|With the RAF in India #1 | HISTORY Page | Obituary Page ||
We travel up by train from Blackpool to Clydebank, to be herded on to our vessel in the fading light of the summer evening. In the general turmoil, strait-jacketed in full gear, juggling bulky kitbag over one shoulder, rifle slipping off the other, preoccupied with dodging the kitbag bobbing in front as we scramble from the dockside up metal gangways to the main deck, I don't get a clear view of the ship.
Just a glimpse of weathered crusting grey paint and large patches of rust, an impression that it's a small boat for a long voyage. Then we are harassed by flustered n.c.o.s attempting to impose order on the chaos, split into small groups, sent clattering below decks to stash guns in the armoury, collect life-jackets and hammocks in their place.
Bolstered by these new acquisitions, we lumber along ill-lit narrow passages, bouncing off unseen projections, tripping over unexpected doorway sills, in search of our quarters. All we've been told so far is that we've boarded a Dutch cargo vessel converted to duty as troop carrier— name sounds like the 'Boissevane' but don't ask me to spell it— while a delicate silence prevails about our destination. Though on that point most of us feel that the lectures endured before embarking on this trip, touching on the perils of jungle warfare and ways of dealing with fiendish Japanese booby-traps, must be relevant.
Scuttling down confined stairways, subdued by the fact that we're well below the waterline, we emerge into what has once been a cargo hold. Now it's roofed over by wide rectangular hollow metal beams, just about head high, carrying ventilation ducting, electrical wiring and sundry bits of hardware and piping, the space that's left intended as storage for kitbags and gear. Rows of long tables with solid wooden benches are fixed across the floor on either side of the central gangway. This is where we eat and sleep for the duration of the voyage.
Gratefully I ease out of constricting webbing and small packs, heft my kitbag into the nearest beam, wedging it with respirator, tin hat and other trappings to stop it rolling out, and find that the life-jacket provides a comfortable cushion on the hard bench while I get my breath back. Taking advantage of the lull, the deprived bring out carefully hoarded dimps and light up. A corporal promptly sticks his head round the entrance, sniffs, and bawls out the smokers before giving us a few practical tips on the secure slinging of hammocks between the beams, over the tables, at nights.
He also hands out duties: I find myself among the orderlies allotted to the sergeants' mess deck, to cart meals from the galley, clear away, keep the place tidy, and do anything else they think up, a job that I'm doomed with until our arrival at foreign shores. As we sit around, talk, and weigh up our new surroundings, more squads come staggering through the rear doorway, noisily re-enacting our pantomime of settling in. The place begins to feel cramped and confined. I dream that night of being Jonah in the whale, with company.
At breakfast next day I claim a corner at the gangway end of the table. Seated next to me is Nick, a quiet character with a ready smile. We became acquainted while struggling to master wayward hammocks last night, though I have a conviction I've met him some place before. Sitting opposite is an older man, listening, amused, to our earnest exchanges about proxy votes in the imminent general election and debate about how far votes from overseas troops will affect the results, just waiting to chip in. He introduces himself as Jack, turns out to be a fellow left-winger.
Out of the blue he asks "Are you two brothers ?" and seems surprised at our denials. Then I realise why Nick looks so familiar to me; we have more in common than metal-rimmed specs and a drastic RAF short-back-and-sides—facially and in build we are look-alikes, though Nick can give me perhaps an inch in height. It turns out that we are both in our mid-20s, while Jack admits to 39. We are aghast that anyone so ancient should be posted overseas at this stage in the war; Jack agrees vehemently.
The first few days afloat are lost in relentless time-filling routines. Fatigues, lifeboat drills, physical training, medical checks, lectures, inspections, more fatigues, near total distraction while we struggle to get our sea-legs. At sea for the first time in my short life, I find the sight of a vast watery sheet stretching to far horizons impressive, am intrigued by the infinite patterns traced out by the foam of the ship's passage and the endlessly shifting hues of the sea as the day changes. But it soon begins to pall. Then we slip out of a calm but cheerless Bay of Biscay to round Gibraltar in darkness, awake to find ourselves in the Med, sea and sky a stunning cobalt blue, the sun warm and bright. Our spirits soar with the temperature.
