The Date; 9th December 1955. This must rate as one of the best dates in my life. I was on my way to Port Said to join the troopship Lancashire to go home for demob and bring to an end the longest and most uncomfortable twenty six months of my life. I, along with a few other lucky airmen were to join the Lancashire and hopfully be home in time for Xmas. I had already spent two Xmas`s and three birthdays in the Suez Canal Zone, and would be very pleased if I never saw the place again.I had an on/off association with the troopship Devonshire over a seventeen year period. My first contact with her was in February 1948 when I started an apprenticeship with the ship repair company Grayson Rollo and Clover Docks in my hometown of Birkenhead. This company did almost all the repairs and maintenance on the ships of the Bibby Line on their return to Liverpool after a voyage. Over the five years of my apprenticeship I think I worked on all the B L ships and got to know them very well. The Devonshire was one of the first ships I ever worked on and one of my favourites. When I first saw her it was a cold snowy February morning and she looked pretty drab to say the least. She was rust streaked which was made worse by her paintwork. She was still in her wartime colours of Battleship Grey. A vast difference to what became her normal peacetime appearance of a White hull with a broard Blue line all round,and with funnel, masts and lifting gear a buff colour.
When my apprenticeship was coming to an end I had to register for National Service along with thousands of other young men in those days. Most went into the forces at eighteen but some for various reasons were able to defer their enlistment till later. As I was serving my time as a Marine Plumber I was able to delay my entry into the forces till I was 21. I wanted to join the RAF but was told that in order to get in the RAF rather than the army,and in order to get the RAF trade of my choice I would have to sign on for three years instead of the 2 years of NS. If you are wondering why I am talking about military service on a seamans website I can only ask you to bear with me, as much of what I am typing is relevant to my subsequent story. Strangely enough although I was in the RAF I was never very far from ships and the sea.
I spent the first ten months of my RAF service in a Coastal Command Station in Cornwall [St Eval] It was from here that they flew Shackleton aircraft on marine reconaisance and and search and rescue flights out over the Western Approach`s. These aircraft carried lifeboats in their bomb bay for dropping wherever they were needed. I was lucky enough to make my first flight on one of these aircraft out over the Atlantic for several hundred miles. My outstanding memory of that flight was that we flew very low alongside a large passenger ship whose name I have long since forgotten. We must have passed at a distance of just a couple of hundred yards and at wave top height. I was in the rear turret looking up at the passengers on the deck waving at us. A wonderful memory.
This idyllic life came to an abrupt end when in October 53 I was posted to Egypt. The Suez Canal Zone. I had heard stories of life out there from some of the old hands some of whom had served there themselves and what I was hearing from them was not at all encouraging. I discovered that what I had heard was not quite true, It was worse. I still had two years and two months to complete my service and I couldn`t have served it in a worse place. I was facing the prospect of finishing my service in Egypt with little or no chance of getting home for a leave. Any seamen who have travelled down the canal will know how hot and uncomfortable it can be there but they are unlikely to know much of what was going on there in the early fifties. In the years since first going to Egypt I have travelled the length of the canal quite a few times and it always seemed to be rather a pleasant place apart from the heat. Travelling from Port Said to Suez the western bank appears to be well covered in vegetation and rather peaceful,but it was much like a swan on a pond. The swan floats along sedately but under the surface it is paddling like the clappers. In the earl fifties it was anything but peaceful Unknown to the population at home there was a war going on there. We were on active service and men were being killed. I use the word men but they were mostly eighteen and nineteen year old boys. In the period 1951 to 1954 there were over seven hundred killed which is more than have so far been killed in Iraq and Afganistan together. If any of the older generation can remember sailing down the canal in those years they may remember the searchlights flashing on the shore, that was us guarding the camps which were inside barbed wire and in some cases surrounded by minefields too. Those camps were very reminicent of the POW camps in the old films. Life for me wasn`t all doom and gloom as my first posting within the zone was RAF Kabrit. A fighter station at the southern end of the Great Bitter Lake just where it joins the southern part of the canal to Suez. Here on a Sunday morning I could walk across the airfield and go down to the Kabrit Canal control station. There if I was lucky with my timing I could watch the ships passing through. They were almost within spitting distance and if I was very lucky I would see ships I knew from home. My mates must have thought I was mad the first time we went there as I indulged in that old MN custom of shouting ," Any Scousers aboard or any Geordies etc" Of course I hadn`t been to sea myself but I knew the routine as I had heard it many times in the docks of Merseyside. If nothing else it made me feel I wasn`t all that far from home. After Kabrit I was posted to a Royal Engineer post and which proved to be the best posting of the four I had in the zone. I was living on a floating workshop with a cabin to myself, on the great Bitter lake helping service the RE`s fleet of Z craft. A type of tank landing craft that was used for transporting stores up and down the canal. Eventually my time in Egypt was coming to an end and I joined the troopship Lancashire to return home. I had been flown out to Egypt and now I was to experience what it could be like at sea for a change.
