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by jim buchan

Contributed by 
jim buchan
People in story: 
Jim Buchan
Location of story: 
River Clyde, Atlantic,Mediterranean,Tunisia
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 November 2003


It was Wednesday the 9th December 1942 and above us the grey imposing hulk of the Troopship T.S. Cameronia loomed menacingly as we struggled from the sides of the King George V dock in Glasgow up the gang planks laden down with our kit bags, full marching order equipment and our small arms. As we stepped on to the deck we were greeted not by a naval crew piping us aboard but by a member of the Military Police who handed each one of us in turn a slip of cardboard with a number on it signifying which part of the ship we were allocated to. Ours said ‘Messdeck D.8’ and awkwardly we struggled down gangways and flights of stairs until we reached our allotted space .The implications of D8 slowly dawned on us, each deck was given a letter starting at A which was the one with the life boats on it and extended the full length of the hull. Above this were the shorter decks with cabins, offices and wireless rooms and finally the bridge and the deck from which the funnel rose. The troops were accommodated on the decks lettered A to D, in messdecks, which were areas sectioned off on each deck, numbered in rotation from stem to stern. Each messdeck held about 100 men, and each man had a space at a long table each table having about 12 men grouped round it. There was some space around the tables and here all our equipment, blankets and bedding were stored. Hammocks were the order of the day, and they were slung on brackets over the tables and around the walls (or should that be bulkheads). So this restricted space, four decks down on a converted liner, just above the water line and with only another messdeck - D9, between us and the propellers was to be the home for what we estimated would be about two weeks for the 254th Battery of the 64th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. bound for overseas service somewhere as yet unspecified. Intelligent guesswork however made it almost certain that we were off as part of the Allied operation code named Torch to land UK and U.S.A. forces on the North African coast in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

We quickly settled into our allotted space and then we were subjected to a barrage of instructions as we squeezed in to our groupings around the tables. First was where we would stow our kit and equally importantly where we would not. All passageways had to be kept clear at all times, our personal kit had to be in a certain place along with our hammocks and blankets. We were given demonstrations of how to put on and fasten the life jackets we had all been issued with, reminded to have it with us at all times or at least within reaching distance, and if we had to jump from the side of the ship wearing it to be sure to hold on to the front of the jacket and pull it away from our chin so that when we hit the water it didn’t shoot up and break our necks. Then followed all the don’ts - don’t open porthole windows, don’t smoke on deck, don’t throw litter over the side - U boats can pick up a litter trail on the surface and follow a convoy with disastrous results, don’t show lights at any time on deck and above all don’t panic. Next we had all our routine arrangements. When we would eat, when we would parade and where, when we would be allowed on deck, how our meals would be collected and how they would be dished out, where we would wash, where the latrines or as we now had to call them ‘the heads’ were, when and where we would be allowed to the canteen and of course where and how we would sleep. This was going to be the biggest test of not only our ingenuity but also our tolerance and ability to get on with one another. Few if any of us had ever slept in a hammock so it was a novel experience. First of all it had to be tied to the brackets on the roof of our messdeck. I say roof, naval types will no doubt correct me and say it should be the deck or something but it was the bit above our heads. The knack seemed to be getting it at the right tension so that it didn’t sag too much, but also that it didn’t touch the mess table. Having got it up, the next problem was how to get in the blessed thing. For about half an hour, it was like an episode of Laurel and Hardy as we swung up on the brackets and tried to lift ourselves up and in to the hammock without it spinning round with us wrapped up in it and deposited back on the deck. Eventually we mastered it after a fashion but trying to arrange blankets, some form of pillow and ourselves in comfortably so as we could get some sleep was going to be a trial. After what seemed ages but was probably only two or three hours since we boarded we were told we would get our evening meal with the clarion call on the loud speakers ‘Cooks to the Galley’. This meant that the mess orderlies for the day from each table would proceed to the ‘galley’ or in army terms - the cookhouse where they would be given metal dishes and dixies containing the meal for the twelve men at their table which they would bring back to the table and dish out.

