Eight Years at Sea as a Radio Officer (June 1939 – May 1947)

30 July 1939. I went to sea when 16½ years old. My first ship was the “ANTONIA”, a 14000 grt[1] Cunard Liner.

My first two trips were Liverpool/Montreal. On my third trip, World War II broke out. Following us was the Anchoa-Donaldson liner “ATHENIA” (14000 grt) bound also to Montreal from the Clyde. She was torpedoed just north of Ireland. Several of the casualties were U.S. citizens.

This concerned Hitler, as he was worried it might bring the U.S.A into the War.

Waiting in Montreal were Americans awaiting to take the Montreal-Clyde passage back. When the “Antonia” arrived in Montreal, the passengers were transferred to our ship.

On arrival back in Liverpool the whole crew were paid off and the vessel taken over by the M.O.W.T[2]

I then signed on the “Jamaica Planter” bound to Kingston to load bananas.

This ship was designed for fruit carrying and being very fast, did not sail in convoys.

We took a full cargo of Bananas, probably the last for sale in the UK.

Arriving back in the U.K, I later joined a SHELL oil tanker, called the “Pellicula”.

I served 4½ years on this vessel without returning to the UK.

As we had not had our hull surrounded by heavy coils of wire connected to a generator to counter magnetic mines, we could not enter British waters or pass therefore, (a) system known as degaussing. We then did 3 or 4 trips loaded with diesel oil from Haifa to France.

We left the river Seine after we filled all our tanks with River Fresh water, for use on the Island of Aruba, which had no fresh water supplies. After discharge we sailed across the Atlantic to Freetown, Sierra Leone. We had a full cargo of bunker fuel from Aruba.

On arrival at Freetown we spent 5 weeks in the harbour supplying bunkers to various ships. On leaving Freetown, we set sail for the Persian Gulf. In all we visited Abadan (Persian Gulf) 19 times with a few breaks in Mediterranean port cushi in Alexandria, Malta, Sicily, Favento, Algiers, Beyreuth and Tunisia.

On one visit to Abadan we were used as a decoy ship and tied ahead of an Iranian gunboat.

The Iranian government had been given till 4.30am to throw in with us and the Russians.

Both Russia and ourselves were afraid German 5th columnists would try to take control of Iranian Oil terminal.

At 4.30am there were all sorts of explosions going off. We thought it must be an air raid, Instead it was gunfire from a British gunboat anchored on the Iraqui side of the River Skatt-el-arab. A stray bullet hit our second officer in the cheek. He was carried down to the Salson and the hole plugged with cotton wool. He recovered fortunately. Two engineers and myself were watching all this from the cabin on the Iranian side.

We were watching/viewing an anti-tank gun orienting on a house. Suddenly the soldier mounting the gun noticed our telescope stick through the port hole and fired in our direction.

One bullet hit the ironwork outside the captain’s toilet on which he was sitting. He came down pulling his pants up. Another bullet came through the port hole and shattered the mirror over the washbasin. The three of us jumped into the bunks.   Other bullets broke the mooring ropes which were tied to bollards.

Later we had an engine failure and lay at anchor in Aden outer harbour awaiting repairs. At 6am in the morning a British cargo ship entering the port ran into the side of our ship creating quite a large hole, water gushed in and we began to list. Luckily being a tanker, it was only necessary to open a seacock in the tank opposite so that began to fill and we came upright.

The Arabian Gulf is noted for micro-organisms in the sea that sometimes caused a glow beneath the surface, so that looks as though someone has switched on underwater lighting.

At 2.30am I came off watch and went on deck for some fresh air. Looking over the side, I noticed a streak under the surface coming towards us at speed. Ah I thought, a dolphin. I watched it go right under the ship and come out the other side.

As I lay in my bunk, I thought one never see a dolphin swim in straight lines, but swerves about. So I think it may have been a torpedo instead.

Looking through U-Boat records later, I came across U-Boat U-188 that had sunk 5 ships in that area at that time, with one no result – US?

We spent quite some time in the Indian Ocean between Sri Lanka and Australia.

The Japanese came out in some force with cruisers and aircraft carriers and sank several ships in the Bay of Bengal.

Fortunately, we were operating in the Southern area of the Indian Ocean, but later returned to Sri Lanka, only to find that the washing we had left behind was not there, as the locals had run off into the jungle.

We got clothing coupons in Adelaide to compensate. Next time back at Sri Lanka the washing turned up.

We eventually arrived at Loch Long in the Clyde and paid off. Having been away so long I had several weeks leave due to me and as a result was not involved in D day landings at the onset.

