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Blue Bar No 2

MY ST. CLEARS VOYAGE, Part Ten
by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2


Continued from My St. Clears Voyage, Part Nine


LONDON-BOUND


When we left Haifa, it must have been about either late September, early October. I think we sailed alone from Haifa to Gibraltar. At that time, the Mediterranean would be almost considered a "safe" area. At least, I don't remember being in convoy for that part of the journey. At Gibraltar, we anchored until sufficient ships were gathered to form a convoy. It was during this time that we discovered Italian "Frog" Men had been busy attempting to blow up ships at anchor in Gibraltar, (and, I believe, other Mediterranean ports) by swimming underwater, and attaching "Limpet" mines to the hulls of ships there. To counteract this activity, the DEMS Gunners were allocated the duty of throwing small explosive charges over the side at irregular intervals to scare off any would be "Frog" Men. Of course, this action and the resultant explosions kept us awake at first, but it is surprising just how quickly the mind adjusts to such noises, especially since we were firmly convinced that the explosions constituted no threat to us!

Naturally, we had been following the course of the war in Europe, and now that the Allied troops were firmly established there, and the temporary ports working along the French coast, we were convinced that the tanks in our holds were bound for Europe. That was not to be the case, and at sometime during the voyage, we discovered that we were, indeed, bound for London.

The difference in conditions once we left Gibraltar was palpable; first, (and probably most notable) was the change in the weather and temperature. Gone was the overall "warmer" feeling of the Mediterranean, and the cooler, more sobering weather of the Atlantic became more obvious. Then the realisation that whilst the Mediterranean was relatively free from "U" boat attacks, the Atlantic was not! I don't think we felt any particular danger, but just that we were "back in it" once more. Zig Zag courses became commonplace once more, as did the use of the almost forgotten "Revs" counter blackboard in the wheelhouse. This (Revs. Counter blackboard) is a small blackboard fixed to one of the inner bulkheads of the wheelhouse. On it, is chalked up the number of revolutions per minute at which the propeller is currently turning. In order to "keep his place" in the convoy, the Officer on watch has to keep a very keen eye on our position in relation to the other ships around us in the convoy, either those ahead or astern of us, and of course, those abeam of us on either side.

Although the powers that be that organise convoys declare that such and such a convoy will proceed at eight knots (or whatever,) all ships are different in their ability and means to maintain such a fixed speed. From his knowledge of the ship, the Captain, in conjunction with the Chief Engineer, (and the other Deck Officers) will have a good idea of how many revolutions the propeller will have to turn in order to maintain such a given speed. When the convoy sets out, the revolutions will be set at say, seventy five revs, and from then on, the ship's position in relation to other (adjacent) ships will be continually monitored and adjusted by raising or lowering the revolutions of the propeller per minute, and the current number will then be written on the "Revs. Board". Every now and then, the Officer on Watch would come into the wheelhouse, blow down the Engine Room Voice Pipe, and say, "Up two" or "Down two" according to what adjustment in engine revs he deemed necessary for the ship to maintain its position in the convoy. He would then chalk up the new number.

Another device for use in wartime navigation was the Zig Zag warning device. This consisted of a steel ring, fixed to the outer perimeter of the wheelhouse clock. On the ring were fitted several "contact" sliders that could be moved to anywhere on the clock perimeter, and fixed there by means of a small screw. If the pattern of Zig Zags was that the ship would change course every ten minutes, then a "contact" point would be moved around and fixed opposite the minutes, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, and the hour. As the clock's large hand equated with the desired contact point, the hand, and a leaf spring on the contact point would connect, and a bell would ring, alerting the officer that it was "change course time".

