Halifax to Mombassa
God only knows how many troops had been accommodated on the Warwick Castle but it appeared incredible that we all had to get on to this very much smaller American ship, the Orizaba, however, that was the intention.
The troops had other ideas after some had embarked and began walking off again, saying the accommodation was abominable and another ship would have to be made available before we carried on with our journey. Everyone sat down on the dockside and this was tantamount, so we were told, to open rebellion, mutiny and other forms of subversion, but move, we would not.
The situation became serious and we were threatened with all sorts of punishment, but we were not going to go on to this ship, which we were being told whether by rumour or fact, had been sunk once and re-floated. It was also said, she had been plying between America and Greenland with no more than 800 G.I.'s and here they were trying to get thousands of British troops in the same accommodation. No sirree!! Not us, or would they, as armed Canadian police or military were approaching us in a menacing fashion, with every intention of ensuring each person who disembarked from the Warwick Castle would embark on the Orizaba.
We resisted their efforts and an ugly scene seemed certain, "just fancy," shouted one of the troops, "the Evening Chronicle headlines, - Canadian military shoot British troops at Halifax" and I do believe it was as near as that, before reason prevailed and reluctantly we at last agreed to embark on the Orizaba.
As soon as the last troop got on, the ship steamed up and off we went once more, to destination unknown.
The Orizaba was a decrepit old sea-dog, and matters were not helped by the number of us they squeezed on board. It was hammocks, and if you have never had the opportunity to sleep in one, you have missed an experience. First of all you have to sling it to suit you, and fasten it so it will not collapse when you jump in. Then you have to get in, and after attempting half-a-dozen times and landing in the same place each time i.e. on the deck, you stand back and study the situation a little more seriously before mastering that god-damn hammock however, once mastered they are reasonably comfortable.
The grub on this ship took some getting used to, baked beans, sweet corn, spinach, etc., all served on small compartmented trays, always coffee, no tea, but as things turned out we didn't really know how well off we were at that time, and how often we talked about our moans about the Orizaba, when we were facing rice in Thailand or Singapore.
Generally, we got on fairly well with the American sailors, but some German-Americans and Italian-Americans were loathsome towards us and I well remember one evening when they asked for and got real trouble. The time was the sinking of the H.M.S. Hood, and when the news came over the ships radio, they cheered and clapped until they got up every Britishers back, and one unfortunate Iti-Yank, who served at the ice-cream parlour got two of the nicest right-hooks to his chin I have ever witnessed, and both were landed through a little hole in the wire-surround where he was working.
Others were dealt with in various situations but none so well as when they were matched in arranged boxing matches, where our lads pulverised them and we cheered our heads off.
The mannerisms of Yanks are quaint and we had many a laugh, but I suppose we also appeared funny to them on occasions, however, I often recall one situation when an enormous sailor came rolling up to the counter of the canteen, and I was at the head of the queue, Yankee sailors had an hour for the canteen prior to the troops, and this six feet six, bearded Texan giant asked for a tooty-fruity and the canteen attendant gave him a Baby Ruth Candy, well, the sailor nearly went berserk and cried, at the top of his drawling squeaky voice "Gee man I didn’t ask for a Baby Ruth, I want a Tooty-Fruity," and grabbed the canteen chap by his lapels of his white coat and hooked him through the hatch in one clean lift.
We proceeded down the east coast of America in a trouble free run and pulled in to one of the most beautiful harbour entrances I have ever seen in my life, the port of call was Port of Spain in the West Indies, and it gladdened the heart to see such beauty and cleanliness.
I well remember the long narrow entrance with the tropical blue water, the lush green vegetation and trees on the hillsides at both sides of the water, the dapper buildings with red or green roofs and walls of buildings snowy white.
The people on shore were a beautiful chocolate colour and were all garbed in whiter than white clothes. Men, women and children all looked so immaculate standing, playing or working in this most beautiful scene. It is a picture I will cherish as long as I live.
The Yankee sailors had a few hours shore leave, but this facility was not afforded to the British troops, we stayed on board and enjoyed the tropical sun and the panorama of beauty on the mainland.
We had one moment of excitement and we cheered our heads off to the participants. Two Yankee sailors walking towards each other, to the gangplank in centre of the ship, along the quayside, met at the bottom of the gangway, and within seconds they were fighting like two cockerels, rolling about, punching, kicking and biting as though they had gone mad. It didn't last more than a few moments before other sailors converged and collared the two idiots and yanked them up the gangway, on to the ship and then into detention.
We sailed off again within a few hours, out into the open sea and headed once again to the south.
The South Atlantic was like a mill pond for day after day, and whales, sharks, porpoises and flying fish all added to our nature study lessons and although we didn’t see land for many days we always had something of interest to occupy our time, even if it was only watching the florescence in the ocean water, and the weather was sunshine from morning till night.
We had a "crossing the Equator" ceremony and it was fun with the Yanks being the participants of the occasion and then we were steering a more south easterly course making for the continent of Africa, actually Cape Town.
Various forms of occupational therapy was used to keep the troops reasonably fit with physical training, morning and afternoon, but as per usual the main pastime off-duty was playing card games such as pontoon or brag.
Sailing out of calm waters we eventually reached the periphery of the Cape of Good Hope and within hours we were out of the mill-pond type of waters into the "roaring forties" which the further we got in, the worse it got, and I have never seen seas like it.
