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Mediterranean Salvage Part Three

by valfaith

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Herbert Geoffrey Hall
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 January 2006

My father, Herbert Geoffrey Hall - Geoff Hall — was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, in 1911, and died in retirement in North Wales in 2002, aged 90. During the Second World War he served in the Merchant Navy. He kept a diary of his experiences from which he later prepared accounts of some of the more memorable and important of these. This is Part Three of his account of some of his time on salvage work in the Mediterranean.

Val Myers (nee Hall)


Work continued on the Dorset Coast until one evening, when I had been ashore to an ENSA Concert, I found we had been ordered to go out to a wreck. We were ready to leave about 1.00 am and were ordered to go by the south entrance to the harbour. Having said that, they opened the north entrance. We, of course, stood by the south gate until, eventually, our instructions were altered. Finding our way through a packed and dimly lit harbour was difficult, but about 2.30 am we were away.
Arriving at the position given we learned that our objective had sunk some hours earlier. There was nearby another ship which we knew needed assistance and we proposed going there but orders came to return to Algiers forthwith.
Here we went alongside the S.S. Hiram B Maxim, an American Liberty ship, where we supplied steam to permit her to pick up her anchors and be towed to the quay. From there we went to the S.S. Samite, a similar ship but under the British flag, also anchored just outside the harbour where we carried out the same assistance. The weather was getting rough and we decided to anchor separately until morning but we then got orders to go to the wreck 30 miles away where we had thought to go earlier. Mysterious were the workings of the Naval control, but then I suppose we only knew part of the story.
We were now off on a journey without any of the current recognition codes which could lead to trouble if we met any of our own naval craft. After half an hour we were told to return and rendezvous with a naval trawler, the HMS Staffa who would hand over the codes which should have been put aboard before we sailed. Trying to find a small unlighted ship on a dark night in a big bay in lumpy weather is no joke. (This of course was before the days of radar.) Having found her at last the code box was to be transferred on a rope. To do this the donor vessel comes up to the recipient and fires a rocket towing a line across. At least that's the Merchant Navy way of doing it. The RN seem to work the other way and expected us to do the manoeuvering. After about 1½ hours messing about she did manage to fire a line, but in the darkness we couldn't find it. Eventually it was found to be foul of the stays at the top of the mast. As nobody seemed keen I went up and with some difficulty got the line untangled. We hauled it in, only to find an eye at the end but no waterproof bag. The man on the trawler was most aggrieved, saying, "You've got the end so you must have got the bag." All conversation of course was carried out in Morse code by dimmed Aldis lamp.
By this time we had drifted well apart so he tried to lower a boat but soon realised that, in view of the weather, that was not a proposition. The whole rocket performance had now to be undertaken once again. This time his shot was better, and as he steamed alongside, we hauled over the bag without it even touching the water. They say practice makes perfect!
About noon the following day we came up with S.S. Stanmore where the whole after end and engine room was flooded. We had hopes that we might be able to pump her out to keep her afloat but after 5 hours work we were not making any headway so started to recover as much cargo and useful gear as possible. Unfortunately this ship had been bringing out large quantities of Naffi stores which meant lots of beer and spirits and, although we did everything possible to prevent pilferage, even to making a generous allowance of beer to the men, theft continued.
Her main cargo had been motor vehicles of all shapes and sizes, from 5 cwt Hillman Minx vans to 20 ton Ford trucks, and whilst the after end of the ship was under water, the fore end was still dry and from holds 1, 2 and 3 we lifted out as many vehicles as we could. Eight or ten filled our deck space, after which we had to go into the nearby port of Tenes where we could land them on the quay. Once we had fitted batteries which were stored separately the trucks could be driven, and in fact we had to drive them out of the way to make room for the next lot. In those days not many people could drive cars so the Skipper and I generally had to move them. It was surprising however, how quickly the crew learnt to drive and we had difficulty keeping tabs on what was happening.
The background to Tenes was hilly ridges covered in pine trees and an evening walk amongst these was highly appreciated by those who like that kind of thing.
