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To War With The Bays: 12 - Crossing The Line

Jack Merewood tells of life at sea on a troop carrier as he sails off to war.

For earlier chapters of Jack's story of his wartime service please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on his page.

During the rough weather very little work of any kind was done. In fact few people were capable of doing anything, except the ship's crew. The officers were English, but the ordinary crew were Lascars (Indian seamen) and they amazed us with their agility, climbing up the ship's ropes as nimble as monkeys.

We did, however, have to do guard duty both night and day. Sometimes the duty would be inside the ship - fire duty, and you were given a certain area to patrol. Up on deck you could be on submarine watch, on the look-out for submarines or periscopes. It was an eerie feeling, walking the deck in the dark, with the thought that submarines could be lurking down below.

We turned south and east, and the weather calmed down. One of the ships had developed engine trouble, so the whole convoy slowed down to its pace. We found ourselves sailing to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, on the African coast.

The third verse of the song, which unfortunately is the last one I can remember, went:

Our first port of calling,
Not a ripple nor a wave.
The heat it was terrific,
And they called it 'White Man's Grave'.

The heat was terrific. Ronnie had emerged from the toilets and one night we stood on deck dressed only in shorts and saw an electric storm over the shore. We'd never seen anything like it. Thunder roared, and vivid sheet lightning lit up the whole of the countryside. It was an amazing spectacle, one we would never forget. We felt lucky it didn't reach our ship.

From the ship the hills of Sierra Leone appeared to be completely covered with tropical growth. It was steaming hot, and below decks it was extremely uncomfortable, especially at night. During the day dozens of the local population came out in small boats, some of them laden with fruit, which we weren't allowed to buy. Also they shouted for money and when we threw coins they would dive overboard for them.

One man, who called himself Charlie, came out in a boat, wearing a bowler hat and tie and sang songs like 'South of the Border' and 'Lambeth Walk.' So we had quite a bit of entertainment, and in fact our Regimental Band got out their instruments and entertained us too.

Before we left Freetown some officers from the squadron went ashore and bought fresh fruit, so we had quite a treat when this was shared out.

We were in Freetown harbour for five days. When we left on 19 October, the sea was very calm and a beautiful blue. We saw lots of flying fish and schools of porpoises, and life began to get more bearable. We did have some rougher weather from time to time, but it was never as rough again as it had been that first week or so.

Three days after leaving Freetown we crossed the Equator. The weather had been unbearably hot, but rather disappointingly this particular day it was dull, cool, and wet. There was a 'Crossing the Line' ceremony where one of the officers had his face lavishly covered with 'shaving soap', was shaved with a huge cutthroat 'razor', then dumped in a tub of water.

As we went further south and into the open sea the weather was colder and we hit the waves again. We passed Ascension Island, and the next day on the horizon saw the island of St Helena.

Now we were able to 'work'. We had PT - not easy on a bouncing deck; there were also lectures and discussions. From time to time there would be a quiz, sometimes on army life (guns and tanks, even out at sea) and sometimes general knowledge.

Funny how some little things stick in your mind. I was on a team once and was asked: 'Who was the Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel?' There was a ripple of surprise when I knew the answer: 'Diogenes.' I felt quite pleased with myself!

At night we would write letters - to be posted sometime, somewhere, and play cards. A game of nine-card brag in which I was playing comes to mind. There was a big kitty. Ned Reeves said in as steady a voice as possible, 'Four sevens.'

He laid them on the table and started to rake in the money when another quiet controlled voice came from Paddy Flanagan, 'Hold on.' And he dramatically laid down four eights. We couldn't believe it - least of all poor Reeves.


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