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Chapter 4. At sea.

We drove down from Londonderry to Larne, near Belfast, and the army shipped the car across for us to Stranraer. That was quite an exciting trip. It was in early Jan. and we stayed a night in Dumfries which is an interesting town. Round the square tower of the church, instead of the usual sort of battlements there were letters saying Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots. Dumfries was a real Scottish border town. Then we went south over Shapfell. I couldn't imagine what was wrong with the car. It was completely foggy and we could only see a few yards and the car went slower and slower. Of course we were climbing up Shapfell. Then we stayed a night in Warrington, a very depressing sort of a place.

We returned the car to my parents and stayed in Gloucester for a while. Then, leaving the car behind of course, we went to stay at the Glen. We stayed at the Glen because there wasn’t much room for us at Lonsdale Road, Gloucester, at that time because they had an evacuated teacher staying there. We stayed at the Glen until the Admiralty arranged the transport for me to Alexandria. We stayed at the Glen for a good 5 weeks—I think— before the transport was arranged. Mavis was pregnant when I left for Alexandria.

Now comes the bit that I really don't understand. Back in Londonderry, I had taken part in equipping some of the ships for the invasion of North Africa. I didn't know what was happening of course. I just knew the ships had to be equipped; I had no idea where they were going. But that was it: they were going to N. Africa and I was on one of them. The soldiers had just embarked and they were having drill on what they were to do if there was an air raid or submarine attack. If there was an air raid, they were to all run down to the base of the ship, and if there was a submarine attack, they were all to go to the top part of the ship. The whistles were blowing and these chaps were running up and down the steps and as they did so they said "baaa, baaa".

I had a berth on a ship called The Manchester Shipper which I had to pick up in Liverpool. On the way, I was told to report to the medical department of the Admiralty. There, one Admiralty medical surgeon said that I was going under very secret orders and there was an executive captain as well and he kept on telling this surgeon that he mustn't say anything more about this. I was reminded that I had signed the Official Secrets Act and so on but when the plans started to work I would have a commission in the Admiralty Medical Department because it was necessary for relations with the Americans, and free French of course. I was told not to say anything about this, of course, but given various letters to get the necessary uniform. I’ve still got some of it.

The convoy assembled and the Manchester Shipper turned out to be the ship carrying the Commodore of the convoy, the Commodore's ship. It was a very nice ship, too, had just been built and had been to America and been equipped in America and was now coming into service. I was in a cabin with 6 other people. One was an armaments supply officer, another was a victualing store officer, another was a crane driver and there was also a businessman of some sort, all of whom were being given passage on this ship. There were about 8 nurses going to various appointments, 2 of them in Alexandria, another in Sudan. Anyway they were all on their way there and there were some other people there from the forestry commission—oil engineers and executives.

Anyway, off we sailed. We boarded this ship in Liverpool. Then it went well up north before heading in the right direction. The ships were going in convoy and each convoy has a commodore. The commodore’s ship is supposed to lead the convoy. We were on the commodore’s ship and there was a curious selection of government and semi-government employees on this ship. A sergeant of marines and I think four communications ratings, people who could wave flags and work radios and so on and the commodore.

The Manchester Shipper had been designed to go back and forth across the Atlantic but also to go right up the Manchester Ship Canal to Manchester, so it had a very shallow draft and this meant that in any sort of weather it rolled abominably.

Then, instead of going south (which one would have thought we would do, to go through the Mediterranean which was still not properly open, although all the North African battles were over and Sicily was being invaded) we went north. The weather deteriorated. Oh it was terrible! If the ship had been torpedoed I would have been pleased.

What made it more interesting was that there was a number of naval ratings who were to work a 4" gun on the stern of the vessel and Orlicons—that's a sort of heavy machine gun thing -- , about 8 of them, distributed about the ship. Two of them were on the bridge, I know. We were supposed to have a gun crew, the sergeant was there but there were no men for him.

The orders were to sail, so sail we did, without the gun crew. These naval personnel didn't turn up, so the ship had to sail without them. We had one sergeant of marines who was an expert in gunnery presumably to command this gun in the stern and so he said: “Well, we've got all these Admiralty people, they must learn to work the guns and take watch for aircraft and submarines”. The commodore said: “Well, all these people are Admiralty employees of one sort or another, so they’ve got to do it”. So the first thing that I had to do was to arm an Orlicon gun.

