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Warsailor Stories - Page 4
Warsailor Stories - Page 5
Life on D/S Veni Torpedoed on D/S Kingsbury
Several people have contacted me, wanting to get in touch with Deane, but mail to the address he used when sending me this story gets returned as undeliverable. Sadly, I have now been told he has since passed away.
(It'll be noticed, that some of the voyages recounted here, don't always match up with the convoy voyages listed on my page about Veni).
Built by Austin & Pickersgill, Sunderland in 1901 - (follow this link to D/S Veni for more on her pre war and post war history).
The uneventful train journey to Southampton finally came to an end. I took a taxi from the Central Station to the main dock gate and showed my boarding pass to the dock yard policeman at the gate. He directed me to the Venis berth. I lugged my suitcase for seemed a mile on a very hot July day before I found her. It was then that my face dropped. Her rusting hull stood high in the water. The name Veni, Bergen was painted around her old fashioned counter stern confirming that this was the ship I had contracted to join. The Veni was what is known as a three islander. She had well decks between the focsle and bridge, and between the after end of the boat deck and the poop deck. Her straight and stubby bow ahead of her high focsle did nothing to enhance her lines. The high focsle head carried the anchor windlass on top. Underneath lay the seamans quarters, also the Bosuns locker where paint and deck spares were kept. Large wooden barrels containing Salt Beef, Pork or Herrings were lashed to the deck outside.
She had two cargo hatches in each well deck and a tall mast between each which carried her cargo handling derricks. A very tall woodbine funnel contributed to her ungainly lines but was very necessary to create the vast updraft needed to burn the coal in her natural draft boilers. The Hilversum had at least been a well founded presentable looking ship by comparison. Albeit neither were up to the standards of the more modern flush decked cruiser stern ships.
The Veni was only about 7,000 tons. She was launched as the Tonbridge and sailed under the Red Ensign at the start of her life, eventually being sold to the Norwegians. She had been used in the Baltic timber trade or carrying iron ore from Narvik in Northern Norway to mainly German ports. Her Captain and crew had decided to make a run for England when their country was invaded by the Germans. We were of course, very glad to have her. Every ton of shipping we could get was desperately needed to replace the appalling losses we were suffering at the hands of the U-Boats.
I was to find out that the Veni, and many more like her that were well past their sell by dates were to be at as much risk from the North Atlantic storms as they were from the U-Boats. Many of these ships would never have been allowed to sail in peacetime, but in war? Men's lives were of little account , let them sail and hope they will get through was the only criteria that mattered.
I reluctantly climbed her dirty gangway. On arrival at the top I was immediately smitten with an eyeful of ash blown from the large pile on deck. The ashes from the ship's boilers and galley stove could not be dumped overboard until we were well out to sea. On top of the ash pile were vegetable peelings and all sorts of other galley waste that smelt to high heaven. I thought Surely I cannot contemplate going to sea on a thing like this!.
I was obviously standing there looking a bit bewildered when I suddenly heard a voice speaking to me in a lilting Norwegian tone. I answered in English, which he immediately understood. I said I am the new Junior Engineer. He seemed to raise his eyebrows a bit quizzically! Follow me he said and took me along to the Chief Engineer.
The Chief was busy with someone else at the time so, after a perfunctory introduction, he said to the sailor who had brought me along. Ho-Ho, take this man to the Chief Steward and get him fixed up in his quarters, to me he said Come back and see me after lunch.
Ho-Ho! I thought. What a funny name. It turned out that his real name was Hans Hjalmar Hansen and he came from a small town called Tvedestrand in the Norwegian Telemark District. The letter H is pronounced Ho in Norwegian, hence Hans' nickname. We were to become very friendly on board. He was about my age and obviously missed his family in Norway very much. I often wonder whether he survived the war. I tried to trace him many years later while on holiday in Beautiful Norway, but to no avail. I found out many years later that the Veni had been wrecked off the Scottish coast in 1946.
I found that most of the Norwegian crew called each other by the name of the town they came from. There was Oslo, Bergen, Tromso , Narvik etc.
Ho-Ho took me along to the Chief Steward who gave me a mattress cover and two dark grey blankets. He told me to come back after lunch for my rations. Rations, I thought! I did not know that we were rationed on board ship, but we were. A small amount of tea, sugar and butter per week also one tin of sweetened condensed milk. The only thing that lasted the week was the tea. The Norwegians preferred coffee of which there seemed to be plenty. We used to punch two holes in the top of our milk tin and, as it was kept in the top of our locker and invariably handled with coal dust laden hands, you can imagine what it looked like after a couple of days. Mind you, coal is usually clean in spite of being black. Lots of old time stokers used to suck lumps of coal while stoking the boilers. Especially in the tropics. It stopped the mouth getting too dry in the heat.
Ho-Ho then took me aft where I would be quartered with The black gang(Stokers & Greasers). The black gang lived aft on most of the old tramp ships, while the seamen lived forard. You are the second Englishman we have on board said Ho-Ho.We also have a Canadian. I was heartened to hear this and, on entering the mess deck was introduced to Peter Springham from Ware, in Hertfordshire. Pete was about my height and build and 3 months older than me. We got on very well together and were to remain firm friends for the next two years before finally losing touch with each other. Pete in turn, introduced me to Tom Casey the Canadian. Tom came from a small fishing village on the Northern tip of Prince Edward Island at the entrance to the great St. Lawrence river.
Tom had recently turned 18 so we were all much about the same age. He said he was the Lamp Trimmer. What on earth is a Lamp Trimmer? I enquired. He pointed to the cause of the smokey fug in the mess room. A Carbide duck lamp hanging over the table. The Veni had no generators. All lights were Carbide, including the Navigation lights. Toms job was to ensure that the ship's lights were primed and working efficiently at all times. The lights had smelly brown lumps of carbide in the bowl which, when water was added gave off a gas that was ignited.
I was to share a cabin with Pete. He of course, being the first on board had grabbed the lower bunk. He had only joined her a couple of days before me himself. So you are the other coal trimmer? Pete said. Coal trimmer? I replied. Ive joined as a Junior Engineer. He smiled. They got you on that one too did they ? he said. We start at the bottom as coal trimmers, then progress through to firemen, Greasers and Donkeymen. If, in the unlikely event you are still aboard this old rust bucket in a few years time, you might have a very faint chance of getting a fifth engineers job. You cant get any higher without you have completed an Apprenticeship, got some sea time in, and obtained your ticket. Another big blow to my machinations!
I was already more than disenchanted with my surroundings but had taken an instant liking to Pete and Tom. I had signed on the ship For better or worse and had no alternative employment so decided I must try and stick it out. I noticed some wooden slats across my bunk and said to Pete. Wheres the mattress? Oh! Thats what the mattress cover is for he said. I will take you down to the tween deck where there is a pile of straw you can fill it with. To me this was the ultimate primitive pit! What had I come down to? We went down into the gloomy, duck lamp lit tween deck. Pete told me to stuff as much of the straw as I could into the mattress cover. He said it soons breaks down and thins out so, if you dont really cram it in you will soon find you feel the wooden boards through it when you try to sleep. He helped me make what turned out to be a large round cylinder of straw, known as a Paliasse. My first three nights trying to sleep on this monstrosity were uncomfortable to say the least! However, once it finally shaped down to my body size I found it to be very warm and comfortable. In any event, the work I was to do was so exhausting that I could have slept anywhere when I came off watch. Indeed there were many occasions when I just collapsed on top of a pile of coal in the bunkers and just slept until it was time to go on watch again.
By the time we had filled my paliasse and got it back to the cabin it was time for lunch. I followed Pete and Tom to the galley amidships. It was always our job to collect the food. The cook had the top half of the split steel door open . His galley looked a complete shambles to me. A large coal range along the after bulkhead on top of which were an assortment of large, well blackened, cast iron saucepans and dixies. The tiled floor was covered with ashes from the fire and grease from the food. His apology for an apron was filthy. He handed Pete and Tom a large Dixie each which they carried aft to our quarters. I was handed a tray of small loaves of bread. We had to carry this lot down a steel ladder, across the well deck, and up another ladder to the poop, then down some steep wooden stairs to our mess room. It was difficult enough to do this in harbour. I dare not think what it would be like at sea in rough weather.
The Black Gang had all assembled round the mess room table for lunch. There were 13 of us living in the cramped quarters aft. Pete took the lid off the first Dixie and each man passed his chipped enamel plate along for a ladle full of Norwegian Sweet Soup. This was a watery concoction of various dried fruits which the Norwegians appeared to be very fond of. We had it with nearly every meal. I suspected that, because the dried fruits were cheap to buy and easy to store, this was the real reason for having it! The main course was Salt beef in a vegetable stew. The meat was mostly great slithers of fat and very unappetising. Potatoes swam in the stew. At sea the cook had the very devil's own job of getting at the barrels under the focsle head in rough weather. He was often swamped, and lost the meat on his way back to the galley. The deck crew had an even worse job trying to get their food forard from the galley as huge waves swept over the ship's bows. It was bad enough for us trying to get it aft. Many a meal was lost for all the crew when at sea in the North Atlantic storms. When this happened it was deemed to be hard Cheese. We were lucky if we managed to scrounge a bit of extra bread or corned beef from the cook. We were ALWAYS hungry on the Veni!
Cheese was fairly plentiful aboard, but it was a very coarse brown goats cheese peculiar to the Norwegians. It was as rough as sandpaper on your tongue. When in port we spent most of our pay on food. The first call ashore would always be the nearest café. Sometimes nearly the whole crew could be found there at the same time. The café owners did well when we were in port. Next we would buy all the food we could take back aboard. In Canada and the U.S.A. of course, we had no problem with rationing. Food was plentiful and cheap. It was a different matter at home!
After a very meagre lunch (I just could not fancy what I saw in that Dixie!) I went along to keep my appointment with the Chief Engineer. A Kom in response to my knock on his cabin door invited me to enter. I was most impressed. I found a reasonably sized cabin, well furnished in highly polished Mahogany. The Chief was sitting at his desk. Drawers under each pedestal, leather topping and highly polished brass handles. He swivelled round in his leather upholstered Captain's chair as I entered. He greeted me warmly enough, explained my duties to me, and hoped I would be happy aboard. I said, It appears that I will be no more than a coal trimmer? I was told I was joining as a Junior Engineer. He replied that All Engineers must start at the bottom and thoroughly learn the job if they are to understand it. I reflected on this in later years and came to the conclusion that the hard work I endured did me no harm and did, in fact, give me a better understanding of what was involved in the power pack of a ship!
Having taken in the luxurious surroundings of the Chief's cabin compared to my own squalid quarters, I vowed there and then that I would attain such heights as soon as possible. I did finish my sea going career some 12 years later as a fifth engineer and even made third, then second on coastal ships.
I drew my meagre rations from the Chief Steward and repaired back to my quarters aft. Pete and Tom were dressed for going ashore. Nothing to do this afternoon they said. Want to come ashore with us ?. Why not I replied. We made for the nearest dockside café and had something like a meat pie with mushy peas, bread and margarine and a mug of tea. Pete said I noticed you unpacking your gear. You do not appear to have any suitable working clothes or boots?. I hadnt of course. I did not anticipate the type of work I would be doing! My companions came to a ship chandlers with me where I found I had just about enough money on me to buy a pair of dungaree trousers (Jeans today) at 10/6d (52p) a pair, and some army style boots at about the same price. A good job I got them. They were certainly needed where I was to work.
Having obtained the necessary items we decided to go to the pictures. I forget the film showing at the time. When we came out we were hungry again. We managed to find a Fish & Chip shop that did us proud. My shipmates were then ready for a pint of beer (or two!). I had never touched beer in my life, or been into a pub for that matter. I felt a bit nervous of going into the pub with them. In any event I had no money left, and told them so. Oh! Come on in They both said Well treat you. At their insistence I went into the Dolphin Hotel just below the Barr Gate in Southampton where I had my first ever pint of beer. I took a tentative sip and tried my best not to show the repugnance I felt at the taste of it. To me it was just like some foul medicine. Pete and Tom soon downed their pints and banged their glasses down on the counter for another. It did not take me long to become accustomed to the taste though and, by the end of the evening I found myself being propelled back aboard by my shipmates. We were all singing our hearts out. I flopped on to my prickly straw paliasse and just about died for the rest of the night.
