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Blue Bar

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar

Continued from My Last Wartime Voyage, Part Four

Sicily and Italy

After the relative quiet of the last few ports, Palermo was a hive of action. For a start, it was a much larger port.
Palermo Pass
Gordon's Shore Pass for Palermo, Sicily
There was a large American Military and Naval presence there. A large centre, (I think it was an Opera House in better times) was turned into a cinema for the entertainment of the forces. We, as Merchant Seamen were included in "The Forces", and could visit there on several nights to see different films. At one stage, we made friends with some American sailors from one of the many "PT" Boats that were moored in the harbour. They even took us aboard. To do this, they had to speak to their Commanding Officer, who demanded proof of who we were. Once he was satisfied that we were in fact British Merchant Seamen from "the small ship along the quay", he allowed us aboard as guests of his crew. Once aboard, and we were introduced to some of the luxuries that we did not have on our own ship. Good food being the main item.

From Palermo we sailed for Brindisi. To get to Brindisi, we had to sail through the Straits of Messina, which was a most picturesque journey. As we steamed through the Strait, we could see that the Sicilian side of the coastline was dominated by the huge Mount Etna away to our starboard side. It was still only February, or early March, and the Mediterranean weather, though calm, was still a little bit on the cool side. We sailed around the "heel" of Italy, and up the Adriatic coast a short way to Brindisi.

At Brindisi, there is a large, brick monument built in honour we were told, of the seamen from the area. The monument is in the form of a ship's rudder. Quite an unusual structure. As in some of the other Ports, I can no longer remember what our cargo to Brindisi was, but I quite clearly remember what cargo we loaded there. We loaded a cargo of casks of Veno, which is a local wine, for Civitavecchia, a place none of us had been to or even heard of prior to that time.

Brindisi also had its share of excitement for us. Not the least was that we met up with, and made friends of, some British soldiers there. They had a "barracks" in town, which was really no more than a private house commandeered for them. They belonged to a transport company, and they told us some hair raising stories of motorcyclists almost being beheaded when Partisans stretched wires across the road at night in order to delay them. Anyway, we spent a few evenings at their billet, mainly drinking, and talking of "home".

On another occasion, we spent an evening at a local bar. It was interesting to note that most bars had long ago run out of glasses for their customers to drink from. Glasses were replaced with the top end of any bottle, which included the neck.
Invasion Money 5 Lire Note
This Five Lire Note is an example of Allied Military Currency, commonly called "Invasion Money"
This was cut clean across, the old opening would be suitably "corked", and then it would be turned upside down to give the resemblance of a wine glass. The 'corks' were turned from wood to fit snugly into the neck of the bottle, and then widened out to act as a base. I'm sure that if any of them turned up theses days, they would become quite an 'in' thing!!! Anyway, we spent an evening in one of the many bars. In the process, we became quite "friendly" with some local girls. At the end of the evening, we were invited to "escort" them to wherever their homes were, an offer which we readily accepted. Once outside the bar, some local lads had other ideas. They seemed to think that we had no right to accompany "their" girls, and let us know in no uncertain terms. They became so aggressive that we considered discretion to be the better part of valour, and had no option but to run for it. They gave chase, and as we approached the Dock Gates, they caught up with us. One of them got so close as to give me a punch in the back. (Which didn't stop me from running!) We finally reached the safety of the Dock area and went aboard, glad to be out of it. As we were undressing to turn in, I noticed quite a large blood stain on my shirt. Further investigation showed that I was bleeding from where the bloke had "thumped" me. It appears that he must have had a knife, and it was the knife that I had felt.

Since Brindisi was a large British Naval Base, it turned out that there was a Naval hospital right on the quayside. By this time, it was well past midnight. However, accompanied by Aussie, I went there, and related our story. The doctor on duty had a look at my "wound", and told me that I had indeed been stabbed, and that he would want to "probe" the wound to see if it had affected my kidneys. As soon as he mentioned the word "probe", I passed out! I definitely had not thought that anyone would want to "probe" inside my back! I did not remain in that state for long. The doctor told me that he would need "samples" of urine to see if my vital organs had been affected. To this end, I would have to remain in hospital, at least overnight. Aussie returned to the ship.

I was placed in a ward with several other men. They were all asleep, but there was to be no sleep for me at least, not just yet! The Orderly had been ordered to "get a sample" from me before breakfast. He therefore stood at the side of the bed, and poured one glass of water into another until the sound of running water produced the desired effect on me. I duly "filled his bottle", and he left me alone to sleep which, being quite tired by this time, I gratefully did.

I must say at this point, that the Doctor and Orderly had been extremely kind to me, and had seen to me as soon as I had entered the hospital. In the morning, the others in the ward were already awake. I awoke just in time for breakfast. When the Orderly brought our breakfasts in on a trolley, I discovered that he was a bit of a "fairy", and the others played up to him in grand style! The Orderly was quite happy to be teased about his sexuality, and generally enjoyed it all.

I remained in hospital until sometime after ten AM, when the doctor, satisfied that there was no infection in my kidneys, put a more permanent dressing on my "wound", and released me. I went back on board the ship, which was only a matter of minutes walk away. The Captain fined me half a day's pay for being absent without leave!

