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Merchant Navy First Trip aged 16years (circa 1943/44)
My mind was anywhere but in that pool office when I pushed my discharge book, still with virginal clean pages, through the grill and waited for the usual ‘nothing today, come back tomorrow.’ Instead I got,
‘I’ve a ‘deep sea’ signing on this afternoon. Do you want it Galley Boy?’
Did I want it? Too bloody right I wanted it! Deep Sea? Yes, definitely! No pissing around on crappy little coasters for me, sailing up and down the east coast, take your own victuals! I wanted ‘foreign!’ The North Atlantic, the convoys, and by golly if they signed me on then that’s what I’d get! That afternoon, for the first time, I went upstairs in the direction as pointed by that ‘Engine’ sign and into a large room with a lot of people lined up. Among them were several very Arab looking men, some of whom had cloths around their neck with one end in the corner of their mouths, but more about them later. Words were spoken by a very Naval looking uniformed man.
‘I am the Captain etc., etc.’
Names were called and job descriptions quoted, some of which were new to me… ‘Donkey Man… Trimmer… Scullion etc etc. Then my name was called ‘Galley Boy!’ After I’d signed the book a rotund, jolly looking man came up to me.
‘Is this your first trip son?’ I was asked, to which I affirmed it was.
He told me he was the Chief Steward of a 5000-ton general cargo vessel built in 1939, that he was in charge of catering arrangements on board the ship, that the ship was a happy ship, (most important this) and how he would’ve introduced me to my immediate superior, the Cook, but he, the Cook, had no need to sign on as he’d sailed on the previous trip and never signed off. I was told to report at a certain berth at the Surrey Commercial Docks the following morning.
I was so excited I doubted I would get any sleep that night, knowing the next morning I would see my first ship! After a good breakfast I enquired how I could get to Surrey Commercial Docks and was told to ‘get a taxi’, which I did, arriving at the dock gates very shortly after. As soon as I was allowed in and after asking where the berth was, I sniffed and smelled the aroma of new wood for Surrey Docks was the eventual docking place for timber at this time. I found my ship. She looked, and was, huge! There she lay, tied up and clean and bare of any deck cargo, painted in war time grey. The only identification to confirm she was indeed my ship were her name boards high up on each side of the bridge. Hesitating and nervous, I walked up a steep gangplank. She seemed deserted apart from a little old chap wearing a peaked cap and uniform jacket who was sitting on the corner of one of the ship’s sheeted down hatches. I later discovered he was the Chief Engineer, nick-named by some ‘wag’ as ‘old frosty bollocks’. However, he was nice to me,
‘Please Sir, could you tell me where to find the cook?’
Now, doesn’t that tell you how green I was, asking the Chief Engineer where I might find the cook?! He pointed out the general direction I needed to go and on entering a long narrow Galley I was greeted with a very Geordie voice asking,
‘Where the f*ck have you been till this bloody time, son?!’
This was my first introduction to Harry the Cook whose skills, by rights, should’ve earned him the title of chef rather than cook! Let me say here and now lest you get the wrong idea about him, Harry was one of the nicest blokes you could ever wish to meet. He was in his twenties, very outspoken but he never bullied, and if the pressure was on he would always help me out! Harry had an assistant named Danny, a Londoner, who was just learning the trade. Actually, it was a miracle Harry was so normal as I later found out his previous ship had been hit by a German buzz bomb whilst in dock, and then being towed up the river with poor Harry on her, she was hit by a second! Would you believe it! I think knowing the force of these terrible bombs had it been me I would’ve been crawling up the wall.
So, my first day passed with me sitting outside the Galley peeling and preparing potatoes, cabbage, carrots etc. whilst sitting on a long metal plate covering high pressure, steam heated pipes. This was no hardship though as the heated pipes meant I had the warmest bottom in London!
Our food was fantastic, especially as we were used to war time rations at home. A typical breakfast was cereals or porridge, curry and rice, ham and eggs, toast if you wanted it, tea or coffee. Lunch was soup ‘a la Harry,’ meat of the day (beef, pork or mutton), boiled spuds, sometimes baked cabbage or beans followed by spotted dick or semolina or rice pudding, with coffee to follow. As for supper, who the hell wanted supper after all that lot?! J. and J. Denholme of Glasgow (the owners) did us proud.
After two days tied up alongside in Surrey docks the tugs came for us around 7.30am. I was so excited as gradually, with engine room bells ringing in answer to the bridge commends, we were inched into the centre of the dock. From my position I could look across and up to the back of the bridge and see the activity as heads popped up then disappeared, checking that all was well, as slowly we were guided through lock gates that would lead us into the River Thames proper. I remember going to the ship’s rail and looking down on the gathering people waiting to cross over as soon as we were clear. I felt very nautical and dare I say, very superior, after all, was I not going off to war whilst all they had was their 8 – 6 jobs?
Eventually we left the narrow parts of the Thames and emerged into the wider Thames Estuary, and I saw for the first time the red sails of the Thames barges which made me wonder were these the ‘red sails in the sunset’ of the popular 1930’s song?
