Our honorary member Dan Robertson has passed away.
His funeral was at 10.30am Friday 19th of August at Parkgrove, Friockheim.
by Daniel Robertson
Table of Contents
The Early Years
The Merchant Navy Years.
Lynn has asked several times to record periods in my life from an early age
so the family can be aware of what my life was like, especially the early
years. As I can recall most of the time up to fairly recently I thought I’d
better make a start to it. I’m well aware that at my age now (90) the memory
does diminish and it’s difficult to recall things that happen of late.
The Early Years
Best to start at the beginning, I was born at 12 Parker Place, Broughty Ferry
on 21-10-1922 at 7.55am. Apparently I had to go to the Dundee Royal
Infirmary at 18 months old to have an operation for gland trouble to the
right hand side of my neck and the scar was visible for many years after. It
doesn’t seem possible but I can recall being bathed by a nurse on a stool by
the side of a bath in Hospital, surprisingly it has always been clear to me
about that occasion.
Schooling for me started just before my fifth birthday at the Western
Primary School just minutes from where I lived – it is now a medical clinic
(Grove Health Centre).
I can remember my first teacher, a Miss Mann, then Miss Gilchrist and Miss
Croll. A Miss Willcox was my last teacher. A Mr Byrse was the Head Master at
the Western before I left and there were 2 choices of subject to decide which
secondary school you would attend. The Grove Academy, which was fee paying
teaching commercial subjects and the Eastern Technical School teaching
practical subjects. The Eastern is the one I went to. The Grove became a
similar free school 2 years later and that is where my 2 sisters Ella and
The headmaster at the Eastern was Mr Leslie Reid, Mr Dalgleish being the
senior English Teacher, Mr Seath for Maths and Miss Wilson for Science.
I enjoyed the time I spent there, until I left to start my apprenticeship at
James F Low Engineers in Monifieth (People called it The Monifieth Foundry)
That was on 3rd August 1937, but more of that later.
I attended St. Mary’s Scottish Episcopal church in Queen Street, Broughty Ferry.
I was baptised by Rev. A.W. Wheatley and confirmed by Bishop Kenneth in
Brechin on Palm Sunday 1937.
As our family were church members it was natural that I would join the
church Cubs and follow into the Scouts – the 3rd Broughty Ferry / 25th Dundee Group.
I sang in the church choir and this meant practice nights – boys on a
Thursday and the men on a Friday. We also had a practice on Sunday morning
before the service. Bible class in the afternoon and the evening service to
Mr Brown was the choir master and church organist who let us know when we
were not up to scratch.
Sunday school summer picnics were quite an occasion and the venue was always
the Linlathern Estate Grounds.
Getting there and back was the best part of the outing. We sat on forms on a long flat cart which was pulled by a Clydesdale horse named “Rob Roy”. It was quite a long way to go as the estate was situated on the Arbroath Road on the outskirts of Broughty Ferry.
Mr Brown would occasionally invite two or three of the older boys to have
Breakfast at his house after the early morning practice. He was unmarried
but was not a young man and lived with his very elderly mother. I didn’t
look forward to the breakfasts as his cooking left a lot to be desired.
Bacon and eggs and black pudding etc. swimming in dreadful black grease.
I was a choir member up until 14 to 15 years when my soprano voice broke. At
that stage we were having a rehearsal of Handel’s Largo after evening
service and the congregation stayed on to hear it. The organ seat was a long
bench which enabled the organist to reach the many foot pedals and I was to
help by sitting at the end and turning the music pages when he nodded his
head. Unfortunately, he was as usual quite active and pushed me off the bench
to land on the foot pedals with result there was a dreadful din. I was never
asked to do this again.
The Cubs would meet weekly in the Church Hall and we would learn the basics
ready for when we graduated to the Scouts at the age of 10 or so. Once you
were at the Scouts we would meet weekly in an old school building in David
Street near the beach area.
We were formed into groups of six or so, where we would learn about a range
of activities and when they were completed successfully a linen badge was
given and sewn onto your jersey that was part of the uniform. Each of the
“sixes” had a bird name. In my case it was the Hawks. Each group was led by
a “sixer” and a “second”. Once you had reached that rank it was then that
you had to instruct the juniors.
There were outdoor activities which were carried out in the grounds of a mansion in West Ferry. It was called Ashwood and it was owned by the District Commissioner of Scouts – a Mr Leslie Smith, a fairly wealthy Jute Manufacturer.
When it came to the annual summer camp we usually camped at his summer estate. It was called Kinclune Estate near Pearsy outside Kirriemuir in Angus.
