In November 1942 there was a round-up of army personnel who were fit – in good physical condition, needed as reinforcements on the African front. We assembled at Catterick camp in Yorkshire, then were moved to Bovington in Dorset, where we were put on draft for God knew where. This was where I first became acquainted with troop logistics. We entrained and sat for ages immobile, conjecturing on where we were bound. Eventually, with much starting and stopping, we moved north.
It was a cold, damp, foggy day as we pulled into Greenock on the River Clyde. Little was visible as we were loaded on to tenders and taken midstream, until we stopped to face a tall, grey cliff of metal which had a door. We entered and found ourselves in an enormous ship. It was the Queen Mary of 1936 vintage.
The vessel had been completely refurbished as a troop ship and we were taken to our quarters. I was on D deck, which was not too far below. Our cabin was meant to house two people, but bunks had been fitted and the cabin now had 3×3 bunks – to accommodate nine soldiers. Boarding took all day and when we were settled in the Tannoy speaker gave us much information about the ship (84,000 tons displacement), about catering and rules. As the Mediterranean was under the control of the enemy we were to sail all round the African coast, then via the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea to Port Tewfik, near Suez in Egypt. We were to sail solo, as any convoy would slow down this wonderful ship.
We awoke the next morning to feel the motion of the ship as she sailed down the Clyde. We followed our instinct and wandered around rubber-necking, marvelling at everything. There were bathrooms which still looked luxurious until we came to use them. The water came from the sea but had been warmed. There was special soap made to lather in salt water, but it was about as useful as a brick, so we just sat for our allotted time, then gave ourselves a dab with our towel. Imagine the water needed to bathe 12,000 men ! (The crew boasted they’d just brought 18,000 Americans over from New York! Hard to believe. This was the Queen’s first voyage away from her New York- Southampton run.)
Our first shock at the sheer size of the ship came when we emerged onto the boat deck which was above the promenade deck, above decks A, B, C … Troops from the Highland Light Infantry said they were in hammocks just above the bilge water. Poor sods !
After dark we stood at the stern and looked back at the wake which was, as far as the eye could see, a brilliant luminous green due to the turbulence and phosphorescence. To confuse any lurking U-boat we were leaving a zigzag wake. On the third day we heard firing as a gun on the boat deck practised aiming at a towed target, and that same night as soon as we were asleep we were awakened by a tremendous boom. Being aware that the Queen’s cladding was less than one inch thick we quickly dressed believing that we’d been torpedoed! However, the Tannoy calmed us: it was only a depth charge. The boom sounded repeatedly at regular intervals and we soon learned to ignore it.
In the UK we’d gone so long without luxuries that we rejoiced when it was announced that the canteen would open at eleven o’clock for the sale of American biscuits (cookies), tinned fruit, cigarettes, beer and unheard of goods. Hundreds lined up at the hatch, but immediately the ship hit foul weather. I guessed we were about to encounter the feared Bay of Biscay. I’d never seen men move so quickly in my life. The queue melted away and the canteen hatch was slammed down. The ship was lifted by the swell, fore then aft. When we were lifted our legs buckled and when we came down again our feet seemed to leave the deck, such was the extent of the tossing. We had to wait two days before the canteen reopened. During this period there was much sea-sickness, causing a crisis. Constant cries were heard calling for volunteers with mop and bucket, but those few who did come forward were so affected by nausea that they became patients.
Off the Portuguese coast the weather became warm and we became thirsty. In each cabin was a large enamelled ewer. I offered to get this filled with beer from the canteen (enough for nine) and stood in line at the hatch for ages, growing hotter and drier. As I was being served, the cry went out: “That’s the last of the beer. We’ve run out.” I was holding a full ewer and, seeing the predatory looks on the losers’ faces, I muttered: “Bugger this, I’m thirsty,” and hurried to the shade under a boat and drank the lot. For some time after this I was extremely unpopular, but I’d never enjoyed beer like that before or since. I put things right when I received some pay.
As we moved further south we had fun watching the flying fish whose movements were perfectly synchronised. In a body they flipped out of a wave, hovered on outstretched wings for about four seconds, then plunged away. There were hundreds of them, as well as dolphins and seals.
We awoke one morning to find that we were anchored in a wide harbour. This was Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. The air was humid, and a thick horizontal layer of mist was rising slowly above the town and the temperature rose quickly. The Queen Mary was loading fuel, food and water, which took all day.
On leaving Freetown we were accompanied by a guardian angel in the form of a single aircraft that circled and banked around overhead. One of these was with us all the way to Cape Town, our next port of call.
Cape Town was magnificent with Table Mountain as a backcloth. I was assigned the job as guard to a shell-door, which turned out to be a hole in the ship’s side. I sat on a low box, placed my rifle on the deck and lit a cigarette. After a while a supply ship drew alongside, quite close. As there was a swell on the water the new arrival was moving up and down like a lift, whereas the Queen, with such a huge displacement, hardly moved. As this other ship rose I had a great shock. From the side door a huge Negro leapt across and fell at my feet. I grabbed my rifle, took off the safety catch and pointed it in his face, which was grinning like a piano keyboard. He held a card up to my face; it bore his photo and authorization for him to come aboard. A huge hose was thrown from the other ship, which he caught with practised hands and attached to the end of our hose. He was loading fresh water and this took several hours until we sailed away en route to Aden.
At this point a newspaper was printed on board and we all received a copy. It had a picture on the front page of the Queen Mary, and was called Queen Mary News. The news was all about Russian victories on the eastern front. Some chaps threw them overboard. I kept mine for a long time, but eventually lost it.
We hoped that no U-boat looking for prey would find one floating.
Little of note happened as we sailed by Madagascar and approached Aden. We picked up supplies there too, then carried on to Tewfik, where we disembarked. We were nearer now to the war zone.