After such a walk one evening I was aroused at 2.00 am, as the new 2nd Engineer we had got had been terribly assaulted whilst asleep in his bunk. It appeared there had been a drunken brawl during the evening between McLoughlin, the 2nd, and a deckhand. Now he was slashed about the face and head, with the walls of his room sprayed with blood up to the deck head. Of course there were no witnesses but it appeared his assailant was a crewman called Powell, and this seemed to be borne out by McLoughlin before he lapsed into unconsciousness. We did what we could for him with the help of an American pharmacist from a local dressing station and at 4.00 am we dispatched him to hospital in one of the trucks we had landed earlier.
Immediately all leave from the ship was stopped whilst the Military Police carried out a very thorough investigation which included asking if a search of the sea bed round the ship could be made to try to find the weapon used in the assault. As one of our divers had been implicated in the earlier bust-up it was felt that they (the divers) could hardly be asked to do this, so it fell to my lot to go down again. I made two lengthy dives, crawling round in ever increasing circles but all I found was a large spanner and a suitable chunk of iron bar, though whether either of these had been used wasn't obvious. The Police departed after two days, taking Powell with them as a suspect.
Amongst the vehicles which we had recovered were a number of Hillman Minx 5 cwt trucks which were very pleasant to drive, so one evening Jones and I slipped off in one of these, and had a most enjoyable couple of hours, climbing on the cliffs down by the lighthouse. Cape Tenes is a splendid limestone crag some 1500 ft high and it provided me with a lot of enjoyable climbing whenever opportunity offered.
After a few more days we were ordered back to Algiers, where we were surprised to be invaded by about 20 Military Police who searched the ship and of course discovered large quantities of loot picked up from a wide variety of sources. Fortunately they didn't search the Officers' quarters, we being above suspicion I suppose, for though I didn't have anything off the Stanmore, I did have a few oddments picked up over the last few months. Having taken in bunkers and settled other business we were then sent back to Tenes to continue the good work.
About this time a heavy lift ship the Empire Lorenzo was sent to join us and this speeded the job up considerably. With us supplying steam to the Stanmore's winches we could continue lifting trucks, which were then stored, 40 at a time, in the capacious hold of the Empire Lorenzo. Strange things happened to some of the transport. One day Captain Adams spoiled my afternoon nap by saying I should join him on an expedition. Using one of the Hillmans, we went up into the hills, stopping on the outskirts of a village. By now it was fairly dark, so we sidled down into the centre of the place, where we found the 2nd Cook and a cabin boy holding an auction in the back of one of the larger Ford trucks of all sorts of Naffi stores, ships stores and in particular beer and spirits; all looted from the wreck. I'm afraid we had to put a stop to that.
The small Hillmans were splendid little vans for nipping round the country, picking up stores and equipment and we really felt that we could do with a vehicle to avoid futile journeys when we had to take the whole ship. Strange as it may seem one of these Hillmans got mixed with our salvage gear and stayed with us quite a while. Petrol could be a problem as all our portable pumps were diesel. But each vehicle had a number stencilled on the bonnet - about 10 figures. We found that if we went to the American filling stations, filled up with 20 gallons or so, transcribed the truck's number onto the receipt which we then signed 'Winston Churchill', no questions were asked. Weekends and slack times were put to good use as we slipped off into the hinterland, walking or climbing as the spirit moved us. Clearly a small van on hand was a great asset.
Whilst working in Tenes we had become very friendly with some American Army Officers based nearby. We had them over for meals occasionally, and in return we often visited their base camp where they seemed to have all the amenities of civilization. Their organisation of comfort and transportation was outstanding; whether they were as good at fighting a war remained questionable. They had been trying to take a nearby hill where Jerry was still holding out, for some three days, at which point we sent in the Scots Guards who took it in 2 hours. Of course, being largely of Irish descent, they would! This was told to me by one of the American Officers.
We were discussing the desirability of having our own small truck when my friend came up with an idea. We were about 120 miles from Mostagenem. Here vast quantities of stores, including jeeps, were landed. The jeeps were lined up on the quay and slowly drawn into a compound where they were registered, given army numbers, etc, and distributed to the various armies, American, and French or British. Now, if we went over there on the edge of darkness we might be able to whip a jeep, complete with ignition keys and nobody would be any the wiser. He was so persuasive that we determined to have a go.
