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Blue Bar

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar

Continued from Part Three: Learning the Ropes


Map UK
We sailed one night, in complete darkness. When I awoke in the morning, we were in the Irish Sea, - or possibly, even the North Atlantic! It was my first trip, and I was quite overwhelmed at seeing line after line of what were some of the world's largest and finest passenger liners. Mainly British, but there were Dutch and Polish ships there also. They were all equally laden with thousands of young men, each one no doubt, probably wondering when (or whether) they would see England again! At fourteen, I had no time for such thoughts, - I was now a working man, earning over 2 a week and I WAS INVINCIBLE! Anyway, we were part of the ship's crew weren't we? The ship would be returning to England for more troops, therefore so would I!! Simple logic for a young lad.

I learned a lot on that first trip -- as much about the world, as about my job I think! As I said, on the first morning at sea, I was truly overwhelmed by the lines of fine one-time passenger ships, now sailing as troopships. Despite the fact that they were all painted in their rather drab Admiralty Grey, the sight was most awe-inspiring.

I'm certain that I remember the Franconia, because one of the deck boys -- a veteran of a previous voyage on the said Franconia, and a year older than me, continually pointed her out to us as being his "last ship". The Empress of Australia was the ship immediately ahead of us, and could be viewed from the fo'c's'le head during off duty periods. She had three funnels and a counter stern with beautiful scrollwork on either side of the name and port of registry. (Both now painted over I might add, but clearly visible through the layers of drab "Admiralty Grey" paint.) We had several capital ships in the escort, including a large aircraft carrier. I think she departed once the danger of air attacks faded. According to the more knowledgeable crew members, there was H.M.S. Malaya, and, I believe, H.M.S. Ramillies, plus seemingly countless destroyers and corvettes, which constituted an impressive sight as they sometimes rushed up and down the lines of ships like frantic teachers trying to keep their charges in some sort of order!

Although Orion (and of course, most of the other ships) was capable of more than twenty knots, the speed of the convoy was less than this in accordance with the speed of the "slower" ships. I think we would have been doing between sixteen and eighteen knots.

The weather was not very rough. Even so, after almost a week on board, and up to now, no movement at all, the gentle roll that the ship had now acquired, took a bit of getting used to, especially when one was below decks negotiating the narrow "alleyways" as the long corridors on ships are called. Many of the soldiers were sea sick, and this is where being a crewman had a decided advantage. With all the work to do, and things to see, there was just no time to think about that. Fortunately for me, I never got seasick during my time at sea.

One of the things which struck me, (a lad who was brought up with the dirty brown waters of the Irish Sea at Blackpool, and for the last three years at sea school, where I had enjoyed an excellent view of the turgid brown waters of the Bristol Channel from Portishead in Somerset,) was the absolute blueness, and purity of the sea water. As we had left Scotland, it had been a lovely rich green, and especially during the rougher weather, I spent a lot of my spare time leaning over the ship's rail, watching the bow waves form, and then flatten out as the ship progressed, leaving a sort of flat and frothy sea for the ship to pass through. Later, as we approached the more tropical waters, the water (especially to the first time viewer) turned to an almost inconceivably outstanding deep blue.

I don't know what particular Regiment we had on board, but they brought their own "Bofors" anti aircraft guns with them, and had two of them clamped to the fore deck, one on either side of the mast house. The (Regimental) Officers used to exercise on them each day. This in itself was quite a spectacle for me. I had never before heard men literally screaming out orders as the Sergeant Major who was drilling the Officers did. Despite the fact that he was drilling superior officers, he was going red in the face as he ordered the men to duty. I was soon to learn that the Sergeant Major's attitude to these officers was almost friendly! On other occasions when I saw him and other SM's drilling their inferior ranks, I was to hear them hurling abuse and insults at those who didn't meet their instant approval. Meanwhile, I took great interest in watching the officers man their given positions, and listening to the orders being given to train the gun on a (thankfully) imaginary target. After much swivelling, elevating, and depressing of the gun, the officers were suitably drilled for the day, the regular (army) gun crews took over.

At one point during the trip, the whole convoy had A.A. gun practice. This was achieved (a bit like the sporting chap's clay pigeon shoot) when one of the escort destroyers traversed the lines of ships towing a large balloon with a drogue trailing from it. As the destroyer progressed up and down the lines of ships, each ship in turn was invited to fire at the suspended target WITHOUT HITTING THE CARRIER BALLOON! It was the first time I had heard real gunfire from a relatively close range. I must confess that deep inside; I found it both exciting, and even a little bit frightening. Conspicuously, the destroyer used several balloons! It was some small comfort to note that some ships' gunners actually hit the target!!!

