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Blue Bar

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar

Continued from Part Seven: The "Empire" and Refugees


Over the years whilst I was at sea, once the ship had left port, I came to enjoy the feeling that I was always "going somewhere". Just as arriving at a port always had for me, a feeling of expectancy and (when it was a first visit,) a sense of mystery, even excitement, so leaving port was always (or at least often,) a sombre experience, especially if one had enjoyed the shore life there. The "going somewhere" feeling worked as a sort of "pick me up" to counteract the anticlimax of leaving port. Not that the sombre feelings lasted for very long. Once the pilot was dropped, the ropes stowed, and the ship got under way proper, the regularity of sea going life soon returned. There was the regular work of running the ship, and on the more "domestic" side, there was the ever-pressing task of "dhobi-ing" (washing clothes) to be done, and letters to be written.

Map South Africa and N. Rhodesia
Once more we awoke to find the ever impressive sight of Table Mountain awaiting us as we steamed toward the shore. On the several occasions when I visited Cape Town during my sea going life, I never ascended the mountain. It was not to be until twelve years later when I did so with my family when we were en route to Northern Rhodesia from Britain. It was only then that I felt I could afford the trip up in the cable car, and a meal in the restaurant.

We knew we were on our way home, and that being the case, we had to load up with our "allowances" of 5lb. of sugar, 5lb. of tea, and of course, 200 cigarettes - or more if you had the nerve, and a relatively "safe" place to stow them away from the prying eyes of the Customs Officials! Many crewmen bought much more of course, but these were the almost mandatory items. In rough terms, we reckoned it would take us about two weeks to get to Freetown, and another two weeks to get from there to wherever we would dock in the UK. Generally speaking, about four weeks to go once we left "The Cape".

Now that I was an old hand in Cape Town, I knew more or less, the places I wanted to go - or more likely, the places I could afford to go! After the austerity of Britain, it was still nice to be able to go into a shop or café and order the almost everyday things like cigarettes, meals, milk shakes, sweets - although sweets hadn't been "on the ration" when we left, they certainly were when we returned! I found this out in no uncertain terms when I tried to buy some sweets at the Buffet on Exchange Street Station in Liverpool when I was going on leave. The lady at the counter looked at me (almost pityingly) and asked where were my "coupons"!

It was during our last stay in Cape Town that I suffered one of those embarrassing moments in my job. As I said, our job as "Bridge Boys" was a great job. Even to this day, I'm not exactly sure of exactly what we were supposed to do. However, on one night in particular, the Third or Fourth Mate came up to the bridge just after midnight and gave me the following instructions.

First he asked me if I knew what the "Inclinometer" was? From the name alone, I had a good idea at least of the nature of its purpose. The Mate took me to a section of the wheelhouse and showed me a longish brass pointer, which was hanging apparently upside down, i.e., the point was pointing to the deck. Across the point, was a small brass arc, marked off in (presumably) degrees. All of which was housed in a nice wooden case, with a glass front. The Mate continued, "I want you to watch this pointer. If and when it gets to six degrees, to (we'll say) port, you are to ring up the engine room on this phone (pointing) and inform them of the fact, and that the ship has to be brought back into trim". Presumably, this would entail the engine room staff either pumping out the port tanks, or filling the starboard tanks. The niceties of the operation were really none of my business.

I'm not sure whether I was full of my own importance, or of apprehension, lest I should miss the pointer, and the ship might keel over in dock!! Whatever, I kept a damn good eye on the "Inclinometer". After some time, it did indeed, start to go one way. I was riveted. Here was my chance to save the ship, to be noticed! As the pointer approached the magical six degrees, I took the bull by the horns and called the engine room on the nearby phone. It rang and rang, but no one answered. The pointer swung ominously past the magic number, I was getting quite panicky.

