Sketch by Jack Chalker

Winston´s Specials

Chapter Two

Winston´s Specials

 

Mount Vernon -1

September 1st 1941:

Roosevelt received an urgent “most secret message” from Churchill, asking for U.S. Navy Troopships, manned by U.S.Navy crews and escorted by U.S.Navy fighting ships, to carry British troops for the purpose of reinforcing the Middle East.

 

September 5th 1941:

Roosevelt assured Churchill that six vessels would be provided to carry twenty thousand troops and that those vessels would be escorted by the U.S.Navy.

These transports were to load to capacity with food, ammunition, medical supplies, fuel and water and were to arrive at Halifax, Nova Scotia on or about November 6th to await the arrival of a British convoy.

Arrangements were worked out for the troops to be carried as supernumeraries and rations were to be paid for out of Lend Lease funds.

 

The first of my recollections for “Winston`s Specials”, comes from Alf Robinson, Alf served with the 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshire Regiment.

Mr. Alf Robinson. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

At this time America was still neutral and was breaking international law by conveying British troops.

 

The troops would conform to U.S.Navy and ships regulation, intoxicating liquors were prohibited.

The American convoy was designated “William Sail 12X” (WS 12X), It was to be nicknamed Winston`s Specials. The Convoy Commodore, Captain D.B. Beary.

 

October 27th 1941:

Albert left Boyce Barracks and Aldershot, destination unknown. In fact he was bound for Greenock on the Clyde estuary, he had an appointment with a troopship.

 

Albert and all aboard the ships of the convoy were in for a very rough Atlantic crossing, their destination, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Mr. Alf Robinson. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

We set sail from Liverpool on the 28th of October 1941 and assembled to form a large convoy off the mouth of the Clyde in Scotland. With a small escort we set off across the Atlantic. Half way across our escort was relieved by a very large squadron of U.S. warships, which took us into Halifax (Nova Scotia). There to our surprise the whole Division was re-embarked on to U.S. troopships, the three main ones were Wakefield,

Mount Vernon and West Point. Mount Vernon had  53 Brigade, Wakefield 54 Brigade and West Point 55 Brigade, plus many other boats carrying stores and transport.

 

My next recollection comes from Arthur Bates. When I began my research into Albert`s war, I never thought that I would be lucky enough to contact anyone who knew or served with Albert. I had read about Arthur in the Derby Evening Telegraph, I knew he had served with the Sherwood Foresters and that he had been a FEPOW (Far East Prisoner of War) I had even watched with great interest Arthur`s interview on the “Derby at War” video. So in the April of 2001, I contacted Mr. George Bould, George lives in Belper and was himself a FEPOW, I explained to George that I would very much like to contact Arthur, to ask him if by any chance he had served with the 5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters. I knew from my research that the 5th Battalion had sailed aboard the U.S.S. West Point to Singapore. George very kindly telephoned Arthur and told him of my interest, he also passed on to me Arthur`s telephone  number and advised me to ring him.

I telephoned Arthur on the 24th of April 2001. He told me that he had sailed with the Foresters aboard West Point and not only that, he remembered Albert! Albert had the bunk below Arthur`s on board the West Point. I could not believe my luck.

Mr. Arthur Bates. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

We sailed on the liner Orcades to Halifax, HMS Exeter and HMS Dorsetshire escorted our convoy. Half way across the Atlantic, the convoy was met by a whole armada of American warships, they relieved our British escort`s and escorted us into Halifax.

The Captain on the Orcades was very good to the troops, there was no doubt he was in charge while we were on board.

He organised a Christmas dinner for us with drinks, just in case we didn`t get one later, the sailors served.

Halifax, Nova Scotia -1

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Les Pearson also sailed out to Halifax with the Foresters aboard the Orcades. He wrote a fascinating account of his experiences, though sadly no longer with us, his account was very kindly passed on to me by Arthur.

 Mr. Les Pearson. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

After a short train journey from our station at Penkridge, Staff `s to Liverpool, I embarked aboard ship for the voyage to an unknown destination on 27th October 1941.

The boat I sailed on was called the SS Orcades, being one of a convoy of seven ships, the convoy being escorted by six of

our Cruisers and Destroyers, for halfway across the Atlantic. The rest of the voyage to Halifax, Nova Scotia, was taken over by the American navy. The convoy arrived there on November 8th 1941.

