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Blue Bar

MY LAST WARTIME VOYAGE
by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar




BIRKENHEAD AGAIN

Gordon at 15
Gordon, age 18
Birkenhead Docks in November is a cheerless place. This was the third time I had been sent there to join a ship. The previous occasions had been November 1942 to join the tanker MV British Faith, and April 1944 to Join the cargo boat SS St. Clears. This time, it was November 1944, I was sent there from the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool in Canning Place, Liverpool to sign on a ship called the SS Marvia as a Senior Ordinary Seaman.

The docks were almost deserted of shipping. I think most of Britain's ships were down south,
Map UK
looking after the needs of the invasion forces in Normandy. I had received directions at the gate as to where the Marvia was berthed. It was quite a long walk to the ship. I think the berth was the Vittoria Dock. I was carrying the "standard" luggage for a seaman, i.e., suitcase with sea boots strapped to the outside (I always bought myself thigh boots, and these were far too bulky to go into the case,) and the standard kit bag slung over one shoulder.

The skies were grey, and it was cold, but at least, it wasn't raining. As I walked past the various docks, locks, and basins, there wasn't a ripple on the water. I eventually came across the Marvia; she was berthed in between several barges, each of which was almost as big as she was. I was surprised at how small the ship was; she looked like a large "coaster" - and I knew that I had signed "Foreign Going" Articles.

As I approached, the picture did not get any brighter. There seemed to be no signs of life aboard; it was like approaching a cold, empty house. She had a long fo'c's'le head, which contained No. 1 hatch, and the fore mast. Then there was a longer well deck containing No's 2 and 3 hatches, and the mainmast. The bridge, machinery, galley, Officer's accommodation, and various other crew members' quarters were all in the after part of the ship.

She was already loaded, the derricks were down, and the hatches had been battened down. The gunwales were just at dockside level.
Marvia in her Grey Coat
Marvia in her wartime coat of grey
There was a short wooden ladder leading from the quayside down to the well deck. Descending it I turned to walk aft, to where all the accommodation seemed to be. To my dismay, I was directed to the fo'c's'le where the Seamen and Firemen were billeted. I made my way for'ard, under the fo'c's'le head which acted as a sort of 'tween' deck for No1 hold, and had various store rooms on either side. On the starboard side, right for'ard, were the Seamen's Quarters. This consisted of our fo'c's'le (the seaman's generic term for his accommodation - whether it be aft or for'ard) the Bosun's cabin, and the usual ablutions. There was no separate messroom for us; a longish table in the fo'c's'le told me that it was to be our combined sleeping quarters and messroom. There was only one way to describe the accommodation - dingy!

Although we were a (deck) crew of six, there were only five bunks in the fo'c's'le. Normally, there would have been twelve crew members in the deck department of a Foreign Going ship; this number usually consisted of: eight AB's, three Ordinary Seamen, and a Deck Boy. This allowed for three watches of four hours on and eight hours off with each watch consisting of two AB's and an Ordinary Seaman. The other two AB's would be put on Day Work, and the Deck Boy would serve as "Peggy". (Fetch the meals, and keep the crew's messroom clean - and hopefully learn how to be a sailor in his spare time!) Marvia's crew number of six meant that we would have to work watches of four hours on and four hours off. This was the usual set up for Coastal vessels, but not Foreign Going vessels. It seemed that we would have no "Peggy", and would have to fetch our own meals. It was going to be an interesting trip!

The first person I met in the quarters was the Bosun; I think his name was Jim Finnegan. He was a short person, very lively, and gave the impression that he knew what he was talking about. He told me that as it was late in the afternoon, we would not be expected to work on that day. We could draw our bedding from the Steward if we wished, there would be no evening meal, and we would be expected to present for "Turn To" (start work) at 8 AM tomorrow.