An easing of routines means we get more time to ourselves, though this is no pleasure cruise even if the war in Europe has just ended. We are deprived of news of the outside world by an imposed radio silence. The few books I brought with me are long read, and it's impossible to get anything from the ship's library, which was emptied early in the voyage and nothing ever returned. The ship today has laundry festooned from every available support, fluttering over decks littered with pallid sun-worshippers. In the evening some enthusiasts are moved to put on a show, a spontaneous slap-dash affair that goes down well with all who manage to get within earshot.
There's no peace, no escape from the eternal noise of people talking, arguing, shouting, singing; tannoy speakers ceaselessly blare out orders and instructions; every loose bit of metal on board rattles in sympathy with the ever-present vibration of the ship's engines. It's worse below decks where the mechanical rumble is amplified in the enclosed space and, despite the hissing of over-worked ventilators, it's stuffy and claustrophobic.
Any break in the monotony is welcomed: dolphins leaping alongside, the passing of a fishing vessel, an ethereal coastline glimpsed on the horizon, all provoke a rush to the rails. When we pass an island, amateur navigators drag out tatty maps, relate guestimates of speed with the passing of time to decide that it's Pantelleria.
There is excitement aboard when we pause at Port Said to refuel and take on fresh grub before entering the Suez Canal, but no one is allowed off ship, and a welcoming fleet of bumboats, loaded with fruit and other temptations, is routed by a crew member with a well-aimed waterhose. We stare disconsolately from our isolation across the docks toward modern-looking buildings and dream of a half-forgotten past life spent on dry land. The only scenery in our immediate vicinity is a pipeline and some artificial-looking palm trees, more like a shoddy film set than the real thing.
When we start down the Canal, it is at a leisurely pace; even so, we create a miniature tidal wave in our wake that races and tumbles along, threatening to wash down the built-up side banks. The whole landscape has a certain technicolor intensity and brilliance under the glare of the sun, red weathered sandstone hills on the one side, flat dusty desolation on the other, while the yellow sandy bottom turns the shallow canal water to a luminous grass green. We glide sedately toward the Great Bitter Lake, passing isolated military sites on the bank, whose inmates gather to cheer us on, exchange insults, tell us we're going the wrong way. . .
Once we invade the tropical waters of the land-locked Red Sea we long to return to the pleasant dry heat of the Canal and Gulf of Suez. The oppressive humidity here saps both patience and resolve. To crowd into our submarine quarters for meals is like being immersed in a tank of warm water; with temperatures shooting into the upper 80s, groaning ventilators do little to ease matters. Up on deck where we listlessly parade clad only in shorts, obligatory life-jackets hooked over one shoulder, it's only marginally better. The surface of the sluggish sea, sparkling with fragmented reflections of the overhead sun, heaves and radiates heat like molten metal, looks solid enough to walk on. Some of us are near mad enough to jump overboard and try it.
At night there is a general exodus to sleep on the hard boards of the open deck, stretched out on blankets, life-jackets a convenient pillow. Before dawn crackling flashes of lightning precipitate showers of warm rain; though it's still pitch black I know I have to rise to start fatigues—we are cheated of half an hour's sleep now and again just to catch up with time as we travel east—and take a short cut through the recreation room, stumbling over recumbent semi-nude bodies to get below decks. I grin as Jack's definition of a recreation room comes to mind: a room set aside for the recreation of the troops, but closed in the morning for cleaning, closed in the afternoon for briefing lectures, closed in the evening while the welfare committee deliberates, and used as sleeping quarters in between times.
I start my daily stint between the cooks' galley and sergeants' mess and realise that I have at last become inured to the smells, grease and scurrying cockroaches. Later I try to keep a straight face at hearing heartfelt complaints from Nick and Jack who are among sleepers caught out by the crew zealously hosing down the decks as part of early morning routine. Being on fatigues has advantages after all; hope they get their blankets dry.
