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To War With The Bays: 11 - The Empire Pride

...Then on 30 September, 1941, we sailed in earnest - having already been on board a week. It was 9.15 p.m., and a lovely moonlit night. The Bays had a band (they were in 'HQ' Squadron), and as we sailed down the Clyde everyone was up on deck, the band played, and we sang 'Abide with Me', 'There'll Always Be an England', 'Just a Song at Twilight', 'Land of Hope and Glory'...

Jack Merewood and his commrades sail off to war in The Empire Pride.

For earlier chapters of Jack's account of his experiences during Woirld War Two please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

It was a long train ride from Marlborough to Gourock in Scotland. When we arrived, we saw anchored out on the River Clyde what was to be our home for the next nine weeks - the Empire Pride, a new ship, especially built as a troopship. It was too big to sail up to the dockside, so we were ferried out to it on small tenders.

This was to be the ship's maiden voyage. After a couple of days at anchor, we sailed out to sea in the morning and came back later in the day. It wasn't explained to us why; we assumed it was perhaps a trial run. We went a few miles out. The sea was quite choppy and the ship tended to roll a bit, but nothing compared to what was to come. We came back and anchored once more in the river.

Then on 30 September, 1941, we sailed in earnest - having already been on board a week. It was 9.15 p.m., and a lovely moonlit night. The Bays had a band (they were in 'HQ' Squadron), and as we sailed down the Clyde everyone was up on deck, the band played, and we sang 'Abide with Me', 'There'll Always Be an England', 'Just a Song at Twilight', 'Land of Hope and Glory' and other songs.

The accommodation on the Empire Pride could hardly be described as first class, or even third class for that matter. Where we lived and ate below decks was also where we slept at night.

We were all issued with hammocks, and what a performance it was getting into them. There were hooks in the ceiling on which to sling them, but there were more hammocks than hooks, so some men slept on their hammocks stretched out on the floor, while others made their beds on the tables.

Each table, with a form down either side, seated ten men or so. One end of the table was up against the side of the ship, so the men sitting at the other end went to collect the food on trays for the whole table. We took turns on this duty.

The food, at least at first, wasn't too bad, but the lack of variety after a while tended to make it pretty monotonous. For one thing we got tired of fish, fish and more fish.

Then - we were out into the Atlantic. Apparently we went about two thirds the way west across the ocean before turning south, in an effort to avoid submarines. We were in a convoy (it was said there were thirty-seven ships) and we had an escort of destroyers patrolling between and around the convoy, on the lookout for submarines. We regularly heard depth charges being dropped; sometimes they were near enough to make our ship vibrate.

Well out into the Atlantic, and the weather was terrible. The second verse of the song went:

After we'd been sailing
Some twenty hours or more,
The ship she started rolling,
And the boys were sick and sore.

The first week or so, many of the men were sick because of this very rough weather. Though I got headaches, and sometimes felt a bit off colour, I was never seasick.

But poor Ronnie was never anything else. Whenever I wanted to find him, I knew where to look - in the toilets! One day I found him, a pale green in colour, and he said all he wanted to do was to die. He meant it too, because he felt he just couldn't survive any longer in these conditions. But survive he did.

There was always plenty of food, because, especially the first couple of weeks, hardly anyone wanted to eat. No words can describe the misery and discomfort. To make matters worse, because of the crowded conditions it began to get very hot downstairs.

One day I went on deck to get some fresh air. There was plenty of that. The wind was howling through the rigging. The ship bounced like a cork, and the waves were coming right over the top. The weather deteriorated to such an extent that we weren't allowed up on deck and the conditions were getting unbearable. So much so that there was almost a mutiny.

Suddenly one evening everybody started to 'moo' and 'baa' like animals. The noise and shouting got louder and a group of senior officers came down the steps and made a great effort to calm things down. The ship was built to carry 1,600 troops but there were about 3,000 on board. After some efforts at cajoling and also threats of the consequences if this didn't stop, we calmed down, but it was an uneasy peace.

Fortunately I had found a place to sling my hammock, and after a few nights of wrestling with it and occasionally falling out onto someone sleeping on the table below, I began to get the knack of it, and slept. But it wasn't a very comfortable sleep. It was entertaining to lie in one's hammock and watch all the others swing in unison one way and then the other as the ship rolled.

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