What Did You Do in the War, Old Man

by Harold Froggatt (b 1926)

My father, Dave Swinburn, who died in 2006, was a member of NM Golf Club for many years. One of his golf buddies there was Harold Froggat. Some years ago Dad gave me this document that Harold had written entitled "What Did You Do in the War, Old Man?". I cannot remember the exact circumstances but I think I had offered to type it up and edit it. It is a fascinating account of Harold's experiences in the Merchant Navy in WW2. I have recently come across this document amongst my papers and I am sharing it here. My understanding is that Harold is no longer still alive but I would be very interested to hear from any of his friends and family and will be delighted to add any photographs or other illustrations. Do please get in touch via email - govierh@gmail.com - if you have any comments or anything to add.
Heather Govier (nee Swinburn)

1 My Interest in Radio

I started with an interest in radio about 1938. My parents' only means of entertainment was a battery powered radio set with wet 2-volt accumulator which had to be regularly hauled back and forth to the local Coop to be charged. I had a communal workshop with my father and six pigeons and there I built an alternative power source - a wind generator with a four foot propeller and a DC generator from an old car. I made several models, some better than others, but my experiments ended when the propeller came off at great speed and went through a neighbours hen house window, scattering the hens into the roads and gardens. Thus ended wind charging.

I used to take "Camms Practical Wireless" and, at this time, the firm of Osmore were offering a ready made coil pack (for short wave bands) plus a matching variable condenser. I set to and built this receiver which worked fine except for hand capacity effects. This meant that when you went near the controls the frequency shifted and that of course was no use at all. But, with the addition of a long tufnel shaft, the problem was cured and off we went to listen to the wild waves of outer space.

I used to tune around and hear all sorts of strange signals, including dots and dashes which meant a secret code to me which I just had to look into. I got a boy scouts' book containing the Morse code and after a while the dots and dashes began to make sense. I had had visions of spies because there was talk of Hitler and war, but the Morse code turned out to be only ships and coastal stations chatting.

2 Work and War

By now it was 1939 and war had been declared. I started work as a weaver at W.S. Lowe & Sons at their Torr Vale Mill, being taught the trade by my mother. I eventually learned to look after one loom and then I was giventwo looms (a promotion) which meant I could then earn good money, £1/10/0 per week. One loom was weaving napkins for babies and the other loom hand towels for the hospitals. These had a special red heading in them, which had to be made with a special red shuttle.

The war had been on for one year now and the territorial army had joined the fighting. I saw them go from their drill hall on Langlands Road. They were seen off by the Roman Catholic minister, Father Heald, who gave each man a 50 pack of cigarettes. An ex-guardsman himself, he was a proud man and prayed for the Company as they were leaving.

3 The ATC

At this time I was approached to join the A TC, the Air Training Corps. Their HQ was at Thornfield which had been the old electricity head office and workshops when the electricity and gas services were in private hands. The electricity boss was a Mr Larkum and his company put up road lights and connected supplies to property. Next to the building was a big Accrington brick house which was the home of Doctor Anderton who had a horse and trap and stables at the rear. Today the site is occupied by the stone bungalow belonging to Mr Jennison and his firm of engineers, J & F Tools.

The ATC was formed and based at Thornfield. I think the squadron number was 1006. We had three senior officers Mr Ashworth (New Mills Rating Officer), Dan Pell (Coop furnishing manager) and another one, whose name I cannot remember. The squadron was a great success and I made lots of friends but today I only see Harry Kerr from Laneside Road, Harold McCormick, the paint magnate, and Arthur Smith, who lives on Diglands Avenue. It is funny where all those guys have gone - we used to have in excess of eighty lads.

Mr Ashworth had been a WW1 telegraphist and saw that a few of us were interested in radio and Morse code, so he had a special radio room made and wired up with an oscillator, Morse keys and ear phones, all provided by the RAF. He was a crafty officer who bribed us into fast learning by putting six whole pence on the table for the one who could send and receive the fastest code without mistakes. Thus every Wednesday night the battle began - we were all doing 15 words per minute in no time.

We were then issued with Aldis lamps by the RAF. This was a lovely signalling lamp which could be seen for five miles and was worked by reflectors moving inside. The Home Guard was being formed in New Mills and they had a signals section. They only had small lens signal lamps and so we used to be "borrowed" for their exercises. We could place one of our lads at Eaves Knoll, another in Coombs, one on Eccles Pike and a fourth on top of Nunsfield Road, which made a complete circuit to get a message to Buxton from New Mills. Others then carried the circuit on to Derby. This was all to be used in the event of the Germans taking over.

