Did I tell you E Boat alley is off the Norfolk coast?

Let’s see this must be April 1941.  We loaded this trip in London for Mombasa.  Same as this time, only of course via the Cape.  Left I think in May.

Just remembered two little episodes when we were evacuating from Cherbourg.  We were crowded with troops and some were sitting just outside the wireless room.  Suddenly one of them began to yell and kick his legs about.  I thought the stress and strain had been too much for him and he had gone crackers.  On top of that people started shouting on the bridge – well we’re all going crackers now.  They couldn’t turn the steering wheel on the bridge.  The soldier was sitting alongside of the rod and the lanyard of his knife attached to his belt got caught in the rod and as the rod turned, tightened the lanyard across his tummy.  No wonder he yelled.  However we got him cleared and generally unhurt.  I suppose he wondered what was happening to him. 

The other episode.  We had lorries on deck and soldiers slept in them.  One morning, early, a soldier cleaning a bren gun and someone had left a bullet in the barrel.  This was accidentally fired and passed through a lorry.  Fortunately no one was hurt, but a soldier popped his head out of the lorry saying, “I’m getting up”. I don’t know what he meant, possibly he didn’t himself either.  The rude awakening was too much.  The fellow cleaning the rifle was placed under arrest and they tried to find who left a rifle loaded, without success.

To get back.  We left in May 1941 (Figure 4) for Oban (just north of Glasgow), the convoy assembly point.  As far as I can remember it was without incident.  We had the usual conference at Oban.  It’s a lovely little place.  The centre of yachting in peacetime. We saw very little of it, fore we only stayed ashore for the conference and then straight back to the ship.

I can remember no outstanding incident whilst in convoy.  There would of course be alarms and depth charging, but they were to be expected.  If they didn’t occur during the night we were not unduly put about.  It was the night episodes we didn’t like.  You hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening and hoped for the best.  I suppose in that convoy we would go about 30W and 55N before dispersing.  Then we would proceed in a general southerly direction towards our destination.  I’m wrong about the position, it was the previous convoy, and this time it was somewhere about 40W and 57N.  Well over towards America as far as you can see by the chart. The subs were beginning to work more and more over to the westward. 

We broke convoy early one morning and about noon came good and proper.  As far as I can remember about 13 ships were sunk.  Some were from our dispersed convoy and others from a homeward bound convoy.  All these in one small area in our immediate vicinity, but ahead of us.  .  We turned towards the NW in the direction of Greenland .  It was a lovely day and soon we were passing through fields of ice, nothing big.  The sea was dead calm.  It did look real beautiful.  In spite of our preoccupation we couldn’t help admiring the beauty and contrast.  It looked all so peaceful.  Ships report when they sight subs or periscopes.  With all that ice about I expect there would be a number of false alarms.  Some of the reports were far too close to comfortable however we went on our way unmolested.  We didn’t sight Greenland, but I don’t think we were that many miles off when we turned round this time on a S.W. course. This would take us about 60 miles west of the sinkings.  There must have been quite a number of subs operating there abouts and if they moved westwards – well that would be just too bad for us.  This for many hours to come we were fully prepared for a bump.  A couple of American patrol ships (neutral at that time) were proceeding to the rescue of survivors.  The following day the weather deteriorated and became rough.  This considerably delayed our progress out of the bad area.  It cleared up later.  When we were on a parallel with Newfoundland our steam steering gear broke down and we had to use hand steering gear.  This steering is done from the stern of the ship and it requires 2 or 3 men to handle the wheel.  Still we considered ourselves extremely lucky that it didn’t break down in the previous bad weather and that we were now many miles from the attack area.  Of course we still might be attacked.  It took about 2 hours to change over to hand steering gear and we now altered course for St John’s, Newfoundland, and repairs.  We made port without any further trouble.  A tanker that had been torpedoed entered with us.  She had a great hole in number 2 tank.  Whilst she lay in harbour, small rowing boats were rowing in and out of her wrecked side.  It looked weird.

I’d completely forgotten a very major item connected with this episode of St John’s.  When we arrived at St John’s, Newfoundland, we heard of the sinking of HMS Hood by the Bismarck off Greenland.  This action must have been going on while we were playing around up there and I would say myself, that the subs we ran into formed part of a screen for the Bismarck.  Once again the old Macbean’s luck held.  It was more than ordinary relief that we heard of the end of the Bismark. 

 

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