2/11/1941As we slowly steamed out we were all crowding the rail getting a last glimpse of England. Just the coastline was in view for a long time, but as we turned N.W. slowly it faded until it was just a vague smudge, "So long England, when shall I see you again". I guess all the boys were feeling the same, their faces told the story. I thought "Oh! how I wish I could have seen Dick before going aboard", but it wasn't to be, so feeling quite a bit down in the dumps I went below.
After a while the gong went for grub and I've never seen such a mad stampede in all my life, everybody was trying to be first up the ladder, which was about 3 foot wide and as steep as hell, it nearly turned into a fight. After getting upstairs we had to wait in the queue for about an hour, of course that didn't please us very much and up and down the line cat-calls and yelps followed each other. Nasty remarks were passed about the "Orcades", her builders, ancestors and everything associated with the ship.
After a time we did reach the Dining Room and then we had to look a bit lively. We had to grab plates with one hand, mug, knife-fork-spoon with the other and somehow manage to hold them out while the cook piled spuds (roast and boiled), beans, peas, cabbage and umpteen things on the plates - then tea in the mug, and just as I was going out - an orange was plonked on top of the custard and prunes.
"It sure looks as if you want a dozen arms here" I said to one of the waiters.
"Come on, keep moving there!" A voice like a foghorn yelled out "No hanging around in here, you're in the bleedin' Navy now."
"You're telling me." I thought.
After the most wonderful feats of balancing and stepping I managed to get to a table next to Twill, but gosh it was worth it. The food was marvellous, especially after the "tack" we had been having, the bread made on board seemed to melt in your mouth. I sat back with a sigh of content and lit a fag.
"Alright there?" a voice said.
I looked up and saw a man with the uniform of the Navy and said "It's too wonderful, I've never had such a meal for ages".
"O.K." he said "Make a bit of room for someone else who hasn't fed".
So leaving my empties at a table I went upstairs with Twill and Housy and got a shock. It was pitch dark and coming out of the lighted mess-room made it worse. My eyes grew accostomed to the gloom after a while and I began to make out the lines of the rigging hutches etc. We walked to the rail and I could just make out the sea - grey and grim it looked - and being dark and not seeing any other ships of the convoy, I shuddered and thought, "Blimey! It'll be too bad if we sink".
Twill said "Sod this, let's go below".
It was a relief to get in the light again. Most of the boys were playing cards - a few writing, so I started a letter myself. Finishing that I found it was almost "lights out" so this began a game - tying the hammock up and trying to to get inside them. They were hung up head to toe and no space between at all, first I'd get one leg in and began to pull the other in when the chap next to me, overbalancing, grabbed me, so I grabbed the next one and over we went onto three chaps sleeping on the floor. Our landing was soft, but not so good for them. Yells, shouts and all sorts of threats were yelled at us - and promptly returned, then we'd have another go. This time I grabbed the racks overhead and got in quite easily.
Then we all started to sway with the roll of the ship, I was alright in the middle, but the chap on the end kept bumping his arse against the steel side of the ship, he cursed like hell but we all sympathetically laughed at him. Gradually the rooms got quiet except for an occasional grunt or curse as somebody nearly came out of his hammock. So I lay staring at the ceiling thinking of home and the folks and wondering what May was doing, "Wonder if she's thinking of me" I thought. About this time last week or so I was with her, we had a walk up to that bombed church, it all stood out as clear as life, well I hope it won't be long before we are together again.
Next morning we had the same performance getting grub, but we were told things would alter soon, no doubt it was some job looking after this mob. We came back from breakfast and then a lovely surprise. The old bullshit reared it's ugly head again, good old McKellar - the louse, we had to put our kit up on the racks but in a certain way - no laces hanging down, no straps showing, letters on the bottom of the kitbags right side up. Grumbling and cursing we hadn't got room to breathe let alone put all our kit away, still, up it went and later on his "stooges" came around looking here and poking there.
