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MY FIRST TRIP TO SEA, Part Six
by Gordon Sollors

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Continued from Part Five: Foreign Shores


THE LADY IN WHITE


Watching the other ships in the convoy, and the escorts darting around all over the place, was always a matter of great interest to me, and I never tired of it during my time off. Even some of the other ships in the convoy were now familiar to me, having either sailed with them before in convoy, or seen them in dock. I watched again with interest, the "target practice" for the smaller, anti aircraft Oerlikon guns. Orion had a large six inch gun mounted on the stern - as did most of the troopships - but I can't remember it being used during target practice. Of course, that would have taken a different kind of target. I did see the surface guns used in one ship, sometime later. It was whilst I was on the Highland Brigade a year or so later. I think we were probably in a small convoy in the Red Sea, on our way to Suez at the time. The ship's Carpenters knocked up a large device, of about six feet square. The "device" consisted of a rectangular platform of four by twos. To this was lashed several forty gallon drums in order to keep it afloat. A few uprights were added, and burlap (sacking) was stretched around it, making a very visible target from some distance away. On that occasion, although the gun crew did land shells near it, it was almost impossible to sink. I think an escorting destroyer did the honours after the other ships had "had a go"!

Another exercise which I missed, because I worked high up on "A" Deck. This was the "streaming" of the paravanes. Paravanes are a small, aeroplane like device which are "streamed" over the side, just below the surface. Although they are lowered from the main deck, they are "towed" as it were, by wires attached to the forefoot of the ship, well below the surface of the bow. I'm not sure just how Orion attached wires to the forefoot, but many ships had a device on the fo'c's'tle head called an "A Frame". As the name suggests, this was a large metal structure, shaped in the form of the letter "A" With each leg of the base of the "A" attached by swivels to the ship's side some feet above the water line. The apex of the device could then be lowered into the water so that it was slightly in front of the bow of the ship, and some feet below the water line. The paravanes (one on either side of the ship) were attached by about forty feet of steel wire to the apex of the "A" which was now several feet under water, and in front of the ship. The Orion certainly did not have an "A" Frame, so there must have been other means of streaming the paravanes.

However, the theory behind the paravanes was that should the ship encounter a mine which was moored to the sea bed by a long wire, the long mooring wire of the mine would "run" along the wire which led from the bow of the ship to the paravane. Attached to the nose of the paravanes were two intersecting steel wheels, which had very hard and sharp edges. When the wire holding the mine hit the steel wheels, it would be cut, thereby releasing the mine from it's mooring, and allowing it to come to the surface, where it would be disposed of (usually by rifle fire from the DEMS Gunners). I don't actually recall any mines being so released, but every now and then, on various other ships I was on, the D.E.M.S. Gunners would have practice at shooting floating targets - usually oil drums. When streamed out, the paravanes made quite a loud "zinging" noise as the wire cut through the water.

Leaning over the side, and watching the bow waves form and disintegrate, mile after mile, and day after day never seemed to get boring. Every now and then, fish of various sizes would appear alongside the ship. Porpoises were commonplace, and would keep abreast of the ship for hours, even days, on end. I began to feel more confident about my job, and about things in general including lifeboat drill (which was a regular daily feature of life aboard a troopship.)

Map of Africa
We soon learned that we were going yet again to Freetown. For a few hours at least after we learned the news, we were able to let the troops know "in confidence" of our first destination. I was even able to hold forth about what lay ahead (for those who asked) in Freetown. When we arrived in Freetown, I was able to be a little more blasť about the "Bum Boats" and the relationship between the crew and the Africans. I never did feel at ease with the treatment they received from us generally, and especially when at sailing time, powerful salt water hoses were turned on them to make them move away from the side of the ship.

After another three or four steamy days at anchor in Freetown, the whole convoy up-anchored, and set sail again. We soon discovered that as before, some of the convoy would be going to Cape Town, and some to Durban. I was delighted when we discovered that this time, we would be going to Durban. Having already been to Cape Town, the thought of seeing yet another foreign port was exciting.

