leasing. Canada was also building ships as fast as it could. We were only five days at sea when we berthed in Halifax and then came by train to Montreal. Here we were put into the Place Viger Hotel in East Montreal. It had recently housed army personnel, but the building was condemned as structurally unsafe so they housed us there. At first we were told that we would only be away from England for a few weeks, but it turned out I didn’t get back until June 1942, ten months. While in Montreal awaiting these ships we were allowed to find a part-time job as, although we were being paid as seamen, we could not draw any money until we returned to Britain. I worked a number of jobs, St. Lawrence Sugar, Eaton’s, and finally at Gourock Rope Works. The average pay then was .50c per hour and we had to ready to leave Montreal at two hours notice. Many of the Scottish fellows that were with us found jobs at Molson’s Brewery and always came in on Fridays with a full supply of their employers products. There were so many jobs available because the Canadian men had joined the forces and gone overseas.
One Friday night the “Battle of Viger Square” took place. The square was opposite our hotel and about one hundred Scots and about the same number of French Canadians decided to stir things up a bit. Those staying inside the hotel found great pleasure in dropping the heavy spittoons that were in the rooms, through the tops of the police cars from the balcony. Quite a night!
I stayed in Montreal until early December and in that time we had experienced a couple of heavy snowfalls. We were not used to this and had no heavy clothing to protect us so when I, and thirty odd others, were called and sent to Baltimore, it was a relief for us. The Officers for the ship joined us en route. They had been staying at the Queen’s Hotel in Montreal and we all met on board the SS Guimba in Baltimore. She had been built in 1917 and made one trip only to France to recover the dead American soldiers from that war and return them to the U.S.A. After that she had been laid up and not used. She was a bit of a wreck when we took over and the shipyard workers were still fixing things up as best they could. Things must have been mixed up a bit as one of the engineers decided to have a shower and when he turned on the shower, fuel oil came out. Within the next few days we had two firemen killed and a few others injured when a large flange of a steam pipe burst and scolded them to death in their bunks.
Retracing a bit to November, when the Japanese decided to bomb Pearl Harbour and sink 75% of the US Pacific fleet. This brought the U.S.A. into the war against Japan, Germany and Italy who formed what was known as the Axis. America then really stepped up production of war materials and ships.
We were still in Baltimore for Christmas 1941 and all the deck crew and the firemen went ashore on Christmas Eve together. This was quite unusual as for some reason we never used to mix. I well remember singing our heads off in “Henry’s Bar” and the landlord calling the police to try and stop us. After they came, and we bought them a round or two, they were singing as loud as we were. I woke up in the morning on top of a movie house marquee, about twelve feet off the ground, and snow all over me. I never found out how I got up there, but I had a hell of a job getting down.
My roommate, Sydney Mills, and I, had been invited out to Christmas dinner, through the Seaman’s Mission, to a wealthy Colgate Palmolive executives home in suburban Baltimore. He picked us up at the Mission, big heads and all, and drove us to his home. He, his wife and children treated us very well that day, but his first few words when we arrived at his home flattened us. He said the strongest drink he had in the house was Grape Juice. I can remember going fast asleep in his den before having our meal. So much for Baltimore!
We sailed before New Year and headed across to Trinidad. Syd, myself and a new fellow Bill Haves were together in one watch. Bill had never been to sea before and we had quite a time teaching him the ropes. He was sick for a few days and also scared. He got up into the crow’s nest for lookout on one watch and was scared stiff to come down. Poor old Bill! He became a good seaman after a while and a very good shipmate. We had a very good watch with Bill, Syd and myself. Bill left us after that trip and was lost in the South Atlantic later.
On the trip to Trinidad, which took about six days we found we had a steering gear problem and while the ship was bunkering (refueling) some so-called engineers came on board and tested the gear. After a couple of days we sailed only to return the next day with the same steering problem. These same engineers rigged up a temporary system and we limped into Rio-de-Janeiro harbor. Here the whole system was taken ashore and finally fixed for good .We then left Buenos Aires in the Argentine. All this time we were sailing on our own and had posted double lookouts. This was done because armed raiders were sinking many ships in the South Atlantic. Some of these were pocket battleships, Graf Spee, Admiral Sheer and Scharnhorst and also disguised merchant ships that had many six-inch guns. However, we reached the Argentine in February and commenced to load meat. The ship’s holds were completely refrigerated and, of course, after a day or so this system broke down. We carried on loading while it was fixed and then moved down the river to the town of La Plata. I was here on February 20th 1942, my 21st birthday, and seeing that La Plata was a dull place, Syd and myself decided to go back, by train, to Buenos Aires. We had a meal in the Seaman’s Mission and then started out. Every building on the waterfront is a tavern and we started at the east end and do not know how many we visited. However, come morning, we awoke in the lobby of a hotel on the outskirts of the city. We were both broke, and were suffering from the night before, so we headed for the Seaman’s Mission again. Canon Brady, an Anglican padre, saw us and when we said we were lost he said, “Yes, I can see you are.” He gave us the bus fare back to La Plata to join the ship and as soon as we got on board the skipper sent for us. He logged us five pound each and also a day’s pay. I said, “It was worth it!” He then said that my fine would be two days pay. My shipmate Syd then said, “Shut up or you’ll lose all your money.” I will never forget my 21st birthday.
