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Article: Life in the Merchant Navy: Training, Rations, Dangers and Exotic Sights

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    Life in the Merchant Navy: Training, Rations, Dangers and Exotic Sights

    8 Comments by Doc Vernon Published on 14th October 2019 09:39 PM
    Kenneth Contributer of this Story


    Early in 1942 I applied to join the Merchant Navy. 16years was the minimum age for deck hands and 16 for catering staff. I persuaded my mother to sign the necessary forms.

    In September 1942 I entrained at Paddington Station for Lydney, a small whistle stop near the Severn River railway bridge.
    On arrival at Lydney I found about 30 other boys all enroute to the training ship. The hut, which comprised the station, was covered with the names and initials of past travellers.
    Later in the day a train arrived to take us over the Bridge to Sharpness Docks, and after a short walk we arrived at the TV"Vinditrix". The "Vindi" as she was affectionately known was an old German sailing ship and was now moored in the canal.
    Thirty boys arrived every Monday and the procedure was always the same. Allocation of a bunk on the bottom deck, then up to the mess deck for a supper of cold ham and bread & butter.
    This was great, but why did the rest of the trainees hang over our shoulders and ask "do you want that bit of fat ?"
    Breakfast the next morning supplied the answer to this question. She was a hungry ship.
    A plate of porridge and a thick slice of bread with a mug of tea was the ration. Dinner and Tea comprised of equally sparse meals. Sausages, Potatoes, Cabbage and steamed puddings were the order of the day. On Sundays we were given a boiled egg or black sausage for breakfast.
    As each long table finished their tea there was a rush for the gangway. Down onto the pathway beside the canal, up the hill, over a field and into Sharpness Docks. The first five or six boys to arrive at the dockers canteen would be able to buy a plate of dinner, the next group could get the remaining sandwiches the next a slice of cake, the rest had to be content with a mug of tea.
    As I said earlier, a total of 30 boys joined the ship every Monday. By Friday morning there would be 15 left of the original group. To get away from the ship they crawled out of the bed deck portholes in the middle of the night and over a pontoon to the shore. They then walked to the next railway station down the line and caught a train home the next day.
    If they were older than 17 years the police were informed and Call Up papers would be issued, under this age nothing more was done. I personally would have liked to go home but that would have meant losing an awful lot of face.
    While I was there one boy was stabbed with a fork and one of the Training Officers was floored in a fight.
    We were divided into two watches, and on alternate mornings one watch cleaned the decks and the other took part in physical exercises. The worse part of cleaning ship was emptying the sewage bin that had been used during the night by approximately 150 boys during the night.
    The physical exercises involved running about 2 miles to the Severn Bridge and back. The training officer in charge would run at the rear and use a branch of a tree to keep any stragglers moving. When you reached the ship there was a row of buckets waiting at the side of the canal. We were lined up in two rows and one line dipped their buckets in the water and proceeded to throw it over his opposite number. This was repeated for the benefit of the second line.
    My experience of this rather basic hardening up procedure was somewhat acute as this was winter time.
    Discipline was strict and talking after lights out was a punishable offence. One night the Officer asked for the offender to come out, no movement, so the entire area of some 20 boys were marched out onto the deck in the cold November wind and made to holy stone the quarter deck for one hour.
    The training course was for five weeks, first week learning to box the compass, (to the uninitiated this meant learning the 32 points of the compass and being able to quote them in their correct order).
    Second week learning knots and splicing (how I hated splicing the one inch freezing steel cable).
    Third week contents and stowing of gear in a lifeboat.
    Fourth week boat handling (how to sail a dipping lug). As part of the sailing lessons we rowed a lifeboat into the dock area to collect the days supply of bread. On one occasion the Officer turned his head away from us and in a split second one boy grabbed a loaf, a second tore a piece off and within seconds the loaf was torn to pieces and eaten without trace.
    The fifth week was for the lifeboat test.
    Each boy was summoned to the Captains cabin where he questioned you on the lessons you had learnt. The last questions were based on boat navigation. He would place a piece of wood on the table and say "this is your boat" then another piece of wood which indicated the direction of the wind. He then instructed you to sail the boat giving him the sail and rudder orders as he changed the wind and destination directions.
    As I did the wrong thing on the third tack, he picked up the wood slammed it on the table and repeated the orders, I fouled it up for a second time.
    "Get out of my cabin, you fool".
    Now, once you had attempted your test and failed you were not allowed to leave the ship until you eventually passed the test. This meant no running to the dockers canteen.