A large part of a soldier’s life centres around food, when he gets it, how it is served, how much there is, where it is served and most importantly what does it taste like. In our three years service so far, we had scaled the heights of almost home cooking and descended into the troughs of garrison fare; now we were going to have a new experience and where would this go in our league table?. Well, it came above garrison cooking - but only just. The food was not too bad ,there was plenty of it, but the way it was served in metal dixies from which the orderly had to ladle it out in to our mess tins and the cramped smelly conditions of our messdeck would have challenged even cordon bleu fare. This however didn’t taste too badly, it was reasonably warm and it was on time but we were still tied up to the George V dock. From memory, it was a stew with dumplings followed by semolina pudding with a dollop of jam on top, washed down with lashings of tea, the type of fare which in better conditions we would have relished. After the meal, we had to clean our mess tins and cutlery in the ubiquitous bowl of hot greasy water, pack them away, then we were allowed on deck for a quick breath of air and to stretch our legs before turning in for the night. We were not allowed to smoke so all we could do was walk round and round the deck looking longingly ashore but unable to see anything other than remote shapes of tramcars with their lights hooded and the occasional car or lorry with tiny little lights because of the blackout before we had to go below again and settle down. Once again we got in to our routine of amusing ourselves, some read, most wrote letters, a few played cards, most of us smoked usually cigarettes with only the occasional pipe and an impromptu game of ‘Housey-housey’ ( better known as Bingo) got under way until lights out when we settled down and tried to sleep. By now we had built up quite a fug and the smell to an outsider would have knocked him down but we were used to it and thought nothing of it. Even though the ship was at anchor and there was little movement there was the incessant noise of stores and equipment being loaded, banging of engineering work, droning of fans and so on which added to trying to settle in a hammock was going to make sleep very difficult. I managed to settle down eventually waking only fitfully now and then to realise that the ship was moving and we were on our way.

Reveille was sounded at 6.30 and we rolled out of our hammocks, those of us who were still in them. Quite a few had been unable to get comfortable and had decided to sleep either on the mess table or on the benches or even on the deck. Breakfast would be at 7.30 so we had to get along to the ablutions wash, shave and get ourselves tidied up and gear stowed away ready for inspection by 8.30. Another new experience, washing in salt water ! Fortunately we had been able to acquire some salt water soap the night before from the canteen but even so it was difficult. Drinking water was severely limited so cleaning of teeth was done using our mugs with drinking water in them, a little being saved to try and get a decent shave before washing off the soap and lather in salt water (cold). By now the ship was again at anchor only swaying slightly and when the mess orderlies came back with our breakfasts they had managed to have a look outside and were able to inform us that we were anchored off Greenock at what is known as ‘The Tail of the Bank’ which is the last point before the open sea. Breakfast was surprisingly good, porridge followed by bacon and tinned tomatoes, doorstop slices of bread a spot of jam and lashings of tea so we were reasonably content as we had our first parade on deck and could view our surroundings. Many of us were familiar with them from pre-war trips down the Clyde on one of the many pleasure steamers so we knew the towns and hills we could see along the shore. The river itself was almost covered in ships of all shapes and sizes from troopships like ours and some even bigger to battered looking cargo ships and puffing officiously about little tug boats ferrying people and instructions to the various vessels. In the distance moving slowly about we could see the sleek grey hulls of the Royal Navy destroyers which presumably would be our escorts when our convoy - P7 finally set sail but everywhere was dull, grey and damp, after all it was December and we weren’t off on a pleasure cruise. After our parade we were dismissed to our mess-deck for a talk by our Commanding Officer and on our way back there we fell in to conversation with some members of the Pioneer Corps. The Pioneer Corps was the branch of the army which did all the heavy work like digging, earth moving and where necessary as in the First War preparing trenches under the direction of the Royal Engineers. The were in fact a sort of Army contractors. They were allocated to mess deck D9 the one next to us and right at the stern.

