The Story of my trip to N. Africa by Cyril Stanley Waller (1910 - 1974) Royal Army Pay Corps
As it appears that my first letter has gone astray, down is more the correct word I think, as will be seen by the following account. I am commencing right at the very beginning.
To commence with we left Devon one Wednesday morning, after having been recalled from leave. Did I call it leave – one could hardly say that being six hours at the most. I arrived from recall early Tuesday afternoon and after reporting was informed that we were leaving next day. The remaining time was fully taken up with completing issue, making last minute purchases, marking equipment etc., packing and all the minute other items that go towards an embarkation move. Eventually after writing hurried notes to my wife and parents, and also I managed to phone through to Kathleen in Scotland, at last turned in for a few hours sleep somewhere between 3 and 4am.
Naturally we were up early next morning, in fact right on the dot at 6.30. Finishing touches to packing and equipment were made, haversack rations were issued and after an early dinner we paraded for final roll call together with a send off speech from the Colonel.
So the real journey commenced. To give some idea of the amount we carried up that blinking hill for the last time, one was fully dressed in webbing equipment; pack containing full charge, personal items, and greatcoat with ground sheet and blanket strapped on the outside; haversack with small items, full water-bottle and gas cape, gas mask; rifle, rounds of ammunition and to crown the lot wearing a tin hat. Luckily our full kit-bags had been conveyed to the station by transport. By the time we reached the station you can guess the perspiration was running down my face, but for all that we all sang our goodbyes to the town as we marched along.
The entertainment then followed, we’re not long in getting on as it was waiting for us. I managed to enter a carriage with my pals and a complete solo school, consisting of Bart, Les, Bill, and Phil was also there as a spare complete with his trumpet. We had a good send off from Officers and other Ranks who had come up to see us off, with Phil’s trumpet playing us away we steamed out at approx noon. By this time all our equipment was off of course and dumped all on the seats. We then sorted ourselves out filling up the racks and space under the seats with kitbags stacked at each end of the corridor. Our coach was of course special and locked off from the rest of the train. At Exeter station we were shunted down onto the middle track where we stopped for hours, tea was obtained by the orderlies and cooks we had with us and a small share of our ration was broken into. We had a good sing-song accompanied by Phil’s trumpet giving the waiting passengers a treat or otherwise, whichever they thought. Eventually the train we were waited for arrived and our coach was coupled on. So on we went wending our way north, time filled up with solo, tea, tea and more solo together with a dip in our rations, had been told to eke them out accordingly as we would not get a meal till the following evening. If it had not been for the solo and singalongs when we stopped at a station
the journey would have been most tedious, for underneath it all there were our thoughts that we were leaving home and those we loved.
Onwards we went into the night with us still steaming and soloing’ with an occasional pontoon game to make a change. Now and again one of our officers came along to see how the lads were fairing, they were passing the time exactly the same as us. A break was then made and a debate called as to the best sleeping arrangements, we had had very little the night before, it was decided two on each seat and four on the floor. Down came our packs and haversacks, some we laid out on the floor and we made ourselves comfortable as possible. Can hardly say I slept very well, noises and thoughts kept one awake, dozing was more the word. Somewhere about 2.30 the next morning we were again left in a big station where everyone turned out for a permitted stretch on the platform, found there that the Army Authorities had brought out the inevitable tea plus a bun. After a stroll and further wait a troop train arrived and we were connected thereto. Away we went again and settling down on our packs once more we tried to have some more ‘shuteye’.
Morning found us still rolling and debates started as to the port of embarkation. The best was made of a wash and shave on the move, we certainly felt all the better for it, another dive was made into the remaining grub after which we carried on as previously mentioned. Eventually somewhere around dinner time we were certain of our port, it was now pouring down with rain and to try and cheer us up Phil occasionally gave a tune on his trumpet. So on in this manner to the dock station where we re-donned our equipment ready for orders to detrain. After a wait we lined up on the platform all complete with kitbags, another wait and then the march out right onto the tender. I then realized that there was no mistake I was really off and leaving home shores for some little time and with the rest of the fellows just made up our minds to make the best of things to come, there was really aught else to do.