We completed loading the meat and then sailed for Durban, South Africa. It took us about ten days to reach Durban where we stayed only a few days and then, with two other ships we sailed to Freetown to await a convoy. The reason that we had joined up with these other ships was that if a surface raider attacked us, at least one other could send off a radio message. If you were on your own this would have been impossible. We did get a scare one morning when a large ship shadowed us for a couple of hours, but then identified herself as a French troopship heading for Madagascar. We reached Freetown, awaited a convoy, and then left. As we were abreast of Gibraltar on our way to Britain, our condensers on the ship packed up. This is the system that converts seawater to fresh water for the boilers, which in turn make steam to propel the ship.
We were then directed to go into the nearest port, which happened to be Horta in the Azores. We arrived there in the morning and anchored off a village, which only handled small Portuguese fishing vessels. The only facility for getting us fresh water was a motorboat with some large portable tanks to carry the water. This took about three days with the motorboat doing about ten trips a day in order to fill our fresh water tanks. Our basin made some kind of a deal with the boatman that swapped bottles of Cognac for the ships supply of paint. I think we had about twenty bottles of Cognac in our quarters and quite a party went on that last night. I and some other drunks were found singing “Silent Night” outside the Skipper’s cabin. There was one fault about that as it was only May or June.
The next morning the basin received orders to paint the funnel and we tried to doctor up some grey paint with what we had left mixed with oil to spread it out a bit. As soon as we started to apply the “so-called” paint to the hot funnel it caught fire. This didn’t seem to please the 1st mate and the skipper so we were ordered down, lined up and fined another day’s pay each. We then sailed to another island, San Miguel and the port of Porta-del-Gada. We awaited orders there for a few more days and then sailed to join the next convoy heading home. We docked in early June and paid off the ship. What a trip!
There was one incident which happened in Buenos Aires which I think is worth mentioning. In February there, it is their very hot season, and after a couple of days painting the ship, we felt very tired. We requested a day off from the basin who took our request to the 1st Officer. He said he would have to record it in the ship’s log as a “day of rest.” When we received the news we all promptly went ashore. At the dock gate there was a tavern called the “First and Last.” We all called there and after a few jogs of refreshment we noticed the cook coming ashore in his uniform. The carpenter, who was with us, shouted, “Here comes Stevie, let’s throw him in the dock!” We all stood up, grabbed the cook and heaved him in. It was at that point we found out he couldn’t swim, so we had to get some ropes and haul him out of the slimy, oily water. “Good ‘ol Stevie!”
After I left the Guimba in Swansea I picked up a letter from my mother at the Shipping Office and noticed she had moved to an address in Hayward’s Heath. I was surprised when I reached that address to find my uncle Mike answer the door. It was only then that I found out what had happened. My mother had written to tell me that they were intending to get married and then a second letter told me all about the wedding. I never received either of these letters and was so surprised at these events. It was the best thing that happened to everyone concerned. She again had a nice home, financial support and I had gained a Father, a stepbrother and three stepsisters.
I had about one week at home and then, together with Syd Mills, left for Glasgow. Here we signed on a brand new C.A.M ship, the Empire Darwin. In those days all new ships, all captured ships and any re-commissioned ones were called Empire ships. The C.A.M stood for Catapult Armed Merchantman. We had a catapult running from the bow to the port side of the bridge, which had a Hurricane fighter on it. We also were the first merchant ship to carry radar and being fairly fast (12knots) we had depth charges on the stern. There were six of these ships built to combat the long-range bombers that were attacking convoys half way across the Atlantic. Britain could not spare aircraft carriers to protect convoys and these were the answer. If these Jacke Wolfe Condor bombers attacked a convoy we would fire off the plane, with the pilot in it. He would go up and try to shoot down the bombers, and when his fuel ran out, he would ditch the Hurricane and bale out. A destroyer escort would then pick him up. We never were attacked at sea, but we had to fire him off each time we neared port as his wings protruded over the side of the ship. Before we sailed again we would go out to anchor and a crane on a barge would place the plane on the catapult again.
The first trip on the SS Empire Darwin was to Gibraltar with arms, ammunition and foodstuff. From there we crossed to Spanish Morocco and loaded iron ore and took it, in convoy from Gibraltar back to Cardiff. The second trip we came across to Portland, Maine in ballast and returned to Glasgow with a full load of war supplies. We had a dozen Sherman tanks strapped down on deck as deck cargo. She was a very good ship; good accommodation, good food and we enjoyed sailing on her. We left her in Glasgow in the middle of November 1942 and she sailed on the dreaded Murmansk convoy to Russia. She made it there, but was sunk on the return journey.
I again had a few days leave in Hayward’s Heath and then reported to the Manning Pool in London.