The next morning Pete took me down below to show me around. We went down through the fiddley door over the stokehold. The smell of steamy wet ashes, oil, and the heat that arose from below had to be got used to! There was a small steam operated winch on the fiddley top. This was used to haul up the heavy steel buckets of hot steaming ashes, through the ventilators. It would be my job when on watch to empty these buckets over the ships side. About 30 steamy and very heavy buckets of wet ash had to be pulled out from a rectangular hole in the side of the ventilator. I would then have to carry the bucket a short distance to the ship's side and tip the contents down a chute. This was no joke in foul, freezing and very rough weather. Especially at night. No lights could be shown anywhere on deck during the war. U-Boat Commanders have said they could even see someone lighting a cigarette through their periscopes.
We climbed down the vertical steel ladder to the tween deck where the coal bunkers were stored. In the gloom of the duck lamp I could just see some coal at one end. There was a large square hatch which led down to the boiler room. The coal had to be pushed along the steel deck in a large, and very heavy, steel wheelbarrow, then tipped down the hatch. This was the devil's own job in rough weather. There was little enough light to see where you were going to start with. More often than not, having struggled to fill the wheelbarrow with coal, then staggered along the rolling deck with your load, you would lose balance and tip the lot over just before you got to the hatch.
It was exhausting and soul destroying work. You HAD to get the coal to the firemen somehow though. They would soon be howling at you if they ran out. Steam pressure HAD to be kept up at all costs so we could keep up with the convoy, and it all started with YOU! The sweat, the gloom, the heat, the backache. The coal dust in your eyes, your mouth, your hair, your ears, the pitching and rolling of the ship, all added up to an image of what hell must be like!
The Veni had two boilers. Massive 22 ft long Lancashires. Each had four furnaces burning coal by natural draft. The quality of the coal was of paramount importance to the stokers. Poor quality doubled their work effort (and mine). Welsh steam coal was always the best in the world.
The tools of their trade were energy consuming in themselves. The slice or poker was a 2 diameter x 15ft. long steel rod flattened out at one end. Goodness knows what it weighed! It had to be handled with two thick sack cloths as it got red hot when pushed through the fire. It was used to lift the clinkered coals and aerate them, and to push them over to one side to get at the bottom clinker when cleaning the fires. The rake was similar in length but not quite so heavy. It had a half moon shaped blade at one end which was used to push or pull the coal to where it was most needed, and pull the old clinker out when cleaning the fires at the end of each watch.
The shovels were huge. To throw a heavy shovel full of coal to the back end of the furnace was an art that had to be learned. You sort of banged the shovel on the dead plate at the front end of the furnace as you threw it. The coal then shot off right down to the back end. It was very important to be able to place the coal exactly where you wanted it so as to get the best combustion and heat for making steam. While you were doing all these operations of course, the furnace doors were wide open. The searing heat was burning your face and body as you worked. Your eyes were squinted up against the heat and glare. At the same time the ship might be rolling in heavy seas and shuddering strongly as a big wave hit the focsle head with a crashing bang.
Keeping a foothold on the slippery steel plates while working under these conditions was just another aspect of the stokers' lot to be endured. If there was no wind up top to come down the ventilators it became almost intolerable. Not only was it much hotter, but the stokers had to work twice as hard as there was insufficient air to keep the coal burning brightly. More modern ships had forced draught boilers where large fans would provide the air to the furnaces. How so many of these old coal burners managed to keep station in convoy I do not know! From on deck there was no way of telling what the stokers were going through. On the other hand the deck crews had their own hell from freezing seas! When poor coal caused continual smoke to emit from the funnel, extremely irate messages would be flashed from the Commodore and Escorts. They never did seem to realise that the stokers were the very last people who wanted to give our position away to U-Boats by making smoke! They were much more vulnerable than anyone else if a torpedo should come through the thin steel plating of the engine or boiler room!
The Veni had what is known as a Triple Expansion Reciprocating Engine. It looked massive to me, but I was to sail with even bigger ones before I finally left the sea. The three huge pistons with their accompanying valve rods, were open to the engine room. It was fascinating to see them going up and down for hour after hour, day after day, without a stop. They would go on forever as long as the greasers ensured they were regularly splashed with lubricating oil and the bearings were well greased. The greasers arm went up and down in unison with the pistons as he flicked oil on to the guides with an expert hand. He had to put his hand right into the big ends as he felt them for temperature each time they revolved round. While performing these duties he always had to ensure that he had One hand for himself. In rough seas he could easily slip on the oily steel plates and fall into the engine!
A long tunnel carried the propeller shaft to its ultimate end before it disappeared through the stern gland to the actual propeller on the other side. The steel shaft was about 15 in diameter and had many bearings along its length. Hard blocks of high temperature grease were put into a housing on top of each bearing. They had to be regularly checked and felt for overheating. The stern gland also had to be regularly checked for leaking.
No one liked going down the tunnel at sea. It was very gloomy with our carbide lamps. There was little head room and, in rough weather you could easily put your hand out to steady yourself and find you have placed it on the rapidly rotating shaft. The thoughts of a torpedo hitting the ship while you were in the tunnel did not bear thinking about!
Pete had the 8-12 watch. Morning and night of course. The other Norwegian Trimmer had the 4-8, so I was left with the Graveyard watch 12-4. Having shown me around, Pete had to get on with some work. It was his watch. There were more ashes to get up and dump on deck. More coal had to be trimmed down to the stokers ready for sailing after lunch.
We sailed about 1 p.m. I had trimmed enough coal to the firemen in the last hour so was able to spend a little time on deck watching the activities of the harbour tugs as they edged us out of the dock and into the river Itchen. Clouds of thick black smoke emanated from our funnel as the banging and scraping of the firemens shovels could be heard working away below. The smoke blew down over the water and encompassed other ships still berthed alongside the quay, as we passed. They were very unhappy about this to say the least. I just stood nonchalantly on deck as if to say It is nothing to do with me! At the same time containing a certain amount of guilt within myself.
Once out into the river the tugs let go. The clang of the engine room telegraph and its reply to the bridge told me we were on our way. A big hiss of steam as the main engine turned, and the thrash of the propeller which was half out of the water, the ship being light, confirmed all was well and working.
I watched my surroundings and other ships we passed with great interest as we sailed down to Calshot Spit and the Solent. Pete came along and woke me from my reverie. Dont you think you ought to get below and get some coal to them? Its better to take advantage of the calm waters while you can, especially when the bunkers are low. Once we get into the channel there will be at least a swell, and you will probably find that heavy wheelbarrow difficult to handle! I took his advice and was able to move quite a bit of coal before I started to feel the gentle rock of the ship as we passed through the Needles and into the English Channel.
It was to be a very hard first watch for me. We had hardly got out into the Channel when I heard Bergen, one of the firemen, calling to me in the bunkers. Lofty, Ve tak up de ashes now. As I was over 6 tall I got, and retained, the nickname Lofty throughout my sea going career. I climbed out of the bunkers and up to the fiddley top. Bergen said Be sure you are knowing vat is de lee side? I did. He then worked the steam winch as I nearly killed myself struggling to get those heavy steel buckets of hot , wet and steamy ashes, out through the ventilator and across the deck to the chute. About thirty buckets came up. Once I had finished that I had to attack the huge pile of ashes and rubbish piled up on deck while the ship was in harbour. I then had to hose the deck down. I was absolutely exhausted and ached all over by the end of my watch when I was more than pleased to hand over to Narvik. I had used muscles that I had never used before, and they let me know they did not take kindly to this sort of work! I envied those aboard Oil Burning and Diesel Engine ships who did not have any of this back breaking work or chores to do. I also wondered why I had not been lucky enough to find such a ship!
My watch over, it suddenly occurred to me! Where is the bathroom? I had not seen one anywhere! The reason being there wasnt one. I asked Pete. How on earth do we bath or shower?. Behind the main engine he said. You get a bucket of water, put an open ended steam jet from one of the pump drains into it, warm it up, then youll find a wooden board behind the engine that you can stand on. Wash yourself all over with your sweat rag, that will clean it ready for use on your next watch. Then tip the bucket over you. I went back down below to do as he said. I found the firemen already there bathing so waited for them to finish. I must confess to being very embarrassed to start with. I had never bathed or showered in public before!
We headed west down the Channel, joining a convoy that had come down through the Straits of Dover. A sleek looking destroyer was among our escorts of armed trawlers and motor gun boats. The wind was non existant on this warm sunny day, and the sea flat calm. The smoke from our funnel seemed to lay on top of the sea for ages as it slowly pulsed its way down over the ships side. We were the worst smoker in the convoy. We eventually pulled into Dartmouth for the night. There is no finer scene than when entering this beautiful river with a blazing red sunset behind it. The narrow entrance to the tree lined slopes. The ancient town and the Britannia Royal naval College all add to its beauty and serenity! I was thinking to myself, thats good we are anchored for the night. I will have nothing to do on my midnight watch! How wrong I was. I had to get those bunkers topped up with the next days coal supply and, although there were not so many ashes to haul up, those that were had to be dumped on deck. I was very conscious of all the noise we were making during the night! I expect we were cursed by hundreds of people trying to sleep on other ships moored nearby and even the townsfolk ashore!
The convoy weighed anchor and sailed again soon after first light. We left it again soon after lunch to go into Falmouth. We were to spend a few days there having a Great War 4.5 Howitzer fitted on our Poop deck aft. This would be right over my cabin. We all joked that we would probably sink ourselves rather than hit a U-Boat if we ever had to fire it in action!
It was a very hot summer day as we tied up to the quayside in Falmouth. Pete and Tom were ready to go ashore as soon as the gangway was down. I soon joined them. I clearly remember to this day that we ran all the way to the nearest Pub, lined up three pints of beer each, and drank them down non stop. I guess Pete and I at least were partially dehydrated from our sweaty exertions on board. We were certainly glad to enjoy a few days in Falmouth. There were always some chores to do in the morning but we had our afternoons off. Every day showed a clear blue sky and beautifully warm weather. We swam in the harbour and, as usual, went into town to eat. Usually Fish & Chips.
Welders from the dockyard came aboard and started making a large round steel platform over the Poop deck for the gun and its ammunition boxes. This was soon done and the arrival of the gun itself aroused much interest. The Able Seamen and Stokers were to be trained to fire the thing by a Royal navy Gunnery Petty Officer who sailed with us to Swansea, our next destination in South Wales. Most of the training was done before we sailed, but then? The actual firing. We were in the Bristol Channel and had dropped back to the tail end of the convoy for this practice shoot. An empty oil drum was thrown over the stern, left to drift for some distance, then fired at. I was down below when the first shot was fired. The sudden tremendous bang had me running up on deck thinking we had been torpedoed. These 4.5 went off with a hell of a crack. I think three shots were fired in all. No point in wasting ammunition. I dont think the oil drum came to any harm. Its probably still drifting around the oceans of the world somewhere! Anyway, that was the extent of our new armament and I dont think any of us felt any the safer for having it on board.
We went into Swansea for bunkers. Once again I was to be back among the coal dust. At least the tween deck was totally filled with coal, which meant we would have a few days of self trimming when we sailed again. We spent about a week in Swansea. The docks there were extremely dangerous at night in the blackout. Many a wartime sailor fell into them at night and drowned when walking back to his ship three sheets to the wind. The docks were behind locks because of the tide in the river Severn. The water level was only just below the quayside. As the water was always covered with coal dust as well as the quay, it was almost impossible to differentiate between the two. Hence men stepped straight into the dock.
