- Contributed by
- Derek Wilkins
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 25 July 2003
I was a member of the RAF contingent on the SS Orbita1, a troopship in WW2. Most of us were aircrew volunteers aged 18-20, going for training as pilots, navigators and bomb aimers within the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan2, the remarkable organisation formed to provide wartime aircrew for the Allied air forces. In the majority of cases this was our first time away from blacked out, bombed out and hungry Britain. Our reaction to troopship life is reflected in my diary. The RAF contingent would not touch land throughout the six weeks of the voyage from Liverpool to Durban, South Africa.
The diary, written in pen and pencil in a small exercise book and on scraps of notepaper, covers a six week voyage from Liverpool to Durban. The narrative is transcribed directly from the diary as written day-by-day and contains errors of spelling, punctuation and grammar. It pauses after the first day on board ship in the Liverpool docks and restarts on the 12th day of the voyage, once Gibraltar had been sighted. Reasons for the gap can be put down to the initial strangeness and the settling down to the arduous routine of a troopship at sea, the sheer boredom of the Atlantic, and of course sea sickness, as the ocean was rough for much of the time.
There were about 2,000 troops and civilians on board Orbita. Unlike the troops, officers and civilians occupied cabins and ate in saloons. It became quite evident shortly after departure that the ship had not been victualled adequately at Liverpool (perhaps due to a quick turnaround), as food was insufficient and bad from the outset. Midway through the voyage, I made friends with a greaser from the adjacent engine room and managed to supplement my rations with the odd crew sandwich. The situation became insufferable after leaving Aden, when the troops were forced to eat their emergency rations of tinned chocolate and hardtack.
On boarding the Orbita (see Day 1 of the diary) the situation was indeed bleak. Accomodation for other ranks on wartime troopships was basic in the extreme. The mess deck was a small, crowded area several decks down in the ship, near the very noisy and smelly engineroom. The chances of escape from a mess deck, if the ship had been torpedoed, were poor indeed. Dining benches were fixed in close rows and so took up most of the floor space. During the day they were used for serving meals, but at night each man slung his canvas hammock above them. About 200 men occupied the space, so it was overcrowded, particularly at night. It was also airless, since the portholes were closed for security reasons. The atmosphere was most unpleasant in rough weather, particularly when people were seasick or had stomach upsets. Whenever the weather permitted, troops were allowed on deck, but blackout was rigorously enforced at night - smoking on deck was strictly forbidden because U-boats could see a lit cigarette. Rows of heads (wooden lavatory seats) were on deck, open to the weather, facing the sea so one had a view, and there was plenty of fresh air, often a gale!
Over the first 12 days the Orbita joined the convoy3 out of Liverpool, taking the passage between Ireland and Iceland into the North Atlantic. As there were several troopships in the convoy, the Admiralty/Royal Navy would have provided anti-submarine escorts against U-boats. My diary includes pencil sketches of some of the ships. The convoy's first course was westerly, nearly to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then south, towards the West Indies, then east over the Atlantic towards Africa, then north to Gibraltar, where the diary picks up again on Christmas Eve 1943. The convoy would have travelled at an average speed of about eight to nine knots for nine days without a stop. The winter seas were rough.
During the long Atlantic voyage from Liverpool to Gibraltar, the ships of the convoy were in sight of each other during daylight, although, because of the danger from U-boats, there were no lights showing at night. The complement of merchant ships with anti-submarine escorts, destroyers and corvettes changed from time to time as individual ships peeled off to destinations in Canada/USA, the Caribbean or West Africa. Some of the ships were large ocean liners converted to troop carriers. To maintain radio silence, Aldis light signals were exchanged between ships. Those familiar with the Morse code, (including myself) were thus able to read positions in latitude and longitude. This was the only way the troops could ascertain their position, as they were never told, from the day of sailing, where they were, and certainly not their destination. This was to prevent information from reaching the enemy in case of a sinking.
Narrative taken from a diary kept on the voyage by 1605985 AC2(C) Derek Clifford Wilkins, RAFVR, Age 18 (DCW).