I looked around, and saw that among the many phones that lined the walls of the bridge and Chart Room, there was one labelled "Chief Engineer". I picked it up and called. To my great relief (at least for the moment!) the phone was answered within a couple of rings. A rather "crusty" voice on the other end said "Yes". I poured out my important news that the ship had assumed the pre-determined list of six degrees, and the starboard tanks needed pumping out. There was a (seemingly) long silence, then "the voice" asked in a rather strong Scottish accent "Who is this speaking?" I told him that I was the Deck Boy on Bridge Duty. No hesitation this time. "Do you know what the bloody time is?" Before I had chance to check the clock - which I really intended to do!!! - he went on "I am the Chief Engineer of this ship, and I DO NOT PUMP TANKS OUT AT THREE AM OR ANY OTHER TIME. IF YOU CAN'T GET ANYONE ON THE PHONE, THEN BLOODY WELL GO DOWN THERE AND TELL THEM". Silence. I didn't know what to do. I knew that I shouldn't really leave the bridge unattended, and in all truth, I didn't really know the way to the engine room, other than it was "down there somewhere".

I needn't have worried. During the time I had been fruitlessly ringing the Engine Room, and then being blasted out by the Chief Engineer, someone "down there" had been alerted to the ship's attitude, and had done the necessary pumping. When I looked at the Inclinometer again, it was reading less than five degrees. I consoled myself with the thought that alerted to the ship's position by my ringing the phone; they had started to pump out the tanks, slowly bringing the ship back to an even keel. I eventually calmed down, and made myself a cup of tea in the little Pantry. I think I had to go down one deck to get to that. By the time my relief came at four AM, I was able to report to him that "Everything was OK".

When I next saw the third officer, I came in for a bit of half serious, but lighthearted telling off. (I think the Deck Officers were quite amused by the incident.) I was told in no uncertain terms that the Chief Engineer is a very important man aboard ship, and one just does not awaken him at three AM, "UNLESS THE SHIP IS SINKING".

When I think back on this incident (as I often do!) and with a little more knowledge of the world, it is more likely the case that the whole process of keeping the ship on an even keel in those circumstances, even in those distant days, could have been an entirely automatic process, with the pumps set to start pumping once a pre determined attitude was exceeded.

Yet again, we enjoyed our stay in Cape Town for some seven to ten days, during which time the ship was loaded with (among other things,) crates of oranges. They filled the holds, and then loaded them all around the shelter decks down aft. There were oranges everywhere. As on the previous voyage, and to off set the need for crew members to "acquire" their own supply of oranges, the good citizens of Cape Town gave each member of the crew half a case of oranges each, to be taken home when the ship reached England! Very generous indeed.

We took on board quite a few passengers before we left. I remember wondering at the time, who would want to travel the seven seas during these times? Obviously, there were many hundreds of people who do, and for all sorts of reasons. We took just a few hundred of these aboard. Unlike our Polish Refugees, these people were "civilians", and travelling under their own steam, and for a variety of reasons. For the most part, they were relatively affluent. As before, and on quite a different level, we also took on board some Distressed British Seamen, usually shortened to DBS. These were yet more British and Allied Merchant Seamen who had lost their ships due to enemy action, and had been brought to the nearest port to await passage to Britain on the first available ship. Obviously, these people had our particular sympathy. Not far from our minds was the thought, "There but for the Grace of God etc__". I can't remember the exact number we took on board, but the numbers reflected the amount of shipping being sunk in the area at the time (probably due to the pro-German sentiments of many of the country's Afrikaners) which was quite substantial.

The time came for us to leave Cape Town and set a course for Freetown. Despite the secrecy, which surrounded ship sailings in those times, we all "knew" we were "homeward bound" from Cape Town. What we didn't know (and of course, even those crew members who re-signed on for another trip when we got to Liverpool didn't know) was that Orion was returning to Britain to be fitted out in readiness, and to take part in the North African Landings which were in the process of being planned for November.

We probably left Cape Town in early September, bound as I mentioned, for Freetown. The weather was quite reasonable, (it was spring in the Southern Hemisphere) but we didn't care about the weather, we were at last, going home. We swung out the lifeboats, and had the necessary lifeboat drills each day, the passengers organised diversion entertainments for themselves. On "A" Deck, we brought out the "Horse Racing" game and the "Golf" game for the use of the first class passengers - Oh yes, we still had those!

