Blue Bar

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar

Continued from Part Two: Life on Board


When we joined her, the "Orion" was unloading ground nuts. Ground Nuts have a sickly sweet smell all of their own. As I performed the Bridge Watch Duties to which I had been assigned, the smell of the nuts was quite strong. Being situated right above one of the holds the bridge caught quite a 'whiff' of the smell. I felt quite important, leaning over the bridge rail, looking down on the Dockers below as they hoisted up bags full of the produce, and swung them down on to the quayside.

Bridge Watch Duties provided me with much to look at and inspect. Again, I was filled with awe with all I saw and touched. The central object of my attention was of course, the wheel. I couldn't resist standing on the small raised platform, and giving the wheel a small turn. Nothing happened of course, but it was exciting! Next, the Binnacle containing the compass. I slid back the two small brass doors and looked at the compass card within. Again, the compass was quite mute, but it looked important. There were several brass telegraphs which I knew sent messages to the engine room staff telling them to start, stop, slow down, or reverse the engines. There seemed to be telephones almost everywhere I looked. All were labelled with the name of the place that was on the other end of the line. There was a huge glass case containing rows of little circular windows. Each window represented an area of the ship, and should a fire break out, the ship's smoke detectors would come into action, and a red flag would appear at that particular window indicating to the officer on watch, just which part of the ship was on fire. Yet another large glass fronted case contained the master switches for opening and shutting the many watertight doors on the ship should an emergency arise. Looking forward from the wheelhouse, I could see the men working the hatches, I could see the mast, the derricks, and the bags of ground nuts being swung ashore. Beyond that, I could see the fo'c's'le head, the anchor windlasses, the mooring ropes, which seemed to be apread all over the place, either in straight lines, leading ashore, or in coils on the deck, and the bow of the ship. Two of the wheelhouse windows were circular with what appeared to be a small motor in the centre. I learned later that these windows, at the press of a switch, rotated at a considerable speed, and a small arm at the bottom of the window wiped away excess water. In other words, they were a sort of sophisticated windscreen wiper!

I sneaked a look into the Chart Room - the "Holy of Holy's". Here, I was absolutely thrilled to see a chart of the river Clyde, up which the ship had just sailed to get to the docks in Glasgow. The Chart looked extremely technical (which, of course, it is!) with all the little numbers on it - which I later discovered were the depth of the water in fathoms at that particular spot. I also saw the ship's chronometer. At that time, I had no idea of the importance of this instrument to the navigation of the ship. To me, and at that time, it was just an elegant clock in a wooden case.

Having savoured of the delights of the interior of the wheel house, I ventured on to the wing of the bridge. From the wing of the bridge, I could look down on the dock side far below me, and see the bags of nuts being put into the sheds. Looking aft, I could see the tops of the lifeboats, all neatly stowed in line, one after the other. For the first time, I became aware of the huge funnel, with it's two huge horns, and it's large black cowl on top. I can even remember feeling vaguely disappointed that there was only one funnel!

Memories of those (for me) very exciting first few days aboard are now fading, but a major thrill came for me on the day when the order came to 'Shift Ship'. I didn't have a station on the fo'c's'le or down aft, where the crew actually did the "tying up" of the ship. My place was on the bridge. The bridge suddenly became a hive of activity, and I was up there, awaiting the Staff Commander's orders. Even though I had to stand well "out of the way", I still had an excellent view of all the proceedings. At one stage, I was sent somewhere or other to deliver a message. As I was returning to the bridge along "C" Deck, I suddenly became aware that the space between the ship and the wharf was wider than it usually was. I stopped and looked over the rail at the wharf, some thirty odd feet below. Sure enough, the space between the waterline and the ship was growing ever wider. The water was covered with a thin film of groundnuts and their husks, which had spilled out of the bags during discharge and were now floating on the still water. I watched them for a few minutes, swirling in the gentle eddies which were generated as the ship pulled away from the wharf. I remember the feeling of elation that at last, I was actually moving, I was at sea! I was excited, but I also felt a bit of disappointment. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had half expected to at least feel a shudder or some other mechanical indication that the engines had started up, or maybe some other physical sign to denote that the ship had left the wharf, (possibly a gentle swaying of the ship?) and was now at sea. Nothing so dramatic occurred. The reason that I had not felt a shudder, soon became embarrassingly obvious. Alas, we would only be moved to the other side of the dock, and the tugs, or even the ship's own ropes would pull us over there, making the use of our own engines completely unnecessary! Here, the ship was cleaned up, and made ready for sea. This clean up took another day or so.