As we assembled in our messdeck we all wondered if at last we would have it confirmed where we were going. We had a fairly good idea but it would be nice to know it officially and we were not disappointed. North Africa was our destination and we would be part of the British First Army which had already landed at Algiers along with American troops who had landed at Oran to the west of Algiers. Part of our division was already well east of Algiers heading for Tunis which was the objective and we would be reinforcing them and landing at Bone. The original landings had been relatively unopposed and good progress had been made but rapidly the Germans had rushed in reinforcements and now had considerable forces surrounding Tunis as well as having aircraft based in Sicily which could reach both Tunis and Bone so we were not in for a walk over. We were issued with a guide book to North Africa telling us what the climate was like, about the local people and a stock of French phrases so as we could communicate with the French colonials and a few Arabic phrases to speak to the natives. Although we had all our immunisation vaccinations we had no protection against malaria so we were all issued with anti-malaria pills called Atabrine or Mepacrine which we had to take daily. These had the effect of turning the skin yellow until the sun got to work and gave us a sun tan which covered the yellow but it was an easy way to tell how long someone had been out in North Africa, if he was yellow, he was a newcomer. Our guide book promised us sunny and dry weather with temperatures about the same as a British summer, gradually warming up as the year progressed so we would not need any special kit when we landed and we would be issued with tropical kit in due course.

As usual we were warned to read the Battery Orders which would be posted in our messdeck daily, a job I was no longer responsible for, now being part of HQ troop as the Commanding Officer’s despatch rider. Once we had our briefing over, we were then free to lounge around our messdeck or walk around our area but not allowed on deck. We had Physical Training on deck later on when we had a last chance to see the sights of the Scottish countryside before we had to settle down for the night in our cramped quarters, smoking, playing cards, reading or writing letters. During the night, we heard the sound of engines running and the rumble and groan of the propeller shaft turning along with the swish of water outside and we knew we were on our way.

By the time Reveille sounded the following morning, the ship was rolling and swaying in a most unsettling way and quite a few decided that they would miss breakfast. That was all they would be allowed to miss for we were soon dressed in our PT shorts and running round the upper decks and doing physical jerks in the grey mist laden morning. No land could now be seen, I don’t think that was because there was none there but because the sky, the sea and everything else around seemed to be a uniform grey and the only shapes we could see were the other ships in the convoy and even then only a small part of that. We were mighty pleased to finish our exercises and get back down to the comforting fug of our mess deck even though everything was now rolling and sliding about and we had to be careful where we put anything down like a mug of tea, in case it ended up at the far end of the mess table or on the deck. Our route according to those in the know was down the Firth of Clyde then head due West passing Northern Ireland and then head for America. This way, so it was averred, we would miss the submarine packs and eventually we would head South, then East and aim for Gibraltar. All we hoped was first that someone knew how to steer this boat, secondly that we got wherever we were going as soon as possible and lastly that no U Boat would have us in his sights. We consoled ourselves with the thought that perhaps the bad weather would keep us from being spotted by the enemy, it was our only bright thought about the continual pitching and yawing motion that was to be our constant companion for the foreseeable future. To keep us from becoming too bored we had lectures on the German army, the uniforms, the silhouettes of aircraft, the latest information about their tanks, and daily bulletins about the progress of the war both at home and overseas. These helped to a certain extent but one by one we all succumbed to the dreaded sea-sickness and had to make urgent dashes for the heads or the sides of the ship to retch and groan and wish we were dead.

It affected us in different ways, some succumbed within hours of sailing, others lasted almost the whole voyage until the Mediterranean but mostly it took two or three days. I think I lasted about two days then I had a day of misery and was back to normal (or as near normal as possible) and could face having breakfast of bacon and tinned tomatoes again. Black humour was of course rife then, asking someone if they’d like a fried bacon sandwich or a nice plate of fish and chips being fairly common, but one bit of advice I heard being given by an old soldier to a younger one hanging over the rail I thought was priceless. The old soldier had his arm round the young one’s shoulders and was saying to him, ‘Get it all up - but when you come to a little round washer like thing, swallow it quick - it’s your arsehole’. Another example took place in the heads (latrines). They were long troughs over which a long bench with holes cut in it for sitting upon had been fixed. A constant stream of water was pumped in at one end and ran down the trough carrying away anything that had been deposited and on into pumps where it would be jettisoned below water level. This was a great place for our practical jokers who waited until as many of the seats as possible were taken then placed a little strip of wood on which a lighted candle had been mounted at the incoming end of the trough then waited as it floated down to hear all the agonised cries and yelps as it made its way to the outlet.