So there we stood on the tender packed up to the eyebrows in the teaming rain clothed in our gas capes, some of the other troops were lucky in being under cover but there was the poor old Pay Corps out in the bloody rain. There we waited with rain dripping off our tin hats and down our face and neck if you wasn’t careful, going with the gentle swell of the tied up tender and wondering what next. To try and cheer us up tea and buns were sent aboard, more tea, but we all had some. At last after a devil of a time we pushed off and out to what we thought was our ship, various kinds were anchored way out and to us then any one would have done to get out of the wet, but no! round and round we steamed. Appeared to us at the time as if the Captain would not make up his mind which ship he wanted. We lay too, steamed around lay too again, still in the blooming rain. After we had really given up hope and thought we would be there for ever she pulled alongside what was to be our home for the next few days. Here was another wait until it came our turn to embark, it was nearly dark by now so you can tell how long we had been sailing around. As we lay there various comments were thrown at those leaning on the rails watching us as they were in the dry. After the swearing and singing was over, huddled together in our gas capes our number was suddenly called and with a cheer to those above we trooped up the gangway, thankful at any rate to be going into the dry. By this time
what with traveling, the rain and our thoughts we were none too cheerful, but still smiling for all that. We were then marshalled to the Mess Deck E4 where one was to eat, sleep and rest for the coming voyage.
On arrival there we found the place full, but on consultation between the Embarkation Office and O/C in charge of the already resident troops they were told to squash up and make room for us at two end mess tables. Squash up was the word so you can tell it was with many a rude word that we made our entrance to that Deck. When one looked round and up you realized the meaning of the word space saving, racks with hammock hooks, that’s all.
I bagged a small space and bundled my kit into about half its usual area somehow, even being tired and weary as we were everyone seemed good natured over it all, but there was a grouse or two of so shut up for Gawds sake. At last we were squeezed but settled, hammocks and two blankets were then drawn, mattresses for those in bunks but our deck was all ‘swings’. A good meal was next served, the first since our early dinner the day before, have forgotten what it was, but it was plentiful and most welcome. It was not long after this that I grabbed a couple of hooks, fitted up my hammock and simply fell into, found no trouble and was soon asleep as were the rest of the lads. One realized the extra squeeze more then because there was not room for all to be swung, the unlucky ones were making up their kits on the floor, deck foyer, in fact anywhere there was any spare space. Still as I say sheer exhaustion overcame thoughts and wonderings and we were right off to sleep.
When I woke next morning, peered at the ceiling and wondered where the dickens I was for the second, realization soon dawned when I felt my hammock gently swaying that we were moving. We were all soon out, washed, dressed and before breakfast shot out on deck to see where we were, found that there was land on both sides of us and naturally in convoy. The deck permitted for our use was the one above our Mess, the two above being reserved for officers and nurses, there was quite a number of the latter with us. After our stroll and look round we went down to breakfast, and the prisoner ate a hearty meal, did so for the rest of that day. When this was over I with some of the other lads had a tour of inspection, finding out where one could go and not go, reading orders and finding from our point of view the most important place, namely Canteen. It was certainly very easy to get lost and go round in circles as we certainly did. When we discovered the Canteen the place was so crowded.
M.P’s had been posted and queues had to be formed at the various serving windows, the worst thing about it was that you had to wait for over an hour generally in one queue and after being served, tack on the end of another for some other commodity you wanted and so start all over again. At the time we decided to give it a miss for the time being and after taking a note of opening hours went for another wander round. Land was in sight for all that day the sea was quite moderate and the ship had just a gentle dip, but as the day wore on it began to get more noticeable, by the evening one or two fellows were changing colour around the gills and became quieter. During the trip I was more or less in the company of Hickie, one of the chaps who came from Bradford with me, and Bish a friend of his he had met up with, as we all preferred fresh air
to the atmosphere of our Mess Deck; but more of that later. After a dickens of a wait we managed to get served in the Canteen during the evening session, what a scramble with all the different queues as at the ends thereof one did not know whether the fellows were coming in or going out. I have come to the conclusion that life in the army is best part waiting for something or other and a soldier must be the most patient chap alive. Found when we were served that cigarettes were at that time after England a ridiculous price, namely 10 for 4d as needless to say we stocked ourselves well up, also managed to purchase some chocolate and packet biscuits, no rations or anything like that. So on till the end of that first day out.