We finally left Swansea and headed up into the Irish Sea. We were bound for the River Clyde. We dropped our anchor among many other Merchants and Royal navy ships off Greenock. The Queen Mary was anchored quite close to us. It was the first time I had ever seen this magnificent ship. She looked huge, and she was. I felt I was almost aboard one of her lifeboats, so small were we in comparison. She was painted all over in her wartime grey but this did little to detract from her beauty. She was a regular visitor to the Clyde at that time while ferrying U.S. troops across the North Atlantic. In view of her speed of about 30 knots she was usually unescorted. There was one horrendous incident though that did not come to light until after the war. The light cruiser HMS Curacao was in convoy with her. Apparently underestimating the Queen Marys speed she cut across her bows. She was sliced in half and suffered great loss of life. The Queen Mary was said to have hardly felt the bump! She could not risk stopping to look for survivors as she would endanger herself and the 5,000 U.S. troops on board. It must have been a quick, but horrible end to have this great liner plough straight through you.
The day after we arrived in Greenock a small tender came out to us loaded with timber and a small army of Carpenters. We watched them encasing our chain steering gear that ran right along the deck, with a wooden box. I should mention here that the ship's rudder was operated by a heavy steel chain that ran down from the bridge and along the after well deck to a large quadrant at the stern. I suppose you could say that we were a forerunner to power steering! It would have been impossible to turn the ship's rudder without the assistance of a small steam powered winding gear. Once the chain had been totally boxed in, a barge full of sand arrived alongside. We hoisted this aboard in buckets with our own cargo derricks and spread it all over the well decks. This was meant to act as ballast for our forthcoming trip to Canada. We could no longer walk across the well deck, so a wooden catwalk was built across the hatches for this purpose.
A couple of days later we sailed in convoy down the Clyde. A vast assortment of merchant ships (most much more elegant than us!) escorted by Destroyers, a Corvette and an armed trawler. We all made our way in two lines until we reached the open sea, then we slowed down off Rathlin island, North of Ulster, while the escorts had the unenviable task of trying to get us into some sort of order. They appeared to be having quite a job. There were other ships that had joined up with us from Liverpool and the North of Scotland. The weather was quite rough and deteriorating fast. A freezing cold Northerly gale soon came up from nowhere and the Veni started to pitch and roll violently. The sand ballast soon had waves crashing over it, and a lot of it washed overboard. As darkness fell we had trouble steering the ship. It transpired that the sand had been washed through the cracks in the wooden casing surrounding the steering chain and jammed it. The wind worsened to Hurricane force. We soon lost the convoy and had no steerage way at all. ALL hands were called on deck and, roping ourselves to the nearest anchoring point we could find, we attempted to shovel the rest of the sand over the ships side. It was a struggle to keep your feet while the freezing waves crashed over you. We were in fear of our very lives as we drifted in the mountainous seas! We were not far from the very dangerous coast lines of Northern Ireland and the Scottish Islands. With no steering and the engines now stopped, we broached side on to the waves. With each roll from Port to Starboard we thought she would surely capsize! It became impossible to stay on deck, let alone shovel sand. The seas were now taking the sand away quicker than us anyway.
Down below in the engine room things were no better. The bilges were blocked with coal dust and filling up. The oily black water ran right up the ships side with each roll. In the boiler room large lumps of coal swished backwards and forwards across the ship in the rising water. The firemen had to climb up the ladders to avoid getting killed. We were losing steam fast. How on earth we survived that night I will never know. My first REAL trip to sea and this happens on my second day out! I have never been so frightened in all my life.
I remember, about two in the morning seeing a parachute flare lighting up the sky. It had been dropped by an aircraft. One of our gunners let fly with the Oerlikon gun on the boat deck. Fortunately without success. It was a Sunderland flying boat that had dropped down to investigate us. Our gunner thought it must have been a German. Eventually the rest of the sand was washed overboard. Once the decks were clear, the Bosun and Carpenter went along the deck with sledge hammers and broke away the rest of the wooden casing to free the steering chain. This was a heroic job in itself. Almost totally exhausted, they were continually battered against the ships bulwarks or hatch combings as the mountainous waves still crashed over the side, nearly washing them overboard.
Fortunately there was still sufficient steam in the boilers to operate the steering windlass so, once the chain was free, the ship was tentatively brought round head to wind. This gave us some respite from the side rolling. Pitching was much more bearable and safer too. It was then ALL hands down below to help clear the bilges. The stokers were nearly waist high in water as they dipped in their shovels and tried to get enough wet coal to get some more life into the furnaces.
As dawn broke we detected a little easing off in the wind. Perhaps we were just in the eye of the hurricane! Anyway, steam was slowly raised again and we limped back into the Clyde. We were all totally exhausted but glad to be alive. It speaks volumes for the designers and constructors of this old sea going warrior that the Veni was able to stand up to such a battering 42 years after her launch! Such were Sunderland built ships in those days!
We were fortunate enough to spend the next week anchored off Greenock before another slow convoy would be formed for us to join. This time we carried no deck ballast at all but we would find we had other anomalies to cope with instead! The day before we sailed again, a coal barge came alongside and we topped up with bunkers again. We trimmers had to stow the coal away in the tween decks which was hard and dusty work. However, it pleased us to know that we would not have to trim any coal to the firemen for the next few days after we sailed. And it would be a further week before we had anything like a long haul with the wheelbarrow.
We sailed again as before. A convoy of some sixty odd ships was brought into order off Rathlin Island by the escorts. Then we set off for Canada and the United States. With only ashes to get up towards the end of my watch. I was able to stand in the warmth of the fiddley top and watch all the exciting things going on. It was a cold and windy day in September 1942. I was amazed to see the escort vessels shipping waves right over the whole ship. They were travelling a lot faster than us as they sped around the convoy. They were also, of course, very much smaller than us. I was certainly glad I was not on one of them! This weather though was nothing to what we were to meet further out in the North Atlantic. In fact the winter of 1942 was down on record as having had more violent storms than had been seen since records began.
It was only a couple of days before another hurricane hit the convoy. Having no ballast or cargo our propeller was only half submerged. As we dipped to each wave therefore, the prop. came completely out of the water causing the engine to race uncontrollably. If this were allowed to happen the big ends and tunnel bearings would melt in no time at all. Someone had to stand at the great throttle lever ALL the time. As the prop. came out of the water the lever was pushed forward to cut off steam and slow the engine right down. As the prop. bit into the sea again the lever was pulled back so forward propulsion could be maintained. Imagine doing this to every wave, for four hours at a stretch, for a whole week! At the same time trying to keep your feet on the slippery steel plates! Our only consolation was that U-Boats could not attack us in such foul weather. However, we still got alarms that they were around !
We were about 13 days out of the Clyde before the weather started to ease off a bit. The convoy was behind its scheduled time due to the weather, and a few old timers like us, not being able to keep up! Although the wind had dropped considerably and the seas calmed to a long swell, our troubles were far from being over! We hit the dense fog that usually abounds over the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, especially at this time of the year. This meant that all ships were continually blowing their fog horns, including us. The mournful blasts went on day and night. It was amazing how much steam the fog horns used each time they blew! It made the stokers' life that much harder in trying to keep steam pressure up.
Each ship trailed a Fog Buoy. Something like a five gallon oil drum on the end of a 200 ft rope. This enabled the ship behind to see if it was getting too close or not. It meant keeping a lookout in the bows to keep watching for the ship ahead buoy. There was continual whistling down from the Bridge to Engine Room to Up 5 Revs, or down 5 Revs To be among about 60 ships in dense fog is any captain's nightmare. I think we spent 4 days in it on that occasion. Once out of it though, a new hazard arose! We were a sitting target for U-Boats. They liked to wait on the edge of the fog banks for us to emerge. Fortunately none bothered us on this trip.
The convoy started to split up soon after we cleared the fog banks. Some ships went off to starboard heading for St. Johns, Newfoundland, others to port for American cities. We carried on with quite a few others for Halifax, Nova Scotia. We were very thankful when we got into that magnificent harbour after 21 quite harrowing days at sea. We entered the harbour at night. I was amazed to see the whole place lit up! I had not been used to lights at night since the beginning of the war. An added excitement for me was the fact that I had never visited another country before. We dropped anchor in the middle of the harbour which was alive with ships of all types and nationalities. The bustle of tugs and small ships everywhere, the unusual whistle of the Canadian trains ashore, these were all new sounds to me and held a certain fascination.
I hoped we would be allowed ashore the next day! The next morning we went alongside the coaling wharf to replenish our bunkers. The Veni just atecoal! Pete, Tom and I went ashore. Our first port of call? You guessed it. A diner. What a meal we had. A massive 16 oz. T Bone steak, with a complete mixed grill to go with it. An inch thick wedge of Apple Pie followed it, with Ice cream on top. Ice Cream? We only ever had this in summer at home. The Canadians and Americans had it all the year round and were obviously responsible for encouraging the habit in Britain after the war.
It did not take long to explore the town. Halifax is built on the side of a hill that runs along the left hand side of the harbour. The lower road is called Water Street (what else!). This was mainly the home of Ship Chandlers, Repair Companies, and factories and Warehouses. There was also a Seamans Club and Bar in Hollis St. which was more often than not the scene of much activity by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Albeit they were in cars rather than on horse back of course. It was only natural that sailors liked to enjoy a good drink to celebrate yet another successful crossing or inebriate oneself in readiness for the next! There were no pubs in Nova Scotia. Drink could only be bought on Ration Cards, and from a Government owned Liquor Store for consumption at home or in a hotel if you were a resident. Higher up the hill and running parallel to Water St. was Barrington St. the main street and shopping centre of Halifax. We settled for a bit of window shopping on this first run ashore but bought some groceries for aboard ship. Our priorities being fresh milk, bread and fruit.
Having bunkered, we lost no time in sailing the next day. As we headed North after leaving the harbour we though we would be going down the St. Lawrence river to Montreal or Quebec! Wiser heads, however, said No. We would be iced in for the winter if we went there at this time of the year. They were right. We headed round the back of Nova Scotia and sailed up what appeared to be a Loch or Fjord. The water was flat calm. No wind blew at all. Our noisy propeller thrashed its way along toward our destination. Thick black smoke poured from our funnel and lay dreamily across the tranquil waters of this beautiful Loch. Forests of Fir Trees surrounded us on the shores. I thought How nice it must be to live in such a place, far away from war torn Europe!
Eventually we spotted a small township of typical wooden houses. A wooden jetty protruded out into the Loch. We moved in alongside it and were to remain there for three weeks while we loaded a cargo of sawn timber planks. Our arrival was quite amazing! Apparently we were the first foreign vessel to have visited this tiny port called Pictou since 1916. The village band was playing on the jetty. I think the whole town had turned out to join them. I could have wished for a better ship for them! Our old fashioned, rusty, smoke polluting hull did not seem to fit in with these beautiful surroundings somehow!
The local Mayor came aboard and offered a speech of welcome. The local Mounties were also in attendance. No doubt wondering if this old tramp was likely to bring them any problems while here! The Customs Officer, no doubt also a local churchman, preached to us on the evils of drink and then proceeded to issue each man with a Ration Card to purchase it from the local Liquor Store. Each man was allowed to buy one bottle of whiskey or Spirits and ten bottles of beer a week. To be drunk ONLY on board! This was no problem for me, but my heavy drinking Norwegian friends did find it very frustrating. But, as always, there were ways round the Law providing you had the money. It did not take our crew long to find where extra supplies could be obtained!
