An Uncle's Diary Cont The War Years Dec 1940
Posted by Mac Cummings on May 13, 2018, 11:42 am
December 1940 |
2nd December The early days of December saw the “old tub” “dipping through the tropics by the palm fringed shore,” only the cargo was different. On this day we entered the harbour of Freetown in Sierra Leone, the first stage of our long voyage completed. The skies were of an azure Blue, as was the sea. The air was humid and hot, and from the jungle clad shores there came the smell of rotting vegetation- this was the “white man’s grave” or so we were told. No shore leave. For two days we swung at anchor whilst the ship was Re-fuelled and fresh water taken on board, also fruit-it was very hot indeed and we sweated our guts out. We were more than pleased when we sailed.
After the war I learnt that one of my favourite novelists, Graham Greene, was stationed in Freetown in 1941 (M I 5) and in his journal he records that a Depot ship in the harbour was “Grounded” on a “Reef” of empty “Gin bottles”
4th December I spent my 21st Birthday crossing the Equator but there was no “crossing the line” ceremony. These were the early days of austerity. The day much to my disgust was dull, and also rather chilly.
I had expected (being well versed in Geography) a vertical sun blazing down with pitiless ferocity…but not so.
The convoy was now a mighty “Armada” of ships and for our escort we had the cruiser H.M.S. Cornwall. The ships included the “Viceroy of India” the “Orcades” the “Ortrante” the “Andes” the “Strathmore” the “Strathallan” the “Strathnaver” the “Empress of Japan” the “Duchess of Athlone” and ours “Reina del Pacifico” a fair prize for the lurking “U” Boats, but never a one showed its skulking periscope. The “Andes” was on its maiden voyage.
16th December Saw us rounding the cape of Good Hope, rolling several degrees on our beam as we hit the conflicting currents of the Indian Ocean, South Atlantic and the Antarctic. Two days later we entered the harbour of Durban, and everyone on board (including the “Brutal” and “Licentious”) praying hard for shore leave. We would never make sailors-give us “Terra Firma” the more “Firma” the less “Terra”
We had now completed the second stage of our voyage.
There was no shore leave on our first night, as we were flying the “Yellow flag of Quarantine.” All that evening we watched with envy the hundreds of other troops pouring ashore.
We did however get our shore leave, some 48 Hours, and a good time was had by all, especially the “diggers” who after getting very drunk, commenced to smash the town up, their quaint way of thanking the people of Durban for their hospitality.
I fell in lucky and was invited to go out by car to the “Valley of a Thousand Hills” which was an amazing sight. The valley stretched for miles into the distance and within it are literally thousands of small green hills. The couple who were my hosts were English and very nice to me.
The Australians became a problem on the eve of the sailing and the ships hoses were turned on those who were “beyond the pale.” The quayside was a shambles. Eventually law and order was secured. Someone had re-christened our ship “ALTMARK” in chalk – no comments needed.
I will always remember Durban with its broad streets and fine buildings, the profusion of gaily coloured flowers and fruit stalls, its tree lined squares, and the Zulu Boys pulling their Rick-shaws loaded to the axles with drunken soldiers, British and Australian. At that time I was not a “Drinker”, but did not have a “Holier than thou” attitude.
The harbour was magnificent, the surrounding green slopes sloping down to the waters edge and the sea was blue. Most of all, and Manna from Heaven – “NO BLACKOUT”
As we Sailed out of Durban, an impressive line of great ships, a woman from the Sea cadets or something similar stood at the end of the Mole and gave us a Royal send off “Safe voyage and good luck” all with semaphore flags,” the ships each in turn gave a blast on their sirens.
Christmas Day Can you imagine spending Christmas Eve on the Indian Ocean? The stars blazing down like so many jewels, a Purple sky, and a tropical breeze blowing from off the African Shore – we were hugging the coastline. The “Southern Cross” could just be seen and we were sailing Northwards at full speed. We sang the usual Christmas Carols, but there was very little Christmas spirit as our thoughts were many thousands of miles away, there certainly was no chance of snow the temperature around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Christmas day and our spirits were higher, the food was good, as was the drink (beer) but when the bar ran dry – “enough said.”