My experience during the crossing was very thrilling. Sea sickness didn`t worry me and the boat behaved very well. Our hardest job was the drill of “Action Stations” in case of fire on the boat, or the possibility of enemy action, which we didn`t experience. Our food on board was really excellent, for the amount of troops they catered for (some 4000), a very wonderful  organisation of cooking and issuing out.

The cinema and canteen were a very enjoyable feature for us to pass away time, also the ripples and waves of the North Atlantic. The bathing pool was also at our disposal at certain times of the day.

After ten days on water the boat sailed gracefully into Halifax harbour. It was a wonderful sight, especially at night to see the lights of the town and harbour, a real change from the dismal gloom of the blackout at home.

After a few hours in bay the boat docked. We disembarked and to our surprise we re-embarked on to an American troopship, incidentally the liner was America`s largest, namely the U.S.S. West Point formally known as the America. It was an honour for us, being the first contingent of British troops to board an American troopship.

 

November 8th 1941:

The British convoy arrived in Halifax. An advance party of the troops began disembarking, within an hour the main body were boarding their new transports en masse, complete with full kit. The short walk from their English vessels to the American transports was a welcome relief, they had been at sea for ten days during some very uncomfortable North Atlantic storms. Seasickness had been widespread among the troops.

Albert boarded the U.S.S. West Point (AP –23). Before her requisition by the U.S. Navy, she had been the America, pride of the United States line. She had entered service as the lines flagship on the 22nd of August 1940, when she commenced her maiden voyage.

Halifax, Nova Scotia -1

The Liner America

Although initially intended for the North Atlantic trade, because of the war in Europe she was deployed instead on the New York to West Indies cruise routes. She made several voyages to the West Indies and two to California. Recalled from a pleasure cruise in late May of 1941, the America was requisitioned by the U.S.Navy on the 1st of June 1941 for conversion to a troop transport, renamed West Point and designated AP-23. Captain F.H. Kelly was appointed her commander.

 

November 10th 1941:

West Point in company with five other transports, Wakefield, Mount Vernon, Orizaba, Leonard Wood and the Joseph T Dickman, slipped her anchorage and set sail for Basra in the Persian Gulf.

Aboard the West Point with Albert, were men of the 55th Brigade, of the 18th Division, under Brigadier T.H. Massey-Beresford. The 55th Brigade comprised the 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshire Regiment, the 1/5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters and the 5th Battalion Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment.

Halifax, Nova Scotia -1

U.S.S. West Point (AP-23)

The convoy sailed south down the east coast of the United States, on the 12th November the convoy entered the gulf stream. The troop decks became increasingly uncomfortable on entering Caribbean waters. Conditions were very crowded for a long voyage and the lack of proper ventilation made conditions no easier, with temperatures reaching the eighties. There was no storage space available for the troops winter kit. Kit was stored in the bunks during the day and on deck at night.

A submarine watch had been established aboard the West Point. Lifeboat drills were conducted daily throughout the convoy, when the ships captains were confident that all hands knew the drill, it became a weekly exercise. Troops were exercised on deck, allowing them much needed fresh air and sunshine.

Mr. Alf Robinson. 1st Battalion the Cambridgehires:

We were lucky aboard the West Point as eighteen of us were on submarine watch (three on at a time for four hour watches). For this we had bunks on the upper deck, while the rest of the troops had hammocks on the lower decks. The ship had two funnels, of which the front one was a dummy, it was on top of this that we did our watches, as we changed watch, one man on duty came up, one came down, until the watch was changed, it was a right pantomime.

 

As well as submarine watch, it had been agreed that the troops were to rig and man their own Anti-Aircraft guns to augment the ships batteries.

Mr. Arthur Bates. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

We set up a Bofors, Ack-Ack, aboard the West Point, it had been transferred with us from the Orcades. Extra deck plating was needed aboard West Point to position the gun and to counter its recoil. However, when we tried to explain this to an American officer, he was adamant that extra plating was not needed on his ship.

The first time we fired the gun, the recoil tore a hole in the deck. After that he had a platform built.

 

Arthur first met Albert aboard West Point, he remembers Albert very well.

 

One particular night I said to Albert, “your feet don`t half pen and ink”, we swapped bunks, but that didn`t help very much. The next night I went to see one of the lads in the American crew, to ask if they had any aftershave or spray, for Albert`s feet.“No problem”, came the reply. I daren`t ask any of our lads, they`d think we were ponce`s.

We sprayed Albert`s feet, it stunk the room out. One of our lads shouted “what`s that smell?” “who`s the ponce ?”.