After a few days at sea, we were informed that, due to information received, the ship would be proceeding to St. Helena. Nothing more, or less. I imagine the Captain would not have wanted to heighten the stress of wartime travel by going into details of the reasons of why we were being diverted. However, ALL passengers and crew were warned to wear lifejackets at all times, and not even to go to the bog without them. For the crew, since it was not always convenient to actually wear lifejackets as we were working, it meant having them "close by", and ready for immediate use if necessary. Lifeboat drill took on a new urgency, but despite the strain, everyone went about his or her daily business (or pleasure!) almost as usual. The most likely cause for our diversion would have been the presence in the vicinity of a "U" boat..

This was confirmed in a dramatic way some time later, when we learned that our sister ship, the SS ORCADES which set sail from Cape Town almost one month later, with exactly the same cargo, and passenger numbers (including some DBS) for exactly the same destinations (Freetown and Liverpool) was torpedoed and sunk about twenty four hours after leaving Cape Town. From accounts I have read since, the ship took several hours to sink, and some forty odd passengers and crew lost their lives. Considering the numbers of people that would have been aboard, this was not a high casualty rate. My own friend, who like me was the Bugler Deck Boy on the ship, was among those rescued.

SS Orcades Orient Line's SS Orcades

The Orient Line's 23,456-ton turbine steamer Orcades was torpedoed off Cape Town by U-172 on October 10th, 1942. Forty-eight people lost their lives in the sinking.

Orcades' survivors which numbered between 1,016 & 1,021 -- accounts vary -- were rescued in heavy seas by the gallant crew of the Polish cargo ship SS Narwik, formerly the British-built Empire Roamer.

Photo Source: The World's Merchant Fleets, 1939 by Roger W. Jordan (London: Chatham Pub., c1999).

We Arrived at St. Helena. Of course, there was no question of going ashore, and likewise, there was no question of the ship dropping anchor. Consequently, we steamed round St. Helena until the powers that be considered it safe for us to continue to Freetown. Those passengers with binoculars were able to have a good look at the historic sites as we steamed around and around. I forget just how long we steamed around this famous and most isolated island, but it was a matter of days rather than hours. Eventually, the "All Clear" came, and we proceeded, unmolested to Freetown.

This was my fourth visit to Freetown, and I was almost beginning to feel like an "old salt". If anything, places like Freetown where there is no shore leave, become even less exotic with the familiarity of frequent visits. There were other ships there, but we took up our anchorage away from them. The usual flurry of tenders and pinnaces, oil and water bunker barges, the numbers of "Bum Boats" (surprisingly, not forbidden to approach the big ships for business!) came and went as we lay at anchor, waiting to set sail for England. As the time for our departure became "known", several enterprising crewmen ordered and took delivery of large stalks of green bananas from various "Bum Boats", to be nurtured over the next two weeks for the eventual triumphant delivery to families in banana starved Britain. They had all worked it out that two weeks in a dark and cool place on the ship would see the bananas just ripen in time for landing. Surprisingly, some arrived in excellent condition, whilst others rotted long before the "Big Day".

By this time, I had been at sea, or at least of the seagoing fraternity for almost six months, and some of the talk and lore of a life at sea were beginning to become part of my everyday life. Talk of the war, and of men "getting the hammer" (being torpedoed and sunk) was commonplace. Many of the DBS's we had carried from Cape Town had spent much of their time during the voyage to England in the fo'c's'le with old shipmates, and had stories of often extreme hardships after enemy action. Then there were the everyday things I saw. For instance, there were the "Liberty Ships" or "Sam Boats" as they became known, once they were handed over to the British Ministry of War Transport. Since I was on a troopship, and therefore the convoys I sailed in consisted of similar ships, there were no "Liberty" ships in our convoys. Even so, the sight of a "Liberty" ship in port in 1942, was rare enough to cause such remarks as "There goes one of those Liberty Ships". By the end of 1942, we saw many more of them, until in 1943, it was not unusual to see whole convoys consisting almost entirely of Liberty Ships. The Liberty Ship was originally of British design, from the yards of JL Thompson of Sunderland. The Americans designed methods of mass production, and built over 2,700 of them. Without them, it is entirely possible that Britain may not have survived the "U" Boat onslaught in the Atlantic, where the submarines were sinking ships faster than the British could replace or repair their losses. Also to this huge (and timely) influx of newly built shipping, must be added the Canadian built "Fort" Boats , of similar size and capacity. The Canadians built and made available to the British Government hundreds of these fine ships. For her own part, Britain's shipyards built and repaired ships of all sizes and types at unprecedented levels including at least one new Battleship (HMS Vanguard,) Aircraft Carriers, Cruisers, Destroyers, Corvettes, Submarines, Minesweepers, Minelayers, and Escort vessels of all types. The British equivalent to the Liberty and Fort boats was the "Empire" Boat of which Britain built hundreds. As the war went on, the presence of these wartime built ships became everyday rather than unusual.