Tom took the opportunity of our long stay in Pictou to go home and visit his family in Glace Bay, not so many miles away. Pete and I got rather bored with the place. There was nothing to do other than visit the only restaurant, really a Chinese Café with a couple of French Canadian waitresses. In the end we became a little more adventurous when we found we could take a train some twenty miles inland to a slightly larger town called New Glasgow. The train journey was a new experience in itself. It would suddenly stop in the middle of nowhere and pick up a milk churn or two that farmers had left by the side of the track. The odd country living person would also flag down the train if they wanted to go into town. Often there would not be a house in sight, let alone a station. Half way to New Glasgow was a small town called Stellarton. It was just a little bigger than Pictou. For some reason the train stopped here for about two hours. We got off, wandered around killing time in the inevitable diner drinking tea or coffee. New Glasgow itself was also a bit of a disappointment. At least there was a Cinema there but little to interest us otherwise. We went to the Cinema and found the film to be Brief Encounter under a different name. The third time I had seen it! By the time we got the train back to Pictou it was usually about 2 a.m. before we were back on board.
Once loaded we lost no time in sailing. The whole town turned out again to see us off. We were well replenished food wise and had bought plenty of fresh milk, bread, fruit and tinned stuff to keep us going for a few days at least. We had what looked like a hell of a cargo. It was stacked up on deck to bridge height. I remember thinking that no torpedo could sink us with this cargo aboard! Unless of course, he got a damn good shot right into the engine room and broke her in half!
Our three weeks in Pictou had tended to soften us up a bit and it was to be two or three days before we were back into our stride and became once more hardened to the hard and dirty work aboard. It was only a short distance to our next anchorage. We went round the northern tip of Nova Scotia, through the belle Isle Strait and dropped anchor off Sydney. This was a very large safe anchorage which was used as a convoy forming up point during the war. I remember it being a cold, wet, and blustery evening as we lay at anchor for the night. There was much small ship activity as orders etc. were delivered round to the ships. A motor fishing vessel came alongside us. It was run by The Flying Angel (Missions to Seamen). These wonderful people brought an assortment of hand knitted woollen garments aboard which they distributed free. There were Roll neck sweaters, socks, sea boot stockings, gloves and balaclavas, all knitted by the women of Canada for sailors. These items were particularly well received by the deck hands for the cold winter North Atlantic nights. Books, sweets and toiletries were also given to us. What a wonderful job these people do all over the world! They still do it to this day. The Padre of the Mission said a few prayers for us and left to go aboard yet another ship.
We sailed early next morning. The convoy quickly formed up, and we soon settled down to life aboard in the rough seas of the North Atlantic once more. A couple of days out we joined up with another large convoy coming up from the south. This made us a combined force of about 70-80 ships if we included the escorts. We also had an ocean going tug with us in case a ship was torpedoed and did not sink, or got into other difficulties. In this event the tug would try and tow it into the nearest port. The seas were rough enough on our own ship, but when I watched the antics of the tug, corvettes and a trawler as they ‘corkscrewed’ their way along, sometimes completely disappearing in the trough of some huge wave, I felt thankful I had something just a little bigger under me! How on earth these chaps lived, worked, cooked, ate, slept or even moved about doing their job on deck I found it hard to imagine! Later on, as the reader will discover, I was to sail on one of these very tugs, HMRT Samsonia.
We hit the usual dense fog again as we approached the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. We had hardly entered the fog when we heard a mighty explosion astern, followed by many more. The whole fog bank itself turned a bright red colour. An ammunition ship had been torpedoed. It must, hopefully, have been a mercifully quick end for its crew! The explosions continued for some time, echoing through our engine room. Perhaps by now some of them were depth charges being dropped by our escorts as they searched for the U-Boat that did this. For us down below it was like being in a tin can with someone beating it on the outside. We hoped they got the U-Boat. As I said earlier, they liked to wait at the edge of the fog banks. This one must have taken his aim just as the ship was about to enter the fog. We sailed on, muttering our thoughtful, silent prayers, for those that had just departed this world and hoping it would not be our turn next! Torpedoing was so instant. One minute you are sailing peacefully along, the next you are hit without any warning. No more ships were hit that night because of the fog, but we were to lose another 5 ships before we reached England.
It was a couple of days before we emerged from the fog. The sudden silence of the ships whistles was blissful, but took a while to get used to again. The convoy manoeuvred as each ship endeavoured to get into her proper position once more. Escorts were chasing all over the place no doubt pinging with their Asdics looking for the U-Boats. A Catalina flying boat out from Newfoundland flew around us for as long as it could, keeping the U-Boats down.
We soon reached what is known as the Air Gap. This is the middle section of the North Atlantic where no aircraft could reach us from either side. It usually took 3-4 days for us to cross this gap which was where we were most vulnerable to U-Boat attack. Sure enough, the attack started one night. I vividly recall the horrifving sight of an oil tanker that had kept us company on our starboard side since we left Sydney, being torpedoed. She was probably carrying aviation fuel for the allied forces. One minute she was there, the next she went up with a mighty explosion. A tremendous fireball rose high in the sky illuminating the whole convoy. I watched some of the crew trying to launch a lifeboat among the flames. Others, with their clothes alight, had no alternative other than to jump into the already blazing sea around their ship. It was the most ghastly scene from hell I have ever witnessed in my life. I vowed I would never sail on a tanker if I could help it! This tanker had plodded along beside us since we left Sydney. She was like an old friend, always there when you came up on deck after finishing your watch below. Now, suddenly, in an instant she was gone and her place was taken by the cargo ship that had been following her. The escorts did their best to see if they could pick up any survivors but they were too busily engaged trying to locate the U-Boat and protect the rest of us. The last ship in each column was always asked if they would stop and pick up survivors. Very few did. It was at great risk to themselves and their own crews. The value of a few lives at sea in those days was far out valued by the cargo the ship was carrying , and indeed the ship itself which would hopefully be available to make a few more crossings!
We lost another four ships over the next two nights. Not too bad compared to the losses sustained in some of the other convoys. Each individual ship was an entity unto itself, and the losses to family and friends of a father or son, and the valuable cargo of food, or war materials, amounted to a tragedy for our country with each sinking. We in the old Veni thankfully plodded on. I often wondered whether a U-Boat commander looking through his periscope and seeing our cargo of timber piled up high on deck, took the decision to look for better looking ships with possibly more valuable cargo to expend his torpedoes on!
As usual, it was a relief when we sighted land once again when approaching the coast of Northern Ireland. The convoy split up into smaller units as ships headed for their various ports to discharge. Some would go round the North of Scotland and into East Coast ports. Others went into Loch Ewe to await yet another convoy to Iceland and then on to the Northern Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel. We headed down the Irish Sea to Liverpool on this occasion. We docked in Birkenhead where Pete and I managed to get seven days leave while our cargo was being discharged. We travelled down to London together by train.
While I had been away my mother had given up her flat in Twickenham. Apparently her bosses had decided to reward her 12 years of faithful managerial service by dropping her salary from £3.10.0 per week to £2.00 per week. I suppose business had dropped off a bit due to the war, but surely 30/- a week of my mother's meagre wage could not have made much difference to them? She could no longer afford the 25/- a week rent plus her train fares to work every day. She had taken a Bed-sit in Earls Court at 10/- a week . This suited her for a while but it meant there was nowhere for me to come home to when on leave so I went to the Y.M.C.A. or some other service man's club. I used to help mother out with a bit of money whenever I came home on leave.
Pete lived with his parents in Ware near Hertford and had invited me up to stay for a while. After kicking my heels in London, and spending two nights in Earls Court Underground Station with mother sheltering from the air raids, I decided I might as well go and join him. Pete was well pleased to see me and his parents made me very welcome. We occupied our days by going roller skating at a rink in nearby Broxbourne, or taking a skiff out on the river at the same place. Most evenings would find us at a small back street pub in Hertford called The Dun Cow . The very ample landlady was a great pianist and we used to have some very good sing songs in that pub every night. Her son Charlie was also in the Royal Navy on the cruiser Mauritious and he was an expert accordionist. When he was home on leave the music was even better. We only had a few short days on this occasion but we were to enjoy some very happy times there in the future.
We returned to the Veni in Birkenhead after our week's leave and found her almost unloaded. Quick turn rounds were essential during the war. We moved over to Garston for bunkers. I went ashore to try and find mother's brother, my uncle Gilbert. I had never ever met him but mother said he had an estate agents business there. I thought I might as well introduce myself while in his town. His estate agency was not difficult to find. I recall him being a very Victorian type of man. He wore thin rimmed glasses, a bow tie, a shirt with a very stiff butterfly collar, and had a heavy gold watch chain from one pocket to another across his waistcoat. He greeted me amiably enough but did not appear to show much interest. I felt he was being polite more from a sense of duty than pleasure at seeing his younger sister's son for the first time ever. I think he was the sort of man that was wrapped up in his own little world and daily routine to the extent that any intrusion threw him! After a little polite conversation I made my excuses to get back to the ship.
Once bunkers were aboard we sailed again in a small convoy to our rendez -vous point off Northern Ireland. Another Atlantic crossing in store. The usual winter North Atlantic weather accompanied us most of the way. By now I was gradually building a bit of muscle on my arms and body and finding my job just that little bit easier to cope with. There were still many occasions though when I finished my watch too exhausted to even wash, let alone go for some food or to my bunk! On such occasions I would just lie down on a pile of coal in the bunkers and drop off into a dead sleep for eight hours until it was my watch again.
We had the usual U-Boat alarms most nights. The very loud alarm bell was right outside my cabin door. On more than one occasion, when I did sleep in my cabin, I was told of impending attacks the next morning. Didnt you hear the alarm bell go off? I would be asked. I was so tired that even that did not waken me.
We lost no ships on this outward bound convoy and eventually, having sailed through the Grand Banks off Newfoundland once again, we arrived in Halifax. The ship's agent came out to the anchorage and brought some money with him so we could hopefully draw some pay and go ashore. I might mention that we were relatively well paid on Norwegian ships as opposed to the British. Pete and I got £7 per week and paid no income tax as we were British subjects, but living and working on Norwegian soil. This was quite a substantial income in those days. Mind you, we earned every penny of it! After a 3 week crossing therefore we would have £21 available to spend if we wanted it. This was like a fortune among the bright lights of Canada and America! It was more than twice what we would be paid on British ships. We got ashore that afternoon and headed for the same Diner as before. We felt like regulars already. As we got the liberty boat to take us ashore our minds were already concentrated on those 16 oz. T Bone Steaks with mixed grill, and Apple Pie and Ice Cream to follow!
Tom had decided he had had enough of the Veni and was going home to Glace Bay the following day. Pete and I were sorry to be losing him. We had some great runs ashore together and built up a firm friendship. As we were walking up Barrington St. Tom said we ought to have a souvenir to remember each other by. He had hardly got the words out of his mouth when we passed by a Tattooist Shop. We stopped and looked at each other! A quick decision was made. What better reminder of our travels together than a permanent tattoo? Didnt ALL sailors have tattoos sooner or later ? The tattooist was a man called Snow. We looked around his small shop at the numerous fascinating examples of his work. I shuddered at most of them. However, I felt I had to go ahead in agreement with the others. I settled for a simple sailing ship with a Red Sunset background and half a dozen gulls flying around. I had it on my left arm and was quite proud of it at the time. It only cost me $1.00. My mother was quite horrified when she saw it. How could you be so stupid she remonstrated. That is on for life. I must confess to regretting it in later years. The sunset has faded and the sailing ship almost merged into a blob of ink. But. It is one of the things that immature young men do on the spur of the moment!
I remember walking along Barrington St. on my own the next day when I was stopped by a very buxom, brassy blond lady. She asked me How is your tattoo sailor? I wondered how she knew about it and asked her as much. It turns out she was Mr. Snow's daughter and had seen us in the shop the previous day. I had a bit of lint and sticking plaster over it until it had healed. Oh. Give it a day or two she said, itll be O.K. She then proceeded to lift up her skirt, revealing a woman's head wearing a large halo type hat at an angle on each of her thighs. She then rolled up her sleeves to show me that each arm was heavily tattooed. She told me she had a large rose on each breast. I urged her not to show me those in the middle of the street! Tell you what she said. Meet me in the Victoria Hotel at 7 p.m. Bring a bottle of Scotch with you and Ill show you the rest of them My mind boggled! Being the young innocent that I was, my face went totally red with embarrassment and I almost ran back to my ship scared out of my life. She would have had me for breakfast!
