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15 October 2014
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Tom Scotland MN (Part 2)

by Norman Date

Contributed by 
Norman Date
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10 May 2004

Upon reaching Bristol and visiting the Shipping Office I queried both my wages and leave entitlement, and was flabbergasted to learn that from the moment the ship was sunk we were deemed unemployed and whilst we were on the rescue vessel we were actually on leave! This ruling was subsequently altered so that if a ship was sunk leave did not start until the survivors set foot in the United Kingdom.

The gentleman in the Shipping Office was very sympathetic toward us, allowing us to stay on the “Pool” for as long as possible. Then we signed on as firemen aboard the SS Alpera, this was in October 1942 and the chap in the office assured us (in confidence) that we would be home for Christmas. Craftily he never told us which Christmas he meant! According to him we were only going to Gibraltar then home. We loaded up with War. Department cargo and then went to Gourock where we joined a huge convoy with a formidable escort. We each agreed that southward bound ships received much better protection than those westward bound! Eventually we sailed and after an uneventful voyage we gathered on deck for our first sighting of Gibraltar. We saw it ahead, then on the port beam, then astern! By this time the convoy had split up, some of them carrying on down the West African coast. By this time we were all agog with curiosity, wondering where we were heading, but we soon found out as under blackout conditions we arrived off Oran.

Eventually we entered the harbour where we stayed put for some days before we moved alongside, discharged our cargo and were allowed ashore. After being discharged we were taken to the mole and tied up again. After a few days we were taken alongside again and reloaded – with cased petrol! We were then told to proceed to Bone, almost on the Tunisian border, with no escort. This was the start of a shuttle service, mostly with very little escort, sometimes without any, plying between Oran, Algiers, Phillipeville, Bougie and Bone. This went on until the surrender of the Africa Corps, then, our food stock having been exhausted for some time, apart from bully beef and hard tack, the engines needing an overhaul and our clothing becoming worn out, we were ordered to return to Gibraltar. From there the intention was to go to Lisbon, load up and then return to Gibraltar, where we would join a homeward bound convoy. Naturally we were all delighted to hear this news, nobody having received any mail during our seven months in the Med. We duly arrived in Lisbon and after loading we were kept lying in the middle of the river Tagus awaiting sailing orders, presumably for security reasons, espionage being rife in Lisbon.

At last, early one morning and in the company of two other small craft, we set sail for Gibraltar. That evening as dusk approached on May 22nd, 1943, we were lying on our bunks reading or meditating on our forthcoming voyage home. Suddenly the Bosun came in to tell us that two unidentified aircraft were buzzing around, very high up. Shortly afterwards he arrived again and advised us to go up on deck as things were looking a bit more ominous. We arrived on deck just in time to see the two aircraft disappear into the setting sun, a favourite attacking position for aircraft. I was stood right aft under the gun platform when I heard the gunlayer shout, “here they come”! then all hell let loose. How many bombs were dropped, I don't know but one entered the water and exploded just alongside the stern. The stern was lifted clear of the water and going up and down like a bucking bronco. I was hanging on to the taffrail with both hands to prevent myself from being thrown overboard. The guns of course were now silent, the gunners and the platform having been swamped by the deluge of water. When the ship finally settled a bit I deemed it safe to release my hold and see what had happened. I found a mass of twisted metal where the raft had been, the raft itself was drifting away from the ship complete with the galley boy, who was shouting for someone to take him back on board, how he had got there I never did find out.

One of the lifeboats was also in the water with two elderly crewmembers sitting there waiting for the order to abandon ship! suddenly I saw the Captain on the bridge and he asked me to see what the position was in the engine room. The engines of course had stopped and I duly told him that water had risen above the deck plates and was pouring in all over the place. We heard that it was hoped to send a tug from Gibraltar to take us in tow. While I was talking to the Captain the aircraft returned and bombed us again, but this time the bombs dropped ahead of our ship, causing no more damage. However, the ship was slowly sinking and having brought everyone back on board, and discovering that there were only minor casualties we were forced to leave the vessel when only two or three feet of
freeboard was left. The SS Alpera was taken in tow but foundered during the night. We eventually reached Gibraltar and after a couple of nights in a hotel we boarded a troopship whose name I now forget, and headed for home. I was pleased to receive a cheque for £10 from some Ministry of Transport in recognition of our efforts to stay on board until virtually the last minute, £10 was a lot of money at that time!

After enjoying my leave, during which I was married, I spent about six weeks on a local collier, the Downleaze. The six weeks on the Downleaze were spent rehearsing for “D” Day. We loaded with supplies at Port Talbot and ran the ship on to the beach at Tenby at high water; Army personnel unloaded the cargo. We were convinced that one-day, instead of Tenby we would be sent to France. Not so; the exercise over I left her in May 1944, had my leave and then was sent to join the Mataroa on which I served for six months.

After spending my leave from the Mataroa I was taken on as a Greaser on a small coastal vessel called the MV Empire Runner, taking coal from South Wales to Hayle in Cornwall for use by the power station there. I was on her from February to November 1945, then I was transferred as 2nd Engineer to the Rockleaze, sister ship of the Downleaze. This was an even better job; running coal from South Wales to Portishead where the cargo was destined for the power station there. I served on the Rockleaze from December 1945 until March 1948, when I then asked for permission leave the Merchant Navy, my father having been taken ill in Scotland and he was asking if I could go there to be with him. We moved up there and he died about nine months later.

We came back to Bristol after that but I never returned to sea service, although it took me some time to settle down to a new life ashore. So ended my sea going days, a fairly eventful time, but generally speaking also a very enjoyable time. Many humorous incidents took place during wartime and peacetime, but telling some of them would be another story.

From: Norman Date / Hon Secretary/ Merchant Navy Association Bristol UK

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