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Merchant Navy circa 1944
The Galley was separated from the main bridge structure in which the Officers, the Captain and Chief Steward had their cabins. Also here was the catering staff mess room, main saloon, and pantry in which the food was served out, having been brought over from the Galley. Set in the floor of the pantry was a hatch and steps leading down into the storeroom.
Harry the Cook was now descending those steps to fetch up supplies for the next meal, but some idiot had put a small shelf over this hatch and on this shelf an even bigger idiot had placed an empty bottle. Harry was halfway down the stairs when the ship rolled sending the bottle crashing down upon Harry’s head. The first I knew of this was when crewmen ran past me, coming back a few moments later carrying Harry, as white as the proverbial sheet and with his head swathed in a blood-soaked towel. The Chief Steward was unable to stop the bleeding so the skipper was sent for! A signal was flashed to the Convoy Commodore who contacted the Destroyer escort, ‘Doctor urgently required!’ Within half an hour a Destroyer came alongside and lines were passed between the two ships. When I say alongside, don’t take me too literally as there was quite a space between us. Harry was carried onto the deck and lashed into what looked like a long straight jacket. Should the line snap whilst being passed over between the two ships he would float, head upright. Hooked on, the transfer started, and we held our breath as slowly, Harry was hauled from our ship to the Destroyer. Mission accomplished the lines were cast away and to the whoop, whoop, whoop of the Destroyer, our two ships separated.
It was two or three days later and I was up on the boat deck with my head in the slatted potato locker when I heard various and assorted whumps and whangs which I didn’t need to be told indicated the Destroyer escorts had picked up submarines in the vicinity. Not wanting to miss any of the excitement I emerged and surveyed the mass of ships around us. Now it’s a strange thing about being part of a large convoy but although things ‘hot up’ quite often nothing can be seen, and this proved to be the case on this occasion………
It was mid-morning on a bright, near sunny, day. We were in the Gulf of the St Lawrence River and the sea was calm with nothing to be seen to port or starboard – land wise that is! Looking out across the deck to port I noticed something which drew my attention. No, it wasn’t a submarine but a line of what seemed to be spume, easily missed from deck level, which was coming closer to the ship. As I walked towards the ship’s rail the very faint line reached the side of the ship and vanished.
‘Strange’ I thought as I walked across the deck, only to see the thin line re-appear on the starboard side and quickly disappear into the distance. I lost sight of it and was returning back to the spud locker when I heard a ‘bang’ in the far distance. Running back to the starboard side of the ship I saw a Corvette (Canadian I was told later) way over on the other side of the convoy, slowly come to a standstill with smoke coming from her stern. It was then ‘Joe Pratt’ here finally twigged that what he’d thought was a thick spume trail was in fact a torpedo and had our ship been lower in the water cargo wise, I wouldn’t be here now. Upon arrival at our destination we were told the Corvette had been towed up to Quebec and was salvageable. We had no idea how many of the crew were killed…………
It was time to go back to the ship. The letter said, ‘Join at Sunderland’ and my discharge book was marked ‘V.G’ (very good). The Chief Steward and Harry were pleased with me! After another tiring wartime train journey I arrived at the dock side and there she was. It was like coming home.
I went aboard, deposited my kit, and went into the Galley. It was about 10pm and there, instead of Harry, stood an old guy stirring a large square tin in which he was making gravy.
‘Hello. Who are you?’ he asked.
‘Me? I’m the Galley Boy!’ I replied.
‘I’m the stand in Cook,’ he offered.
As he was talking and still stirring the gravy, I noticed a large dew drop was forming on the tip of his nose.
‘I’ve had a long journey, so I’ll go and get my head down,’ I said moving towards to doorway.
Still stirring the gravy, the old fellow turned his head towards me and, as he said ‘Right, don’t be late in the morning’ I saw that the dew drop was gone, and there was only one place it could’ve gone! I made a mental note not to have gravy on my dinner the next day!
Things were cooling down submarine wise in the North Atlantic and the trip would’ve passed by without comment from me except we hit the very belter of a North Atlantic storm. To give you some idea, although we were part of a very large convoy, the waves reached such a pitch of viciousness that when the ship’s bows went plunging down into the roughs of one of these monster waves, we were so deep down the convoy might not have existed! On each side of the ship were walls of water so high the only way to look was up. Then the next wave would lift the bows and up and up and up we would go until, at the peak of that wave, we were looking down at the convoy.
And roll!! Well, you wouldn’t believe it! I peered into the Galley, the floor of which were of quarry type tiles, swimming in water, even though (as every door on the ship had) there were raised combings to stop any water shipped from coming in. As I watched, and I was hanging onto the door frame, poor Harry, who by now had re-joined the ship, plus the new assistant Cook, unable to find a hand hold and wearing rubber soled Galley shoes, were skidding from one end of the Galley to the other accompanied by miscellaneous pots, pans etc. After a short time when things had settled, Harry asked me to go amidships to the Chief Steward’s room and ask him for a side of meat to cut up for dinner. I had a stretch of open deck to cross with just a hatch in between. With the meat slung over my shoulder, (and it was heavy) I started back. Just as I reached the hatch, I heard Harry’s voice,
‘Look out son! She’s shipping a green un!’