Things were going from bad to worse at sea. Britain’s largest naval vessel the HMS Hood had been sunk by Germany’s Bismarck in the Denmark Strait, near Greenland, two other battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse had gone down at the hands of the Japanese near Singapore and the other large losses were the battleship HMS Bonham and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal were lost in the Mediterranean, while escorting convoys to Malta. Six or seven ships a day were being lost in the North Atlantic and many off the American East Coast. Things were also bad in the Pacific with Japan occupying most of the Pacific Islands and they also invaded the Philippines and were pushing through Burma towards India. The German battleship Bismarck, after sinking the HMS Hood, was chased across the North Atlantic by most of the British Fleet and was finally sunk not far west of Brest where she was heading, in France.
I again, with my mate Syd Mills, left London again by train and we boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth, the world’s largest liner, in Greenock. There were again about five hundred merchant seamen and nearly eighteen thousand Royal Air Force personnel on board and after four days we arrived in Halifax once more. The ship was so crowded that we lined up for breakfast and the last man in the Dining Room had the first man for lunch behind him. We were the first ones off at Halifax, as they wanted to get rid of us, as there had been such trouble between the Scotch seamen and the Royal Air Force who we used to call the “Brylcream Boys.”
We arrived in Montreal and were again stationed in the old Place Viger Hotel. It was winter and although we could still get temporary jobs while awaiting our ships we didn’t go far from the hotel. My mate Syd met a girl and was going steady with her and I did not see much of him at night. His girlfriend invited me to her parents’ home in Verdun one evening and while there she asked me if I would like to meet her work mate. What had I to lose? She arranged a meeting in a Social Club where a dance was being held and that was the first time I had set eyes on Miss Ishbel Jones. We arranged a date for the next week and with my only $5.00 took her to Murray’s for a meal and then we took in a movie with Greer Garson in it called “Mrs. Minivier.” This was the beginning of a great romance, which is still continuing. In January a notice went up in our hotel looking for volunteers to go to South America to man a floating dry dock, which was to be towed to South Africa. Syd and I put our names down and about a dozen others were sent to New York to start the trek to South America. After living about two weeks in the Woodstock Hotel on 43rd Street we were notified that the trip had been cancelled and we were to remain in New York. Syd and I objected to this saying that we volunteered and therefore we should be sent back to Montreal. We didn’t think we had a chance but, low and behold, they agreed and we came back to Montreal once more. Syd and I arrived in the morning and went to the CN offices where the girls worked and surprised them. I will remember Ishbel coming out to the door in a bright red blouse.
We stayed in Montreal again until April 18th, 1943 when we were sent by train to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin via Chicago, Milwaukee and Green Bay. The shipyard there had only built wooden tugs prior to the war and had received a contract to build three ships for Britain, which could navigate the old Lachine canal in order to get from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic. Obviously they had to be small enough to fit into the locks while traversing Montreal. Our ship was the SS William Homan as she was still registered at Sturgeon Bay. While in town, before we sailed, all the different service clubs, American Legion, Kiwanis and Knights of Columbus threw parties for us and each night all had a very good time.
She was a coal burner and after they loaded the coal, via a construction crane, we found they had put too much on board and we were sitting on the mud. We then had to discharge a few tons through the ash Shute and we finally sailed. We stopped at Sarnia, loaded grain, and then set off for Montreal. We had trouble again in the old canal between Brockville and Cornwall when we ran her aground. The bow was on one bank and the stern on another. We stayed there all night and the following day they stopped all the mills in Cornwall from using water and pumped it into the canal, which lifted us off the bottom. On to Montreal once again!
We navigated the canal and locks through the city to the last lock at Black’s Bridge where we caused chaos. It was the evening rush hour and the streetcars have to cross the bridge there and it took us about an hour to get through. In the meantime, Ishbel sat on the streetcar, fuming and muttering under her breath, until she saw the name William Homan on the ship. She knew I was on it and her attitude changed then.
We had a date that night and we stayed in Montreal about a week, discharging the grain, loading lumber for England and then sailed to Sydney, Nova Scotia. We awaited a convoy coming from Halifax and New York and when we finally all joined up, just east of Newfoundland, we were over three hundred ships. This was the largest convoy to cross the Atlantic and we arrived in Britain without losing a single ship.
Things were finally turning around for the better and we started to feel a little safer at sea and we were also getting more escorts as the Americans were building ships as fast as they could.
I had a few days leave coming to me and then I met my shipmate Syd in London. As we were both now keen to try and get back to Montreal, or at least North America, and as the Manning Pool in London was overloaded we requested to transfer to Liverpool. There were plenty of ships in and out of Liverpool so our chances were better here to achieve our goal. We reported to the Pool Office in Liverpool and I met an officer there who had been an instructor at H.N.T.A. where I had been prior to the war. He said he had a ship heading for Montreal who needed two A.B.’s. Just up our alley! Low and behold we crossed the river to Birkenhead and joined the SS Empire Chamois and through the grapevine learned she was heading to North Africa. She was quite an old tub and had been taken over from the French. Upon further investigation we found she had previously been supplying German U Boats with food and fuel off the coast of Iceland. There was nothing we could do but sail with her as we had already signed on.