The fo'c's'le was gloomy. There was no electric light, because (as the Bosun had explained) whilst the ship was alongside in port, the generators were turned off and we had to use paraffin lamps for lighting in our quarters. These lamps consisted of a brass base, which was also the fuel tank, an adjustable wick, and a glass, which when clean, and in place, gave the lamp quite a bright glow. The lamps were put away when the ship was at sea because then we had electric lights. As soon as the ship would dock anywhere, the generators would be shut down, and we had to revert to the paraffin lamps. In the smaller cabins, usually the preserve of the Captain, Officers, and Petty Officers such as the Donkey man and Bosun, the paraffin lamps were more ornate, and often slung in gimbals attached to a bulkhead to give the same free movement in rough weather.

There was a table with benches on either side, and there was a "bogey" for heating. The bogey was a small cast iron stove, about twelve or eighteen inches in diameter, and about two foot six inches high, it stood in a metal tray to prevent coal and ashes from burning the wooden deck. It had a steel tube leading from it, through the deckhead, where it protruded about five feet into the air from the fo'c's'le head deck, and into the atmosphere. This was the chimney; as the ship was a coal burner, we would have to bring buckets of coal from the bunker hatch, which was situated aft, between the bridge and the funnel, to feed it. There was much that I was to learn about sailing in a smaller ship as compared to the run of the mill - and larger - cargo boats.

There were three empty bunks, each with a mattress. I dumped my kit bag and case on the bunk that I wanted, and went aft to get my bedding from the steward. When I returned about half an hour later, the other two Ordinary Seamen were there. We introduced ourselves, and whilst we were stood around talking, the three AB's came in for their afternoon "smoko". It seemed that they had started that morning, preparing the ship for departure, and we three Ordinary Seamen had been signed on later, (in order to save the ship money) to start work on the day of sailing.

It did not take long to discover who was who, and to note the "pecking order". There was Joe Mizzi AB; a man of about 45 years, rather short in stature. We were amazed to discover (from the Bosun) that Joe was the Captain's brother! Initially, we were inclined to mistrust him. As the voyage went on, we discovered that Joe was an excellent seaman; always willing to help, and contrary to our initial beliefs, was not (at least to our knowledge,) in continual contact with the Captain, reporting all that we were saying in the fo'c's'le. The Captain (O. Mizzi) and of course, brother Joe, were from Gozo, one of the Islands of Malta. From Joe, we learned that the Captain was part owner of the ship. In fact, the name of the ship was derived from the first and last syllables of the names of the Captain's wife MARgaret, and his daughter SylVIA. We never did discover whether or not Joe had any equity in the ship.

Next, there was "Bob", an AB. I'm sure we knew Bob's family name at the time, but we knew so little of him that it is long forgotten to me now. Even Bob did not know exactly how old he was. Like many seamen in those times, he had been torpedoed several times, and all his identity papers had been lost. He thought he was about 54. He knew he was from Manchester, but to his knowledge, had no family there or anywhere. Bob was one of those sad hangovers from the Depression years that one met (not infrequently in those days) on different ships. He had absolutely no obligations to anyone ashore. His current ship was his home, and when he paid off a ship, he would make his way to the nearest pub, or "Sailor's Home", and stay there until either his leave, or his money ran out, then he would report to the "Pool", and sign on another ship. Bob truly lived in a world of his own.

As we came off watch with Bob, we were to discover that he had a most peculiar ritual, which he performed, and which kept us fascinated throughout the voyage. A seaman's bunk is something like six foot long, and two foot wide, large enough for the average man, but some men find them a little "cramped". The bunk has steel slats as a base, and the mattress is placed on these. There is a short rail that can be placed at either end of the bunk. This keeps the mattress in place, and in rough weather, prevents the occupant from falling out of the bunk. Most seamen make their bunks by tucking the sheets and blankets in all the way around, and then pulling them free on one side of the top half in order to climb in. Bob kept his sheets tightly tucked in, and "eased" himself in between the sheets by sitting on the pillow, and gradually sliding his feet and legs into the bed without pulling the blankets from under the sides of the mattress.