Well, the weather was bad and I felt terrible. My job was on the bridge. I suppose I should have taken it as a great compliment being put on the bridge along with the Commodore. The first thing to do was to arm these two Orlikons. This is a thing with two barrels and the shots are contained in drums with a spring that automatically puts the next shell in position when the first shell is fired. You have to sit almost inside the thing and when you fire it the shell cases go all over the place. No one gets hit. The Orlikon works with a big drum on which the shells are arranged in a sort of spiral. It’s supposed to unwind the spiral and shoot at a high rate. The first thing to do is to load one of these drums so you turn a key on top and you notch it round and that makes room for one shell, put that shell in, notch it round and you put the next one in and so on until you have put in the requisite number, 40 odd. Ah, but these shells must be carefully lubricated and the lubricant supplied seemed to me, in my state of health, to be based entirely on rancid cod liver oil. It smelled terrible and the ship was bouncing about all over the place. So I had a bucket to be sick in and a bucket of lubricant for this case of shells, with this thing between the legs notching it on and of course it had to be in the right order. So I sat on the bridge loading these drums with the bucket beside me for 3 or 4 days. After that time, I suddenly felt better.

The Orlikons fired ball, a solid chunk of metal, incendiary, which is supposed to set fire to anything it touched, and tracer. Those three had to go in and in the correct order. Dear, oh dear. This gun was to be used and, yes, we fired it in anger. The sergeant of marines came along to see if we had got this gun properly armed and of course mine jammed. Of course, it was my fault—I hadn’t put the shells in properly or something. But I heard afterwards that these Orlikons are prone to jamming if you fire only one shot, as they are meant to fire a whole string of shots. If you hold the trigger so that you only fire one shot, the next shell doesn’t come into position properly so it jams. That’s my story, anyway.

We did this during the daytime and in quite high seas and I felt terrible. Then, after a while, the moon became nearly full and we had to have submarine watch on deck at night. So we had to get up in the early hours of the morning and put on our life jackets. I put myself by my Orlikon by the bridge. The Commodore used to walk up and down on the bridge. He was a very pleasant chap and he would stop to chat occasionally. I did feel that I had a rather exposed position being on the bridge along with the Commodore.

It was certainly a great joke to these four communications ratings. This gun just had three rings and a cross in it, so you had to do it all by eye. There was no optical view finder but there was on the 4-inch gun at the stern of the ship. One of the Admiralty people who was in my cabin was a vitualing supply officer— his job was to see that the fleet got its food. He was going to Alexandria, and he had this gun in the stern with a telescope on it.

Anyway, we went through the Straits of Gibraltar and then we had a cruiser escort. It wasn't my watch on the bridge, so I was talking to our friends who were manning the gun on the stern. This gun had a sighting telescope and we wanted to see this cruiser—just look at it—so we trained the gun on the cruiser to look through the telescope. Almost immediately, someone from the bridge started yelling because the cruiser was signalling and asking what were we doing with our guns. Dear, oh dear. The Commodore said: “What are those people doing?” It was quite safe, the gun wasn’t loaded or anything.

In the Mediterranean, we had all got over our seasickness and were beginning to feel rather pleased with ourselves. Of course, we had loaded all the guns, anyway, and all the drums had been filled and there was no cod liver oil to be manipulated. The sun came out and although the wind was still blowing hard it seemed quite enjoyable. It really was blowing hard because the ship keeled over and then it sort of tried to make up its mind whether to go a bit further or whether to come back and it would wobble a bit and then go back and when it was well over it didn't matter whether you walked on the bulkhead or the floor, you could use whichever you liked. We used to walk along the corridors and gangways with one foot on each putting your weight on whichever foot was required. One became quite skillful at changing over to walk on the other bulkhead as the ship heeled over the other way. The other ships in the convoy used to disappear completely because the waves were so high. They would just disappear. On the bridge, sometimes you're looking right down at the sea to see them and other times you're looking right up to see them, but one got to quite like it.

Some of the other people still remained quite ill. This business man remained flat on his back, poor chap, he couldn't take it. One of the things I remember was, in our bunks, when the ship heels over the pressure of your body on the bunk is less because the mattress is accelerating away from you so you're sitting on the top of a mound. The mattress mounds up with less weight then the ship heels over the other way and you're compressed into the mattress. With a little practice, you can deal with that without any trouble at all.

I never got used to all the movement. One would have thought that with a ship like that they wouldn't have had hanging things but they had hanging light fittings and things like that. There were no doors to the cabins in case the ship was torpedoed and the doors might jam and prevent you escaping. So there were curtains and these sometimes swung into the cabin or they swung right out of the cabin. Having a bath was quite fun too. We bathed in salt water but were allowed to have a shower in fresh water. It was quite a luxurious voyage really. I don't know where the salt water came from, probably from the sea. It came into the bath cold and you opened another valve and you blew live steam into it to warm it up, until it was the requisite temperature.

The ship journey took five weeks because we went miles up north for some extraordinary reason. I suppose there was some sort of action on in the North Atlantic which we had to avoid, I don't know. Anyway, eventually we turned and went a long way south; so far south that we saw flying fish. I could see the idea of sea serpents. There were the rollers, then this cloud of flying fish going from roller to roller looked almost as if there was a serpent.

 

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