When it came time for turning in the above mentioned and I decided to sleep on the floor in the deck foyer, for to be truthful the atmosphere of the Mess Deck together with the overcrowding was to say the least getting ‘thick’ and with one or two chaps already going sick we felt it unsafe to stay there. I for one was not feeling at my best though I had eaten all placed in front of me that day. So to bed on the floor where I spent the remainder of the trip.
When morning came we were well out in the Atlantic and believe me we knew it, as it had roughened up during the night and proceeded to get worse as the day advanced and before the evening was out was running a gale. We went to breakfast with a struggle and also ate likewise for our deck was beginning to stink and that’s being polite about it, what with the odour of food and vomit. It was this and breakfast that put paid to 99% of our Mess Deck, yours truly included, because not long after that meal I had to ‘bunk’ with the well said words look out chaps here it comes. Twas surely a lousy feeling but had plenty of company. Was sick twice that morning and spent the whole day with the others in the fresh air, giving dinner a miss and only staying below at teatime long enough to grab a cup of tea, but even that did not keep to its proper place. By this time the ship was certainly going places, up, down, with some side rolls thrown in. We all turned in early feeling the worse for wear, for outside the gale was blowing and did she rock the old so and so. Lay there wondering whether I would have to get up and make the lav, over beds and chaps in time, but eventually fell asleep. On waking the following morning found on laying there I felt a lot better, but on getting up and going for a shave and wash where fellows were still being sick it became a struggle of mind over matter again, but mind won for I performed by ablutions in record time grabbed a handful of grub, mug of tea and got away from the smell and mess. To end this messy part of the story I will just say that for that third day I only made a half-hearted attempt to eat at meals, could have done justice more if it hadn’t been for the stench. One or two of our fellows were laid right out and one in particular did not move, eat or shave for five days. Hickie and I found it best to fight and keep to the open decks, Bish was laid out though, for if one gave in and stayed below it was hopeless. Can still remember that day for it was spaghetti in tomatoes for tea two nice trays for 20 fellows on my table and only about five of us to eat it, did my appetite return and tuck in I did, taking no notice of the blokes laid out half dead on the floor, believe though I was not looking any too good myself, still my complexion never did make me look robust.
Will now say a little on the antics of that blinking ship for those six days, have as mentioned above on the “delicate” side. Shaving and washing was a “wow” one minute you were shaving in your mirror and before you knew where you were there was a lurch and you found yourself looking in a mirror at the other end of the lavatory, with army boots and tiled floors one could not get a hold so just slid with bent knees. It was certainly not safe to wear anything but boots for reasons easily understood and mentioned previously.
Our Mess Deck had to be cleared up and washed each morning, what a job it was those days, each table taking its daily turn which included the fetching of all meals from the galley. We got on very well, they were mostly young tough cockneys, so one can guess the language was pretty blue. In fact their Colonel and S.M. gave orders combined with swearing, else no doubt no impression would have been registered. All our kitbags and equipment not able to be squeezed above on the racks was stacked at our end of the floor while theirs stretched the length of the Mess Deck. It was on that third day with a gale still running kit would often go flying and one had to jump or duck, as the neat piles became a shambles all in different directions, as I have said I with the other two chaps always slept in the foyer or corridor openings and kept to the fresh air as much as possible.
The fourth day the gale died down a lot but the sea was still rough, seas, well I thought I had seen some in bad weather at home, but here the waves were like mountains, one minute you saw sky the next sea and it never stopped. By this time I felt nearly right and was beginning to find my sea legs, for walking about was quite a work of art in keeping balance. We had of course drawn life-jackets directly we boarded and carried or wore same everywhere we went, at night they were used as pillows for which they served very well. Boat stations were allotted and drill was sometime of every day whenever boat stations were sounded, except for two when the elements were far too rough. Time was pretty well our own except for the cleanings already mentioned, together with morning roll calls and any daily orders from our O/C. In orders P.T. was laid down for all troops, but so far the weather had put paid to such antics on the top deck.
