Sketch by Jack Chalker

The Journey

We left Stourbridge on the 25th October 1941 at 10-45 am, a Saturday. We arrived at Avonmouth at 5-00 pm. to immediately embark on the P&O Liner Oronsay and after two busy days and very uncomfortable nights sleeping on temporary hammocks, we finally settled down to a good job working in the galley. We had the job of slicing and buttering bread ready for breakfast next morning. Bill Hockey and I being allotted a lovely two berth cabin.

We set sail about noon on the 28th October with a Barrage Balloon flying overhead attached to amidships, to guard against being dive-bombed by enemy aircraft. Also a light Cruiser for escort also carrying a balloon behind. We swung out into the Irish Channel to meet a strong head wind and rough seas, and that night work in the galley was carried out under extreme difficulty and many visits to the toilet. I was sick twice but not too much discomfort. The following day we spent on deck watching the scenery. We had lost our balloon during the night, passing up the Irish coast between the Isle of Man and Ireland. It wasn’t until entering the mouth of the Clyde we saw land again. We steamed cautiously up the river , through a well guarded ‘Boom’ and many Minefields, to finally anchor off Gourock, to join the rest of our Convoy, consisting of 5 or 6 Troop Ships. Amongst which were The Duchess of Athol, (later christened ‘The Drunken Duchess’ due to her tendency to roll) The Warwick Castle, Arcades, Reno-del Pacifico, and a Polish liner called Zabisky. I can’t recall any other ‘Troopers’, but we had a Cruiser and 4 Destroyers as escort.

We went well to the North after leaving Scotland, passing within approx. 100 miles of Iceland. Then, when nearing America, we were met by an array of Aircraft Carriers, 2 or 3 Cruisers and approx. 10 Destroyers of the American Navy, which took over from our British escort. They immediately proceeded to show their paces, by dropping numerous depth charges and zigzagging about at top speed, with planes from the Aircraft Carrier flying overhead. A truly wonderful sight, this was of course history in the making being the very first active part taken by America in this war. We felt truly important.

We finally arrived at Nova-Scotia on Saturday 8th November, where we later learnt that the local population were waiting to give us a right Royal welcome. But this was denied us as we were plunged into the maelstrom of changing from our English ships to American Liners. The one I was allotted to was called the West Point, a very imposing ultra modern Liner of some 35,000 tons, the latest, largest and most luxurious that America possessed of her own construction.

We left Halifax Nova Scotia on Monday 9th November 1941 and settled down to an entirely new way of life. The American system of food and service was entirely different from on our English ships. All meals were eaten standing. It was of course the first time the West Point had been used as a Troop carrier and everything was on a trial basis and very hard we found it. We were carrying 5000 troops and at first, each meal was taking 4 hours to complete. The mealtime queues being something of a nightmare and constituted the main part of our duties for the first few days evolving a system whereby the troops could be fed quicker. We eventually got it down to 3 hours but we certainly put in some weary hours of duty.

We steamed down the east coast of America and each succeeding day it became hotter as we approached the Tropics. It was just before we reached Trinidad, passing within 50 miles of Bermuda and through the West Indies, we had our biggest fright, in the nature of an epidemic. It claimed over 600 casualties in the 2 hours after Midday meal, the ship was in a turmoil. Men were collapsing all over the place, vomiting, diarrhea and terrific stomach pains. I had to hold on to one lad who went delirious. Our Medical Officers finally diagnosed the cause, which was apparently lack of salt in the body, caused by excessive perspiring. The trouble was soon put right by giving drinks of salt water. Rather ironic considering the many tons of salt we were sailing on.

We finally arrived at Trinidad on the 18th November, to anchor in the bay off Port of Spain for a couple of days and only officers and crew were allowed ashore. Wacky Jones, Duncan Bentley and myself had succeeded in getting a rather cushy job just before arriving at Trinidad, being put in charge of the swimming pool and there to make the acquaintance of ‘Clate Williams’. He was one of the American crew and we subsequently became firm friends, having some wonderful times together. It was he who told us about the town of Trinidad , saying the women were real coal black ‘Mammas’, and the currency was English. We saw plenty of the former who came out in small boats selling luscious fruit.

