- Contributed by
- Bemerton Local History Society
- People in story:
- David Trotter
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 May 2005
THE WAR AT SEA
At the outbreak of war I was 13 and did not expect to be involved at all. We lived in Putney overlooking the Thames and Putney Bridge and I went to school in Kent. In school holidays during the “blitz”, as we lived in the top floor flat, we went down at night to sleep in a flat on the semi-basement when the bombs were coming down around, aiming for the bridge. One Saturday evening a bomb dropped about 200 yards away onto a crowded dance hall killing several hundred preople. When at school in the Summer of 1940 we had the Battle of Britain dogfights directly overhead with the incredible patterns of the vapour trails and once saw a Hurrican being shot down and landing on our playing fields.
In November 1942 at the age of 16 I joined the Merchant Navy as a Cadet in the Booth Steamship Company which was based in Liverpool. Within a fortnight of leaving school I joined my first ship, the Basil, a 5,000 ton coal fired cargo ship built in 1928, and left Liverpool on a North Atlantic convoy, north of Ireland - quite a culture shock, especially as we lost a few ships. I did several trips to Brazil.
I subsequently joined the Empire Voice, 7,000 ton, built in Glasgow in 1940; she was an interesting build as the mast and staunchians were set “off true” to deceive any U boat as to which course we were steaming.
We carried many types of cargo - I have vivid memories of shipping whisky - in barrels and bottles; sometimes, when the bottles were being loaded, the English stevedores, with their tin mugs at the ready, would load the crates onto the netting slightly on the tilt and the winchmen would “accidentally” drop the corner of the crate onto the deck and would guarantee the breakage of one bottle only! The tin mugs were always at the ready!
We always had a cargo; from the West Indies it was usually sugar and coir, for example. But I do remember one voyage across the south Atlantic when we carried nothing so the propellers were half out of the water and the whole ship rattled and shook so that we were really fed up. We arrived and docked at Rosario up the River Plate on Christmas Eve - and the cupboards were bare - no food! The dock crews had gone home for Christmas so nothing could be procured - and the our crew mutinied and went on the rampage. We cadets were locked in our cabins. I don`t remember how it all ended but I don`t imagine anyone was punished for it.
One early morning I was on the bridge alone ensuring that we were 2 cables astern of the ship ahead and 5 cables from the ships abeam. All of a sudden the Aldis lamp flashed from the ship ahead: “D-day - we have landed in France” the message ran. Quite a thrill to take such a dramatic mesage.
We cadets were in charge of the signalling which was all done with flags. Twenty six letters of the alphabet and numbers, for which we had a code book. We amused ourselves on the convoys by seeing how quickly we could spot a message; we could see the boxes where the flags were kept on the ship abeam so we could usually spot the hand go into the box - and, by the time their signal went up, we had almost composed our signal for the ship astern. There was good rivalry between ships.
We did have radio contact, incoming only, so as not to alert enemy ships to our whereabouts. On one of the ships the radio officer was a very heavy smoker. He had an almost hermetically sealed den with the radio and all its knobs and, over time, he perfected the art of blowing smoke rings until he was able to produce a correctly sized ring to hang on each nob!
When in Bombay I also joined the Fort Nipigon, 7,000 ton, built in Canada in 1942. We were loading ammunition and stores as we were to be the first supplies after our troops had landed in Malaya and were bound for Port Swetenham. Luckily for us the atomic bomb was dropped and it was VJ Day - I don`t think I would have survived otherwise.
When in Singapore we saw several of our boys who had been Japanese POWs on their way home - a terrible spectacle.
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