Although the weather was far from rough, the bigger Atlantic swells, and the cooler weather made for quite different sailing than we had been experiencing for the last few months. I don't know how far we went west to skirt the proximity of the "U" Boat pens on the west coast of France, but the journey up to the English Channel took longer than the usual (as I later found out!) seven days or so. During this voyage, we cleaned up the ship. The forepart of the bridge, and the rest of the superstructure had already been painted (Admiralty Grey of course!) We now turned our attention to painting the deck. I had never experienced painting the decks before, and it all seemed a bit "over the top" as it were. In reality, decks as much as superstructures have to be preserved against the weather and corrosion, so it really made sense. We painted the winches, mast houses, the windlass and all the ventilators. For the winches, we used a mixture of black and grey paint, and the decks were painted in grey. I must say that by the time we sailed up the English Channel, the ship looked really smart.

Not all the ships in the convoy turned into the English Channel, most of the others went up north to Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and all points north. Seeing the English coast once more was most inspirational for us all. We had only been away for something like seven months, but I was to learn that the length of time away does not reduce the excitement of returning home. Even on the coastal coal carriers running from the North East Coast to London, a trip of about four days, we used to get excited at the prospect of a return to the home port, and a bit of shore leave! Well, I must admit that returning from "foreign" voyages was a bit different, and the ensuing excitement was commonly known as having "The Channels".

It happens every voyage, and is a most uplifting experience. Everyone is in good spirits, clothes are specially washed, shirts ironed, cases and kit bags prepared for "the off". Not the least of our personal preparations was to do a lot of "Dohbying" (washing of clothes) to get our hands clean, and then use gloves whilst at work in order to keep them clean; especially whilst handling the large mooring ropes and wires. Precious quantities of cigarettes, tea and sugar are checked to make sure we all have the allowed amounts of each (200 cigarettes, 5lb each of tea and sugar,) Other things were allowed such as spirits, perfumes, (nylon stockings for those who had been to America,) but the Cigarettes, tea, and sugar were the main items. Despite the war (or maybe because of it?) the Customs Officers were unrelenting in their determination to make sure that we did not exceed the allowances. In spite of the Customs' quite rigid searches, some of us would sometimes "take a chance" on declaring the required amount, and hiding a bit of "excess". One old dodge was to have the required amount available for inspection, plus a freshly opened tin of say, 50 cigarettes on hand, plus another packet in our working clothes. Of course, the Customs were not fools, and within reason, would sometimes turn a blind eye to such extras.

Once we sighted the coast of England, the excitement intensified. We were not entirely oblivious to what was happening on the other side of the Channel to our starboard side, but we were bound for London, and that was all that mattered.

In the very busy shipping lanes, an even more keen lookout was required. With all the Channel ports being used to supply our invasion forces, there was an almost continuous stream of ships crossing our bows, either headed for France, or back to England for more supplies. Whilst on lookout up on the "Monkey Island" just above the wheelhouse, the officer on watch would be continually taking bearings on the various landmarks such as Portland Bill, St.Catherine's Point, Beachy Head, as we progressed up the Channel, then on to the Forelands, and finally into the Thames Estuary.

Somewhere in the Channel, I imagine we would have adjusted the ship's speed in order to arrive at the mouth of the Thames at high tide, and all ready to sail straight in and into the "Royal" docks, which is what we did. We "locked in" to the huge docks. I remember as we entered the first lock gates, someone shouted from the bridge, "Watch 'er on the knuckle Fred, she's a turbine job". I presume this meant that being turbine driven, the propeller might not stop rotating as immediately as that of a piston driven ship, and as a consequence, the ship might move further than it otherwise might.

In the first basin was a large aircraft carrier. I can't remember which one it was. We moved past it, and into the dock proper. Both sides of the dock were filled with ships alongside the (seemingly) endless miles of wharves, discharging (or maybe loading) their cargoes. Some were two abreast. The dock was an absolute hive of activity. It was interesting to sail past the continual lines of ships, some of them with names belonging to well known shipping firms we could recognise, many were the ubiquitous "Liberty" ships, Fort Boats, Empire Boats, and all manner of other wartime built ships, (without which, the war would have been a very different story!)