At the next opportunity Adams, the Yank and I set off to drive one of the Ford 15 cwt trucks to Mostagenem. We proceeded by the coast road, a splendid piece of civil engineering, halfway down a cliff and amidst spectacular views. Adams started driving but the road was difficult, rough and full of bends, and the truck was heavy on the steering, so after 20 miles he passed it to me. I think I did a little better than the Skipper but still found it very hard work, with a tendency to slip on the dusty corners. So after another 30 miles I asked the Yank would he like a go. Somewhat reluctantly I thought, he said OK. He took about a mile to get the feel of it, and after that treated us to one of the most hair-raising experiences of our lives. We raised our speed from 40 to 60 mph (She would only do 65), we slid round the corners in clouds of dust and we seemed to hang suspended over 200ft drops at every left hand bend. It was only later that I learned that he was a test driver for one of the big American manufacturers. To cut a long story short we didn't find an opportunity to pinch a jeep and, after touring the town to see if there was one parked somewhere with the keys in it, we had to admit defeat. We came back along the inland road, a few miles from the coast, long straight stretches, the only hold-up being when we had to overtake convoys of trucks being delivered to the fighting zone.
And so back to our ship once more. All the above sounds as if we were enjoying a never-ending romp round a spectacular bit of Africa but I would point out that these trips took place in our time off. In the main we worked about 60 hours a week, sometimes more, on work that was dirty, hard, unpleasant, and for long spells if they were necessary.
Shortly after our Mostaganem trip we were ordered back to Algiers, having got all we could out of the Stanmore. Arrived, we were immediately put in the dry dock to get the hull cleaned and make minor repairs. We were there for 3 or 4 days and, as the crew soon discovered a vino shop at the end of the quay, I had the greatest difficulty in keeping men aboard during their time on duty. I had one likable old fireman, J.J. Jenkins, a good chap when sober but, knowing his weakness, I put him on duty 8.00 am till 5.00 pm. About 3.30 pm one afternoon I looked out and saw J.J. (pronounced like gi in 'giant') stumbling back from the pub along the quay. Should I bawl him out where he was? No, I thought, I'll wait till he gets on board. Halfway up the gangway he toppled over the perfectly adequate handrail and fell about 35' into the dock bottom. He was alive when we sent him to hospital but I never saw him again.
As soon as we came out of dock we had to leave the ship for a couple of days and sleep ashore whilst fumigation was carried out. Not that I was aware that we were unusually bug-ridden but the Navy must have thought so. I looked forward to a couple of days off, but found endless work to do and less convenience to do it, on top of which the enquiries into the attempted murder and the looting continued, and we were quite busy trying to get the right people to the right places in time.
No other notable events for the next day or so, if one overlooks the fact that the galley-boy refused to work and, on being ordered to do so by the Steward, turned on him with a knife. Fortunately no injury was caused, but it is an indication of the state of mind spreading amongst the crew members. We didn't seem to have any purpose, the War had gone away from us and we had been abroad for nearly a year.
Towards the end of November Adams told us that about 14 of us were to go home on a troop ship which was bringing out some reliefs. As our engine room staff was either in hospital, paid off, or going home they tried to suggest that I stayed behind which did NOT meet with my approval as I had hoped to be home for Christmas.
A busy few days, straightening things up and we joined the S.S. Scythia for the trip home. Once aboard we were not allowed ashore again, and by Monday 28th November we had about 5,500 people on board as we joined a convoy of other big ships coming from further east.
The run home took some 13 days and was probably the most boring 13 days I have ever spent. Nothing to do except eat, and sleep and walk. Adams, Jones and I walked the decks from morn till dusk, and eventually we came alongside the landing stage in Liverpool. Thirteen days with 5,500 companions in a ship built to carry 900 passengers across the Atlantic is not to be recommended.
Apart from the usual signing off, Immigration, BoT, etc we, of the Salvestor, had to go over all the attempted murder business with the Police. I, of course, was the last to be called, and had the greatest difficulty in catching the last train to Burnley. I even had to go back to Liverpool a couple of days later for further statements.
However I did get home that night and I see that my diary says The most interesting, hard-working, worrying but lively voyage of my sea career so far. Leave, and not only that but leave including Christmas, was a bonus.

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