We sailed up the east coast of England and anchored for the night off the port of Methil on the east coast of Scotland. Laying off at anchor for our overnight stopper made me realise that the war time blackouts left much to be desired because as we gazed at the distant shore we could see faint lights dotted about. By the time we ‘turned to’ next morning we’d been ‘up anchored’ and on our way for several hours. Cook Harry told me we’d be going around the top of Scotland, turning west and then south. Our destination was ‘Loch Ewe!’ This was the convoy gathering point from whence we would eventually set sail across the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic.
The sea had been very kind and I wasn’t at all queasy. We entered the Loch entrance which was protected by two ‘boom’ vessels who, on seeing us arrive steamed one to the left and one to the right, pulling aside as they did so the great chains stretched across to prevent any ‘U’ boats from getting in. The Loch was a scene of tranquility. Several vessels had already arrived, but so vast were the stretches of the Loch they seemed to take up no room at all.
The whole place seemed deserted with no sign of habitation around its banks. We lay in there for about a week as the later arrivals steamed in. They seemed, to my untutored eyes, a right motley lot. Some were smart and freshly painted in the North Atlantic grey, while others looked as though it was only the all over rust that held them together. Placed where I was I could hear the comments of the older crew members who seemed able to identify individual ships even from a mile away. Such comments ranged from, ‘she’s a good un’ to ‘that one’s a hungry bastard’ indicating the shipping company was either very good, or one to refuse to sign on with.
With the convoy gathered the boom was pulled apart and we sailed out. Each ship knew just where her place would be in the convoy and which ship carried the Convoy Commodore, the man in overall charge, who was usually a retired Naval Officer of at least Captain rank. It was the Convoy Commodore who made the decisions.
The Naval escort came into position and off we went heading north, hoping to dodge the submarines lurking below the waves once the convoy was picked up. At first it was great but then, sitting outside the Galley peeling the spuds, I began to feel queasy, then I started to sweat. I started to pray, ‘Dear God, make this bloody ship stay still!’ Make no mistake about it, sea sickness is the most terrible of sicknesses! You just want to die! So there I sat, the warmest bum in the convoy with a bucket containing spuds waiting to be peeled, a bucket to hold the peelings, a bucket in which to put the peeled spuds and, between my legs, another bucket into which I was being violently sick. The ship was rolling hard as we were in ballast which means carrying no cargo and so sailing high. The buckets kept overturning and the contents swilled around in the scuppers. The Chief Mate told me that if I blocked those self-same scuppers with potato peelings then he’d personally throw me over the bloody side! I was in a mess, but then out of the Galley popped dear old Harry the Cook.
‘How’s it going then Son?’ he asked.
In answer I dry retched, having nothing left in my stomach to bring up.
‘Hang on’ he said and went back into the Galley, emerging a moment or two later to hand me a handful of those square cracker biscuits.
‘Keep pushing these down you’ he advised, ‘and don’t be afraid of being sick. It’ll pass after a time. However, one thing I must warn you about…’ Here he paused for dramatic effect then went on… ‘It isn’t so much the sickness you need to watch out for but just remember, when you’re throwing up, if you feel a lump of gristle at the back of your throat then swallow it quick because that’ll be your ring!’
If anyone fails to understand this advice, may I suggest they ask the nearest Sailor!
I was ill for about a day. The ‘please Lord, let me die’ type of ill and then it passed.
With time now to look around and take note, I saw that the convoy we were part of covered miles of the sea! There were new looking ships of around 10,000 tons loaded, as well as rusty old buckets that looked as if they should’ve been scrapped years ago, but no, there they were shooting out clouds of black smoke that could be seen for miles whilst the poor frantic stokers down below were shoveling like maniacs in an attempt to give their skipper the knots demanded by the destroyer escorts who were themselves dashing around, as one cynic on our crew put it, ‘like tarts dashing up and down Lime Street looking for some poor sailor to pass her ’dose’ on to!’
Smoke was every convoy’s nightmare as it could be seen for miles. It was easy for the oil burners, all they had to do was open a tap a little more.
The aforementioned Chief Mate passed by and, obviously forgetting the threat he’d made should I block his scuppers with potato peelings, he actually asked me how I was liking the sailors’ life? When I had the chance to observe him more I saw he was usually a quietly spoken Scot who loved poetry, and with a sailor on the wheel during his watch who appreciated poetry, the two of them, rank forgotten, would often spout poetic gems to one another. If a particular piece could be helped along with gestures by the Helm Man, then Mate would take the wheel as the poem was delivered. Sadly though, the Mate was an alcoholic. Put whiskey in front of him and he wouldn’t rest until the bottle was empty. Full of whiskey he was to fall asleep at the meal table several times and the Captain would quietly order the Second Mate to fetch two of the crew to carry the near unconscious Mate to his bunk. What a shame!
Apart from the engine room officers all the rest down below were Arabs, formerly from Aden but now living, many of them with English wives, in North Shields. They were a very quiet, well-behaved bunch of men who never seemed out of sorts, and never ever did I hear any of the white crew make disparaging remarks about them.
These then were our Arab stokers, greasers and donkey man. A great bunch of lads!
Occasionally, we could see and hear depth charges going up around the convoy as Adolf’s lads tried to get among us, but the escorts were first class!
(Norman Hastings: Through My Eyes. Tales from a Leicester Boardman – Available from Amazon)


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