The ship, rolling badly, had leaned hard over to starboard and now at the end of the roll was beginning to fall away like an express train to port. From the corner of my eye I saw Harry’s face framed in the Galley porthole just as he slammed it to. I looked up and there, all ready to break over the ship, was one of the highest waves I was ever to see, and it was going to break over me! I knew with certainty that if it did, then I was a goner! Instinctively I dropped the meat and dived, wedging myself behind a stanchion that went up to support the two-foot-high side of the hatch. The wave broke upon the deck just as I’d foreseen and I was under feet of sea water hanging on like grim death! Still rolling, most of the water returned back to the sea via the scuppers and I was still getting my breath back when I heard,
‘He’s gone over the f*cking side I tell you! He was right in the way when that bloody wave broke and he’s not there now! He must’ve gone over!’
‘Gosh, man overboard!’ I thought, ‘I wonder who it was!’
With water pouring out of my ears, I stood up to be greeted by Harry, who emerged from the Galley, with,
‘You c**t! We saw you standing there just before the wave broke and the next minute we looked, you’d gone! All we saw was that meat floating in the scuppers!’ ‘Nice’ I thought, ‘a near death experience and for my troubles I get called a c**t!’
We arrived at St Johns, New Brunswick, Canada in deep snow, and went outdoor skating on a frozen park lake with a couple of girls we met up with. (Olive and Jean) The ship then sailed to Cape Breton Island where we slept ashore for one night whilst the ship was fumigated to kill off the cockroaches, then it was up to Halifax, Nova Scotia! Would you believe it, when going into the main post office the first words I heard were from a lady in front of me who said,
‘How long will it take for this letter to get to Leicester, England?’
I’m only sorry I didn’t tell her, Leicester? I know it well!
On the return journey back across the North Atlantic we started from Halifax, Nova Scotia via the Newfoundland Banks which were notorious for dense sea fogs. For days we were in convoy sailing almost blind through the seemingly impenetrable wet fog whilst all around us the other ships, like us, blasted off with their sirens every few moments. A most mournful sound. The only visual sign of their presence were the large boards towed behind them on long lengths of line. The boards kicked up a white disturbance on the sea surface and were just visible to the seamen stationed in the freezing cold bows of the ship. With the fog finally dispersed it was off to England, home and beauty.
Now we’ve had enough of war stories and so although the incident I’m going to recount happened during the war, I promise you that not a bomb, mine or torpedo is going to be included in the story.
I was in the midship pantry helping the 2ndSteward dish out food for the Captain, two of the mates and two radio operators when one of the seamen from down aft appeared at the door to the midship’s hatch, going absolutely bonkers, cussing and swearing that ‘this meat’ (which he held out for our inspection) was all f*cking fat! Now, why he was complaining to us I don’t know, for after being prepared in the Galley and served out into large mess tins for the seamen and firemen by the cook, the food was carried to these two messes by the nominated ‘Peggy’, and so neither the second Steward nor I were implicated. I had a quick glance into the mess tin and the meat seemed perfectly ok but I ventured no comment, not wanting to get thumped, for this chap was really doing his nut.
Along came the Chief Steward.
‘What the hell is all this shouting about?’
‘It’s the f*cking meat!’ said our visitor from aft again, ‘It’s all fat, and Board of Trade says……..!’
The Chief Steward stirred the meat in the mess tin with a fork before declaring,
‘Away with you man, there’s nothing wrong with this!’
He might well have saved his breath. This chap was a ‘sea lawyer’ of the worst kind and was not going to give an inch. By this time the meat and gravy had begun to congeal and it didn’t look at all appetising.
Whilst this was going on I was still serving out for the Officers in the saloon just across the alleyway when the 2ndSteward came in.
‘Look out, the Captains coming! He’s heard all the commotion and wants to know what the hell is going on!’
At that moment the Captain came in.
‘Just who’s making all this damned racket?!’ he demanded. ‘We can’t hear ourselves think in the saloon!’
‘This f*cking meat is too fatty and Board of Trade regulations say…’
The skipper fixed him with a steely gaze, stirred the meat in the tin and gave his verdict.
‘I can see nothing wrong with this, in fact it’s exactly the same meat we’re eating! Now get back aft and let me hear no more of this nonsense!’
Our lord and master had spoken, and anyone else would’ve taken off like a rocket! The Captain was an ex Royal Navy Officer, complete at all times in full uniform, unlike most Merchant Navy Captains who were complete with bowler hats and looked as though they’d been dressed by a seaman’s charity. We were proud of our Skipper for he gave us a bit of class. But did our own ‘Fletcher Christian’ heed the Skipper’s warning?! He did not, and still argued! The Skipper had had enough.
‘If you don’t get back aft, I will log (fine) you out of your wages when we pay-off!’
At this the Seaman started to argue.
‘I’ve got my rights and you’ve got no…’ but that was as far as he got.
‘You’re logged’ said the skipper.
‘Logged? F*cking logged am I?’ Was the reply and now, beyond all reason, he took hold of a half full tureen of soup being kept warm on the hotplate for second sitters and upturned it all over the Captain’s head. You never saw a mess quite like it. That seaman took off like a scalded cat whilst the Skipper went to his day cabin to change. The rest of us just dissolved into hysterical laughter!
At the end of the trip we were ‘paid off’ and on the bad lad’s book was entered the amount of his logging. In the space for conduct was written DR (decline to report). That on its own is as bad as you can get but there was more. Against DR was added ‘Recommend this man be discharged into the Army.’
Was he? I don’t know, but I bet had the Captain found out who it was on those silent, blacked out nights at sea who shouted, ‘Have you got the f*cking soup out your ears yet skipper?’ there would’ve been two loggings to record!
(Norman Hastings: Through My Eyes Too. Tales from a Leicester Boardman – available from Amazon)


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