Day 1: Monday 13 December 1943
Get on board ship at Liverpool Docks at about 2-0. Sit down to our first meal in our, what seems minute, mess deck. Do we have to eat and sleep in this tiny space? Meal was extremely insufficient. Outlook very bad. Explore ship - name 'Orbita', Pacific Steam Navigation Company. Sailors, soldiers and airmen and Wrens. Many officers of all services. Nursing sisters and nuns and some civilians.
Gloomy day. Discuss with pals. All pretty apprehensive and cheesed. Bags of rumours of when and where we are going and how long it will take. First real shock was sleeping arrangements. Really crowded.
Day 12: Christmas Eve, Friday 24 December 1943
Waited outside harbour on Thursday pm till dark and entered Straits of Gibraltar in darkness. It was a warm night and very clear and calm. We moved very slowly, about seven knots and all along both sides, Spanish Morocco and Spain, there were lights flashing, guiding the way. We then saw, for the first time since the outbreak of war, a town with no blackout. It was Tangier on the starboard side, a mass of twinkling lights about four miles away. The time then was about 11.30pm. There was a service being held in the officers' mess. They were singing carols and I think everybody felt a little homesick. For most of us it was our first Christmas away from England.
Day 13: Christmas Day, Saturday 25 December 1943
At 1.0 am on Christmas morning I went to bed (hammock) only to be woken five hours later by the ship's loudspeakers. Every morning at 6.0 am with monotonous regularity throughout the voyage the same voice droned:
'This is a special announcement for troops. The time is 0600 hours. Reveille. Turn out. Reveille. Turn out'.
It was the queerest Christmas morning I had experienced in my life! There was no outstanding difference between 25 December 1943 and any other day on the voyage. Perhaps we felt a little more cheesed off than usual. The older fellows especially felt it as they missed the beer they usually had at Yuletide and, of course, quite a few of them were married.
The OC Troops had promised us special food and we duly had a hard-boiled egg and a small piece of fat bacon for breakfast. Dinner was slightly better. It was the same as usual, with two blandishments, half a pound of boiled sweets and half a pint of Allsopps lager. Tea was the best meal experienced on the trip. It was salad consisting mainly of Grade three salmon. I really shouldn't be so sarcastic about Christmas Day 1943. I suppose it was the best any of us could expect in the circumstances.
All that day we were following the North African coast. The convoy had lost a few ships and gained a light cruiser. We passed Oran4 about midday. Not near enough to see anything but it made us think of the fuss there two years ago. With the aid of a few tiny maps raked up by a fortunate few we traced our passage along the skyline.
On Day 14, Sunday the 26th, at about midday we anchored off Algiers, while two of the convoy went inside the torpedo boom to land some sick. A tiny boat covered in red crosses came up alongside and took them aboard. We saw some Yank small craft fussing about with Old Glory flying. We saw some of our Middle East Air Forces for the first time.
Algiers, although we were anchored about two miles away, seemed to consist of white buildings. Very modern too it seemed. The famed radio station was on top of the hill on which the town was built. It was good to see some real grass and trees again after two weeks at sea. Tiny puffs of smoke ran along the shore as the local trains passed. It was tantalising to be so near and yet not to be able to go ashore. We were thinking of the grub to be got there too.
Day 15: Monday morning 27 December 1943
Up came the anchor and we started up the coast again. We passed all the famous coast towns which featured in last year's fighting. We little thought when we read the papers in those days that we would be actually seeing them. About 3 o/c we passed Bizerta and as dusk fell we sailed into the open sea, east of Cape Bon. Just round the Cape was the town of Tunis.'
We saw no land on Tuesday (Day 16) except a thin line on the horizon which was pinpointed as Malta. Everybody was a bit apprehensive as we were now passing into range of German bombers based on Crete. Derna passed on Wednesday (Day 17) and on Thursday (Day 18) we could see blobs of land which could only be the Nile Delta. Two ships broke away to Alexandria. Corporals were going round the decks getting shillings for a sweep. This one was as to what time we dropped anchor in Suez.