    After dinner the Captain sent word that any boy who wished to try again that afternoon could come to his cabin. The thought of no extra food was greater than fear of Captain Mussard, so I went up to his cabin. I made no mistakes this time and breathed a sigh of relief when he asked, what we knew was always the last question, "What would you do if your mast and sails blew away ?".
    At the end of the training session we were given a weeks leave.
    Returning to Sharpness we worked at various jobs in the everyday running of the ship, such as cleaning the brass and cooking the meals.
    British and Allied shipping was suffering tremendous losses in the North Atlantic at this time so replacement crews were urgently needed so early in the seventh week I received my orders. A train voucher, a letter to the Pool Office and a training report card.
    With a kitbag, bearing the painted insignia of crossed flags (a Union Jack and the Red Duster) a peaked hat (without any insignia) I left Sharpness and arrived in Liverpool at 4.00am in the morning.
    I was given a bed at the Lime Street Flying Angel Hostel, given some breakfast and instructions on how to find the Pool Office.
    Fingerprinted and issued with an Identity Card. My uniform, a plain silver coloured badge bearing the initials MN, was given to me..
    Later that day I received instructions to report to the ss "Anglo African" berthed at Birkenhead.
    It was dark when I arrived at the ship and I found the geography of a 7000 ton merchantman something of a puzzle resulting in sore shins from hitting unidentified objects.
    Anyway this was what I had wanted and a life and world of travel lay ahead. Here I was a Galley Boy, pay £ 4.per month plus £10.per month Danger Money.
    Somebody told me my cabin was aft and that I would be sharing with the Cabin Boy.
    The Cabin Boy told me that I should turn to at 6.30am in the galley and in the morning, still in darkness, showed me the way to go. I stood waiting, and at 7.00am the Second Cook arrived and wanted to know why I had not lit the galley fire and why I had not started getting things ready for breakfast.
    The Cook, somewhat hungover arrived soon after and asked the same questions.
    Apart from helping in any way the Cooks ordered, a Galley Boys job is to keep the galley clean, wash up, light the fires and peel the potatoes.
    Outside the warmth of the Galley it was cold and damp as we steamed slowly down the Mersey, past the Liver Building and out across the bar to the open sea.
    The "Anglo African" had a big "S" on the funnel, the insignia of the Sir William Rearden Smith Line , but the crew said it stood for starvation. Before the war the life of Merchant Seamen was hard and poorly paid but since the beginning of the war all ships were run by the Ministry of War Transport and Board of Trade regulations which laid down minimum rations were strictly adhered to.
    The regulations called for the issue of 1lb Meat, 1lb Potatoes and 1lb Bread per man per day, 3ozs Tea; 3ozs Coffee and 3ozs Pickles per man per week. Eggs were to be supplied for breakfast twice a week.
    In actual fact the men did not collect these rations with the exception of the tea, coffee and pickles.
    All meals were cooked in the galley, collected by crew members and taken back to their quarters.
    The "Anglo African" was considered to be a lucky ship. She was built in 1912, riveted hull (none of this welded stuff that the Kaiser Shipyards were producing in the United States at the rate on one ship per day) slow and solid. Flat out she could make 12 knots and was usually found at the back of the convoy at daybreak keeping company with the older Greek vessels, shepherded and cursed by the Royal Navy destroyers.
    She had had two sister ships, the "Anglo Australian" which had been lost "by act of God" in the Pacific in 1938 and the "Anglo Saxon" which was torpedoed in the North Atlantic in 1941 and which made its way into the history books due to the fact that the only two survivors established a record for survival.
    They were 81 days adrift in a lifeboat before landing in the West Indies. One of them, the 3rd mate after a spell in hospital and three weeks leave was posted to the "Siamese Prince". Three days out from Liverpool she was "bumped" but this time he was not so lucky and did not survive.
    Why we were considered lucky when the other two "Anglos" had met watery graves, I do not know.
    The crew comprised of the Captain, three Mates, three Wireless Operators, five Engineers, One Bosun, One Donkeyman, one Carpenter, eight Seamen, eight Firemen, One Chief Steward, one Second Steward, one Assistant Steward, One Cabin Boy, One Cook, One Assistant Cook and one Galley Boy. We also carried six Royal Navy ratings (DEM'S: Defence of Equipped Merchant Ships).
    The six DEM's were carried because we were armed with a 12 pounder and a 3.5 gun fitted on our stern and two Orliken Machine Guns on the wings of the bridge.
    As you can see from the above listing the Galley Boy is the lowest form of life on the ship. In fact there is one lower category, that is a Scullion. For the most severe penalty to be meted out to Cabin and Galley Boys would be the threat of demotion to Scullion whose rate of pay was one shilling per month.
    Other than washing up all the dishes in the Galley and keeping the woodwork scrubbed down the never ending job was peeling potatoes. (Oh how I wish I had had one of todays potato peelers) Every morning I accompanied the cook down to the cold room to bring out the days meat.
    Sometimes I would hide a couple of eggs in my trouser pockets but the Cook was up to this trick and would give me a sharp slap as we ascended the companion way to the main deck.
    Scrabbled eggs in the pocket were no use to anyone
    An early morning job was to pump up water to the Captains bathroom. The pump was in an exposed position on the deck and six o'clock in the morning, in the North Atlantic winter, was not the happiest of times.