We had not been at sea very long, before Jim Salter, the Bosun decided that the Deck Boys should have some exercise on Saturday afternoons. I had heard that he expected the Deck Boys to take part in Boxing matches (arranged by him) to "make men of them" or to "teach them the noble art of self defence". At the Sea School, participation in the Annual Boxing Tournament had been compulsory. Not being a very big (and probably as a natural consequence of this,) aggressive sort of person, I more often than not had found myself having my face re-arranged in a very painful manner. From my point of view, and since non of the older sailors were called out to box, it seemed more than likely that he intended having a bit of sport at the expense of the deck boys. Again, I was the smallest boy, (my Merchant Navy Identity Card says I was 5 feet 3 inches in 1942!) and I decided to tell him before it all started that I did not want to box, nor indeed would I. He hummed and ha'ad, called me the seaman's equivalent of a wimp, (in anything but wimpish language) but in the end, he had no choice other than to drop me from his gladiatorial list! Even he could see that there could be no contest if one of the participants was unwilling. He did have the last word though. Thereafter, he made me clean out the base of the windlass each time the ship had been at anchor. The base of the windlass gets full of stinking mud as the anchor is hauled in from the seabed. Only so much can be washed off with the hose as the chain is coming in, the rest has to be cleared by hand, and it was by giving me this unpleasant task that he "got his own back".

One of my jobs as a Deck Boy was to "Sand and Canvas" the teak wood rails of the ship. This is an archaic (and cheap) method of keeping the rails clean. It consists of wetting a portion of the rail with sea water, putting some sand on the rail, and then scrubbing it with a short length of old canvass hose pipe. The sand is then washed off. Provided enough energy is expended in the process, the rail is theoretically left sparkling white! All this is done with salt water from the Deck Hydrants, in warmer weather the job is not too bad, but in the cold weather, fingers turn to icicles! Needless to say, it is a soul destroying job, and one which doesn't exactly fire the imagination with enthusiasm; neither does it offer the greatest intellectual challenge, especially to a young lad who was about to win the war single handed!

Whilst I was performing this death defying duty, many soldiers would come and talk to me - partly out of sheer boredom, and partly, I think, from the novelty of talking to some one who actually had something to do! Many of them were old enough to have been my father, but most of them were within the eighteen to thirty year old bracket. Of those who stopped to speak to me, (and there were many) several told of how they had recently been married whilst on embarkation leave and had only had a couple of days of married life before returning to barracks for embarkation.

Lesson number one. I have often thought since, that had I been married with a family, my attitude to it all might not have been quite so carefree and cavalier!

At least, I used to think I would be going home within a few months. These blokes were going for god knew how long! I'm sure the possibility that they may not return must have crossed their minds also! The troops on Orion had all been issued with topees, and so we guessed they were mostly bound for either India, or the Western Desert. When we got to Cape Town, we "heard a rumour" that they were going to invade Madagascar. Shortly after leaving Cape Town for our return to England, we learned of the invasion of Madagascar.

The soldiers used to have impromptu concerts in the canteen in the evenings. We often used to go and watch because there were sometimes some very good acts, - both "clean" and "dirty"! On that trip, there were some A.T.S. women aboard. One young lady who performed at the concert sang a Vera Lynn song, which was very popular at the time. It was called "I Never Said Thanks For That Lovely Week End". I don't know whether she had a "good" voice or not, it really didn't matter. To an audience of young soldiers, the majority of whom had only recently left wives or sweethearts (probably after just such a weekend) for the uncertainties of war, the words were electrifying. It obviously didn't mean quite the same to a kid like me as it did to many of the troops. You could have heard a pin drop. They almost forgot to applaud, but when they did they went wild. It was an extremely sentimental moment, and one I am sure the soldiers would take with them on their travels.

Map UK to West Africa
Lesson Number two came at Freetown. Not being long out of school, I could still remember having been continually taught about the British Empire, (those little pink bits on the maps, over which the sun never sets,) and all our black, brown, and other tinted cousins therein. We were also taught about all the benefits (real or imaginary) which belonging to the Empire was purported to bestow upon them. As the ship lay at anchor in Freetown harbour, we watched the black boys in their "Bum Boats" diving for "Glasgow Tanners", and for whatever bits of food were thrown over to them in the water. It was unimaginable to me that people could be so hungry that they would actually pick the food out of the water, wring the salt water out of it, lay it out to dry, and then take it home (presumably we supposed, for later consumption). Since the water within the harbour limits was not very clear, certainly not as clear as it had been in the ocean through which we had just sailed, I was amazed at how they could retrieve a coin once it had entered the water. We on deck were all about thirty or forty feet above the water, so once the coin went in the water, I thought it would sink fairly quickly! What happened was that once the coin hit the water, it sort of "see-sawed" its way down, making it visible to the people in the boats. Especially if it was a silver coin (hence the call for "Glasgow Tanners".) When the soldiers threw in pennies, they were either too hard to see in the water, or just not worth the effort even for these impoverished people! It was here that I first remember having certain feelings of concern about the way in which people much older (and therefore I supposed, much wiser) than I referred to, and treated, the natives. I put it down to the fact that they had seen much more of the world than I had. I had much to learn.