We also helped the Home Guard to lay a single telephone line buried in the ground from their HQ on Upper Longlands Road (now a youth centre) via fields on the Crescent to Whitle, then Bate Mill, then Thornsett and finally to High Walls Farm which was the major look-out post for the east part of the town. We had fun on the night this line was opened. We went to the fields, dug up a small piece of the cable and tapped into the line using a safety pin and an old carbon microphone. We gave a message from Hitler to the Home Guard which upset Major Cochrane who was a local councillor and head of the Home Guard Company. Lots of fun that evening - all in the dark.

We used to go on a week's camp at RAF stations which involved doing some flying. We went to RAF Finningley, the big bomber base in North Yorkshire and also to RAF Hucknall, the flying training school in Nottingham. Wonderful weeks!

4 A Radio Officer at Sea

In 1942, a good friend of mine, good at radio and high speed Morse, joined the RAF for air crew. But he failed to make the grade because of being colour blind and came home on leave very sad. He had been put in charge of the officers' snooker room and given a batman's job. This had a big effect on me and made me change my mind as to what I was going to do. I made enquiries about a position as a radio officer at sea with the Marconi Company. I had to pass the Postmasters Seagoing Radio Certificate, so at night, after work at the mill, I caught the train to Manchester to the Marconi school in Mosely Street. The Principal tested my Morse and I came up to the required speed of twenty words per minute so I got in half way through the course (and for half the fee!) thanks to the ATC and Mr Ashworth.

I passed in six months and joined my first ship, the Empire Cormorant, at Liverpool's Gladstone Dock. This was November and I was 17 years old - never seen a ship in my life. This old tramp was built in 1918, had a maximum speed of 7 knots flat out and bows like a big bulb which pushed all the seas before it. It had a terrible steering system, a steam powered winch which operated chains down each side of the ship. These chains drove you mad at night, sliding down metal tubes against the cabins. I never got to sleep properly with those things making such a hell of a racket.

I shared a cabin with the second operator. We had two bunks, one above the other, one set of drawers and one sink. There were no drains - just a bucket under the sink which had to be thrown over the side. There was no hot water laid on in your cabin. This was obtained by getting a bucket of sea water and then going to the galley and putting the hot steam pipe in the bucket. All this even though I had Officer status! Why did I leave home?

The radio room was just as bad, none of the posh gear we had learned on at school. There was just a 3 valve medium wave transmitter and a 3 valve receiver with plug in coils to change frequency and no filters of any kind. All radio gear was battery powered from a large bank of heavy duty batteries in a big battery cupboard as large as an old pantry. These ran a motor alternator which fed 2000 volts to the main amplifier. It was my duty to keep all these batteries fully charged and to check the reading of the specific gravity of every cell. There was also a second radio room with an old spark transmitter for emergencies.

5 My First Voyage - Portugal, Spain and Gibraltar

We sailed from Gladstone Dock with a full load of parcels for prisoners of war. Our destination - Lisbon, Portugal. What a nice thought! We did not get very far in our first convoy. A problem with the rudder saw us creeping up to Greenock in Scotland for repairs. We were there for a few days while divers made a repair and we were then back to square one, waiting for another convoy headed for the Gibraltar area. We waited a while and then joined a slow convoy going south through the Bay of Biscay which I had heard so much about. When we got there, the Bay of Biscay was in an unpleasant state and we lost the convoy due to high seas and our slow speed; down to 5 knots. In a few days the weather got better and we made up time and found out that we had missed a U boat attack. So our slow speed kept us out of a problem.

The ship had 7000 tons of parcels on board for prisoners of war to be sent via Lisbon to Switzerland, then through the Red Cross to POW camps. We left the convoy and found the river Tagus and went up to find our berth. What a surprise we got! There was no berth, only room to tie up to a German ship anchored in the river. We tied up and three days later went alongside. We were there for ten days; a slow job with our sort of cargo, all boxes and bales. We had a visit from the agents and from the Embassy boss to warn us that Lisbon was active with spies and agents who would lace our drinks and try to obtain information. But we found it a lovely place and had many trips ashore. We used to meet our firemen coming back to the ship with pockets full of cigars and hundreds of lighters to sell in Liverpool. On my 18th birthday I was treated to a night out by my boss.

