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|Continued from My Last Wartime Voyage, Chapter Two|
The voyage to Algiers via the Bay of Biscay was a bit rough. Although we had no escort, and the submarine bunkers of Brest were not too far away, we did not experience any enemy action. One of the portholes in our fo'c's'le "sprang" a couple of rivets, and water leaked into our quarters, even with the 'deadlight' screwed down. The Captain paid us a visit, and promised us that it would be fixed once we were in Algiers.
The Chief Officer turned out to be quite friendly whilst we were on watch. On several occasions, whilst I was on lookout on the wing of the bridge, or even, sometimes when I was on the wheel, he would spend time pointing out the various stars to me, and talking about his 'days in sail'. He actually taught me to identify several of the major constellations. Normally, the lookout was kept on the fo'c's'le head, but when
Algiers proved to be a real 'Blackmarketeer's Sanctuary'. Selling anything from food to clothes brought greatly inflated prices. Our sad story was that we had not known of this, and so had nothing to sell! Even the currency had its price!
I forget just what the official exchange rate was for the English Pound, (from memory, about 2,500 Algerian Francs) but several times the official rate could be had if one had English Pound notes to sell - or even more, if one had American Dollars! We often contemplated that with his considerable local knowledge, the Captain had brought English currency with him on the ship, taken it ashore, and changed it for local currency at the greatly inflated rates which were on offer. He had then come back aboard and given us our "subs" in local currency and "Invasion Money" - which was worth even less, also obtained by the same means, and thereby saving himself many hundreds of pounds. We all thought it, but were never absolutely sure.
It was exciting (and relatively safe!) to visit an area known as
Food on the ship was hardly 'cordon bleu', but it was edible, and always on time. The Cook was a young man from Liverpool who looked after our needs reasonably well. For whatever reasons, and best known to himself, the Captain decided that the cook should learn some 'Mediterranean' cooking. Seeing this as an affront to his culinary skills, the cook informed the Captain in no uncertain terms that he, (the Cook) would continue to cook as he had started, and should the Captain wish for 'Mediterranean' style foods, he would have to cook them himself.
After Algiers, the ship went to Bizerte, Sfax, back to Bizerte, and then to Cagliari in Sardinia. In Bizerte the cook was paid off. I think it was for medical reasons, but can't really remember the actual cause. However, he did go, and was replaced by a young Italian bloke who could hardly speak a word of English. I have no idea where the Captain got the young man from, but from then on, and because of the poor food, Captain/Crew relations went even further down hill. From Bizerte, we were sent to Sfax on the Eastern coast of Tunisia. The main export from Sfax is usually phosphates, a very messy and dusty cargo. Fortunately, our reason for going there was not for phosphates, but to pick up some large crates of radio equipment. The equipment, we learned, was to be taken to Cagliari in Sardinia.
We had the eight to twelve watch. It was Christmas Eve. We were expecting to dock in Sfax early on Christmas Day. When we were called at three thirty, ready for the four to eight watch, we noticed a strange silence. We thought the ship might have arrived early. In a way, it had. Actually, the ship had run aground a couple of miles short of the harbour. The bow was high and dry out of the water, and when we looked over the side, there were a couple of "locals" walking around in what little bit of water there was under the fore part of the ship!
The Captain was not a happy man. As soon as it was light enough, we had to top the derricks on number one hatch, open up the hatch, and lift the large boxes from the lower hold up to the 'tween deck. The other watch also had to participate since this was an emergency! After two or three hours, all the boxes were safely up in the 'tween decks, and I think it was the intention to be able to flood the holds if the refloatation process should have required it.
After much "full a-heading" and immediately "full a-sterning" of the engines, with commensurate swinging of the rudder from hard a port to hard a starboard, the ship refloated at about nine AM. There was no damage to the hull (no dry docking was needed) and we berthed in Sfax.
Our Christmas breakfast consisted of a kit full of boiled rice with several tins of sardines or some sort of fish mixed in with it! Hardly inspirational for "Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All Men"! Normally, with food like this, we could "fill up" with bread and butter with cups of hot, sweet tea. Well, the hot, sweet tea was there, but the young Italian cook never did learn to bake bread. It was awful! In an effort to insult him, or possibly spur him on to greater things, we called it "Unleavened Bread" and "Chapatti's" but since he didn't understand what we were saying, it was like water off a duck's back. Another favourite dish (of the cook) was "spaghetti" This was a meal served for tea. It consisted of a kit full of spaghetti that had been dipped into a pot of boiling water for five minutes, placed in a kit, and had a nub of butter placed on the top! Then there were the "Artichokes". None of us had even heard of these as edible products before. Consequently, we were taken by surprise when the cook offered us a tray of what appeared to us as six green vegetables with bits of bread and tomato inserted between the "spikey" bits. We were informed that they were artichokes, and there was one per person for tea. I think we had heard the name somewhere, but we still regarded them as being more like tulips with bits of bread and tomatoes pushed in the spaces between the rather sharp pointed leaves. After Joe had had his fill, most of these dishes, went straight over the side, and we would be forced to "back up" with the cook's awful bread, and mugs of sweet tea - at least the sweet tea was palatable! Eventually, the cook's "Scouse" (which at one time had suffered the same fate as these dishes) began to taste almost edible in comparison to his locally inspired dishes. (To any of the non seafaring fraternity who might happen to read this, "Scouse" is a peculiarly Liverpool dish, and is really only a meat and vegetable stew.) After many complaints to the Captain - even the officers were complaining by this time - the Captain ordered fresh rations from the American forces when we got to Cagliari. At last, we had tins of lovely crinkly bacon, with eggs for breakfast! Overall, it is difficult to remember whether the food got better, or whether we just got used to the bad stuff!
In the meantime, Sfax had it's moments for us when the
We sailed for
again. In Bizerte, we had some repairs
done to the anchor windlass. Nothing very technical, but
Italian Prisoners of War
were brought aboard to do
the work. We, (the three Ordinary Seamen) struck up a
sort of friendship with them as we had to pass by them
every time we went into our quarters, they started by
asking us for cigarettes, and then food, which we were
quite happy to give them (especially the food!!!) We
became quite friendly with them. They gave us small
ornaments that they had fashioned from old toothbrush
handles. Eventually, one of them asked us if we could
stow them away on the ship. (We all knew we were going
to Cagliari.) We talked about this between ourselves,
and reasoned that since we were no longer at war with
Italy, it may not be a sort of Capital offence to hide
them. (It would, in fact, have been quite a serious
offence!) We told them that they could hide among the
big boxes, which we had now returned to the hold, and
we would get food for them. However, common sense
prevailed, and we later had second thoughts about
this, and informed them that the ship would be searched
before we left. They accepted this, which was probably
just as well. Even we three rather stupid and immature
Ordinary Seamen could see that it would not have been a
very clever thing to do!