More endless days of cleaning decks, and lifeboat drill for the troops (members of the crew didn't have to attend the regular every day lifeboat drills,) they were not only meant to train the soldiers for an emergency, they were used more or less, as a daily exercise to fill in time for the troops. Crew had only to attend lifeboat drill on certain specified occasions (usually, about once or twice per week.) Since we would be crossing the Equator once again, there was another "Crossing the Line" ceremony. This time, I was able to show off my "experience" to the soldiers by being able to tell them what it was all about.

As we neared "The Cape", we still had no idea of exactly which ships would be going to Cape Town, and which to Durban. However, we awoke one morning to find our ship numbers greatly reduced. It seems that the other ships had departed for Cape Town during the night, and we were steaming on to Durban.

Fog can be almost as much of a danger to ships (especially ships in convoy) as the lurking "U" Boats". The Cape is notorious for it's fogs, and our journey was to be no exception. At one stage, thick fog engulfed the convoy giving rise to some concern. Of course, the first thing a ship does in fog, is to slow down, and sound the fog horn at regular intervals. Being in the known close proximity of several other large ships, all now steaming at something like eight or ten knots, we also took the extra precaution of streaming the "Fog Buoy".

A fog buoy is a relatively simple device consisting of a long piece of wood, with a cross piece almost at one end. (Something like the shape of a Christian Cross.) The cross piece is angled, so that when the cross is put over the stern and towed by the ship, the angled cross piece makes the device "plane" on or near to the surface of the water. The cross is towed by what would be the foot of the cross. At what would be the head of the cross, a hollow metal quadrant is fitted so that the open end of the quadrant is facing the direction of the tow. With the "planing" action of the cross, the quadrant is kept just level with the surface of the water, causing quite a substantial "water spout". With the devices being towed at a pre determined distance from the ship, if the ship astern sighted the "water spout" of the ship directly ahead, she would know that she was too damn close for comfort, and would drop astern. A relatively simple, yet quite effective device.

Unfortunately, to the non sea faring personnel (namely the troops) the "water spout" bore a remarkable and realistic resemblance to what we had all seen at the cinema as the effect of the periscope of a "U" Boat" travelling just below the surface! On the one or two occasions when the "water spout" of the ship ahead was visible from our fore deck, we were able to "knowingly" reassure the soldiers just what was happening, and that we were not about to be attacked by a "U" Boat". On at least one occasion, one soldier had to be forcibly re-assured that what he could see was indeed a device that was working for his own safety, and not his destruction. I suppose that we, as crew members with jobs to do, tended to forget that the soldiers, with all the time in the world on their hands, could get quite worried about the threat of attack from "U" Boats".

The fog lifted, and early one bright morning found us off the coast of Natal, and just a few miles from Durban. Unlike Cape Town with it's high Table Mountain which can be seen from many miles out to sea, Durban is relatively low lying countryside, and we were almost on top of the beach before we sighted the Bluff, and then the lovely beaches and modern buildings along the seafront.

Orion took her place in the queue of ships headed for the harbour. We were the second or third in line. As we approached the "Bluff", we sailed past a long, rocky, breakwater. From my excellent vantage point on the wing of the bridge, I could see a lot of black men in red shirts and black shorts working there. I was told later that these were convicts. We sailed on, and into the harbour proper. The docks were to our starboard side, and we would be going "starboard to" which meant that the starboard side of the ship would be adjacent to the quay. Also from my privileged position on the bridge, I gathered that the Captain was not too pleased with the list that the ship had developed as a result of all the troops wanting to get to the starboard side of the ship in order to see what was going on ashore. He summoned the OC Troops, and after a brief discussion, it was agreed that the troops would be sent to "Boat Stations" in order to spread them more evenly over the ship. Boat stations was sounded, and after a while the ship returned to an even keel, and all was well for berthing.

