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by Gordon Sollors


Continued from Part 4: Convoy


Cape Town, South Africa
This photo of Cape Town looking south towards the Cape of Good Hope is from the 1972 World Book Encyclopedia.
After about two weeks at sea from Freetown, we arrived in Cape Town. Not all the convoy had been sent to Cape Town, from memory, there would have been six or ten ships. Again, I had this wonderful experience of seeing for the first time, something which until then had only been a picture in a book. Table Mountain seemed to tower above everything, with the city of Cape Town nestling comfortably in it's lap. There was not a cloud in the sky, and views of the mountain and the two smaller peaks the Lion's Head, and Devils Peak - one at either side of the mountain - were outstanding. From my vantage point on the bridge, where I was stationed as the Staff Commander's Messenger, I witnessed with excitement, the spectacle of a large ship being piloted into port, and nudged alongside the quay by one or two bustling tugs.

When I left the bridge, and went down to the fo'c's'tle, I came face to face, and at close quarters with black men for the first time. They were opening up the hatches, in preparation for taking out the troops' equipment. I soon noticed that they were very much under the control of one or two white men.

However, the working conditions of the Africans were not my immediate concern. I, and three other Deck Boys had been put on to "Bridge Watch". This turned out to be an excellent duty whilst the ship was in port. With four of us on watches, it meant that we worked four hours on, and then had twelve hours off. These were really good working hours, and allowed us to spend quite a few daytime hours ashore. Because we were able to go ashore in the daytime working hours, I found myself going ashore on my own
Map of Cape Town Area
most of the time. South African currency was the same as English currency, i.e., pounds shillings and pence. Only the legend on the notes and coins was different. There were no "conversion" problems, and the money had virtually the same value as it had in the UK. Not that that was much help to me, since I was not too experienced with that money either. Apart from the novelty of different pictures on the notes and coins, I might just as well have been using English money.

I soon discovered the "nice" places to go whilst ashore. I found a Seamen's Club, right in the heart of the City. I suspect it had been set up specifically for the purpose of entertaining seamen whilst ashore during war time because Seamen's Clubs were usually on or near the dock side. Indeed the "Flying Angel" or "Missions to Seamen" had a club much nearer the docks than this one. In this one, the visitor could sit in a most comfortable lounge, and have a meal or snacks with either hot or cold drinks. Of course, I was too young to drink, and really, the thought never even entered my mind. The (mostly English speaking) people who ran the club gave seamen a very warm reception. Ironically, in this land where black people were not treated very well, it was in this club where I found a large collection of Paul Robeson records. There was a 78 RPM (electric) gramophone in one corner, and a stack of records alongside it. I had heard of Paul Robeson of course, but this was the first time I had been able to select which of his records I listened to.

I also learned to take a bus to Camps Bay, which is on the Atlantic side of the Cape peninsular. Here, I found a very cosy tearoom, run by two English ladies who more or less, took me under their wing. They treated me well, brought me wonderful tea, cakes, and toasted scones and asked me to call again the next time I came ashore. Who was I to argue?

Whilst I was ashore, I saw at first hand how black people were treated by white people - and Apartheid was still at least six years away!!! Life for white people in contrast to that of the Africans seemed to be extremely good, and for the first time in my life I found it necessary to think that I was glad I had been born white, and not black. Everywhere one went, public places and even public seats were reserved for white people only. There was just no question that black people would be admitted to restaurants, hotels, or cinemas. In the buses, black people were made to use the rear seats only, although I sometimes saw this ruling ignored when I caught the bus to Camps Bay. I often feel that my experiences on that trip to a large extent determined my later attitude towards such matters.

I can't remember just how long we stayed in Cape Town, but I have an idea that it was a week or more. After we had disembarked the troops and all their gear, we began to load oranges. All our hatches were filled, and crates of oranges were stacked all around the shelter decks down aft. There was hardly a spare foot of deck space left when we finally left Cape Town for England. Each crewmember was given half a case of oranges to take home to his family - courtesy of the citizens of Cape Town! Despite my initial culture shock at seeing black people treated so differently, I had enjoyed my time in the City.