It was very soon after leaving Trinidad that we crossed the Equator, with the usual ceremonies. ‘Polliwog’ a name given to all who had never crossed the Line before. -‘Shellbacks’ being the old timers and seasoned sailors who had. Poor ‘Clate’ who apparently was a ‘Polliwog’ came down to our locker room at the Bathing Pool with big tufts of hair missing, he sure looked a sight. We were many times threatened with the same but managed to escape. Our officers seemed to suffer the most. The Ships Captain had allowed the upper deck swim pool to be used for this ‘crossing the line ceremony’, it being kept empty all other times. It had been well and truly filled with all the kitchen debris, potato peelings, cabbage leaves, tea leaves, coffee grounds (Yanks drink more coffee than us). It looked like a cess pit. The victims were blind-folded and made to walk the plank, which was the Diving board. All the O.R.’s were gathered round cheering there own officers. Everyone took it in good spirit. The rapport between the American Crew and ourselves was tremendous and nearly every cabin had its visitor C.P.O.‘s and Officers alike. They introduced us to ‘Housey Housey’, which of course is now known as ‘Bingo’.

The system we evolved for accommodating all the troops wanting to use the swimming pool after we left Trinidad, allowed each party of 30 men 20 minutes each session. At this period we were 21 days without sight of land, traveling the south Atlantic and it was really hot. Consequently the majority of troops reported for swimming parade. The 3 of us Wacky, Dunc. and myself had to keep a strict check on the time allowed for each party, blowing our Police whistle every 20 minutes to clear the swimming pool, making sure everyone was out before allowing the next group in. Each group had to pass a Medical Officer who looked for any skin infection. He did this at one side of the pool as each man passed the M.O. they crowded around the two sets of steps, no one allowed to dive in. Then when the 20 mins. were up and two of us sitting on the side of the pool making sure the pool was clear, the whistle was blown for the next party. This was when we had to be very watchful. The pool was 20 metres long and 10 metres wide, shelved very steeply from 1 meter in depth to 2 meters. If a non swimmer got too near the slope his feet went from under him, he was soon floundering and this was why we three had been selected for swimming duty as we were all life-savers. We had on one occasion to give artificial resuscitation when we found one chap lying at the bottom of the slope after the whistle went for all out. Fortunately he soon recovered. We three along with Clate, who were in charge of the pool when the crew were using it, which was usually after the troops, were in absolute command. We lived down there in the ladies quarters.

We had the pool emptied and filled twice a day, and as we were below the water line, we had to ring through to the Engine Room each time we wanted the pool cleared. Then we had a work party allocated to us for the purpose of cleaning out the pool. This was when I made the acquaintance of another young chap called Terry Harford, who was to become a very close pal for a short time. He taught me to play chess. He also wrote a piece of poetry for me to put on a card which I sent Sue from Capetown. He also taught me how to ride a galloping horse. This came about because Terry was an ex Public Schoolboy and his family were quite wealthy , and he was taught Horse riding as part of his schooling. Attached to the swimming pool was the most up-to-date gymnasium I had ever seen. It had everything, including a Mechanical Horse. It had three controls, trot, canter and gallop. Terry took me through all the facets and when I got the hang of it I found it truly exhilarating.

The swimming pool was a typical example of American extravagance and luxury. A gigantic mirror covered one wall at the end of the pool, surrounded by ‘Golden Dolphins’ emitting jets of water to form a beautiful fountain. Down each side of the pool were solid pillars of polished chrome, ten in all, and I was informed by one of the C.P.O’s they alone had cost 10,000 dollars to install. The whole of the pool costing about 100,000 dollars and that was pre war. The whole pool area was done out in tiles, the lower part being sea blue, the upper part pale green and cream. The whole being illuminated by 240 electric lights let into the ceiling and covered by frosted glass panels, giving a wonderful cool effect. Also the pool itself was lit by subterranean lights. Being below the water line there was no outside light. The pool was never used within 200 miles of land, consequently the water was always crystal clear. It was noticeable that different oceans had different colours. The Indian Ocean was a definite blue, whilst the South Atlantic was a definite green. Those colours of course became apparent over a space of hundreds of miles. Several rooms led off from the main pool area. On one side was the Gym. equipped with, punch-balls, wall-bars, clubs, vibrator machines, rowing machines, wall weights, dumb-bells of all sizes, twin stationary cycling machines with wall gauges, so as there were two, you could have a simulated race over a given distance, and of course as previously mentioned the mechanical horse. In fact everything modern science has invented for achieving and preserving physical fitness. There was even an air purifier. As you can imagine I certainly put these rooms to good use as no one else but we and the ships officers being allowed to use them. On the opposite side of the pool were three more rooms. The first being a Therapeutic bath room, with a Turkish cabinet, sprays, jets and douches of every description, with hot and cold pure water. We also put these to good use. The other two rooms were locker rooms for ladies and gents. We were installed in the former, which except for the atmosphere were ideal, being very private. This was a cherished exception on a ship carrying over 5000 troops. All the doors were of stainless steel and the whole was kept spick and span by Terry and his cleaning squad.

