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A Boys War - Raymond Mellor MN

by Norman Date

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Norman Date
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01 November 2003

Early in 1940, aged sixteen, I came down from my home in London to Avonmouth to run the shore office of the Fairplay Towing and Shipping Company based at premises in Avonmouth Road. On November 25th of that year and at 6.35pm the house received a direct hit from the sixth of a stick of whistling bombs dropped from a lone bomber that came regularly across at about that time. The noise of the `whistlers` was somewhat unnerving although it gave me time to duck before it exploded in the hall, I was in the back room and very lucky to survive. Incidentally, when I visited Avonmouth a few years ago the rebuilding had been done so well that it was impossible to believe that the houses were once ruined.

In January 1942 we suffered the traumatic loss of our tug `Mercia`, sunk by a mine in the Bristol Channel whilst bound for Cardiff. I had, for me at that that age, the shattering task of informing the crew’s relatives of the loss of their loved ones, something that I felt I had to do. The engineer, `Pincher` Parsons, lived in Pill. There was of course no bridge over the river from Sea Mills and I was rowed over, with bicycle, on the ferry. I continued in the job by living in Westbury-on-Trym and being fed by Mrs Brooks in Avonmouth. Her husband, Walter was a fine man and worked as a Docks Foreman, their son Wally was a close friend of mine until his death seven or eight years ago.

Eventually they too were bombed out and went to live in Stoke Bishop, where they continued to feed me. I was an ARP messenger boy (complete with tin hat and gas mask), during the Bristol Blitz. By late 1942 I was anxious to get away to sea and I first crossed the Atlantic on the old `Empress of Japan`, returning on a light aircraft carrier `HMS Chaser`, from Staten Island as convoy escort. I then joined the Merchant Navy on the Pursers staff of Cunard White Star. My first ship was the `Britannic`; a fellow purser was Hughie Millet who had survived the `Lancastria` disaster. We were mostly employed trooping across the Atlantic, usually in convoy, and through to the Mediterranean to Port Said and Taranto.

For those who have not experienced it, there will never be a sight to compare with that of a large convoy, stretching from horizon to horizon and zigzagging like a well-drilled chorus. The magic of sailing alone at night, in a darkened ship, with a full moon and a flat calm is beyond description: the reflection of the moon looks like a road you could walk on! From the `Britannic` I did a `pierhead jump` to the `Franconia`, long since scrapped, a doughty old single stacker and long past her sell-by-date, but still trooping to the Med, Mid-East and Indian Ocean. After several months on the `Franconia` I was transferred to the `Queen Elizabeth` (the original Q.E), where we were carrying up to 16,000 troops, usually Americans across the Atlantic, and based mainly at Gourock.

We sailed on our own at a high rate of knots and only reduced speed in the very heaviest weather. In 1946 when the Q.E was released from service to be refurbished for peacetime I decided that I had seen enough water and `Swallowed the Anchor`.

By Raymond Mellor
From: Norman Date / Hon Secretary/ Merchant Navy Association, Bristol, UK

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