Chapter 13 (1943)

In Convoy

Greenock and Glasgow
In contrast to our first journey round the North of Scotland, this time we basked in glorious sunshine, watching beautiful islands slide past and getting ourselves quite sunburned. The sailor's first question on approaching harbour is always “will we tie up alongside or anchor off-shore?" The latter means getting a boat to go ashore and can take ages, as does getting back on board. At Greenock we were alongside and were able to spend an evening in Glasgow, my first acquaintance with this totally new and strange city. People had warned me of the many and devious sharp practices likely to be encountered in bars and public places there, exceeding those to be found in any other British city, so they said. After the war I listened to tales of villainy and mayhem by Reg Prior's brother Harry, who had been a special constable there. Though doubtless these lost nothing in the telling it was certainly a tough, vital, restlessly energetic community. However, a Dutch sailor and I went to a dance ashore there and we found everyone kindly and hospitable. I enjoyed what little I saw of Glasgow.

Next day, the British sailors of the Flores were given 48 hours' leave and I caught the night train to London, arriving at 6.30am. I woke my mother and Freda at 7.30 and had a wonderful day. The following day Freda and I had lunch in London, aware that this time I really was going into the unknown, and I caught the afternoon train back to Glasgow, arriving on board just before midnight. Next day, the 4th June, we were off, through filthy weather, crawling down the Firth of Clyde accompanied by merchant ships of all kinds. This was the beginning of a convoy and was known as “a crowd of merchantmen”. It was a depressing moment when the grey land of Britain slid below the horizon and we peered until our eyes ached to catch a last glimpse of our home through the rain and lowering clouds.

In Convoy
We picked up more ships and sailed down the Atlantic coast of Ireland at five and a half knots, not much more than walking pace. We received several warnings of U-Boats in our vicinity but fortunately met none. Ireland remained neutral throughout the war, forcing our ships to make a wide detour out into the Atlantic, and the "Western Approaches" to Liverpool and Greenock were a happy hunting ground for enemy submarines. The weather remained appalling and the ships had enough to do keeping station in the convoy; we would never have seen a periscope in the heaving grey and white tumult around us. One imagines a convoy as a group of ships sailing close together in nice neat straight lines. In reality, fifty or sixty ships are spread over miles of ocean and their varying speeds, sizes and sea-keeping abilities make it difficult to keep them together. Although the Soemba was fitted with the sonic submarine detection device known as Asdic - later christened Sonar by the Americans - we were not, and had to lumber along with the convoy most of the time while the small corvette escorts scuttled about rounding up stragglers and listening for submarines.


Convoy - painting by Anton Otto Fischer

We did, however, have a new ultra short-wave radar which controlled our Bofors anti-aircraft guns. It was supposed to be able to detect a submarine periscope at some distance. Unknown to us until long after the war, British scientists had invented a device which developed strong electrical energy at very short wavelengths, enabling them to produce a powerful and efficient radar for ships and aircraft. It had been predicted that the side which first produced such a device would win the war - a possibly over-dramatic statement but nevertheless one with some truth in it. The device was called a Magnetron. We naturally gave it to the Americans and after the war, with typical commercial carelessness, allowed the Japanese to make lots of money out of it. It forms the heart of every microwave oven today. However, at the time it gave our ships and aircraft a crucial advantage over the U-Boats which, together with the adaptation of merchant ships as small aircraft carriers, slowly turned the tide against them. Even so, they remained a most formidable danger in 1943 and had taken to hunting in packs of a dozen or more, controlled by radio from Germany and supplied by large "milch-cow" submarines far out to sea. Without the Magnetron, Allied losses in ships and materials would have been critically higher.

I had never actually served in a British warship at that time and, as I later discovered, life for the small British contingent in the Flores was considerably more leisurely than in the Royal Navy. This was because we were not required to help with the many "housekeeping" tasks which must be done to keep a ship clean and efficient. When not on watch we were generally free to get some sleep or relax on the upper deck, weather and enemy permitting. The Dutch Navy operated a two-watch system of six hours on and six off, which enabled one to live a semblance of normal life. The British Navy, however, thought a man lost his alertness after so long a time and therefore operated four-hour watches. This was fine when the crew were split into three or even four watch-keeping groups, but at Action Stations in a small ship it would be watch-on watch-off, sometimes for days on end, which was killing since no-one ever got more than two or three hours' sleep.