On Friday (Day 19) morning before breakfast Port Said came over the horizon. We approached from the north. The whole convoy of large white ships was in line astern, the three-funneled 'Strathaird' leading. Orbita was second. For many miles before we arrived we were sailing through a lane of buoys. A couple of wrecks passed. About a mile out an Arab dhow with its graceful sails looked like a white bird in the morning sun. A stone seawall came alongside and tiny rowing boats with Arabs fishing floated past. It was our first sight of Egyptians and we laughed at their nightshirts, highly coloured and very dirty.
At 8.30 the ship came to the mouth of the Suez and reduced speed to about five knots. We crept passed (sic) dozens of ships in the port. Some of the troops shouted at us but we were too far away to hear what they were saying. Dozens of small craft chugged by. About 50 natives in a chain were coaling a freighter with much shouting and gesticulating. We shouted at small native motor vessels and the Arabs waved showing their very white teeth. Some gave us the Victory sign.
One fact was very noticeable. The left hand bank of the canal is absolutely bare of anything but sand, for the first five miles a stretch of water. On the opposite side it was small paradise. White buildings amid a mass of green trees, palms and what looked something like firs. Tents were hidden underneath and looked very cool. British khaki-clad soldiers asked us where we were from and told us we were going the wrong way. One sunburned chap shouted he had been there four years. That's a hell of a time away from home. I expect he got quite a thrill watching ships from England passing down the canal.
All along the bank were tiny gunposts made of earth. Some were manned by whites and some by black soldiers. Most of them were getting their domestic jobs done, washing clothes and lighting fires. We saw a NAAFI travelling van pulled up at a small campsite of tents. Some of the posts had three barrage balloons enclosed in a sandbagged blast wall. The male natives showed absolute lack of modesty. They dashed about stark naked and used the canal as a latrine. The Wrens aboard were trying not to look too hard. Even the tiny children made rude gestures and shouted swear words. They probably learnt the words from soldiers. One Arab in a brightly coloured nightshirt stood to attention in his rowing boat gravely saluting. He joined in our laughter when our bow wave nearly upset his boat and overbalanced him.
The scenery on the starboard side alternated from desert to small green oases which were really beautiful. One especially vivid was just before we sailed through the first lake. The trees and bushes were an absolutely bright green. A dozen cream buildings with duck-egg blue crinkly roofs peeked out from amongst them. Silk-smooth lawns stretched our for hundreds of yards along the shore. There was an inviting YMCA canteen, outside which were a few soldiers and, wonders, a white girl. She wished us a happy New Year. Today was New Year's Eve. Somebody aboard said that this was a soldiers' rest camp. It was one of the most beautiful places I have seen. It makes me wonder why somebody doesn't build such houses in England.
We passed through the lake5 and came into desert country again. Soldiers still waved and shouted at us. One wounded Scots soldier leaning on a stick stood alone on the bank. 'Keep your chins up boys,' he shouted, and waved us until we had gone by. Camels had by this time become a regular feature and we even saw an ass being ridden. To contrast a train with a typically English loco puffed past in the opposite direction. It was packed with troops who waved to us. We saw more green oases with official white buildings. They all had French names which reminded one that a Frenchman had built the canal. On the starboard was a twin-pillared monument which had inscribed 'Defense de Suez - 1918'. Over some buildings the green Egyptian flag flew with its white crescent and stars.
About 5.30 on Friday 31 December 1943 we anchored in the second lake6 for the night. There was plenty of room for all the great ships and two Italian battleships were anchored near the shore about five miles away. As darkness fell the speakers announced that there would be a semi blackout and smoking allowed on the open deck. That was an improvement. For the first time our mess deck ports were opened. Fresh air at last.
The lights of the settlement on the shore twinkled and blinked and reflected in the mirror-like surface of the lake. The troops on the Strathaird were singing. We could see their cigarettes glow and hear their voices faintly across the water. Again we wished we could go ashore but instead retired to bed.
Day 20: New Year's Day 1 January 1944
We didn't weigh anchor on New Year's Day until about 11am. Everybody was impatient to carry on with the journey. A range of hills was off our port bow. Not far to go now to Port Suez and the Red Sea. More sand and oases and soldiers until at tea time we steamed into Port Suez and the open sea. Small steamboats manned by natives fussed about our anchorage and we amused ourselves watching the antics of the Arabs. Someone threw a tin of cigarettes on to the deck of one vessel and there was a lively fight between the crew who dropped whatever they were doing and dived for them. One fat old boy in a striped nightshirt received a coil of rope on his head and retired in a corner holding his head in his hands and looking so sorrowful. Some of our officers went ashore that night.
