I joined the Merchant Navy in 1943 as a 15 year old cabin boy and spent two weeks at T.S Triton, a catering training school in the West India Docks in East London.  While I was there I also did one day’s training on aircraft recognition, how to load gun magazines and how to fire an Oerlikon gun, this was done on a double decker bus to enable me to become a D.E.M.S gunner, and yes, it was all done in a day, heaven help us.

 

 

By Gerry Baxter

 

I joined the Merchant Navy in 1943 as a 15 year old cabin boy and spent two weeks at T.S Triton, a catering training school in the West India Docks in East London.  While I was there I also did one day’s training on aircraft recognition, how to load gun magazines and how to fire an Oerlikon gun, this was done on a double decker bus to enable me to become a D.E.M.S gunner, and yes, it was all done in a day, heaven help us.


 

 

My first ship was the RMS Lochfyne, which I signed on on the west coast of Scotland on 3 – 4 month articles, the ship was outside of the boom defences and I was the only Englishman in the crew of a great bunch of lads.

 

 

Loch_Fyne

RMS Lochfyne

 

In January 1945 I signed on RFA Serbol at Greenock, rumour had it that we were off to the Atlantic Convoy’s, then a group of Shipwright’s came onboard the ship and built a large box in the after well deck with railway sleepers, they lined it with canvas, but the front was open and had canvas hanging down, the next day it was half filled with ice.  Then our frozen stores arrived and were placed inside the box, this was no problem as we would be in the Atlantic in winter.

 

We sailed from the Clyde on the 17th February 1945 joining Convoy OS 111KM one night, and two days out we split from the convoy and the part that split became convoy KMS 85G, we turned into the Mediterranean, passing Gibraltar on the 25th  February and by the time we were half way across all of the frozen food had gone rotten and had to be thrown over the side, we then had to re-store in Port Said, where we arrived on the 4th March.

 

Serbol-01

RFA Serbol

 

After transiting the Suez Canal on the 12th March, we were half way down the Red Sea when we found that the stores we had taken on in Port Said had also gone rotten, so we had to ditch these as well as we had no freezer onboard the ship and so it went on.  We were ordered to gunnery practice, Serbol and her escorts steamed in line ahead so that both the port and starboard guns could fire, the alarm sounded and because I was young and fast I got to my gun on the starboard quarter first, and prepared the gun for firing.  My number 2, who was from the Royal Artillery (Maritime) put the magazine in the gun without tensioning it and the first shell split filling the barrel of the gun with cordite, which meant that we had to strip and clean the barrel, when we were ready again I told the bridge we were ready to fire and was given the ok.  I tracked the gun across the sea and as I did this, out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of movement and stopped firing.  The movement I had noticed turned out to be one of our escorts taking up position, needless to say signals started flying between the ships.

 

We called in at Aden on the 16th March and loaded yet more stores before sailing the next day, then on to Colombo unfortunately the old girl broke down before we got to Colombo, whilst the engine was being fixed we all enjoyed some fishing for sharks, that is until the mate told us there were subs in the area and we could be swimming with the sharks at any minute.  We did catch a shark and had fresh meat for dinner that day; the teeth (still in the jaws) were hung in the skipper’s cabin.

 

We arrived in Colombo on the 18th March and took on stores and fresh water before sailing for Darwin the following day.  Some days after we had sailed, we changed water tanks only to find that the fresh water we had loaded in Colombo, was sorry old sea water.  RFA Serbol arrived at Darwin on the 3rd May, the port was a mess, with overturned ships everywhere, it had been hit badly but the Aussie’s greeted us with everything they could and we paid for nothing.  We got hold of meat, vegetables and fruit, and even some beer!!!

 

The ship sailed from Darwin on the 17th May for Brisbane, where we arrived on the 18th for repairs to the engine, which was a triple expansion one (not a foreign language to you young ones) and a 110 volt generator, every time we fired the big gun all the electrics went.  One of my memories is sailing through the Great Barrier Reef and getting paid for it!

 

When we arrived in Brisbane, well what can I say, the Australian people invited us out to dinner, to shows and we were not allowed to pay a cent for anything, even the drinks were ‘on the house’ and after what had just happened in Darwin, was pretty heart wrenching.  Something occurred whilst we were in Brisbane which I can’t in all honesty tell you about, but whilst our engine was being repaired we had a naval armed guard on the engine room door, rumours of sabotage went around the ship and a while after this on the 6th July 1945 the ship sailed north for Manus in the Admiralty Islands.

 

 

Manus_Island

Manus in the Admiralty Islands

 

What a hole Manus was in 1945 (apologies to anyone living there today, as it is probably a paradise now) all we saw was a couple of storage tanks that were topped up by the large tankers, and from which we took our oil, at the time we simply came in and refuelled, and then sailed again, we never went ashore.  Manus is located at 2 degrees south, 147 degrees east in the Bismarck Sea, how the Admiralty could send a ship so badly equipped for the conditions there I will never understand.  Just follow our route from the Clyde to Manus on a map and you will understand what I mean.

 

We stayed at Manus for a few weeks before we sailed on the 1at September for Guam which we reached on the 6th  September, sailing the next day to join the Fleet for the invasion of Okinawa.

 

 

Okinawa

Okinawa

 

I don’t think a fly could be alive there after the rocket bombardment the yanks put down, I had never witnessed anything like it.  We sailed away from Guam the next day, leaving the racket behind us and headed north to arrive off Yokohama a few days later.