On arrival at the ship I could hardly wait to get aboard and renew my aquaintance with the old tub.But what a surprise I got when I finally went aboard. This wasn`t the Lancashire I remembered from four or five years previously.. She had changed quite a lot in the years since I was last aboard her. I realised she had had an extensive refit in more recent times and it was certainly an improvement. One of the most important things as far as troopdeck passengers were concerned was that the old hammocks had gone and had been replaced by Standee beds. In addition the eating arrangements for the troops was a cafeteria style arrangement instead of eating where you slept. Perhaps a word of explanation wouldn`t go amiss here. Pre refit the troopdeck bulkheads and deckheads were lined with hangers for slinging hammocks. The hammocks being stowed in racks attatched to the bulkheads. Beneath the hammocks were long tables maybe twenty feet long with a bench seat of equal length placed beside the table. The hammocks were slung over the tables which were of course securely fastened to the deck The hammocks being stowed away in the morning and slung up at night. The Standee bunks which replaced them were not such an improvement as they first appeared. They were certainly more comfortable than hammocks especially to men who were not used to hammocks, but they had disadvantages of their own. These Standees bunk were placed three either side of poles welded to the deck and deckhead and hinged three one above the other each side of the poles. They could be folded back in the morning and hooked back with chains till the evening. The bottom bunk was about a foot above the deck and the other two bunks spaced out above it. Once you were in you were often disturbed by the others climbing up to reach the upper bunks. This could happen several times during the night and more often if your mates had been drinking in the canteen or were suffering with sea sickness. If you needed the toilet during the night you had to go up two decks if you were unlucky enough to be in the lowest troopdeck. These troopdecks were huge, stretching the full width of the ship and divided fore to aft by watertight bulkheads. There were six troopdecks which could accomodate between eight hundred and a thousand troops.
The cafeteria was an improvement on the original system in that there was a separate eating area, [I won`t call it a dining room,that would be going too far.] You queued for your meal which was served on a large tray which was divided into partitions for the main meal and a sweet . You were lucky in poor weather to reach a table without slopping it all together in one horrible mess, or sliding in a mess some other poor sod had spilt. There were other drawbacks which I won`t go into here. I will tell more about troopship ways and layouts when I come to talk about the Devonshire.
For the moment I want to talk about my first voyage to sea. As the ship was still boarding more troops till fairly late at night we weren`t due to sail till the morning. We spent the evening exploring as much as we could, which wasn`t much, as we were confined to the troopdeck area which consisted of the forrard third of the ship. Eventually we went to our troopdeck and turned in. We were woken to the obvious sounds of the ship getting ready to leave,and after getting dressed we went on deck to watch our departure.
Unfortunately it was blowing half a gale and we soon went below to grab our greatcoats. We weren`t used to this cold weather after becoming aclimatised to the heat further down the canal .As we passed the breakwater at the entrance to the harbour we could feel the ship starting to roll a bit, and more than a bit once we had cleared it. We were headed to Famagusta in Cyprus so we were heading north with the wind blowing strongly from the west .After a while there were more than a few being sick although I am pleased to say I wasn`t one of them,but I did feel pretty awful. As it was a bit stuffy below decks I decided to get out of the wind and stay up top in the fresh air. After an hour or so the sergeant in charge of our troopdeck came along and asked if any of us were interested in photography. Without thinking, I said I was. Right he said, You and your three mates are on the cinema projectionists fatigue party. Three years service and i walked straight into that one,.when I ought to have known better. However it proved to be one of the best mistakes I ever made. As was the custom on troopships, as many of the troops as possible are given jobs around the ship, helping out in all the departments where they could be found something to do. We were lucky as all we had to do was put out the seating for film shows, and carry the projectors and cans of film around to wherever they were needed. In this way we were allowed to go to parts of the ship which were normally out of bounds to the troops First class[ Officers and their families of course] Second class [SNCOs and their families] and Third Class [Other Ranks Families.] and even on one occasion in the European crews mess room.. We also got to see all the films too.
We arrived at Famagusta the following morning by which time the wind had died down and all was calm. It was just as well it had, as we had to anchor about a mile off shore as we were too big to go alongside. Our new troops and passengers were brought out to us by the Royal Engineers Z Craft. the very ones I had spent so much of my time working on some ten months earlier. We left Cyprus during the afternoon and headed for Malta where we embarked even more troops and at the same time we had the chance for a run ashore. After leaving Malta it was full steam ahead for Liverpool as we weren`t due to call into Gib as we sometimes did, in fact we passed it in the night and few saw it. The voyage from Cyprus to Liverpool was a nice smooth one as even the dreaded Bay of Biscay behaved itself. This was December of course and the weather became noticably colder the closer we got to UK. So much so that by the time we were picking up the Liverpool pilot off Point Lynas it was starting to snow. This wa a cause of great excitement among the troops as most of us had not seen any rain for a couple of years, much less snow.By the time we were entering the Mersey there was quite a covering of snow and there were snowball fights galore going on, on deck. As we drew alongside the Landing Stage this all came to a halt as we lined the ships side to watch what was going on. I got a lovely surprise when I heard my name being called and saw all my family standing there, except for a younger brother who was away in the Cheshire regiment. As I was the eldest of seven there was quite a gathering. Unfortunately they weren`t allowed aboard and I wasn`t allowed ashore,so we had to content ourselves with shouting backwards and forwards across the forty or fifty feet between the ship and the stage.After a while I had to tell them to go home as they must have been half frozen. My mother came back the following morning and accompanied me to Lime St station as I had to travel to RAF Innesworth near Cheltenham for demob. I was home again the next day just in time for Xmas and finished with the RAF,my official demob date being 28th January. The first thing I did on getting home was to take off my uniform never to wear it again.