Having read Gunner Day’s diary entry in the Italy Star Association’s March 2014 newsletter I felt moved to write the following account, particularly as I shared the voyage on the Queen Mary when she sailed just before Christmas 1942.
– Jim Morgan (Italy Star veteran of Royal Corps of Signals)
I had volunteered to join the Royal Corps of Signals in November 1941 but it was not until March 1942 that I was ordered to report to the Signals training camp in Prestatyn, North Wales. It had been a hard winter and some snow still lay on the ground when I arrived. But this was followed by a glorious summer. I enjoyed most of my initiation into army life – I had grown in confidence and found the comradeship particularly rewarding. My service with the LDV and Home Guard proved to have been an advantage. I was 19 years of age; everything was an adventure. By October I had completed my training as a wireless operator. During the year I had two periods each of seven days home leave but now in November, I was given a further 14 days. This time it was different – this was Embarkation Leave. Although I was never homesick it was always good to be home. A number of my former school friends were on leave at the same time. We were all proud to be wearing our various uniforms and shared many a pint together. I was learning fast. It all went too quickly.
It was soon time to say goodbye to my parents. It is difficult to imagine what went through their minds. Having lived through the Great War and lost family members and friends as a result, no doubt to them this would be just the same. Already hardly a week went by without the report of the death in action of yet another lad from the town, but I didn’t give it a moment’s thought. I was too caught up in the great adventure; I turned my back on home and was soon on yet another long train journey. I was ordered to report to the Signals Depot at Thirsk in Yorkshire. Another winter in a strange country lay ahead. As November merged into December home was now a draughty Nissen hut on the muddy racecourse. It was cold and miserably wet. Incongruously we had been issued with tropical kit including the most ridiculous sun helmets. We now knew that our destination was going to be either the Western Sahara Desert or the Jungles of Burma. The former seemed preferable. The successful battle of El Alamein in October had marked the first Allied victory since the outbreak of war. Much better to join a winning team – The Far East had become a dour struggle. Most of us youngsters had been quite keen to go abroad but I am sure that for the older men, some married with families it was quite a different matter. Our draft of 700 signals personnel had been given a number and we were required to parade in the town square each day when every name and last three numbers were called; it took ages. This was a check to ensure that on-one had absconded.
We had reached the point of no return, but for me it was not all gloom and doom. On Saturdays we could apply for a pass to visit York which was a short bus ride away. This was particularly attractive for me as I had met a lovely little Yorkshire lass Doris (Dot) when she was billeted in my home town which was an intake centre for the WAAF. We had kept in touch since my enlistment and now by coincidence, almost nine months later, she was serving at a nearby airfield. By pre-arrangement (latter post) we could meet when she was not on duty. Love, for 19 year olds in those days, was a wonderfully innocent thing. Holding hands in the cinema and kissing goodbye in a shop doorway, shiny greatcoat button pressed to shiny button was all the romance we needed till the next “brief encounter” but we both knew that each meeting might be the last for a long time, if not for ever.
Back in Thirsk we were fairly optimistic that most of us would get Christmas leave. They wouldn’t want us hanging about doing nothing over the festive season – would they? On the afternoon of 19th December, without warning, we were given the order to pack our kit and prepare to move. Having carried out this laborious task we marched, fully laden, through the murky darkness of blacked out Yorkshire to the station where a train was already waiting. We boarded this, six to a compartment and stowed our kit on the overhead racks, or on the floor between the seats. The train was both unlit and unheated. We huddled together in our greatcoats for warmth until eventually we moved off. It must have been at least midnight – who cared? The restless journey through blacked out Britain with occasional stops to pick up further passengers, at unnamed stations was taking us to God knows where. In common with customary army practice everything was kept secret. We just wanted to get to wherever we were going. Jovial banter soon gave way to moody silence; each of us wrapped in our own little personal world. So much for Christmas leave!
