Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Dateline: Atlantic Ocean — May 1944, a wartime crossing

An Early Summer Holiday Cruise

Finally, our exams were over. Our strict St. Vincent naval training-ship days were over. We were promoted to Leading Naval Airman with increased pay and a killick-anchor badge on our sleeves. A band played, we marched past the commanding officer and his staff, past our fearsome Chief Petty Officer Wilmott and his disciplinary staff, noted for their strictly traditional naval views and abhorrence of aviation talk—but did we at last see they all had more benign looks on their rugged, weathered faces at that moment?

Then we were gone.

At last we could scent, far off, the distinctive smell found only in the cockpit of an aeroplane. For we were off to Canada to be trained within the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Wartime Britain was no place to have unarmed, trainee pilots meandering around and cluttering up vital defensive radar screens amid the battleground of the busy at-home skies—or even perhaps being shot down by enemy intruders. The wide, peaceful skies of Canada were ideal for flying training. So off to Canada went thousands of embryo pilots, navigators and other aircrew. Yet others went to South Africa, Rhodesia and Trinidad for their flight training and a few of our St. Vincent classmates were sent to the huge US Naval Air Station at Pensacola in Florida.

So within a few days, in the spring of 1944, we were carrying our kitbags up the gangway of the newest Cunard ocean liner, the two-funnelled Mauretania. We were lucky to sail across the wartime Atlantic aboard that ship—the third largest Cunarder after the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. When America entered the war, Britain handed over the directive operation of these massive luxury ships to the United States government. The Allies’ possession of these wonderful ships was credited for hastening the end of the war by at least one, and possibly more years. Because they could carry 16,000 troops on each voyage—safely and speedily. Without them, the build-up of the powerful American armies, which flooded into Britain, would have been much slower. The concentration of the D-day invasion force would have been so delayed as to probably allow Hitler to stem or reverse the Russian advance and give the Germans time to manufacture and send a massive and continuous rain of V2 rockets upon Britain.

Our compact contingent of 121 naval airmen formed only a small fraction of the Mauretania’s total complement of varied passengers. So, though destined for flying training in Canada, we were taken to Boston, the liner’s regular port of rapid turnaround. From there we were to be transported by train to the Moncton, New Brunswick, personnel dispersal unit.

Converted into a fast super-troop ship, as were her two massive sister ships, the Mauretania was capable, because her high speed provided such a safety factor, of sailing as an individual, steering a lone, erratic zigzag course that would prove extremely unpredictable to any lurking U-Boat that might come within torpedo range.

And, strangely enough, even though all Europe was still in German hands, there was a pronounced and relaxing holiday atmosphere on board. It was almost as if we were on a cruise in peacetime. This party spirit was engendered in some part by the fine sunny, calm weather, but in far greater part by the fact that a large segment of the ship’s passengers consisted of several hundred gallant aircrew members of the United States 8th Army Air Force. These aircrews had miraculously survived the completion of their allotted number of missions in their Flying Fortresses and Liberators, and were now heading home on leave. They were now actually homeward bound at a fast rate of knots, as they could easily verify by looking over the ship’s rail at the blue ocean water scudding by, and one may imagine, not yet really believing that they had actually outlived and were, at least for some time, finished with their ghastly task. They were relieving their pent up, deep down wells of hitherto innermost sickening fear.

So the gently rolling decks of the Mauretania were athrong with happy groups of young men in much uncaring disarray of uniform, soaking up the sunshine, smoking, rolling the dice for enormous jackpots and most of all just sitting, feeling, and getting used to being aware of being alive, of being okay, and with the probability of being alive and okay tomorrow and next week and the week after.

When I told them my first ever flight in an aeroplane had been by courtesy of an American Eagle Squadron pilot three years before in 1941, they were delighted and all over me. To this day they remain in my memory as the most wholesome, carefree, and uninhibited generation of Americans that ever were or ever will be. They were the crème de la crème of what the US of A professes to be. I loved them. They, as the saying went then, were the “bee’s knees.”

Some of the groups were quiet and small, around half-a-dozen or fewer. They tended to be more subdued and kept closer together. They would arrive on deck together, go below deck together, laugh together, fall silent together. Their eyes seldom rested for more than a brief instant on any one spot and they subconsciously tended to arrange their deck chairs so they could squint up into the sun and see unimpeded between each other. And though they always seemed to be searching individual sections of a far and high horizon, at sudden commotions or noises, they would instantly all turn their heads together. These small groups had flown together and brought back their dead and wounded together. They had watched together as their buddies’ bomber aircraft, flying next to them, and closed up tightly in the defensive box formation, had suddenly erupted into flaming segments of metal intermingled with torn apart human bodies.