"Hmmmm, a spot of mud on this boot gunner".
Down would come the offending boot and with a lot of dirty looks and grimaces the mud would be scraped off.
Twill and I volunteered for Mess Orderlies which included cleaning the floor and the W.C.'s that our lot used, it was something to do anyway. The snag was we were in the habit of leaving dust and dirt on the rear of the ventilators, Tut Tut! It was sure some game bringing the food down. The boys went up to meals in order of the areas that they slept in so it became kind of a rush. Twill and I had to go up and bring down jam, sugar, tea, butter and pickles etc whilst each man collected the main part of his meal. Sometimes when the sea was a bit rough and the ship started to heave sway and roll like something drunk, we had to be acrobats to carry the food and not drop it, it was all out time to keep upright - luckily it didn't affect my stomach. A lot of the chaps couldn't eat the food, so I made hay while I could, the food was simply great and plenty of it too.
The Colonel was once more in the news but this time he "dropped a clanger" as we say, he thought we hadn't enough to do to keep us occupied, so he approached the Skipper with a wonderful plan? more P.T. and lectures and a few more ideas that must have kept him up all night thinking about. But the Skipper said that whilst we were on board his ship (Orcades 23.500) he would tell us what and what not to do, good old Skipper! I'd love to have seen the Colonel's face.
On one of his inspections the Skipper told us through a loudspeaker. "This morning on my tour, I found twenty three matchsticks, twenty three mind you in the W.C. in future I don't want to find any. And I see that you are using on half of the stairs leading out of your various quarters, in future you will make yourself aquainted with all of them. When you get Boat Stations you will have to step lively and get on deck in the shortest time, and I stressed the last bit. And I don't want any crazy dancing about, you'll get up quicker if you don't start rushing. My last trip I had the R.A.F. they did it in twenty minutes, you can and will do it in ten seconds less".
We did do it (once). He was a grand man that skipper, spoke to us like a father. Bit different to our Darlings, they spoke to us as if we were dirt.
Our mail in future would be censored by our own officers. Coo! what a chance to let them know what we thought, and all they could do was to return our letters if they thought they were unfit. I had two returned and a lecture into the bargain.
"Do you think it very gentlemanly to sport such descriptions in a letter?" I was asked.
Well, it seems that I'm no gentleman according to the Army.
He gave me a look and turned to another chap and told him his letters were outrageous, Well! Well!
I don't know if any of our mail was sent to our folks, but it will make interesting reading later on.
We then found the canteen, and the prices were amazingly cheap - sugar about fifth of the price back home, sweets the same and tons of chocolate., how I wish that I could send some home. The ship had called at Capetown on her last trip and got a load of fags called Cig Bars, blimey they were aweful - one and eight pence for 100. I'd like to ram'em all down the throats of their makers, luckily we managed to get a better brand after a few days.
Gradually as we steamed on it got colder and out came our Greatcoats. At night I'd go up on deck for some fresh air and got all I wanted up near the front. You received the full force of the wind and also the spray being blown in, it certainly was a good cure for a thick head. In daytime we could see the rest of the convoy all around us, otherwise there was nothing but sea - great long heaving swells for miles and miles. The sea was so big that it made you stand there gasping at it and lost for description, it was just terrific. I used to stand at the rail for ages watching the water hiss and rush alongside the ship, it seemed to fascinate me.
There wasn't much to do to keep our minds occupied, the space wouldn't allow much excercise, our time was spent in writing letters, yarning and gambling. Very often I borrowed after losing my pay, as long as we had a smoke, good food and an occasional visit to the canteen for a few daintees, what was the use for money anyway. As one cheerful sod put it, "Money won't do us any good if Jerry sends us to the bottom" and many a time I wondered if Jerry would find us for we couldn't expect much help from our escort which consisted of four destroyers and a cruiser. Whether there were many more over the horizon I don't know, anyway I had faith in the Navy - more than I can say for the Army.