We were just about surfeited with endless days of brilliant sunrises and sunsets and sunshine all day long. Many were the chaps who regretted staying in the sun too long. It became a punishable offense to report sick with sunburn. One chap I remember fell asleep in the shade, but the ship swung round, ( they never traveled in a straight line, to confuse enemy subs.) he became exposed and woke an hour later unable to move. The M.O. said the sun had melted the marrow in his spine. Whether this is feasible or not I do not know, but it is indicative of the sun in the Tropics....... Our convoy now consisted of 6 American Troopships; our West Point, Wakefield, Mount Vernon, Orizaba, Dickman, Leonard Wood, and the British Cruiser Dorchester as escort and very far and wide she used to range. She was reported to have sunk a German Supply Ship. It was in the middle of the South Atlantic we had visitors. The Cruisers Ajax and Exeter came within hailing range. I think they were after some kind of supplies. They had of course just made a big name, having been instrumental in the scuttling of the German Battle Ship Graf-Spey off the coast of Montevideo. Our lads crowded the side of the ship cheering like mad and had to be dispersed by the Captain over the tannoy as they were causing the ship to list. Just before reaching South Africa the whole convoy swung round to the south, passing about 200 miles below land, then swung back through the Raring Forties. Possibly a decoy to outwit the enemy. It was really tough, and it was back on with our warmer clothing again.

I will now relate a few dates and items of interest from the diary of another young fellow who left England at the same time and on the same boat as me. He then had to change to the Orizaba at Halifax.

October 1941

25th

Left H.Q. for Avonmouth

 

28th

Set sail from Avonmouth

 

29th

Sailed up the Clyde between Gourock and Dunoon

 

30th

Left Rothsay at 11pm

 

31st

Glimpse of Outer Hebrides

November 1941

2nd

American Navy took over Convoy

 

6th

Canadian Destroyers met us

 

7th

Passed Newfoundland (Foggy patches, one of crew fell overboard and was lost)

 

8th

Docked at Halifax Midday

 

10th

Left Halifax 9am

 

13th

Passed Palm Beach

 

17th

Sighted and anchored off San Fernando

 

19th

Left Trinidad afternoon

 

20th

Passed coast of Venezuela

 

22nd

Sighted planes off Carrier, dropped depth charges ( Enemy Sub. destroyed in 18 mins. Crew told next day at conference )

 

23rd

Near Equator very hot

 

24th

Crossed Equator at 10.00 hours

 

27th

Filled with oil from tanker whilst at sea

 

28th

"Alarm" 5 depth charges dropped

 

29th

Sharks seen

December 1941

2nd

Very cold

 

3rd

In Battledress first time in 21 days

 

5th

South of South Africa coast

 

7th

Very rough ‘Roaring Forties’

 

9th

Arrived Capetown about noon. Shore leave in evening

What a welcome sight our first glimpse of Capetown with the massive Table Mountain in the background. It was like a jewel in the brilliant sunshine. Many happy days we were to spend there in the most hospitable community I, or any of the lads, ever encountered. We docked on the 9th December 1941 about midday and orders were given out that shore leave would commence at 6 pm. that evening. Five minutes later the docks commenced to disgorge long lines of troops in Tropical kit. This being the first chance to wear it, and believe me there were some sights. Wacky Jones and I got off to a good start, being in Capetown soon after 6 pm. and after a walk round, window gazing and doing bits of shopping for Capt. Hunt , for whom Wacky was acting as batman whilst he was in charge of our party on the West Point. We later went to see a film called ‘Meet John Doe’. After which we returned to the docks having to be back on board by midnight. What a sight met our eyes. Most of the lads as soon as they got ashore had gone into drinking houses, and got themselves into a real mess. Lorries driven by the (S.A.) M.P’s were bringing them back and dumping them at the dock gates. Some covered in blood, not from fighting, just falling about. This of course was the effect of the alcohol after a long abstinence. Lots of punishment was handed out the following day by the O.C.’s, mostly shore leave canceled I suppose.

My second day at Capetown was spent in the company of Clate and Wacky. We had a trip up Table Mountain in the afternoon, being allowed ashore at 1 pm. and what a wonderful experience. Traveling two thirds of the way by Cable car. The view 3500ft. above sea level. The West Point looking like a kiddies toy. We finished up at night being taken to a party at a Mrs. Abrahanse. They were an Afrikaner family . or in other words, the middle of three distinct classes of people, who made up the population of South Africa. In those days a strict Apartheid. In all stations and even toilets, there were notices denoting 1st, 2nd and 3rd class sections, and very strict these laws were. We didn’t realize until we got back to ship that we had been in an out of bounds area. Never the less we had a smashing time, being well chaperoned by Mrs. Abrahanse who promised to communicate with my folks back home.

