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U-Boat Menace On Voyage from Belfast to Glasgowicon for Recommended story

by East Ayrshire Libraries

Contributed by 
East Ayrshire Libraries
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 November 2003

Evacuation on the brink of war

My story begins on Friday, 1 September 1939. I was nearly 15 years old and living in Glasgow. At the local railway station I stood watching hundreds of children with their mums and dads, each child wearing a name label round his or her neck.

Where were they going? What was it all about? The answer was that they were being evacuated.

A new word in my vocabulary

This was a new word in my vocabulary, but what did it mean? It meant that they were being separated from their parents and sent out of the city to live in the country for their own safety.

The reason for this mass evacuation: our country was on the brink of war. I should have been with those children and not just an onlooker. But, at the last minute, my parents changed their minds and decided that our family should go instead to Ireland to live with my grandparents.

A new life in Ireland

Two days later Britain declared war on Germany. By Sunday, 3 September 1939, 11am, we were a country at war.

Next day our family, minus my father and elder sister, set off for Ireland. We were to stay in a cottage that my grandfather had bought for us. The younger children attended the local school, and I stayed at home to help my mother.

Everything went fine, and we all settled down to our new way of life. My grandparents lived a short distance away, and we could visit them every day. Letters from those still at home arrived regularly.

A sudden return

Then tragedy struck. Our beloved mother had a cerebral haemorrhage and died within a week, aged only 46. We were devastated. My father, sister and my mother’s four sisters had travelled from Glasgow to be at her side before she passed away.

The funeral took place in Ireland, and mother was laid to rest in the family plot. Now we had no choice but to return to Glasgow and the awful war, as there was no one to look after the children. Little did we know that we were about to begin a journey, the memory of which would remain with us for the rest of our days.

Stranded in the Belfast black out

Within a week of the funeral we set out for Belfast, a journey of over 160km (100 miles). Here we would board the boat that would take us on the eight-hour journey to the Broomielaw in Glasgow.

Alas, when we arrived at the harbour, we were informed that there was no sailing that day. There we were, stranded in the middle of November, in a strange city that was blacked out and at war. What a predicament to be in. However, a very friendly policeman came to the rescue and ushered us to a hostel, run by nuns. We spent the night there and ate a hearty breakfast next morning — all at a very reasonable price.

A dangerous sea

It was a cold, grey morning with an overcast sky when we left the hostel. Our little group must have looked a sorry sight as we wandered around killing time till the 4pm sailing.

Eventually, we headed for the harbour, hoping and praying that this time the boat would sail. When we arrived we were told that the boat was sailing, but there was a problem. There were a number of German U-boats in the Irish Sea.

What a shock this was. As most of the passengers were children, the crew had to decide whether or not to sail. What a decision to have to make. After all, hadn’t Hitler torpedoed the Athenia off the coast of Ireland on the very day that war broke out? Was this to be yet another passenger ship going down with innocent and defenceless women and children?

A thudding heart

After much heart-searching, the captain and crew decided to take the risk. So we sailed out of Belfast harbour on a bleak and dismal winter night, not knowing what fate had in store for us.

About two hours into the journey the ship’s engines slowed down, then cut out completely. The lights were dimmed. A deathly silence reigned, except for the sound of water lapping against the hull of the ship. What was this terrifying nightmare I was caught up in? Icy fingers of fear closed around me, and all I could hear was the pounding of my heart.

Fearing the worst

After about an hour of this terror the engines started up again. We were moving once more, heading further into the dark night and sea with all its horrors. We clutched out lifejackets in expectation of the worst.

A few hours later the engines stopped again. Once more we sat there in the black night in the middle of the sea, surrounded by silence, in terror of being blown up by the unseen U-boat lurking beneath the waves.

The captain came round to check all the lifejackets were secure and tried to reassure us that we would reach Glasgow safely. What a responsibility lay on that man’s shoulders. His precious cargo of helpless women and children were totally dependent on him. On that bleak and seemingly hopeless night, as I looked around the other passengers, I saw mothers offering words of comfort to their children.

Prayers at sea

Eventually, the engines started again. This procedure of moving for an hour then sitting still for two hours was repeated throughout the grim journey.

We prayed like we had never prayed before. We began to wonder if God had deserted us completely. Why had He allowed us to get into this appalling predicament? Yet still we prayed on with confidence and trust.

God did hear our prayers. As dawn broke through the early morning mist we saw what looked like the welcoming shores of our dear land. Our prayers had been answered, and we were delivered safely home to Scotland. Our journey, which usually took eight hours, had taken us 19.

Nothing so bad ever again

The rest of the war years brought many anxious and sad times to the people of Britain. There were black-outs, air raids, wailing sirens and food rationing, and, of course, the loss of many civilians as well as our brave lads, who fought for freedom. For me, though, nothing compared with my night of hell on that horrific journey from Belfast to Glasgow.

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