One of the lads had slept on deck that night, the air vent`s on board were not working. The next night, me and Albert and a few of the other lads, slept up on deck, by the dummy funnel.

We were to find out that the funnels were cleaned out early every morning, this was to ensure that no smoke was made during daylight hours. The next morning we copped it, we were black! we all had a good laugh at each other, we had to take our blankets to the showers and stamp on them to get rid of the soot. If we had of gone into the black quarter, nobody would have been able to tell us apart. There were a lot of black lads in the American crew, they were very good to us.

After that, the crew used to wake us up at six every morning, before they swilled the decks, we only got wet once, it didn`t take long to dry off in those temperatures. Two of the lads who slept up on deck with us were later killed in action.

 

Between Halifax and the convoys next port of call, which was to be Port of Spain, Trinidad, after several days at sea, the Brigadier on one of the troopships told the ships commanding officer that he was going to feed his troops with British Army rations.

 

Bill Pope shared his memories of his time aboard the West Point, Bill served with the Royal Army Service Corps.

Mr. Bill Pope. RASC:

Conditions were terrible aboard the West Point, queues for meals were by letter, A,B,C. During the America`s refit to a troopship, all on board fittings had been stripped, the new tables in the dining areas were chin height.

After one week at sea the RASC took over the catering, the troops didn`t like American food. We sailed to Trinidad in the Caribbean, there was no shore leave, probably too much rum about.

 

Mr. Alf Robinson. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

Conditions on the West Point were not as good as they had been on our previous ship the Orcades. As for the food, it was sweetcorn instead of potatoes and we got sick of chicken and turkey.

 

Mr. Les Pearson. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

The food on the West Point was not so good as on our British boat, but considering the seven thousand troops on board it was not too bad.

 

Mr. Arthur Bates. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

The organisation for meals on board West Point was poor, queuing up half a day in a corridor for breakfast. And there  was a case of food poisoning.

 

Wally Wren recalls his time aboard the West Point. Wally served with 196 Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, he has written of his experiences as a Far East Prisoner of War in his book, “The Lighter Side Of The River Kwai”.

Mr. Wally Wren. 196 Field Ambulance. RAMC:

The troops on the West Point grumbled about the food dished up by the American cooks, they were taken out and replaced by British Army cooks. Ironically they were served with typical Army stew nearly everyday, the West Point was  soon nicknamed the Stew Point.

 

My next recollection for Winston`s Specials comes from Jesse Adams, Jesse like Alf served with the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshires.

Mr. Jesse Adams. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

There was an outbreak of food poisoning aboard the West Point, after a breakfast of tinned minced egg and bacon, luckily I was in a different queue for that meal.

A better memory though is of the ships canteen, with it`s wonderful selection of sweets such as “Baby Ruth”, named after American baseball legend Babe Ruth, Hershey chocolate (like Cadbury) and “Dreams” a very sweet cream bar.

Cigarettes, ie. Camel, Lucky Strike, Old Gold and Phillip Morris ( I was a non-smoker then and I still am.)

 

November 17th 1941 :

The convoy lay off Port Spain, Trinidad. Over the next two days the transports refuelled and took on water. No shore leave was granted for the troops.

 

Mr. Les Pearson. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

On arriving at Trinidad, again we saw a sight we had not seen for quite some time, the lights were most beautiful. The boat never docked, we lay for two days out in the solent. The American sailors were allowed shore leave and it was fun to see them return drunk as usual.

Our time was spent sun bathing, what interested me mostly were the natives in their canoes, bringing fruit and other goods to the boat side.

 

Mr. Alf Robinson. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

We sailed into the Caribbean and anchored off Port of Spain (Trinidad). We were two or three miles off shore, the ships were too large to get in closer, a lucky few did get six hours shore leave.

 

The following verse comes from a poem written by Jesse Adams, “My Wartime Travels”.

 

We cruised along to Trinidad

Lay off the Port of Spain

We didn`t go ashore there

Why ? They never did explain

Jesse Adams

 

November 19th 1941:

The convoy was ready to sail, anchors were hove in and the convoy sailed out towards the South Atlantic. Destination, Cape Town.

Water rations were imposed, fresh water was available only during meal times. Salt water could be used at all other times of the day and night.

 

November 20th  1941:

All the ships of the convoy received a proclamation concerning Thanksgiving Day. Holiday routine was observed by all the crews, all hands indulged in the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

The course of Anglo-American relations however, did not always run smoothly

 

Mr. Les Pearson. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

The American sailors were not as were expected, their attitude to us was not at all sociable, always thinking of themselves posher than us.