Was still getting more than enough to eat as all the chaps were not yet back to table. It was here we saw white bread and was it good. Each meal saw someone’s face back again at table and we who felt all right again immediately commenced talking about nice fat pork and bacon. I think it was for tea that day we had fish cooked whole and one fellow who did not feel so grand said he was sure one of them winked at him.
The next day was I think the roughest of them all in fact I’m sure it was, the gale came up with increased vigour and some of the decks were out of bounds owing to the fact they were awash. Now that I was O.K I really enjoyed that day and could take things with a grin. In the Canteen that morning sixteen foot tables came adrift and one in particular was being thrown about like a matchbox, one fellow falling foul of it as he was caught between it and the wall and had to be taken to the ship’s hospital, eventually they were grabbed together and lashed up. One also flew loose on our Mess Deck at dinner time, and with equipment and kits
everywhere it took us the best part of the next morning to sort things out. Meals were a scream because if you let go your mess-tins or mug they were away down the table getting mixed up with someone else’s. Tea was about the worst havoc of all and I’ll never forget it, baked beans in tomato. The orderlies for that day came up the stairs all right with a dixie in each hand, but got caught napping in the foyer on its wet rubber floor one chap and dixies went flying, one over him and the other thrown clean into our Mess Deck – beans – beans all over the blinking place, and everyone going to and fro was sliding all over the place “roll you blinking old ………” was heard from all sides. On looking round later that day there were one or two with cracked heads and faces by the plaster dressings. It was a work of art to stand up let alone move about, going along the corridor one walked, swayed or lurched as the case may be with one bent leg and one straight and to see someone weaving towards you in that attitude was most funny. What a life, but it was all taken with a grin and laugh, we felt more like it now, though one or two of the chaps went sick again. That night too it was still very rough and it was nothing to feel your blankets going places with you on them, you just got out dragged them back again to their proper place and into a position where possibly they would not move far again.
So on till the next day when things subsided a little, sea was still running heavy and by the evening had died down to something more moderate. Life was pretty well the same each day, eating and passing the time in various ways. Mornings after tidying up ones belongings one generally went for an amble round the deck often finding a singsong with Phil well in the fore with his trumpet. I usually paid a trip to the Canteen some part of each day to get something or other, always a packet or two of biscuits went down very well with the supper tea. By this time too I had stocked myself up pretty well with tins of milk, fruit; cigs; and toilet requirements, my kit-bag would hold no more. The solo school too came back into its own again now that everyone had more or less recovered, but mostly it was not assembled till after blackout. In the Canteen during the evening session ’housey-housey’ was played 6d a sheet and two goes thereon, line and full house. Tried my luck one evening and picked up a kitty of 17/6 which usefully went towards paying for the purchases I had made.
A loud speaker system was laid on throughout the ship from which all instructions were issued. The B.B.C. News was also relayed by this system, so we knew how events were going. I, with Hickie and Bish, was still sleeping anywhere there was space on the floor of the foyer, for even though the sickness odour had worn off the air of E Deck was anything but fresh, was bearable till the ports were closed at blackout time after which it used to thicken considerably even though smoking was not permitted after that hour in the Mess Decks. Could always smoke in the foyer or corridors though, but naturally not on the open decks during hours of darkness, One had to sleep in ones clothes, that was a standing order. The ship was a “dry” one, only soft drinks being served to both Officers and other ranks, this as events turned out was I think just as well.
So we arrived at Gibraltar somewhere in the region of eight o’clock one morning. Naturally as
soon as the word got round the Rock was in sight we polished off breakfast and was soon up on deck having a view of the old rock towering up in the sky. At the time we first saw it I remember the summit was not visible owing to cloud, but as we steamed by it gradually cleared, as the day advanced it became more pronounced. We went on through the Straights and for the first time the sea was what one could really call calm, here also we had our first view of Africa as land was also visible on the other side of the Straights. The weather was rather dull first thing but brightened up later and best part of the day was spent watching the coastline in the distance and dolphins playing around the bows of the ships. Up to this time there had been no excitement other than ships guns letting off for practice, though the night before we had heard some thumps and rumour had it that our escort was dropping depth charges as U. Boats were about. About they were sure enough!
