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15 October 2014
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Scrambling madly to get hammocks and “water wings”

by gloinf

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Rfn. Francis Frederick Victor Carder
Location of story: 
Sussex, Royal Mail Lines ship “SCYTHIA”
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 October 2005

Group at Trowbridge

This story was submitted to the Peoples War site by Jas from Global Information Centre Eastbourne and has been added to the website on behalf of Mr R Carder with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions

The Battalion moved off from Hove Station on the. May 1942 at 5.15 in the afternoon.

We had lived quite comfortably at Hove for the last 9 months and it was a wrench to leave it apart from the far greater wrench of leaving our loved ones.

Entraining was a problem, which in “Civvy Street” would have required a porter and trolley per man so loaded were we with equipment.

We staggered about with two loaded kit bags, full pack, haversack, webbing etc., and our rifles frequently slipping off our overburdened shoulders to become entangled with our legs. Here and there a mess tin fell with a clang to the ground.

However, once entrained we traveled via Reading, Oxford, Nottingham and Sheffield, and reached our destination, Liverpool at 5.30 the next morning after a night of shunting hither and thither.

Of course the journey was made in usual army style discomfort - nothing but water to drink and nothing at all to eat but that with which we had begun the trip.

From the station at Liverpool trucks transported us to the Docks through the dim morning light which by then had filtered through to the deserted streets.

We were actually given a cup of tea at the docks; and then herded aboard the “SCYTHIA” a Royal Mail Lines ship of about twenty thousand tons which, although we did not then know it, was to be our home for the next two months.

If one has never lived on board a troop ship one cannot visualize the terrific sense of frustration and hopelessness engendered in the ordinary person.

First, one is packed down into what is known as a mess deck, a spacious compartment with long tables down each side and a little room left for movement in the centre.

It is difficult to realize the scenes of pandemonium and mad scramble when the troop- first crowded into the deck; — everyone trying to secure what they fondly hoped was the best position; everyone trying to store their kit away in a space barely big enough for half their kit: all scrambling madly to get hammocks and “water wings” for fear there might not be enough to go round.

It is amazing how the fear of being called to order by a superior for not having an item of equipment will cause men to become so panicky, to steal the man’s lifejacket; in short to behave almost like an animal.

Let me add for the enlightenment of the uninitiated, that the stowage for kit is on shallow racks above the mess table, tantalizingly just out of normal reach.

One man would stand up on the mess bench to shove a haversack into this rack at which time his mess tin or his mug would fall out on the other side to be greeted wit a curse from the poor unfortunate on whom it fell.

I found after a time that the only way to accept life with equanimity on a mess deck was to sit quietly playing cards as long as possible.

But even that had its drawbacks such as being unable to smoke and the lack of clean air down there in spite of this.

In fact what with all the rushing and tearing about the organizing, and almost continual reading of orders by people of various “stripe” denominations, the first day and night passed before anyone quite realised it.

Some small excitement was caused on the Friday when it was found that the ship had left the quayside; but rumors died down when it was observed that she had merely “moved into mid—stream”.

So for the time being external surroundings were once more forgotten and the busy process of organising went on apace. The chief lesson learnt on that first “working” day was that of queuing — I should say at a conservative estimate that queuing for everything occupied half the day.

The queue for the canteen to begin with: this went erratically all around the ship and began a full hour or more before the canteen manager deigned to open shop; and after two hours you began to wonder why the hell you smoked anyway.

The price of cigarettes and tobacco however — 50 for 1/3d and 1/2 lb. for 3/ - was some compensation.

Then came the queue for washing’ and shaving for latrine and toilet facilities were naturally limited: it soon became apparent that it was a physical impossibility for 5000 men to wash before breakfast.

Being myself of a retiring disposition I soon discovered that it was a waste of time to attempt to forestall the other 4999 but many of them continued to queue for an hour.

Later on I found it very convenient to wash and shave at 3.30 in the morning that is when I happened to awake at that time. It is an extraordinary thing that on board ship one ceases to know the difference between night and day. Such is the amount of inactivity.

The queue for meals was, on the contrary an organised one as indeed it must be to please the catering staff, and to spend the least possible time in eating. From each mess table two men are chosen to collect the entire table dinner — this in itself is an adventure as we found out to our cost during subsequent days at sea.

Up the steps to the galleys, staggering back again laden with two or three large trays or dishes-. With a bit of luck one might arrive safely back at the mess table without spilling half the soup or tea or sliding full length down the steps.

After the meal the two mess orderlies did the washing up in hot seawater obtained from the galley. The only time one could get elbowroom was when carrying “boiling water”.

Anyone who has washed up in seawater will know how unpleasant it is and how odiferous the wipers can become.