When it was time for Bob to turn in, he would undress down to his underwear. This consisted of "Long Johns" - trousers and vest. It became his habit about once a week to turn these items inside out, and put them on again. However, to get into his bunk, Bob would strip down to his underwear, and socks. He always wore a dark blue "Beanie". He also invariably had a cigarette in his mouth. It would take Bob several minutes to "ease" himself down in between the sheets of his ready made bunk, without pulling them out from under the mattress. First, he sat on the pillow, then his feet went in, then he would ease his legs down, and finally, he would wriggle his body down into the bunk so that he would be quite prone with the sheets and blankets right up to his chin. His final two acts were to work his arms up to the top of the blankets, and put his cigarette butt into his ash tray which was attached to the bunk rails, then with a final flourish, he would pull the rim of his "beanie" down over his eyes, and go to sleep. He never seemed to move whilst he was sleeping, and we invariably found him in the exact same position when we were called to go on watch four hours later.

Then there was the tallish Cockney chap, he was the third AB. I'm sure he had a name, but it was by his nickname that he was remembered. He was tall, and quite good looking; he had a thin moustache, and in looks, was not unlike the (then) famous film star, Errol Flynn. It was this similarity that he was not slow to impress upon us. He was forever telling us that he had often been mistaken for Errol Flynn. We thought, tongue in cheek, "Yeh, Yeh", but the name stuck. As things turned out, we just called him "Errol". He was thick skinned enough not to mind the obvious ridicule. He dressed immaculately for work, with dungarees just the right shade of blue, (by carefully controlling the amount and pressure of the scrubbing one applied at "dhobi" - washing - time!). He also wore denim shirts, and jackets to match. He wore American leather boots with fancy tooled designs on which came up to his calves, and leather working gloves at all times when working on deck. Indeed, he dressed better for work than we did to go ashore! In those days, the only time that (most) seaman wore gloves was on our return to England. For the last few days of the voyage, we would do a lot of clothes washing to get our hands clean, and then wear gloves for the last two or three days in order to keep them clean.

"Errol" also solved the problem of six crew members to five bunks. He had been (apart from Joe who lived on the ship) one of the first aboard. Joe had told him of an unused single cabin on the port side. Nominally, it was the "Donkeyman's" cabin, but since the Donkeyman and firemen had quarters aft, it was vacant. Joe had not wanted to occupy it in case the other crew members might have thought that being the Captain's brother, he had privileges that they did not. He told Errol about it, and Errol moved in as quickly as he could. This suited us fine.

The "us" in this case being the remaining crew members, the Ordinary Seamen of which we were three. There was Ginger. I think he was from Axminster. I remember he was not from a regular seaport. He was roughly my age, and we got on well together.

Then there was Francis Whiting, aka "Aussie". As one might expect, with a nick name like that, he came from Australia. He also was in our age group, i.e., the mid to late seventeen's (I had just turned seventeen the previous August.) Aussie was from Tamworth in New South Wales, stories of which, he would never tire of telling us. Unfortunately, Aussie had a rather nasty wound on one of his legs. He had just spent some time in hospital having it sewn up. It was not a result of enemy action, and as far as we knew, it was the result of a boisterous night out ashore some time ago. It was to cause him trouble him throughout the voyage.

Lastly, there was myself, Gordon Sollors from Blackpool in Lancashire. Probably as a result of our age group and rating - Ordinary Seamen, the three of us "hit it off" from the start. We remained good friends throughout the voyage.

Once we had established our respective bunks, and stowed our gear in our lockers, we three Ordinary Seamen left the ship and returned to Liverpool where we each went our separate ways. I still had a night's lodging booked at Plimsoll House, a Seamen's Hostel in Gambier Street near the Cathedral, which had good, cheap accommodation, and cheap meals.




My Last Wartime Voyage is continued in Part Two: Four On and Four Off


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