Sailing to War
Our turn came for overseas duty and most of us were looking forward to it.
We left the UK shores from Glasgow on the Duchess of Athol, already christened the drunken duchess, we soon found out why. When we hit rough seas the bloody boat did everything bar loop the loop. One time, when it was really rough, the mess deck tables collapsed on our knees.
Halifax, Nova Scotia, was where we were transferred to the US ship Mount Vernon. We were the first British troops to be caried on American ships. Soon under way we headed for Trinidad to refuel and take on supplies.
Next stop was Cape Town. What a marvellous sight that was. That was the first time we had seen real lights since the outbreak of war. Those lights and Table Mountain are still vivid memories. Jim Quadling, Walter Dack and myself went ashore with Fred Girling from our mortar platoon. A lady picked us up and showed us the sights; Table Mountain and the silver trees. We wrote messages on some leaves off these trees and the lady posted them home for us after she had left.
After driving us around she drove us back to her place for a meal, and what a meal it was too. Walking around the gardens we came across her native gardener. He took his hat off and bowed to us and said “good afternoon gentlemen”. We all had a chuckle there and then but a bit later, when we were washing our hands in the bathroom before dinner, it tickled our fancy again. That started the four of us off and we all broke up and had a real good laugh. The lady asked what we had been laughing at. Of course the lady couldn't see the funny side of it as we did, I still do. Twice more I was lucky enough to be taken out like that but that first one was tops.
On our next leg, enroute to Bombay, our boat stopped mid-ocean to drop the British sailors off and then high-tailed it back to Mombassa. The Christmas turkeys were dumped overboard but we didn’t starve. On docking in Mombassa we were allowed off the ship but confined to the dock area. I was one of the mob who fancied a swim so we got our togs on and dived into the dock. The natives were shouting and waving their arms but we didn’t know what the hell they were on about. Next day we found out there were swordfish around.
Our next swim was miles away. Army trucks picked us up at the gangplank and took us out of town to a safe beach. This was great, new scenery, flowers, birds and animals. These army trucks reversed onto the beach and we baled out. The sand was that hot we just flew down to the water and dived in.
One day Bill Garrod, Bev(?) Baxter and I walked to town. On the way we bought a green coconut each for five pence. An African army sergeant came along and we had a chat. He asked us how much we had paid for the nuts. On telling him what we had paid he tore off, like a bat out of hell, collared the coconut seller and dragged him back to us. Then he made him pay each of us twopence back. He booted his arse and chased him off.
On coming out of the fruit market a little African boy wanted to carry the fruit. We lifted it on his head and it stayed there until we got back to the docks. I payed him and he was off to look for his next client.
The fruit market in Mombassa was a sight for sore eyes with all types of fruit and nuts. I paid five shillings and had a bushel skip full of fruit. The same day the three of us went up a side street until we came to the jungle and there sat a little old bloke, cross-legged on his coconut stall. We just wanted a nut each for a drink. This African had a pile of nuts on the stall – all ripe one’s. One of us put sixpence on the stall and pointed to the nuts. He was off the stall and had a little pile of nuts on the ground in front of us before you could say what’s he up to. We took a nut each and waved him cheerio and before we had gone two steps the remaining nuts were back on the stall with him sitting there like a budda. Coconuts are always in the stores in Australia and we often have one and each time I think of this incident and vivid memories come flooding back.
The last day we spent on the Mount Vernon I was up forward saying cheerio to a Yank sick berth attendant I was friendly with. We heard a commotion and the blokes were looking and pointing - it was a floating mine. We watched a destroyer break formation and circle. Then we saw a fountain of water going skywards and next we heard, and felt, the explosion. That was too close for comfort.