We sailed again the next day, turning south as we left Halifax harbour so we knew we were not going back to Pictou thank goodness! Speculation was rife that we would be going to one of the American ports. Even New York! It was not long before we discovered our destination though. We suddenly took a sharp turn to starboard, and then another shortly afterwards, as we headed up the Bay of Fundy to St. John, New Brunswick. The Bay of Fundy is noted for its terrific tides. The water rises and lowers by 40 ft. at a time. The highest tides in the world I believe. The Veni had never travelled so fast in her life as when we raced up the Bay on the flood tide! As there were no locks at St. Johns the trick was to reach the wharf at the top of the tide when the water was slack. This made it a lot easier to get alongside the quay and tie up. As we were a light ship the quayside looked a long way down when we tied up at high water. The gangway was almost vertical down to the quayside. However, at low tide, the reverse was the case! You had to look right up at the quay and it was a very stiff climb to get ashore. These tides necessitated the deck crews keeping permanent watches day and night. They had to slacken or tighten the mooring ropes and wires as the tide rose and fell. Steam also had to be maintained in the boilers to operate the winches for them. Needless to say our nightly sleep was disturbed as the winches were operated!
We spent two weeks in St. John loading a mixed cargo. Crates of oranges (most likely grown in Florida), great big roundels of Canadian Cheddar cheese, and case upon case of dried egg powder. The rest of our capacity was made up with the inevitable timber with the usual deck cargo stacked up to the bridge.
St. John is the Capital of the Province of New Brunswick. I found it to be a very nice town, reminiscent of a typical English County town. The province is noted for its apple orchards and the countryside is very like that of Kent. We enjoyed our stay, but found nothing of particular interest to hold us there, so were pleased when sailing time came once again. We sailed as the tide started to ebb and whizzed down the Bay again to rendezvous with convoys coming up from the Caribbean and American ports. Other ships from Halifax, Sydney and Newfoundland also soon joined us making up a huge convoy of some 80 ships.
By this time in the war a new innovation had been implemented. Some suitable merchant ships had been fitted with a catapult going from the front of the foremast out over the bows. This would launch a Hurricane fighter plane that also carried some small bombs. These were known as CAM ships (Catapult Assisted Merchant). If any U-Boats were picked up by Radar, or even were suspected of being in the area, the plane would be launched, weather permitting, to attack it. One could not help feeling sorry for these Pilots though! Once launched the plane could only ditch into the sea on return. They would ditch as near as possible to an escort vessel but still had only a 50-50 chance of surviving the crash landing and then the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Very brave men these!!
U-Boats were abundant in the North Atlantic at this time. Wolf Packs of 50-60 of them would stretch right across the paths of the convoy routes. We could not escape them. Night after night the alarms would sound. Parachute flares would light up the sky as the escorts spotted one on the surface and went in to attack it. The continuous echos of depth charges being dropped did nothing to allay the fears we held while working down below! A torpedo could come through that 1/8 plating at any minute! For many it did. With a speed of 17-18 knots a surfaced U-boat could easily run rings round a 6-7 knot convoy. That is why it was so important to have air cover to keep them down where a maximum of 7 knots was the best they could do.
We had learned to differentiate between the sounds of torpedo hits and depth charges by now. The third sound that could be distinctly heard down below was that of sinking ships' cargoes, boilers and bulkheads breaking free as they went down, and the ship itself breaking up. You could not allow yourself too much time to think about what was going on. The next one might be you! You just lost yourself in your work and tried to keep your mind off it! We were advised by the Commodore that other convoys ahead and astern of us were being attacked, and to keep a good lookout at all times. To compound these worries we were also informed that a German Pocket Battleship, believed to be the mighty Deutschland, was lose in the North Atlantic. She could have decimated the convoy on her own from 20 miles away.
We had a bad crossing this trip. The escorts had been worked to a frazzle. Their crews must have been absolutely exhausted through lack of sleep and hot meals. Their small ships were continuously awash from the heavy seas. Clothes were permanently soaking wet with no chance to dry them. Mess decks were in a state of chaos. Showers were impossible to take. Life was extremely hard in these Corvettes and Armed Trawlers! The U-Boats were having a field day. We lost 10 ships during the crossing. Whereas every cargo was of immense value to the Nation as a whole, some of the ships carried things like bombers, railway engines and tanks on deck. Every inch of space on every ship was utilised. Thousands of tons, worth millions of pounds were sent to the bottom of the Atlantic during the War. Not to mention the many fine ships and very courageous men who sailed in them!
We plodded our weary way home and survived once more to discharge our cargo once again in Liverpool. There was always a lot of pilfering went on due to the shortages of food during the war. Our cargo was no exception. The crafty dockers would accidentally drop a sling on deck and crates of oranges or egg powder would break open. As the cases had broken open by accident they felt entitled to take the damaged goods home. A lot of people adopted the every man for him self attitude at that time.
Pete and I managed a few days' leave in London and Ware again before we had to return aboard. We often talked about leaving the Veni and looking for a better ship. Certainly not a coal burner! But somehow we seemed to have become attached to her and the rest of the crew. Also the pay was good, so we stayed. We left England for our third East to West crossing of the North Atlantic in the Veni. It was early December 1942 and we were pretty sure we would spend Christmas at sea. We did. The crossing was fairly uneventful. The usual severe gales and fog that made life uncomfortable to say the least! We were used to that by now and expected it. I guess I was fortunate that I never suffered from sea sickness. Perhaps I never had time to think about it !
We had a change of track on this voyage. When the convoy split up off Newfoundland, instead of us joining the usual Halifax section, we found ourselves taking the southern route towards American ports. We eventually entered the bay at Boston, Massachusetts and thought this was our destination. But no! We took a pilot on board and sailed on down through the Cape Cod Canal, past the famous Marthas Vineyard and on to New York. This was quite an exciting change for us. The lovely trip through the canal was most interesting! Old weatherboard houses dotted the banks. The trees were mostly denuded for the winter but those that still had leaves showed a multitude of different colours. It was a clear day, but very cold. A hard frost covered everything ashore as we set off. This enhanced the beauty of the scene, the frost glistening brightly as it melted to the winter sun. What a tremendous change from the rigours of the North Atlantic. We saw people waving and shouting to us as we sailed by. The Cape Cod Canal route was widely used during the war as it was a safe passage from the U-Boats which hung around off the approaches to New York waiting for rich pickings!
A very cold wind had arisen as we approached New York but I was determined not to miss anything. I stood in the warmth of the fiddley top over the boiler room as we sailed past the Statue of Liberty and under Brooklyn Bridge. We were then edged in to one of the many docks by tugs. We were well favoured by having a superbly placed berth! I think it was Pier No.94! Anyway it was at the bottom of 42nd. St. in the heart of Manhattan. This was the berth also used by the big Cunarders like the Queen Mary. Opposite us was the burnt out hulk of the great French liner Normandie lying on its side. Whether she had been sabotaged or not I never did find out, but she probably was.
I think it was New Years Eve 1942/43 when we docked! Anyway it was only a day or two either side of it. American Police and Immigration Officers were very much in evidence. Every crew member was interviewed as to his nationality and background. Then our fingerprints and photographs were taken. We were not allowed ashore until the next day when passes carrying these were issued. Armed Police stood at the bottom of the gangway to make sure we did not try to leave the ship. Following the Normandie disaster, security was extremely tight in New York. It was very strange to us to see the Police openly wearing revolvers! They were very quick to pull them too if anyone showed signs of giving any trouble!
The fast flowing Hudson river flowed past the dock we were in. It was always very busy day and night. Ships of all sizes and nationalities were continually passing by. The many large ferries kept crossing to and fro. The continuous blowing of ships and tugs' whistles and the traffic noise, coupled with trains rattling by on the overhead railway, made sleep virtually impossible. This City takes a lot of getting used to. New York never sleeps.
Our passes were very carefully inspected every time we went ashore. Once outside the dock gates though, the world was our Oyster! Pete and I soon found a very good diner and marvelled at the terrific range of food at very cheap prices. Once replete we went to the nearest bar for a beer. Once again, only 10 cents a glass? We couldnt believe it. We were not used to the ice cold beer but, when we found all the bars had a free lunch counter as well we were quite prepared to put up with that. These lunch counters provided soup or a wide range of Hors Douvres from which you served yourself. What a City. There were 4 dollars to the £ at that time as well!
The first bar we went into was quite busy. We sat upon the bar stools and ordered two beers. The chap sitting next to us looked across. You guys Limeys? he asked. Yep we replied, trying to sound as though we were prepared to talk back to him in the American way. Bar tender, charge those beers to my tab. No Limey buys their own beer in this pub while I am here. You guys are doing a great job. Who were we to refuse a free beer? The trouble was that ALL these people wanted to buy us a beer. We had a whale of a night out but drank too much for our own good. The other problem we found was, the bars stayed open from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. the next morning. They only closed 4 hours a day for cleaning and restocking the bar. Ive known Pete and I go back aboard for an early night about 10 p.m. then, being unable to sleep for the noise all around, we have got up again and gone ashore for another drink. If you cant beat them, join them, as the saying goes!
We remained at this pier for 3-4 days and were able to take the opportunity to explore the big apple. There was much to see. The many Cinemas on 42nd. St. and Times Square, each one specialising in a different type of film so you could choose to see whatever you liked best. Ex World Heavyweight Boxer, Jack Dempsey had his famous bar on Times Square. The great Rockefeller Centre with its tremendous indoor theatre and outdoor ice skating rink. The Woolworth Skyscraper, at one time the tallest building in the world but now dwarfed by many others. We visited Greenwich Village, St. Patricks Cathedral, Wall St. Fifth Ave, Central Park and many more places of interest. We usually travelled on the Metro from one end of Manhattan Island to the other. It only cost a nickel(5 cents) no matter how far you wanted to go.
We found a Merchant Navy Canteen on Fifth Avenue. It was called The Music Box Canteen. It was a wonderful haven where hostesses gave their time voluntarily all day. There was a dance floor and ladies to dance with. There were free refreshments. Free tickets to go anywhere you wanted. Theatres, cinemas, clubs, museums, you name it and you could get a ticket to go there. I recall having my first ever dance with a lady here! A wind up gramophone was playing Lily of Laguna. A hostess came over and asked me if I would like to dance? I blushed. I told her I did not know how to. She kept insisting she would show me. After a few clumsy rounds, and a lot of laughter, I began to get the hang of it and enjoy it. I have loved dancing ever since.
We were a bit disappointed when we heard we were moving from our berth so close to town. But move we had to. We cheered up considerably when we learned that we were going over to Hoboken, New Jersey for a complete refit at the Bethlehem Steel Companys Yard. This was really great news! A lengthy stay in a City like New York was a dream come true in those war torn days. Pete and I were more than pleased we had decided to stay with the Veni for another trip at least!
Apparently the trip before Pete and I joined her the Veni had lost her propeller in rough seas some 20300 miles east of Newfoundland. She had drifted on her own for 3-4 days before a sea going tug came out from Halifax and found her. Fortunately before a U-Boat did! She was dry docked in Halifax and a new propeller fitted but alignment to her bearings had not been made satisfactorily. I was certainly glad I was not on board her that trip! It was rumoured that a generator was to be fitted and we would at least have electricity and a refrigerator on board. Wow!
Hoboken was a large Urban Shipyard town. Plenty of bars and diners! It was even better in some ways than New York City itself. Every third glass of beer was free! The free lunch counters were also magnificent. How on earth did they do it, and make a profit? I bet they dont do it now! Our favourite haunt was a large bar, decorated and furnished in Edwardian style. Even the waiters and waitresses were dressed in Edwardian clothes. Apparently this was an early regular haunt of Frank Sinatra. He sang there quite a lot before he became wider known.