Our journey back to England was, thank goodness, quite uneventful. We travelled without escort. It may have been my imagination, but I think we also travelled at a greater speed than we had whilst we had been in convoy. We carried some civilian passengers, and quite a few DBS. DBS means Distressed British Seamen, and was the official title given to Merchant Seamen who, having been torpedoed, were then rescued and then taken to the nearest port - in this case Cape Town. Probably with a certain feeling of "There but for the grace of god etc___" crew members treated them with the greatest of respect. Whilst it was known among crew members that up to this stage of the war, several large troop ships had been sunk, I think there was a feeling of relative, if not complete safety in travelling on a large, fast, ship.

I suspect that by this time, certain aspects of life aboard ship were not quite so awe inspiring as they had been during those first few weeks at sea. We had only a few passengers, and no troops. The decks seemed almost deserted. We sailed to Freetown and anchored for a day or so. During this time, we witnessed the "bum boats" again. Some of the "more experienced" crew members arranged for the "bum boat" operators to sell them stalk of green bananas. The theory was that by the time we took to get to Liverpool, an estimated two weeks, (there seemed to be no doubt as to where we were going,) the bananas, (suitably stored) would be a nice, ripe yellow. Some bananas actually made it, but not all.

One of the first, and most important things one learns from a foreign voyage is that, on re-entry to England, Crew members were allowed to bring in 200 cigarettes, plus five pounds of tea, and five pounds of sugar. There were other concessions, but in those days of strict rationing, these were the items most appreciated "back home", and they were highly prized. Most seamen, whether they had family or not, brought back the full allowance of tea and sugar, and especially the cigarettes. Often, if they had no one to give it to, they would "carry it past" the customs for a friend. Despite the war, the Customs were very strict on what could, and could not, be brought in. As far as my own experiences went, there was no "You guys are doing a good job, so you can bring in a bit more" attitude to Seamen. If you were caught bringing in more than your allotted share, it was either confiscated, or you were fined - or in extreme cases, both. In my years at sea, it was a continual battle of wits between the Customs Officers and the crewmen - sometimes we "made it", and other times (to our decided disadvantage!) we didn't! Overall, I have no doubt that the Customs Men won hands down!

During the last few days of the voyage to Liverpool, the excitement, and anticipation of returning home became quite apparent. Even though we had only been away for something like two months, every one was excited. At first, I thought it was just me at the end of my first voyage, but on subsequent ships, I soon discovered that the excitement during the last few days of any voyage becomes almost palpable. This phenomenon was known as "The Channels", and it affected all seamen, whether first trip or twentieth. It was a time when we made sure that our "go ashore gear" was up to scratch. We made sure that our shirts were properly washed and ironed, and our suits pressed. It was a time when we checked our kit bags, and if the kit bag wasn't up to scratch, we often "acquired" a length of duck canvass and some sailmaker's twine, and made a new one. Those seamen who had them, started wearing leather gloves to handle the oily ropes and running gear in order to keep their hands clean. After a few trips, I also adopted this strategy.

We arrived back in Liverpool in about mid May. Many of the sailors were disappointed because there was not to be a "Pay Off". This meant that all the crew had to stay with the vessel whether they wanted to or not. It didn't really matter to me. I had no idea what the alternative was, and I was not too far from my home in Blackpool. Leave entitlements at that time was that for each month one spent on Articles, we were entitled to two days leave. Having been away for something like two months, I think we had about four days leave with pay.

Map Mersey Docks
We discharged the few DBS's (Distressed British Seamen,) and passengers we had brought from Cape Town at the Princes Landing Stage at Pier Head. The next day, we moved from the Princes Landing Stage, and docked in Gladstone Dock, right at the northern most end of the docks, and as far out of town, I suspect, as it was possible to be! Again, I was put on those very nice four hours on and twelve hours off Bridge Watch hours. Since we weren't "Paying Off", we had to "work by" the ship whilst it lay in the Gladstone dock. Since there were many crew members to be considered, we had to take our leave in turn. I was told when I would be allowed to proceed on leave.

