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Blue Line No 2

MY ST. CLEARS VOYAGE, Part One
by Gordon Sollors

Blue Line No 2


Continued from A Look at Life in the British Merchant Navy in the Forties

V FOR VICTORY


Gordon Sollors at 15
Myself, age 15
I had paid off the Highland Brigade in mid February 1944. Having been on the 'Brigade' for ten months, we had all been due for twenty odd days' leave which was most welcome. The 'Brigade's' last port of call before returning to England had been Naples. It appears that there had been an outbreak of some sort of fever there during our stay.

After I had been home for a few days, two men called around to my home in Blackpool and asked me if I was, indeed, Ordinary Seaman Gordon Sollors? Had my ship just returned from Naples? Not knowing just who they were (in those days Civil Servants were a "breed apart" and didn't think it necessary to identify themselves on introduction.) or just what they wanted, yet On completion of my leave, I reported to the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool in Canning Place, Liverpool. The usual arrangement for seamen who lived "out of town" was to be told to report every second or even third day depending on the manning requirements of the day. The "big man" at the 'Pool in those days was a Mr. Deacon, (or was it Mr. Deakin?) and he was the person who looked after the "out of towners". As there were not any immediate requirements for Ordinary Seamen, I was not put on "Stand By". Once I had "Signed On" the Pool, and been told to report two or three days later, I was free to go.

I always enjoyed the feeling of 'having completed my business', thus making the rest of the day free to do as I pleased. Once I had cleared the 'Pool, I would take a walk up to the main shopping centre, and find something to eat. Despite the war, and the quite severe rationing, one could always get a reasonable meal or snack at any of the many café's and restaurants still operating. Many of the larger establishments (J. L. Lyons Corner Houses and Reece's in Liverpool come to mind!) still had waitresses dressed in black dresses with white lace cuffs and aprons. There was even one large store that still had a string quartet in it's restaurant! After a snack, I would spend an hour in one of the local "News" Theatres, and then make a beeline for the station.

In those days, (even during war time, and long before the advent of "British Rail") there was an excellent straight through L M S train service from Liverpool Exchange Station to Blackpool Central (via St. Annes) at 4.40 PM every afternoon, the train arriving at St. Annes at 6PM almost on the dot. I came to enjoy the trip, which by today's standards was an "Express Service". The train left Liverpool on the dot of 4.40, and was non stop as far as Preston, after which, it stopped at Kirkham, Lytham, Ansdell, and I got off at St. Annes station usually within minutes of 6PM. from where it was a short bus journey to my home.

After a couple of weeks of this routine, I would be told by the Pool authorities to bring my "gear", this meaning the clothes I would take away to sea with me - usually, a case and a kit bag. Once I presented complete with "gear", I would be put on "stand by", and made to sit in the Pool Office all day until about 4.30 PM by which time, if no jobs eventuated, I was allowed to go home. "Home" in this instance would be either the Sailor's Home, or a place called Plymsol House, which was a large (ex) private house in Gambier Terrace right opposite the Cathedral that looked after seamen such as I for a few shillings per night. If there was room at Plymsol House, that was where I preferred to stay, as it was smaller, and they served an excellent breakfast. The "stand by" allowance, plus the daily subsistence allowance (paid to those who could not live at home) was just enough to pay for my bed, and evening meal, and a trip to the cinema.

As was inevitable, this life of wild abandon had to eventually come to an end, and I was instructed at the Pool to report to the Mercantile Marine Office in Morpeth Dock Birkenhead where a ship called the St. Clears would be signing articles, I would be signing on as a Senior Ordinary Seaman.