It had all the facilities for camping and practising all the outdoor
activities. I was fortunate to have spent the school holiday period there,
prior to moving up from the Cubs to the Scouts. Once I attended as a cub and
there were also scouts and older Rover scouts there too.
Arrangements had been made with some shops in Kirriemuir to supply us daily
with our food needs and the local bus service would drop it off at the
nearest road so it was a daily chore for us to collect the shopping from the
bus driver. It was a good two miles away and a rota was set up to make sure
that everyone did their bit.
Setting up camp was good training for newcomers – which meant digging
latrines etc. We could always supplement our meals by using our home made
bits of branches to catch rabbits.
The nearest church was 3 miles away so it was a route march to attend the
Sunday service. Mr Smith’s chauffeur would use his Rolls Royce saloon to
carry groups of boys to the church so it was quite an experience to arrive
in such a luxurious fashion.
Apart from the annual camp we had weekend camps, which were more local.
Transport to these were carried out using our own trailer assisted by
pulling ropes attached to the wheel hubs.
When I was growing up most boys and girls liked to earn a bit of extra
pocket money by delivering newspapers or milk to local homes.
One of my class mate’s father had a milk round and when a vacancy occurred I
was able to get a job. The man was James Kennedy Sr. who lived in the steel
houses at Craigiebank. He had a saloon car that had rear seats outside, but
he converted that area with a platform that carried space for holding the
milk cans and bottles. The cans were ten gallon ones that carried the milk
with taps to run the milk into whatever receptacle was required. There was a
dairy situated at the Stannergate and he kept his vehicle there and
collected the milk at Batchelor’s Farm which was situated at the back of
There was a cottage nearby where the farm hand and his family lived. He and
his two daughters, Margaret and Alice Sneezby did the milking and supplied
the milk that we delivered locally. No health and safety then and the ten
gallon cans were topped up by filtering the milk straight from the cows.
It was an early start every morning and I would usually be there by 6am
waiting for the car to arrive. When the weather was cold, it was good to
warm your hands on the milk cans.
The Claypots area was close to the West End area of the Ferry and there were
many large buildings and dwellings that we delivered to.
After a while I had a box fitted to my bike and while the two other girls
delivered locally I would deliver to the homes that were mostly in the
Broughty Ferry area.
It was a seven day working week and we also had an afternoon delivery after school. I can’t recall how much we were paid, but it was only about 4 shillings a week, I think.
During school holidays I helped out by cycling to the dairy at the Stannergate to wash the milk cans and the bottles.
I must have done this for about a year and a half.
Alice Sneezby eventually married my Uncle Tommy and Margaret married Daniel Robertson, a son of one of my grandfather’s brothers.
By the time that the Second World War started, volunteers of local people
were needed to do evening stints as Firewatchers on buildings of value.
The Scouts were asked to assist in this and the local Eastern School was
allocated to us. It entailed picking up volunteers from their homes and
taking them back when they had finished their time of duty.
We assisted them by checking the buckets of sand (for putting out fires).
Also checking that water with stirrup pumps were all in their allotted areas
– mostly in the upper stories and loft areas.
We only helped during the dark evenings as it really was difficult to sometimes see, due to the “no lights” orders. Some areas were protected by sandbags and bricked entrances, so I think that the volunteers liked what we did to help.
I had started my apprenticeship before the war started so a lot of my time
was taken up by my “Fire Fighting” chores. I had to eventually give it up as
the Foundry in Monifieth was working on war work and we were all asked to
work extra hours, which I did even though I was only an apprentice.
Finishing my education in 1937, I was fortunate to arrange a job at James F
Low & Co Ltd in Monifieth on 3rd August 1937.
An apprenticeship lasted 5 years and during that time you would learn all
about the production of machines that were to be used in Dundee and
worldwide. They specialised in all aspects of the machines used in the jute
trade. Being a local firm Low’s were well placed to supply equipment for
these machines to be manufactured.
As an apprentice your training would cover all aspects of skill in machine
manufacture. At its peak the Foundry had about 1,000 employees so there were
lots of different skills to learn.
When the war started in 1939, like all engineering firms nationally, we had
to change our production methods to whatever was needed for the war effort.
New skills had to be learnt and one of those was machines for the production
of five hundred pound bombs and parts for aircraft manufacture. Machines for
all of these were needed for increased production nationwide.
With the previous call-up of some of the male employees, women were starting
to fill the vacancies wherever possible.
Apprentices had their training schedules changed and did their share in all
the areas of production. This was an excellent opportunity to learn new
skills and I was fortunate to be transferred to all areas, finishing up near
the end of my apprenticeship in the Toolroom. We were producing more skilled
products than normal and we all worked lots of extra hours and even the
apprentices were included in this.