That night everyone more or less cheerful thinking that the worst of the journey as over, was as far as rough seas were concerned. By this time we all knew our destination and thought that the morrow would see us there – but fate detailed otherwise. The night was a perfect one, brilliant moonlight and a placid sea, up forard a sing-song was going on, with Officers and nurses looking down from their deck above and joining in. I sat there on the deck floor leaning my head against a raft singing with the others all the songs of home, and needless to say thinking very much of it, while watching a mast gently swaying in front of the full moon. A most peaceful scene at the time and made it hard to believe there was a war on, but dreams are usually shattered for before that night was out there was a war all right.
Eventually the sing-song disbanded and we made our way below. As usual I made my kip up on the floor outside the Mess Deck and after a last cigarette together with my usual meditation I settled down to sleep with no thought of what the morrow would bring, though for some reason, call it premonition if you will I had taken my water bottle and iron rations from its usual position on the rack.
So came that fatal day, it was at 2.30 am that we were awoke by the ship giving a terrible shudder combined with an explosion, the lights immediately going out and all was in darkness. At the same time screams were heard from below, for a second, being ’woke so rudely from sleep I wondered what the devil had happened, but as there was a very noticeable list to port it was only another second before it dawned upon us that we had been torpedoed. The control of all the fellows was to say the least grand, one or two chaps did try to get to their Messing Quarters, but with shouts in the darkness of “stay put”; “don’t panic” “take it easy boys we’re still afloat”, well there was little else to do but stay put and await orders. It would have been hopeless to think of trying to get back to my pitch in the dark, to say the truth the thought never entered my mind at the time. Even though I say it myself I was quite calm as were all those around me, one chap nearby even lay down again with the remark that he might as well wait in comfort. The emergency lighting system then came on in the corridors and staircases, I with others just put on the clothes we were not wearing, pulled on my boots but did not lace them, tightened up my belt, slipped iron rations into pocket,
fastened lifebelt, gathered up water-bottle, rolled up hammock and blankets then sat down on them to wait events.
Then came the alarm bells, just as they did for boat drill, only this time it was the real thing. Everything was perfectly orderly, one might have been queuing up to go to a football match, there were two lines of fellows one up each side of our staircase, the middle being left clear always, upwards we went with an occasional order from an Officer to make it lively. So onto the top deck and by our boat station on the starboard side. These were already manned by their respective crews and swung out on the davits, men were already being counted into some. About three in front of me they stopped and away down went the lifeboat to collect some nurses from the deck below, the lads already in cried out “Going down be seeing you” and away she went. Us few that were left were told to make our way to the deck below and wait there, so down I went with four other chaps I did not know from Adam; the rest of my crowd from down the other end of E 4 had not come up yet; down below we joined a waiting queue nurses to the front and chaps to the rear, as orderly and patient as ever and I couldn’t help think at the time that everything we did seemed to be by blinking queue.
That night will naturally live for ever in my memory, but some things stand out foremost, the calmness and orderliness that things were taken; certainly shows the soundness of training and to take orders; also I will never forget the elderly Sister in front of me who was shepherding her nurses away from that quarter of the deck, being the last to enter the lifeboat, turning round and offering her seat as if it had been on a bus. So with the heaviest load up he could carry for lowering, the Captain of that boat ordered her down and shouted to us to follow down the rope ladder and be picked up on the water level.
At this time there were three fellows in front of me, two soldiers and one of the stewards, over the side we went and as I looked down it seemed a hell of a drop if one fell. It was here that I was extremely glad I had left my boots unlaced, because as we’re wending our way down I asked the chap below me to lug them off for me, so at the next halt he lugged them and down they went into the water. At that time if I had to go for a dip I did not fancy it with my boots on. So down the side of that great ship we went, as I looked above me I could see Officers and chaps following on, so from our position there was no going back. It was here that the fellow above me started to get the jitters a bit. I am not certain but I think it was an Officer by the material of his trousers, he must have thought he was going to miss the “last train” and made every effort to try and pass me on a single rope ladder too. I swore at him and asked what the hurry was and to – well stop treading on my hands.