Next day I went along with Dunc. Bentley and Clate Williams to Muizemberg, under the auspices of the S.A.W.A.S. (South African Women’s Auxiliary Service), and a jewel of a seaside place. It was deep blue sea, white sands and purple mountains for a background. The sea was full of surfriders, dressed in multi- coloured bathing suits. We were taken to a Pavilion on the front and given a light meal, mostly peaches, pears and oranges, and told to report back at 5pm. to be alloted out to volunteer hosts, in parties. Ten of us were sent to the St. James Hotel, (seven American sailors and three M.Ps) to be guests of the proprietor. What a truly gorgeous 8 course meal we all enjoyed. Then an American customer supplied us with any drink we desired. After which we returned to the Pavilion to dance. How sorry we were to leave after a most wonderful time, not having spent one penny.

The following day Clate and I went again to Muzemberg, but on our own, not wishing to impose on the generous nature of these wonderful disciples of General Smutts, and paid our own fare. We arrived at Muzemberg at about 4pm. waited 1/2 hour in a queue to hire a bathing suit each, but gave up eventually and sauntered back on the front, when we were suddenly pounced on by a member of S.W.A’s and sent to be a guest of a Mrs. Hammerslagg and daughter at another big imposing hotel, and a very enjoyable meal we had. Then Mrs. Hammerslagg excused herself, and the daughter rang a girlfriend called Sonja Taubes, who came in her car, and the four of us went on a sightseeing tour of the surrounding countryside and beauty spots. They were very good company and promised when we left to communicate with our families back home. Neither promises appear to have been kept.

The next day we set sail again with many happy memories of Capetown. We soon settled down to the old routine, finding it very pleasant traveling on the Indian Ocean. The sea being a most lovely blue, with shoals of flying fish and pools of phosphorescence at night. About half way across towards India, our Convoy split into two and we were now traveling without escort. The Mount Vernon and the Orizaba going to British East Africa, to stay there over Christmas at Mombasa. We spent Christmas in the middle of the Indian Ocean having a good meal of turkey. At night several concerts were organized, but it was difficult getting into the festive atmosphere in over 100 degrees temperature.

We finally arrived at Bombay after being thoroughly examined by plane and later a Destroyer. What a vast difference we found to Capetown. We were allowed ashore almost as soon as we docked in the morning and were soon looking round the dirtiest town we had ever seen. We went down Grant Road , the street of Brothels, and what a sight. All down one side were cage-like shops with bars on glassless windows. Inside were females of all shapes and sizes from 12 years upwards with local men outside making their choice. Reminded me very much of a Zoo.

Ammednagah, India

Playing draughts with Bob Young sat on our Charpoys

We left Bombay by Indian Troop train, and after traveling 24 hours arrived at a place called Ammednagah, which was to be our quarters for the next 2 weeks. No one knew why, but it was quite an experience.

Ammednagah, India

Sparing with Jack Welstead. Notice the tent pegs all in line

We were living under canvas at Ammednagah and had a servant to do our chores. He was an ex Indian Army wallah and spoke reasonable English. We were thankful we had him as interpreter and were not supposed to pay him more than 5 rupees per day collectively. We did however give him much more in kind such as spare food, which he wrapped up and took home to feed his large family. When we asked him his name he simply replied "call me Nanna."

Our main duty consisted of patrolling the village, which was out of bounds to our troops. Very hostile were the natives, and always fully armed we were on duty. It was on the Saturday before we were due to move out, to return to Bombay,(Wednesday 14th January) that in a game of football against the Signals, I severely sprained my ankle, having to go to hospital to have it x-rayed , it was so swollen. They wanted me to stay behind to make sure it wasn’t broken. Sgt. Mitchell, who was acting Sgt. Major in charge of our half Coy. pleaded with me not to, as he said I was one of his best men (B---S--). I of course did not need that kind of inducement, as I was very reluctant to leave the Coy. and all the pals I had made.

We set sail again on the 15th January 1942, this time on board the sister ship to the old West Point, called the Wakefield, although not as large or luxurious, and we immediately noticed an entirely different atmosphere. Gone was the free and easy mixing between crew and our lads, and in its place, many disruptions and fall-outs. It was not until the last day before reaching Singapore that I returned to duty, and this coincided with our first Air-raid warning. I was on duty down on the Mess deck, and had difficulty getting our lads to leave their food, but the Americans took it bad, running about like spare-parts. We of course realized it was their first baptism of fire, only a couple of bombs were dropped, and they fell in the sea. We finally arrived in Singapore in the middle of an Air-raid and learnt, one of our lads had been killed whilst in a shop, his name was Bill Veale, and he leaves a wife and young family.

 

Next Chapter

Singapore

 

 

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