    Before leaving Liverpool the ship had been fitted with steam pipes to all outside cabins and the Merchant Navy Comforts Fund had distributed thick woolly jerseys and socks.
    Our cargo was mixed supplies together with bombs, ammunition and 493 tons of High Octane Fuel. Why 493 tons ? Because if a Merchant Ship carried over 500 tons they had to pay the crew an extra £ 1 .per month. As deck cargo we carried crated aeroplanes and two hugh locomotives. All this added up to one thing, we were bound for Russia and a very low chance of survival.
    We joined a convoy of some sixty ships escorted by six Destroyers and several Corvettes and sailed North West up towards the Denmark Strait. Every night you would hear explosions and sometimes see hugh pillars of fire as some unfortunate merchant ship became a victim of the war in the Atlantic.
    In the morning you could see gaps in the lines of the convoy before the Royal Navy, acting like any good shepherd, put us all back into a more compact and manageable fleet.
    We turned South and eventually feeling the weather getting warmer we turned due East and sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar.
    Part of our escort now comprised of Submarines.(I have never been able to figure this out).
    The German planes would sometimes strafe the lines of the convoy with machine gun fire. It was somewhat disconcerting to see the bullets sparking on the steel deck and to know that just below was the 493 tons of Gasoline surrounded by bombs and other firepower. I once had the opportunity to man the Orliken. The only problem was that when the magazine was emptied I didn't know how to reload.
    About three days later we tied up in Algiers Harbour. The invasion of North Africa by the Allied troops had begun a few weeks before and we were the second convoy to arrive.
    For me the gates of the world were opening, this was my first step on foreign soil.
    When a person has been born and lived all ones life in a city and had very little exposure to the outside world everything one sees and hears is, or rather should be, of interest.To me the harbour and town of Algiers was no exception.
    At the far side of the dock area there were trees with Lemons growing on them. I had never seen a lemon tree before this. On the dusty streets the arab merchants sat on, or walked beside little carts drawn by donkeys. In the distance we could see the Caspah district. When we docked a British Army officer came on board and we were assembled on deck to hear him tell us of the dangers of visiting various bars and in particular the dangers that lurked in the Caspah. He told us that since the troops had landed there had been 54 murders of soldiers who frequented the Caspah. They had been killed for nothing else but their clothes and their boots.
    Naturally the first place a sixteen year old boy made for was the Caspah. Across the Main Square past the Post Office and up a narrow street that wound upwards towards the top of the hill overlooking the town.. The rules were simple, don't go by yourself don’t stay in the district after dark, don’t get drunk. Passing the darkened doorways many voices call you to buy the many wares offered. The range was from the brassware to the dirty postcards and from the bars to the offers of young girls.
    Having sold my old and somewhat dirty raincoat for the princely sum of 200.French Francs, the Second Cook asked me if I would sell his old suit for him. He said he wanted at least 400 Francs. I gave him 400 Francs and considered the extra 400 I received to be payment for the risk. In port the work of the Galley Boy in peeling potatoes continued in its endless brainless daily task.. The Cook remained drunk most of the time. The saucepans in the racks in the Galley were filled with vino and the Cook always sang songs. He said he always sang so the Old Man would never know if the was drunk or not. The song “When in dreams it seems it’s a memory, a memory of old San Antoine” was one of his favourites.
    Any scraps of food left on plates or scraped from cooking pans was a source of a deal with one of the Arab dock workers. I agreed to save all scraps in a tin and give it to him each night. In exchange he gave me his dagger. I still have that knife. It was made from an Italian bayonet, cut short and inserted into a wooden handle bound with copper wire and inserted into a wood and leather sheath. We discharged our cargo and left Algiers for home, or rather we thought we were going home.
    In a small convoy we made our way back to Gibraltar where we lay at anchor for nearly a week and were not allowed ashore. When we eventually steamed out through the Straits in convoy we turned South. This was not the way home. Six days later we were in Freetown Harbour in Sierra Leone .It was hot and sticky and during the three weeks we sat anchored off shore we were only allowed ashore for one afternoon. The Freetown that I saw was a very dirty town, open sewers and unmade roads, dogs roamed everywhere and children played in the rain sodden dirt and filth. I bought a beer that was served in a “glass” made from the bottom half of a bottle. I understand they pour oil into the bottle and then splinter the glass at the level of the oil with a red hot piece of metal. One hot afternoon soon after we arrived several of the crew dived over the side for a swim. We were very quickly ordered out of the water and threatened with dire punishment. Why ? Because not only did the harbour contain all the effluent from the town, it was home to many sharks. I rate this episode as one of the more stupid thing I have done in my life.
