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15 October 2014
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Four personal years of WW2

by Charles Green

Contributed by 
Charles Green
People in story: 
Charles Green
Location of story: 
The High Seas, North Africa, Sicily, Italy
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 June 2004

Dear Readers,

My name is Charles.
I spent four years in the services in WW2, some of it in the Merchant Navy which I joined in 1939 at the outbreak of hostilities as a steward aged 18, on MV Opawa of the New Zealand Shipping Co. London.

We sailed the UK-New Zealand-Australia run, sailing initially under ballast from King George the 5th docks in London, to join a convoy of some forty plus other assorted merchant vessels under the protection of destroyers for a few days till we were clear of British waters, then we and a few other ships who had a slightly higher rate of knots than the older steam-ships, left the convoy to go it alone to our seperate destinations.
The Opawa went out via Jamaica-Panama Canal to Sydney then on to Aukland and returning the other way via the Indian Ocean and CapeTown, docking back at Avonmouth, as London docks were then the attention of the Luftwaffe, the run took about three months.
It wasn't long before Avonmouth was also attacked, which made things difficult for any ships' return home.

For our defence from enemy bombers we had an historic anti-aircraft gun mounted right aft above the carpenters shop, a poor old thing but it did at least fire a few shots, even if in doing so, it almost dismantled the place, which wasn't built for agressive usage. We the crew shared the gun-station and treated the whole affair when the alarm first sounded as a bit of a laugh, so chaotic were our attempts to get into action, but we soon got the hang of things.

There was at the time a real threat from magnetic mines the Germans had laid in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere, so we had a Degousing Gear fitted around the vessel to counter the mines' attraction to our steel hull, and this equipment came in for a real hammering from some of the very high seas in the Indian ocean especially, bending the 12" H section steel arm which stuck out for'ard, like a stick of soft rock.

Those were exciting days for a young chap who had never been to sea before, with enormously towering waves that swept over the whole vessel at times, and I spent hours of my off-duty time standing in the well-deck enjoying the thrill of watching the waves roar past me a few feet away and getting soaked.

Our cargo back to UK was New Zealand lamb, butter and the like, Grain from Australia, and bananas picked up from Jamaica, but my memory fails me as regards our cargo from Cape Town, maybe the Captain felt the wine a was a good pick-me-up. We crew members certainly enjoyed our few days ashore there finding the bars, a great break to have plenty of beer and stretch our legs.
It was here I believe that I first fell victim to the effects of too much Rum, and God how I suffered. The mere smell of rum for many years afterwards made my stomach pound and ache, though I seem to have recovered from that now that the Lord!

I came ashore after two years on medical grounds, then after a few months ashore, joined the army in 1942. I had six months quick training then was part of the North Africa invasion by the 1st Army in NOvember 1942.

We left left the Port of London and sailed north to join our small convoy of troop ships at Gourock, and were supposed to land at Algiers some ten days later.
Our accomodation was hammocks somewhere deep beow decks and the journey was the most uncomfortable few days I can ever remember, with chaps being seasick right left and centre, and the art of staying in the damned hammock never really being mastered by most of included.

On approaching our advised landing site at Algiers, we found it was still in enemy hands. The dive-bombers persuaded us to quickly beat a hasty retreat and went further East along the coast to a quieter site to land all our equipment and sort ourselves out, then moved back West to Algiers with Rear HQ G.T.Company, the opposition having been dealt with by our forward troops who we learned were ashore dealing with the opposition when we first tried to land there, and our Platoon made camp not far inland from where we were supposed to have first landed.

We had been there two days when there was a lot of commotion just offshore of American troop landing craft and aircraft, and saw with much laughter, the Yankees charging in up the beaches guns at the ready, bayonets fixed, and landing craft operating to the full, to find the Brits sitting waiting for them, instead of the enemy, who had departed a few days ago.
This approach was,I understand, the usual noise and show that the USA troops gave on other landings, whether there were enemy there or not.

We had been there three or four days under canvass, when a violent storm hit the area which woke us up with the noise of the very heavy rain hitting the tent canvass, winds were very very strong, and looking up I could see a little tear in the top where the lightness of the sky showed through. Watching it fascinated, it gradually got bigger and longer and then in a frightening noise of flapping tearing canvass, away the tent went, flattening the poles and leaving us open to the elements.
As one man we set off in our shirt-tails, down-wind across the sand to look for our tent. We came across it some half mile away, and with some difficulty and a lot of swearing and cussing, dragged the heavy wet beast back the way we had come.
With even more difficulty, the tent was re-erected, and back we climbed under our wet blankets to try to get back to sleep. Then suddenly one bright spark shouted that this wasn't our tent, as there was no tear in the canvass!! We came to the conclusion that this must be B Platoons' tent, who we had passed on our way back and we wondered quite uncaringly, as we laughed as we hadn't laughed before....if they were still looking for ours!

My Company, RASC General Transport Company 871 then followed with Rear HQ. along the coast to Bone, joined up with the 8th Army, sailed across to Sicily, then on to Italy, landing on the east coast, as I seem to remember, part of a two pronged attack, the other being on the West coast.

I was invalided home from Naples on the Hospital ship 'Abba', which, as she took injured troops aboard, had a bomb hit during an air-raid which exploded at the other end of my ward and started a fire.

It was one mad rush for those of us who were walking wounded to get the hell out of it and this as fast as we were able up the wide ramp that led to the upper decks above the water-line. Once there we took stock and realised that we had left injured chaps below, and back down most of us went to do some-thing about it, and after half an hour or so, the ward was cleared of those who were left alive.

Though the raid went on for a while we escaped any more hits as we loaded up, and the next day we sailed from the docks to stand-by for a Pilot that night to leave for home under cover of darkness.
It was then that the volcano Vesuvius chose to erupt, and the pounding we took by rocks and ash was the noisiest couple of hours I can remember, not to mention the dustiest.

Our run back to UK was uneventful, I was hospitalised at Lichfield and I was invalided out of HM Service in 1944.

A few years later I learned that on the 6th February 1942, approximately the same time that I was discharged from srevice, my old ship the "Opawa" was sunk by torpedoes in the North Atlantic with only 15 I think it was, that survived the crew of 71.
I was given to understand that the Opawa had picked up a carg of high explosive just prior to her sinkng, but on evidence from several quarters, I find this is eroneous
and will show in my journal a copy of a very detailed letter from a gentleman who has researched the history of the "Opawa" in great depth, she was the first ship to be torpedoed in the uboat campaign in the Atlantic.
Most importantly too, I have obtained from another gentleman who replied to my advertisement, a copy of the Captain of the "Opawas" ships' Log, the facts of which prove conclusively, the details of her fate.

For those interested further, The New Zealand Shipping Companies book, "Ordeal by Sea" gives all the details to the full, excellent reading on this also is the New Zealand Shipping Company's book, "Crossed Flags" by W.A.Laxon.

Charles Green.

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