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Voyage England - Egypt 1940-41
SS City of London
The Regiment embarked and sailed from Liverpool on 18th December 1940. Also on board was the 4th Royal Tank Regiment who had just been equipped with new tanks after losing everything in France. The Tankies were a fine bunch. and we were to meet them later in a far different situation.
A few facts - from memory only - Vessel - City of London (Ellerman Line), Displacement - approx. 5000 tons, coal fired boilers with a triple expansion engine. Lascar Deck Crew with British Officers. Armament - one 4" Naval Gun aft manned by our own Gunners, 2 Bren Guns - one each side of the Bridge. Accommodation - there were a few cabins available for Officers and Senior Ranks. The Junior Ranks had hammocks which were hung or strung up over the Mess tables on the Mess Decks. Very unpopular. Food consisted mainly of kippers and cheese, which as time went on became a boring sort of sustenance.
>As we sailed through the Irish Sea the Convoy started to come together. Both Merchantmen and Escorts gathered, and I well remember the Rangitiki taking up station to starboard of us. The Rangitiki was carrying the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment. By the time we had cleared land and had headed into the Atlantic, the Convoy had grown to some 20 plus Merchantmen with an Escort of numerous Cruisers and Destroyers. Later the Ark Royal also joined us. The Convoy Code being J.3.
By now we had been allotted our Life Boat Stations and were made familiar with Ships Standing Orders. One such order directed that all Ranks sleep fully clothed until the first Port of Call. This turned out to be one we had called in on the way over - Freetown, Sierra Leone.
On the second day out we passed through a large oil slick. This was from a U Boat which had been depth charged by part of our Destroyer Escort which was some miles ahead of us.
That was the start of a string of events that took the monotony out of the voyage. On about the third night we were rudely awakened by the Alarm Bells, this meaning we had to proceed to our Life Boat Stations. We had heard a metallic noise earlier which had worried us some, but as there was no explosion had passed it by. On reaching our Stations we soon found out what had caused the noise. Because, upon reaching our Station, what did we find!!! No bloody Life Boat. Not only no Life Boat, but no Deck Railing either. It transpired that the ship immediately to port of us had gone off Station and hit us a glancing blow, taking two or three Life Boats and Rafts, with a length of deck railing. At the same time it damaged a fresh water tank and the propeller shaft. This had the effect of cutting down the Convoy speed and rationing fresh water. But we still had to do Boat Station Drill for the rest of the voyage with no Life Boat.
By now the Troops had settled down to the usual shipboard routine. Drill, P.T. and lots of leisure time. The Convoy's course was into the North Atlantic for a start, and it became very cold and was still dark at 10 a.m. So of course this was a good time to bring out the cards and Crown and Anchor.
I can well remember Chum Appleby and Harry Marshall introducing the lads to a quiet game of "Fraz". And it was not long before their willing customers were looking forward to their next "Pay Parade". Later on in Egypt I heard the same game called "Murder" and I think that name most appropriate.
The next bit of excitement came on Xmas morning. Everyone had enjoyed their Xmas Eve. At least under the circumstances the best they could. The men were drinking "Youngers Beer", and this was coming out of the Kegs like Jelly. Several Kegs were consumed with no more than the usual effects. Or at least it seemed that way, until we woke Xmas morning to the sound of Gunfire.
I went up on Deck with Theo Griffiths and Bert Henderson and saw a Cruiser crossing our Bows at full speed firing all her forward Guns. The sound of Gunfire was coming from all directions and it was fortunate for us there was a Fog. This made it difficult for the Enemy ship to sight us. But also the Ark Royal could not send up her Planes. Of course as usual when anything like this happens there was plenty of rumours flying around. One source said it was the Admiral Sheer another the Deutchland. Both of these were Pocket Battleships with 11 inch guns. The convoy scattered in all directions and as the "City of London" was the slowest was soon well behind and on its own.
Being on your own in the Atlantic for four days is no joke. Not a nice feeling at all, and even the rowdiest of the boys were very quiet. On the fourth day we met up with the convoy and sailed into Freetown. After the war I made it my business to find the official report on the attack. I did so in a book called "The German Navy in World War II" by Edward P. Von Der Porten. And I quote "The heavy cruiser Hipper had sailed from Kiel a month after the Sheer. She broke through the Denmark Strait in early December 1940. She cruised in the Atlantic finding a troop convoy bound for the Middle East on Xmas Eve. A dawn attack was frustrated by a strong cruiser Escort, which forced her to break off after an exchange of fire and a few hits for each side. She entered Brest two days later to repair her damage, Unquote. The rest of the trip was without incident.
By the time we had passed through the tropics, the boys were getting a bit fed up with a continuous diet of Kippers and Cheese. So much so it was decided to have a burial at sea of a large hunk of cheese. It was done in military style. George Story acted as Padre and was in fact the star of the act. This burial at sea of the Cheese, is still talked about by members wherever they meet. Mind you it was frowned upon by some people who will remain nameless.
After Freetown there was a four day break in Durban. This was thoroughly enjoyed by all, with the exception of one Gunner Burgess. Unfortunately Ted Burgess had his ear bitten off in one foul bite by a very large Kaffer. This gentleman not being happy about having his foot trodden on. This kept Gnr. Burgess in Durban joining the Regt. later with a few others who had decided to have a little more time in South Africa.
The convoy arrived at Port Tewfik on the 16th February 1941, just over eight weeks after leaving Liverpool. We were given Egyptian currency and disembarked and formed up on the roadside to wait for the transport to take us to Helwan Camp. It was while waiting, that Don Stott gave us a practical demonstration on how to trust a W.O.G. (Worthy Oriental Gentlemen). He asked for a Bar of Chocolate but as we had been given no silver in the currency change had to hand over a pound note. The Wog had no change either but promised to be right back. A most expensive 'Bar of Chocolate'.
After being transported to Helwan we were able to meet up with the 1st and 3rd Echelon, so bringing the Division together for the first time. We did get leave to learn about Cairo. And there were plenty of chaps to put one on the right track, as there was plenty of pitfalls to be found in Cairo for the unwary.
There was some intensive training which culminated in the Division moving to Greece, to taste for the first time action as a Division. This after going into Camp some 16 months earlier.
We are indebted to Vic (Swede) Svendson for the above narrative. I myself was in hospital at Aldershot when the Regt. left. In fact I did not know the Regt. had left until Jimmy McNeil came and picked me up after being discharged, I will not tell you of our trip to the Middle East. Along with around 20 others of the Regt. we had quite a pleasent trip, as trips go.
.../Voyage England to Egypt
This article first appeared in a 5 Fd Regt Newsletter.
5 Fd Regt
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