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Blue Bar No 2

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2

Continued from My St. Clears Voyage, Part Eight


After a few days steaming, and with the coast of Somaliland in view for much of the time, we rounded Cape Guardafui, and headed west to the port of Berbera which is on the north coast of what was then British Somaliland. Looking at the charts, we discovered that Berbera is on a direct line south from Aden. None of the crew had been there before, and indeed, there was no wharf, or any other shipping facilities. Apart from one or two rather lonely looking buildings, there didn't seem to be anything of interest at all in the place. Some small barges came out and were tied up alongside the ship. The locals then proceeded to discharge some of our cargo into these barges.

There was no question of going swimming "over the side", as the Gulf of Aden, and generally the whole area is infested with sharks. There were also some rather large fearsome looking fish that we could see from time to time, swimming around the ship when food scraps were thrown overboard. We were told that these were called "King Fish". They certainly had "King" sized mouths!

We were allowed ashore, and there was a small motor boat we could call to take us there. We had been told that one of the rather forlorn looking buildings, was indeed, a Club, and naturally, this was the first place we headed toward. The "Club" did not have a bar. However, its main attraction for us was a rather small, fresh water swimming pool at the rear of the premises. It was probably no larger than the average "in ground" swimming pool many people have in their back yards these days. I think it is the only time I have ever been in swimming where the heat of the water almost made me sweat! Hot water or not, it was a break from ship life - there was nowhere else to go - and we enjoyed going there. Because the fresh water there was precious, we were asked not to wear swimming trunks, (a restriction that didn't bother us in the least,) and we were asked to "Use the urinals" before we dived into the pool! The man in charge was really very good to us, and made us plates of sandwiches to eat after our swim.

We did not have a great deal of cargo for Berbera, and left within a few days. Although the man at the "Mission" had been very accommodating to us, and the swimming had been most relaxing, as with so many of the smaller ports, there really was nothing to see there, and even less for us to do! We were not sorry to leave. We sailed due north and arrived in Aden where we re-fuelled. Aden has slightly more to offer than Berbera, but we were not allowed ashore there, so the advantage of visiting a larger port was lost on us. The scenery was a little more interesting though, with much more shipping arriving and departing, and at least we could see the township even if we couldn't go there! Our stay in Aden was even briefer than it had been in Berbera.

We were soon under way, and this time, our destination was again a place that no one had ever heard of, let alone visited. We were bound for the port of Al-Qusayr which is in Egypt, almost at the top end of the Red Sea, and about four hundred miles south of Suez. Once again, we steamed the length of the Red Sea, only this time, going north - and, as we all hoped, we were on our way back to England - or at least we were going in the right direction! It was interesting to be once again in a busy sea lane, and passing ships quite frequently. This made the job of the lookout much more interesting, as it is much easier to lookout for ships than it is to strain one's eyes, looking for signs of mines, submarines, or other entities that want to do one harm. Most of the shipping we passed was Allied shipping, painted in its dull Admiralty Grey, but we saw a few ships in full livery that must have been plying local trade, plus of course, the many Arab Dhows that trade in the area. Also it was quite hot, and many of us slept on deck. The trouble with sleeping on deck is that one has to rise with the sun, otherwise a person can get severely sunburnt if he remains in the reclining position within a short time of the sun rising.

If Berbera had seemed isolated, then Al-Qusayr was even more so. It was desolate. In Berbera, there had been mountains in the distance to look at, but here there was only desert. Once again, we were the only ship in port. The barges came alongside the ship, and we used our own derricks to discharge selected crates of cargo. Obviously, there were soldiers even in this desolate place that needed supplies.

When the selected cargo had been discharged, we weighed anchor and headed north again, this time (as we had known all along) we were bound for Port Tewfik (Suez), and hopefully, northward through the canal to Port Said, (and yet another step on the way home!) We arrived in Port Tewfik one or two days later, and dropped anchor. In my previous ship, (Highland Brigade) I had spent quite a lot of time here at anchor, and almost felt at home! It is obviously a very busy port, serving as it does, such an important waterway. There were quite a few ships there at anchor. I don't know how many ships it takes to make up a north or south bound convoy, but we waited for a day or so, during which time, we had the customary searchlight fitted to the bow of the ship in readiness for our transit through the canal. This act alone gave us hope that once we were "North of Suez", we would continue in that general direction until we reached England.