We had by this time got to about 20 to 25 feet from the water the chap at the bottom called out there was no need to hurry as there was nothing to take us off, the lifeboat being away picking folk up. The trouble was that those above were still coming down, so after explanation of the situation the chap below said he would swim and pick up one of the rafts floating about. Off he went on his errand, by now I could see there was nothing for it but to take a bathe in winter much against my principals, for the chap above was getting more restless than ever, his feet were around my head now, so I slung away my water bottle and dropped the remaining 20 feet or so into the briney, the other two chaps below did likewise. On looking round we found the chap with the
raft had drifted some way off so we splashed over to it and after what must have been only minutes but seemed ages grabbed the rope handles at the sides and rested. I blessing my lifebelt and the little I could swim. We then decided that it would take four on top which was better than being in the water, so working two from each side we scrambled on at the some time to keep balance. When I think back at that time we must have looked a pretty sight like half drowned rats, still we were all whole which was the main point.
Being settled I took a look around to see how things were going on, for up to this time had more or less been intent on my own skin. Men were still coming down the various rope ladders and I suppose experiencing the same difficulties as we had, away aft a couple of lifeboats were being lowered. ‘Twas a sight never to be forgotten in the brilliant moonlight.
Then as at that time we had no idea as to the condition of the poor old ship, or how long she would be afloat, we thought it best to make away from the near vicinity for safety’s sake. So with a struggle the two paddles attached to the side of the rope were untied and we set off to what was then the unknown. One’s thoughts at such time run in funny grooves because of all things I recalled the peacetime days and paddle floats off the beach at home. When coming down the side I thought the sea more or less calm, was from a big ship but on a raft there was a devil of a heavy swell running. We now rested and took stock of our surroundings, various boats could be seen dodging about picking folk up out of the water. For the time being we were ignored as naturally concentration was being given to those in the sea. So we just stopped where we were and of all things to do started to sing, was then I fully realized how blinking wet I was and that after all the night was none too warm.
We waited then for what came next, one of the chaps suggested we paddled off home to England as fast as we could but we decided it was a bit too far. Could not see what was going on around the ship as we had now drifted astern, but boats were running around and eventually much to our blessing one came alongside and took us aboard. Naturally we were more than thankful of the lift after thumbing our way so far. One of the crew gave us a blanket between two and we made ourselves as comfortable as possible. Soon the boat was full up and someone passing on another raft hailed for a pickup, but when told we were full to the limit said “O.K but for gawd’s sale chuck us some matches ours are wet but the fags dry”. Some others on another raft were shouting “Hi! Taxi”. Considering what had happened the spirits were very high with the never- say-die complex.
In the boat, which as it happened had its engine out of action owing to the fact that it had fell foul of a large hawser and part of it was wrapped round its propeller, there were two chaps on four oars just keeping the boat head on with the swell, and we drifted with the current. One of the crew said he would try and get the hawser free so we lay-to while he stripped to the skin. With a knife between his teeth he went over the side. I was in the stern and was handed the Captains torch to shine over the side onto the sea, but his effort was to no avail as the rope was too thick and wrapped securely round the prop. So it was given up as a bad job and back to the oars.
I for one was beginning to feel the strain a bit, being all wet in an open boat with a nasty swell
running was not very helpful to ones feelings. Before long I began to regret the supper we had the night before, usual issue of tea and a tin or fruit salad and milk from the Canteen shared with Bart and Hicky together with some bread we had saved from teatime. That and I had to part company and immediately I felt a lot better though still blinking wet. Next came my turn at one of the oars, which certainly helped to warm me up, all we were doing was trying to keep the boat from going broadside to the swell and go along with the current. One and all were longing for the dawn because by now the old boat was out of sight and at that time it was just us on the open sea.
Dawn came at last and we could see on the horizon what we thought were destroyers about, also nearer were other lifeboats dotted about. It appeared they had also gone with the current so that more or less we were all in a group and for searching and collecting one can see the soundness of the scheme. Far away on the horizon there was smoke with other ships around it which we took to be the troopship and destroyers around her.
While waiting in that open boat, cigarettes were passed round as long as they lasted together with anything anyone had to eat which was precious little. The Captain of the lifeboat had a tin of toffees and the rest of us opened our iron rations which were shared round. There was not much of this as very few had brought some with them. Had been very curious since being issued what this tin contained and was now satisfied. ‘Twas a form of chocolate but very filling. The main trouble was cigs, they soon ran out, mine were no good at all being soaked.