By this time in my life (late March, 1944) I had been at sea for two years. I had started off as a Deck Boy in March of 1942, and after one year as a Junior Ordinary Seaman, I was now entitled to ask to be signed on as a Senior Ordinary Seaman with an appropriate rise in pay to £20 per month, (£10 wages plus £10 War Risk Money) plus increased job responsibilities, and the thing I wanted most, the "duty" of steering the ship as a regular part of my job. Two of my previous ships had been troop ships. Troop ships had been large company liners with commensurate large crews where every one had a particular job to do. Both of the troop ships had carried Quartermasters. Since the major job of the Quartermasters was to steer the ship, and generally keep watch on the bridge, not even the AB's were required to take a turn on the wheel as was the case in the smaller cargo ships of the day. Also, as the more experienced seamen were constantly telling me life, (work and discipline,) was much more structured on the big liners than it was on smaller, cargo boats. With the Merchant Seaman's traditional desire to live (and work) in an unstructured life style, comparisons of life on the 'old tramp steamers' and smaller ships generally, with the discipline of life and work on the larger liners, was a constant theme of conversation in the messroom.

Before the war, the crews on the larger liners would be there by mostly by preference. They would be there because they liked the more structured life style (and probably, better living conditions, the regularity of work, and particular ports of call) of the liners. During the war, a seaman had to go to which ever ship he was sent to by the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool. As a consequence, many seamen who would not have previously given a serious thought to working on the big ships, found themselves in just that position. As any seaman will tell you, his 'last ship' was always the best one, and stories of life on the smaller ships were plentiful. It was these stories that influenced me considerably.

There is no doubt that the work on smaller ships was quite different to that on the liners. Mainly of course, there is much more "ship" work to be done including cargo handling, with derricks to be 'topped', and 'hatch work' to be done. All seamen, whether AB's or Ordinary Seamen, were expected as a matter of course, to take their turn on the wheel. Even boat drill on the smaller ships was much more of a challenge, with the boats being swung on individual davits, rather than the more elegant, and electrically operated 'gravity davits' of the liners; and so it was that life on the smaller ships was depicted as much more interesting, and 'seamanlike' than life on the big ships. I for one could hardly wait to be assigned to one of the 'small ships', and on April 1 1944 when I was sent to sign on the SS St. Clears; I was delighted to at last be joining what I considered in my received wisdom to be the "real" Merchant Navy!

I was to find out on later ships that not all small ships were as wonderful as depicted by the older seamen. However, as it turned out, the St. Clears was a good ship to work on, and the food was the best I was ever to experience at sea on any ship.

I duly arrived at the Mercantile Marine Office at Morpeth Dock in Birkenhead complete with kitbag and case, and "ready to go". Along with all other Merchant Seamen at that particular time, before I signed on, I was asked at the counter if I would sign an agreement to the effect that I would go wherever I was sent. I would obey the lawful commands of Service (Army, Navy, Air Force) Officers, and work as required without requesting the payment of overtime. We all knew, (and had for some time) that something was, indeed, 'in the air', and that the invasion of Europe was imminent. This was our (Merchant Seamen's) first tangible encounter with the possible part that we might be expected to play in it. (I think in general terms; it was known as "The "V" Scheme".) In the past, Merchant Seamen, had of course, taken part in other invasions, (and, of course, evacuations Dunkirk, Crete etc.,) - North Africa, Sicily, Italy etc., (indeed, without the full cooperation of the seamen, non of these operations could possibly have been as successful as they were) without any problems. This time, it was to be different. The operation was so big, that absolutely nothing could be left to chance, and everything, it seemed, was being planned right down to the last box of ammo and gallon of petrol. As did all other Merchant Seamen at the time, I signed the agreement in the full knowledge that if they sent me, I would go. When I had signed the agreement, my Seamen's Identity Card was stamped with the Mercantile Marine Office stamp at Morpeth Dock, Birkenhead, and a large "V" (for Victory,) which was the patriotic sign in those days, was hand written in ink on top of the Shipping Office stamp. At that stage, we had no idea where the St. Clears would be going, so with the aforementioned 'signing ceremony' in mind, we - by this time, we had all met, - went on board the St. Clears with a little bit of apprehension, and probably, a touch of excitement!




My St. Clears Voyage is continued in Part Two: Getting Ready for Sea


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