After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only three days, the weather brightened and we appeared to change course and were now heading South, pity, we could have endured a few more days to end up in New York. As we headed into better weather, spirits rose but we also knew that better visibility made us more vulnerable to enemy attack. We had frequent practice boat stations when we had to abandon whatever we were doing, grab our life jackets get them on, drape our great coats over our shoulders and assemble on deck in our allotted position as quickly as possible. There we stood while we were counted by officers from the ship who either complimented us on our speed or more usually gave us a haranguing for taking so long. These drills took place at any time even during the night and on one of these night occasions we were delighted to see lights twinkling on what must have been a shore off on our left side or port as we now had to call it. This we were told were the lights of Portugal which was neutral and therefore had no blackout and quite a lot of those on board were hoping that if we were to be torpedoed, now was the time to do it and we might get to a nice safe billet ashore for the duration of the war. However we were fortunate or unfortunate, depending on your view point and before long we were heading due East and passing through the straits of Gibraltar.

In what seemed no time, we were in relatively calm waters, the temperature had risen and we could see land now on our right hand or starboard side which was part of North Africa and soon we were anchored off Algiers. Here, some of the convoy went in to Algiers and unloaded while our ship and probably about three more remained anchored in the bay to await our final orders. During the night we heard the sounds of gun fire and realised that Algiers was being attacked from the air but it didn’t affect us or any of the other ships and before dawn we were back at sea again still heading East. It was now the 21st December so we had been on board for twelve days of which only ten were actual sailing and we were beginning to feel quite smug and complacent and invincible when as was to be expected, fate stepped in and gave us a right kick up the backside. During that night , that is the 22nd we were awakened by the alarm bells and we could hear the anti-aircraft guns on our deck pounding away at whatever was attacking us. We waited anxiously around our mess deck attired in our life jackets, tunics and trousers, boots but no gaiters, no webbing, no rifles or bayonets, smoking nervously and wondering what was going on. One of our HQ troop Gunner Wilton who drove one of our 15cwt trucks and was also our Battery barber, overcome by diarrhoea couldn’t wait any longer and had to dash to the heads. Suddenly there was the most almighty crash and bang, the whole ship shuddered, all the lights went out to be replaced by the dim glow of the emergency lighting and we realised that we were stopped and wallowing in the sea. Wilton came staggering back into the messdeck, still clutching his undone trousers and looking very scared. He had been perched on the long bench seat in the heads relieving himself when a large part of the ship beneath him suddenly exploded and disappeared leaving him perched precariously over the water. The boat stations call was sounded and off all those on the mess deck went except for me. I had been detailed as fire picket that night which meant that in the event of an emergency like this, it was my job to stay on the mess deck and report any damage or fire while the rest went to boat stations.

I wandered around the area and could see no damage but from the next mess deck - D9 I could hear the sound of waves and groaning and shouting and could only guess that that was where we had been hit. From the entrance to our area, a naval officer appeared, saw me, asked if I was all right then told me to get in to D9 and see what I could do to help. On the way there I met up with another fire picket and together we made our way to the stricken area. When we got there it was a scene of utter confusion, there was a gaping hole in the side of the ship through which in the early morning light we could see waves sloshing about. The mess deck itself was a complete shambles, kit, equipment, tables, hammocks were all piled up in a ghastly mess and lying on top or buried underneath all this rubble were the bodies of many of our comrades, some groaning and crying out, others suspiciously still. There were already parties of other troops clawing at the debris trying to get them out and the other soldier and I joined in dragging away tables and bits of metal to get at those trapped. We managed to get one lad free . He didn’t look too good, he was very grey and ashen and his legs looked broken but he was still conscious. In such a state as he was, it would have been madness to pick him up and carry him, so we did the next best thing and lifted him gently into a hammock, which we could then use like a stretcher with the great advantage that we could manoeuvre it around corners and over obstacles. From the damaged area we had to make our way to the sick bay which was now a casualty clearing station and we tried talking to the victim but got no response. When we reached the sick bay, there were already a large number of casualties there, some walking wounded others on the few beds and several on the floor waiting attention. The orderly in charge showed us where to put our man which we did and waited till someone came to attend to him. We then returned to our own mess decks to await further instructions.