    We fished and caught large Catfish. If you boiled all the flesh off the head of the fish the bone structure resembled a crucifix. One afternoon while the Chief Engineer was having his siesta we hooked a fine specimen on his line, by its tail. He was not amused.. Several of us caught Malaria in this country which was once known as the white mans grave. Two crew members died from Blackwater fever and I caught a type that remained with me on a recurring basis for many years.
    At long last we left Freetown and joined a convoy of 19 ships steaming South. After about three days each ship received their orders as to their destination. Under cover of darkness the convoy was scattered and Captains ordered to maintain radio silence and to steam as fast as they were able if they sighted the smoke of another vessel.. We learnt that this last order was because the pocket battleship “Admiral Sheer” was raiding merchant ships in the South Atlantic. As most of the ships were not capable of any great speed it was a somewhat unnecessary instruction. During the journey South we only saw smoke on the horizon once. The old “Anglo African” did all of her 12 ½ knots that night. The very rivets seemed to shake as we sped along. It was probably another ship of our original convoy but neither ship would ever know.
    Being consumed with the never ending task of peeling potatoes and knowing that in the storeroom there were cartons containing tinned potatoes, I evolved a plan to cut down on the hated task. For every spud peeled I threw one over the side. We did eventually run out of potatoes but only within a couple of days of reaching port.
    As we entered the Rio de la Plata the Radio Officers were picking up messages and sending our own signals for supplies to be ready on the dock.. Remember we had embarked on what was to be a six week trip two weeks out, two weeks in port, and two weeks home. Now we were already almost twelve weeks from home. In the Rio de la Plata we saw the “Graf Spree” lying scuttled in the main channel within sight of the coast of Montivideo. The Uruguaian and Argentine authorities were both neutral although pro German. All Merchantmen, armed as we were with a 12 pounder and a 3.5, had to remove the breach blocks from the guns and the customs sealed the magazines.
    On arrival in Buenos Aires we found that the ship in the next berth to us was flying a swastika on her stern. The British Embassy sent a man to give us instructions as to how we should behave and which bars and establishments were used by the Germans. After the blackouted cities at home and in North Africa it was good to walk through the brightly lit streets of the capital of this vibrant South American city. One night I was with the cook in a bar with a somewhat unsavoury reputation. It was either the Derby Bar or the Colon Bar, in the Passe Colon. (I’m not sure which, but the reputation of both was much the same.) Late in the evening they short changed the Cook who by this time was feeling no pain. His reaction was to pick up the table, full of empty glasses, and hurl it across the room. In the fight that followed (there were other crew members present) the Police arrived and arrested the Cook. Somebody had pushed me into a taxi and returned me to the ship and it was not until I awoke the next morning I had any recollection of the previous nights activity, nor did I know what had happened to my teeth. They were missing from my mouth.
    Since a ship cannot function without the Cook, the Captain secured his release and after a day in a BA jail cell he was returned to the ship.
    The Liberty Inn was a club established for the use of Allied Seamen. It was run by a very large lady named Big Kitty. I think she was a Londoner now living in the Argentine. The evening after the bar episode she served me with a drink and then proceeded to upbraid me, a silly 16 year old boy for drinking, getting drunk, causing disturbances and losing my teeth. At the end of her tirade she said to come to the bar to see her at 10.00 o’clock. At the appointed time I was introduce to an Englishman who presented me with an envelope containing my false teeth. It appears that the teeth had been arrested with the Cook but that this man, who ever he was, had been able to secure their release with further questions.
    The shops in Buenos Aires were full of all the things that were either unobtainable or rationed in England. The ship was fumigated while we were in port and we were loaded with hides as was the German ship tied up ahead of us. While we were in Buenos Aires the government of the day (the Ramirez government if I remember correctly) was overturned and I witnessed the riots in the Plaza del Mayo where buses and trams were wrecked and set on fire.
    After leaving BA we went to Montevideo to load a cargo of canned dehydrated beef before steaming North back to Freetown. In spite of the fumigating in BA the ship was alive with rats within two or three days at sea. They must have come aboard in the hides. We used to chase them round the deck with clubs of wood and throw their carcases to the sharks that always followed the ship. A convoy was formed at Freetown and we returned to Liverpool some three weeks later.