7/11/1941I was cleaning the place up with Twill when there was a helluva lot of shouting and yelling, and everyone was making for the stairs.
"Go-on Twill, we'll see what's doing" I said.
So we hurried up on deck to see all the boys crowding the rail and staring out to sea. We squeezed through and just over the horizon we could see smoke coming from a number of ships. We wondered what they were, and the story went around as stories do that they were part of our new escort, belonging to the U.S.N. It seems they were taking us under their wing from now on.
They rapidly drew nearer and then three or four planes came roaring in, circled the convoy and then one came swooping right low, tilted over at an alarming angle and swooped right across the deck. Everyone was waving like mad, I could see the head of the pilot plainly, then I saw a cannister coming down and drop on the deck with a crash. On opening it, found a message from the pilot.
"Good luck boys!" it said.
The pilot banked again as we waved acknowledgement and away he went joining the other planes circling the convoy - looking for subs, I guess.
The ships had come quite close by now, they looked like cruisers with a catapault and planes aboard. An aircraft carrier named "Sarratoga" came barging along, it sure looked a funny looking thing - all its superstructure on the one side of the flight deck made it look as if it was going to capsize at any minute.
There was always a crowd at the rail watching the planes take off and land. Our previous escort now turned around and started back to England. It seemed as the U.S.A. wasn't taking any risks of Jerry getting at us, for the planes were overhead all the time, only coming down to refuel and rest.
We could see them go almost out of site then turn back again. If a sub expected to catch us in daylight he was in for a shock, still I suppose the size and value of the convoy warranted the safety measures they were taking. It was the first time in the war that the U.S.A. had escorted British troops. We were wondering now where the hell we were going, we knew all our training and equipment pointed to desert and open warfare, which we thought meant Africa, but why go west unless to go through the Panama, still we could only guess.
We returned to our normal routine again after our little bit of excitement had passed. It became a normal thing to see these warships ploughing along and the planes overhead circling round and round in their never ending vigil. Things began to get very monotonous now, so very little to do and it became hard to make a letter interesting with nothing fresh to put in, of course we had plenty to grumble at - we wouldn't be "Tommies" otherwise and this bullshit mob were going great guns, if there had been enough room I'm sure they would have had kit inspections. We had one bright spot however, there was no wasting time with maintenance, no guns to spit and polish - reckon that caused McKellar some heartache. I'm thankful to say that we didn't see much of him, we all hoped he got seasickness (very bad).
Yank, who went on the advance party to Liverpool had got a cabin with a bath complete, so when I felt like a bath I used to go up there and wallow in it - hot water too, but the ordinary soap was useless with saltwater, until I got a bit of sea soap, then I could get a nice lather up. Then feeling very refreshed I would occupy his bed (a beauty too!) and have a read or a kip as I fancied it.
9/11/1941Land was sighted, we guessed America but no-one knew which part. Then began the job of getting the ship ready for unloading, cranes swung out, hatches opened up with stuff ready to unload - watched by an interested crowd who now and then offered advice on things they knew nothing about and were politely told to "Mind their own bleeding business!". Towards the end of the day we could see plainly the bay and at the back, the buildings of the town itself which turned out to be Halifax N.S..
We anchored on the bay and wondered if we could get shore leave, but that hope was soon squashed. We were told to get our gear packed in readiness to board the U.S.A. ships that we would live on until the end of our voyage - then there was a scuffle to get ready, but we needn't have hurried because as usual we were told hours before it was necessary. We could see our new homes at the quayside, they looked a terrific size, all a sullen blue colour.