We went, in convoy, to Gibraltar and then to Algiers with a full load of arms and ammunition for the North African campaign. We arrived in Algiers only a few days after the troops had invaded the whole North African and found it to be a very busy port.
Many incidents took place there, which I will record at the end of this report.
After discharging all our cargo we left to return to Britain via Gibraltar. We were back in Middlesborough and paid off on October 31, 1943. Not taking any chances again, Syd and myself reported again to the London Manning Pool.
Again, as usual, a few days leave in Hayward’s Heath and then we were sent to New York as a whole ships’ crew to take over a new Liberty ship. We came across again on the RMS Queen Elizabeth. Arriving in New York the whole crew, captain, officers, firemen and deck crew were stationed again at the Woodstock Hotel. Syd and I requested time-off to travel to Montreal to see the girls. Surprisingly enough, we were given permission and granted two weeks leave, which would take in Christmas and New Year. We were to report to the ship, the SS Samson in Portland, Maine on January 5th 1944. While in Montreal I stayed at a rooming house on Hutchinson St, and while there, “Proposed” to Miss Jones. After obtaining her fathers’ permission. We decided we would not marry until the war was over, but these good intentions were broken, as you will read later.
Syd and I went by train to Portland, Maine, where we met the rest of the crew who had come up from New York. She was still in Todd Shipyards, where she was built, and many things were not completed when we boarded. No galley stove, no bunks, no gun placements, and no lifeboats installed. The shipyard was working on her and we were told to go to the shipyard cafeteria for lunch. When we returned in the afternoon she was ready to sail.
We left Portland and headed south, through the Cape Cod Canal, through Long Island and down the East River to Brooklyn. There we loaded a mixed cargo of war supplies, food, clothing, etc. for the British troops fighting the Japs in Burma. When we sailed we had three large tugs on deck. They were going to Burma to tow barges in the river.
The S.S. Samson was, as I said before, a Liberty ship. These were an American and British design and were prefabricated at different parts of the U.S.A and then assembled in many shipyards on the east and west coasts of the States and launched. Every one of them was the same and were all welded together. Traditionally prior to this; ships were riveted together. They were approximately 5000 tons and had very good living quarters for us. Each one had the usual five-ton derricks and one 50-ton derrick for heavy lifts, such as tanks etc. They were oil-burners and had a set of torpedo nets, which were new to us. More about that later. This was the first ship we had been on that had a refrigerator and coffee urn in our mess room. What luxury!
After leaving Brooklyn we went south to Norfolk, Virginia and awaited convoy and then sailed for Gibraltar. Out of approximately one hundred ships I think at least eighty of them were Liberty Ships. We sailed straight through the Mediterranean to Alexandria where we refueled and then went through the Suez Canal, Red Sea and stopped at Aden. We then sailed on our own to Bombay in India. Arriving in Bombay at Eastertide we lifted off the tugs and then discharged half of the cargo. When this was done we were ordered to sail up the coast to Karachi where the rest of the cargo was discharged. Then we sailed back to Bombay and were ordered to load the tugs back on and take them back to Karachi. “Someone goofed!” I guess? While in Bombay a ship in a dock not too far from us caught fire and she had ammunition in the holds. She blew up and after two day when the docks, sheds and some ships were destroyed the fire was extinguished. We managed to escape much damage, but the ship was covered in fuel oil after one of the ships fuel blew up and was blown all over us. We had quite a paint job after that.
Bombay is a fascinating place, very modern, except the sacred cows, which roam around all over the streets. Syd and I visited the racetrack there and we won quite a bit of money on one race. I bought an India carpet and a carved table. The table is still in our home, but the carpet finally wore out.
We had an eventful trip back to the U.S.A via the Mediterranean again and in convoy from Gibraltar to Baltimore. We came back empty and as it was summertime we had very good weather. We stayed in Baltimore for a couple of days and then moved to Philadelphia. As soon as we docked there I asked for leave to go to Montreal. It was turned down so I took it anyway, travelling overnight by train to Montreal. I left the address of my wife-to-be with a shipmate and told him not o say a word, but to send me a telegram if she was ailing before the next Tuesday (This was on Friday). On Sunday we received a telegram saying that the ship was sailing on Monday. I took the train back on Monday, arrived at the dock on Tuesday morning to find no ship. I went into the shipping agents office and asked where the Samson was?
“Is your name Tarry?” The fellow replied.
I said it was and he gave me orders to report to the British Consulate.
For jumping ship the usual fine was a jail sentence. I reported to the Consulate and was told that he would be lenient and send me to the Manning Pool to await another ship. He did not ask where I had been to miss the ship and I didn’t tell him. He started to complete papers for me to travel to Montreal to my delight. Just as he was completing them a scruffy looking fellow came into the office and said, I am Captain, and I am in need of A.B. before sailing.” I could have sunk through the floor. The Consulate tore up the papers and said, “This is your man.”