    I had developed a hernia while trying to move a large barrel of flour in the storeroom and left the “Anglo African” after “working by” the ship while other crew members went on leave. I had purchased a large stalk of bananas in Freetown to take home to my Mother and each day I carefully removed any of the overripe fruit. The end result was one banana packed in cotton wool and protected in an empty Bournville cocoa tin sent by mail to Mum. I doubt if she was able to eat this blackened offering. The hernia, which turned out to be a double hernia, was dealt with at Dulwich Hospital. I had had visions of the thing strangulating at sea and the Chief Steward operating on me on the saloon dining table, and reading how to do it from some medical book. About this time I suffered my first recurrent attacks of Malaria. Every third evening about seven o’clock I would start shivering, running a high temperature and singing songs (like “Ten little men with hammers keep hitting me on the head . By eleven o’clock all was normal and I slept all night and awoke the next morning feeling somewhat weak. The funniest thing was when I went to the local cinema and at the appointed time my teeth started to chatter and nothing could be done to stop it. We had to leave the show and go home.. Eventually a visit to the Doctor stopped the evening entertainment by the administration of Quinine tablets. These interludes continued for many years at ever decreasing intervals.
    On reporting to the Pool Office in London I was posted to the “Fort St James”, a new freighter of some 7,000 tons. I joined the ship as Cabin Boy. Now I was one step up from the bottom.. The ship was in dry dock for repairs to her propeller and as the London Docks were a prime target for the nightly air raids the noise was unbelievable as the anti aircraft guns fired continuously into the air and bombs landed nearby. You felt like a pea being shaken in a tin can.. We left London and travelled up the East Coast to Immingham Docks (near Grimsby). From here we continued up the coast, round the top of Scotland, and into Oban to await a convoy.
    A Cabin Boys work started a 6.00am when he balanced and staggered his way up to the bridge with a mug of tea for the First Mate. Washing up the dishes, keeping the pantry clean, cleaning the silver and helping the other Stewards were my main duties. As the U-Boats were still very active in the Atlantic the convoys travelled vast distances on zig zag courses and so again it was half way to America before turning South and through the Straits of Gibraltar to Port Said. I swam ashore one night and had to wait a long time on the bank to get back to the ship as a playful porpoise was cavorting between me and the ship. They only want to play but in doing so will rub all your skin off with their rough skin. I don’t think we went ashore very much as we remained at anchor, some distance from the town for most of the time and had to pay a water taxi to ferry us to the dock.. On one trip ashore the Arab tried to take two of us up some dark waterway and had to be forcibly returned to the main waterway. Mind you, they could not be blamed for attempting to extract compensation from the us, A group of soldiers, sailors or merchant seamen could wreck havoc to their shops and stalls. The main problem was that their means of adjusting the situation was usually somewhat drastic and final. The bum boats would come alongside and a rope would be lowered for the Arab trader to tie to a basket in which he would send up his goods. After a great deal of argument a deal would be struck and the money placed in the basket and lowered to Arab. One day I saw one of the crew, who rightly or wrongly felt he had been swindled, drop a heavy lump of iron straight down into the traders boat.. It went straight through the hull and a column of water shot into the air. Here was an Arab looking for some unfortunate and possibly unsuspecting merchant seaman to wander into a dark alley that night. In the streets the Arabs offered “ dirty pictures “ for sale. These copies of scantily dressed females were printed in sepia colours on cheap post cards. Production and Art work. circa 1920.
    Our cargo of war supplies, shells, bombs, vehicles, etc was discharged onto lighters at Port Said and after about two weeks we steamed South down through the canal. As warships and tankers had a priority of way we were required to stop in the Great Bitter Lakes to make way for these vessels to pass ahead of us. This gave the opportunity to dive off the ship into the crystal clear warm water. In these salt lakes it is almost impossible to drown as you just float on top of the water.
    Continuing down through the Red Sea and along the coast of Africa we visited Mombasa and finally docked at Lourenco Marques in Mozambique. We sat alongside the dock in Lourenco Marques for four weeks waiting to load our cargo. Eventually a shipment of coal from the South African mines arrived in big railroad trucks on the dockside. Giant cranes (by l944 standards) lifted each truck and deposited its contents into our holds. We were loaded in 24 hours.
    On the way back North we again stopped in Mombasa harbour but were not allowed ashore. The local traders came out in their boats and were given permission to spread their wares on top of the hatch covers. One of the items for sale were green parrots in hand made wicker cages and when it came time for the ship to leave one trader was missing one of his parrots.. He was finally ejected from the ship minus his bird and it was not until we discharged cargo that a somewhat flattened parrot was found beneath a heavy crate. A seaman had tossed the cage into the tween decks and while cargo was being stowed a heavy crate had been repositioned..