Day 21: Sunday morning 2 January 1944
Still in harbour anchored next to Strathaird. Warm day. Oil tanker alongside - crew selling and exchanging usual leather goods and oranges. Bumboats very persistent. Troops aboard still buying in spite of warnings. In afternoon two small boats came up loaded with oranges, cabbages, onions and eggs and carrots with grapefruits, bananas and ice cream for officers. Afterwards spent a pleasant half hour swopping fags for onions with grinning Arabs. One Arab carried over water by crane.
Dinner very bad. Meat off. Start my spell as mess orderly. Scrounge supper from Martin McReddy (?), greaser, ( from engine room) and have first decent cup of tea on voyage. Water up from water vessel. Post goes ashore. Most blokes on board have mild dysentery.
Day 22: Monday 3 January 1944
Day spent in much boredom in harbour. Peculiarly misty day. More post in morning and more bumboats. Man put on a charge for buying oranges. Strathaird sails at 12 o/c. We sail at 4-30 pm. And about time. Water as we enter the Red Sea beautifully calm and sun shining before sunset makes it look rosy pink. Pass Littoris class Italian battleship. Issue one orange for tea.
Day 23: Tuesday 4 January 1944
After very hot night get on deck. Low rain clouds. Torrential rain, very unusual for Red Sea. Cleared up about nine and two waterspouts appear about five miles away. Queer gull with no tail and square breast (illustration in diary - looks like a heron). First day in tropical kit and we need it. Below mess decks heat almost unbearable especially at meal times. Open ports as sea is not rough. Thank goodness it's my last day as mess orderly. Boxing contest RAF v Navy. Navy wins on C deck. Start serving minerals again. Hot night but better by open ports.
Day 24: Wednesday 5 January 1944
Last night we passed Tropic Cancer. We are now in the tropics. Porpoises and flying fish seen this morning. Locusts on decks. Sweet ration, one small packet Egyptian sweets. At night took palliasse on open deck and slept. Best sleep for weeks. Clocks were put on hour. We are now three hours in front of GMT. Orange for tea. Ship went round in circles for two hours. Gunners practising on targets.
Day 25: Thursday 6 January 1944
MY BIRTHDAY. Today I am 19 years old. Very hot today - slept in shade most of day. Passing plenty of shipping. Slept on deck tonight.
Day 26: Friday 7 January 1943
Wash day for whole ship. Ideal conditions stiff breeze and hot sun. Wash towel, hanks and pants. Sight land on starboard. Mountains and islands and lighthouse - red sandstone. Flotilla of Tank Landing Craft pass in formation of 11 going in opposite direction. Ship seems to be going much slower. Play housey-housey in afternoon. Get line and £2-10-0 very useful. Land all day - cool night - lights flashing along coast. Sleep on open deck - very windy.
Day 27: Saturday 8 January 1944
Wake up to find ship stopped and lying off ADEN. The entrance is between two very rocky sentinels, the right hand one with buildings on it. The usual dhows but a different shape. The bows more round and the sails more squat. The sun very hot at even 8 o/c. Couple of small boats rowed by three black oarsmen pull up and deposit a dusky gent in white rig. Come on deck after breakfast. See Strathaird coming out of the harbour on way to India. Notice for first time she has machine gun nest in her forward dummy funnel. We then move into harbour. Past white hospital ship covered in large red crosses with green band all round. And two H-Class destroyers next to each other in the harbour. Very close inshore at about 8-45 we dropped anchor and a small motor boat fussed about towing our large ropes and hitching them to large round buoys.
On the shore are a rather haphazard collection of wooden houses crowned by a large clock tower. At the back are the large rocky crags rising sheer about 800 feet with a couple of what look like wireless masts atop them. There is bags of shipping in the harbour, Allied and neutral. How long are we going to stay here? We certainly seem to be making preparations for a long time. All day long small craft buzzed and fussed around the ship, all manned by natives who seem mostly of the Abyssinian type, that is black skin and thin limbs as against the Arab types of Suez. Small black men were swimming naked in the harbour and diving for pennies. Water barges were all round the ship pumping out their cargo.