The ship I was forced to join was the S.S. Fort Pitt a Scottish Company sip, which was taking on a full cargo of ammunition and bombs at Hog Island on the Delaware River. You were searched about half a mile before the ship for matches, lighters, etc. and no smoking was allowed while she was loading. After she sailed they didn’t give a damn if we blew ourselves skywards. The British Consul gave me some money to buy working clothes as mine had all gone on the Samson. She had been loaded between the Friday, when we docked, and the Sunday night and had sailed right away. She went on the South of France invasion with the American troops.
This was probably the worst trip I had made. Loaded with bombs that we could hear rolling around in the hold, the rest of the crew all “Geordies” from Newcastle and all my possessions gone, and fed up. We discharged the cargo in Newcastle and I had a bad discharge given me. ‘Voyage not completed’ was written in my discharge book. This was a no-no!
I had a few days leave at home and then off to Liverpool again. My shipmate for nearly three years had been put into hospital in Baltimore and I missed Syd. I was anxious to get a ship that was sailing for Montreal, but could not find one. You were never sure where the ships were going to during war-time, but through the grapevine in the shipping offices and dock side pubs you could get a good idea what ship was going where.
I finally signed on the S.S. Tilapa belonging to Elders and Fyffe the banana folk. In peacetime she carried bananas from the West Indies to Britain, but all through the war had been crossing from Canada to Britain with meat as she was refrigerated. A few trips she had made Montreal, but lately she had only gone to Halifax. She was old, but quite clean and carried a half dozen passengers, mostly airmen or nurses. These were quite uneventful trips as things were getting better in the North Atlantic with only a couple of ships lost each crossing in convoy. I made five round trips on her some Halifax to London, some to Liverpool and one to Avonmouth. I signed on August 17th 1944 and after five trips left her on April 29th 1945.
As I said before, things were improving all over. The invasion of France had occurred, the enemy was pushed out of North Africa, Russia was beating Germany back on the Eastern Front, Italy had catapulted and the U.S.A. was winning in the Pacific. Our convoys had many more escorts and on most trips we had small aircraft carriers with us to scout ahead and astern for U Boats. We even started to undress when we turned in, which was not wise any other times.
On my last trip on the Tilapa we had a ship in the convoy called the Pacific Enterprise. She had been running between Montreal and Liverpool, my secret research told me. As soon as we paid off in Liverpool I searched the docks and found her. I went on board and saw the 1st mate who promised me a job for her next trip. He told me when she was signing on and believe me I was first in line at the shipping office on that day. So, on the 15th of May 1945 I signed on and after a few days we sailed. She was a fast ship, 15 knots, very good accommodation and good food. Not many ships were of that class. I had sent a telegram to my future wife saying that I would be arriving in Montreal around the 8th of June. Make all arrangements to be married. I had already purchased a wedding ring in London, but was not satisfied with it. During the war everything that was made in England was called Utility Standard and seeing that it looked to me like a curtain ring…
After crossing the Atlantic to the mouth of the St. Laurence River the ship received new orders to proceed to Halifax instead of Montreal. What a letdown! I immediately asked the 1st mate for leave in Halifax and he was non-committal. However, when we arrived we found that the stevedores were on strike and we would be there longer than first thought. He gave me one week’s leave and I left the next morning, by train, for Montreal. Arriving in Montreal on the Wednesday evening we spent Thursday getting a special wedding license, seeing the minister, phoning everyone we knew and arranging the reception. I exchanged the wedding ring at a jeweler in Halifax before boarding the train for a more conventional one. Rev. John Downing married us in Greenfield United Church on a Friday afternoon, had the reception in the Jones’ house and left for our honeymoon to Ayers Cliff, Quebec at night. On Sunday we received a phone call that the ship had sent a telegram and wanted me back in Halifax on Monday night. This was impossible as it took nearly twenty-four hours by train in those days. However, we took the train from Sherbrook to Montreal and I left again for the East Coast and arrived in Halifax on Tuesday night. When I went to the dock there was no ship, but after visiting the Seaman’s Mission, where I spent the night, I was told she was in Bedford Basin awaiting convoy and the Skipper would be ashore in the morning to take me out to the ship. I think we sailed that day for Liverpool arriving there in early July.
By this time the war in Europe had ended and convoys were no more needed, so we could sail on our own and at full speed. I made two more trips on the Pacific Enterprise, both to Halifax and finally paid off for the last time in Cardiff on November 26th 1945. The British Merchant Navy then decided that they had too many seamen and we were to be returned to civilian life. The London Manning Pool was so crowded that I decided to report to the one in Cardiff. I spent half a day at different offices getting “de-mobbed”, and then went to get my train pass to get home. I was promptly told, “You are a civilian now, pay your own way.”
Here I was now, without a job, a wife in Canada, and very little money. My dear Mother was hoping I would be with them for Christmas, which was only two weeks away. I had not had Christmas with her since 1938.
