Empress of Japan
At Gourock on the 12th November, they boarded the converted liner “Empress of Japan,” its name would later be changed to “Empress of Scotland” after Japan entered the war. She was to be part of convoy WS 12 ZM. and its destination was Basra, in Iraq.
Dennis was impressed by the lovely lines of the ship even though it was now rigged out for troop carrying. One by one the troops each collected a hammock and were directed below decks where they were instructed to hook up their hammocks. This done, Dennis soon mastered the art of climbing into this swaying crude bed and was soon asleep.
When he awoke some hours later, he found his way up to the deck and out in the open air. He was surprised to find the ship was now well underway and leaving the Clyde and heading out to sea, having left Gourock in darkness at 11.45pm. Superstition preventing any ship sailing on the 13th.
Each morning the men rolled up their hammocks and stowed them away onto shelves. Dennis was to tell me that he would leave a flattened cigarette packet just sticking out of his rolled hammock, ensuring that he kept picking the same one each night.
Carrying quite an impressive cargo, the convoy had fifty crated up Hawker Hurricane fighter planes of 17, 135, 136 and 232 squadron RAF, as well as 53rd Infantry Brigade Group, 232 squadron RAF, 6th Heavy and 35th Light AA regiments and the 85th Anti-Tank regiment.
On 24th Nov 1941, Freetown in Sierra Leone was the first port of call, but the men were not allowed off the ship and were to spend a hot and sticky night aboard. They would lean over the rails and throw coins for the native boys to dive for from their canoes. Some of them soon refused to dive for the pennies thrown, so the cruel humoured of the troops threw half pennies or farthings wrapped in silver foil over the side. This act had every native boy diving madly into the depths to get to the coin first, much to the delight of the soldiers above. These coins were to become known as ‘Glasgow tanners’ by the natives.
Two days later on the 26th Nov, the ship departed Freetown. As they were heading out to sea, a solid sounding thud was heard on the side of the ship. Everyone held their breath as they were told it was a torpedo that had hit its target but failed to explode. For the next few days, nervous eyes scanned the sea for tell tale signs of a periscope.
The theatre for use of the troops aboard the Empress of Japan
The next few weeks passed without cause for worry as the convoy sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and onward toward the next destination, Durban. With sunbathing on deck and a concert or cinema by night, the ‘passengers’ where kept contented. Now in the tropics, some of the troops, depending were they were billeted certainly appreciated the luxury of the air conditioned ship.
Arriving at Durban on the 18th Dec, they all looked forward to a few days ashore as they steamed into the harbour. But this was not to be, because toward the evening they were off again heading back out. The reason behind this move was as an electrical storm was approaching and damage could have been caused to the ship due to her size and the sea movement in the harbour.
The Empress of Scotland finally docked in Durban on the 19th Dec and the troops disembarked. Most of them were billeted in derelict buildings but at least it wasn’t rocking.
The Post Office was the first call for many of the men as they posted and cabled their Christmas greetings and messages back home.