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U3A Writing: An Eventful First Voyage

"We left the Bay of Naples and passed close to the Isle of Capri. It was 3 pm and teatime. I was sitting in the Second Engineers cabin playing a game of draughts with him when there was a loud explosion the ship lurched violently and the draught board and our cups flew into the air and onto the deck. At the same time the ship started to vibrate strongly and below us we could hear that the seventy five rpm steam engine seemed to be rotating like a racing car engine. The force of the explosion in number four hold had broken the eighteen inch diameter propeller shaft in two...''

Phil Wood tells the dramatic story of his first war-time voyage as a merchant seaman.

On a foggy November morning in 1943 I took the London train at Newport Station to go to sea. I was twenty years of age and newly qualified as an Engineer Officer in the Merchant Navy

At Paddington a shipmate and I had lunch in a pub called The Load of Hay and then took a taxi through the bombed out streets of London to Surrey Docks, where our ship S.S. Fort St. Nicholas was unloading a cargo of timber from Vancouver. She had just completed her maiden voyage, having been built in that port.

In mid December the ship sailed, in convoy, up the east coast to Hull and I had my first experience of responsibility, in charge of the eight to twelve engine room watch. I found it somewhat stressful, but being thrown in the deep end was part of the training and I got by without having to phone the Chief Engineer, so keeping my reputation.

On arriving at the bombed-out docks in Hull, we loaded a cargo of army stores, everything from tanks, lorries, and field guns to shells of various calibres. From this, we got the impression that we must be heading towards some theatre of war, not that we were told anything of course, information useful to the enemy was top secret. In the light of what was to happen though, it was irrelevant.

At the beginning of January 1944, the ship left Hull and sailed in a coastal convoy northwards, passed through the Pentland Firth, and finally anchored, under snow clad mountains, in Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland.

When the convoy was fully assembled, some forty merchant ships with a Royal Navy escort, we sailed westward, far out into the North Atlantic. After surviving several submarine attacks, we turned east and passed through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea, dropping off ships as we passed along the North African coast.

As we passed Malta Fort St. Nicholas was detached and we steamed north to the port of Syracuse in Sicily. We anchored in the bay and the master, Captain Pengelly, went ashore in the motor boat to receive his orders. I went along to look after the very temperamental engine this being the first time I had set foot on foreign soil. I was delighted by the scene in the port the early spring sunshine, and the open air fruit market In the distance loomed Mount Etna with smoke trailing from its summit.

Our orders were to proceed to Naples to discharge our cargo and, all that night, we headed north through the Straits of Messina, whether we had an escort I do not recall.

About dawn we passed the island volcano of Stromboli, in full eruption with a glowing stream of lava from the summit to the sea.

On the afternoon of 14th. February 1944 we dropped anchor in the beautiful harbour of Naples, dominated by a smoking Vesuvius. The port was the headquarters of the Allies Fifth Army in western Italy, the front line being thirty mites to the north, at Monte Cassino, while a few miles beyond, towards Rome, was the fiercely contested Anzio beach head.

The scene in the port was chaotic, the Germans having scuttled every ship before retreating. The Americans even rigged derricks on the bottom of capsized hulls and were unloading cargo with their aid. That was my first experience of Yankee "Can Do".

We lay at anchor overnight, but evidently, we were going to be waiting a long time to be unloaded in Naples. So next day we weighed anchor and headed for Salerno, some thirty miles to the south. We were alone with no warship escort, nor were our R.A, gunners manning our own guns. In retrospect, and in light of what was to happen, this seems odd.

We left the Bay of Naples and passed close to the Isle of Capri. It was 3 pm and teatime. I was sitting in the Second Engineers cabin playing a game of draughts with him when there was a loud explosion the ship lurched violently and the draught board and our cups flew into the air and onto the deck. At the same time the ship started to vibrate strongly and below us we could hear that the seventy five rpm steam engine seemed to be rotating like a racing car engine. The force of the explosion in number four hold had broken the eighteen inch diameter propeller shaft in two.