The loading of the barrels of Veno took quite a time. The casks were of several different sizes, from the large barrels containing (we judged,) somewhere between twenty and thirty gallons of wine, to the smaller barrels which we judged to contain about four or five gallons. The casks were all slung on board, one or two at a time. The dockworkers, used to this trade, knew just how hard they had to slam a cask into the bulkhead to make the wine seep out without actually breaking the cask. It appeared that they had this down to a fine art. We were invited to "fill our containers". Unfortunately for us, the only "containers" we could readily find were the buckets that we used for our washing, and general ablution purposes. Their regular use as washing did not put us off using them for wine. The plain fact was that the buckets were of galvanised steel (no plastics in those days!) and the Veno had some sort of chemical reaction with the zinc. This reaction just stripped the zinc off the buckets within a very short space of time. As a result of this chemical reaction; the contents of the buckets would have been quite poisonous and unsafe even for us to drink. We were therefore limited in containers to any bottles at all that we could find, plus any old food tins that had not rusted and could be used for short term storage. It seemed that we had a permanent supply of grog! However, all our dreams were dashed once we had really tasted the stuff. It not only looked like vinegar, it tasted like vinegar, and was definitely not to our palate! However, a few of the crew took a liking to the stuff, and filled up whilst they could.

We left Brindisi, and made our way across the foot of Italy, back up through the Straits of Messina, past the fiery island volcano of Stromboli, which always appeared to be on fire, and up to Civitavecchia. The food had become a little better than it had been during the early days of the new, Italian cook.
Rome Guide
Gordon's 1945 Guide to Rome
Somewhere along the line, we had picked up tins of American bacon, which made beautiful rashers to compliment the eggs, which seemed to be in plentiful supply at our various ports of call.

We arrived at Civitavecchia, which must have been a beautiful place at one time. Now, it was a mass of rubble. We found a berth amongst the rubble, and proceeded to unload the wine. Whilst we were in Civitavecchia, we discovered that it was not too far from Rome, and that the soldiers had a lorry going there every Sunday, and returning late Sunday night. Aussie, who was a Roman Catholic, dearly wanted to go, as did I. We made plans for the next Sunday. Joe, the Captain's brother, asked us to get some water from one of the fountains in St. Peter's Square, and even gave us a special small bottle for this purpose.

Somewhere along the line, the Captain had knowledge of our intentions, and forbade us to go. (Having asked us to get him a bottle of "Holy Water" as we called it, we didn't really think it had been Joe who informed the Captain of our intentions.) We argued that it was a Sunday, and as we didn't normally work on that day, the time was ours to with as we pleased. He was adamant that we shouldn't go, we were equally adamant that we would, and on Sunday morning we went.

We had been told where the lorry would stop in order to pick up the would be "pilgrims" as we had become known. It duly arrived, and off we went. Being an Army transport, it was naturally full of soldiers, who couldn't quite place two civilians. Once they knew who we were, and where we were from, they were most helpful. One of them, a Sergeant, took us to the Sergeant's Club when we got to Rome. We found out that we could get a good meal there, and he left us to it. Of course, Aussie, being a Roman Catholic, wanted to visit all the churches that he could. I had no objection to this, and just tagged along. Although we had a brochure that had been issued to the troops, we really had no idea of just where we were, and didn't get as far as visiting the Vatican. However, we thoroughly enjoyed our day. It was the Sunday before Easter in 1945. There were lots of religious people walking about, guiding groups of children. We had a photograph taken opposite the Vittorio Emmanuelle Monument. Some 45 years later, in 1990, I had another picture taken in almost the same spot with Doreen, my wife when we paid a visit to Rome with my brother and his wife. The two pictures are quite interesting when placed side by side.

Aussie and Gordon in Rome, 18 March 1945

After a fairly busy day, we retraced our steps to the Sergeant's Club, and caught the lorry back to Civitavecchia. In fact, we had been so busy that we had completely forgotten to fill Joe's bottle with "holy" water from one of the fountains in St.Peter's Square, (anyway, we hadn't even been there!) We filled it from a tap in the Sergeant's Club! It's amazing what the power of imagination can do! Sorry about that Joe! We arrived back at the ship by about ten PM.

The next morning, as expected, we were sent for, and the Captain logged us ten shillings each for disobeying orders or some such charge. We had enjoyed our visit to Rome, and we felt the fine was worth it!

During our stay in Civitavecchia, Aussie, Ginger, and myself did a tour of the devastated dock area. We decided that it must have been a Naval training establishment of some sort, because among the rubble of what must have been some beautiful buildings, we found lots of pieces of Navigational Charts that must have been destroyed when the Allies advanced through there. Almost every day, a very sleek Italian Destroyer steamed into the port at a great rate of knots. It always appeared that it was going to crash into the piles of rubble. However, just at the right moment, and obviously born of much experience, the Captain would go "hard astern", and the ship would nose gently into the rubble, where the civilian passengers it was carrying would disembark down a gangplank from the bows of the ship.

Also during our stay in Civitavecchia, the Second Engineer, a Welshman, decided that he was going to sell some barrels of Veno to someone in the Army. He had it all teed up when the Military Police swooped late one night. They had been tipped off. All those involved were caught. The Army disciplined the Army personnel, and the Captain disciplined the ship's personnel. The Second Engineer paid us a visit in the fo'c's'le a few days later, and let us know in no uncertain terms what he thought of the Captain. This for him, was a complete about face. Until now, he had always been most supportive of the Captain, especially in the business in the Galley earlier on in the trip, and our discontent with the food. Now, however, he was most upset at the Captain's reaction to his would be "wine merchandising" exercise. I think that by now, everyone on the ship, other than Joe his brother, had been at loggerheads with the Captain. The Captain's last, and best card was yet to be played, however.

My Last Wartime Voyage is concluded in Part Six: The Last Laugh