The weather deteriorated very badly soon after our arrival at Hoboken. Heavy snow fell and temperatures soon dropped to as low as -50 deg. Even the fast flowing Hudson River froze over. Ships, including ours, were covered from Mast Head to deck in ice and frozen snow. I had never experienced such cold in my life. They said it was the coldest winter New York had experienced for over 50 years. Aboard the Veni life was horrendous. The boilers were blown down for cleaning and repairs, so there was no steam. The only heat we had was the iron bogey in the mess room. As everyone was invariably ashore it did not stay alight for long. Icicles actually hung over my bunk in the cabin. When going ashore I used to wear two pairs of everything, from trousers to coats. I also wore the very necessary ear muffs and carried a hip flask of whisky in my pocket. The accompanying winds were bitter. Snow ploughs clearing the roads would pile it all up in the gutters. This then created a high wall of solid ice between the sidewalk and the road. You could not see the road as you skidded along the frozen sidewalk, head down against the bitter wind. Life aboard became very miserable indeed.
There was a large fine looking passenger cargo liner lying in the dock next to us. Her name was White Clover and she flew the neutral Panamanian flag. She had been engaged on Russian convoys and so far survived. The crew were very handsomely paid, with bonuses from both the Russian and American Governments by way of danger money. Two or three of our Norwegian crew had left us to join her. I went aboard for a look around and was amazed at the comfortable quarters enjoyed by all the crew. Even the sailors and engine room ratings had stewards and mess boys to wait on them. Clean sheets and pillowcases on every bunk. I couldnt believe it. When I was told that even the mess boys had paid off with $4,000 last trip, I got even more interested. The White Clover was an oil burning ship, which added even more to the attraction! I never gave a thought to the added dangers to be endured on Russian convoys. This was for me, I thought! I went to see the Chief Engineer and told him I would welcome any opportunity of a job on board. I couldnt believe it when he offered me a greasers job. This was a big promotion in itself. I accepted immediately.
The ship was chartered by the Americans and I had to go down to the American Seamens Union Offices to sign on. They accepted me but, as I was a British subject and therefore subject to British Wartime Laws, I would first have to get a release from the British Consul, before I could sign on. Up to now I had never sailed on a British ship so thought this would be no problem. How wrong I was. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was subject to the Emergency Rules of Employment currently in force in time of war, and as such I would be obliged to join the Montreal Pool of British Seamen. I was livid and argued my corner, but to no avail.
I had already signed off the Veni so had nowhere to go. The Consul said I would be paid $3 a day subsistence money and my accommodation at the Seamans Mission in Battery Park would be taken care of. I was to report to the Consul every day and advise of my movements until they found me a berth on a British ship. Meanwhile Pete had also decided he had enough of the Veni especially in this cold weather and without me on board. He had not fancied the White Clover because of her trips to Russia so he too went to the Consul. For some reason, they put him on a train to Halifax straight away from where he got another ship home. We were, of course, very sorry to be parting company, but vowed to get in touch again as soon as we got home.
I decided that, with my very meagre resources, I had about $20 to my name, I would at least luxuriate in the warmth and comfort of a good hotel for one night. I went to the large and very plush Paramount Hotel just off Times Square on 44th. St. This was where Billy Rose had his famous Diamond Horseshoe night club. I was amazed to find that a room with private bath could be had for only $3 a night. I checked in there and then. It was just after lunch time and I remember spending the whole afternoon soaking in a wonderfully hot bath and getting all the coal and grime of the Veni out of my system. I dare not go into the restaurant for meals with my slender resources. I used to go to a cheap diner nearby. I spent three nights at the Paramount and got some very quizzical looks from the receptionist when I checked out with only $9 to pay! I took a cab down to the seamans mission with my gear and checked in. It was O.K. but nothing like the Paramount Hotel of course!
By now it was nearing the end of February 1943. I had been in New York for a little over two months. As entertainment and much food was obtainable free, courtesy of the Music Box Canteen, free lunch counters etc. I had been able to spend most of my money on clothes. They were good and cheap AND of course not rationed like at home. I completely rigged myself out from head to toe with new gear. My wardrobe included a dozen of the much prized ARROW shirts. They were only $1 each and superb quality and cut. Having now arrived at the Seamans Mission, I decided I would get all my shirts, underwear etc, laundered. It was a twenty four hour service. What a big mistake this was! No sooner had I taken almost everything I owned to the laundry when the Consul found me a ship. She was lying at anchor off Ellis Island. I was to join her there and then. There was no opportunity to recover my laundry. I lost the lot. My protests were ignored. The ship was only waiting for me to join her before she sailed. Someone from the Consulate was waiting with a Taxi to take us to the docks, where a small tender would take me out to the ship. The s.s. Kingsbury was her name. I have wondered since whether the whole convoy was held up waiting for little me to join her!!!
The anchorage was full of ships and, no sooner had I got on board than we weighed anchor and sailed out. Much hooting and whistling of ships' sirens sounded as we formed up in lines to exit the Hudson river. We formed up into a sizeable convoy as we approached the Nantucket Lightship. I fell right into it when I discovered I was on the 4-8 watch! This meant, my going straight down below and stoking the boilers. I never told anyone I had not done it before! I had, of course, had plenty of opportunity of watching the Norwegians at work, so thought I would have no problem. I found it very hard and heavy work after my nearly 3 months' sojourn in New York. The Kingsbury had come across from West Africa where she had loaded a cargo of Bauxite (Aluminium Ore), Soya Beans and hard wood logs. U.K.Convoys from Cape Town and West Africa had been diverted to New York before crossing the Atlantic because the Torch landings in North Africa were sending many ships across from America and the risk involved of convoys crossing each other was too great to take. My poor shipmates had been at anchor for a week in New York without being allowed ashore. Very frustrating when they could see all the bright lights and activity going on around them! They envied me my long stay there.
I finished my watch tired, and exhausted, but nevertheless managed to keep my end, and the steam, up without too much trouble, or apparently, suspension of my inexperience from my colleagues! I staggered aft to our quarters along the cold and heaving deck in a really freshening sea. Within a couple of hours of turning in I was awakened with the ship really rolling about and the wind howling something awful. We had been hit by a Hurricane to the south of Cape Hatteras. We were soon in much more bother as a huge wave crashed through the bunker hatch top and washed coal down through to the stokehold. This continually happened until the bilges were clogged up and water soon rose to the dead plates on the furnaces. (Shades of my experience on the Veni the previous year). We soon lost steam, and the convoy, and had to turn back to New York for repairs.
Eventually arriving at our old anchorage off Ellis Island again, the wind was still blowing very hard and ships were dragging their anchors. There were one or two collisions. Ice flows were banging against the ships' sides as the wind broke up the ice further upstream. The deck crew were able to do more permanent repairs to the bunker hatch while a coal barge brought us some better coal than what the ship had taken on at the island of St. Thomas before first arriving in New York.
Once again we were not allowed ashore during the whole week we lay at anchor waiting for another convoy to be formed. I was hoping to be able to retrieve my clothes from the laundry. It was only my persistent worrying of the Chief Engineer that made him finally approach the Captain and the ship's Agent to finally do something about it for me. I suppose they had many more things to worry about than retrieving a Stokers laundry! Anyway, it meant a great deal to me. It had cost me a lot of money, and I was very pleased when it finally arrived back on board again. As it happened, I need not have bothered about it, as will be seen later in this chapter!
As we were not allowed ashore, we were more than pleased when sailing orders came again. The build up of ships in New York was so great, well over a hundred, that it was decided to split us up into three convoys. We would be in the slow one SC 122. This was for ships capable of maintaining no more than 7 knots. Two fast Convoys, designated HX 229 and HX 229a, travelling at about 10 knots, would leave at 24 hour intervals after us.
Our convoy contained a total of 64 ships of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. The largest was the Glen Lines Glenapp. She would carry the Convoy Commodore and his signalling staff. The smallest ship was a little Icelandic vessel of only 775 tons carrying a cargo of timber. She eventually fell out of the convoy in another storm and proceeded safely to Iceland on her own. The wide variety of vessels in the convoy included two tank landing ships fully laden with tanks, food and steel. There were nine oil tankers and the rest all freighters carrying a wide assortment of cargo from meat to explosives, wheat to general cargo, aircraft to railway engines and many other items badly needed for the war effort. A properly equipped rescue ship the s.s. Zamalek was also allocated to us. She was a small 1,500 ton one time ferry boat operating in the eastern Mediterranean. She had already made a name for herself by rescuing and saving the lives of many men, under the most difficult, and harrowing of times in the Russian convoys. There were a few of these small, properly equipped ships now plying the North Atlantic convoy routes. They were all very similar in size and did a magnificent job at great risk to themselves and their crews by dropping behind the convoys and searching for survivors of torpedoed ships.
I am able to give more detailed and accurate information about this convoy thanks to an excellently researched and written book called Convoy by Martin Middlebrook.(ISBNO713909277).
Our escorts for the New York to Newfoundland leg of the voyage consisted of 1 destroyer, 4 corvettes and 2 mine sweepers. From Newfoundland onward we had the following escorts:- 1 destroyer, 1 frigate, 5 corvettes and 1 armed trawler. Not a lot for such a large convoy and, as it turned out many of them were not with us for a lot of the time for one reason or another. In the event of a U-Boat attack these few vessels would be very hard pressed to give protection to such a large convoy. In any event, we only had so many escorts available as one has to consider the other two fast moving convoys just behind us! There would be other west bound ones leaving the U.K. and the rest of the world also needed shipping lanes protected! There would always be quite a few escort ships in dock for refit or repair. So, we were hard pressed to give adequate cover to all our North Atlantic convoys! In spite of many losses it is amazing how many ships did get through.
Being a mere Fireman of course, I was not privy to what was really afoot! In the light of what I know now, having read Martin Middlebrooks book, I am extremely glad I did not know! There were four homeward bound convoys in the North Atlantic at that time and three outward bound ones. That must have totalled something like 500 ships. Add the independent fast ships and the escorts. Probably some 600 ships for the U-Boats to have a go at.
There were apparently four groups of U-Boat Wolf Packs totalling some 50-60 boats in all, spread right across our paths waiting for us. We could not avoid them. It was inevitable that we would have some losses, and occur they did. March 1943 was the worst ever for us in the North Atlantic, the U-Boats had a field day.
We sailed through heavy storms once again for the first week of our voyage. There were the inevitable casualties of the storms themselves! Some ships having to leave the convoy and head for Halifax or St. Johns, Newfoundland. It should be remembered that many ships were very old and badly in need of repairs. It did not take much to cripple them! One of our escorts, the armed trawler HMS Campobello was very unfortunate too. She sprang some plates underneath her coal bunkers and started to take in water fast. There was nothing that could be done to save her. The Flower Class corvette HMS Godetia was ordered back to assist her and take off her crew. She then fired a few shells to help her on her way down to the depths. To save further time she administered the final Coup de Grace by putting a depth charge under her.
We had been advised that U-Boats were in our area and we were in fact being shadowed. We were pleased therefore to have what we thought were the added protection of the storms around us! News had been passed round by the Commodore that SC 121 ahead of us had been attacked and Badly mauled. The fast convoy HX 229 about 100 miles astern of us had also received heavy losses on 15/16th. March.
I well recall the 17th. March! It was St. Patricks Day, not that I realised that at the time or was even interested in it. It was to be a date I would remember for the rest of my life though! I came off watch at 8 p.m. and found it to be a fine and clear night, albeit there was a fair breeze blowing and the seas were still running a bit high from the previous storms. I stood for a while admiring the convoy and getting a bit of fresh air. All seemed quiet and peaceful as I watched the steady roll of our companion ships plodding their weary way home just like us. I remarked to my shipmate standing by me, I think it is a bit too rough for the U-Boats to have a go at us again tonight?. I then went below and turned in. I was soon sound asleep.