The Merchant Navy Years.
I decided after my apprenticeship was finished in 1942 to volunteer to join
the Merchant Navy.
Being in a reserved occupation I thought it unlikely that I would be allowed
to leave my current job, but decided to try.
Luckily for me there had been a precedent as an apprentice, older than me
who finished his apprenticeship in 1940, had been allowed to join the Merchant Navy.
His father who now worked in the Foundry had been at sea himself as an
engineer and after leaving the sea had become a representative of the
shipping company he had sailed with. This was the Port Line (a subsidiary of
the Cunard White Star Line). So it was natural that his son would follow in
that career. He joined in 1940 and came ashore in 1941 to study for his
second Engineer certificate. Having succeeded in doing so, he was waiting to
be recalled back for war service.
While he was waiting he started back in the Foundry – he was called Bill
Shand and worked alongside me in the Toolroom and I used to listen to the
recounting of his time at sea.
Eventually the Merchant Navy authorities did get in touch and he was told to return to the Merchant Navy Pool.
As it was near the end of my final year I asked if I could join too and his
father contacted the Port Line and managed to get me an offer of a position
with them. I accepted the offer and after a lot of negotiation managed to get
my release from the Foundry. I joined Bill on his return to the Port Line
and joined the ship with him. That was in June 1942 and we set out with our
rail passes to join the “Port Jackson” in Cardiff.
It was a long rail journey and we arrived there in the morning and set out
for the dock area where the ship was berthed. It was a surprise for me when
I saw the “Port Jackson” as I had never seen a ship as big before.
We reported to the Chief Engineer and he asked a lot of questions. He
interviewed Bill Shand and passed him for duty and once he knew my
background he said that I would soon get into the routine and passed me too.
Bill was to be the “Junior Fourth” and I was one of the three Juniors. Bill’s
cabin was located on the port side and mine was on the starboard side next
to what was the wireless operators cabin. There were ten engineers and three
freezer engineers. The wireless engineers cabin was specially reinforced
with concrete blocks and extended over mine so that was quite reassuring.
The Port Jackson was a refrigerator ship and normally used to carry food
stuff. I spent the first few days getting familiar with my responsibilities
in the engine room.
Bill Shand was a good help as he had already served on another of the
After the restrictions at home with food rationing, the meals we were given
were absolutely marvellous and I soon started to put on weight.
The total engineering staff was 10 for the main engines cover and 3 fridge
We set sail for South America on July 8th 1942 and as we did not travel in
convoy, but as an independent ship, the journey across the Atlantic was
uneventful and we arrived at our first port of call La Plata on 1st August
As we carried no cargo we started to load frozen meat and other tinned
On to Buenos Aires for more cargo and then to Montevideo for the same.
It was a quick turnaround from there and shore time for us was pretty
short, so there was not a great deal of opportunity for sightseeing. One
evening I went ashore for a drink, at what seemed to be a fairly large
restaurant and was very surprised to see some German sailors there.
They were survivors of the battleship Graf Spee and we had seen their ship as we
entered the harbour, where her Captain had scuttled her. I had assumed that
the crew would have been interned, but obviously not and they seemed to be
Once fully loaded we set off for home and were due back to unload in
Liverpool. Things happened during that next week or so that let me see that
it was not going to be as uneventful a trip as the outward one.
Being a fairly fast ship we travelled alone and sailed in a zig zag fashion
to make it more difficult for the U boats to accurately discharge their
torpedoes. One week out we spotted a lifeboat filled with crew members. We
were told never to stop to pick people up as the Germans were guilty of
using these poor people as decoys. Instead we reduced speed a bit and threw
them a line and got them on board and cast their lifeboat adrift and
proceeded at full speed ahead.
There must have been about 15 to 20 men and only one officer, the rest were
laskers from India or Pakistan.
By now I was able to carry out my duties with the two other watch mates. A
Yorkshire chap who was the Senior Third Engineer and a Welshman who was the
Senior Fourth Engineer. Bill Shand was the Junior Fourth Engineer but he was
on another shift.
I was the Junior and stayed with the same two chaps for all of my time with
the ship. We were scheduled to work 4 hours at a time and 8 hours off and
our shift was 12 to 4 daytime and then 12 to 4 at night.
On 27th August 1942 I was on the 12 to 4 watch from midnight when suddenly
the order came from the bridge, ” full steam ahead”. That was the two
Seniors responsibility and as we had two Diesel engines, this involved
notching up the control levers. This had to be done one notch at a time and
very slowly as you can’t suddenly jump to maximum speed and they did this by
taking one engine each.