Alone on the messdeck now knowing what had happened, I wondered what would be the next move, would we have to abandon ship, would we stay afloat, would we be attacked again, it was all very frightening. Then I had an inspiration, we had been able to buy our ration of sweets and cigarettes while we had been anchored off Algiers and I thought that at least the chocolate might be useful if we had to take to the lifeboats so I went to my pack and dug out my ration, then I thought, my pal Ian had bought his and I knew where his pack was so I got his as well. I then realised that the engines were going again and we seemed to be under way once more. It looked as though we might not be sinking and I was very relieved to be called to go up on deck and join my mates. They were all lined up on the deck. I found Ian and handed him his chocolate. This he thought a brilliant idea and as he was feeling quite peckish it was consumed right away with no worries about abandoning ship. The sight that greeted me on deck was quite amazing we were making way towards the coast but weaving a zigzag course between us and the north where attacks could come from were a couple of menacing looking naval ships which I believe were the cruisersAjax and Achilles. There were no other ships in sight but according to my pals another ship had been hit during the night but they didn’t know if it were still afloat. Apparently we had been attacked by a torpedo bomber, not a German one but an Italian one, this was indeed indignity, to have trained all this time and then have our first taste of real action from the Italians of all people. It did however reinforce our long held beliefs that it didn’t matter who was shooting at you, his bullets or bombs were just as deadly as any one else’s. We didn’t have any official number of the casualties we had sustained but it was believed to be 17 killed and about 30 wounded. Of the casualties quite a number had been from the ill fated Pioneer corps soldiers. In fact if the pilot of that plane had released his torpedo a second or two earlier, it was more than likely that Messdeck D8 would have been hit and we would have been counting our casualties.

By now it was full daylight. The chance of further air attacks receded and as we stood at our boat stations smoking, talking and speculating on what would happen next, the coast of North Africa got ever closer until very slowly we arrived in the harbour of a town called Bougie. Here after being sent back to our messdeck to pick up our kit, we disembarked and were marched through the town to a strange looking factory type area. It had lots of long low open sheds which were roofed with straw or reeds and covered long rows of what looked like shallow ditches. We had no idea what went on in this place but were very thankful to be on dry land again and glad that we had a roof at least above us to protect us from the sun which was now shining brightly out of a clear blue sky. All our vehicles and guns were on another ship which we hoped had made it through the night and which we would catch up with later. We had no cooking equipment and the only blankets we had for sleeping were those we managed to carry with us from the ship. The Army must have planned well for this sort of thing for before long cooking equipment, rations and bedding arrived and we were able to settle in our strange accommodation. Our first impressions of the place were first of all the brightness of the light, after the grey skies of Scotland and the mid-Atlantic, it was almost blinding particularly as it reflected off the white washed houses and buildings that we passed as we marched from the docks. The next impression was the lushness of the vegetation, tall palm like trees, succulent bushes and the occasional cactus bush of the prickly pear variety, then there was the dust which was kicked up as we marched along until we and our clothing was covered in a pinkish-white bloom. Over riding all these impressions was the smell, it wasn’t oppressive, it wasn’t unpleasant it was just different, a sort of mixture of sweetness mixed with spiciness almost like a hint of Turkish cigarettes ,which some toffs had smoked before the war. We hadn’t seen much of the local population as we had marched from the docks, we had expected to see quite a few spectators but apart from the odd shopkeeper standing at his door and one or two Arab men hanging around on street corners we didn’t see many. Perhaps it was because of the bombing which had been going on that all the locals were keeping their heads down. Before we had settled down for the night though we were visited by shifty looking characters dressed in long white robes and turbans trying to sell us all manner of things from eggs to fruit or postcards of buxom young (?) ladies in various stages of undress. Wherever we were to go in North Africa, similar characters would appear mysteriously out of nowhere all intent on selling us something. Known by all the troops as Wogs (Wily Oriental Gentlemen) we quickly learned to keep an eye on our possessions whenever they were about.