After the end of the war, I joined the Cunard ship “Aquitania” (with 4 funnels). Later I joined the “Queen Elizabeth” and by now married to the light of my life.

P.S During the time the Iranians were firing their guns at us, I noticed our steward and pantry boy walking along the flying bridge (between the stern and midship accommodation) with the lunch for the saloon. I shouted to them to “get down or you catchee bullet.” They replied “we no catchee bullet, we neutral we Chinese!”

P.P.S Just before the landings on Italian soil, we were at anchor at Port Augusta Sicily. In fact we lay beneath the shadow of Mount Etna. German aircraft would swoop our ships anchored in the Bay, checking on any build up there, before the landing of the toe of Italy by the Allied forces.

We had about four anti-aircrafts Oerlikon guns, capable of firing one armour-piercing bullet, along with an incendiary bullet and one tracer. We did not have enough gunners aboard to man them and the Chinese crews were “neutral” and took no part.

I thus volunteered to man one Oerlikon gun when the aircraft crossed the bay I fired my gun but despite seeing my tracer bullets appear to make hits, no plane was hit.

It was the same when I manned an Oerlikon when german aircraft attacked our convoys – no hits.

In the back of my mind I felt relieved I had not been responsible for killing a pilot who had a wife and family back home in Germany.

During attempted attacks by German planes, the Chinese crew worked hard for lifeboat stations with their best suits over their aims. I never saw a Chinese crew member swimming over the side with us officers.

Once swimming in the Suez Canal the Chief Engineer refused to join us as he was accident prone. We started to come down the jacobs ladder. He got his feet on the top step when the ladder collapsed and fell into the water with him. He came up spluttering and said “I told you so”. His surname was HASTIE.

The chief engineers’ luck ran out in the Seychelles. We spent 4 months there as a bunker ship and waiting for the completion of oil storage tanks, being boils on one of the smaller islands. When we were due to leave, the local shipchandler and agent gave us a farewell party.

The chief engineer had never been ashore in our four month stay. We insisted as Chief Engineer he should attend.

When he had had quite a few rums he stepped on to the top of the veranda steps and toppled over and fell into the garden taking two flower pots with him.

One of the pots all but took his ear off. My fellow Radio Officer, who had been at the rum went around saying laughing “The Chiefs nearly lost his “port lug”. Needless to say we left him behind in hospital.

Unfortunately too, our second officer and one gunner cohabited with local girls and ended up with venereal diseases.

I spent evenings visiting 4 local girls in their shack, listening to one or two records of Deanna Durbin.

One was part Chinese, one French, one a Negress and the other a local girl (almost English). Their father was a descendant of an Iranian diplomat who married a local girl.

I visited the Seychelles a few years later and went to see the shack and found they had departed. One had moved to Ireland. My wife did not approve of my attempt to seek them out, of course, needless to say.

Walking along the beach one day we heard strains of Bing Crosby singing “Sweet Leilani” and hawker guitars in the background. One of our fifth engineers was playing records under the Palm trees with his girl friend. The fourth engineer became romantically attracted to the Postmasters daughter.

I wrote to the manageress of our regular restaurant to see if she had details of the four girls. She did not reply but passed my letter on to an Englishman now settled in the Seychelles. He was not able to furnish any details of their whereabouts.

I suppose I could write a book on my four months there.

I came across a local boy who had killed a farmer, who turned out to be the brother of the four girls.

On the day we sailed from the Seychelles, we had to turn round and return as one of the liners of a piston cylinder was found to be cracked.

Apparently the liners cooling water to one of the engine cylinder liners had been turned off. Was it one of the Engineers or a Chinese fireman? Quite possibly the Engineer with the record player was responsible?

Having a spare liner, the engineers and Chinese staff spent another week replacing the cracked liner whilst at anchor off Mahé, the main island.

The agents had arranged a special launch so that we were able to go ashore at least twice a day.

Seychelles was the name of the first Governor when it was colonised.

Prior to that, the only visitors were pirates. In the Main Square is a statue of Queen Victoria.

During our long stay, everything was exceedingly cheap. A dozen fried eggs on fried breadfruit for the equivalent of 1/6[3]. Our Chief Officer had a sailing boat built for twenty pounds which he was able to keep aboard the ship.

oOo

After signing off my third ship, I had a four days leave in Chatham where my father had an off-licence.

While I had been out my father got a phone call from my Radio Company at Croydon. He said you have to report to the Office.

I then took the nearest train to get me there. The Office say you have to join the Collier “Empire Lagoon” at Millwall docks.