We drew into the dockside with dozens of little craft floating around us, leaning over the rail we posed various and often impolite words to the occupants, it was all taken in good fun though. We went down for tea and by the time we had finished, it was dark so we all hurried on deck again and "Blimey!" what a shock we had - after being so used to the blackouts at home and no lights on deck, we were amazed to see everything a blaze of light. It was marvellous and looking towards the town it seemed like a fairyland - twin beams of light could be seen as a car came up a hill towards the dock and then dipped down as it came over the hilltop. Gosh! if they could only see this back home, it seemed unreal to look upon a town that hadn't felt the horrors of air-raids.
At last we were told to move on up the stairs, and down the gangway we went, the ground seemed strangely firm and still after being used to the movement of the ship. We all lined up inside a huge store full of barrels of mollasses which tasted very sweet when we put an experimental finger through the bung hole. There was a Canadian sentry there with the new style 12" bayonet - looked like a toothpick beside the old one.
After hanging around for what seemed like hours, we we picked our gear up and went to where the ships were. On getting alongside and looking up as well as the lights would allow, I was simply amazed at the size of the ships that we were boarding, it was like looking up at a skyscraper - it was just terrific!. Scrambling up the gangway I followed the man in front, I couldn't do anything else as we hadn't been told anything. It was rather dim inside and after stumbling about and climbing what seemed an endless number of stairs, I found myself near a bed.
"O.K. buddy! Dump your kit, you're home" came an unmistakable nasal voice.
Then the lights came on and I could see that the beds were in tiers of three, one above the other. I dumped my stuff in a corner and looked around for Twill. I couldn't see him or any of my mates.
"We'll all get sorted out in the morning" I thought.
I took a good swig out of a nearby tap and it took my breath away, it was so cold. I didn't expect any grub, for the time was 4 o'clock in the morning, so I clambered up into the top bed which was as soft as a feather and was soon fast asleep.
We were moved around next morning until we were all in our respective troops and I got with the boys again. One of the decks had been covered in and beds had been installed, being Royal Artillery we had these quarters, which had plenty of light and fresh air - a lot different to the poor sods below. I visited a chap I knew who was billeted down there and believe me, I didn't stay long, it was like an oven with very poor ventilation.
We didn't get our money changed to U.S currency for a couple of days and we were in the soup for a smoke, so getting amongst the crew and exchanging yarns, we started swapping buttons and badges for some of their fags - Camels, Lucky Strike and others, they were nice fags too. Their talk reminded me of the films, some had an amusing and soft drawl of the Southern States while others had the harsh and nasal tone of the big cities farther north. They were sure amusing to listen to and they were equally amused at us, they could understand the Londoners and a few others but when the "Taffies" and "Yorkies" started they howled with laughter.
We started to explore the ship (West Point 33.00) formerly P.S. America, their most up to date and newest luxury liner, and she certainly was all she was cracked up to be. It was like wandering around a strange town - passages everywhere and in no time we were lost, but we could always ask where B deck was. Everything was done out in pale blue, most of the luxurious fittings and furniture had been removed and replaced with more plain stuff more likely to stand the wear and tear of troops, of which there were eight to nine thousand with about eight hundred crew.
We had our money changed and made a beeline for the canteen but there were hundreds waiting so we didn't bother, later on the other canteen opened and we got what we wanted - 100 Camel for 60c and wonderful pipe tobacco. I bought a pipe and found the baccy nice and cool - 2oz tin for 40c. We also bought numerous daintees, popular with the Yanks.
"Grub Up" and away we go, and once more the eternal queue, miles long it seemed many and long were the grumbles and moans. But eventually we arrived at the dining room, right down below it seemed, but it was only on the waterline. The food here was entirely different to the Orcades, theirs was more solid and substantial - this was more dainty and light, the bread seemed to be aerated, very light and I could eat it without butter or jam. It was a lovely breakfast, we always had plenty of milk, porridge, toastees (which the Yanks swear by) and we had an apple or orange and also grape juice, as I say, it was light but nevertheless it was filling. The other meals were just as light and I had my first taste of spaghetti, coo! it was grand, I fell for it straight away and will have to get some more of it when I get home.