A shattering explosion woke me up. The ship gave a great shudder. I looked at my watch, it was 5 minutes past midnight. The throbbing of the engine stopped and the ship soon took a list to port. I leapt out of my bunk wearing only the underpants I always slept in. I did not wait to grab anything else other than my blue Kapok life jacket. I dashed up the ladder on the starboard side and ran along the deck to the lifeboat amidships. It was lucky for me that I chose the starboard side! When I looked back aft from the boat deck, I could see a great gaping hole in the deck on the port side. I would have caught my shins on the upturned pieces of jagged steel and taken a dive into the hold if I had run down the port side.
By now chaos seemed to be reigning! The stopped engine meant the boiler safety valves were blowing off the high pressure steam with a tremendous noise. We only had two lifeboats, the port side was launched first as the ship was listing that way. The painter rope holding the boat broke as she hit the water and the boat drifted away with one sailor in it, never to be seen again. The ship still had way on her as attempts were made to launch the starboard lifeboat. She got smashed against the ship's side. We looked around for help. There was none. Three other ships around us had also been torpedoed. All four of us were hit within the space of 10 minutes and all by the same U-Boat, U-338. The sky was brightly lit by Snowflakes (Parachute Flares) Guns seemed to be firing all over the place. Whether a surfaced U-Boat had been seen or not, I do not know.
We were the first ship in the seventh column of the convoy, also the first to be torpedoed so we had no warning at all. We watched ships from behind us frantically altering course to avoid colliding with us. We were sinking fast. If we were not to be sucked down in the vortex as she sank, or blown up by her boilers, we would have to jump over the side. It took an awful lot of courage to make that jump! It was midnight. We were right in the middle of the North Atlantic, in the middle of March. Thirty foot waves. A sinking ship ready to drag you down with her, and little hope of being picked up. But jump we all did. As I hit the freezing water and went right under it seemed as if I would never reach the surface again. It took an eternity to rise. I was quite surprised when I found myself bobbing on the surface of the water, gasping for breath and being thrown about by the waves. The sea water temperature seemed to be a little warmer than the air, and probably was, albeit it was still bitterly cold. I suppose I was a pretty fit 18 years of age at the time! My work had put a few muscles on my normally skinny frame. I think the older men must have found it a lot more difficult than me to take that final plunge. Certainly I have often thought about it over the years and said there was no way I could do it now!
Although there were many ships around me and much light from the flares, I felt very small, frightened and insignificant in the water. I was alone. I knew there was little chance of anyone seeing me and they couldnt do much about it if they did! My main concern was that another ship would run me down! I must have been floating around in my life jacket for nearly half an hour when, as I crested a wave, I was almost buffeted into an upturned dinghy. Two men were clinging to it for dear life. I thought this was probably my one and only chance and I made a supreme effort to grab hold of the small bilge keel that ran along the bottom of the boat. I found it to be our own jolly boat that had broken free as the ship sank. My two companions were our Chief Engineer who was over 70 years old, and a Welsh passenger who was on his way home from West Africa. We all hung on with great difficulty. Our fingers were numb with the cold as we clung to our very slender hand rail. Our bodies became black and blue as we were continually bashed against the boat's side with each wave. We shouted words of encouragement to each other above the noise of the wind and sea. Im sure it was the shouting to each other and the continual bashing we got, that kept us alive and going! It was very tempting to let go and pass on to heaven sent oblivion than endure much more of this, with very little prospect of being rescued! There was certainly no chance of anyone seeing us in the dark and, even in daylight it would be a miracle! However, we all managed to cling on somehow and, as the faint light of dawn broke along the eastern skyline some 6 hours after we had leapt in to the water, we thought we discerned the silhouette of a ship on the horizon as we crested each wave!
It was not only, a ship. It was the Rescue ship s.s. Zamalek. There was no mistaking her raked masts, a silhouette we had all come to recognise as she sailed with us. The question was, would she see us? I very much doubted she could. A small upturned dinghy in 20-30 ft. waves, in the grey light of dawn! She appeared to be quite a long way off. I did not detect a lot of hope in my companions faces and confess to feeling pretty forlorn myself! Time dragged on. Was she heading in our direction? It was difficult to tell. Then we thought, she seems to be getting bigger! Yes, she is definitely heading in our direction. Will she see us? We started shouting. A wasted effort at this distance but it gave us a little encouragement and hope. We all knew that if we were not spotted very soon it would be the end of us. We could not hold on much longer and the thought of seeing her disappear over the horizon would have been too much to bear! It seemed an eternity before she was suddenly alongside us and gave us the shelter of her lee side. She looked huge from where we were but was in fact quite a small ship. I could see dozens of faces looking over the rail at us and shouting words of encouragement. Scrambling nets were hanging over her sides and a couple of sailors climbed down them to try and help us. We had great difficulty in letting go of the dinghy. Our numbed fingers seemed to be moulded to the bilge keel. I finally managed to get one arm free and get it through the wide mesh of the scrambling net. A sailor put a rope round me and, with some willing helpers on deck I managed to get to the top. My two companions were not so fortunate though. They both slipped under the Zamalek and were never seen again. I felt terrible about this. They had hung on so tenaciously and gone through such an ordeal, only to falter at the point of rescue. I wept for them. I have no doubt that my tender years and fitness from stoking boilers helped to save me. I felt it was almost as if my two companions had both been determined to see ME through our ordeal to the point of rescue, being the young lad that I was! They certainly kept me going with words of encouragement all night. I am quite sure I would never have been able to hold on if I were on my own!
I was taken down to the sick bay where the Royal navy Doctor gave me a quick look over. I was told I would be O.K. and, no doubt, compared to the many unfortunates I saw down there, I was. I was then given a large tot of Navy Rum, wrapped in a blanket, and sat down on the steel deck in the corridor. This was to be my perch for another five days before we got into port. Zamalek had picked up 165 survivors and was grossly overloaded. God only knows what would have happened to us if she was torpedoed with all of us on board!
Quite a few of the survivors died before we reached land. We stopped every day to bury them at sea. A very quick ceremony was held while the poor unfortunate lay sewn up in a canvas bag on a board on deck. A Red Ensign covered the body which had already been weighted down with steel bars. The body was slipped from under the flag as the Chaplain read out the prayers.
We lived on mugs of tea or cocoa and great thick wads of Corned Beef sandwiches. Occasionally some soup was made available. I must hand it to the crew of Zamalek! They gave up their bunks to the sick and wounded, and shared the same rations as us while they carried on with their work. It was quite impossible for the ship's cooks to cater for so many of us.
I was still in my underpants and bare footed with only the blanket I had been given when I was first rescued to keep me warm. Someone eventually asked me if I would like something to wear? Not half! I replied. I was given some odd clothes, possibly from someone who had died.! At least I felt a bit more comfortable. My new wardrobe included an officers jacket with two rings on the sleeve. I perceived a few strange looks when I went on deck wearing this. I looked too young to be wearing such a rank!
The Corvette HMS Saxifrage had been ordered to stay back and give us some protection. She had also picked up quite a few survivors. These were from the Dutch ship s.s. Alderamin that had been torpedoed just after us. Apparently, later on the same night we were torpedoed another 3 ships were sunk, making seven in all from our convoy. These were the s.s.Granville, a Panamanian registered ship carrying U.S.Military supplies, the s.s. Clarissa Radcliffe, a British ship carrying iron ore. She sank like a stone with heavy loss of life. Finally one of the finest looking ships in the convoy, the Port Lines refrigerated cargo ship s.s. Port Auckland. This ship had crossed the Pacific from Auckland, New Zealand unescorted with a full cargo of frozen lamb, only to be lost a week from home!
We were told there were still many U-Boats about, so we were obviously very fearful of attack. We would have stood little chance of survival in such a small crowded ship. Nevertheless, we carried on searching for more survivors.
On the night of the 19th.March two more were torpedoed from SC122 which was by now a few miles ahead of us. Another British iron ore carrier the s.s. Zouave and the Greek grain carrier s.s. Carras. The Zouave sank immediately with heavy loss of life. The Carras remained afloat and we found her the next morning. It was a calm and sunny day, albeit a bit cold. Her cargo of grain had swollen once the sea water had got at it, this prevented her from sinking in spite of the gaping hole in her side. Her Greek crew had apparently panicked and taken to a life boat as soon as she was hit. They could be seen drifting nearby. When we went in to pick them up we saw they were all dressed in their best suits and had suitcases with them. The Zamalek's crew refused to take their suitcases and told them, in no uncertain terms, unless they hurried aboard themselves they would be left behind also. We were a sitting target for any U-Boat that was probably still around!
The Greek Captain was asked if he would like to return to his ship and try to bring her in as she appeared to be seaworthy? He and his crew all refused. The rest of the survivors on board the Zamalek were then asked if any one would like to make up a scratch crew and try for home? They would get salvage money if successful! There were no takers. I think everyone had had enough by now. This rusty old coal burner took no ones fancy with so many U-Boats around!
HMS Saxifrage fired a few small shells at her but was unable to sink her. While we were all on deck watching these proceedings we suddenly heard the roar of a low flying aircraft. On looking up we saw a British Sunderland flying boat diving low and dropping depth charges on the other side of the Carras. When we steamed by we could not believe our eyes. The Sunderland was attacking a surfaced U-Boat. Among the fountain of water sent up by the massive explosions we suddenly saw the bows of the U-Boat rise up in the air and then the boat slowly sink back into the sea. There were no survivors. A tremendous cheer went up from all those on deck. If it had not been for that Sunderland, at the extent of her range, I have no doubt we would have been that U-Boats next victim! We then steamed full ahead to catch up with the convoy. HMS Saxifrage had a bit more target practice as she tried to sink the Carras. She finally put a couple of depth charges under and broke her back.
Meanwhile we heard of other convoy losses. HX 229, the faster convoy about 100 miles behind us, suffered some terrible losses. These were mainly larger and more modern ships than we had in SC 122 and we could ill afford to lose them! Twelve ships carrying desperately needed war supplies were sent to the bottom in two nights. Add them to our own losses and 22 ships were sunk in two nights. This became known as the battle of St. Patricks day. Other convoys were also suffering heavy losses in March 1943. The situation was getting desperate. Fortunately the turning point was just around the corner. Naval expertise with our fast new frigates who were equipped with the latest radar and Sonar detecting gear, were starting to join the service. Extra air cover in the form of merchant ships converted into aircraft carriers, were sailing with the convoys. These were known as Woolworths carriers. From April 1943 onward it became the U-Boats' turn to start suffering heavy losses, while our own became more minimal.
More on this battle - Scroll down on the page (from USMM in WW II).
Martin Middlebrook’s “Convoy” has been a tremendous source of information for me. In it he confirms that of our 47 crew and one passenger, we lost only 3 crew and the passenger. I had thought we were only 9 saved, but the rest must have been picked up by other ships. His researches into German naval records after the war are very enlightening. He shows that we were torpedoed by Kapitanleutnant Manfred Kinzel in U-338. The same man who torpedoed the s.s. King Gruffyd, Alderamin, Fort Cedar Lake and us in the space of 10 minutes. I have been fortunate to get a photograph of this U-Boat Captain after all these years. Following his success of the first night of the attack, decoded messages show that Kinzel made repeated attempts to return to the attack but suffered severe depth charging for his efforts. He finally returned to Brest but was able to shoot down a Halifax bomber crewed by Australians in the Bay of Biscay, on his way in.
Following our heavy losses in March, our escort vessels were now more in profusion and their crews had been well trained up. U-Boat sinkings began to outweigh merchant ship losses. Admiral Karl Doenitz was getting very worried. In September he decided to have a concerted effort in the North Atlantic once again. Convoys ONS 18 and ON 202* were only 30 miles apart when news of this attack was decoded by the Admiralty. They ordered the two convoys to merge so both escorts could provide concerted cover. Some ships were lost but most of the U-Boats were driven off by the escorts. Escort groups B2 and C2 were joined by the 9th Support group, and by late afternoon the combined convoys of 64 ships were surrounded by a screen of 5 destroyers, 3 frigates, 11 corvettes, 1 armed trawler and one merchant escort carrier. Overhead Liberator aircraft of 120 Squadron kept a constant vigil. When at dusk, the visibility improved, 5 U-Boats regained contact with the convoy, they found the sea covered with ships as far as the eye could see.