We round the tip of Arabia, visible through the haze as distant pink hills slashed by mauve shadows, and the weather freshens as we move down the Gulf of Aden. At first the change is a welcome relief, then the going gets rough as we run into the monsoon winds of the Arabian Sea. The ship develops a leisurely roll that introduces an element of hazard to meal times, when full tea urns tend to slide gracefully along the tilting table top, scattering plates and cutlery. Occasionally, insecurely stored kitbags roll out of overhead racks on to the diners below.
It's worse at night. Each table has a set of metal utensils for bringing food from the galley—vast pans for morning porridge, bulky urns for tea, an assortment of metal jugs and bowls—usually stacked against the side walls when not in use. Now the rolling has reached the point that sends these dishes careering across the floor between the tables to the opposite wall and, after a brief pause, tosses them, clattering, back the way they came, creating an unending racket that makes for a restless night.
I am with Nick measuring the degree of roll as the ship sways from side to side by noting the fluctuating level of the contents of a half-empty bottle of brown sauce laid on its side on a table, when Jack comes down from the decks looking decidedly queasy. He shows no immediate interest in our experiment, but hastily slings his hammock and clambers into it. Once isolated from the ship's motion, he recovers enough to suggest that if we're such bloody keen scientists we should get up on deck and see things at first hand.
We go, staggering along the gangway as the floor alternately rises under our feet and then disconcertingly falls away. All portholes on the upper decks are clamped shut, and we begin to entertain doubts about venturing out on to the apparently deserted deck. We don't stay long; the view is awesome. The horizon zooms heavenwards while the ship seems bent on diving into the deeps in free fall, rolling askew as it slides over the water, then the bows heave toward the sky as the horizon abruptly drops out of sight...
We hastily turn about and struggle down to the bowels of the ship, giving Jack the grim satisfaction of seeing us crawl into our hammocks to recover. At such moments you appreciate what a boon to humankind, especially travellers on the high seas, the hammock can be. You lie back and the world sways and swings about you: your hammock becomes the only stable point in an insecure and very fluid universe.
It is when the winds die down and some calm descends and people drift back on to the decks that the rumours begin. If all the reported sightings are to be believed, then the Arabian Sea is swarming with Japanese submarines, though I never meet anyone who has actually seen one. In the broad light of day it's easy to dismiss it all as imagination and suggestion.
Waking at dead of night brings the thought that it's just possible there's a genuine sighting buried in the hearsay. Brooding over the distance and convoluted route between hammock and deck, I rate my chances of surviving a torpedo attack as pretty low. I drift off to sleep again swearing that if I succeed in setting my feet on dry land I shall never go to sea again.
Eighteen days after setting out from the Clyde, I go on deck after taking the sergeants their early morning cuppas to find that we are surrounded by fishing boats, with a city skyline looming out of the mists. The word "Bombay" passes round and the rails are soon crowded with people attracted from below decks, all obviously as relieved as I am to have survived the threat of the Jap underwater navy. A request via the tannoy for everyone to return to stations is cheerfully ignored in the excitement.
The announcer gets stroppy, sternly declares that this is an order and must, repeat must, be obeyed immediately. By the time we are allowed back on deck, shouldering re-issued rifles and weighed down with our possessions, the ship is at the dockside, where a military band braves the steadily falling monsoon rain to serenade us with an unappreciated welcome.
We disembark, to assemble in the shelter of a vast shed. Over my shoulder I catch a final view of our ship, now a scruffy disappointment against other vessels in the harbour, as we shuffle through the downpour to clamber aboard a convoy of covered trucks. One of the drivers waves a damp newspaper and shouts that Labour have won the general election, but we are too wet and miserable to do more than register that fact as we depart in a shower of spray to the RAF transit camp at Worli. ■
Published in Tash #11 (Tommy Ferguson, 1994)
© Harry Turner, 1999.
|Sole © RFV&SDS, 2009.|