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How I ran away to sea !

by jillmjill

Contributed by 
jillmjill
People in story: 
Frank Mortimer
Location of story: 
North Atlantic
Article ID: 
A4115503
Contributed on: 
25 May 2005

This is my Dad's story as told to me:

I was 18, working as a butcher and living with my parents on the "Dickie Bird" estate in Bury ,Lancashire. I went dancing one Saturday at the local Palais with my girlfriend and my cousin , Patrick French, who was in the Merchant Navy. He had trained at sharpness on the "Vindatrix". His first ship was bombed in port and was unable to sail so he was now on the S.S.Hopecrown and was home as his ship was loading cargo at Manchester docks.

My father was very strict and I had to be in by midnight so ever watchful of the clock I stopped at the corner for a goodnight kiss with my girlfriend, who lived close by, and at three minutes to midnight we parted and I walked the 50 yards home. I put the key in the door but the snick had been put on! My father's voice came from behind the door "what do you want" - I replied that I wanted to come in - he said "not here - you know the rules - you are only allowed in until midnight" I would still swear to this day that it was only 2 minutes to 12 but I knew I had no chance of getting in the house!

Luckily Cousin Pat only lived around the corner so I managed to get a bed for the night. Pat had to be back on board his ship by 7 a.m. Monday and had to leave on Sunday night so we spent Sunday together with me ever more resentful about my father locking me out. I thought " I'll show him (my father) locking me out" !!
It was then that Pat and I hatched the plan for me to run away to sea.
It was usual to go through the Merchant Navy training school as Pat had done but that would take too long and I would have had to go home to my father with my tail between my legs.
Pat did not think I would have a problem getting a job on a ship if I wasn't too choosey what job I took as there were over 20 ships loading on Manchester docks - so off we went.
The big difficulty would be getting past the gateman on the docks as security was very tight. As luck would have it, on our approach to the dock gate we met up with the Bosun of the S.S.Hopecrown, along with about 6 drunked crewmen!
Pat explained the situation to the Bosun and when we got to the gate the Bosun showed his pass and said "these are all my crew" and lo and behold -we were in!
I spent the night on the S.S. Hopecrown and on Monday morning began asking round for jobs and had 3 offers of "cabin boy" by the end of the day they were on the S.S.Briarwood, the S.S. Elizabeth Bakke and the S.S. Inverness which was the one I chose.
The S.S. Inverness was a 7000 ton merchant ship. It part loaded in Manchester and then moved onto Birkenhead where we loaded two 90 ton railway engines, one starboard , one portside along with two tenders loaded onto the after deck. All were secured on deck by welding cleats and steel cable - a wonderful job done by Birkenhead riggers. These were destined for Cape Town.
The rest of the cargo was all military - guns, vehicles etc with number 3 hold filled with thousands of tons of ammunition , destined for the middle east.
We left Birkenhead on 23rd June 1941 and joined a convoy in Liverpool bay. We went up the Irish Sea where we were joined by more ships from Scotland. The convoy now numbered about 60 ships.
We set off across the North Atlantic at 6 knots, ziz-zagging all the way although we never saw any enemy aircraft or submarine activity.
At that stage of the war there was a shortage of escorts so a convoy would head out across the North Atlantic and when it got within a few hundred miles of the American / Canadian coast the convoy would disperse and the escorts would pick up a convoy heading for the U.K.
Unfortunately the Germans had tippled what was going on and had invented the wolf pack system of u-boats.
They would wait for the escorts to leave and the convoys to disperse and then pick the ships off individually.
On the 2nd July our convoy dispersed at noon. There were 6 ships heading for South Africa and the Middle East.

I shared a cabin with 3 others in a cabin adjacent to the engine room. At 1.50.a.m. on 3rd July i was thrown out of my bunk, the lights failed and clouds of steam filled the cabin. The 4 of us grabbed what clothes we could plus our lifejackets and scrambled up to the boat deck. I did not have any trousers or shoes!
The torpedo had struck the engine room on the starboard side and shattered the 2 lifeboats on that side. The crew then lowered the remaining 2 lifeboats from the portside.
The ship was now sinking on an even keel with the deck almost level with the sea. The lifeboat that I was in drifted away from the ship but the midship lifeboat was washed back onto the sinking ship. In that boat were the captain, 2 officers and some crew. We did manage to rescue them later which meant there were 36 people in a lifeboat designed for 28.
Then for some unknown reason the Germans fired another torpedo into the ship. This time it went into number 3 hold where the ammunition was.
There was a terrific explosion which broke the ships back. The stern and the bows of the ship both rose high in the sky and slowly sank. I will never forget the sight of looking up at the sky and watching two halves of the ship sinking with the two monster railway engines and it's two tenders still not moving an inch as it gently slid down into the sea.

We were now adrift in the lifeboat (they had no engines in those days).
The German submarine appeared alongside us pointing a machine gun. Our 1st mate told everyone to keep quiet.
The submarine commander asked where our captain was and the first mate replied that we had lost him with the ship (not true - he was in the boat with us!). The commander then asked the name of our ship and what our cargo was to which the mate replied "general". The commander said that he did not believe him but would send out an S.O.S. for us.
Whilst this conversation was going on our lifeboat kept hitting the side of the submarine which damaged our boat and it leaked continuously for the rest of the journey.
We drifted until dawn when we rescued a crew member from a raft - unfortunately we failed to take on board the emergency rations from the raft.
Then the captain addressed us and said that we should take a vote on what we should do. He had taken our position at midnight and we were 450 miles northwest of the Azores. There was a compass in the lifeboat and the 3rd mate had salvaged a sextant.
The captain did not hold out much hope of us being rescued but felt that we could row to the Azores in about ten days. The vote was unanimous to row!
I was too small to handle an oar but as the boat was leaking I was appointed "bailer out" and that is what I did for the next 6 days.
There was a sail with the boat which we put up every night and in the daytime they rowed - one hour each person and we fairly moved along.
The captain worked out the rations: one ships biscuit and 2 eggcups of water per man per day. We used to break the biscuits in half and save one half for the evening. They were too hard to chew - you had to suck them.
We also had some Nestles condensed milk and 4 teaspoons but that took a long time to share round as everyone licked the spoons until they were polished!

The next day was my 19th birthday and it was then that i thought to myself "was it really that clever to run away to sea because my father had locked me out?"- maybe it wasn't !

The officers checked our position with the sextant at noon each day and on the sixth day we sighted land.
It was the smallest - only I mile long -and most northern island in the Azores called Corvo.
We later found out that of the 6 ships heading for Capetown from our convoy five of them had been sunk.
So in less than a month I had run away to sea, been torpedoed and spent 6 days in a lifeboat.

My pay for this period of time was £5.5s.5d including a war bonus.

Medals awarded:
Atlantic star
Africa star
Italy star
Normandy star
General service medal

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