- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Dr Maurice A Shellim
- Location of story:
- Atlantic, off Brittany
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 November 2004
I qualified as a doctor at Guy’s Hospital in April 1939. Following two house jobs, I worked at the Southern Hospital at Dartford in Kent and dealt with many casualties during Dunkirk and the Blitz. I witnessed the appalling Luftwaffe destruction in the Thames estuary. In November 1940, I joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a Lieutenant. My first appointment was as Medical Officer of the troop ship, “Empire Trooper”, on 14th December 1940. She was originally the “Cape Norte”, a German liner captured in September 1939 by the cruiser “Birmingham”. When she was caught, her crew had tried to smash up the engines by pouring acid down the pipes. Another story was that she was worked home by her own crew under an armed escort. They managed to change the pipes round so that oil went into where steam should have, and vice-versa.
Lord Haw-Haw had threatened the ship in a bulletin: “we know that you are trying to ‘beautify’ the “Cape Norte”, but we will take steps to ensure that she will be of no use to the British.” He had also correctly predicted an earlier sailing from Newcastle. We set sail from the Clyde on 19th December. I counted 25 ships in our convoy. Some were escorts, including the cruisers “Berwick” and “Bonadventure”. The merchantmen included “Tampico”, “Costa Rica” and “Fentor”. The “Empire Trooper” was 13—14,000 tons and capable of 10—13 knots. Since her capture, she was part of the P&O BISN Company. The food was excellent, with a ship’s food crew of lascars. I shared a three-berth cabin. In the lounge there was a grand piano with discoloured keys. For most of the men, however, conditions were appalling. The ship was grossly overcrowded. With 2,400 men of the three services on board, there were 1,000 too many for the ship’s capacity. The men slept and ate in the same place. They were violently sick. It was stuffy, and the lights went on and off. All the little deck space was packed. No amusement, no music, no nothing.
Six days passed, in and out of sight of our escorts. Sick parades slowly took shape. They were mostly full of sea sick, with some poor chaps absolutely flat out. The conditions were terrible, what with sea sickness and burst lavatory pipes. The hospital and medical inspection room were down in the bowels of the ship, very hot and stuffy. There were sixty beds approximately, with two isolation wards consisting of around ten beds each, and a padded cell for chaps who went off their rockers. The sterilizers didn’t work and the water seemed to be turned off most of the time. During operations, plates and mugs were smashed by the ship’s rolling, eggs too. Water gushed in through the portholes in the MI room and soaked me while I worked.
Rumours were rife. One day, it would be that only one of our ship’s engines was working and that we had been left behind the convoy. Another would be that on Christmas Day we would be north of the Azores. No-one seemed to know precisely where we were going. We were almost certainly going to Egypt. Because of the overcrowding, we prayed that we would go the short way, via Gib. At 8.15 am on Christmas Day, while we were still in bed, I heard the sound of firing. I hurriedly dressed, and went up on deck. There were lots of troops about on port side, and sounds of intermittent firing for about 10 minutes. A fountain of water went up vertically, which looked like a bomb from an aeroplane. However it soon went round that an enemy raider was responsible. I saw either “Berwick” or “Bonadventure” firing a broadside, 150 yards away. It was an amazing sight.
I was not aware until about half an hour later, when I was called down to the MI room, that we had been hit twice, once forward on the water line, and another aft. One of the quartermasters had been killed and a lascar was fatally injured. The ship stopped. We were taking in water in the Number 1 hold. Attempts were made to block the hole, with carpets torn off the saloon floors. The captain warned the officers that we may sink by the next morning if the bulkhead didn’t hold. There was no panic. We were rolling like hell, even though we were not moving. We’d lost the rest of the convoy, which dispersed when the destroyers put a smoke screen around us. Only a Flower Class corvette, “Cyclamen” K83, appeared every now and then and signalled to us. She fired a rope across and sent something over to seal the hole with, but unsuccessfully. The first hold was full of water but the bulkhead was holding. I had a horrible feeling that this would be our last Christmas Day. We had dinner, and filled in and signed our menus as souvenirs. We sent out an SOS, which may have been picked up by every U-boat and raider in the Atlantic. If we didn’t sink, someone would sink us, I guessed. Last thing at night, there was no escort in sight.
On Boxing Day morning, the bulkhead was still holding well. There was no sign of any ships, friend or foe. Our wireless operator picked up a message in German, but could not translate one word. It turned out to be “broken up” and from a ship in distress, probably the chap who knocked a hole in us and who had been hit by the “Berwick” or “Bonadventure”. Much later, we learned that on Christmas Day a German cruiser, “Admiral Hipper”, had spotted our convoy and attacked. Only one British ship had been hit — the “Empire Trooper”. This encounter was quite by chance, as “Admiral Hipper” had been refuelling in mid-Atlantic from a supply ship, “Baden”. The “Baden” was indeed sunk, by “Berwick” or “Bonadventure”, while “Hipper” fled to Brest. On the evening of 26th December, the two dead were buried at sea, in darkness and pouring rain. By midnight, the corvette “Cyclamen” K83 found us again. She had lost us and spent all night looking. We were very happy to see her again.
On 27th December, the bulkhead was still holding, but with a severe list. The corvette was still with us, steaming along gracefully. She sent a boat over for food, vegetables, cigarettes, etc, which she had run out of. Also it was rumoured that our radio man went aboard her to fix her wireless. Attempts at repair continued. Everyone moved over to the port aft side of the ship, to increase the list. Two of the ship’s stevedores placed a plate over the hole successfully. Lieutenant Commander Gage of the Royal Navy commented that they should be awarded the Gallantry Medal for having saved the ship and 3,000 lives. The ship then started off at 6—8 knots. Four hours later, the plate bust, and the hold filled with water. The bulkhead was still holding. On 28th December, three days after being hit, we sighted land. It was a beautiful day, with a warm wind. As it grew dark, the lights of Ponta Delgada, the Azores, came on and it all looked incredibly strange. For once, we did not observe the blackout and it was good to stroll over lighted or semi-lighted decks.
Rumour had it that, if we were not able to leave the Azores within 48 hours, we may be interned as this was Portuguese neutral territory. The next day, we saw two cruisers, four corvettes and an armed merchant cruiser on the horizon waiting for us. It was very reassuring. Our entire escort seemed to stay some distance away except for the corvette “Cyclamen” K83 which came with us. We heard that her Asdic had been broken for four days. We sailed on New Year’s Eve with an escort of four corvettes and one cruiser. That afternoon, one of the engines broke down, reducing us to 2-4 knots. We celebrated New Year with accordion playing and with toasts to the Forces and to wives and sweethearts. Everything was cheerful. We received New Year greetings from our escorting cruiser, “Kenya”. We reached Gibraltar on 5th January, in brilliant sunshine. We were powered by one engine, and that was in continual trouble. We had come through storms amounting to a young hurricane. Once in port, the stricken “Empire Trooper” was examined and found to be unseaworthy. All the troops on board would transfer to a large ocean liner, “Monarch of Bermuda”.
We tied up next to the aircraft carrier “Ark Royal”. There was a story going round that “Ark Royal” and the battleship “Renown” answered our SOS on Christmas Day. They were sent out to look for us, but couldn’t find us as our wireless operator had given a position some 120 miles out. The “Ark Royal” boys were none too pleased, as they were looking forward to their Xmas dinner and instead had to go to sea at high speed. I shan’t forget Christmas 1940.
Maurice A Shellim
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