One of the lads wrote the following “poem” and pinned it up on the notice board.
Poem celebrating Christmas lunch
Aboard the “Reina Del Pacifico”
I thank you dear Pacific Line,
Your Bill of fare was very fine,
And quite an honest Resume of
What I ate on Christmas Day. Yet
For Thirty days I’ve been your guest,
Yet no bill of fare did attest
As to the other Twenty Nine
It was methinks and my stomach hints
The others were not fit to print.
The poem was removed the same day. We had a good laugh.
29th December We were now sailing into the danger area in the waters off the coast of Italian Somaliland and Eritrea, with its port of Massawa and numerous airfields, but apart from one “scare” all was quiet. Perhaps the “Wops” were afraid. During the next Two days we sailed very rapidly up the Red Sea (Grey Looking). On our Starboard side the hills of Saudi Arabia and the famous Mount Siniai, and to Port the hilly coastline of Egypt our destination at last.
31st December, New years eve On the morning of the last day of 1940 we arrived in the roads of Suez and Port Tewfick, gateways to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean beyond.
We disembarked in flat bottomed tenders manned by filthy Arabs, this our first introduction to the “Wogs” of Egypt. We were in battle dress which is the normal wear for winter in Egypt. We were sweating as it was certainly quite warm! At Suez we boarded a train (we were going to hate travelling on those trains) hard seats primitive toilet accommodation, and no protection against the sand which continually blows against the sides of the coaches. We “Panted” our way across the wastes of the land of the Pharaohs. All that afternoon we moved slowly northwards towards Cairo, and we sat and dozed as the monotonous variations of “sand and rock” passed by at a snails pace. About 15-00 hrs we came upon our first signs of life, a small village with some Palm Trees and to complete the picture the “Fellahins” the poorest of the poor who represent about 90% of the population, dressed in rags and living in indescribable filth. Soon we were running into the suburbs of Cairo, and the lads were trying out their Arabic as the train crawled through outlying stations. Small and very rude boys ran along side the track, shouting their obscenities, such as, “Shuftie Zubrick” and lifting up their filthy Galabiahs to prove the point.
Shortly we saw in the distance the tall buildings which mark the commercial heart of Cairo, but as we bypassed it en route to El Ghizar we saw little of it that day.
We arrived at El Ghizar at 16-00hrs and admired its very impressive railway station, we all agreed on that, but the town is a shambles and like most Egyptian towns it smells. For a while we lay around the station square at El Ghizar, awaiting the transport which was to take us to our camp at Beni Yusef, a village about 2 to 3 miles from the great Pyramids. Swarming around us were scores of filthy children selling their wares of fruit and sticky sweets and what have you. Many a soldier was robbed that afternoon as the cunning rouges made hay whilst the sun shined. Piastres were so difficult to manipulate after Pounds, Shillings, and Pence, and their wares were doubtful to say the least. At last came our transport, and piling our kits aboard we were whisked through the town onto a fine arterial road which led due West into the setting sun, the time about 19-00hrs in the evening New Years Eve. We were all impressed as the Pyramids grew nearer, but we were hungry, thirsty, and rather tired after our long journey, the Pyramids would have to wait. After passing through a filthy collection of mud hovels and crossing numerous waterways filled with cattle drinking and women washing clothes, their own black garments tied above their knees, we entered our camp, some two miles beyond the village of Beni Yusef.
This was our first night in Egypt and our first day of service in the Middle East. After bedding down in the tents provided for us, we had a look around. On all sides stretched the Desert, hard rock and hills, where valleys were filled with fine sand. In the fading light the hills of Helwan could be seen in the East, whilst to the North the great bulk of the Pyramids filled the skyline. Here and there the great city of Cairo betrayed itself with its imperfect “Blackout” and this was some 10 miles away. We made a beeline for the NAAFI or the EFI as they are called out here in the Middle East. We drank in the New Year (some six hours ahead) in tea and beer while it lasted. As we sat listening for the chimes of Big Ben we heard the BBC describing the great fires raging in the City of London-there so much pain and torment, whilst here all was strangely quiet and peaceful. So passed our first day in the land of the Pharaohs. To bed and we shivered in the chilly night air of the Desert.