We were now in mountainously rough water and our little ship was tossed about worse than a cork. One second you appeared to be sailing in a valley of water with all sides stretching up to the sky, whilst the next minute we were on the top of the mountain of water and looking overboard there was a bottomless valley. This was frightening and many of us thought we were doomed and would never make it.
The heaving and rolling went on for days and how this ship stood up to the tremendous buffeting, God only knows.
Time and time again our holds were flooded and kit was flying all over the place, we were literally being turned upside down and inside out, and there was no abating, it went on and on and on. One of the most frightening moments was when someone drew attention to the ship's plates bending with the abnormal pressure from the sea and as we had often said, the sides wore no thicker than paper, we were sickened by the thought of the walls collapsing on top of us, and having a watery grave.
The seas in this area are nearly indescribable, and to witness the might of this sea at its worst is something no one could ever forget, however, there was one consolation which gave us an atom of comfort, and that was that U-boats would be unable to operate in such turbulent waters, or could they, my God, in the middle of this extreme storm, action stations sounded, but what could we do. If we went to the lifeboats we were sure to be washed overboard, and in that sea no one had any chance of survival. It was decided to stay put and trust our escorts could sort out the problem, we therefore continued with our problem of steering clear of kit flying about in the holds and the surging of flood water which was rushing wherever the ship tilted.
There are always people who respond to critical situations and one such fellow informed us we would soon be through the worst as we were sailing due north after going south nearly to the pole to avoid U-boat packs who were stationed on the usual course to Cape Town, and he assured us we had beaten them on this occasion and less turbulent waters would soon be reached.
Whether this chap was psychic or whether a sailor had given the information we never did learn, but at dawn the next morning the ship was sailing with little heave or roll, and by the afternoon we could see the Table Mountain.
We sailed into Cape Town docks, battered, tired and hungry, as few meals had been served during the last stormy days, and the majority of us were pleased to have a darned good kip, before beginning four wonderful days of shore leave in that lovely city. The people in Cape Town were absolutely marvellous to the troops, and convoys of private cars were waiting to take us away in twos and threes for meals, sight-seeing and other hospitality. My fried Bob Steele and I had a glorious trip up to the top of the Table Mountain, and we were apparently lucky as the day was as clear as a crystal, and the views were fantastic.
We were led to believe not many days in the year were so clear, and more often than riot the Table Cloth, a heavy white cloud enveloped the top of the mountain, preventing one from seeing the most beautiful scene.
Unfortunately for me, this was the only day in the four days shore leave that I was free, the other days I was on Town Police duty under a Sergeant Major of the South African army, and it was our duty to watch the troops did not fraternise with the natives. This was perhaps unfortunate for our lads as many of the coloured girls looked real dishes, and I am sure would have enjoyed our company, short as It was.
The most poignant moment I had in Cape Town was on the first day of police duty, when I was waiting at the dock gates for the South African army escort, and about eighty or ninety yards away, there was a large stone building with magnificent columns at the front with maybe ten steps leading up between the columns to the entrance, and sitting absolutely unconcerned were two little black children in white clothes and no hats.
As I stood looking down the road waiting for the escort transport, these two kids absolutely uninhibited broke into song, singing “Sierra Sue” and they melted me to nothing, the voices were so sweet and so strong for five or six year olds. Many remember songs sung by famous singers, but for me I have never, ever, heard anything so beautiful, and even today almost thirty-five years after hearing them, I can still hear those marvellous voices, I wonder where they are today?
Up anchor and away from Cape Town, which I am sure all who survived the next four years will remember as very pleasant.
Northward bound hugging the east coast of Africa and without incident; we pulled in to our next port of call, Mombassa in Kenya. I say without incidents, but I meant sea-incidents, as an incident to decide the lives of so many of my friends in the 9th Battalion actually happened as we were sailing past the Island of Madagascar, and that was the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour and their attack on North Malaya.
Mombassa, we understood would be our staging ground for moving up into the desert to help the British troops, who were having a pretty rough time from Rommel and his African Corps, and the Japanese entry into the war was not considered so important as to change our destination.
We lay in Mombassa for about a fortnight and had Christmas Day, 1941 on board ship with the temperature so high, the sweat dropped off our nose-ends as we ate our Christmas pudding.
Mombassa was a poor example of a port and the town could not be compared with the splendours of Cape Town, nor were the people so generous and warm-hearted towards the troops, although it would only be fair to say we saw very few white inhabitants.
The troops had lots of fun in the native part of the town, with small children offering their sisters at bargain prices. One of our battalion's boxing champions advertised he was going down town to give an exhibition of co-habitation with a native girl, and I believe he gathered quite a crowd and the show was voted a big success.
We lay in the harbour day after day and wondered why we were not being pushed up to the desert as was expected, and particularly because the Allies were taking a bashing in that theatre of the war at that moment, however, the powers that be were watching the Malayan situation develop, and we were in a handy location to be transferred from desert warfare to jungle warfare although we had had no training for either.
Our last social outing in Kenya was a boxing tournament where our battalion boxers fought a combined navy and army team somewhere in some jungle retreat. I describe the arena as such because the ring was mounted in a small clearing with a few seats around the ring, but the vast majority of the audience were natives perched like monkeys up every tree, and their vociferous cheering for their favourites really made a contribution to the entertainment. The tournament finished with two natives having a go and more punches came downwards like a sledgehammer than side-ways. Both hammered each other, and to keep tribal peace in the area the contest was of course declared a draw.