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Blue Bar

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar

Continued from Part Six: The Lady in White


We left Durban, a much smaller convoy now, with Orion still loaded with something like two or three thousand troops. Although the convoy was smaller, it was as well protected as before, with several Royal Navy cruisers, destroyers, and even smaller ships.

Map Indian Ocean South
The convoy headed in a North Easterly direction, and it wasn't long before "the word" got around, and we all knew we were bound for Bombay. At that particular time, our destination could quite easily have been Suez, with more troops for the Western Desert.

As we steamed further North and East, so the weather became warmer, and the water calmer, and (if it were possible,) even bluer. The whole journey took us something like two weeks, but I can't be sure. Certainly, even with the speed of all the ships, and the very efficient escorts, the Indian Ocean was a dangerous place in which to be. It was known that not only were there German and Italian "U" Boats in the area, there were also Japanese submarines known to be operating there. Precautionary Zig Zag courses had to be steered, and that added many days on to the journey.

The weather became hotter and hotter. Our cabins were very warm and stifling. The Troop decks were even more so. There was no such thing as air conditioning, even in the first class accommodation. The best we had were "blowers". Theses were small air ducts, set into universal swivel joints which could be turned in any direction in order to direct the flow of air. We also had "scoops". These were curved metal devices which could be fixed into the portholes. The curved surface faced forward, and "scooped" up whatever wind was generated by the passage of the ship through the water, and re directed it into the cabin. These, coupled with the "blowers" offered some relief to the quite oppressive heat of the tropics. On the occasions I had to visit the troop decks (such as at start and end of blackout) I found the heat there almost unbearable. Many soldiers took to sleeping on deck.

After many hot, stifling nights, boat drills, and yet another "Crossing the Line" celebration at which other soldiers had the chance to be "victims", we eventually one morning, arrived at Bombay.
Indian Ocean North
Another exciting addition to the growing list of ports I had visited. This one was of course, well known, and was the major entry and exit port of the British presence in India. We did not go into the docks, but tied up at a wharf, which we were told was "The Gateway to India". The ceremony of disembarking the troops was quite impressive. There seemed to be lots of Indian soldiers on the quayside, all (so it seemed) with typical army moustaches, and very carefully wound turbans. Our "passengers", by now dressed completely in tropical outfits of khaki shirts, shorts, and pith helmet, began to disembark. They formed into small squads and marched off. With several thousand troops aboard, this took some time.

We were warned that there was considerable unrest ashore with the Hindu Nationalist movement wanting independence from Britain. After withdrawing money from the Pursers Office, (from memory, at that time, one got thirteen Rupees for one English pound) we went ashore. Nothing could have prepared me for the sights, sounds, smells, flies, and sheer poverty that we could see all around us in Bombay. To the disgust of many of the sailors, there were no bars. I'm not even sure whether beer or spirits were available anywhere, but it didn't interest me, so I didn't much care. We discovered the markets which sold all the standard Indian "tourist" wares such as alabaster models of the Taj Mahal. These came in all sizes from the quite small models, which were about two inches square, to the very elaborate ones built on a base of several square inches, and containing much more detail. There were leather suitcases with enormous brass locks and security straps. There was brassware of all descriptions, painstakingly and beautifully engraved with intricate patterns. It was possible to have shirts, suits, and even shoes, hand made to measure within a very short span of time. Cloth and silks could be had at very low prices. In war deprived England, these items would have been most welcome - but they were just a little more than I had in mind to spend on such things; consequently they were not on my "priority" shopping list!

Then there were the beggars, both young and old. For me it was what we would today call a "culture shock" to see old men just sitting on the pavement, presumably just waiting for someone to donate to their charity. Then there were the endless numbers of small children who followed us about, constantly asking for money. At that time, there were sixteen "Annas" to each Rupee, and each Anna was further broken down into four smaller coins called "Pice". Whether from embarrassment or pity, we soon learned to have some of the smallest denomination coins on hand to give to the more persistent children. After the hand pulled Rickshaws in Durban, we discovered the horse drawn Gharries of Bombay. These are small, two or three seater coaches drawn by a rather small horse. They were everywhere, and used like taxis. Some of the horses looked half starved with all their ribs showing quite clearly, and in one instance, I saw a horse collapse.