Our final leg of the voyage from Freetown to Liverpool also was uneventful. We felt the weather getting cooler, the anticipation of home leave became quite exciting, and the main topic of conversation rarely departed from what our intentions were during our leave period.

We eventually sailed up the River Mersey on the tenth of October. (We were later to learn that the tenth of October was the day that our sister ship, the Orcades had been sunk just outside Cape Town.) We steamed up to the Princes Landing stage, where all the passengers and the DBSs' left the ship. Later, we departed the Landing Stage, and sailed down river to the Gladstone Dock where we finally tied up, and paid off on the eleventh of October. ( Click Here for Docks Map).

Many of the crew stayed on, but Company loyalty was unheard of to me in those days, and I just wanted to get away, and experience life on the other types of ships I had heard the sailors talking about during my two voyages on the Orion.

SS Orion at Tilbury Docks with her Paying Off Pennant May 1963

SS Orion with Paying Off Pennant at Tilbury Docks When a British passenger liner reached the end of her days, it was customary for her to fly a paying off pennant in which one foot of length represented one year of service. Orion's splendid pennant, shown here at Tilbury Docks in May 1963, was 28 feet long.

SS Orion at Tilbury May 1963 -- Stern View

Stern View of SS Orion at Tilbury Docks May 1963

Like many of Britian's great liners in the 1960's, after the paying off ceremony was completed, Orion sailed to Kaohsiung in Taiwan to be broken up.

Over the years I have often wondered how many of our "passengers" returned to the U.K. During my two trips on the Orion, we must have carried several thousand soldiers who would have fought in many theatres of war. I hope that most of them were as lucky as I was in surviving the war unscathed. I have since read, (In John Slader's excellent book, The Fourth Service, Merchantmen at War, 1939 - 45) of the "Laconia Affair" in which the White Star Liner (Click for Photo) carrying crew, passengers, and several hundred Italian Prisoners of War was torpedoed and sunk off the west coast of Africa in early September. John Slader's account tells of the torpedoing, and the subsequent attempts to rescue the survivors by two German, and an Italian submarine. Having taken some survivors on board, the submarines were forced to leave the people they had rescued and submerge when an allied plane from Ascension Island bombed them. It would seem that this was the area that Orion was headed for when we were diverted to St. Helena. In the weeks that followed, no less than three large troop ships (Orient Line's Oronsay, Canadian Pacific's Duchess of Atholl, and Orient Line's Orcades) were sunk in the central - south Atlantic area in October. With the invasion of North Africa imminent, the loss of these three magnificent ships would have been even more of a major set back. With this in mind, the need to have these troop ships back in England could well have been the reason why someone at the Admiralty wanted the submarines to depart the scene as soon as possible, and ordered the attack to achieve this end.

By way of interest, I have recently met up with Mr. Doug Lawrence via the Internet. Doug joined Orion at the same time as I, also as a Deck Boy. He now lives in Canada with his wife Joan where they have lived since 1949. They have children and grandchildren there.


Gordon Stuart Sollors
March 28, 2001


GO TO Gordon's next story about SS Marvia: My Last Wartime Voyage.

RETURN to The Earlier Chapters of "My First Voyage to Sea":

Part One: Starting Out,
Part Two: Life on Board,
Part Three: Learning the Ropes,
Part Four: Convoy,
Part Five: Foreign Shores,
Part Six: The Lady in White and
Part Seven: The "Empire" and Refugees.

RETURN to Gordon's "Stories of a Merchant Sailor":

Part One: Peggy Boy
Part Two: Christmas in America and
Part Three: Steering Lessons.

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