We left Lisbon and went up the coast, inside the three mile limit, to Burriana in Spain to load 6000 tons of oranges. We arrived at this small port and found it full. It could only load three ships at a time so we anchored up and got in later, which meant no shore leave again. After a long wait we got loaded and, with hatches left open for ventilation, we again went down the coast via the three mile limit. This was to deter the activities of agents who went down at night in the harbour and put limpet mines on ships hulls, timed to blow when you got well out to sea. A few UK ships had been sunk this way. For this to happen in Spanish waters would have been embarrassing to say the least. The plan was to go down to Gibraltar and have the divers down. They checked our hull and found nothing so we felt better after that.

We waited for a convoy home and had a good trip to Cardiff to unload. Then it was my first leave and I came home with Bill Barton who was in the same company as I. He had just docked from an Iceland trip on an Icelandic ship, the Inger-Toft, a large coastal vessel. Bill was not thrilled with this ship. The food had been Icelandic and not the sort we liked. I came home with a big bag of oranges and my sister was so pleased. She had been asking Tony Foy for them - but no luck.

6 Crossing the Pond ... Canada

I got a telegram after my leave to report to the Cardiff office. A new ship was waiting, another dirty coal burner, the Empire-Falstaff. At 8000 tons, she had also loaded 2000 tons of slag iron waste to keep her down in the sea a bit. We were bound for Canada to load timber at Montreal and pit props at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

We has a real bad trip to Canada. The weather was very bad; Atlantic gales all the way. I was very, very sick and scared too. I prayed the gales would end but no. It took us 29 days to do the trip. We were hove-to for four days and when the log was checked we were sixty miles further from our destination.

I never saw such seas. We could see down the funnel of the next ship in the convoy and then the scene would be reversed and we could see her hull and her propeller out of the sea. This sort of weather just shook the ship to pieces. She moaned and groaned, creaked and cracked. I had heard of the welded Liberty ships breaking in half and I thanked God we were riveted. We lost half the convoy. The remaining ships were all over the ocean and in spite of such bad weather we lost 7 ships to U boats. When you get lost and straggle the U boat captain has a hay-day. He certainly did with us.

When a ship is hit no other ship is allowed to stop (even if you could) and your luck rested with the rescue ship, placed at the stern of the convoy for that job. Even if you got picked up you might end up the same way as the rescue ship called Stockport. She had rescued three ships' crews then got sunk herself by a sub. Two hundred and sixty men went down with the Stockport, most of whom had already been rescued once. Strict radio silence was kept. Only a straggler who got sunk was allowed to transmit. A constant watch was kept on 500 khz, the distress frequency, and at times we did hear cries for help but all too far away. We had to give our Master the position.

All our orders came via Rugby and could be heard world wide on long wave. All were in Morse code, of course. There were top class operators in that station but we could still tell when the shift changed. All operators have their own style on the key and it stands out a mile. All the radio traffic from Rugby was in code. Every convoy world wide had a secret call sign and every ship also had a secret call. So to pick up any message for us, the radio officer had to be vigilant and listen to every transmission from Rugby, not daydream over the receiver. When any message was received it had to be decoded and handed to the skipper. A big problem was static from thunderstorms. We had no filters in those days. The old operators used to say, "The best filter is you ear 'oles". Rough weather was also a problem. We had to jam our feet in the desk drawers to prevent us falling out of the operating chair. This was fastened down to the deck but when the ship rolled badly it was a job to keep your balance. If by some chance you had a problem with reception and missed a word or bit of code the only way to check was to go up on the bridge and use the lamp to ask the next ship. This we did not like to do.

The skipper was not always a big fan of the radio officer. This came about because we were Marconi staff and did not belong to the shipping company. We got a lot of perks in port. We pulled down the aerials, reported to the local Marconi office, signed their books, reported any faults and got spares, valves, paperwork etc. and then the rest of the time in port was our own. This caused ill feeling, as the skipper and all the crew had to do some sort of duties. We used to help out by checking the dock workers unloading to see that they did not take half the ship home and by doing a guard duty on the gangway to check visitors. Another in-port job was to check the lifeboat transmitter and the kite aerial and also the lifeboat's first aid kits and food (dry biscuits, chocolate bars and malted milk tablets). The lifeboat transmitter had a windup generator and we used to crank this up and test the whole lot on the air. We once sent the kite up and the aerial with it but had a devil of a job when it came down over one of the big warehouses. We spent hours getting it all back and reeled up again.