Despite the fact that food on board the Orion was good and plentiful, we looked for meals ashore. The standard meal to be ordered by seamen ashore in those days seemed to be "Steak, Egg, and Chips". I remember ordering such a meal in one place where there were boys employed to wave fans over our heads to cool us off. Even to my inexperienced palate, the food was awful, so I didn't eat much ashore in Bombay after that. To our delight, we found one or two large cinemas showing mostly, American films. It was a relief to get inside these places because they were air conditioned, and it was cooler in there. I always found it quite a relief to get back on board after a few hours ashore in Bombay.

After a few days, we again put to sea and headed in a northerly direction; "The Word" soon spread around that we were going to Karachi, and it wasn't long before we reached our destination. Entering Karachi is one of the experiences I still remember. From my station on the bridge, I could see all that was going on. We seemed to sail up a short river or canal, to the main port area. As we sailed along, I could see what seemed to be sandy beaches on one side, and dwellings on the other. After a short time, we berthed in the main port area. Just across the road from the ship was a beach, and the sea, which seemed most unusual. It turned out to be a most convenient swimming spot.

We found out that we were to await the arrival of a French passenger ship, which was carrying Polish refugees from their homeland. They were to be transferred to Orion, and taken somewhere else. We had a couple of days to wait during which, we sampled the shore life in Karachi. Again, we were warned of possible trouble whilst we were ashore due to the Independence movement. It appears that Ghandi, their leader, was in prison in Karachi, and it was thought that this might cause unrest there. As it happened, we saw no unrest there.

I had my first (and, as it happens, my only) experience of horse riding there. It seemed to be a good idea at the time, so a couple of us decided to "give it a go" and hired a gharry to take us to the stables. The actual hire rate was not very much, from memory, about three or four rupees per hour. We were shown how to mount and dismount, how to get the horse to move forward, and to stop. The attendant then gave each horse a whack on the backside, and we were sent on our way. We soon learned to start and stop, and even for a brief period, how to canter and gallop. Fortunately, Karachi is a much more open city than is Bombay so we were not unduly hampered by traffic. However, after a short time, we discovered that the horses would no longer go just where we wanted them to go. After some efforts at trying to impose our will on the animals, it dawned on us that they (the horses) would only trot in the general direction of the stables! Ah well, we had had some fun, and in all likelihood, we would probably not have been able to find our own way back to the stables anyway, so we just let them "get on with it" and return us to the stables which they did.

After a day or so, the expected French passenger ship arrived and tied up just ahead of us. She had three funnels, but didn't look to be any bigger than Orion. Almost as soon as she had tied up, the passengers started disembarking, on to the quayside, where they were directed to Orion's gangway. There were probably no more than two or three hundred, people, and they were soon aboard. Certain areas of the ship had been allocated to them, and they quickly established themselves therein.

It turned out that the passengers were all women, children, and some much older men. We assumed that the younger men belonging to the families had been drafted for military service. There were probably liaison people acting as go betweens between the refugees and the ship's establishment. Among the crew, it had been noted that from their dress and general appearance, and the very few belongings they brought with them, they were not very well off. Because of this (perceived) distress, one or two members of the crew organised a collection, the proceeds of which were to be given to the passengers for them to purchase things like soap and makeup for the women and girls, sweets for the children, and tobacco for the older men, from the ship's canteen.

At one stage before we finally left Karachi, quite a large group of the passengers were allowed ashore to cross the road, and go for a swim in the adjoining waters. After their confinement in both the French ship's troop decks, and on Orion's, the cooling effects of a dip in the sea must have been wonderful for them. We crew members had been using the spot almost every day during our stay for our own swimming. Of course, the passengers who took advantage of the cooling dip in the waters didn't possess anything so sophisticated as swimwear, so they just went in as they were, dresses and all, which effectively, especially among the younger women, turned it into some sort of spectacle for the crew members. However, even sailors have their ethical standards, and many of the crew who, not wishing to be seen staring at the women, because of their social predicament, came back aboard and left the passengers to enjoy their swim. Despite all this, (if sailors are to be believed,) several "affairs" sprang up between some crewmembers and some of the younger women during the time they were aboard.

