Arthur’s Tale – Part V

The seasickness phase lasted for seven days, during which time some personnel were very ill and had to go into ship hospital, others just lay anywhere on deck vomiting, but the ship crew came round every morning hosing down the decks with high power hoses and any luckless beings who did not move quickly enough were hosed down as well.  I remember that at the height of my seasickness spell I fell onto a flat trolley in a passageway and as the ship pitched and tossed it rolled from one end of the passage to the other and I was so sick that I couldn’t move and I was past caring anyway.

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Once the seasickness phase was over we were able to take notice of what was going on around us and we were beginning to come closer to the tropics where the sears were not so rough.

A Catalina flying boat would approach the convoy almost every day first signalling in morse because wireless communication was not allowed, radio silence was a general rule.  It would then circle the convoy before flying over it.  They were ideal for spotting submarines from the air because submarines show up as a shadow on the water from above.  It also gave the aircraft spotters some practise, but the Catalina is an aircraft to spot, and I suppose it also kept the authorities posted as to our progress.

The main ship in our convoy was the commodore ship.  This was positioned right in the middle of the convoy and it would give out a series of blasts on its siren, and the whole convoy would change direction depending upon the number of blasts, they would turn left or right or at an angle.

The converted aircraft carrier would, weather permitting, sound its siren then drop back from the troop ships and send up an aircraft.  This would circle the convoy and go well beyond its boundaries looking for submarines or other surface ships that might be a threat to our convoy,  it would then return to its ship and the ship would move up and resume its place in the convoy.  The converted aircraft carrier was really an old cargo ship that had had its top decks taken off and fitted with a raised flat deck the whole length of the ship and a platform lift to take the aircraft up or down.  As far as we knew it only had two aircraft on board, at least that was as many as we saw at one time.

The cruiser always stayed in the centre of the convoy, having the heaviest guns I suppose its job was to offer heavy fire power if we encountered enemy surface ships.

The destroyers were the workhorses of the convoy, mostly on the outskirts of the convoy offering a shield against enemy attack but occasionally charging through the convoy issuing instruction by semaphore or loudspeaker, like shepherds rounding up their sheep keeping them all in order, often chasing up the slower moving cargo ships.

Eventually, we pulled into Freetown in Sierra Leone, but before we did a section of the convoy broke away and headed for North Africa or so we assumed as they headed in that direction.

The rest of the convoy, the bulk of it but with only four destroyers, the cruiser, and converted aircraft carrier, anchored off of Freetown to take on supplies.  In those days the tsetse fly was rife and caused sleeping sickness, so we were not taken into port, but anchored off shore in the hope that the flies could not fly that far to affect any of the troop ships.  We only stayed a couple of days to take off supplies before we were off again, this time heading south, and as we went further south the hotter it became so we changed our blue uniforms for our tropical kit of shorts and khaki shirt.

We were not paid any pay while on board, the authorities gave us five shillings every two weeks which enabled us to buy cigarettes and toiletries from the ship’s shops.  We also had to buy a special soap to wash and shower.  Washing was done in salt water, and as ordinary soap did not lather in salt water, we had to buy the special salt water soap from the ship’s shop, which we thought was a bit of a liberty, as we felt that it should have been supplied by the services.

Fresh water was reserved for drinking only, and was turned on for one hour each morning for us to fill our water bottles and that was our ration for the day.  We could buy tea or bottled drinks from the ship’s shop if we had the money.  We carried in our kit tucked under our water bottle emergency rations in case of shipwreck, a tin of concentrated chocolate designed as so we were told to keep us alive for two days.  We also carried a tube of tablets which we found out later to be amphetamines, but were under strict orders that we could only use them on the orders of a commissioned officer.

We all had to assemble each morning in the presence of an officer and had to gargle salt sea water and potassium permanganate, as a precaution to prevent the spread of infection.  We also had periodic medical checks, because keeping our clothes on, especially in the tropics, caused a lot of skin complaints, especially in the more tender parts of the body, and these were treated by painting gentian violet jelly on them.

We obviously had to wash our own clothes in salt sea water and have regular showers in salt water.  This made our bodies and clothes feel sticky and stiff which did no good for our skin.

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