We became quite used to sea water eventually since we had to wash and shave in it — this became just about bearable with special sea water soap ‘but left one feeling “sticky” all-day long.

It would be as well to get some idea first of or daily routine. Reveille came at 6.00 a m. From then until 7.00 am, was the first rush period with a couple of hundred chaps trying to roll up hammocks into regulation shape and size and stacking them into a confined space at one end of the mess deck constantly harassed and harried by an orderly sergeant whose one idea seemed to be that the end of the world was due in 5 minutes time.

Then breakfast in a rush again at 7.15 am. The trouble with a meal under these conditions is that by the time the chap at the head of the table has finished serving out, the chaps at the end have finished theirs and are scrambling to get out making it very difficult for the servers to eat theirs if there is any left for them by that time.

Then comes a further harrying by the orderly wallah in an attempt to herd everyone but the mess orderlies on deck. This was done with the object of getting the mess deck cleared up to look like the Ritz Hotel ready for the Ships C.0.’s inspection.

God help anyone who ventures to go below decks between 8.30 and 10.30 am so, having been rushed of our feet up to 8.30 we found ourselves with nothing to do on an unpleasant bare deck for a couple of hours.

This type of rush with no good reason seems typical of Service life; but you get plenty of time to try to figure it all out.

At lO.30am there it a terrific feeling of relief and an even more terrific rush to get down below decks: the relaxation, however, is short-lived for the siren sounds for boat drill — our fist boat drill, and what a mix up.

In this practice we are aided by a horde of orderly officers, Sergeant-major and sergeants, all of them convinced that 200 men ought to be able to scramble up two flights of steps two yards wide in less than a minute.

Once on the deck they are herded into some semblance of order in allotted spaces and inspected to find out whether we have our life jackets on properly, our emergency rations in the right place, a few sharp words to those unfortunates whose life- jackets had been stolen by more unscrupulous chaps who had lost their own.

It always amazed me that there could be such a loophole for life jackets. In fact, unless someone deliberately throws them overboard, I can’t quite see how they “disappear”.

Just another example of mass hysteria of the easy way out I suppose.

Dinner was usually at 1.00 p.m. and tea at 6.00 p.m., and the afternoon was a comparatively peaceful time devoted to card- playing, reading etc. etc.

At 8.15 pm. it was usual to draw hammocks, and here again it was a rush to see who could get there first.

I found as always in such cases, that it was the best plan to wait until the rush had died down when it was much easier to pick out one’s own hammock.

The only trouble with this plan was that all the best sleeping sites were already taken, by 10 o ‘clock with a bit of luck one was all set for lights out.

On the third day we suddenly discovered there was a sky outside the gloomy depths of the ship and what was more, a lot of sea all round us and it appeared that we had crept into the Irish sea on the previous evening; but we had been too busy just trying to exist down below to notice anything.

Later on in the day we sighted the Irish coast a long way off, and turned north.

That night we were well aware of being at sea as the ship began rolling suggestively - not badly but just enough to make me feel thick headed in the morning.

Tuesday 12th broke fine but cloudy with a strong bracing wind. It certainly felt bracing to me as I emerged like a mole on to the deck.

That morning we discovered to our surprise that ours was not the only ship afloat, for we had collected quite a convoy.

In fact we picked up more and more vessels and escorts and became part of a sizeable convoy comprising ten large troopships and ten smaller vessels.

After a while we could identify the “Monarch of Bermuda”, “Louis Pasteur”, “Athlone Castle”, and “Moreton Bay”. The escort appeared to consist of four light cruisers and one or two destroyers to my inexperienced eyes.

Our ship was rolling quite heavily during the day, which was nothing unusual for her I soon found. However I seemed to be getting used to it and felt as fit as a fiddle.

It was very pleasant up on deck that evening, and I found myself in a lazy reflective mood, which returned nearly every evening after that.

Whether this was due to a cessation of the daily harrying, or just the sight of all those stately ships steaming proudly along in formation I never decided but the convoy was certainly an impressive sight at night, lamp signals occasionally flickering to and fro between the ships rivaling the twinkling stars above.

On the following day we realised once more that we were not on a holiday cruise. The hours between breakfast and lO.3O. a.m. were filled with work instead of a miserable void, and I found myself obliged to teach semaphore and Morse to those who had nothing better to do.

The afternoons and evenings however were still free.

I had not noticed much which way the convoy was steaming; but the news that the clocks were to be put back one hour that night informed me that we were probably going in a Westerly direction. We were traveling at a steady 12 knots.

That night I began to appreciate the advantages of a hammock over a bench or the floor. The hammock seemed to act like a gyroscope however much the ship rolled.

Later on I became a hammock hater but that was for other reasons, which appeared later.

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