- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Bob Willmott
- Location of story:
- At sea in British Merchant Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 November 2003
Mr. Bob Willmott
Merchant Navy Story
I joined the Merchant Navy in January 1939 when I was 19 years of age, so I went to sea before the war had started. I served on the Orient Line passenger ship Orontes sailing from Tilbury to Australia. The return trip took three months and I had completed two trips before war began, so in September 1939, I was in.
While the Orontes was being converted into a troop ship, I was sent on a gunnery course on the Thames. The course before the one I went on was a fortunate miss for me. The entire course was posted to another armed merchant vessel which unfortunately was sunk on its first operation, with the loss of most of the crew.
I continued on the Orontes with various troop movements where I manned the 6” after gun and fortunately saw no action whatsoever! I was subsequently involved in the Operation Torch landings in N. Africa where we were to land American troops. All the lifeboats were replaced with landing craft to enable the troops to get ashore. During the night, we were attacked by an enemy destroyer, thought to be a Vichy French craft which was chased off by one of our escort vessels and sunk. When the American troops landed, we found that they had left large amounts of their equipment behind them, including desert boots, which rather surprised us, in view of where they were going. We were shelled during this operation and were unfortunate to take a direct hit through the engineering quarters, where the shell severed electrical cables resulting in the Chief Engineer being electrocuted. I think we were on board the Lancabee Castle (?). On our way back to Gibraltar, we had 12 ships in convoy when we were attacked by a German submarine which sank one of the vessels. We had greater concern than usual, as we had no lifeboats, since these had been replaced with the landing craft which were now on the beaches of N. Africa! Our escort vessel had to stay with the convoy and I often wonder what happened to the survivors.
I served mainly on other Castle line ships and we were one of the last ships to leave Singapore with women and children on board. I had two trips in the Queen Mary ferrying troops from America and Canada back to UK and P.O.W.s back to America. 15,000 people a time was a sight to be seen, which was the number of people on board per trip. This number of people created its own problems as we suffered from an infestation of bugs necessitating the fumigation of the Queen Mary when we reached New York. When we arrived at New York on one occasion, there was a tug strike on, and the Captain docked the vessel without any assistance whatsoever. On this trip we had taken the Chiefs of Staff to a meeting and also Lord and Lady Beveridge. We also had P.O.W.s who had managed to loosen bolts on the portholes and actually get onto the quayside, but that’s as far as they managed to get.
In 1945, I was discharged to a reserved occupation before the end of the war and felt like a millionaire with all the money I had been unable to spend, which had accrued while I had been at sea.
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