I still had my routine to carry out and wondered what was happening. It was
always very hot in the engine room and I usually stood between the engine
controls to get the advantage of the big cooling fans directly above. It
felt safer there than down the driving shaft tunnels, where we had to check
the main bearings of the propeller shafts.
Suddenly we could hear a crash and soot and carbon came down the extractor
fans from above. We only wore a pair of white overalls and a beret because
of the heat and some debris fell on my head, fortunately my beret saved me
as a little bit of shrapnel landed on my head. It was just a small piece so
I wasn’t hurt. I picked it up and it was still warm. I kept it for a
souvenir for years but eventually lost it.
I was glad when I had to go up and waken the Junior at 8 bells (15minutes
before the watch ended) I later learned that we had been attacked by U-516
submarine, who while on the surface hit us with two shell shots, one through
the funnel and one into the side of the ship well above the water line.
We were firing back at the flashes of their deck gun until our gunnery
officer realised that they were also firing at our gun flashes, and stopped
our firing. We managed to slip away in the heavy fog.
Believe it or not, sixty years after this incident, I had a friend at
Holyrood Church in Carnoustie who checked on the history of U-516 submarine
for me. It turned out that first while submerged, it had fired 4 torpedoes
at us and missed with them all. Their records showed that after they
surfaced they had fired 14 shells at us and had only stopped as their
Captain thought that our firing was too accurate. We certainly had a lucky
Anyway we made our way back safely to Liverpool and discharged our cargo.
As our trip had not been of long duration we only qualified for a few days
leave to home, after which Bill and I returned to Liverpool where the ship
was being loaded for our next trip. Looking at the cargo it was obvious that
we were going somewhere where there were forces as our cargo was tanks,
guns, lorries and everything that was needed by the troops.
By then we knew it was going to be a longish trip and after touching in to
Belfast Lough we set sail. First stop was Freetown on the East coast of
Africa but we didn’t get ashore there. We were however inundated by native
boats all trying to sell us souvenirs. Funnily enough they all claimed to
have names like McGregor, McKenzie and other Scottish names.
Leaving there we travelled down the East coast of Africa, round Cape Town to
eventually tie up at Durban. Then up the West coast to Aden and through the
Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific to Freemantle in
Australia, that was the port for the town of Perth.
Next across the Australian Bight to Port Pirie, from there to the Port of
Sidney, I assume for fuel, as we did not offload anything. We were able to
go ashore there to see the sights.
Next to New Zealand to Napier, Auckland for some stores and then all the way
back to where we had come from – through the Suez Canal to Port Said then to
Haifa (Palestine) where all the guns etc. were offloaded.
As we were now clear of our cargo it was back to Australia and then back to
New Zealand to pick up our usual cargo of frozen food. On board we had a
group of Australian soldiers who were going back home. Crossing the Pacific
we ran into a very calm swell and the soldiers suffered with terrible sea
sickness and spent a lot of time in their hammocks.
Leaving Sidney it was all the way to Bluff in New Zealand – the most
southerly point in the South Island. We loaded up there and then on to Port
Chalmers which was the port for Duneden. Now being full again of cargo it
was time to return to the UK but not the same way that we had come. Instead
it was to Christbal and through the Panama Canal and finally back to
Liverpool safely on 14th July 1943.
Most of us on board were not “impressed” by the Senior Second Engineer and
because of this myself and many others decided to leave this ship at this
We were due nearly one months leave and at the end of it I had to contact
the Mercantile Marine Pool in London to get a new ship, so with a rail pass
I set off for London.
On the train I met a chap who was doing the same as me, he lived in Baxter
Park Terrace, Dundee but had never been to sea. We booked into the Merchant
Navy’s headquarters and the next day set off to the Pool Offices where the
Superintendent gave each of us a card to go to their offices, to see what
was on offer.
Before my parents had signed my papers to let me go to sea, my mother had
made me promise not to go on a tanker as they were extremely dangerous.
I was asked to agree to sign on to a new tanker which I wasn’t happy about
and politely turned it down. Tankers were a very high risk set up. The other
chap with me was turned down by all the ships as he had no previous
experience. They offered me another ship and it was for a tanker too, so I
again politely turned it down. Surprisingly even though he had no experience
the other chap was offered the tanker and accepted it. I later learned that
both tankers I had been offered, had gone down with all hands.
Now the ruling for the Merchant Navy was that you had only two refusals
after which you had to accept the third ship offered. This was the Empire
Usk and the next day I went to Surrey dock where she was berthed.