11/11/1941We moved out and the engines could hardly be felt, she was certainly a fine ship. We headed south and I hoped that we might sight New York, but we were unlucky. Things began to get organised now and there was very little queueing and we got served at the canteens easily. Down below there was an icecream bar, lovely too with a mixture of peanuts. There was no wet canteen as on the Orcades, but strangely enough it didn't worry me.
There were no lights allowed on deck after dark, but below there was room enough for letters, cards writing etc, the M.P.'s tried to stop the gambling, only the officers didn't agree with it, they gave it up as a bad job. A popular game was "Housy, Housy" - it was played in the mens room and corridors everywhere, you couldn't walk down a passage without walking through a "School of Housy". I couldn't win a thing but Yates, the lucky sod, was always touching, so he started using my card and I ended up improving my bank balance. The cries were deafening and when two schools were near each other it was comical, a chap would be putting chits on his card and suddenly found out he was listening to the wrong school, "Clicketty Click" - "Kellys Eye" - "Downing Street" - "Doctors Orders" and a host of others, even the Yanks got caught by it. Luckily that was one game the "High Ups" couldn't stop.
As I said before, our food was o.k., plenty of variety, but I heard from good authority that the officers had complained because thay had bacon and eggs five mornings running - what a shame!
We did our usual "Boat Station" drill and became quite efficient at getting on deck quickly, there seemed plenty of rafts and boats to take off the men aboard, with huge rope nets hanging down the side.
We moved further South and it got warmer, so we packed our Battle Dress away and moved about in shorts and slippers, which felt nice and cool and free after our thick clothes. There was ample time for swimming in two baths that would take a hundred easily, also there were two "picture palaces" with up to date films, also concerts and sing-songs galore. There was nothing I liked better than to sit on deck after dark and join in a sing-song - from other ships in the convoy voices could be heard in song drifting across the water, it sounded very nice and peaceful.
When the moon was up it was simply marvellous to gaze across the sea and watch a ship sail across the silver path of the moon - just the outline of the ships and making it look like a ghost. I sat for hours watching the glittering silvery waves dancing along, the moon always seemed to bring a feeling of peace and quiet to me making the war feel unreal and far away. I sure got homesick at times like this, then at times I would stand on deck to see the daybreak - slowly the sun came up seemingly out of the sea itself and change the sky from the deep blue of night to a million colours of day. Glorious isn't the word for it, but best of all was the sunset.
Gosh! I've never seen anything so grand and magnificent in all my life, it seemed as if the whole world was ablaze - clouds with dark centres gradually changing all the time to a beautiful gold on their edges. Great masses like fish scales, some crimson, dark blue, light blue, pink, gold and other colours all merging into the most wonderful picture on earth. If an artist could paint these sights, he would be accused of being a liar - there isn't a better artist in the world than Mother Nature when she feels like it.
And as the sun sinks into the sea, the water changes to liquid gold, it would take a better pen than mine to describe the thousand and one changing sights. I've seen the sky change from the bluest blue to a sky heavy with great towering masses of steel grey storm clouds, piled up by the wind hand on hand until the whole sky seems full of them, then down came the rain in hissing torrents, whipping the sea into a white foam and blotting out all the ships in the convoy until it seemed we were going along in a steaming white world of our own. I pitied the "spotters" up in the rigging with the wind and rain pounding against them.
On other days when the sea was as calm as a mill pond, we'd take a delight in watching the myriads of flying fish scared by the motion of the ship go flying for yards before dropping back into the sea with a faint plop. Once I saw the dorsal fins of two sharks swimming alongside and faintly made out the grey shaped bodies, I shuddered a bit at the thought of falling overboard with these killers hanging around. Then there was the huge albatross, it followed us for miles and miles, swooping around in great circles with just an occasional flap of it's great wings. It was with us long after the seagulls, with their eternal screaming and screeching had gone.