The two of us ran to the engine room door and started down the stairs when the engine stopped and the vibration ceased. The Third Engineer who was on watch had shut the throttle and the noise was replaced by the hiss of steam from a broken steam pipe. Then we saw through the fog of steam, the figures of the greaser, the two firemen, and finally the Third running up the stairs towards us. We hurried back to our cabins put on our lifejackets and went up to the boat deck

Evidently some considerable time must have passed because one motor boat was hanging vertically and uselessly in the davits, while the other was heading for the shore with a dozen men in it. This left two rowing boats, one of which was in the sea, full of water. We climbed down the rope ladders, thrown down the ship's side and climbed into the remaining boat under the watchful eye of the Captain. Once we were all aboard we rowed away from the sinking ship as fast as we could, because the boat could well be sucked under as she finally went below the sea.

I have painted a picture of confusion in the abandonment of the ship but it was what happened. For many of my shipmates it was not the first time it had happened and they had seen and heard their fellow men drowning all around them. A quarter of all Allied merchant seamen lost their lives between 1939 and 1945. Every man was a civilian and a volunteer yet no ship failed to sail due to crew shortage. It was the fifth time Captain Pengelly had been sunk and later that year he was lost in another ship. Just one of the thirty million lives lost in that terrible conflict.

The lifeboat headed towards the shore in the shadow of our sinking ship when we heard a vessel approaching. The authorities in Salerno had finally woken up to our plight and sent an RAF Air Sea Rescue launch to us.

As we boarded the launch, Fort St. Nicholas still full of its precious cargo stood vertical in the water and then slid below the surface with a great rumbling as the boilers exploded as they reached the cold water. For a couple of minutes afterwards there was a deep silence soon shattered by the roar of the launch's engines as she started for home.

Fortunately, all our crew of fifty had survived, the only casualty being the sergeant gunner, scalded when the hot water urn in the gunners mess came off the wall. The dozen crewmen who went off with the motor boat rejoined us next morning still the worse for wear from the lavish hospitality received from the locals of the village they landed at.

We were welcomed by the RN in Salerno, They fed us well in the Officers Mess giving us half their monthly allowance of British beer, i.e. one bottle of Bass. We were then given a mattress and a blanket to help us keep warm on the mosaic floor of the splendid classical building they had taken over.

Next morning we were taken in the back of army trucks up the winding mountain road to Naples, where we were lodged in a 'pension' in the old part of the city. Here we were introduced to the delights of pasta, or spaghetti as we called it. None of us had any money, but we were made members of the officers club. They must have had a special fund for shipwrecked sailors for food and drinks kept coming without question, and we were also taken to the opera and the ENSA entertainment. All that after losing them all those tanks, guns, etc.

While we were enjoying ourselves in Naples, a few miles to the north fierce battles were raging at Cassino and Anzio and thousands of men were fighting and falling in the rain and mud of an Apennine mountain winter. In the second world war for every soldier in the front line there were ten others supplying him in the rear.

In the fog of war we never knew what weapon had sunk our ship we speculated that it could one of the new guided bombs, a mine or a torpedo, but the war went on and such a detail was probably not important. It was only in 1998, fifty four years after the event that I learned the truth from a newly published book. We had been torpedoed by the German submarine U410, which then went on to Anzio and sank a British cruiser and an American tank landing ship.

Looking back it seems hardly credible that we were sent out to sea with a vital cargo when it was known that U Boats were operating along the coast. I wonder whether any heads rolled over that particular blunder, or in American terminology, SNAFU.

A few days later we embarked in "Winchester Castle" a liner converted into a headquarters Ship. She had been unloading troops at the Anzio beach head and was returning to Algiers for another contingent. This trip we did have an escort of four Greek destroyers.

At Algiers we were put up aboard a captured German hospital ship, as presumably there was no room ashore, Algiers being Allied headquarters in the Med., as well as capital of the Free French government.

We spent a couple of weeks living on the ship and going ashore as we wished. I think we had money by this time and we were able to have a drink in the numerous cafes. Wine was the only drink available, and I remember that as there were no glasses, it was drunk from cut down bottles,

We were then put aboard the troopship Oriana and sailed out to join a homeward bound fast convoy, made up of similar vessels. Amongst them was Highland Chieftain of which ship my brother was Second Officer and I was able to send him a signal that I was still in the land of the living.

On arrival at Liverpool I took the train to Newport and then the Red and White bus to my relieved parents. I had left home fully kitted out and returned in what I stood up in, a khaki battle dress, courtesy of the British Army.

I had three weeks leave, kitted myself out again, and then boarded the troopship Andes to go to Canada and take over another new Fort ship.

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