I asked the dock police at the dock gates where the Empire USK was and it
was a good distance from the dock gates. I knew that the Americans built
their own Liberty Type ships and sometimes called them names starting with
Empire… so I thought I might be lucky if it was one of them. However, I
didn’t expect to see what was in front of me. Certainly not any ship that
had been built by the Americans. There was the rust bucket that was
The Empire USK.
Once on board I had to make my way along the deck through piles of ashes to
report to the Chief Engineer. I knocked on his cabin door and it was
eventually opened by a figure with a cigarette hanging from his lips and a
glass of whiskey in his hand. I introduced myself and he said “oh you’re
the new fourth”.
He asked if I was familiar with a Coal Burning Reciprocating Engine and
after I said that I knew nothing about them, he said “oh you’ll be alright” and that was it – my interview was over.
He pointed me along the corridor to the Third Engineer’s cabin and knocked on
the door and told him who I was. The Third didn’t say a lot but I could see
he was all packed and ready to go. It turned out that he was about to join
The Queen Mary as 47th engineer. Anyway there was nothing I could do as the
Pool office had reminded me about the compulsory third option in choice of
I went back to the Merchant Navy Club where I was staying and next day was
off to join the USK. When I got there I stowed my gear in my cabin. The
Third had already gone, but the other third engineer next door filled me in
with anything I wanted to know. When I asked about the ashes all over the
deck, it appeared that they were from the ships boilers and normally would
be dropped overboard when at sea, but obviously not when we were docked.
When I asked about the crew he said there were 4 deck officers, 4 engineers
and 3 wireless operators. There was a gun crew of 2 soldiers and 2 sailors
and that was the full complement apart from 32 Chinese crew from Canton,
Shanghai and Hong Kong who did the labouring work. The USK was a collier
destined to supply other ships.
By the time we left for Blyth in Northumberland on 19th August 1943, with
the help of the Third Engineer, I had made myself familiar with all my
responsibilities in the engine room.
Next stop was Methil and on to Liverpool to meet up with the convoy. We filled up with coal and left on 28th August.
On 10th September we parted from the convoy and passed through Gibraltar and
then on to Malta. We discharged coal there and then on to Augusta, Sicily.
We were now empty and headed back to Gibraltar. We waited there till 21st
November and then sailed up the coast to Huelva in Spain.
As Spain was a neutral country it was not at war, but it was generally known
that Franco was pro German. Our cargo was to be iron ore and was syphoned
into the holds. Being very heavy there didn’t seem to be a lot of volume and
scarcely filled a quarter of the holds.
We then went back to Gibraltar to meet up with a convoy that was covered by
a Royal Navy escort. We did indeed come under attack and unfortunately the
ship ahead of us was hit by a torpedo. She was loaded with the same cargo as
us and she sank very quickly. Even as we passed by in our convoy line, rafts
and debris was still shooting up from the depths.
Anyway for us, safely to Liverpool and on December 16th 1943 we discharged.
After that we went up to the Clyde to The Tail “O” the Bank where a shipyard
“Kincaiges” was to work on our boilers.
After this was done we loaded up with coal and joined a convoy as before and
left then for Gibraltar on 19th February 1944.
We left Gibraltar and sailed along the North African coast to Oran. We
didn’t get ashore there, but anchored well out ready to pick up a convoy
across the Mediterranean to Augusta again.
Normally the weather in the Med is fairly calm, but when it isn’t, the sea
can be very choppy. Short waves unlike the Atlantic and we had difficulty in
keeping up with the convoys speed, so we dropped back and a British Frigate
stayed with us as escort. We were due in Augusta in Sicily and the sighting
of an Italian warship looked very dangerous. However, as it turned out, it
was one of their fleet and it surrendered to the Frigate and joined the rest
of the Italian fleet who had surrendered to our Navy. This was the end of
the war for the Italian fleet.
It was obvious to us then, that we were there to provide coal to the coal
burning ships that were in the area, so it was back and forth between
Augusta and Taranto to do just that.
A lot of the Italian ships that had surrendered were tied up in the inner
harbour at Taranto and we entered this harbour to coal a British ship that
was berthed there. One of the Ben Line ships. When we tied up alongside, we
met the skipper who was the only Brit on board with a skeleton staff of
On meeting the skipper, it turned out that he was from Broughty Ferry and
that he was the uncle of a Bert Webster who I later worked with at the NCR
factory in Dundee.
He was very keen to invite me on board for a drink or three, then suggested
we go for a sail in a yacht that he had acquired somehow. It was named Le
Albisola (The Albatross), so I agreed.
We climbed aboard with two of the Italian crew – one of them warned me that he had sometimes nearly sank her, because he was usually fairly tipsy. Fortunately, we got back OK but not before some hairy moments.