Dutch Food
The Flores also had odd ideas (to us) about food. Among its many attributes was its own bakery for which it was given pure white flour, at that time completely unheard of in civilian life, where a wartime brownish mixture was all one could get. White bread would keep whereas the gruesome brown stuff would not, which is why ships were allowed it. Breakfast consisted of the most delicious soft white fresh bread with butter and jam or golden syrup, but nothing else. No eggs, bacon or toast. Tea was made in one huge metal teapot and coffee in another. When the messman inadvertably mixed up the pots the resulting brew was nauseating and quite undrinkable. Midday dinner was meat with a huge quantity of potatoes - each sailor was entitled to over a pound of them a day - plus carrots, beetroot, beans or whatever the cooks' hands fell upon, all except the potatoes from tins, since we had no facilities for keeping fresh vegetables. And that was all. No pudding or sweet of any kind. Supper was a repeat of breakfast. On Sundays we always had an East Indian dish called "reis-tafl" (meaning rice-table) consisting of rice and small pieces of fried meat of various kinds. Today, this and other foreign dishes are commonly found in Britain but we had been reared on roast meat or steak pie with gravy and vegetables, followed by suet pudding or fruit pie and custard. The Flores diet took a lot of getting used to and after nearly two years of it I confess I'd had enough.

There was also no rum ration on board but the Dutch sailors were given American canned beer, an unknown commodity in Britain at that time. Frank and I had no particular desire for rum and were delighted with the beer. I had never had the opportunity to acquire a taste for alcohol so never indulged in the drunken sprees which many men seemed to find necessary. For that matter, I could not afford it, since my pay was three shillings and sixpence a day, equivalent to 17p today but worth rather more then of course, yet hardly enough for a lavish life style. Drunkenness is a problem wherever men are gathered together but it was well contained in the Flores. However the racks of anti-piracy cutlasses which formed part of the Dutch sailors' peacetime stock-in-trade proved irrestistible to one man who arrived from shore very drunk and wrenched one out of its fastening, threatening the life and limb of everyone on the upper deck until he was overcome.

Southbound Slowly
In the wireless room, a cabin about three metres by two and a half on the port, or left-hand, side of the ship just below the funnel, there would be two telegraphists and one coder on duty at a time. The senior telegraphist was a "Korporaal" or Leading Hand. As we trundled down through the Bay of Biscay the wireless signals from home became fainter and we began to read the routines from Gibraltar W/T Station. Among other things, Gibraltar regularly sent us helpful messages from the Admiralty saying "There are two (or three, or four, or more) U-Boats in your vicinity". Fortunately, we did not encounter any of them but the knowledge that they were lurking out there, perhaps at that very moment loading their torpedo tubes to blow us up, was unsettling.


Radio room on board a US ship, which gives a general idea of its appearance

After several days the weather suddenly improved and we came into bright sunshine of an intensity which I had never known in England. We were off Portugal and the appearance of sea birds indicated that the coast was not far away. The nights became warm and the now calm sea glowed with the phosphorescence of myriad sea creatures. Ten days after leaving Greenock (an indication of our snail-like progress) the Flores was detached from the convoy to escort some merchant ships making for Lisbon. I was on watch that night and saw the lights of coastal towns looking like Wonderland after over three years of blacked out Britain.

Action Stations
As belligerents, we had to stay outside the three-mile limit of Portugal's territorial waters while the merchant ships went in. Sitting at the bare mess table having my breakfast next morning, I was startled when my plate and mug of coffee suddenly shot off the edge of the table and smashed to pieces on the iron deck. The ship had made an emergency turn to starboard and heeled right over. At the same time the strident bells of "Action Stations" clanged all over the ship. I rushed onto deck and saw three long-range Focke Wulfe reconnaissance bombers hovering over our merchant ships which were then well within territorial waters and should have been safe. Several heavy explosions followed and the ships disappeared in huge columns of mist and spray. Fortunately none were hit. The Flores then retaliated with her 40mm Bofors which were controlled by the new powerful radar and placed bursts with considerable accuracy around the enemy aircraft. One of them was seen to suffer damage to its tail and all three wheeled and made off. This was my introduction to action at sea.

Gateway to the Empire
The next day we arrived at Gibraltar. This great rock soaring out of the sea was as familiar to me as the palm of my hand, since pictures of it adorned the walls of schools and invariably appeared in our geography and history textbooks. It represented the gateway to the great British Empire which stretched around the world and it was one of our earliest possessions. With it, for over a hundred years we effectively controlled everything entering or leaving the Mediterranean. Yet the sight of the actual Rock was still most moving. Speeding toward its harbour was the Fleet aircraft carrier Illustrious and a battleship with attendant destroyers, their wakes leaving broad white trails far astern in the blue sea. These giant ships would travel at 30 knots or more, or as fast as many speedboats. The fastest ships in the Navy, apart from the small MotorTorpedo and Gun Boats, were four special large minelayers which could reach 40 knots or over 45 miles per hour. They were used on particularly hazardous operations and only one, HMS Abdiel, survived the war. When we went ashore at Gibraltar we gasped at the masses of bananas, grapes, oranges and other fruit which we had not seen for years, since they were not worth the difficulty and danger of transportation to Britain. I also recall my surprise at seeing familiar British road signs, telephone boxes and even police uniforms among the gaily decorated Spanish-style houses. Our pleasure was short-lived, however, for the very next day we set sail early in a large convoy of about seventy ships, this time bound for Algiers. Frank and I groaned under a new pile of Mediterranean Standing Orders, signal and navigation data and the inevitable sheaf of code book amendments which we had to insert laboriously with pen and ink.