    When I joined my first ship, the “Anglo African” in Liverpool I had purchased a secondhand wind up gramophone together with two records, “Paddy McGintys Goat” and the “Halleluh Chorus” for the sum of £1.. I also bought the “Warsaw Concerto” for 4/-d. In Mombasa I sold the lot for £8. Why we were in Cagliari Harbour (in Sardinia) I do not know how but I do know that I was infected by the bugs that infested our bunks and the Harbour Doctor diagnosed Impetigo and Scabies. This meant I could not work or keep company with other crew members. I slept in the wheel house and applied ointment provided. During the day I went ashore and caught a tram (or rather hung onto its sides like the locals) to a sandy beach outside the town and lay in the warm Mediterranean sunshine, dipping in and out of the clear blue warm water. The medication and salt water and sunshine did a quick job and I was back at work in three days. Our next port of call was Bizerte on the North African coast where our cargo of coal was discharged. Not in 24 hours as it was loaded but two weeks. An endless chain of women worked throughout the day and night shovelling it into wicker baskets, passing it to the next person, out of the hold, up to the deck, across to the side and down to the dockside. I should explain that passage of baskets out of the hold was by way of women standing on crudely made ladders and down to the dock by a series of wooden platforms fastened to the side of the ship. Outside Bizerete Harbour we joined an American convoy, not to go home, but for the journey to the United States. The convoy comprised of the usual 6O ships but the big difference was the number of escorting warships. Not that this made a great deal of difference as we lost several ships during the Atlantic crossing.
    Our destination was Baltimore, Maryland where we picked up a cargo of foodstuffs destined for England. During the two weeks in port I did not go ashore a great deal as a Cabin Boys pay did not go very far on American prices. I went to a movie that started at midnight and when it finished about three in the morning I had Bacon and Eggs in a cafe. Nothing ever seemed to stop or close up. In the foyer of the cinema I put a dime in a drink machine and held out my hand for the expected bottle but received instead a flow of liquid.. I should have seen the paper cups installed on the side of the machine. This is not quite as silly as it appears because these machines were new and not generally known outside the U.S., at that time. Two of our crew ended up in jail after setting fire to the Stars and Stripes hanging outside a Mariners Club. North to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join a convoy for England. Halifax Harbour presented a strange sight of half ships. During the war the Americans evolved a program to build a ship a day. They were called Liberty Ships and one of the reasons for the speed of construction was that they were welded hulls. The problem was that in rough weather they broke their backs and split in two. Often one half, usually the stern, was towed back to port. We used to say they were only good for 11 trips, 1out and 1 home. It was an uneventful trip home across the North Atlantic until two days out from Liverpool when a tanker fully laden with Aviation fuel was hit. She was in the next lane to us and I was asleep. The explosion rocked us and I was out of my bunk, into life jacket and up to the lifeboat in seconds. I thought it was us. The tanker completely disappeared. What did annoy me was that a week later the Government announced that during the month there had been no Allied shipping losses in the North Atlantic the previous month. So much for propaganda.
    Our lifejackets comprised of soft kapok filled jackets that you slipped on like a coat and tied the ribbons at the front. In the pocket of my jacket I carried an airtight tin (a 2oz tobacco tin) which contained a bottle of Chlorodyne, some asprins, sticking plaster and my lucky mascot. The theory being something for the stomach, something for the head and something for cuts. November 1944 was cold, damp and miserable as the Fort St James left the Mersey with a cargo of war supplies including NAFFI items like cigarettes and whisky for the Far East. I had been promoted to Assistant Steward and could now forget the potatoes and the washing up sink. My job was now to look after the cabins of the three Mates and the three Radio Officers and to serve meals to the Officers in the Saloon. General duties included helping the Chief Steward with the issue of the tea, coffee, sugar, etc and the sale of cigarettes and beer to the crew. One day I decided to make a fancy dessert to make up for some of the offerings supplied from the galley. I asked Fred Teasdale, a 17 stone happy Ships Cook from Hull, to make me some pastry cases. I filled them with tinned fruit and jelly, put them in the Pantry fridge and departed for my afternoon siesta. At three o’clock I found a soggy mess where the jelly had soaked through the pastry. Not withstanding this diaster, ingenuity prevailed. I quickly made another jelly, put it in the freezer, and an hour later chopped the solid jelly into the pastry cases, topped with cream and was duly acclaimed for serving something different.
    The Mediterranean was now securely in Allied control and Churchill was attending a meeting in Athens. One night the Mate on watch found the sailor on the wheel was steering due North for the coast of Crete. When questioned he said he wanted to see Churchill. The bottle of lemonade he had in his pocket was in fact full of whisky. The next day a full search of the ship was made and pilfered goods confiscated. The Mate did request the sailors to dispose of empty boxes left in the hold and not take a few bottles from each box. “If you are going to take it, take a box at a time and throw the empty box over the side”.