 

Serbol entered the harbour and dropped anchor and allied warships came alongside to be refuelled, at this time we were still at war with Japan and as we had gunners from the Royal Artillery onboard, this put the British Army in Japan before the end of the war.  USS Missouri anchored ahead of us, at the time we were told that our orders were that if anything happened, then the warships were to be given priority to sail first, the skipper had made sure that we had a full head of steam at all times and that the securing shackle on the anchor had been released, so that we could slip anchor and leave as fast as possible.

 

Just a quick note here, we knew nothing of the Atom Bomb or the Armistice, as any old sweat will tell you onboard ship in those days was in a world of its own, you had no idea what was going on in the outside world, even though there were plenty of rumours every day.  The next day a small boat came out to the ship from the shore with loads of brass onboard, this turned out to be the Emperor of Japan and his aides going onboard USS Missouri to sign the surrender, then that was it, it was all over.

 

Missouri

 

USS Missouri

 

We lowered a lifeboat and rowed around the harbour, about eight of us being a bit mad, we went ashore but the scene was unbelievable with people just sitting in the rubble and it looked as if they had nothing left, you could see the line of the road by steel strong rooms and large safes, down one road all we could see was a bus shelter and we didn’t stay long.  When we got back to the ship we all got a rocket for going ashore.  We were told that Tokyo was the same and a few days later, we sailed in ballast with a single destroyer escort, we pulled into a port and didn’t know where we were or why we were there, we stayed a few hours and then left, the next day we ran into a Typhoon and it was bad, the escort signalled us to turn back when our skipper declined, the escort turned back and we carried on and at one stage the ship’s whistle sounded continuously, for those who know, this is the ‘abandon ship’ signal, fortunately for us it was just the whistle cable, which had been blown so taught that the steam valve opened and the whistle sounded.  One of the engineers had to close the valve to stop it sounding.

 

We had onboard the ship, four Carly floats which were mounted on angle iron frames, these got in the way when we were oiling at sea, so the skipper gave the order to release them and then sink them with gunfire, the Bosun let the slip hook go, but nothing happened, he tried all kinds of things to try and release them, but nothing happened.  The rafts and frames had been painted maybe twice a year for 6 years and had now become one, so we had to have them cut off in dry dock at Hong Kong, where we arrived on the 6th December 1945.

 

All the ships paint had been washed off the ships side in the Typhoon and when we entered harbour, we received a signal from ashore saying that we were a disgrace to the blue ensign and to make ready to enter dry dock, which we did the next day at Kowloon, during this time the Admiral’s aide cam onboard and took the ships log, a few days later, while we were still in the dry dock a letter was delivered by hand with an apology and some drinks, as they had no idea what the ship had been through.  We had a full refit, the ship was painted, the rafts cut off their mountings and the gun emplacements were removed, Serbol then looked like a new ship.

 

As we steamed backwards out of the dry dock, the ship ran aground on the island opposite and we damaged the rudder, so back in to the dry dock we went to have it repaired, it was during this period that a Chinese crew took over the ship and we made ready to go home.

 

Chaser

 

HMS Chaser

 

The crew got transported to HMS Chaser, a converted aircraft carrier; at long last we were going home.  The first day at sea on HMS Chaser we were asked to assemble on the flight deck to be told that the Royal Navy did not carry passengers and we would have to turn to for 4 hours every day, as some of you will know, when you leave a ship abroad as a good boy, then you are entitled to passage to a home port and not have to work for it.

 

The entire crew refused, and so we were all put under ‘house arrest’ for the trip down to Australia, which was no fun and when we arrived in Sydney, we were all kicked off the ship.  We were then taken to HMAS Golden Hind, the shore establishment and after a couple of days we were loaded into lorries and taken to Woollamarloo jetty to the Athlone Castle,

 

 

Athlone_Castle

SS Athlone Castle

 

where we were met by the chief steward who told us that he had lost half his staff while on the Australian coast and we could all sign on and be paid until we reached the UK.  We all refused, as this was a cruise home and we were on full pay until we reached the first UK port anyway, oh dear still no brains because in a week we were so bored that we asked if we could turn to, only to be told that we had no chance as she was carrying service personnel back to the UK and they had filled the jobs we had been offered.  The trip home was very comfortable anyway, with lots of food, booze and laughs, but oh so boring.  I would never pay to go on a cruise and never have!

 

We arrived in Southampton on a very cold January day in 1946, my mum and dad had made their way to the port to meet me, as we docked a lorry appeared on the quay and a band tumbled out and commenced playing “Don’t fence me in”, then loaded back in to the lorry and drove away, this was our welcome home from the war.  We had not had a D Day, VE Day or a VJ Day celebration and it was all over and forgotten, the shipping federation officials came onboard the Athlone Castle and signed us off.  With twelve months at sea, leave pay, danger money, Sundays at sea I found that I owed the Ministry of Transport six pounds and I had to pay it off before I could sign on again.

 

I took the train home and had 2 months leave, without any money, but good old mum looked after me.

 

I went back to sea in April 1946 on the MV Dominion Monarch, carrying war brides, service personnel and £10 POMS to Australia and New Zealand.

 

domoncapetown

 

MV Dominion Monarch

 

I did seven trips after this, four on the SS Esperance Bay, one on the SS Largs Bay and then I joined the MV Malayan Prince and finally the MV Arabian Prince.

 

I then worked in ship repair for a time before joining the Port of London Authority on container cranes, after this I moved into ship spares logistics delivering spares to every port in the UK, plus Europe, Scandinavia, Poland, Malta, Gibraltar and Greece, always with ships, but it was not the same as it had been in the 1940’s and 50’s, in those days it was rough and tough, but we were happy.

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

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