The Passport Office in London was crowded with War Brides trying to get passports. The Canadian Immigration Office was about the same and I, after travelling all over the world, now needed a passport and a visa.
My stepfather Mike reminded me that Sir Noel Curtis Bennett lived close by, and he was King George’s private secretary at that time. I went to see him one evening, after he came home from London, and told him my problem. He took some notes and said he would see what he could do. The next evening he called at our house and told me to go to the Passport Office the next day and mention his name. This I did, and within ten minutes I had my passport. Now to the Canadian Embassy and I pulled a few strings there by buying one of the clerks’ his lunch. I left after lunch with my visa, happy as a lark, and then visited the Canadian Merchant Navy Office in Trafalgar Square. I asked if there were any positions on Canadian ships returning to Canada. They said there was a ship in Avonmouth sailing the next day that needed an A.B. I jumped at the chance and accepted it. I then had to take the train home, pick up my clothes, back to London and then the train to Avonmouth, where I arrived the next morning. I went on board the Elk Island Park and woke up the skipper who then took me ashore to the shipping office and signed me on. It was December 21st 1945 and we sailed that day. After a couple of days we encountered about the worst weather I had seen since being at sea. The sea had breakers twenty or thirty feet high and very high winds. The ship had no ballast and we were thrown around like a cork. Nearly all the other seamen were Canadian who were on their first trip and most were violently ill. I was asked to do double watch duty and spent many hours at the wheel trying to keep the ship’s head into the wind. At Christmas and New Year the captain sent two bottles of booze to our quarters, but the others being sick, would not touch it. The carpenter (Chippy as they were known) being a Norwegian old timer and myself finished off the skipper’s offerings. It was the worst trip I had ever made and we finally limped into Halifax on January 07th 1946. The Canadian Immigration Officers gave me a rough time, when they realized I had come to stay, as this means of entering Canada was considered illegal. However, I was given a Landed Immigrant Card and allowed to land. The captain of the Elk Island Park thanked me for helping out in getting the ship across and arranged that I receive a train warrant, including meals to Montreal. I arrived in Montreal on January 08th and we celebrated Christmas when I arrived at my wife’s home as they had the tree still standing.
Two months later a Canadian Immigration Officer came to the door asking for Mrs. Tarry. I told him she was not in and he informed me that her husband, Mr. Arthur Tarry would be leaving from England soon and he was sent out to see if there was suitable accommodation for him. I told him I was Mr. Tarry and had been here since January 08th. He went away and we never heard another word.
This was my first twenty-five years.
O.S. – Ordinary Seaman. Having some previous sea experience.
A.B. – Able Bodied Seaman. Having at least one years experience and able to steer the ship.
Basin – Boatswain. They are in charge of all deck person similar to a Foreman.
Chippy – The ship’s carpenter. Is in charge of sounding all tanks to ensure enough fresh water is on board and that the pumps ate taking some of the seapage into the bilge tanks.
Sparks – Radio Officer
1st Mate – 1st Officer. Always in charge of the 4-8 watch.
2nd Mate – 2nd Officer. Always in charge of the 12-4 watch.
3rd Mate – 3rd Officer. Always in charge of the 8-12 watch.
Watch – In most cases 4hrs duty. For seamen it was first hour lookout, second and third hours steering and fourth hour stand-by. Next man it would be first hour stand-by, second and third hours lookout and fourth hour standby. Last man would steer for the first hour, stand-by the second and third hours and the last hour as lookout. This ensured that there was always someone at the wheel, someone on lookout and someone on standby for any eventualities.
Skipper – Captain or “Old Man”
Derricks – Booms carried on board to load or discharge cargo. Most tramp ships carried twelve.
Tramp – A ship that takes cargo to any port, hoping to pick up another load of cargo there for any other port and keeps going. No regular route.
Regular Cargo – A ship that transports cargo on a regular basis from one port to another.
Bulk Carrier – A ship that contains bulk cargo such as grain, salt or any such thing.
Tanker – A ship solely used to transport liquids such as oil, gasoline or even water.
Cargo Passenger – A ship that carries mostly cargo, but has accommodation for a limited number of passengers.
Liner – A ship carrying mainly passengers, but has facilities to carry some cargo.
R.M.S. – Royal Mail Ship. Such a ship would be licensed to carry mail.
S.S. – Steamship. A ship propelled by steam.
M.V. – Motor Vessel. A ship with motor power.
Bridge – The section of the ship where the steering is done from and also contains the chart room.
Galley – Where all meals are cooked.
Crows Nest – A small housing, generally half way up the foremast from where the look out is observed.
Mast – The tall structures forward and aft. The forward one is the Foremast and the other the Mainmast.
Bow – Front or sharp end of ship.
Stern – Rear or blunt end of ship.
Amidships – Midway between Bow and Stern.
Foc’sl – Forecastle. Area where seamen live.
Hatch – Opening in deck from where cargo is loaded into holes.
Scuppers – Drains along side to allow excess water to escape over the side.
Bulkhead – Partitions between holds or accommodation.
Bunkers – Fuel to propel ship.