We ploughed our way up the St Lawrence River, so very wide, and when we got to Quebec we could see big things were going on. At the wonderful old castle of the Chateu-de-Frontenec a big meeting was in progress with Mr Churchill, Mr Roosevelt and Mr Mackenzie, all premiers in their own countries. We moved on up the river. It was getting dusk and we could see the big cross that stands above Montreal all lit up. It looked very impressive after our trip in the darkness across the Pond. We tied up and the dockers started to load us after getting rid of our ballast. We could see our cargo on the dockside, some lovely beams and big joists and thousands of floor boards. We were loaded in five days and had some nice trips ashore. I got a few presents for my sister and parents and we got our mail away. This was always a problem. The mail from home was late all the time; it could not catch us up.

Off we went down the river and across to Nova Scotia, to Halifax to load pit props; 3000 tons as deck cargo. This was the port that had been blown up in the First World War with an ammunition ship explosion. It blew all the town away. We soon had the pit props on deck and lashed down. Off we went, got a good convoy and headed out into the Atlantic. We hit trouble again in the form of a gale. All our pit props went over the side. The only deck cargo left was two crated aircraft on our after hatches. They had been fastened down with steel cables and never moved. Apart from this, we had a trouble-free trip and good news came my way when I got a message from Rugby to alter our destination to Manchester. How nice that was!

My boss was a Mr Clatworthy from Long Eaton in Notts. He was a single man who lived with his sister. He did not want to go home so he told me I could go home on unofficial leave and he would send for me when we were sailing again. It seemed strange coming into Salford and I was soon up to London Road Station, as it was then. I went home on leave and a few days later I took my father down to Salford to see our ship. He enjoyed it all and had the thrill of being shown round the engine room by our chief engineer. Later a fireman tried to describe to him what life was like in a roaring gale getting red hot clinkers out of the firebox and throwing a number 10 shovel of coal up a moving firebox. I signed on this ship again for a further voyage. I had a good boss and I had a lot of friends aboard.

7 To USA and Africa

We again unloaded in good time and went down the ship canal to Liverpool to load ballast, old rubbish to keep us down. Again we were going across the Pond. We left Liverpool and went up to Scotland and put in to Lock Ewe. This was a big centre for transatlantic convoys and we left in a few days in our biggest convoy yet, 70 ships and a lot of tankers. They and other 'fragile' ships were always put in the centre of convoys. We had been to the usual commadore conference. The Master, chief engineer and radio officer always attended. The Master got his routing, the engineer his speeds, and the radio officer got his secret codes and his decoding books for the trip. We had a convoy position sheet which was always interesting. This showed us where every ship was, where she should be going to and what she was carrying or going to load.

The next few days were a nightmare as we went into dense fog. I never thought you got fog in mid-atlantic. Boy, what a game that was! The hooter was blowing every few minutes and the lookouts had to be doubled up with one on the bow plus one on the monkey island. At night, all we were looking for was a dark blue light on the stern of the ship in front. The light was the size of a car headlight, no brighter than the dip position. When the watches changed, the man following had to come on the bridge fifteen minutes before time to get his eyes used to the dark and focussed on the light in front. Panic would set in when one ship started to lose position perhaps due to bad steaming coal or an engine problem. Then all hell let loose as one ship crept on to the next in line. Another problem came in daylight when a ship was firing on bad coal. The escort would come up and give the offending ship a good rollicking for making smoke.

At last we got to our port of load. This was Norfolk in Virginia and we had a lovely cargo of steam coal to take to Freetown in West Africa. Coal is loaded in no time. In a few days we were loaded with only time for one brief trip ashore and we were off to join a convoy to West Africa. The ship was filthy and the deckhands soon hosed it all away. You had the coal dust all over and in your cabin if you did not remember to keep your door shut. This was a problem because, at sea, all doors had to be hooked back open about six inches to avoid doors being jammed in a U boat hit. We left the USA in a small convoy of 22 ships, all bound for the African coast. The food on our ship was good and a luxury was nice home-made white bread. We had a good cook but the galley was alive with cockroaches and in the evening they used to come out in hundreds. We must have eaten loads - but all in all we were well looked after.

