While this was going on we were being told our duties. Two men were to be detailed each day to take the large dixies to the galley, and bring back the meals. They were also responsible for cleaning and polishing them ready for ships inspection that took place every morning, and mess decks had to be spotless or else we were reprimanded and made to re-clean everything again.
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R.A.F personnel had to take shifts at various points around the ship as aircraft spotters warning of any impending attack by air. Army personnel or navy personnel had to do shifts at submarine spotting, looking out at points around the ship to look for periscopes or conning towers above the water line, and army gunners took turns moving the guns and practising at firing them. R.A.F regiment took turns on the ship’s anti aircraft guns.
Some personnel were detailed to act as batmen to the officers or to wait at table in the officers mess.
Any off duty personnel were required to attend physical training exercises on the upper decks to keep fit. Teams were also arranged to go down to the ship’s storage and fridge areas, well down in the bowels of the ship to bring up the food required by the galley staff to cook for all the officers, men, and crew on board the ship. Any army and R.A.F cooks had to report for duty in the galley.
We were all detailed to boat drill places at various points around the ship. One officer was detailed to each position to take a number roll call. An alarm would sound at different times each day, and we would have to leave what we were doing and proceed to our boat drill positions. Afterwards we went back to our duties. We were all issued with what was referred to as life jackets. This was a padded apron affair that fitted over our heads and tied up under our arms with tape. They were filled with kapac. We were told that they would keep us afloat for 48 hours, but we doubted whether they would keep us afloat for more than an hour or two, especially as we had to use them as pillows when we slept at night. In any case, to go overboard in the Atlantic in the middle of January the sea would be so cold that I doubt if many would survive.
We were all issued with hammocks but as there was not enough ceiling space some of the lads had to sleep on the table or forms on each side of the tables or on the floor. Some lads preferred the floor to the ceiling as they did not feel the sway of the ship so much.
We were not allowed to undress and had to remain dressed the whole time in case of emergency. We were allowed to loosen our clothing to sleep and not allowed to take it off. We wore our blue home service uniforms but had our tropical kit in our overseas kitbag together with change of underclothes. The rest of our kit in our other kit bags were stored in the lower holds of the ship. We also had our steel helmets and these were tucked into overhead racks suspended from the ceiling. There was so little room that it was a very difficult job to get at anything without a lot of pushing and pulling. The overhead racks however made a good fitting on which to secure our hammocks at night. In the morning they had to be neatly rolled and pushed into a special locked in the brow of the ship. Other mess decks in other parts of the ship had their own arrangements. Troops were limited on the first five decks below deck level, as some of them were below the waterline. Any torpedo hitting the ship would have wiped out a great many troops. The officers and senior NCOs billeted above decks were by far in the safest positions, but this was quite usual for all of the services.
When the convoy was fully assembled, the officer commanding troops on our ship gave us a pep talk over the ship tannoy telling us that we would be moving in the near future and that for the next seven days most of us would wish we were dead, that we would pray for ‘terra firma’ under our feet, and that only those of us who were hardy sailors would not be affected by seasickness.
That night we went to sleep in our hammocks and when we awoke in the morning we noticed the swaying of our hammocks and knew we were at sea.
The OIC troops was right, as the day wore on we were all suffering the effects of seasickness. As I was in the bow of the boat, I decided to go to the middle of the ship on deck. It was quite an unbelievable sight, it seemed that I was looking up a tremendous hill to other ships perched on top of it, and a few minutes later we were on top of a hill looking down into a valley with other ships looking quite small against the enormous waves, so vast that they tossed these enormous ships about like corks on an ocean wave. The ships also rolled from side to side and to look up at the masts it seemed that they hovered almost stationary for a while before righting themselves. The creaking and straining of the ship was so loud that we wondered if the ship could take it, but of course it did. We were not used to such conditions. When it rained it came straight at us, with nothing to deflect it, it came in almost parallel and saturated us although we wore our monsoon capes. The wind passing through the ship rigging howled and screamed, making sleep pretty difficult.
Because the Germans had conquered France, they had set up their submarines just near Brest on the Atlantic coast which meant that all our convoys had to go out halfway across the Atlantic to try to avoid the U-Boats. To make detection harder the convoy also changed course quite often, zigzagging across the Atlantic so that any prying submarines could never be sure where we were going.