That destroyers were about soon became apparent because not long after a plane came circling round over us following which a destroyer loomed up making a large circle round evidently taking in the situation from a rescue point of view. You can guess we waved and cheered. Next one of the lifeboats, whose engine was in working order came chugging up and after some good natured backchat our situation was explained and we were taken in tow and shepherded to the fold with the other boats.
We could see the destroyer HMS Verity picking up survivors from various boats and soon she swung round alongside us. With a dickens of a cheer we clambered up the rope ladders on to her deck with a great sigh of thankfulness. I immediately looked round for any of my pals and found Bart, Phil and Hickie who had been lucky and taken on the lifeboat from the first. There were some other of our chaps also aboard with one officer, but plenty still to account for. The good old Navy then dished us out with tea and anything they could find to spare in the way of eats, through all this my old mug had come through with me strapped onto the side loop of my trousers, always carried it on the boat like that because you never knew when it would be required. I think I can honestly say that cup of tea was the best I have ever tasted.
In all I had been about eight hours in the open boat not counting my swim and time on the raft which could not have been very long but seemed ages at the time. After sunrise in the boat my outer clothes had partly dried, but was still very damp and wet underneath, so after a second mug of tea I made enquiries regarding getting dry. Struck lucky in finding an officer
who said I could use his cabin, so went in and stripped to my birthday suit and wearing just a pair of P.T shorts loaned by one of the sailors I laid my clobber out on one of the driers. In there I found fellows in the same state as myself and one or two worse off as they were covered from head to toe in oil and looked a devil of a sight. They had been in the water longer than I and caught in the oil from the ship. They say if you look round there’s always someone worse off than yourself, applied too in the cabin where I waited as three casualties were there, one broken arm, a smashed head and the other with internal injuries.
By this time all the boats had been picked up and were now moving at a nifty speed. After a cig or two and a chat to the other chaps in the cabin, good old Navy again had spread some fags round and some of our chaps had some sound ones, I redonned my clothes keeping the shorts as pants the sailor not wanting them back. After again filling my mug with tea I plodded up to the fo’c’s’le where Hickie and the rest of our lads were, plodded was the correct word because all I had on my feet was a pair of socks and you can guess what the soles of same were like by now.
Felt now again in the pink and had a good look round, everywhere was of course crowded with survivors, nurses, officers and men, all were most cheerful at being now safe and sound. Back with my friends we just sat there and yarned finishing off the remainder of the cigarettes among us. All this time the destroyer was beating it as fast as she could, one of the best rides I have ever experienced, she simply cut through the water, sea was calm and the sunshine did us the world of good.
So after about a couple of hours run we saw land and were glad to see it. We knew where we were docking, though not at the place originally intended. Eventually she came alongside a quay which was full of Yankies, where we lay awaiting orders. After a short wait we all trooped ashore, a motley crowd believe me, some partly dressed, nearly all without hats, others like myself with nothing on their feet and those who had been in the oil dressed up in the unwanted oddments from the sailors. Here we assembled under respective commanders, in our case one officer and senior N.C.O. When we were all lined up you can guess that three very hearty cheers were given for the Navy. Many of us that day had said “God Bless the Royal Navy”.
The nurses when all were ashore went off in vans assembled there, ambulances took away the casualties and a special truck took the fellows covered in oil away for special cleaning treatment. While we waited there for the next move we chatted with the Yankies. After a longish period we were shown onto a nearby empty troopship, allotted a Mess Deck, what was left of our little crowd naturally being all together though mixed up with all other regiments. We were told that a meal was being prepared and would be served as soon as possible. In the meantime we all had a good strip wash and shave. Hickie had managed to hang onto his haversack, so I borrowed his towel, soap and razor. Then came our meal, I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated one so much as then. It was now teatime and we had had nothing substantial since tea the day before. All plates and cutlery had to be found for us as naturally all we had
was what we stood up in, I was still plodding around in my socks and quite used to it now. Considering the circumstances we were dumped aboard this fresh ship with so short a notice, the way they treated us was grand. As I said I had managed to hang onto my mug and it had and was still being very useful. Luckily too I had all my money in tact which was more fortunate because that evening they opened the Canteen for us, serving all and everything they could. I loaned one of our chaps some cash as he was without any and in the Canteen also gave a few shillings away to those who were less fortunate. Managed to obtain toothbrush and paste, razor blades, soap toilet and shaving, cigs, matches, packets of biscuits and mineral waters.