There was no shore leave in Freetown. Even so, it was my first foreign port of call. Freetown is a huge natural harbour. Its entrance was guarded by a Boom Defence Net. This was a long wire mesh net drawn across the mouth of the harbour to prevent submarines from entering. As we approached, the net was drawn to one side by a tug. It was quite a spectacle to see all the ships from the convoy, now almost at "close up", steaming into the harbour, in line ahead, and dropping anchor in their allotted positions. Apart from the "Bum Boats", there was a lot of official activity, with launches travelling from ship to ship, and ship to shore. I suppose all the ship's captains, and the escort captains had to meet and discuss tactics for the next part of the voyage - which, as it turned out, was to be to Cape Town. Each ship had to take on fresh water, and probably more fuel for the next leg of the journey.

The weather in Freetown had been hot and humid, and I think we were all pleased when after about four days, all the ships up anchored and we set sail for Cape Town. The voyage to Cape Town was mostly "more of the same" as the voyage out to Freetown had been, with the main exception that now we were in the tropics, the soldiers had now donned khaki shorts, shirts, and were wearing their topees. In keeping with passenger ship practice, I was not allowed on the boat deck without a shirt on. However, despite the many warnings I had been given, I spent most of my off duty hours without a shirt. Being fair skinned, it didn't take long for me to regret such action, and my back quickly became one large blister. I discovered that once I had blistered, and the liquid drained from inside the blister, I could stay out in the sun as long as I liked without any further blistering! The word "melanoma" was not even in our vocabulary at that time!

Map of Southern Africa
The view from the ship's rail had also changed. Now that we were in the tropics, the sea for part of the time at least, was like glass, and the rays of the sun were reflected very strongly from the surface of the water, back into one's face and eyes. In those days, sunglasses were almost a novelty. They were merely the appurtenances that some rich (and sometimes famous) people took with them whilst on holiday. I saw very few people at sea using them, even the lookouts managed without them. With the crystal clear water, schools of porpoises and dolphin could be seen, easily keeping abreast of the ship, and often swimming right in front of the bow and under the forefoot. Another wonder for me to see was the schools of flying fish. Often, about twenty or thirty of them would break out of the water, spreading their wings, and glide en masse like oversized Dragon Flies, about a foot or so above the surface of the water. Not only had I not seen flying fish before, until then I had no idea that they existed!

The soldiers spent their time doing exercises or boat drill in the mornings, and generally had the time to themselves in the afternoons. In those troubled times, a disciplined boat drill was essential and lifejackets had to be carried everywhere and at all times by the soldiers. It was not practical for the ship's crew to do the same, but we all had to be pretty quick off the mark when the boat drills took place.

Crossing the Equator High-Jinks Aboard Empress of
Japan 1939

Empress of Japan fun in 1939.

Apart from the "Sing Songs" and concerts in the troops' canteen at night, there is always a major diversion when the ship "Crosses the Line". This is the time honoured ceremony of seeking the permission of King Neptune to enter his sub oceanic world as the ship crosses the Equator, where several volunteers (I'm sure there were would have been many more) agree to take part in the ritual. The ceremony takes place at the edge of the ship's swimming pool. The "victim" is seated in a chair with his or her, back to the pool. Several of the crew dress up in nonsensical garb, which tend to look as we think King Neptune and his followers might look like. The "victim" is "lathered up" - usually with beaten egg whites, and "shaved" with a ridiculously outsized cut throat razor. Depending on the generosity of the cook, the "victim" will also have one or two eggs broken over his (or her) head. When the egg is suitably and uncomfortably running down the sides of the victim's head and face, they are unceremoniously tipped backwards into the water, where two more of Neptune's "helpers" make sure all the "lather" and egg yolk is washed off. All this is done amid the antics of the "helpers" and the uproarious laughter of the "audience" who are perched on all available vantage points, such as upper decks, lifeboats, derricks and "goal posts". Silly as it may seem, it was a wonderful "stress reliever" in what must have been for many, a continuously stressful situation.

My First Trip to Sea is continued in Part Five: FOREIGN SHORES