 

Mr. Wally Wren. 196 Field Ambulance. RAMC.:

While on the West Point, I served my duty in the sick berth. The British Army and the American sailors did not altogether hit it off, I remember one incident, where in the corridors of the West Point a watch would be put on the floor attached to a length of thread and as an American sailor came along and bent down to pick up the watch, it was snatched back into the cabin by a laughing British soldier.

They had their own back however, one time as the American sailor came along the corridor, instead of bending down to pick up the watch, he trod on it with his size 10 boots and smashed it to pieces.

 

November 24th 1941:

The ships hoisted the “Jolly Roger” and were boarded by “Davey Jones”. He and his party were welcomed by ships Commanding Officers. Charges were delivered to the “lowly Pollywogs”, who were tried and duly initiated into the “Order of the deep”. Neptunes Rex presided.

This was the “Crossing the line” ceremony. Crossing the line, or sailing across the equator, advantage traditionally being taken of this for practical joking aboard ship. Those who have not previously “Crossed the Line” are summoned to the court of Neptune for trial, sat in a tilting “barbers” chair to be sentenced and after being lathered and roughly “shaved” with a large wooden razor, tipped un-ceremoniously backwards into the “Briney”, practical joking could be rough.

At the end of the day all hands in the convoy were now  “Trusty Shellbacks”. During the initiations there were a few minor injuries.

 

Albert aboard the West Point did not enjoy the ceremony at all.

Mr. Arthur Bates. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

We all got ducked, you couldn`t get away with it, the crew chased after us, it was a bit rough. The water in the pool was up and down due to the sea swell.

Halifax, Nova Scotia -1

Albert`s crossing the line certificate

Mr. Les Pearson. 5th Battalion the Sherwood Foresters:

The run from Trinidad to Cape Town was a very spectacular one, marked by the crossing of the Equator or “Crossing the line”. This ceremony is an old custom for American and also British sailors who haven`t crossed the Equator before. The sailor`s hair was cut, eggs smashed on their heads, dipped in oil and in the presence of King Neptune (who very jokingly gave a speech) were thrown into a 6 ft tank of water.

Quite a number of soldiers were treated the same. We all proved trusty shellbacks and were all issued with a certificate.

Other entertainment for us was the playing of music by the bands of the different regiments. The Foresters played a very good part in this sort of entertainment, being favoured mostly with the playing of dance music.

The Camb`s and Bed`s and Hert`s bands were military, very enjoyable to listen to. Cinema shows were very frequent and we saw some very good pictures

 

Mr. Alf Robinson. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

Games were organised on deck. There was tug of war and boxing bouts. There was a pool on deck, if you wanted to use it  you had to put your name down and there were three battalions on board. The pool was used for the crossing the line ceremony.

Halifax, Nova Scotia -1

The pool was used for the crossing the line ceremony

Mr. Jesse Adams. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

I won the West Point Derby, as a jockey on the back of a fellow Cambridgeshire.

December 7th 1941:

As the convoy was nearing Cape Town, a radio message was received by all the ships of the convoy, Japanese aircraft had bombed Pearl Harbour. Shocking news for the American crews.

Mr. Bill Pope. RASC:

We were about halfway across the South Atlantic on the West Point when the news broke. I remember the excitement among the U.S. Navy crew. “ We will show the b******s ” etc.

All gung-ho! Sadly they learnt at great cost.

 

Back in England, Churchill`s first reaction at Chequers on hearing the news, was said to be one almost of elation. Japan had succeeded, where with months of bargaining and negotiations with Roosevelt, he had failed, they had bought the United States into the war.

It would not be long however, before Churchill would receive bad news of his own.

 

The convoy sailed on for Cape Town.

Mr. Jesse Adams. 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshires:

En-route to Cape Town, I remember although being dressed in tropical kit, having to wear our Army great coats on deck in South Atlantic waters before re-heading north to reach Cape Town.

 

 

Sharing information with others is rewarding in itself, the pieces from the jigsaw begin to fit together and a picture begins to appear. Improve your knowledge and help make the Fepow Story an everlasting memorial to their memory.

Any material  to add to the Fepow Story please send to:

Ron.Taylor@fepow-community.org.uk

and their story will live on.

 

[Alberts War] [To Leeds] [Winston´s Specials] [Cape Town] [Doolally Tap] [Singapore] [Suez] [Shitehawks] [Homeward Bound] [Epilogue]

 

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