Flunky – Steward who serves the Officers.
Peggy – Junior man in deck crew who does all the “Jo jobs.”
Bollards – The steel stanchions on the dock to which the ship ties up to.
Channels – The excitement you get the day before docking.
Snotty – A new Officer making their first trip.
Port Side – Left hand side of ship facing forward.
Starboard side – Right hand side of ship facing forward.
Torpedo Nets – These were heavy wire mesh nets, which could be lowered over the ship’s side on long booms to protect against a torpedo.
Looking back I realize that I was one of the lucky ones to survive unscathed and come out of it all in one piece.
The first encounter with danger was while on the Denpark. We were returning to England from Gibraltar on the first trip, loaded with iron ore and were ordered into Weymouth, on the south coast of England, to have the degaussing gear fitted. This was a series of cables, charged with electricity, which were fixed all around the hull of the ship to de-magnetize her against magnetic mines. We were entering the harbor and a naval launch was racing towards us with a signalman frantically signaling with semaphore flags. I was the only on board that could read the signals as I had learnt it at H.N.T.S training school. His message was, “You are sailing over one of our mine fields.” We were lucky and got out of it without any harm.
One other time was while on the Empire Darwin and heading towards the Mediterranean. We were about two hundred miles west of Lisbon when eight or ten long-range bombers spotted us. They were at about 25,000 feet high and bombed us for about half an hour. There were no guns in the convoy that could reach that height and they had their own way. One dropped so close that when it hit the water and exploded it showered us with water. Not one ship was hit that day.
Relating another scary moment was while on the Empire Chamois. The water in the Mediterranean has a lot of phosphorous in it in certain areas. This creates a streak, clearly visible at night, if anything moves in the water. We were traveling on our own from Gibraltar to Algiers and I was up in the Crows Nest on lookout.
Now Porpoises always head towards a ship if one is near and out of the corner of my eye I saw the streak heading for the ship. Previously, we had been warned that a U Boat was in the vicinity and when I saw this streak coming at us, I rang the phone bell to contact the bridge, but when they answered I was too scared to speak. Just then the porpoise veered off around the bow and I knew what it was. The Officer on watch shouted over the phone, “Yes, it scared the hell out of us, too!”
When in port in Britain we were continually bombed at night, especially in Middlesborough, which had shipyards and many steel mills. Sometimes, while in port, we were asked by the shore batteries to fire our ack-ack gun at night to put a barrage up so that the bombers could not get down too low. We had a 12-pound anti-aircraft gun that could throw a shell to about 15,000 feet and I was the breach block closer on that gun. We used to take refresher courses every so often when in port on different guns. For this duty we received ten shillings extra per month. I received my certificates, which showed I was proficient in all types of guns.
When I was ordered to join the Denpark in late 1939 I was still a “Green Horn”. While in the shipping office in Barry Dock the shipping master read out the ship’s articles. This was standard procedure and told what you could do and what you couldn’t. He said that we would join the ship at 12:01AM on the Monday morning. I thought it a bit strange, but didn’t want to show my ignorance. What he meant was that we were being paid from midnight on the Sunday. I went to church on the Sunday night, and then hung around the Seaman’s Mission, which closed at 10PM and then hung around the streets until midnight when I went on board. Of course everyone else were in their bunks when I lumbered on board and woke them up.
One other amusing episode occurred while in Algiers on the Empire Chamois. The whole port was a bit jittery after a couple ships had blown up due to sabotage. We had no dock to tie-up to and therefore were tied alongside a Canadian ship. Coming back on board around midnight a bunch of our fellows got into a fight with the Canadians while crossing their ship. The Captain of the Canadian ship came down on deck and cooled things down and then invited the interesting parties to his cabin to shake hands and have a drink. One of our men involved was a huge Maltese fireman. While in the Captain’s room he saw a small alarm clock, which he promptly put in his pocket. When he came on board our ship he tossed it down a ventilator and then turned in.
In the morning our gunner came down aft and unlocked the door to the ammunition locker and heard “tick-tock-tick-tock”. He immediately sounded the alarm. Everyone from both ships had to rush ashore and we had fireboats standing by while some army personnel went on board with mine detectors. We couldn’t understand why the Maltese guy was smiling until after about an hour, the army came ashore with the alarm clock. No one ever knew where it came form.
When you were a “first tripper” you never knew what to expect. I can remember my first voyage on the Duchess of York, being sent down to the Engine Room to bring back a bucket of steam. Even later on there was sure to be some character on board ready to play tricks.
I sailed with dozens of different shipmates and from all walks of life. A jockey from Cardiff, an ex-London cop, a dead in the wool Communist, a skipper from Grimsby, a Maori cook from New Zealand, a deck boy from London who had never been out of the street he was born in, and countless others. We all mixed together and had great times together. I wonder where they are now, or if they survived to the end.
The following is one of the cruelest stories I know. I met one of the survivors and know it to be true.