    Port Said, through the Canal to Suez and on down the Red Sea to Aden. A few days later we were in Karachi. My only memory of Karachi was walking along a crowded street in the dock area with a Garry (a horse drawn open coach) trotting beside me with the driver offering to take me to all sorts of enjoyment offered to sailors. I eventually got rid of him by giving a sharp jab to the flank of his horse with the point of a penknife. His horse took off and the last I saw of him he was disappearing down the street at a very fast pace. Needless to say I also quickly disappeared from the immediate area. From a sailors viewpoint, in the dock area (which I suppose is the most that is generally seen, by seamen,) the streets were dirty, the people poor and buildings run down. Like all Indian cities (Karachi is of course now in Pakistan) the sacred cows roam the streets at will and children and beggars hold hands outstretched. The beggars are in many instances badly handicapped in one form or another and present themselves in all manners of grotesque ways. The children accost you calling out “no mama, no papa”. You can only reply “no annas” or simply ignore them, as one small offering would bring every child and beggar within miles upon you.
    Two days down the coast to Bombay where the balance of our cargo was destined I found a similar city to Karachi, bigger and maybe just a little cleaner. In the evenings you could walk the streets, drink Indian beer or sweet drinks, or strong black coffee in the many bars and cafes. The cafes served many varieties of sweet cakes and ones ears were constantly assailed by loud Indian music.
    Leaving Bombay we proceeded in ballast to Mauritius,--- An Island in the Indian Ocean called by Charles Darwin,: “ an opulent jewel set in a scintillating sea, “ an Island that was a prison for Matthew Flinders, an Island that was home to the now extinct Dodo bird, an Island that held the key to my future.
    Port Louis harbour was on the shores of a crystal clear sunlit sea with a background of two high mountain peaks. I remember it as a small rather dirty native village, nothing to see or visit except run down bars. We swam in the warm sea and lighters carried out a cargo of Sugar that was loaded into our holds.
    After two weeks we sailed for Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). One day out from Colombo I went sick with a very high temperature and was suspected a suffering from an attack of my recurring Malaria. When we arrived in port the Port Doctor recommended that I be sent ashore to Hospital for a few days. It was very hot in my small cabin and a constant noise from the donkey engines working the derricks unloading the bags of sugar was not the place for a sick man. The date was 11th March.1945. I was taken by launch and car to the Colombo General Hospital and put into a cool clean bed in the Memorial Ward. There must now be a gap in the story as the events of the next few days are obscure, forgotten or maybe never consciously known. From the medical notes it appears that I had fever and headache together with pain in joints. The usual fever would subside on third day. but this fever continued. The diagnosis was Anterior Poliomyelitis.(Polio) At first I was not told what was wrong with me. T The Doctors did not tell me, but during a visit to the Hospital by Lady Mountbatten, the Doctor was asked what was wrong with this patient. Now I knew.
    Two Tamil boys were assigned to look after me at all times. Sidde Wadderman was the dayboy and the other the night boy. The night boy slept on the floor under my bed. One of Sidde’s duties was to take me to the bathroom and place me in a salt bath each day. He was not very strong and one day dropped me on the floor as he lifted me out of the wheel chair. I was not very heavy, as I had lost about 15 kilos in weight One problem that developed was that Sidde did not use knives and forks, etc and he himself did not eat European food. He therefore was not at all sure how to feed me. The result was that I would receive all the potato first then all the greens followed by all the meat. To remedy this situation I requested eggs on toast for all meals. So it was two eggs for breakfast, two for lunch and two for dinner. After a week of this the Sister (a European) came and fed me and gave the boy a few lessons.
    In Ceylon I was given treatment in accordance with the Kenny treatment developed by an Australian, Sister Kenny. A form of treatment that involved keeping all limbs moving and not allowing any form of immobilisation. Siddi would lift me into a wheel chair and take me down to the wall alongside the road where I could watch the ever-changing scene. Beggars, children, saffron clothed Monks and people, people, always more people.. The Merchant Navy Comforts Fund kept me well supplied with cigarettes and I was able to contribute to the boy’s meagre wages with gifts of tins of 50. Wills Woodbines.
    My Medical notes read “He was repatriated to the United Kingdom as a cot case.” I was taken to the docks and out into the harbour. They then strapped me in a stretcher, lowered a rope or chain from the deck and having hooked the stretcher onto the chain “loaded “ me onboard. I remember thinking “ what if the rope breaks”. A watery grave at the bottom of Colombo Harbour.
    The ship was the 22,000 ton “Reina del Pacifico”. a troop ship bound for England. I think somebody made a mistake when allocating quarters as I was installed in the Officers section. I think my status of 2nd Steward had been mistaken for that of 2nd Lieutenant. Two days out an Army Officer in a bunk near me died from Typhus. The entire ward was placed in quarantine and a section of the outside deck allocated exclusively for our use.
    The war in Europe ended during the trip home but during the time we were crossing the Indian Ocean I was not at all happy at the thought of being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and not being able to do anything for myself. We arrived in Liverpool about 12th June.1945. My pay stopped.
    This was the end of a short, but happy career at sea during the latter years of World War 2.