My deck man ("A" Deck,) along with other deck men had been told especially to do all they could to make the life of our new passengers as comfortable as possible, and to be especially helpful for things like deck entertainment and boat drill. The Fourth Officer, a certain Mr. Robinson even asked me at one stage, if I could speak Polish! (I imagine they were quite desperate to entertain the passengers as much as they possibly could.) Imagine my surprise (and delight!) when, on one or two occasions during the voyage I was placed on duty at the swimming pool. My job there was to help the younger people to enjoy their swim by holding a lifebelt attached to a rope, whilst they held on to it as they splashed about in the water.

We left Karachi, and set sail in a general south-westerly direction. We were not escorted, and we travelled at a good speed. Whilst we had been in Durban, we had noted that there were quite a few French refugees there as a consequence of the British invasion of Madagascar earlier in the year. We assumed that these Polish people would also be going there. It was not to be. The refugees seemed happy enough during the voyage, and spent their time either in the swimming pool, or entertaining themselves. They were very religious, and we could hear what we presumed to be Church Services being held as we washed the decks early in the mornings.

Sadly, there were one or two deaths during the voyage. Normally in these circumstances, the ship's Lamp Trimmer sews up the body in canvas and adds a few iron bars to the resultant bag in order to make it sink on entering the water. The ship is slowed down. The body is then placed upon a flat board close to the ship's rail. The Captain holds a suitable Christian service - if there is no Minister on board - and at a given moment, the board is tilted up at one end and the body slides off into the sea with a big splash. The refugees made it known that they were not happy about letting a body fall some thirty feet into the water. The crew then had to raise a derrick, and suspend a board from it so that the board remained flat when hoisted with the body on it. After a suitable service, the derrick was then swung out over the side, and the board lowered right down to the water. To avoid it being dragged back by (even the reduced) speed of the ship, a line was tied to the forward end of the board. As the board reached the water, the body slid off without making a splash. This seemed to satisfy the wishes of the refugees. As soon as the body was safely despatched to the deep, the bridge was informed, and the ship resumed it's cruising speed. We were, after all, in dangerous waters.

Map Tanganyika
After a few days at sea, we had discovered that our destination was to be Mombassa, but before we arrived there, we were redirected to the port of Tanga, which is on the island of Pemba. This is part of Tanganyika, and situated a few miles south of Mombassa. In general, no one seemed to know much about Tanga or what to expect there, so we just had to wait and see what it was like. We arrived at Tanga and dropped anchor. We lay off there for some time (so it seemed) before anyone took any notice of us. All we could see on the shoreline were masses of trees. Eventually, from somewhere among the trees, a small naval pinnace made its way toward Orion. An accommodation ladder was lowered, and some white uniforms came aboard. After some time, they departed, the ship weighed anchor and we steamed southward. We learned that we were going to Dar es Salaam, a much bigger port than Pemba, also in Tanganyika and only a few hours steaming time away. Even at Dar es Salaam, we did not enter the main port. We dropped anchor again, outside the port. Tenders came alongside to take off our passengers. They seemed to be happy at the prospect of once more being on dry land, and looking forward to some more permanent accommodation.

After the Refugees, the ship seemed quiet and empty (as indeed it was!) Crew sent down to "clear up" the troop decks had no work to do. The spaces had been cleaned and all the lifejackets that had been in use were piled into neat piles. The anchor was weighed, and we proceeded to sea. Once more, and despite the many sinkings in the Indian Ocean we proceeded to sea unescorted. No doubt the ship's speed was considered a great advantage against any lurking "U" Boats - we certainly hoped so! We soon discovered that our destination was to be Cape Town.

My First Trip to Sea is continued in Part Eight: "PAY OFF"