We had a problem on this trip. A bearing on the prop shaft started to overheat and we crept into the Azores Islands for repairs. We could not go ashore which was a pity as it looked so lovely. After the job was done we left alone for Freetown.

We got there, no problems, but to our dismay we were told to anchor out in the harbour. We then found out we were in for a long stay - refuelling Royal Navy minesweepers at 250 tons a time. We had 8000 tons of coal on board. What a terrible place this was: mosquitoes by the million, open sewers in the street, high humidity air and no swimming in the sea which was full of sewerage etc. I have never seen such poverty. The RAF were here in force. One RAF policeman saw me step off the footpath, a dirt path at that, and he said to me, "Never get off the path for a native. They belong in the gutter." I was pleased that I would not be here for ever.

From one of the minesweepers a loud voice called my name. It was a New Mills lad, Ken Brocklehurst from Bridge Street. He was yellow all over with malaria and taking all the quinine. He asked me to go and see his mum but not to tell her his colour.

We finally unloaded all our coal after weeks at anchor. What a relief! At long last we were empty of that black stuff and all washed down and ready for a load of iron ore. We had to go up the river to Pepel, to the iron ore mine, to load that deadly cargo. No one cared to carry that stuff. They said you went down in 10 minutes with a cargo like that. Anyway we went up what seemed to be such a long way and got to the pier to load. This was real jungle; natives running about naked with painted bodies. What a place! We were told no going ashore here. The natives brewed their own hooch and some naval sailors had gone blind drinking the stuff. The surprise of the day was when the train loads of ore came down from the interior. The engines were old LNER ones and said "Made in Gorton" on the side. We felt at home now!

At night it was a real show. Natives danced round the fires and banged on drums. They had loads of monkey tricks and painted faces like we used to read about. We left the mine fully loaded and came back to the harbour to await a convoy home, We had a message from Rugby to take this ore to Middlesbrough.

This time we dropped in just right. A small convoy was going home with about 20 ships. We had a good trip and got into port without any problem. I went home on leave. Rumours were going round of an invasion into Europe and we could see lots of queer shaped things floating around, many large barges. This was unusual.

8 Normandy Landings

After about a week at home, I got a telegram to report back to Marconi's in Newcastle. I then got sent to the docks to join the Richmond Hill. When I arrived at the berth I saw welders cutting holes about the size of a dustbin lid above the water line. Strange, I thought!

We left Newcastle and went down the coast to the Isle of Wight anchorage. Everything was strange and no-one seemed to know what was going on. We anchored up amongst lots of coasters. More of those concrete barges were being towed around. Then we had a visit from the Marconi Co. who said they wanted us to take out all the radio equipment and strip the radio room. A working party from ashore came and started to take off the 4.5 inch gun on our stem and also our Orlican anti aircraft guns. We then found out that this ship was being used as part of the Mulberry Harbour and was going to be towed out to Normandy. We stripped the radio room and then a launch came out . We loaded the radio gear and then we all left the ship and had to report to the Marconi Office in East Ham.

We were then sent to East India Dock to join a new ship. This was the Daghestan, a nice clean oil burner and she looked great. She was already loading tanks, heavy lorries, motor cycles and massive Scammel tank recovery trucks with big cable drums on the back. We went on board and found a fine radio room - the best I had seen. There was even a short wave transmitter which meant that, if needed, we could get in touch with the UK from anywhere in the world. Troops were arriving on the dock and we found out we were taking a signals regiment to Normandy.

We left London and arrived on the Arrowmanch beachhead on D-Day + 2. We started to unload into landing craft with the Pioneer Corps in charge. Over the side went all the heavy vehicles. What a commotion: guns firing and aircraft overhead! This was not our scene! At one stage the Pioneer Corps were in the holds and they put about a dozen lovely motor cycles in a sling and I saw handle bars puncturing the petrol tanks of others. What a scandal! It made me see red, being a motor cyclist myself. I saw one of those big Scammel recovery trucks (must have cost thousands of pounds) get caught on the rails and go over the side into the landing craft. The sailors saw it coming and jumped over the side. It went right through the bottom and the whole lot sank. 

