View Full Version : "Otranto" and "Orford", Marseilles, June 1940.

Alan Knight
7th May 2020, 11:29 PM
My father, the late Arthur "Notchy" Knight was a Baker and Pastry-cook by trade, who sailed with Orient Line from the early 1920's until 1946. He sailed on "Otranto" throughout the Second World War. "Otranto" was cruising in New Guinea when war was declared, and was ordered to return to Sydney, where it took part in the first troop convoy from New Zealand and Australia to the Middle East. From there she returned to the U.K. "Otranto" and her sister ship "Orford" were chartered by the Ministry of War Transport, and loaned to the French government, which sent them to Madagascar to carry French colonial troops and agricultural labourers to France. Both ships called at Mombasa to load cotton in the cargo holds.

The sisters arrived at Marseilles, and "Otranto" was ordered to berth in the port. Captain Baxter allowed shore-leave, and several crew members, including my father, went ashore on the afternoon of 01st June. He was alone in a bar when the Waiter walked up to him and asked "Are you from the English ship?" My father said "Yes". The Waiter said "You should go, something terrible has happened". My father ran back to the ship, and arrived just as the gangway was being hove-in. He threw himself on the gangway, as was dragged on board with it. Unbeknownst to my father, while he was ashore, the "Orford" which was in the anchorage, had been bombed by Luftwaffe aircraft and was blazing furiously. 14 of the crew had been killed. One of the bombs had hit the Engine Room, and there was little chance of fighting the fire. She drifted ashore and was gutted by fire.

"Otranto" had been ordered to leave the port and return to the U.K. at maximum speed. Several of "Otranto"s crew returned to the port, only to find that "Otranto" had sailed. These men, plus the survivors of the "Orford", were now stranded in Marseilles. According to my father's friend and shipmate Gilbert "John" Townsend, who wrote to me in 2004, the now-adrift "Otranto"s and "Orford"s decided to find the British Consul, who gave each man a Travel Warrant to Liverpool, and arranged for them to spend the night at a nearby British Army camp at the old racecourse. The Army medics dressed the wounds of the injured "Orford"s.

Next day, they set off by train to Tours, and thence to Cherbourg after three days in transit. Cherbourg was under Luftwaffe air attack, and the men took shelter until they could board the ferry to Southampton. John Townsend said in his letter to me that on arrival, they were given food, socks, and toothbrushes by the Salvation Army. John said that for the rest of his life, he never passed a Salvation Army collecting box without showing his gratitude for the help he received.

The survivors travelled by train to London, and reported to Orient Line's HQ, where they were given Travel Warrants to Liverpool to rejoin the "Otranto" in the Canada Dock. John said that after their escape from France, they felt rather heroic as they walked up the gangway. They were greeted by the Chief Steward, who said "Where the bloody hell have you lot been?" Merchant Navy humour never changes!

"Otranto" was ordered to Swansea, and then to Brest, where she picked up British soldiers. John Townsend told me that the deckhands and stewards where sent ashore to puncture the tyres and radiator hoses of British army trucks so that they could not be used by the Germans. "Otranto" was converted into a troopship, and then an Infantry Landing Ship, taking part in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. After the war, she returned to the U.K.-Australia run, and was scrapped in 1957.

Doc Vernon
8th May 2020, 05:21 AM
Hello Alan
Thank you for this Thread it is most interesting and well worth the read.
Good Threads like this one are needed here, so hope you keep posting more like this and everyone else too please, if you have something good please do share with us all here!
Thanks again

John Gurton
13th May 2020, 09:28 AM
My father was AB on the Otranto May 42 till November 42, he was there for the N Africa landings. Said he made a fortune playing the American GI's at cards. He also sailed on her 1931 to 1933, best story is that he took the MCC team out to Oz for the Ashes. One day the bosun asked the crew if anyone was good at bowling, Dad said yes he was a fast bowler so he spent the whole of the passage out to Oz on deck in the nets bowling for the MCC. I think it was the bodyline tour , so perhaps my Dad's bowling gave them a few ideas ??! I guess he must have eaten a lot of Notchy's bread rolls in his time on board ?

Des Taff Jenkins
14th May 2020, 04:25 AM
Someone on site was asking the other day whether the Otranto had been in Sydney in the 40s, and I was sure she had picked up troops there, now confirmed .
PS. enjoyed the story, though sad in parts.