So they sat out on the Mauretania’s sunny deck close to their buddies. It would take a little time before some of them would be fully content about going their own separate ways. Alone as they never had been before. Alone and not together.

Seemingly not so caring, other larger groups of differently tempered men, or of somewhat more fortunate experience, gambled away stacks of pound notes, dollar bills, IOUs, wrist watches, even real estate properties back home, anything of value. What was the worry. They had just won the biggest gamble ever. They were euphoric. They were headed home. To the good old United States. Unlike eight out of ten of their friends who had fallen from the heavenly heights of the German killing skies.

Those USAAF guys were so clean. Their uniforms were smart and clean. Their faces were clean. Their language, all in all, was clean. Not just in wordage, but in thought. Incredibly, most of all, despite their hitherto hopeless horizons, their outlook was clean.

What a tragedy that so many like them, the overwhelming majority, were lost in the, clear, subzero, thin air of high altitudes. Lost flying during long, drawn-out, freezing hours of extreme peril—an insane orchestration of brilliant sunshine, widespread lethal and maiming frostbite, and blazing flesh-rending gunfire.

How sad, also, that after bailing out from stricken aircraft, so many of these young gentlemen, who maybe only twenty-four hours before had been chatting with fresh-faced English girls of the Womens Land Army, in peaceful, civilized English country pubs, were to be stabbed and murdered by the pitchforks of German farmers—and their wives—who, when their armies had met with early success, had loudly heiled and applauded Adolf Hitler’s initial greedy endeavours to conquer and evilize the whole world.

For many of our 121 neophyte naval airmen, now following in reverse geographical direction the road those US army air corps survivors had taken two or three years before, even the North Atlantic’s early summer gentle swells meant a day or two of sea sickness. Down below our cramped quarters became quite unpleasant.

So when volunteers were called for to work in the butcher’s shop, Vincent Ramos, my oppo (the naval vernacular for a buddy), and I, went for the job. Vin was an adventurous and exuberant friend. His father had been a well-to-do Spanish sherry merchant who settled in the Cheshire Wirral and became a naturalized Englishman. After the war Vin stayed in the navy and became a Lieutenant-Commander in command of a naval vessel.

Vin and I didn’t regret volunteering to work our passage one bit. For the Mauretania’s butcher’s shop, several decks down, proved to be a cheery place with a crowd of cheery men and lots of less-cheery animal carcasses. So while they prepared the meat for the several thousand people aboard, Vin and I were charged with sweeping up the showers of scraps that fell to the deck from the cutting tables and sluicing buckets of water around to wash the mix of blood and other matter down the scuppers. Thus my practice with squeegees in the corridors of the Kings Road seminary where we were quartered during a messy air raid, and where the navy had sent us, somewhat incongruously, to brush up our mathematics, English, and oratory capabilities at the Chelsea Polytechnic, just three months before, stood me in good stead. Except, of course, that the broad lower deck of the butcher’s shop in the Mauretania heaved in ponderous and noticeable fashion in response to the long flat ocean swell coming in from abeam. This caused the flood of animal flotsam and jetsam swirling in the bloodstained water to slosh first to port, then to starboard. This called for playing a waiting game. Waiting for the tide of detritus to approach in unison with the ship’s rolling, quickly fishing out the bigger pieces of offal and pushing as much of its liquid component as possible down the scupper drains before the tide turned and it all flowed away. Fascinating as this version of limpid deck quoits was, our days in the butcher shop had real advantages. For down here, with the ship’s bakery close at hand, we dined with the crew in luxury and amazing plenty. We had bread and pastries not seen in Britain for years. We had roasts, steaks, bacon, eggs, butter, fruits and scads of other foods so scrimpily rationed at home.

And we were not worked all that hard. Filling up huge garbage cans with our harvests of skin, gristle and unmentionable animal parts, plus other accumulated rubbish, we would load them on trolleys, and go off with them for an hour or more. Our goal was the Mauretania’s stern where a chute was positioned for ejecting garbage into the sea. Once there, we would not dispose of our garbage, but would place the full cans nearby in special holding racks. There they would stay until sundown, when we would return and empty them down the chute. This was because of orders never to dump material overboard during daylight hours. This was a precaution against the chance passing of a U-Boat over our track some hours later. The trail of floating garbage might lead to the deduction of our course and our expected future position being radioed to another submarine ahead of us.