It was during these last few days in port that I was summoned to the bridge by the Staff Commander, and informed of what my duties as a bugler would be. As the ship entered or left port, I would be required to play a call that would summon the crew to "berthing stations". If the ship was entering port to tie up alongside a wharf, then I had to play a certain call which would summon all the crew to their respective fore and aft stations where they would be required to handle the heavy ropes and wires used for tying up the ship to the wharf. If, on the other hand, the ship was going to anchor, then only a small number of men would be required on the fo'c's'le head for this duty, and a different call would be required.

However, once the troops came aboard, it would also be my duty, at sunrise and sunset, to blow a single blast of the bugle in EVERY part of the ship in order to inform the troops that a total blackout was either starting or finishing as the case may be. Just as in civilian life, a complete blackout of all ships at sea was essential for the collective safety of the convoy, and my bugle call was to inform all aboard that all port holes were to be closed, and deadlights screwed down. No lights were to be exposed on deck (not even cigarettes) until a further call was made at sunrise.

Orders and intentions are one thing, putting them into practice is another. In order to play my "entering or leaving port" call, I had to stand at the end of an alleyway that led to the crew's quarters. As the men came out in answer to the call, there was always one or another who would put his hand over the mouth of the bugle, thereby muting the call - and sometimes inadvertently pushing the mouth piece into my teeth, causing not a little inconvenience to me. Since I had to live with these men, there was nothing to be done other than to put up with this childish behaviour, hoping that the one or two offenders would (eventually) grow up, and leave me to get on with the job I was paid for, no matter how archaic it may have seemed to them in that day and age.

Playing for the troops was an entirely different matter. My orders had been to blow a single blast in EVERY part of the ship. Troop ships are very large passenger ships, which have seemingly endless miles of alleyways, scores of cabins, and any number of troop decks. Even to many new crewmembers who had not been on large ships before, this could be quite daunting. To me, a small boy of fourteen years, it was seemingly insurmountable. Like any other problem, once you get to know your way around, things can be relatively simple. In fact, on most large ships, the major alleyways run fore and aft, and there is one major alleyway on each side of the ship - port and starboard. There were five decks to be visited, from "A" deck right down to "E" deck, and several areas on each deck where the troops were either living in cabins (as were the officers, some ATS personnel, and some NCOs,) or in troop decks which were spaces that had been stripped of their cabins and made into large areas where the troops lived and slept. No one thought to tell me exactly where to play the bugle, so I visited as many parts of the ship as I thought appropriate. This seemed to suffice, especially the call at "sunset" when all the soldiers were up and about. However, the "sunrise" call was a different matter. Sometimes (especially in the tropics) sunrise could come as early as 5 AM. I was still expected to let all and sundry know (by a single blast on the bugle) that port holes could now safely be opened, and cigarettes lit whilst on deck. I was not a popular person, and in many instances I was regularly verbally abused, and quite often I had lifejackets, boots and other items thrown at me. Over the days and weeks that followed, I probably shortened my round in order to avoid the more "boisterous reception" areas.

Things came to a head, when after some time at sea, instead of being called from my bunk and told to blow the bugle, I was summoned to the bridge, where the Staff Commander was accompanied by a soldier in uniform who the Staff Commander informed me was an RSM, who was a person of considerable power and influence in the army. It would appear that the night before, Orion had been informed by one of the escort ships that a light had been seen during blackout hours, and that should the light appear again, it would be shot at! This of course, was a serious breach of conduct, which could endanger all aboard, and quite rightly, the powers that be took it extremely seriously. The Staff Commander had deduced that maybe I had not been visiting all areas of the ship, and that therefore; there would be men in some areas who might not be aware that a total blackout was in existence. He had even guessed the reason as to why I might not have visited all areas of the ship. He then introduced me the soldier who was standing next to him as "Sar'nt Major Smith" (or whatever his name was) and told me that the RSM would for the next few days at least, accompany me on my rounds to see that ALL parts of the ship were visited, and so that ALL troops aboard would know that a total blackout was in existence.

As instructed, the RSM came with me on my rounds. From "A" deck to about "C" deck things were OK as most of these areas were still fitted with cabins, and even if the occupants had been annoyed, I would have been long gone before they could have opened the cabin door. It was on the larger troop decks that the RSM came into his own. Before the echoes of the bugle had died down, the usual profanities started. At that moment, all that I had been told about the power and influence or RSM's came into being. Standing stiffly to attention, he bellowed out in a voice that to say the least, took me by surprise, "WHO SAID THAT"? At the same time, he switched on the lights (the blackout was of course, over) and approached the first unfortunate who happened to put his head above the blankets to see what the commotion was, and bellowed in an equally frightening voice "REPORT TO MY OFFICE AT 0700 HOURS". This charade continued on each of the remaining decks we visited. On each occasion, one or two unfortunates ended up on the receiving end of the RSM's early morning bile. The RSM accompanied me for a few more days, when I suspect he decided that a satisfactory result had been achieved, and he would rather remain in bed until a more civilised hour. In any case, the abuse and missiles had ceased after the first morning!