I didn’t see him after that as we went back to Augusta for re fuelling. I later learned that he had been staying in an hotel in Naples prior to going home and fell off the balcony to his demise. I confirmed this with his nephew Bert Webster many years later.
After Taranto we sailed up the East Coast (The Adriatic) to Bari for
recharging coal burning ships. Then back down the coast to Brindisi and we
dropped anchor in the harbour there, several hundred yards from the shore
barracks that had been taken over by the British Navy. Once anchored fore
and aft we were to spend many months there as a “mobile” collier, servicing
lots of coal burning ships with their fuel.
As it turned out it was the end of the European war before we knew that we
were likely to go home. Any thoughts that we might be on the move
disappeared when an American ship from Virginia Fields transferred their
cargo of coal into our holds. It was very sub-standard coal and more like
slate. So we settled down to a routine fuelling other ships.
For some of the personnel there was not much work to do. The second engineer, who was responsible for the boilers, had very little to do as only one boiler was in use at any time. The third engineers job was the main engine, but only routine maintenance was done as required. The chief engineer, being in overall charge had nothing to do unless we needed some advice.
I had plenty to do as I was responsible for all of the pumps etc. in the
engine room, but also the steam winches covering the various holds as they
were in almost constant use.
I wondered, with a crew of nearly 50 people, what it was going to be like being in such close proximity, while on a static vessel, for such a long period of time. To possibly help answer this question, I think that a review of the people on board might be interesting.
Starting with the Captain. T.W. Paske – a Welshman who always maintained
that he was the “Commodore of the company’s fleet”. This was Martyn & Martyn
of Cardiff. They only had the one ship, that being the USK. He was a very
short, tubby, bald man who constantly wore a beret and had a king sized
cigar hanging from his lips. He constantly asked “do you think that I look
like Winston Churchill?”
The First Mate – came from Leven in Fife. He was in charge of the Chinese
Crew and conversed with them in the broadest Fife accent you have ever
heard. One wonders how they ever understood him.
The Second Mate was called Telford – he came from Glasgow and someone that
you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
The Third Mate was an ex Public School boy. He was “frightfully golly” as
the saying goes. His sea going experience was on sailing yachts and had
almost no experience of Merchant Navy ships. He was quite the hairiest man I
have ever seen, although not on his head. I found him to be a bit of an
Now the Engineers –
The Chief Engineer was an American who came from Boston in the States. He
was never without a cigarette in his mouth and a whiskey glass in his hand.
The 2nd Engineer – a Welshman, who looked after the three boilers in the
engine room. His daily dress was working trousers and a half sleeved singlet
that must have been white at some time, but not in the last few years. He
liked a good drink and there was many a time when he wasn’t available for
The 3rd Engineer – responsible for anything to do with the main engine. I
got on quite well with him, but he kept himself to himself most of the time.
Now the Fourth Engineer – that was me. My job was to do my turn on watch when
we were at sea and look after the winches on deck and the other auxiliary
machines in the engine room.
1st Wireless Operator – an old seafarer. He became a good friend and taught
me how to play Chess.
2nd Wireless Operator – Kevin O’Dea – A young Glasgow chap who got himself
into a lot of scrapes.
3rd Wireless Operator – Paterson – A youngster from Edinburgh, who on his
first trip to sea ended up on 3 different ships which were all torpedoed. He
was a first class swimmer, which saved him. He was a nice chap but his
previous experience at sea had obviously had an affected on him.
Gun crew – 2 sailors from Royal Navy and 2 soldiers. Because of our
situation they had very little to do.
Chinese crew –
Chief Steward – responsible for all catering. He was also in charge of the
cleaners and mess stewards.
Bosun – in charge of all deck hands and responsible to the First Mate.
As engineers we all had a senior (greaser) in the engine room and 3 stokers
for the boilers.
Once we had all settled in to a routine the unusual mixture of people and
lifestyles led to strange happenings.
When a ship came alongside for coal, we had a team of Italian workers from
shore, whose job it was to fill coal into large square canvas sheets, looped
at the corner, which was then winched up from the hold and transferred to
the other ships. The man in charge of them had spent many years in America
but returned to Italy before the war, so at least communication was no
problem. While work was going on, it was wise to keep your porthole and
cabin door securely closed, because there was coal dust everywhere. The deck
officers and the wireless operators had little to do, so they used to go
ashore in the evenings and many times when they came back, they usually had
acquired something or other.
One night they came back with an Alsatian dog that they had picked up. They
gave it the name Rex and it stayed on board for some time.