Manfred Kinzel, viewing the awesome spectacle from the conning tower of U-338, was momentarily stunned, but recovered quickly and went in to attack while there was still some daylight left. As he approached the convoy on the surface, a Liberator swooped down and began to circle the boat. In a situation like this Doenitz’s orders were to remain on the surface, call in other boats in the vicinity, and fight back with the improved Ack-Ack guns they now had. It was hoped that the fire power of several boats would bring down or at least deter the attacking aircraft. Kinzel signalled the other boats to join him but none complied, leaving U-338 to defend herself. As it turned out, it was not necessary for the attacking aircraft to approach within range of Kinzels guns; the Liberator carried a 600 lb. ‘Fido’ acoustic torpedo, and U-338 went to the bottom with all hands and her stern blown off. Manfred Kinzel looks a fair enough man to me in his photo. He was only doing HIS job in the war and I would have reminisced with him over a beer if I had the opportunity to meet up with him in peacetime! (As will be seen when following the link to U-338 below, the Liberator attack appears to have been against U-386, with no damage).
However- getting back to the present situation aboard the Zamalek; the weather turned rough again on the 19th/20th March with intermittent snow showers. This helped to allay our fears somewhat, as we knew we were still being shadowed by U-Boats. Fortunately the weather at both Aldegrove in Northern Ireland and Reykjavik in Iceland was good, so the long range aircraft were able to take off and give us almost continual cover. Quite a few U-Boats were forced to dive, which meant that their slower underwater speed soon lost them our convoy. About the 21st March it was considered that the St. Patricks Day battle, as it became known, was now over. Most of the U-Boats had either used up all their torpedoes, were running short of fuel, or, as is more likely, had lost the convoy due to our air cover or damage from depth charges!
It took us 3 days to catch the convoy up. By now the discomforts aboard the overcrowded Zamalek were beginning to become irksome. We were, of course, happy to be alive, but the lack of washing facilities, a proper meal, or sleep in a bunk, were starting to take their toll. I spoke to one wireless operator who had been torpedoed five times since he last left home, and he was not unique. I commented that I hoped he would not reach his half dozen! It was decided that, with Zamalek's superior speed of about 15 knots it was now safe enough for her to detach from the convoy and make a bee line for the river Clyde on her own. We had many sick and wounded aboard who needed urgent hospitalisation, and food and water was getting abysmally low. Two days later, on 22nd. March we anchored off Gourock in the Clyde. At last we knew we were safe. We wondered why we had anchored out though! Why not get us straight ashore? It transpired that survivors were coming into Gourock at the rate of about 1500 per day. When you consider that the average cargo ship carries a crew of about 50, and many of those were lost at sea, it gives you some idea of what our shipping losses were at that time.
The Powers that be did not want it generally known that shipping losses were so heavy. It would be bad for overall morale! Survivors therefore landed after dark. Eventually, tenders came out to the Zamalek and took us off. We were then put aboard two old Clyde Paddle Steamers that were moored alongside the quay. Orderly queues were then formed down to the main saloon of one of these where tables were arranged in a horseshoe fashion. As we passed round these tables we were interviewed by a variety of people. We had to give our name, rank and number, ship we were from, home address etc. Temporary identity cards were then issued by another person. On to the next where we were given free rail passes home. Another gave us a small amount of subsistence money to get us there. We were then ushered aboard the next ship where we had a cursory medical examination. It was really a case of Are you alright? and, if you had walked aboard unaided, then you must be! Next we were kitted out with utility clothes. Each man received everything he needed from hat to shoes. It should be realised that we still had not washed, let alone bathed, since we were rescued. Our hair was matted with salt water, in some cases oil as well. Nevertheless, we all had new suits and raincoats. We were then taken ashore to a train waiting alongside the ship. The train moved off about 2 a.m. and we travelled through the darkness with all blinds drawn against the blackout. About 10 a.m. we arrived at Carlisle. Everyone got off the train. There must have been about 500 terribly tired, dirty looking men, all dressed in the same fawn raincoats, changing platforms for trains to their various destinations.
I waited some time for a London train to come through from Glasgow. When it arrived it was pretty well full up but I managed to find a seat. My fellow travelling companions did not appear to be too happy about the arrival of a dishevelled looking man in new clothes, who no doubt smelt. I felt I had better declare the reason for my apparent smell and appearance. From then on all was well and some people even offered to share their sandwiches etc. with me. My travelling companions all wanted to hear about my terrible ordeal. Although I was well aware that careless talk costs lives , I felt able to tell them enough of my personal story to keep them interested , without giving away the seriousness of the overall losses we were sustaining at that time. As a mere stoker I was not privy to much that went on anyway! I must say that I rather tended to bathe in the sympathy I was accorded as I related my tale. As a just turned 18 year old, who had survived a torpedoing and swim in the cold North Atlantic, I thought perhaps I was entitled to indulge myself a little!
We arrived in London about 4 p.m. and I went straight to mother's place of work off Bond Street. I was still dirty and carrying the clothes I had been given aboard Zamalek. As I had nothing to carry them in I had pulled the sleeves of the jacket inside it , buttoned it up, and carried the rest inside it like a torso. I arrived totally unexpected of course, in this high class ladies hairdressing saloon in Hanover square. A terrific fuss was made of me when they heard my story. The staff had all known me since, as a young school boy I used to go there on Saturday mornings to collect mother when I was home on holidays from boarding school. I was soon ushered into one of the cubicles where I was able to have a good wash. I was then given a shampoo and hair cut and felt more presentable. When the salon closed, a few of the staff joined mother and me for a celebratory drink in Simpsons, along Brook St. Then it was back to mother's bed-sit in Earls Court where the landlord miraculously found me a spare room for the night for which he did not charge me. My experience had come as quite a shock to mother. That her young son (still only a boy!) should go through such an ordeal at his age was beyond belief! However-she was very fortunate really!
She received a letter the day AFTER I arrived home advising of the sinking of the Kingsbury. She did not even know I was on the ship. She thought I was still on the Veni. The letter stated that there were SOME survivors but details were not yet known. She would be advised as soon as more details came to hand. The signature at the bottom of the typewritten letter from the Managing Agents, Capper, Alexander & Co. Ltd of St. Mary Axe in the City was in ink. The ink had run as if the person who signed it had been crying at the time. At least mother was spared the agony of having received the letter before I arrived home and having to wait for a follow up to hear whether I had survived or not!
The next morning I visited the Agents Offices in St. Mary Axe. Once it was known who I was, I was ushered into the Managing Directors office. Tea was ordered and, although I was only a lowly stoker, I was the first survivor they had met and he and some of his staff wanted to hear all about it. Having told my story I was offered sympathy for my ordeal. As I was then about to be ushered out, I enquired about the REAL purpose of my visit. The pay I was due! Someone was instructed to take care of this. I thought I would have about 4 weeks pay since I had joined her in New York! Instead I was handed a measly £5 after stoppages. When I queried this I was told that my pay stopped the minute the ship sank. I was aghast. I had lost all my clothes and personal possessions which was quite a considerable amount. Even a precious bottle of Johnnie Walker whiskey had gone to the bottom! I was told that, if I presented myself to the Merchant navy Pool office in Cable St. Stepney, I could get a claim form for compensation for my losses. I did this and was given a derisory sum of about £20 out of which I had to re-kit myself again. I was then told I was entitled to two weeks survivors leave during which time I would be paid £3.10.0 per week. After that, I should report back to the pool for another ship. I was thoroughly disgusted with the whole system and the way the merchant Seamen were being treated by having their pay stopped when their ship sank.
There was little I could do during the day in London. I used to frequent the merchant navy Club in Rupert St. off Leicester Square quite a lot. One could always chat with other seamen over a drink or get tickets for a theatre or something. One day I noticed a tour had been arranged over Watneys Brewery opposite Victoria Station. I thought it might be interesting and joined the party. Most of those going appeared to be Servicemen from overseas but there was one Royal Navy sailor so I tagged up with him. After the tour of the Brewery we were all taken to the sampling room where there must have been over 100 barrels of different kinds of beer. After trying two or three of them the party started to leave. My companion whispered Hang about a bit, I used to work here before the war. They all know me so we can stay on for a few extra pints. Needless to say we stayed on and enjoyed quite a session!
London was having nightly air raids at the time which were pretty frightening. I began to wish I was back at sea! I would rather face the weather and U-Boats than the uncertainty as to where the next bomb was going to drop. I decided to phone Pete in Ware and see if he was home! He was, and more than pleased to hear from me. He asked me to come up. I was hoping for this and lost no time in getting the train to his town. We were soon busily exchanging our experiences since we last parted company in New York. He had apparently had quite a mundane trip home, while I? Well, you have read my story. Pete seemed almost envious that I had been torpedoed and lived to tell the tale. He and I were much the same height, weight and age, and of very similar appearance. We were often taken for brothers and used to go along with this. It was easier than explaining we were not. Our standard reply was How clever of you to guess!. We enjoyed a very good leave in Ware. The weather was good for April so one day Pete said, Why dont we go down to Broxbourne and get a skiff out on the river? Sounds like a good idea I replied, so off we went.
We had rowed about half a mile up river, through pure countryside, when we came across some wooden Chalets on the bank. These were week-end or holiday homes. Lying on the lawn outside one of them were two very attractive girls sunning themselves in swim suits. Unlike me, Pete was never too shy to make an approach to the opposite sex! We stopped rowing and Pete shouted across to them, Do you know if there is a café further on where we can get a cup of tea? He acted as though we were complete strangers to the area. They looked at each other, rather quizzically I thought! No, we dont think there is. You are welcome to join us though, we were just thinking of making some. Sounds great , we replied. We had better take the boat back though or we will run out of time. We rowed back to the boathouse as fast as we could then ran back along the river bank to the girls chalet. A cup of tea? They had laid out a complete picnic of sandwiches and home made cakes on the lawn. They were both trainee nurses from North London and were taking a few days break at the Chalet which was owned by Pamelas father. Pam was to become my girl friend for some considerable time. It was Saturday and Pete and I had planned to go to the weekly dance held in the Ware Drill hall. The two girls accepted our offer to take them. We were the only sailors in a hall packed with soldiers and had the two best looking girls in the place with us! We seemed to be the envy of all!
Pam was a blonde and I found her extremely attractive. Her friend Brenda was a brunette. We kept them company for two more days before they had to return home, but we arranged to meet up with them again in London. Pam took me home to meet her family. She had two brothers. The younger one used to drive them all crazy by teaching himself to play the Cornet. He later became an expert and played with some of the well known Big Bands in Britain and America. Her father had two large wooden sheds in the garden. They were filled with machine tools and he and Pam's older brother were busily turning out aircraft parts under sub contract. I soon earned her father's approval by demonstrating my skills on one of his lathes. We all got along famously well and my heart soon became totally lost to Pam. My first real love!
After a couple of weeks, Pete and I were due to report back to the shipping pool. We discussed the situation and decided we would like to try for another Norwegian vessel. We liked the Norwegians very well, and the pay was twice the British pay! We went down to the Consulate in Tavistock Square again and were lucky enough to be offered an immediate berth together as firemen on a coaster called the s.s.Gun. We could not believe our luck. We had to go to Shoreham Nr. Brighton and join her right away.
As will be seen when following the link to Gun above, pictures have since been obtained, but as mentioned further up on this page, Deane has since passed away.
Warsailor Stories - Page 5
I would again like to encourage others to send me more personal stories for inclusion on this page, these stories are very valuable.