It was just after dawn we arrived at Gourock on the Clyde and this is where Gunner Day’s experience and mine converge. We de-trained on to the bare concrete of the Quay. We stamped our feet and swung our arms to get our circulation going. Peering through the mist across an expanse of grey, choppy water we could just discern the vague outline of a massive liner. It took one of the more erudite of our number to try to convince us that this must be the Queen Mary, the fastest and most prestigious liner in the world. Ever sceptical we queried how he could know this? “Because she is the only British passenger vessel with three funnels you ****** idiots”. Surely we were not going aboard that? But we were shortly being ferried out in a series of ‘lighters’ (open barges) to draw alongside. The nearer we got the larger she seemed to be. We drew alongside and in batches of about thirty, we climbed a steep gangway, no easy manoeuvre laden with full kit. We entered the grey painted hull through large iron doors some way above the water level. Once inside I can recall turning left and shuffling in single file, led by a sergeant, down a corridor of painted iron girders. Our metal studded boots clanking on the steel plated floor. We then descended a narrow iron stairway to a lower deck. In peacetime “F” deck would have been a baggage storage area but now it was slung with hammocks beneath the low ceiling as far as the eye could see. We were each allocated a hammock which was to be our personal space for the rest of the voyage. Beneath each pair of adjacent hammocks was a long table on which, and under which, we dumped our kit. We were each issued with a well-used Kapok-filled life jacket which we were told to carry or wear at all times. To be caught without it would be a chargeable offence. In retrospect I have grave doubts as to their buoyancy had they ever been needed. But they were to prove useful as pillows or cushions throughout the voyage. We were also ordered to remove our boots and to wear gym shoes (plimsolls) at all times. Ostensibly this was to avoid damaging the valuable wooden floors of the luxury liner, but again with hindsight I think it might also have had something to do with the fact that in an emergency army boots might have been a bit of a handicap in the sea. Incidentally I was a non-swimmer so it would not have mattered anyway. Our quarters were adjacent to the boiler room and although fresh air was introduced through ducts overhead, the atmosphere was always stifling; there were just too many of us in too cramped a space. However, we had already been given the freedom of large areas of the upper decks and that is where we preferred to spend most of the daylight hours. We were well aware that our quarters were below the waterline but that was something we preferred not to dwell on. Why worry? As a draft we were now all in this together. In those early days afloat we spent many hours wandering about what seemed like miles of mahogany panelled corridors. The upper decks were reached by any one of the several very wide staircases. At this stage, we were trying to familiarise ourselves with the layout of the ship. Sometimes we watched from the rails as more and more service personnel came aboard. Day time and night were only distinguishable by meal times in the huge dining rooms. Because of the vast numbers involved we were allocated one of several sittings. We soon found that hammocks may be fine for a few hours in the garden by they are most uncomfortable for long periods of rest. You cannot lie on your side in a hammock and your back is permanently bent. I am sure that the leisure industry has since developed a more comfortable design than that with which we were issued, and so we whiled away the next few days waiting for something to happen. Some of the lads wrote letters, which would of course have been censored. But to my shame I was to prove a very poor letter writer, both then and for the rest of my service, so my parents and Dot had no idea where I was.
We are sailing
Up until now the only sound that suggested that we were aboard a vessel was the incessant hum of the generators, a sound to which we became so accustomed that is was hardly noticeable. On 23rd December, without prior warning, that was to change abruptly. It is regrettably only at this point that I have to disagree with the entry in Gunner Day’s diary. It was not 04.00 but 16.00 hours (4pm) in the afternoon that the gentle hum gave way to a powerful rhythmic throb as the great engines came to life. As soon as we realised that we were on the move, we made our way as quickly as possible to the upper decks where we lined the rails, standing two or three deep.