The next thing I observed was one of those enduring memories, which we all have. As we sailed (majestically I thought) into the harbour, I had a vague idea that "something was happening" on the quayside. When I finally looked down and took notice of what was going on, I could see a person standing there, holding what appeared to be a megaphone (no such thing as loud hailers then!) The person was a "large" lady, dressed in a long, flowing white dress, and wearing an ENORMOUS wide brimmed red hat. Although she looked quite out of place among all the cranes, railway trucks, and all the other things that generally litter a quayside, she looked absolutely stunning. She stood on the dock side calling "Hello there" through the megaphone to the soldiers as the ship came nearer to the quay. Once the soldiers heard her, and called back, she started singing the "patriotic" music hall type songs popular in those days such as "Tipperary", "Roll Out The Barrel", "Pack Up Your Troubles" and "Bless 'em All". She did all this in a superb voice through her megaphone. Had there been a roof, I'm sure she would have brought it down as the soldiers enthusiastically joined in. Not only was it a diversion from the very boring day to day life of the last four or five weeks on board the ship, it was somebody going out of her way to entertain them. There was also a nostalgic touch of "Old England" in the content of the songs. Such a performance would never have taken place in England, not only because of the secrecy, which necessarily shrouded troop movements there, but also because in general, the public was absolutely barred from dockside areas. It was a very moving occasion indeed.

I later discovered she was known as "The Lady in White" and I understand her name was Perla Gibson She was a retired opera singer who made it her business to come down to the dockside in Durban, and sing to the soldiers on board the troopships as they entered the port. Many stories surrounded her performances on the dockside. There were many German sympathisers in South Africa during the war, and some people claimed that she was a spy!...how else would she know just when the troop convoys were due to arrive?

The truth is that Durban is an extremely "open" port, and from the promenade or beach, approaching ships can be seen quite easily, long before they reach the docks. Especially a large group of ships such as go to make up a troop ship convoy. All "The Lady in White" had to do was to go down to the beach each morning and look out for a few hours. If the ships were coming in, they would soon be in evidence!

A year or so later, I was to sail again from Durban on the M.V. Highland Brigade, with about 2,000 South African soldiers on board bound for Suez and eventually, the Italian Campaign. The Lady in White was there again, along with several hundred relatives, giving the soldiers a rousing, and emotional send off. This time she sang all the South African and Afrikaner songs, - "Bokkie" - " Sarie Marais" etc. There was hardly a dry eye on the wharf! (Or on the ship I strongly suspect!)

Shore leave in Durban was, if anything, even better than Cape Town. Immediately outside the Dock Gates in Point Road, there were many people in cars picking up soldiers (who were also allowed ashore) and taking them away for the day to entertain them. The people of Durban were very pro English, and patriotic. For us seamen, directly opposite the main gate was "The Seamen's Institute" where we could get good cheap food, there was the usual billiard tables, and reading rooms, and on Sunday evenings, when everything was shut down in town, they showed a film for us. Entrance was, of course, free. Just around the corner, was "The Missions to Seamen" who offered us the same facilities. "The Institute" was more popular on a Sunday because at the "The Mission", they said prayers before the film, whereas in the "The Institute", they also showed a film without the hassle of a prayer service. However, our immediate aim on coming ashore was to be "free" and not further Institutionalised no matter how well intentioned, so mostly, we just went up town.