Our meal that evening introduced to us to a culinary experience we were destined to enjoy for the next few months. Brown wooden boxes arrived at the cookhouse and these were ‘Compo’ rations which I think were being tried out on a large scale for the first time in North Africa. Each box contained the rations for 14 men for one day, or one man for 14 days or any other combination you liked to work out and it had everything needed to keep us healthy, happy (?) and fit. All the food was in tins and it had a breakfast meal - tinned bacon, and tinned tomatoes, a lunch meal - could be meat and vegetable stew with tinned potatoes followed by rice pudding or semolina pudding, an evening meal corned beef and biscuits all washed down with tea made from dried tea and dried milk which also came in a tin. There was of course no bread; instead we had biscuits - hard square biscuits like those served nowadays with cheese but a lot harder and thicker, these came in a tin, the largest one in the box and inside there was usually the makers name - I remember some coming from ’Breezy Blackpool’. As well as food for the day, the box also contained cigarettes, 7 per man per day, some boiled sweets or chocolate and toilet paper so we should be all right whatever happened. We discovered that there were many different combinations of rations identified by the letter on the outside of the case - one we all tried to get if we could was the one which had steak and kidney pudding (in a tin) as well as tinned fruit for dessert. Rumour had it that there was also a special one for hospitals packed with tins of the finest meats and better quality biscuits. After the food aboard ship this was indeed luxury and in fact we quite grew to like our compo rations apart from the biscuits. Even they though had their better side. As well as the makers name inside the tin, occasionally we would come across a note put in by the girls packing the biscuits asking the soldiers who opened the tin to write to them. Some did and formed lasting friendships but we were very glad when eventually we got back to bread in our rations.

Christmas Day 1942 passed with us waiting in our factory compound in Bougie getting organised into a unit again and lying around waiting for orders. Here we were all in a totally new situation, we had no immediate rapport with our surroundings, some signs were in French, some in Arabic, using a modern phrase, the infrastructure was completely foreign (as it was) to us so we felt a bit apprehensive. Even the extrovert types who in the UK would have been out at the first opportunity looking for girls or pubs or sources for the black market were very much subdued and didn’t quite know what to do. Those of us with a smattering of French were very much in demand to translate what few shop signs there were near us and when we explained that ‘bougie’ was the French for ‘candle’ everyone was convinced that we were in a candle factory. Of the French colonials we saw very little at that time, they were more than likely in the bigger houses nearer the town, we saw one or two around the factory area but the majority of the people we saw then were native Algerians. Through the night, we could hear the bombers attacking Bougie and that morning we were assembled with all our kit and marched back to the docks area where ships were awaiting us to take us the rest of the way to Bone.

At the quay side were two familiar ships but not quite what we had expected. They were the Royal Scotsman and the Royal Ulsterman. Before the war they had both been familiar sights at the Broomielaw in Glasgow which was the berth for McBraynes steamers. These two ships did the nightly run between Glasgow and Belfast but for war time they had shed their smart livery of red and black funnels for drab camouflage. They were fast and very manoeuvrable thanks to their diesel engines and in place of their normal lifeboats they now had assault craft. Their role was the rapid deployment of troops for amphibious landings using the assault craft but for us they were being used as troop carriers to get us to our final destination Bone. The only snag was that if we were attacked and hit, they couldn’t launch lifeboats so we would have to get in the assault craft to be launched at speed. We fervently hoped this would not happen. All went well for us and we left Bougie at 8 a.m., made a rapid run along the Algerian coast and arrived off Bone and disembarked the following morning. Bone had been subjected to some heavy bombing and it was important that we picked up our vehicles and cleared the dock area as soon as possible. We marched to an area where all our guns, vehicles and equipment had been marshalled and began immediately the task of giving them a quick check over and making sure they were ready to move. My motor bike was unloaded from the truck on which we had loaded it in the UK, we filled up all our tanks from tins of petrol which had been stored ready for us and with our guns hooked up we were soon off on our journey to the front line. Although there wasn’t much traffic about and what there was was military, nevertheless we had to obey the rule of the road for Algeria so we had to drive on the right; there were sufficient American vehicles around the Bone area to make it important that we didn’t meet head on if one was coming towards us. Our first destination was the town of Beja which was in Tunisia and probably about 40 miles from Bone. The roads were not quite of European standards they were rough and dusty so by the time we reached our assembly area in Beja we were all grimy parched and ready to sample some more of our compo rations. The crossing of the frontier between Algeria and Tunisia just happened, there were no signs up saying ‘Welcome to Tunisia’ or ‘ Haste ye back to Algeria’ we just arrived, not that there was any great difference in the two countries, they both looked alike to us, but here we were at last in the battle zone and very apprehensive of what would happen.


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