A load of cigarettes in crates were put aboard from a native boat and we found they were alive with cockroaches, the biggest we had ever seen. We spent a busy half hour killing them. We don't want them crawling over us while we are asleep. A Catalina was droning over the harbour doing circuits and bumps, the white finish dazzling against the light blue sky. A destroyer glided past to the open sea and small naval motorboats with ratings in spotless white dress popped in and out of the bigger ships. This reminds me that ADEN is a big naval and air base.
Night fell and the small harbour town lit up. Just across the water about 200 yards away we could see a NAAFI serving naval men with food. I felt like swimming across.
Day 28: Sunday 9 January 1944
Wake up to sounds of casting-off. We are on the move by 7-0 and steam out of the harbour to join a destoyer, a small corvette and another passenger boat of about 7-8000 tons. There was a rumour about that a ship had been sunk off ADEN by a Japanese sub two or three days before so this tiny escort we felt was very inadequate. We soon lost sight of land and sailed due east the rest of the day. I went to a service on D Deck in the evening.
Day 29: Monday 10 January 1944
Woke up to notice convoy was doing the old zigzag course the same as we had done in the Atlantic. We were doing about 14 to 15K. Still steaming approximately east, down the Gulf of Aden. Sight island on starboard in morning. Clocks advanced one hour tonight. We are now four hours in front of GMT, three hours in front of BST.
Day 30: Tuesday 11 January 1944
Wake up to find we have rounded the point and are steaming approximately south. We are well on our way now. The Army should be disembarking at Mombasa on Friday. Have been joined by another escort vessel. Apparently they are sloops of an American design. British manned. Nearly a mutiny on our mess deck over tea which was infinitesimal.
Day 31: Wednesday 12 January 1944
Other ship tested guns about midday. Orange for tea. Play cards most of day. Life getting very boring. We also have the suspense of getting near our destination. Time seems to drag more. 'Skye' gives me Aerograph Form which I'm sending from Mombasa - I hope it gets home soon.
Day 32: Thursday 13 January 1944
Pick up Aldis from other ship. 'POSN 01 27N 47 30E' in morning. We 'crossed line' about 4 o/c in pm. Our mess have to do ship's guards as Army are getting off at Mombasa. Parade at 5.30 and mount guard at 6-0 - 2 hrs on 4 off for 24 hours. Win housey-housey £1-15-0 in evening and scrounge some supper in galley. No sleep tonight.
Day 33: Friday 14 January 1944
Clocks retarded one hour.
Day 34: Saturday 15 January 1944
Woke up 5.30 and sighted land about 6.15. At about 8.15 ship sailed into harbour, a narrow channel with two shallow banks. These are lined with green plants, trees and grass with typical English houses peeping out of beautiful gardens. In fact had it not been for a few odd palm trees I could have imagined I was on the Thames on a summer's day. Monbasa is an island connected to the mainland by a rail and road causeway. We sailed up the channel which was chock abloc with small British naval vessels including a sub Osiris. On the left bank is a windsock. At first we thought maybe an aerodrome but a few Short Sunderlands, C Class and Catalinas floating on the water showed it was a water aerodrome. Later on in the day the flying boats were cruising around.
Our ropes were fastened to the jetty around 9.0 and we were the nearest to land since the beginning of the voyage. The natives here were mostly of good physique and spoke in Somali. They grinned up and cadged cigarettes. A few odd pineapples, bananas and coconuts were swopped for fags. Some fruit was loaded on the ship and our mail was taken off. I hope my Airgraph gets home soon. After dinner at about 2.30 the army, numbering about 350 men went down the gangplank and thankfully put their feet on shore. They laughed and told us how nice it was.
Next went the naval draft about 170 men and about 30 Wrens girls. The ordinary civilian passengers had gone ashore in the morning. All our boys wished it was us getting off as Mombasa looked a pretty nice place. The railway ran along the dockside. It was narrow gauge with English built engines and coaches and K.U.R (Kenya Uganda Railways) painted on the side.