When these purchases were made my pockets were rather full, they had no such things as a razor but Hickie loaned me a spare one he had. We heard next that some more survivors had been landed from another destroyer and more were expected before the night was out. Naturally we all turned in as early as possible after this experience and I for one was soon asleep, on the floor as usual but had grabbed a mattress this time.
Next morning after breakfast another of our Officers came and found us with the news that some of the other chaps were aboard another ship with him and the other Officers. Rolls were then compared and it was found that only two of our chaps were unaccounted for. We now found out a bit more about the old ship we had left so tragically. Those left behind after all the boats were away and best part of the rafts gone received orders to stand by as it was found that the ship was not sinking at the time. So at daylight were taken off by destroyers who were standing by. Actually fire turned out to be the biggest trouble for after the explosion she had evidently caught fire, when the last crowd left her she was alight to the top deck and by one of our chaps description the decks were devilish hot to stand on. Destroyers were attempting to tow her when the last lot came away, but we later learned that she had to be given up and sank.
‘Twas a funny thing that all that grieved me most at the time was the loss of all my personal belongings and all the Canteen goods I had stocked up with. Everyone had lost more or less everything, even those taken off direct on to the destroyers, owing to the extra weight. Our rescue destroyers were quite loaded enough without kit and equipment.
I with our little crowd packed up our new purchases and paraded again on the quay where in time we went along to the other ship where the rest of our comrades were. Up to now I was still in my socks with an occasional yell when I forgot and stubbed my toes or someone came near in army boots, our C/O then came along and gave me a pair of gym shoes which he had scrounged, borrowed or pinched from somewhere and needless to say they were received with great thankfulness. I sat down on the ground and pulling off my socks just chucked them away and put on the shoes.
The ship we went on now was the one taking us to our original destination. On joining up with the rest of our gang found that the two missing fellows had turned up having been on another
That night we slipped out when it was turning dusk and belted it full speed with just a small destroyer escort. When night came there were a good many of us leaning over the rails wondering and watching, because it was a similar night to the one before last, brilliant moonlight and a calm sea. Still we felt happier with the thought that she was slipping along as fast as possible. It was only natural that no one seemed to be in a hurry to turn in and it was well past our usual bedtime and lights out before they all did. There was nothing else for it but to try and get some sleep, so with Hickie and Bish, who had turned up with the second batch, we again made our beds up on the floor and with a final pat to our lifebelt pillows, lay there talking and wondering. Eventually to my surprise I fell off and slept fairly well only waking a couple of times. That evening we were treated very well by the U.S.A. Red Cross because they issued to every survivor a package of cigarettes, tobacco, matches, soap, shaving cream and some sweets.
Well this nearly brings me to the end of my story, in fact to the closing stages, for after breakfast next morning, all meals being served to us in relays in a main dining-hall on this boat – better idea we thought than to the old one on our boat, we found ourselves off the coast of our destination. Everyone was up on deck to see what could be seen of the town, but later returned below as we went into dock. After docking we had to wait our turn for going ashore and it was round the region of 1pm before we disembarked. On the dockside we found a van for our office there with an Officer and dixies of hot tea. After a drink we were passed onto an emergency store and issued with blanket and what they had in the clothes line, got some boots here but no hat.
So in relays on the van we were brought out to where I am now, to find the cookhouse had got a meal ready for us. There was plenty to yarn about to the chaps already out here as they all wanted to know about our experiences. In Orders to this day we are still known as “The Survivors” if there’s any issue we have to parade for.
Will just close with the words I have already mentioned “God Bless the Royal Navy” and good cheer to the many comrades I came across during this experience. It’s better to be born lucky than rich!
28/3/43 Cyril Waller
Our sincere thanks goes to Jane Stroud – Daughter of Stanley for providing this story. (May 2011).