Visibility was very bad: smoke everywhere, explosions and noise. What a place to be! We carried our own gunners who were on the orlicans and trying to shoot down the dive bombers. I had a birds-eye view of this from the bridge where I was on duty with the signal lamp. I had a call from down below and when I got down I met a soldier who had been told about me. He was Arthur Smalley and came from Disley. He lived across from the old tea factory which is now Bowaters Drums. He asked me to see his mother when I got home and say he had got across OK - which I did.

We did four more trips to the beachhead. We were there when the 1000 bomber raid took place on Caen. The sky was black with aircraft and we were all puzzled as to what was going on. One of the big battle ships was also firing shells non-stop over Arrowmanch further inland.

After our final trip from the beachhead we started to load old stone in London. Some of it looked like rubble from bombed buildings. Again this was ballast to keep us down in the sea. This was a nice break from the trips to the beachhead. We had been sickened on our last trip. The Jerries had midget subs there; two men jobs. They came under the hulls and put limpet mines on you. To counteract this we had to keep our engines slow astern so the vibration would set the mine and the sub off. The upsetting part was that lots of bodies of our troops were washing against our hull and getting chopped up by our propeller. A sad sight!

9 Ten months at Sea

We did the usual thing and set off in a small group for Loch Ewe in Scotland. But this time we had to go round the east coast and through the Minches; a long way round to avoid the Channel where a lot of E boats were active. We got round the coast to Loch Ewe and after a short time set off in a big convoy to the USA again. This was another rough trip over the Atlantic and we lost two big tankers to U boats. We could not understand how U boats were getting into the middle of convoys where the tankers (and ammunition ships) were put for safety, but of course we now know the subs were coming under the convoys at night. Not much happened in daylight. It was always in the night.

Our port was to be New York and what a thrill that was to be. We made a mistake, when in London, by having a 'sub' from the skipper to spend in London, which meant that when we got into New York we had only ten days' pay to come. We walked round the city, strolled across the Brooklyn Bridge and sat on the seats and watched the news go round in Times Square. Another trick was to ride on the underground with a day ticket and stop off at various sights.

We loaded 24 hours a day and were soon off. We had hundreds of army jeeps, ammunition, tyres and food in sealed mammoth cans as big as dustbins. There were big cases of typewriters etc. and a deck cargo of very big trucks and aircraft. When we left it was announced that the war was over in Germany. The Master gave us a big whisky or rum, whatever was our choice. We had a good trip. The war now being over, we could go via Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. We passed Gib and we even had lights on the ship. This was a real treat instead of fighting with blackout curtains etc.

I could smell Suez a mile away. When you have been at sea a while the smell of land is very marked. We went down the canal. Some wrecks from the war were still sunk in the canal and we had to take great care. A big camp of W AAFS was still at Ismailia and lots of the girls were having fun swimming. Our lads had a lot to say to them! On down the Red Sea, to make a stop at Aden. Our decks were so hot you could feel your feet burning even with shoes on. There was no cold water - even the drinking water was hot as there was no way of keeping it cold. Our skipper used to hang a goat skin bag of water in the alley way to his cabin. This, he said, was the secret of keeping it cool. But he came one day and found it empty - the fireman's mate had drunk it. Aden was a terrible place: barren rocks, humid, and infested with all sorts of flying creatures including locusts. We only called for fresh water as our last water was from New York but the Aden stuff was horrible.

Next stop Bombay - a long trip through the Indian Ocean, but we made it. It was hot and sticky and the monsoon season was on. It poured with rain most days. Just like home, we thought! My boss Ernie Rignall was a much travelled man who had been here many times. He made a lot of money bringing carpets home. He even had an order book from his neighbours. I had to go with him to the warehouse. He had been before and we were greeted with special mini urns of fragrant tea and some sort of peanut sandwich. We then got a garry back home to the ship with the loot.

We unloaded most of our cargo, stores for the US troops. It took a week and then we had to push on to Ceylon (today called Sri Lanka). Our orders said go to Trincomalee. We had new engines for US jeeps, thousands of army tyres and a large load of shells for big guns. I was intrigued by the many crates of malted milk tablets. I did not know that this was a cure for American hangovers!