Eventually, the "real thing" happened. We left the quayside, the ship's engines started up, the ship left Glasgow and slowly sailed down the Clyde to Greenock where we dropped anchor, and awaited our orders. There were several other large ships there, (some even larger than the Orion,) also presumably awaiting their orders, as were we. It wasn't long before the tenders started arriving. Over the next couple of days, we took on board several thousand troops, who were to be our "passengers" to wherever. As might be imagined, ship movements, and especially troop ship movements were a matter for the greatest secrecy. Even once the troops were aboard, no one knew exactly where we would be taking them, although rumours abounded. For instance, they all had topeees (pith helmets) in their kit, so it was assumed (quite wrongly) that we would be taking them to India.

Once the troops were aboard, we lay at anchor, awaiting the rest of the ships, which would eventually make up the convoy. I can't remember just how long we lay at anchor, (I was probably too excited, seeing all these huge ships scattered like confetti about the anchorage!) Whilst at anchor, we had our first of many boat drills. With probably three or four thousand troops aboard, regular boat drill is a daily essential. There were six boats on either side of the Boat Deck. The boats were housed on "Welwyn Gravity Davits" and lowered and raised by wire falls controlled by large electric winches. Because as a troop carrier, Orion had more "passengers" than it would normally carry, each regular lifeboat carried a "nesting" boat. A "nesting boat" is a smaller boat which sits inside the larger boat, and gets lowered from the same davit, but using a separate set of rope "falls". In this way, all the extra people aboard the ship can (theoretically at least,) be accommodated in lifeboats. The electric winches lower the main boat, first as far as "C" Deck where it picks up its main passengers. It is then lowered down to the water, where the "falls" are unhooked. The nesting boat is then lowered by hand by two crewmembers paying out the rope over small bollards on the boat deck, they are guided by another crewmember who stands between the davits, and has a clear view of what is happening to the boat. ---- Unlike the ridiculous scenes we witnessed in the recent epic film, "Titanic", where the Second Mate (or whoever) shouted to the two seamen on the falls "Lower away LEFT, and lower away RIGHT". In a real life situation, the person in charge would shout, "Lower away BOTH, and/or, as necessary, lower away FOR'ARD, or "Lower away AFT". Having paid a reputed three hundred million dollars for "realism" in the film, for another thirty dollars or so he could have employed a seaman to tell him how to lower boats properly!---- Back to real life! Being filled at the boat deck level, this boat was mainly full of Army Officers and of course, ship's crewmembers (who were "last to leave".) I was among the latter. In a real emergency, the two members who lowered the boat, and the third man who guided them, would slide down ropes, (these ropes have a "proper" name, but I can't think of it just now) which hung from a wire which was suspended between the davits, and hung down into the boat as it was lowered. For "Boat Drill", these crewmembers stayed aboard. My boat was on the after end of the port side of "A" Deck, and was numbered 12a. It is of interest that passenger ships did not have a number 13 lifeboat. In our case, this number would have applied to the two lifeboats that were placed further aft than the boat deck.

For this boat drill, we actually launched the boats, and rowed around the anchorage. It was very cold, and quite windy; the water was choppy, but not excessively rough. My position was in the bow, with an AB. It was our duty to disengage the "falls" as soon as the boat was safely in the water. If for any reason the hook could not be slipped, then there was an axe with which we could cut the rope falls. As I remember, we rowed around (or at least, the soldiers rowed around) for some time. Some of the boats (like ours) were propelled by oars, but there were motor boats also. It was the duty of the motorised boats to "round up" the others and keep them in some sort of order. As we rowed around, I noticed that two or three of the larger lifeboats didn't seem to have any oars, and yet they were travelling at quite a respectable speed through the water. It was noticeable that the men sat in the body of the boat seemed to be moving backwards and forwards in a rhythmic motion. The AB explained to me that these were colloquially known as "Bar Maid" boats. Their main propulsion was by means of a propeller, driven by the action of several levers placed along the centreline of the boat. As the occupants of the boat worked the levers backwards and forwards, the propeller was rotated. During our "voyage", I remember an officer asking me what my duties were. Being somewhat nonplussed by such a question, especially since he must have noticed our efforts to disengage the falls, I replied that I was the look out! We then returned to the ship to be hoisted back aboard. This was accomplished in the reverse order to that in which we were launched. However, the lifeboats were not re housed high up on their davits from whence they had been launched; instead they were left slung out over the side of the ship, but firmly lashed to the ship's side to prevent them from swinging around as the ship was pitched and tossed about in the seas. This was to be the regular practice, whether on troop ships or ordinary cargo boats. As soon as the ship put to sea, the first job was always to see that the boats were "slung out" in order for them to be "at the ready" should the occasion arise.

My First Trip to Sea is continued in Part Four: CONVOY


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