    For 58 years I have been attempting to obtain a Disability Pension from the British Government, but they still maintain that it was a normal occupational hazard and not a war risk injury. An eigthteenth century poet wrote:
    God and our sailors we adore,
    When danger threatens, not before.
    When dangers over both are requited
    God forgotten, sailor slighted.



    With thanks to the BBC

    Senior Member and Friend of this Website

    R697530

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  3. #2
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    Default Re: Life in the Merchant Navy: Training, Rations, Dangers and Exotic Sights

    Minimum Age for Going to sea in 1940.
    I read Names of Ships sunk in the 1940's, by U Boats, The Crew lists for some of the ships (British) states the ages, one of the boys is listed to be 14, and many of 15 years old, There are of course many more aged 16.

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  5. #3
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    Default Re: Life in the Merchant Navy: Training, Rations, Dangers and Exotic Sights

    Two neighbours of mine, Billy Dempster, age 15, of 15, Settle Street, Bolton, when his ship was torpedoed 600 miles east of Cape Race.
    and Joe Farnworth, age 17, of 17 Dougill Street, Bolton, killed by shelling and sinking of Gloucester Castle, south of Ascenion Island.
    Brian
    Kids today couldnt do it.

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    Default Re: Life in the Merchant Navy: Training, Rations, Dangers and Exotic Sights

    Lou Barron, now departed and one of the sites most revered members went o sea at the age of 14.
    Forged his age to get away, torpedoed and spent much of the war in a prison camp controlled by the Japanese.

    No doubt there were many more like him and many who never came back.
    Happy daze John in Oz.

    Life is too short to blend in.

    John Strange R737787
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    Default Re: Life in the Merchant Navy: Training, Rations, Dangers and Exotic Sights

    Quote Originally Posted by happy daze john in oz View Post
    Lou Barron, now departed and one of the sites most revered members went o sea at the age of 14.
    Forged his age to get away, torpedoed and spent much of the war in a prison camp controlled by the Japanese.

    No doubt there were many more like him and many who never came back.

    Yes indeed Lou was one hell of a Man,small in stature but so big in Heart.
    Gone from us now but never to be forgotten.
    With Respect!
    Senior Member and Friend of this Website

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    Default Re: Life in the Merchant Navy: Training, Rations, Dangers and Exotic Sights

    A great man and a good fiend was Lou,
    He was 17 years old when he was on the Gloucester Castle with my friend Joe Farnworth [ above] , The ship was shelled and sunk by the MICHEL of Germany , south of Ascension, Joe was killed by the shelling and Lou was rescued by the MICHEL and then transferred to the tanker and taken to Singapore and handed over to the Japs for the duration, He weighed less than six stones when released.
    I was on the QE2 bound for Cape Town, I had taken a wreath with me and when we got to the site of the sinking of the Gloucester Castle, we had a Service over it, The 93 dead men women and children had at last a Service, I took the Service Sheets home to Joe`s Family, they were now happy it had been done. RIP.
    BELOW, CAPTAIN RON WARWICK CONDUCTING THE SERVICE OVER THE GLOUCESTER CASTLE,

    Brian
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    Last edited by Captain Kong; 24th October 2019 at 08:55 AM.

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    Default Re: Life in the Merchant Navy: Training, Rations, Dangers and Exotic Sights

    Off the coast of the Solomon islands on one cruise the ship was slowed so a service could be conducted over the site where the Australian ship Canberra had gone down in WW2.
    Broadcast all over the ships internal TV system so that all could see it.
    Very emotional service conducted by some members of the Returned Services League.
    Wreaths over the side with a speech from the skipper.
    It is good to know that we still remember them.
    Happy daze John in Oz.

    Life is too short to blend in.

    John Strange R737787
    World Traveller

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    Default Re: Life in the Merchant Navy: Training, Rations, Dangers and Exotic Sights

    Thank you for posting this narrative. It helps me understand a little better some of Dad's life in the Merchant Navy. Also, the life my uncles had on the Australian convoys through much of the war.

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    Default Re: Life in the Merchant Navy: Training, Rations, Dangers and Exotic Sights

    This is excellent: interesting, good English, well written.
    Philip Evans

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