The S.S. Danby, a collier, was sailing from England to West Africa in 1940 when, near the Azores Islands was hit with a torpedo. Two lifeboats were launched and about a dozen men in each got away. An escort vessel spotted one boat the next day and all were saved. The other one drifted south and west and out of the regular shipping lanes. Some of those in the boat were wounded, some severely, after a few days some died and their bodies put over the side. Their hard biscuits, which all lifeboats carry, ran out and their water was low. They drifted on and one by one they died until only two seamen were left. One by the name of Widdicombe and the other’s name was Tapscott. They were both from Yorkshire. After eighty-five days they drifted ashore on one of the Cayman Islands in the West Indies. They were both unconscious and a beachcomber found them still in the boat on the beach. He took them to a hospital clinic and they were from there transferred to a hospital in the US Virgin Islands. They were there until their health permitted them to be moved to the U.S. mainland while in the States they toured as celebrities promoting U.S. war bonds. I was in Montreal, in Place Viger, when they were sent there to await ships to go back to Britain. I met Tapscott and could hardly believe what they had gone through. Widdicombe was sent to Boston to join a ship, which was short, a man and then sailed home. Tapscott left Montreal and in Halifax joined a ship called the Baronessa. She was sunk on the way home and all hands were lost. War is a terrible thing.
One other moment I will never forget occurred in Gibraltar in June 1942. I was on the Empire Darwin and we were laying at anchor awaiting a convoy to return to Britain. I was on the 4-8AM-anchor watch and sitting up in the bow on the Sunday morning. It was somewhere near 5:30AM and the sun was just rising. Across the water I could hear music, and this is very deceiving across water because you cannot pinpoint just where it was coming from. Soon I noticed ships moving and after a while I could make out the large, but old, British battleship H.M.S. Barham. With her were two Cruisers H.M.s> Sheffield and H.M.S. Dorset and the new aircraft carrier H.M.S. Ark Royal together with a number of destroyers. They comprised what was known as H-Force, which used to escort merchant ships to Malta, which was under siege. They went out every so often to try to entice the Italian navy into battle. As the music became louder I realized that it was the Royal Marine Band playing on deck for the church service and the hymn they were playing was “Nearer My God To Thee”. They finally disappeared beyond the point and headed east into the Mediterranean. The following day we learned that the Barham had been torpedoed, caught fire and blown up with the loss of hundreds of men.
One of the unluckiest ships I heard of was a large refrigerated meat carrying ship called the S.S. Princess. She was on her way from the Argentine to Halifax for convoy when an armed raider spotted her while still in the South Atlantic. She was hit amidships by a shell and a few were killed. She was fast enough to get away from the raider and seeing there was not too much damage she made it to Norfolk, Virginia. Repairs were made there and she continued on to Halifax. From there, in convoy she was half way across the Atlantic when a torpedo hit her in the bow. She did not take on too much water and her bilge pumps could handle it. She continued on and finally made it into Liverpool. While there, and after she had discharged her cargo of meat, she was hit by a bomb and sank in the dock. She was raised and was still sailing at the end of the war. I believe they were having a job getting a crew to sail in her.
It might be worth adding now a few lines about our compensation for all this.
At the beginning of the war in 1939 an A.B. wage was twelve pound sixteen shillings per month (12.16s.) When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister he realized that without the Merchant Navy as Britain’s lifeline we could never survive. He immediately ordered that we get an additional ten pounds (10.00) per month as War Bonus. This made it a fair wage and much more than, the army, navy or air force were getting. What many people didn’t realize was that the forces were getting their uniforms supplied, where as we had to buy all our own clothing. Also, clothing was rationed in Britain, which meant we had to purchase most of ours elsewhere, generally the US or Canada, where prices were much higher.
When we finished a trip and were paid off we sometimes had sixty or seventy pounds to come to us. People forgot that we had been away for three or four months, which was about the average trip, and hadn’t received a penny since we sailed. On top of that there were no provisions for pensions to our next of kin if we did not make it and none to ourselves if we were injured.
In writing this I now realize that my first twenty-five years were exciting. I would not have missed it for anything. I have gained many things through these experiences:
: Memories. I can still picture the widest street in the world, Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentine. The dug out canoes coming down the river in Freetown, West Africa and the multi-coloured houses on the waterfront in Ponta-de-Gada in the Azores.
: Knowledge. Without such travelling I would not have learnt about the countries and their peoples as I do.
: A good life. If I had not been sent to Montreal in the spring of 1943, and had not visited the Canadian National Recreation Club on that Tuesday, I would never had met Miss Ishbel Jones. She later became Mrs. Ishbel tarry and has been such for 52 years. She has been my Samson Post, to whom I’ve attached myself to for strength.
Thank you for reading my story. If you have the time and energy please leave a review from where you downloaded this ebook. I’d personally love to hear from you, too. Thanks! Finch. Click on my image for contact info and to find out a little bit more about me.
This is a true account of a boy's struggle to support his broken family and the same man's quest to live life. A failed attempt to join the war as an under-ager, Art joined the Allied Merchant Navy. This is the remarkable story of his first twenty-five years of life. Heroes that we will not let be forgotten.