Hardly a word was spoken as we moved rapidly down the Clyde. We watched the vague outline of the Scottish hills disappear as nightfall took over. Nothing more to do but return to our quarters below. So this was it – we were on our way. For me, at 19 years of age, this was the first stage of an incredible journey. The sound of the engines now combined with the creaking ropes of the swaying hammocks. It is only with hindsight that I have come to realise why sailing at that time was entirely logical. No doubt German intelligence would have known that the Queen Mary had been lying in the Clyde for some while and of her conversion from luxury liner to troopship. With her unique potential speed of up to 32 knots she would have cleared the U-boat infested Irish Sea under cover of darkness. In fact is would not be long before she would have passed through the English Channel and would be well out into the Bay of Biscay. The short overcast December days would have afforded a welcome safeguard from observation by enemy aircraft. Hopefully the Germans would not have noticed her departure until too late. No U-boat could have matched her for speed which is why she sailed alone rather than in convoy. What a prize if one lucky U-boat commander had happened to be in the right place at the right time!
By now we had just about found our stations for the daily boat drill. This practice took nearly an hour of every day throughout the voyage. Even though we always assumed that it was not a real emergency, the alarm bells still sent a chill down one’s spine. As we hit the open sea, the liner took on a slow and gentle roll and was almost imperceptible except when walking the corridors. One minute one might be strolling close to one side of the broad passage only to find oneself involuntarily walking downhill to the other side as the floor tilted. After a while this brought on a slight giddiness which lasted for several days until one became accustomed to the movement. Apparently this feeling was shared by many of my fellow passengers. It was not exactly sea-sickness but a strange sensation of detachment and could best be relieved by walking as much as possible rather than lying in my hammock. I didn’t feel much like eating. We had been allocated one of several sittings for meals in the specially adapted huge dining rooms; long tables had upraised ledges to stop the food from rolling off. Food was served from one end and passed along. I can’t remember much about the food except that it was very basic. Christmas Day came and went without celebration. This was the first Christmas of many that I was to spend away from home.
After about a week it was becoming warmer each day, even on the open upper decks where our speed created a welcome breeze. On one wall of the dining hall there was a huge world map where a marker constantly indicated our position. Geography was never my strongest subject and I needed to refer to this map to tell me that we had in fact been sailing down the West coast of Africa to where we eventually anchored off Freetown on 29th December. As the Axis powers occupied the whole of the southern coast of Europe, the only route available by sea to the Middle East battle front was around the entire coast of Africa to Egypt. Because of her deep draft the Queen Mary was unable to berth at a quay but lay off shore in deep water for refuelling. After a couple of days, we left Freetown and crossed the equator without ceremony. The temperature below was suffocating, but the journey from there to Capetown was a wonderful experience. I spent many hours standing right in the bows, leaning into the wind, watching the dolphins as they played in the massive bow wave, effortlessly keeping pace with us. They would then disappear just as suddenly as they had arrived only to re-appear in the open way, way off on our port or starboard side. Quite soon, they would return to keep us company as long as they wished.
New Year’s Eve passed without notice and it was the 5th January when we anchored once more off Capetown in full view of Table Mountain. This was to be another very brief re-fuelling and victualing stop. There were rumours that a few deserters had jumped ship and swum ashore. If this were true they would have had to be pretty desperate to escape. The distance was much farther than it looked – they would have had to be very strong swimmers. We will never know how true this was. We rounded the Cape and continued up the East African coast. Here for the first time I saw flying fishes, an incredible sight as they broke the surface and glided just above the waves for what seemed like hundreds of yards before re-entering the water. The heat was almost unbearable below deck as we crossed the equator again, this time heading northwards. What a contrast with Thirsk only a couple of weeks before. There was an ablution facility close to our quarters but we discovered that the shower itself was served only with salt water, which was very cooling at the time but stung intolerably as we sweated afterwards. Sometimes I took my blanket and lay on the iron floor on the landing at the top of the iron staircase. On 15th January we anchored off Aden for another short re-fuelling stop. All I can remember of Aden was its barrenness; there was not a tree in sight, just rocks and dust. I remember thinking “Do people really live here”? It took only three more days before we arrived at Port Tewfik (Suez) our final destination. We had been at sea for just over three weeks. We disembarked just as we had boarded, complete with full kit. It was strange to be wearing boots again and the motion of the vessel stayed with us for several days. That is the brief story of a voyage that Gunner Day would have shared.