We eventually tied up to one of the wharves, and began to prepare ourselves for the "Pay Off". There was the usual urgency about where and when we would actually pay off. There were the customs men to be seen, and all substances to be declared. Once all that was done, it was then a matter of "pairing off" in fours to hire taxis which would take us to the station and trains to our homes. This matter of pairing off was always important because between the ship and our immediate destination was another well known obstacle - the Dock Policemen. These were the policemen that manned all entrances to docks. Especially in war time, only authorised persons were allowed in there. Dock passes were required to get in and out of the docks. These police had the authority (even the duty) to inspect all bags entering or leaving the docks. Having just declared all our stuff to Customs, and painstakingly packed cases and kit bags, we did not appreciate the idea of having all our belongings turned out at the dock gate whilst they rummaged through our bags. We would therefore club together (four per taxi if possible) and put a "dollar" each into a kitty. (In those days, one English Pound was worth four American Dollars, and so five shillings roughly translated into, and was known as "a dollar", and half a crown was known as "half a dollar".)

This "kitty" of say, 1 would then be offered to the policemen on duty at the gate in the hope that we would be allowed to proceed "straight through", and on to our destination without being searched. Mostly, it worked, but we did hear tales of policemen who took the money, and then searched the bags anyway! There was very little anyone could do about that. (After all, you can't complain to anyone that the policeman took your bribe, and then searched your bags!!!) However, in our case (no pun intended!) we got through, and because it was late in the day, we decided to stay at the local Sailor's Home overnight, and travel to Euston Station the next morning to catch our trains back to our respective homes.

Of course, being sailors with a pocketful of money, having checked into the Sailor's Home (I think it was somewhere in the East India Dock Road) we had a meal there, and as soon as it was "opening time" (6 PM) we went into the nearest pub. Being late October, it was dark by 6 PM. I remember being in the pub. It was rather a large place, and it had huge plywood "shutters" on the windows for the "black out". We hadn't been in there for very long when a loud explosion shook the place. It was then we remembered that London was still being subjected to the "Flying Bombs". The locals seemed to almost take it in their stride. We were far less confident. Some of the people left the pub (presumably to check on their own homes since the bomb had landed only streets away,) others, far more used to this sort of thing than we wanted to become, remained. We decided to "drink up and get out" as soon as we could decently do so still retaining our dignity and without appearing to be beating a too hasty retreat!!!

The next morning, another taxi, this time off to Euston, and the trains to travel north. Despite the war and all the delays, trains were still a very good means of travel, and I for one for the most part enjoyed the many train journeys I had to make. From Euston, it was up Blackpool, two weeks leave, and then report to the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool in Liverpool for my next ship.

THE END


Gordon Sollors
September 16th, 2001

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TO GO to my next story, "...And Just When We Thought It Was Safe!!!" about my post-war voyage aboard the SS Empire Abbey, Please Click Here

TO RETURN to my Introduction, "A Look at Life in The British Merchant Navy in the Forties", Please Click Here

TO RETURN to The Earlier Chapters of "My St. Clears Voyage", please click on the links below:

Part One: V for Victory,
Part Two: Getting Ready for Sea,
Part Three: A Regular Helmsman,
Part Four: The Suez Canal,
Part Five: Normal Ship Duties?,
Part Six: From Abadan to Karachi,
Part Seven: A Dangerous Assignment.
Part Eight: Breakdown at Sea
and
Part Nine: From Berbera to Haifa.

TO RETURN to my story about the SS Marvia, "My Last Wartime Voyage", Please Click Here .

TO RETURN to my story about my early days aboard the troopship Orion, "My First Trip to Sea", Please Click Here .

TO RETURN to my "Stories of a Merchant Sailor" trio of short stories, please click on the links below:

Part One: Peggy Boy
Part Two: Christmas in America
and
Part Three: Steering Lessons.





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