By this time, and for me, steering the ship was an every day fact of life. I had already done a two hour turn at the wheel on the southbound leg of our trip through the Canal, I had steered the ship up the Shatt al Arab River, and again when we had arrived at Karachi, plus, of course, my regular every day duty of two hour stints at the wheel, depending on whether I had a "Farmer" or not. A "Farmer" is that every third watch when you didn't have a turn on the wheel, but instead, you did two hours on the lookout. Whilst I have to admit that most of the excitement I had felt when I first took my two hour "trick" at the wheel as a regular duty had subsided; indeed, there were times (especially at night) when two hours spent looking into the small binnacle window at a gently swinging compass became almost soporific. Despite all this, I was eagerly awaiting another "trick" at the wheel when we made our north bound passage through the Canal. Indeed, in the few years that I spent at sea, I always liked being at the wheel whilst the ship was entering or leaving port, or traversing a river or confined waterway.

And so it was that our north bound trip through the canal proved just as exciting for me as did my first, south bound trip. Once again, I found myself steering a merchant ship through this most historic waterway. Even off duty, I found that watching the passage of the ship through the canal most interesting. From the foredeck, I found it most interesting to note that as the ship pushed it's way through the water, it also pushed a large "wall" of water in front of it. Really, I suppose, it is all a matter of water displacement, but it was one of those things that until I saw it, I had just never appreciated that it took place. From the stern, the wake bubbled in an almost straight line into the distance. Plus, of course, we had the salutations from the gun emplacement crews along the banks of the canal. In fact, had it not been for the regular appearance of these guns and the soldiers that manned them, it would have been difficult to imagine that only a few short years ago, deadly battles had raged relentlessly in the land to the west, and mostly, for control of the very waterway we were traversing!

Our arrival in Port Said was different this time than it had been on our previous arrival. This time, we went alongside one of the docks there and tied up. We had quite a bit of cargo to discharge, and this took several days. Once the cargo had all been landed, and the hatches cleaned, we started loading our "homeward bound" cargo. This (cargo) turned out to be quite a few tanks left over from the desert war that had raged here for several years. I couldn't be really sure, but it is likely that these tanks had been damaged either in battle or by other means, and had been kept back until they were restored to "battle fitness". Just how many tanks we actually loaded I couldn't say, but it was quite a few. The tanks occupied the "floor" space of all the holds, and then other army equipment was used to "fill in the spaces" until the tanks were completely covered, and the floor space levelled off again. Then we started to load a most unusual cargo. Thousands of five gallon "Jerry" cans that were also left over from the desert warfare. Of course, the tanks and other army equipment had put the ship well down to her "marks", whilst still leaving plenty of space in the hatches for thousands of these "Jerry" cans.

Even palletisation of small items such as these was not in general use in those days, and loading thousands of these took quite some time. They were slung aboard in large cargo nets, and then stowed individually in the holds, the dock workers filling all the space as best they could. After loading seemingly countless numbers of "Jerry" cans, the supply dried up. Even though the ship was far from full - at least, the 'tween decks were still empty! We covered up the hatches, and left Port Said. I think we knew before we sailed that we were bound for Haifa, and even more "Jerry" cans!

Haifa was a new experience for most of us. It only took a day or so to reach there. From memory, Haifa is quite a large, modern port, enclosed by a man made breakwater. We tied up alongside one of the wharves, and began to load our cargo. Whether it was more "Jerry" cans, or other military cargo, I can't remember, but we stayed in Haifa for about a week or so. When we were finished loading, the ship was well "down to it's marks". We thought this to be a positive sign that we were headed home, and indeed that turned out to be the case.

My St. Clears Voyage is concluded in Part Ten: London-Bound