I had no time to return to Chatham, to pick my uniform etc., so went straight to Millwall. The Captain of the ship said we will be sailing in a few hours. Actually because of fog that was cancelled till early next morning. No time to return to Chatham. So here was I on board with just the clothes I stood up in. It was ten days before the ship returned to London. During that time I washed my clothes before turning into my bunk, leaving my clothes to dry during the hours of darkness.

One day I left my clothes on a line facing the bow of the ship and while I was asleep, The crane driver loading the holds switched to loading towards the bow. Thus all my clothes were covered in coal dust. With the result I had to wash them all again

With no razor I grew a beard over the days

The crew of the “Empire Lagoon” were a right lot of comedians. I renamed the ship “Empire Buffoon”.

The captains name was Johnny Walker.

The arrangement with the shipping company was that Captain and two navigating officers could swap about, so that one could take the train from London to the Tyne and the other two would take the ship to sea and the Tyne.

The Captains wife also came down from the Tyne from time to time and stayed aboard. One time Johnny muddled it all up and went up to take the train to Newcastle and his wife appeared at the top of the gangway having just arrived from Newcastle. One of the officers dashed up to Kings Cross and found the Captain on the platform waiting to go North.

His wife told us quite a few boobs her husband got up to. She asked him to prune the trees in their Tyneside garden. He cut all the branches off. Another time would he see their young son off to school early in the morning. When she saw the wee lad arriving from school later the young lad was walking with difficulty. His father had put his shoes on the wrong feet.

Taking a small convoy from France to the river Humber one day the destroyer escort came racing over to the ship demanding why we had not reported the torpedoing of a small Coaster.

I passed this message to the Captain standing chatting about the dances in South Shields, with the second officer. Tell them we don’t know was the captain’s reply, then carried on chatting. “You canna whack Shields”.

The Captain hated dealing with crews wages and handed the job over to me.

The crew were a complete mixture – a gypsy, a Cornishman whose face was all distorted as the result of a fall down one of the holds. The firemen were all Tyneside arabs.

Broaching the cargo was a regular crew practice they found duffle coats etc which they dyed navy blue and sold them ashore. The slightly build 3rd engineer would put on about 3 or 4 coats and wander ashore looking like “humpty Dumpty”.

Our cargo in the direction of France was always ammunition and stores (which contained whisky). Of course everyone managed a bottle or two. The cook was paying off and stopped at the dock gates. He told the policemen on duty he had no whisky but would be coming ashore later with some and the policeman would be welcome to a bottle. He actually had his share packed in his luggage. The policeman turned up later looking for the cook now on his way home.

The regular customs officer (known as “ginger”) said I get one of you lot one day.

Our carpenter was walking along the deck with a bottle in his hand. “Caught you” said the officer “with a bottle”. “What bottle?” said the carpenter and threw it over the side.

However on arrival at Tilbury one day a mob of policemen, customs officers etc came a rushing up the gangway and searched the whole ship, finding a large amount of clothing, etc

All this was placed before court and 20 out of 28 crew charged with pilfering. Our chief officer (with the gift of the gab and great story teller) asked the judge if he could say a few words in defence of the 20. He spoke for quite a few minutes praising all the things that merchant seaman had to face etc.

The judge dropped all the charges, letting them off. Some of the pile of clothing piled up in front of the court had to be given back so that the crew go back to the ship. I was not at the court and heard all of this from one of the crew.

One night in the River Scheldt (Belgium) the german aircraft carried out a raid over the whole waterway.

During this time our 3 engineers were trying to clear a fault in the steering when the chief got his hand jammed in the cog wheels.

The captain came running amidships and asked me to get a doctor. “Where” said I, but knowing I knew exactly where a British naval vessel lay pointed the Aldis Lamp in that direction and asked for a doctor. Very quickly a launch turned up with the doctor, who managed to free the hand of the Chief Engineer without injury.

There was not enough interest for me on a small collier and took the opportunity to sign off and let the previous Radio Officer come back.

My next ship was another Shell tanker a sister of the “Pellicula”.

From then on every voyage was back to peacetime again across the Atlantic to New York, Philadelphia and ending at Stanlow (in the Manchester Ship Canal).

Married I spent some time studying for a 1st class qualification in Radio and finally leaving the sea signed off the “Queen Elizabeth” in Southampton.

In order to remain ashore I went to Burnham on sea to the Radio station there called Portishead radio because the transmitting aerials were sited on the highest part of Portishead. Eventually after only 1(?) months there transferred to Northforeland radio near Broadstairs in 1948.

I then retired from British Telecomms in 1984 – aged 61.

By Peter Kerry, at Clarence Park Nursing Home

[1] Grt=groos ton

[2] Ministry of War Transport

[3] Approximately 8p