Another thing they brought back on board was a glass bottle in the shape of
a lighthouse. It was about four feet high and full of the local vino. Goodness knows where they got that!
My evenings were usually spent playing chess with the senior wireless
operator. He was an elderly chap and he taught me to play, so we had a game
One day a Norwegian ship came alongside for coal. They tied up fore and aft
with sturdy ropes. This one had metal discs spaced out down the ropes.
Apparently this was general practice on some ships to deter any animals
using the ropes to board another ship pulled alongside. They were duly
loaded up and due to sail out the next day. I suddenly saw a sight that I
scarcely believed. Dozens of rats from their ship ran up the ropes and were
certainly not deterred by the metal discs. Some fell into the sea but many
boarded our ship and ran all over the place and even managed to get down the
ladder into the hold. Rex ran about chasing them, but I don’t know how many
there were, they disappeared so quickly. The Chinese deck hands tried to do
something, but the rats were nowhere to be seen, so we now had boarders with us.
The next morning the Norwegian ship left and we later learned that she had
hit a mine just outside the dock area, which seemed to verify that old tale
about “rats deserting a sinking ship”.
You didn’t see many of them about but I can recall watching one climb down
the ladder leading down to the hold.
Occasionally we used to get a very hot wind coming from Africa. It was
called A Sirocco and it was so hot that the cabins became unbearable. I
decided that if I could spend the night on one of the Gun Decks it might be
more comfortable. I borrowed a hammock and slung it between the girders
supporting the gun deck. So, with just a pair of shorts on, I managed to
settle down for what I thought would be a cooler night’s sleep.
I woke up to find a rat sitting on the hammock ropes about to have a nibble
at my big toe. After falling out of my hammock, I beat a hasty retreat to my
Another time I went with the cook to get stores from the freezer and fridge
on the top deck. On opening the freezer door, we were faced with a rat that
was partly frozen. It looked huge and with bristles like a porcupine. One of
the galley staff lifted it with a shovel and carried it outside to the deck.
You could see its eyes moving and as it started to thaw out, he gave it a
smack with the shovel. I don’t know what the crew did with it, but I
wouldn’t be surprised if it could have been part of their next meal. On that
deck they used to lay out squid that they bought and spread them out so the
tentacles hardened and that supplemented their usual rice salads.
My cabin was just directly opposite the galley where all the cooking was
done and I found that the crew used the stoves to make up little pellets of
opium that they put in pipes and smoked. The chief steward was the supplier
of the powder and he sold it to the crew. A lucrative side-line. He seemed to
get it from some of the ships that tied up to us. They also smoked hashish
which came from North Africa.
I watched a crew member preparing the little pellets that they smoked.
Powder was dropped into a water scoop and using a small brush dripped in
cold water, they wiped the surface of the pan in a circular motion in ever
decreasing circles which folded over the powder until it finished up as a
tiny ball of white powder about 3/16 of an inch in diameter. They put this
pellet into the bowl of a little clay pipe and smoked away until they fell
asleep dreaming vividly. On one occasion my Chinese donkey man and stoker
didn’t turn up for work and when I shouted down to their quarters they were
completely out of it.
Actually the Chief Steward offered me a partnership in his supply of the
powder – I refused him. He was a user himself and once ran amok over the
ship brandishing a hatchet from the galley.
The Captain should have put a stop to all this but he didn’t, as he was
probably getting his share of the profits.
A group of men had gone ashore for a drink one day, but when they returned
the 2nd wireless operator (Kevin O’Dea) was not with them. As it was getting
late they went back on shore and found him in a drinking dive amongst a
group of locals. He was quoting passages from a bible that he had with him.
When asked the next morning about the previous night he couldn’t remember
anything about it.
The next night the usual ones went ashore and on their return, Kevin and the
second mate had an argument and set about each other. It was quite a fight,
but again the next morning neither could remember anything about it, but if
you had seen the sight of Kevin’s face you would know there had been quite a
One afternoon while we were ashore we visited the local library and met the
manager who spoke good English and he offered to teach us the local
language. Four of us went once a week to the library and paid him with
cigarettes. I found it quite interesting, but the others didn’t continue. He
invited me to a get together with some of the locals but it turned out that
most were Italian Navy Officers and I didn’t enjoy mixing with them so that
was the end of the lessons.
I was on my own on deck one afternoon. Row boats were always approaching us,
trying to sell us their goods. They were a bit of a pest. Anyway a man rowed
alongside and tried to sell me a guitar. He rowed off still shouting to me,
trying to make me buy. When I thought about it I decided it would be a good
diversion and so I chased after him in the lifeboat. I caught up with him
and did a deal for a 200 pack of cigarettes. He was quite happy with that.