North Africa
Algiers was the capital of Algeria in the French North African Empire and immediately conjured up romantic boyhood stories of the adventures of Beau Geste and the French Foreign Legion, roaming the wastes of the Sahara Desert and doing battle with the fierce and cruel Tuaregs (whose country it happened to be, but never mind); not to mention later accounts of the mysterious and sinister Casbah, where every conceivable vice flourished and brave British or French agents outwitted vicious international criminals. French North Africa included Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and inland countries such as Chad, covering a vast area. When France herself fell, northern France came under direct German occupation and was called "Occupied France". The rest of the country, however, including the Mediterranean seaboard and the North African colonies, was allowed to remain under a puppet French Government located at Vichy, under the watchful eyes of the Germans. The British had neither the resources nor the desire to intervene in French North Africa, but the loss of the large and powerful French Fleet was felt very keenly. This led to a demand to the French Admiral in July 1941 that he bring his ships over to our side, as much of the French Atlantic Fleet had already done. He refused, but moved his ships to the great Naval Base at Oran in Tunisia and gave an undertaking that they would not be used against us. Such was the desperation and suspicion of the British that they felt they could not afford to trust him, and certainly not his traitorous Government at Vichy, and risk this strong force suddenly being ordered against them. After a further ultimatum, which was ignored, the British proceeded to destroy the French Fleet at anchor in Oran, where they could not defend themselves. Many French sailors died and the episode left bitter feelings on both sides.

As with many other events, there was much agonising after the war over the morality of this action, but it illustrates how perceptions, fears and unbearable pressure for decision in wartime compel the participants towards a particular end, and no amount of logical thought or argument in the calm of peace has any relevance to the outcome. The decision to immobilise the French Fleet caused Churchill great anguish, but in fact its wisdom soon became apparent when later the German Army under General Rommel moved into North Africa and occupied Oran during their brilliant campaign which thrust the British back to Egypt.

However, by the time I arrived, the Germans had lost the struggle for North Africa when Montgomery recaptured Tunis, and their fate was sealed when the Americans cut off their rear in the first seaborne operation of the war, known as Operation "Torch". The survivors had been driven from North Africa just one month previously and Into this confused area now poured Allied ships and men in vast numbers.

Algiers presented a sight which was to become familiar, though strange to me then: brownish, flat-roofed buildings, some imposing but most small and decrepit, in a landscape of a universal sandy colour on which the sun beat relentlessly. Nowhere were the sloping roofs or green countryside which characterised our homeland. We tied up alongside two destroyers and went ashore to find a quite handsome city with trams and buses, and a strange mixture of Europeans, swarthy Algerians in ill-fitting clothes, and burnous- clad tribesmen from the desert with fierce black eyes and hooked noses. And everywhere dark children were begging, some offering to clean one's shoes, others chanting "You want jig-a-jig? Follow me". We ate and drank in passable cafes, and we also went to the Casbah in daylight. Romantic it was not. A rough, narrow street wound uphill on one side of which was a gutter containing a continuous stream of obnoxious liquid with an unbelievable stench. The houses, or rather hovels, along it length were mostly occupied by women of pleasure, though who could possibly find pleasure in them was beyond us. They sat in doorways or peered out of small windows, some barred like cages. Rumour had it that an American had shot an Arab the night before and there was an undercurrent of hatred. We did not linger.

Returning to the ship, we crossed the decks of the destroyers and in one gun-well lay two sailors sleeping in drunken oblivion with, between them, a large goat, also asleep. We laughed uproariously and leapt over the rail onto our own vessel, where I and two Dutchmen played our guitars to an appreciative audience of sailors in the delicious evening cool. Next day we left Algiers, sailing Eastwards, having conscripted three new crew members there, all Dutch nationals but having served in the French Foreign Legion. To our surprise, they were pleasant, almost gentlemanly characters.

Next page . . . Chapter 14: Invasion of Italy

Previous page . . . Inspection at Greenock

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