During this time, with the exception of some first class cabins, the insides of the ship, were completely ripped out. On our last voyage, many NCOs had been housed in second and third class cabins - with extra bunks added. Even with extra bunks, the cabins had been a huge advance on "Troop Deck" conditions. A "Troop Deck" was the space left after all passenger accommodation had been ripped out. In places, just huge areas, often reaching from one side of the ship to the other. The soldiers just slept on the deck. Whilst the accommodation was being ripped out, several of us (crew members) made "sorties" into the work areas, and "acquired" such delights as inner spring mattresses for our own bunks. It was all strictly illegal, but it was mostly a case of "what the eye did not see" etc. Of course, we didn't know it at that time, but Orion was being prepared to take part in the invasion of North Africa in November of that year.

I enjoyed the time we spent in Gladstone dock very much. I had some leave, and I had this very pleasant job of Bridge Boy. For an extra thrill, each time I went ashore, I walked past the Dry Dock, in which was berthed, and under repair, the huge battleship King George V. It was a thrill for me each time I walked past her. To see such a mighty ship, high and dry, with her huge, underwater hull exposed was quite something.

Despite the fact that I was a "working man" and earning money, after my weekly allotment to my mother had been taken out, it didn't take long for me to realise that my wages didn't really amount to very much. With so much time on my hands, I was able to spend quite a bit of time ashore. To get to Lime Street from Bootle, cost five pence return on the tram, and about nine pence return on the Overhead Railway. However, although the Overhead was much a more interesting journey, traversing the length of the docks as it did, it also landed one at Pier Head, and that meant quite a long walk up Dale Street (or another tram ride) to get to Lime Street, which was the centre of town.

I sometimes had to stay aboard because I had no money to go ashore. I was soon apprised of a little trick that could pay for a night out at the pictures or at a local dance hall. The YMCA had a large services club in one of the main streets in town. It was mainly a cheap eating place for the members of the Armed Services. Merchant Seamen were also welcome there. I think it was in Lord Street. For nine pence, one could get a huge plate of sausage and mash, piping hot, and very filling. However, because they had lost a lot of cutlery, they charged a one shilling deposit on each knife, fork and spoon. Cutlery on the Orion was quite easy to come by. Much of it was marked "Orient Line" but that didn't matter too much. When we were really on our uppers, we would take a set (or two) of cutlery, walk into the YMCA, and hand it in, receiving the return of our deposit! This was three shillings per set, and enough to take us either to the pictures, or to a local dance hall - plus a cup of tea at the "Y" for which no deposit was required.

All too soon, the troop decks were finished, and Orion once more sailed out into the Mersey, and up to the Landing Stage to embark troops. Troop movements during the war were, as you would imagine, top secret, but getting several thousand soldiers to the Princes Landing stage during daylight hours could not be done without drawing some attention to what was going on. There was another troop ship there at the same time as us, I think it was one of the CPR "Duchess" boats, so there were quite a lot of soldiers moving in the area.

As soon as we berthed at the Landing Stage, the ferry boats which ran almost every few minutes from just further up the same landing stage to places like Rock Ferry, Wallasey, Birkenhead and New Brighton, would fill to overflowing, and as they passed, people would shout across, asking if Joe Bloggs (or whoever) was aboard. If they were lucky enough to get a response, (incredibly, some were!) then they would occupy that particular ferry for the rest of the day, just waving and shouting across at each other. After one or two days, all the troops were aboard, and once again, we departed England with a full contingent of young men aboard, going off to war, but no one knew precisely where.

To say that this trip would be "more of the same" would certainly not be quite the case. Although we were still on the same ship, life for me was quite different. I felt "more experienced"! I knew my way around much better, I knew my job much better, and although my job was still "the bottom of the pile", having that much more experience made life just that little bit better for me. Also, the troops were different. Whilst I never struck up a personal relationship with any of our "passengers", it was always interesting to talk to them. Again, whilst I was only "a boy", many soldiers just wanted to talk to "someone else", about the ship, about the trip - it was surprising how many of them thought that we, as crewmembers, knew exactly where we were going! Now I was an "experienced" crewman, I could talk more authoritatively about the ship, and where we were likely to go. After all, I was an "old hand" and had already been abroad, whereas these people were mostly leaving England for the first time!

My First Trip to Sea is continued in Part Six: THE LADY IN WHITE