4 - A Pleasure Cruise on an Ocean-Going Liner - Or Two

Some six-hundred-and-forty white-flashed cadets stepped off the train at Greenock railway station on 25 August 1941 and stood around close to the pier with suitcases ready for loading on to a lighter. The weary check of name, rank and number was made by the transit personnel and then we too were loaded. A short sail followed to the grey-painted Duchess of Atholl at anchor in the middle of the Firth of Clyde where we embarked. It was the only sailing we were to do for a while. Down the gangways we descended into the depths of the liner and to one of the many mess decks where we scrambled to plant ourselves and our kit on the hammock occupying the most favourable position - I never resolved where that position was, since I calculated that a U-boat torpedo coming through the thin skin of the hull made such a choice irrelevant. The convoy had begun to form up.

We had expected to wait for possibly a day or so before the starting gun was fired. Occasionally the ship's engines were turned over and we rushed to the upper deck to watch the activity. But it was all false alarms and merely the engineer officer below checking out his equipment. To pass the time, poker schools for the gamblers spread like a disease, as did 'patience' for those wishing to retain their money. Smoking became fashionable for the many who had never tried it before. I took up pipe smoking thinking it might be as pleasant as its often attractive aroma. It was disgusting in my view however, and both the tobacco and the pipe (which oddly I had been able to buy on board) were ditched in the Firth.

Soon the rumblings of possible mutiny were circulating. We heard that this had happened on one of the other ships of the convoy, but we could not have the rumour verified. We thought it might be true though, when on our seventh day aboard, the friendly lighter pulled up alongside and the tannoy announced that we were going to take a little walk. Off-loaded at Gourock and lined up three-thick, we went on our way to the Cloch lighthouse, about two miles to the south. It was all quite pleasant. The countryside around the Firth was at its best and we appreciated the break from the monotony of our prison ship. Until the order came to don our gas masks, to simulate a gas attack, that is. If we had been able to identify the nut who had dreamed up this diversion, there is little doubt that he would be resting at the bottom of the Firth to this day, tied to one of the heavy boulders lining the shore. To the uninitiated, simply wearing a gas mask is none too pleasant; marching a mile or two wearing one is not very far removed from torture.

We fumed and fretted for another week when, on the afternoon of the fourteenth day, the crew were seen and heard scampering about. Smoke started to belch from the funnels of some of the ships as the boiler fires were lit. We each got out our sweepstake ticket, to check the date/time stated on it, and weighed up the possibility of winning the jackpot, ie the ticket date/time nearest to the actual date and time of our ship breasting the submarine boom stretched across the Firth from the Cloch lighthouse to Dunoon on the opposite shore. The ships juggled for position in line-astern as they poked their way out of the net and headed south for the open sea. Darkness fell as we turned right, towards the west, and the Mull of Kintyre dropped away behind us. I felt a pang as I left my homeland, not to see its beautiful hills and mountains for months to come and possibly never again.

We were elated, of course, at being on our way at long last. That joystick was getting closer and closer, so we slept well. When we awoke next morning there was a deathly silence. No engine noise, no activity, no nothing; not even weather when we climbed up to the promenade deck to check. The ship was not moving, the water was glassy, the fog was thick. ''Probably putting in to Belfast to pick up more troops'' quoth the usual know-it-all. After breakfast, the propellors began to turn and we set off in a direction known only to the man on the bridge with the compass. When the fog cleared we realised we were on course for the Dunoon boom and a full stop opposite Gourock, with one engine out of two, failed. They off-loaded us immediately and put us on a train to a transit camp at West Kirby near Liverpool; it was probably thought we would burn Wilmslow down if they had sent us back there, and they might have been right. Off we went to our dear ones again for a few days of blissful leave before returning to the transit camp. On 11 September 1941 we entrained back to the Clyde and boarded the more classy liner, the SS Stratheden. Two days later we fell in behind a convoy heading out through the boom, with fingers crossed for better luck this time.

All the time on both ships, of course, was the nagging fear of U-boat attack once we were at sea but, on this convoy, when the ships had deployed to their briefed stations, we saw that the convoy's central position was occupied by HMS Prince of Wales and that a deal more destroyers were present than on our previous convoy; so we felt a little safer. The great battleship was, however, sailing to her doom off Malaya just three months later. The weather roughened up somewhat in the first few days, causing a lot of sea-sickness amongst us which made life unpleasant when holed up below. The slowness of the convoy seemed to lead to the faster ships rolling more than one expected; the listing to left then right of the Prince of Wales, when she zig-zagged and presented herself broadside to the huge waves, was spectacular due to the great height of her superstructure. When we had tracked about one third of the distance across the Atlantic, we accelerated away from the convoy during the night and, now at full speed, soon sighted the shores of Nova Scotia.

We docked at Halifax and were transferred within a few hours to a special train which was to take us to Toronto's No 1 Manning Pool, a transit camp which had been the rink of one of Canada's top ice-hockey teams. We were getting really close to aeroplanes now.


Copyright William C. Wood 1997.