This is where we had the scare of our life. The harbour was full of ships and very clean. There was a boom defence ship at the entrance to check any intruders coming into the harbour so it all seemed very safe. We were enjoying a swim when a big scream went up from a sailor in the water whose leg had been taken off by a shark. We all swam to the nearest object - in my case it was a buoy. Heaving myself up on this thing I cut my legs on a big lot of barnacles hanging on the buoy. It made a mess of my legs but they soon healed up with salt water baths. This put me off swimming in the sea for years.

After unloading I got a radio message from Rugby. We had to go to Argentina. Buenos Aires was a good trip from Ceylon. We had to refuel with oil and cross the Indian Ocean alone. The first land we saw was Tristan-da-Cunha, a rocky island. We called there for more drinking water. We got to Buenos Aires and a large city loomed out of the mist. The agent came on board with the pilot to tell us, "No shore leave". A riot was in progress in the city. President Peron and his wife Eva were in command in this country and some group were trying to take over the job. We could hear gunfire in the streets when we docked. In a few days it was all over and we had our passes issued and photos and finger prints taken. No messing here - they had us all listed. A very nice gesture was made to our ship by the Scottish section of the city. They said they would like to take any golfers on board to their club to play. My luck was in and I was invited to the Hurlingham Club, a very up market place. I had a lovely time and was invited back for a second game.

We were in Buenos Aires for a long time, I think about 10 days, loading hen corn, animal skins, canned beef etc. How those animal skins smelled! We left on our own to go to Durban, South Africa. On our way we had a nasty shock. We found we had passengers; hundreds of king-sized rats all coming out of the holds from the skins we had on board. After another crossing of the South Atlantic we arrived in Durban. What a lovely place to bring a cargo of rats to! We were put into a hotel for two days while the ship was sealed and pumped full of gas. We had some nice trips around the countryside with the young ladies of the Missions to Seamen. What a good service they gave! We had a meal on the beach and trips to their homes. It was great. Then we were off home after 10 months at sea.

10 Going Home

We had a small convoy of ships, only 10, and we also had the added comfort of two sloops who were returning from the far east. They were coming home to the dockyard for repairs. They told us we had to keep in blackout mode as Jap subs had been reported in our area. We had done the trip from BA with lights on and this made us think. A few days out, I was on the 12 till 4 watch when a loud voice said, "What ship?" Looking out of the porthole I could see we were all lit up with a brilliant light. It was the RAF with their Sunderland flying boats on sub patrol. They had the big Leigh lights on and they lit up the convoy as if in daylight.

Antwerp was our unloading port. What a mess it was! The RAF had certainly bombed the place to pieces. The dockers put a 24 hour shift on and we had to use our own derricks as theirs were all damaged. We were out of Antwerp in two days and to celebrate came up the Channel with all lights blazing.

I think many times of the job the firemen had in the stoke hold: trying to get clinkers out of the firebox and trying to throw a shovel of coal up a moving firebox. I used to go down for distilled water for my batteries. Boy was I always glad to get out! I was down once when an escort dropped a depth charge. It frightened me to death although the charge was many miles away. I ran up the iron escape ladder to the boat deck, to the amusement of the firemen. Many of these engine room men had a nasty end, scalded and burned to death. No-one ever talked about it. The tanker men were in a worse position and not many of those chaps survived. They all knew the score but what could they do? They only knew that job. It was their living in peace time. Our ship, the Daghestan, had been a CAM ship. It had a big ramp on the bow where there was a compressed air machine that fired off a Hurricane fighter. This was some brainchild of a few months before I joined her. The idea was that the Hurricane fighter should be flown off the ship with compressed air when the convoy was in trouble. How the poor devil was to get back to the ship was a mystery.

Well, we came back into Newcastle and I signed off for the last time. I went to Marconi's to say cheerio and get paid and then went home. What a change to go back into mill life! I felt I was in prison. With hindsight this was my big mistake - I should have gone on and stayed at sea for a while.

Anyway, I am still pounding the Morse key and chatting to the world. When I talk to those people in different parts of the world it takes me back and I can still see some of the lovely places I was lucky to visit. On the other hand, I hear of places like Freetown and thank God I do not live there. Yes, Samuel Morse lives on and his code is heard every day in my radio shack - all thanks to Mr Ashworth and the ATC.


After many months at work I had a shock when I received my calling up papers. This was September 1946. They said I was due for military service as I had been doing a civilian job during the war with civil pay and conditions. My boss, Harry Bullough of W.S. Lowe & Sons, wrote to the Defence Secretary - and I heard no more.