On many of these trips to the ship’s stern, Vin and I went to the upper decks to watch the Yank’s crap games, enjoy being part of their total camaraderie and listen enraptured to their descriptions of the warm receptions and delights we might expect to receive from the beautiful girls who were in such overabundance all over the USA and Canada.

A couple of times, gas-filled balloons were released from the ship so the US Army Air Corps machine-gunners could practise and demonstrate their battle-honed skills. This was more for sport than a precaution against the remote expectation of any kind of aerial attack after the first day or two at sea,. But, with the threat from U-Boats far from over, for what was a more meaningful practice, a floating and smoking drogue was left drifting astern for the chief petty officer DEMS Royal Navy gunner and his three-man crew to shoot at. While everybody watched as the target was left further and further astern, the gunner appeared to show indifference as to its whereabouts. Standing with his back to the scene, he just wiped imaginary specks of dirt from the breech and shell casings. Then just about when all hands thought the practice had been abandoned, he uttered a few words of laconic command. The gun crew slammed in a round, quickly laid their elevation and aim, fired, repeated the procedure twice more in rapid succession, then at once resumed cleaning their gun. Casually, after some seconds, the gunner looked out to mid-horizon, as did we all, to watch as the shell bursts blended with the smoking target. After that the smoke disappeared—except for the faintest of whiffs. And there was no sign of the raft. The American airmen applauded with hand-clapping, cheers and shouts of: “Just a lucky shot! Bet you ten bucks you can’t do it again!”

Getting to and from the butcher’s shop to the ship’s stern with a heavy load on a trolley meant a lengthy journey along a labyrinth of passageways, and up and down many lifts or elevators. One of our naval airmen fell down one of the lift shafts and was seriously injured and remained in hospital for months. We were now only 120.

Vin and I usually returned to our allotted sleeping quarters fairly late at night. We were lucky in having commandeered the only bunk on the sleeping flat. All our companions had to sling hammocks every night, but we had an upper and lower bunk which was fastened into a fairly secluded corner spot inset just inside the doorway. I slept in the lower bunk and Vin used the upper.

About three o’clock in the middle of one night, I woke up and became quite concerned upon noticing several inches of water flooding down the passageway, which was only a foot or two from my makeshift pillow. Also, there was quite a bit of smoke about. Looking into the flat, I saw that not only had all the fellows in hammocks disappeared, but most of their hammocks had gone as well. I banged on the bunk above me and called to Vin. His sleepy head looked over the edge of the bunk. I was glad to see he was still there. I was glad not to be alone in this strange situation, in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night with water and smoke about, in the middle of a war. We were discussing what to do when someone came sloshing up the passageway through the water. We called to him and he stopped to tell us not to worry. The dry canteen on the deck above had caught fire. The smoke had woken all our people who had retreated to the clear air of an upper deck with their hammocks. We had been overlooked in our little nook. And the water coming down the companionway and along the passage was just the water from the fire hoses. It was all just about over, he said, so we might as well stay where we were. He went off down the passage. Relieved, we were about to go back to sleep when we noticed that floating down the ladderway from the deck above was a variety of objects. After bumping down the steps, they floated along the passageway past our doorway. By reaching out across the low coaming and without leaving my bunk, I could grab these items out of the water. As I picked them up I passed them up to Vin who dried them with our towels and stowed them away in our kitbags. We soon had a good haul of Hershey chocolate bars, boxes of lifesaver candies, hairbrush and comb sets in cellophane packets, a few cartons of cigarettes, and other oddments. After a while, the flow ceased so we went back to sleep. But we were able to give away chocolate bars and things to the deserving and obliging for several weeks after landing ashore.

When a couple of American patrol aircraft flew out of the sunset to meet us, we knew we were near the end of our sea trip. Our US Air Force passengers went mad waving to their compatriots as they flew past the ship several times so low that from our promenade decks we were looking down and into the planes.

I borrowed a pair of high-power binoculars and went up on the highest deck. I looked back eastwards over the ship’s wake. I could see nothing. Nobody was following us. Finally, we were safe. I went down and told the rest of our group. “We’re okay, lads. There’s no sign whatever of Chief Petty Officer Wilmott coming up astern. Everybody relax. Talk about aeroplanes and flying as much as you want.”

The next morning we saw the Massachusetts’ coastline and within an hour or so, we were docking in Boston and getting our first look at the vaunted new world.

No comments:

Post a Comment