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Blue Line

MY LAST WARTIME VOYAGE, Part Three
by Gordon Sollors

Blue Line


Continued from My Last Wartime Voyage, Chapter Two


NORTH AFRICA

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
Map Central Mediterranean
the weather was rough, and water continually washing over the bow, we were moved to the relative dryness (and safety) of the wing of the bridge, or even to the Monkey Island above the wheelhouse. On one occasion, after we had complained of the cold, he sent me down to his cabin to bring up three sheepskin "Liberty Bodices" that some comforts fund had left with him. These are just waistcoat like items, made of sheepskin, and worn under whatever top coat one has. They are very warm and comfortable, and we were glad of them.

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
Algiers Pass, Front
Front of Gordon's Shore Pass for Algiers
"The Kasbah". Lots of seedy bars, even seedier drinks, belly dancers, and of course, the ubiquitous 'ladies of the night'! 'Aussie' was given the job of Night Watchman because of his 'gammy' leg. Often, when we returned to the ship from a night ashore, he would be in the galley, usually just about to fry up the 'supper' left out for him by the cook. 'Supper' for the night watchman usually consisted of several rashers of bacon and a couple of eggs. These could quite easily be fried up on the galley stove, which was coal fired, and which as part of his night watchman's job, he kept going. One night, after a particularly noisy evening, as we had all congregated in the galley, the Captain, whose accommodation was just down the alleyway from the galley, decided that the galley fire was to be put out after tea each night. This was to discourage crew members who were returning from shore leave, from gathering in the galley, either for a chat, or just to warm up by the stove. The night watchman was to be given cold meat, or food that could be left for him by the cook for his supper. The galley was a central point for the night-watchman, as it was near to where the gangway was always put ashore, and from there, he could always see who was coming aboard. Being denied heat in the galley left the night watchman on a bit of a limb. It was exciting (and relatively safe!) to visit an area known as The Cook was also very unhappy with the situation, as it meant he had to get up earlier each morning in order to light the
Algiers Pass, Obverse
Obverse of Gordon's Shore Pass for Algiers
fires for cooking breakfast. Not in itself a very serious situation, but one of several minor events which helped to sour relations between the crew and the Captain.

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
Sfax Pass
Gordon's Shore Pass for Sfax
French Navy took exception to us (three Ordinary Seamen) going aboard an ex German minesweeper which was moored just ahead of us, to hunt for souvenirs! The Arab Night Watchman on the ship immediately told us to go, and then, when we didn't go, reported us to his employers (who happened to be the French Navy.) It was not long before a young French Navy Officer came aboard the Marvia, demanding to see "…the criminals who had illegally boarded their ship…". The Captain summoned us to the Officers Dining Saloon where we were questioned about our intentions aboard the minesweeper. Listening to the French Officer trying to pronounce, let alone repeat, the profanities that we had shouted to each other, and to the watchman, and reported to him by the Watchman, almost had us in fits of laughter. Even the Captain had to try as hard as he could to hide the occasional smile. Fortunately for us, the Captain could speak French, apparently much better than the French Officer could speak English, (he could speak most of the Mediterranean languages) and acted as an interpreter. The Frenchman wanted to take us ashore for questioning, but I think the Captain feared that once we had gone ashore, he might not be able to sail until the authorities saw fit to release us, which could well have delayed his ship. The whole affair was really a storm in a teacup. No damage had been done to the ship; only the (perceived) dignity of the French Navy had been affronted when we had failed to immediately leave the ship. I think the Captain offered the young Officer a bottle of gin, and the whole thing was forgotten.

We sailed for Bizerte again. In Bizerte, we had some repairs done to the anchor windlass. Nothing very technical, but two 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!




My Last Wartime Voyage is continued in Part Four: Sardinia


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