A native policeman smart in a tall red fez and large yellow tassel strutted up and down the jetty looking superior to the native dock labourers. Kit bags and cases were carried off the ship by native porters. Some of the porters were fetching coconuts and selling them at 1/- or 6d a time about 300 per cent profit. The same birds as at Aden a kind of eagle (probably kite-hawks) were hovering above the ship with the addition of a few pigeons. We had partial blackout tonight.
Day 35: Sunday 16 January 1944
All this morning passengers and luggage were coming aboard. A bevy of Australian corporal ATS. A few civilians complete with about 30 kids and varying service personnel including some sailors joined us and I heard some disparaging remarks from the sailors on the ship in general. And they weren't far wrong. Pineapple and crates of corn beef were loaded on but even so I expect the troops will starve seeing how many officers and civilian passengers there are extra.
The gang plank was put off about 4.0 and by 4.45 we were gliding past the small vessels filled with waving figures towards the open sea. This time we had the addition of another small ship in convoy making three in all escorted by a small escort vessel. Another eight days now should see us in Durban.
Day 36: Monday 17 January 1944
Saw albatross just before blackout tonight circling round the ship. I'm off my grub and feeling not so good.
Day 37: Tuesday 18 January 1944
Last night about 4am it rained washing all off the open deck who were sleeping there. There was a high wind and the sea was getting rough. I thought we were in for a storm but the morning turned out fine. Could see a small high island on the port bow. I reported sick at 9.0 although I feel slightly better. I had a small bread and jam sandwich and a mug of tea for breakfast also my No.9 worked. The M.O prescribed castor oil and kaolin Sed. I felt better by teatime. We must be well on our way because a paragraph on the changing of sterling appeared on DROs. After blackout see flashes on starboard side on horizon. Electric storm.
Day 38: Wednesday 19 January 1944
In morning Posn 15.30S. Heavy swell makes ship pitch considerably. Get 6 ozs Lic Alls for sweet ration. My turn at Mess Orderly again. Sweating like bulls. Must be getting near, we get our packs out of hold and pack kit.
Day 39: Thursday 20 January 1944
Day 40: Friday 21 Jan 1944
Parade at 2 o/c to give in all British banknotes. Have my last turn at Tombola. Bags of orders on DROs about disembarkation. School of porpoises follow ship for miles. I hand in £5 -10 -0d for myself and £3-10-0d for Jack Oliver.
Day 41: Saturday 22 January 1944
Posn 25.11 35.43. Receive message from ship. 'SUGGESTED ETA 0400. AM TURNING IN BEFORE DAYLIGHT. CURRENT IS LIKELY TO INCREASE AND FURTHER REDUCE SPEED'. We have to parade on stb side of D Deck with full marching order and it's damn hot. We see CC aircraft patrolling round in pm.
Day 42: Sunday 23 January 1944
At 0530 hours ships in line astern. Sight land about 6-15 on stb beam. Get close in and steam round in circles till 9.30 and then into dock at 10.15. Woman singing on quayside from Victoria Club in Durban7. Fussy tugs around push us on to quay. Usual black dock workers with florid clothes. Most of RAF draft disembark at 12.00. WNNN at 1430 hours. Off the Orbita at last.
1 The steamship SS Orbita, 15,495 tons, was commissioned in 1914 by the Pacific Steam Navigation Company as a Royal Mail mailship. It served in both world wars as a troopship, and was scrapped in 1951. Its sister ship was the SS Orduna.
2 See Aircrew Unlimited - The Commonwealth Air Training Plan during World War 2 by John Golley (Patrick Stephens Ltd, 1993) and By the Seat of Your Pants - Basic Training of RAF Pilots in Rhodesia, Canada, South Africa & USA during WW2 by Hugh Morgan (Newton Publishers, 1990).
3 Probably Convoy OS62/KMS 36, bound for Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. For particulars see The Allied Convoy System: 1939 to 1945 (Its Organisation, Defence and Operation) by Arnold Hague (Chatham Publishing, 2000). Further detail of the ships in the convoy may be obtained by examining the specific Convoy Forms at the National Archives in Kew (ADMs 199, 217 and 237). Orbita probably joined the convoy somewhere north of Liverpool on 15 December 1943.
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