Again, because of my bridge watches, I often went ashore on my own, but I know I must have gone with other people on some occasions, because I have a photograph (see accompanying photo)
Gordon Sollors, Bill Beech, Doug Lawrence and John Sissons at 
Durban Clockwise from Top Left: Ordinary Seaman Bill Beech, Deck Boy Doug Lawrence, Deck Boy John Sissons, and Gordon.
taken on the promenade together with Ordinary Seaman Bill Beech, Deck Boy John Sissons, Deck Boy Doug Lawrence, and myself. It was lovely going ashore in a place like Durban, where the restrictions of war were not in evidence, and meals were cheap to buy and plentiful. In fact, all the things, which because of the war and rationing, were hard to get in England, were in plentiful supply here. Also, despite the fact that it was early autumn, it was sunny, and warm enough for us to go swimming on the excellent beaches, which were washed by the Indian Ocean. Also at the beach, we could rent "surf boards" for 6d per hour. These were not like the six-foot surfboards one sees today. They were really quite small, but they offered us something that we had never experienced before. We often spent hours in the surf on Durban's main beach. We also discovered that although there were plenty of black men walking around the beach, they were only there to serve the white people with ice creams and soft drinks. If they wanted to enjoy the beach, they had to go a mile or more up the coast past the "Coloureds Only Beach" to the "Blacks Only Beach". Although amongst ourselves we didn't like it, we mostly regarded the rules with a "c'est la vie" attitude; but again, I remember feeling how glad I was that I was white. One of the "attractions" of Durban beach is the hand pulled Rickshaws. These are small, two wheeled carriages drawn by Africans. Usually, the Africans are members of the Zulu tribe. They wear extremely colourful clothes, with a huge feathered headdress. They were for hire, and had a list of destinations and prices. Of course, we all had a ride. One of the thrills of the ride is when the runner jumps up in the air, giving a loud yell. Of course, as he jumps up, the passengers go down, adding even more excitement to the journey. (Please Click Here to see Dennis Crosby's rickshaw photo)

We discovered they had a peculiar place here, something of an anachronism, called a Bioscope. It was colloquially known as The "Bio"; when you went in, you could order tea, coffee, sandwiches etc., and they would be brought around to you in your seat. On the back of the seats in front of you, there were shelves fixed, so that you could put your cup of tea, or sandwiches on there and enjoy the film at the same time as you consumed them; this was quite a novelty for us.

It was in the foyer of one of the regular cinemas that I drank beer, and got myself slightly drunk in public for the first time. I forget the name of the cinema, but it had a large foyer which was, in fact, a bar and light refreshment place. I went in with some other crew members and was encouraged to have a glass of beer. I had drunk beer before, but this made me quite silly, and I had to go back to the ship to "sleep it off" before I went on watch.

Another of my very fond memories of Durban was a restaurant, somewhere in town, where the proprietor, on seeing my MN badge, ushered me to a table, and asked me what I would like. Not only was I not all that accustomed to eating in restaurants, I was even less accustomed to being "spoiled" by the staff! As with many places in Durban, the furniture was cane tables and chairs, it was also upstairs, and I had been seated by myself, on a table on a veranda overlooking the street. Could life get any better? As I said, I was quite inexperienced at eating in restaurants, let alone ordering food in them. The proprietor suggested that I might like the "Chicken Mayonnaise". Apart from the word "chicken" (which in those days, was considered a delicacy only to be eaten at Christmas ) I had no idea what he was offering me, but it sounded very posh, and the man was extremely nice. I said, "Yes please", and he sent the black waiter off to bring my food.

The waiter brought me a large dinner plate on which was an ample portion of chicken breast, covered with mayonnaise. He then brought one of those large, oval plates filled with an appetizing salad laid out as such one only sees in magazines, and left me to it. In today's terms, it was an extremely well served chicken salad, but to me it was a banquet. I felt quite embarrassed to be on the receiving end of such a meal, served with such courtesy. I tucked in and ate the lot! The meal cost 1/9d, "but 1/6d to the Merchant Navy". I went back there several times and ate several more similar meals. It seemed they couldn't do enough for me. The fact that I was not yet fifteen, and was very small for my age may have had something to do with it, or maybe he offered such meals to all Merchant Seamen. Either way, I enjoyed and remembered.




My First Trip to Sea is continued in Part 7: The "Empire" and the Refugees


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