Atlantic Crossing

TroopsShipingOutWe had all seen pictures of troops boarding ships for overseas - complete with bands playing, pretty girls waving and throwing kisses, etc. We surely looked forward to that - but it was not to be. Our train arrived at the terminal on the docks after dark. There wasn’t a soul around - other than some Military Police and some sailors - there were a couple of spot lights on the ramp we had to climb to get on the ship - and that was it - just a few provost checking lists of names and giving out slips of paper showing us where we were to be quartered. Oh well, we boarded the ship. All the troops with the rank of Corporal or below were assigned to one of the holds. Sergeants and above were given slips showing where they were to go. Since I was the senior NCO on the draft, I made it my job to ensure that all our boys were present and accounted for and all knew where they were to be quartered. I checked them out - and found them assigned to one of the cargo holds - it was below the waterline of the ship - the air was stale - the light was poor - there was next to no ventilation (until we got underway) - there were some bunk beds - some hammocks - and some tables that could be used for sleeping. For sure, not a very inviting environment - but we hoped for a fast crossing so it would not be for too long. When I saw that all was OK, I checked out my boarding card and felt a bit embarrassed to find I was slated for a cabin on 'A' Deck - while the men were down in a stinking hold.

After asking directions a few times, I finally found 'A' deck and located my cabin number. It was a small cabin - maybe 8' x 10' - with two built-in bunks. The place was packed with troops - all sergeants or staff/sergeants. I started to ask which of them was assigned to this cabin besides myself, when I saw some of the other boarding passes - and it seemed this cabin with two bunks was for fourteen of us. Two could sleep in the bunks, and the other twelve had to curl up on the steel deck using greatcoats for blankets and respirators for pillows. I suddenly did not feel so embarrassed about my sleeping arrangements.

There were two portholes in the cabin - but they didn’t help much - they were both painted over (as a blackout precaution) and welded shut. There was a wash room down the passageway a short walk from the cabin. Across from us was a door marked "Steam Disinfestor". I never did find out what that was for - but it was used every night and turned our cabin into a steam bath.

Finally, we settled down for the night. I got a spot near the door, handy to the washroom, but that didn’t work out too well. I was kicked, walked over and trodden on all night as people headed for the washroom. Eventually, morning came - and several of us went up on deck for another look at Halifax harbour - only to find that we had set sail during the night and were out of sight of land. So much for our "brass band send-off".

convoy_600I’m not sure how many ships were in the Convoy - but there were a heck of a lot of them along with some navy vessels, a cruiser or two, and a dozen or so destroyers. We had a drill every morning with life preservers strapped on, lining up by our stations near the life boats. The meals were not bad, all things considered. I must admit I would have preferred three meals a day instead of two - but you can’t have everything.

On leaving Halifax, we headed mostly south. It got warmer and warmer and, with the steam business by our cabin, we became quite uncomfortable. The destroyers were zooming in and out of the convoy, dropping depth charges. I don’t know if they got anything or not - but it gave us something to watch and wonder about. At night, we were not allowed on deck so there was no way of knowing what was going on. All I know is that we ended up with two or three ships less than we had when we started out.

No gambling was allowed on board, probably to help prevent fights. Tempers were getting a mite tight under the enforced living conditions. A ship’s officer, a petty officer and a couple of army provost patrolled the ship and confiscated anything to do with gambling. They not only took the dice and cards, but also took any money that was on the table. After a couple of days we found out they were keeping everything they confiscated. Since they were badly outnumbered, we were able to persuade them to divide up the loot amongst all of us and spend the balance of the evening gambling it away. Some of the boys must have ended up with a good stake. I’m not much of a gambler - between shooting craps and learning the intricacies of poker, I got rid of all my share of the money plus most of my next two months' pay.
We had lots of time on our hands - I guess the convoy was dodging U boats - we seemed to go south until it got very hot (maybe around the Bahamas?) and then turn north around Iceland and had to get out sweaters and greatcoats. We ended up entering the Irish Sea from the North.

The ship was very crowded - no privacy at all.Then I had a brain wave! The signalling between ships was by lamp to preserve radio silence and we were given the job of providing Auxiliary Signals. In shifts covering the full 24 hours, we provided two operators to be a "back up" to the naval signallers. The lads were stationed on the upper bridge. Two armed sailors kept all unauthorized personnel away from this area. One day, I tried to go up and was refused entry. I really didn’t feel like arguing the point with two tough looking sailors armed with rifles with fixed bayonets. It seemed too nice a spot to leave so uninhabited, though. So -- back to my cabin, on with my web equipment - steel helmet - respirator - revolver - and I marched myself up to the naval guards. Before they could say or do anything, I said as gruffly as I could - "Guard Commander, checking auxiliary signals" and didn’t stop moving. They simply stepped aside and said "Yes sir". Up I went - sunshine - fresh air - no crowd of people - It was fantastic! I took off my web equipment and steel helmet - used my respirator for a pillow - and had a marvelous afternoon siesta with nobody to bother me. I managed to keep this up every afternoon until we got so far north that it was no longer pleasant up there.

The ship itself was basically a cargo ship with some cabins for passengers. Before the war, it was used primarily in the southern hemisphere. We had lots of time to get to know the ship due to cruising all over the ocean - coupled with the fact that the speed of a convoy is governed by the speed of the slowest ship. We were 30 days traveling from Halifax to Glasgow. Sometime after the war, I saw the name 'SS Letitia' in some write-up - so it survived the war all right and didn’t become another German U-boat statistic. We were met by tugs - pushed in to a pier and the next day we disembarked and marched to a nearby train station for our next ride.

Web by Greg Collett with pride.

Thanks Dad.