- Contributed by
- denis burdon
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 March 2004
DENIS BURDON WW2 MERCHANT NAVY SERVICE
OUTBREAK OF WAR 1939
I was only 14 in September1939 when war was declared. My older brother was called up immediately into the army. He trained in Ireland and was later involved in the Normandy landings. 'Operation Overlord'
Most people were keen to help the war effort. Mother joined the Womens' Voluntary Service and helped in manning a first Aid Station. There was an intense desire by most people to do something.
I was keen to do something myself so I joined The Air Training Corps with a view to becoming a fighter pilot which was one of the more glamorous jobs at the time but with a high mortality rate. Nevertheless I learnt Aerodynamics,Navigation, Morse Code etc.and went on a few trips with the ATC to local aerodromes.
This knowledge was very useful whilst later serving in the MN .
I had a friend at work who had served as an Engineer in the Merchant Navy. He talked me into trying to join the MN. Without previous sea experience no one would accept me so I went to the National Sea Training School (originally Gravesend Sea School) then transferred to an old sailing ship in Sharpness Gloucester called
the T.S. Vindicatrix.
TRAINING & FIRST SHIP
I endured the 3 months or so training and passed the seamanship exams in 1943. I was then told to report to Middlesborough Merchant Navy Reserve Pool who directed me to the ss. Essex Trader moored at Eston Jetty.
Merchant Navy 'Pools' were established at all the main ports and all shipping was controlled by the Ministry of Transport who had to allocate about 8000 seamen per week to various Merchant Ships.
After a wearying slog lugging my kitbag around Eston I eventually identified the ss Essex Trader and was dismayed to see the ship covered in a white dust which turned out to be Manganese Ore which it had just discharged. Nevertheless it was my first ship and a quite new 10,000 ton cargo vessel with 'heavy lifting derricks which proved crucial in later exploits in the Mediterranean.
OFF TO SEA
I was welcomed aboard by the second steward who directed me to a very well equipped 4 berth cabin and gave me a good meal. This was heaven after my spartan training ship experience. My three cabin sharing shipmates were from Middlesborough, Birkenhead, and Runcorn. We got on well together.
The ship was really quite new having been built in Sunderland and had only done one trip down West Africa.
Within a few days we sailed out of the Tees and went north calling at Methyl and Oban (Use of the English Channel was out of the question because of attacks by German E boats and aicraft.) before loading up in Helensborough with ammunition, military transport vehicles and a great variety of supplies of various kinds.
We were instructed to join a convoy assembly point at Gourock. We joined a 100 ship convoy heading South but because of U boat dangers we were continually zig-zagging and so took about 3 weeks to get to Freetown West Africa where we discharged some of our cargo. The R.N Escort consisted of one destroyer and two corvettes which was totally inadequate for the size of the convoy. Alarm bells were ringing and ships were being torpedoed throughout the trip. Our sleep was constantly disturbed by the alarm bells ringing mainly during the night .
All the ship's crew were allocated to gun stations as assistants to the DEMS personnel who were manning the armaments . On action stations being sounded our instructions were to don our life jackets and 'tin hats' and report to our gun stations. Later on in the
war we had an aircraft carrier as part of the escort. Each day there were crashes as planes were trying to land on the heaving deck.
After Freetown we went to Accra, Takoradi and Lagos where we discharged further supplies for the army and RAF stations there. Our last deliveries were to Lagos where we loaded up with 10,000tons of giant peanuts and sailed for Liverpool. Joining a convoy at Freetown we sailed North with our usual zig-zagging trying to avoid the uboats.
After discharging our cargo of peanuts in Liverpool we were ordered to proceed to Gareloch for loading more
military supplies for Malta. We joined the usual zig-zagging convoy for heading South for Gibraltar.
We suffered repeated air and sub attacks on route to Valetta where we discharged our cargo.
We then sailed for Casablanca for loading American Sherman Tanks, military transport of various kinds of supplies for discharge along the North African coast, Algiers Oran, Bougie, Bizerta etc.
After the Sicily and Italian landings we continued moving troops and supplies across from Africa.
Our "home port" became Taranto in Italy where we loaded troops and landing craft for an unknown destination.
This turned out to be St Tropez in Southern France - Operation "Dragoon". Our convoy was attacked by subs, Eboats and aircraft. Many dead and injured were discharged from our ship. A hospital ship was in attendance.
After about two years we were ordered to Melilla in Spanish Morocco where we loaded 10,000 tons of iron ore for discharge at Middlesborough.
I was then ordered to report to the "Empress of Australia" at Liverpool where we embarked 2000 RAF personnel
for transporting to Okinawa in the Pacific where an attack on the Japanese mainland was being prepared.
We traversed the Atlantic for the first time not in Convoy. A very strange and vulnerable feeling
Although uboat attacks were possible our speed of 25 knots would enable us to outpace 9 knot uboats.
After passing through the Panama Canal and a stop in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii for supplies we sailed for Okinawa. After about two days of increasing worries about the Japanese Kami Kazi pilots who were attacking shipping we heard that atom bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Japanese had capitulated and our Okinawa trip was unnecessary so we were diverted to Inuwetok in the
Marshall Islands. The Americans did not want us so we were sent to Manos in the Admiralty Islands who also did not know what to do with us. Eventually the Governor of Hong Kong flew down to Manos and said he
needed assistance in policing Hong Kong where the Chinese were running riot. We then sailed for Hong Kong where we discharged the 2000 RAF personnel for policing duties.
After embarking all the ex-internees from the Japaneses internment camp at Stanley we sailed for Manila in the Philipine Islands. Here we embarked the first group of British ex-POWS who were all suffering from malnutrition and various illnesses such as Beri-Beri for transport back to the UK.
After stopping at Singapore, Columbo and Middle East ports where we dis-embarked various personnel
we arrived at Liverpool where I was then sent to join the "Reina del Pacifico".
INDIA & MIDDLE EAST
We embarked various personnel for discharge in the Middle East ports and Bombay.
On return to the Mediterranean we embarked male and female South African army personnel for transport to
Mombasa and Durban. Entering Durban harbour it was customary for a very powerful woman singer to serenade
all ships entering the port from the end of the jetty.
After arriving back in Liverpool I was ordered to report to th RMS. "Aquitania" in Southampton.
We then spent the next 6 months transporting British War brides, home-going American and Canadian
service men to New York and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our homeward trips included many German POWS who had been working on the land in Canada. Our outward trips with war brides always left with a brass band on the quay side playing "Auld Lang Syne" and many weeping women on deck!!
I left the Merchant Navy in 1947 and came home to resume my accounting studies.
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