Cigarettes were always our currency.
Sometime later a ship came alongside and usually if the crew were English, it was nice to have a chat with them. This time the 4th Engineer was a professional guitarist and had taught mandolins and guitars to other members of the crew. He gave me a manual
written by Bert Weedon, a well-known musician back home.
I did try and practice some of the chords, but not very successfully. I
brought it home and kept it for many years in my loft, but eventually gave
it to a friend who worked at the NCR with me.
I don’t know how the Skipper managed it, but a local rowing boat suddenly
appeared alongside and was lifted aboard and settled on top of one of the
hold covers. Then soon after an American Jeep came alongside on a barge and
was also hoisted on deck.
One of the gunners had been a carpenter and with the 3rd engineer they
converted the boat into what they called a “motor” boat. They used parts
from the Jeep – the engine, seats, windscreen and anything else that would
help in converting it into a motor boat.
A big ceremony was arranged for the “launch” – actually lowering over the side. Unfortunately, it sat too high in the water and we had to fit two cast iron boiler spares to solve that problem. After a few adjustments it seemed to be OK. It could probably have
been quite fast but it was too dangerous and unstable to risk driving at a
The Skipper wanted to use it to go ashore to his monthly meetings with the
Navy and he wanted to do it in style. He had a flag at the stern and the
oldest crew member, a wee Chinese man, perched up front with a Marlin spike
ready to tie up at the shore. He always insisted that uniform had to be
Every other week I would take the ship’s lifeboat to the Army part of the
dock to replenish our food supplies. Not a very exciting array, because it
was usually bags of rice, flour and occasionally some tinned mutton.
Meals on board were getting a bit grim by now. Breakfast was always porridge, toast or rolls which the cook made. You always had to cut them open as they often had cockroaches in the flour. The flour was kept in the galley so easy access for the “beasties”. It did get to the point that when you went to our
saloon it was best to switch on a light as the cockroaches would fall from
the roof onto your head.
We found out that a ship had come out from England with spares for the
Merchant Navy ships. It included shorts and other clothing including suits
we could buy. We made several trips to the area where the ship was berthed
as all our clothes had gotten pretty shabby. The Chinese were also buying up
lots of clothes and we couldn’t understand why, until we realised that they
were reselling them at a profit to the Italians.
By now I was having a lot of pain in my legs and back. It was thought to be
sciatica and I eventually insisted that I go ashore to see an Army Doctor at
I saw a Major Ormiston who said I should go to the 133rd British General
Hospital outside of Brindisi and although the Skipper wasn’t all that
pleased, I went there on 20th February 1945 to receive treatment. The Major
was concerned that apart from the pain I had, I was also very pale and
With little improvement I was transferred to the 93rd British General
Hospital outside of Bari, further up the coast. I was kept in bed and
treated for the same condition. After three weeks I was a bit better and was
transferred to a convalescent home. This was an Abbey taken over by the
Army. I had some final treatment there. I had exercises from an Army PT
sergeant and gradually increased my strength with daily walks and exercise.
I was certainly feeling better, put on weight and was discharged back to
Brindisi and the ship. Overall I had been away for nearly two months.
The Skipper wasn’t very pleased with me when I returned as apparently when I
was in the first hospital, Major Ormiston had visited the ship and voiced
his anger that a UK Sailor (me) had been suffering from a degree of
malnutrition. It was always thought that “someone on board” was selling off
some of our rations on shore.
The European War had just finished and we were pleased to be going home.
Having not moved for so many months, the ship would have to go into dry dock
to have masses of seaweed removed that was clinging to its hull. Also the
boilers would have to be serviced, along with the engines and all other
machines on board. The Third Engineer and myself had to make sure the
boilers were serviced in order to get us home.
I had only been back 3 days from Hospital, so he and I set about checking
all the joints on the pipes on top of the boilers. It had last been done
when the ship was at Kincrages in Greenock. We were working in temperatures
well over 100 degrees and it turned out that they had done a bad job of
lining up the pipes when replacing the sealed joints on the flanges. Once we
removed all the holding bolts, the pipes sprang apart out of alignment and
it was a terrible job to draw them together. With the Donkey men and others
to help, you could only work for short periods as you were working on the
boiler tops. There was about 1 to 2 inches of fine dust and it made the job
even more difficult.
Local labour was used to clear the seaweed from the ships sides and hull, so after about a week in dry dock, we had a trial run and got ready to go home.
We made it to Gibraltar then with no convoys this time, back to Worthington
in England and signing off and travelled home to Broughty Ferry.