Less than a month after disembarking I travelled 1000 miles in a motor convoy through the Western Desert to join the 4th Indian Division at Benghazi. That was just the beginning of the next stage of a great adventure which lasted more than three years. Italy was to follow, but that is another story which is probably much the same in many respects as those of most members of the Association.
On board I became something of a loner. I seemed to have lost contact with my mates from Prestatyn days. On two separate occasions during my solitary strolls I met familiar faces from my home town. L A C Norman Stone lived a few doors along the same road as my family. We had attended the same school. In our brief conversation he told me he was sharing a cabin on one of the upper decks. Why did I get the feeling that perhaps I had joined the wrong service? The other lad Raymond Evans was a member of the engine room crew whom I did not know so well but it had already become something of an event to meet anyone from home. To illustrate the vastness of the liner, none of us ever met again throughout the voyage. For many years now, I have telephoned Norman in December to remind him of the voyage we shared at Christmastime 1942. He was still alive when I rang last December. Raymond Evans died some years ago. Somewhere on board there was a canteen which in reality was no more than a small serving hatch at the end of a passage. This was for short periods at irregular intervals, when a long queue would inevitably form. The face behind the hatch would serve only one indeterminate measure of warm beer per person which was poured into our mess tins. Hardly the ideal vessel for drinking beer, it tasted pretty horrible too! Plastics and canned drinks had yet to be invented! There was one drink on sale which came in a distinctive shaped bottle. This was entirely new to us – it was called Pepsi Cola. Apparently some supplies had been loaded in America on her previous voyage. There were also some large slabs of chocolate which would have been a great luxury at home, but here they had to be consumed as soon as possible before the heat reduced them to a sticky mess.
Another aspect of the voyage were the card schools which took place on the upper decks – they were serious gambling games. I had never seen wads of notes such as were changing hands. At home in my first job as junior clerk, my wage was less than £1 per week and my army pay had been even less! A ten shilling note (50 pence) would have been untold riches to me. I became aware that money in some areas was a totally different commodity than that of my experience.
There were far fewer service women on board than male and their quarters were naturally quite separate. In the evenings before curfew, if my eyes didn’t deceive me, there were times when some form of togetherness was taking place in the darker corners of the promenade decks. Where there’s a will there’s a way! Like the gamblers some were making the most of what they perceived as possibly their last opportunity, at least for a long while. Only once was the alarm sounded other than for boat drill. We got to our stations in very quick time. Some shots were fired from some light armaments on the upper deck. We never knew why this took place. There must have been many more incidents which have temporarily slipped my memory but that is enough to be going on with. The voyage on the Queen Mary may not have been a pleasure cruise, but I am well aware that many young men of my generation made the same journey in much smaller vessels and in convoy. Progress would have been much slower and fraught with danger.
I am indebted to Gunner Day’s diary for his record of the various dates. I must confess that I would have known none of these because time had become irrelevant.
The following is only loosely connected with the voyage. Readers of the whole narrative might remember that before embarking, I mentioned my close friendship with a lovely little WAAF, a Yorkshire lass named Dot. On my final return home in 1946 – was I re-united with her and did we live happily ever after? Sadly, there was no romantic ending. During my three years service abroad I never wrote to her once. I lost her photograph and her memory faded. The war and the army had taken over my life. As I have said, I was a very poor letter writer. It was always going to be tomorrow; sometimes I had an impulse to try to contact her after the war, but decided that as she had not heard from me for so long, she had made a new life for herself. Too much water had passed under the bridge. Perhaps it wasn’t love after all.
My fervent wish at the age of 91 is that life treated her as well as it has me. I remember her with much fondness.