May 18th 1941, a bleak late Spring day, found eight of us Vindi boys striding down the gangway of the Vindicatrix brimming with excitement. We were all about to embark on our first voyage to sea. But first we had to find our ships. Sharpness Station saw the parting of the ways; five of us heading south and the other three, Boden from Manchester, Eccleston from Liverpool and myself heading north for Hull to join the MV Aldington Court.
If we needed any reminder that there was a war on, boarding the train at Bristol gave us plenty of confirmation. The carriages were overflowing with service personnel and every seat was taken. We were in for a long night's journey to our destination. It was made even longer when the train came to a grinding halt, caught up in a German air raid. The already dim lights in the carriages were turned out and everyone but me, a non-smoker, seemed to be puffing away nervously, listening to the exploding bombs and the returning fire of ack-ack guns.
We were also beginning to wonder whether our great adventure was about to terminate any second on a rail siding just short of Carlisle Railway station. It was daylight before we arrived at Hull where, weary and hungry, we managed to obtain a mug of tea and a slice of cake from the Salvation Army. We were met by a shipping representative and midday found us clambering aboard the Aldington Court which was to be our home for the next five months. The Chief Steward, a short, stocky swarthy looking Greek with thick glasses, was waiting for us to report.
He issued us with a straw mattress and two dark grey blankets of questionable freshness, but our request for pillows was met blithely with the issue of a life jacket each. A further appeal for a towel was met with one thin enough to see through. He then showed us around the officers' accommodation to instruct us on our duties which were to begin with the officers' evening meal. Our cabin was next to the anchor chain locker in the fo'c'sle. It was furnished with four metal bunks and a small wooden locker each. The spare bunk gave us at least a little more deck room for that was where we were able to throw our kit bags, leaving us with just enough space to move around without getting in each other's way.
We went on deck just in time to see a badly damaged cruiser limping into port. On the bow there must have been thirty or forty corpses, individually wrapped in sheets. That sight took the cockiness right out of us. There was an air raid that night and we were told to go to the sir raid shelter adjoining the dock entrance or stay on board. We elected to do the latter. The Luftwaffe was getting a hot reception. Though bombs were dropping, ack-ack fire was piercing the clouds and we could see tracer bullets flying across the sky like shooting stars. British night-fighter aircraft were involved in dogfights. It seemed less frightening for us to watch than to hide. We learned next day the air-raid shelter we had scorned had received a direct hit and everyone in it had been killed.
The following day we sailed for Loch Ewie. That afternoon a lone German high-flying reconnaissance plane appeared photographing the scores of ships being made ready to form into convoys. We had two WWI Hotchkiss a?a guns. The Chief Steward was on the one nearest to the bridge and us. He was keen to show off that he was a potential top gun. The gun base didn't have any stops on it. Following the plane in his gun sights, ignoring the fact that his tracer bullets were going barely one hundred metres skyward, in his enthusiasm he managed to target the ship's funnel. Everyone on the bridge was diving for cover, fearing what was coming next, while the Captain in the wheelhouse was jumping up and down, convinced he was going to have half of his crew killed.
The next morning the skipper lost no time going ashore and somehow managed to acquire four veteran army gunners and two new Oerliken guns. The threat of being killed by friendly fire ceased for us all. Sailing from Lock Ewie, destination unknown, we joined a seven knot convoy with forty other ships. The weather closed in and being in ballast the ship began to roll. The three of us were soon suffering the torments of seasickness. The Aldington Court had no fridges; only ice boxes, built for ten to twelve days at sea. The Chief Steward, who had taken a personal dislike to me, assigned me the worst job, draining these ice boxes through taps into buckets which had blood, lumps of fat, and all sorts of other gooey things in them. I then had to climb a flight of steps carrying these buckets to take them to a chute where the contents where dumped overboard. This was a crash course in acquiring my sea legs if ever there was one.
As the voyage progressed, the Chief Steward, overcame his dislike of me and tried luring each of us three boys into his cabin, offering us chocolate and showing us dirty pictures. We weren't that naive, we kept our distance. The officers' meals initially consisted of good quality meat and vegetables and the left overs would be put in a stock pot for soup. By comparison the crew received smaller quantities and poorer quality rations. Food could be kept fresh for about ten days. Once the ice ran out, then we had to resort to salted butter in tins and tinned milk. Vegetables could be kept reasonably fresh in the deck locker for longer periods, depending on the temperature. Once the fresh meat had been consumed, we had to make do with salted beef and fish.
After about three weeks water was rationed to half a bucket a day to wash both our clothes and ourselves. We had salt-water showers, which left us itching all over, so some of the precious water was used to rinse ourselves off. The toilets were attached to the bulkhead. You needed to hang on for grim life while the ship was rising and falling and rolling from side to side. We shared the fo'c'sle using the same toilets and showers. The outward voyage took five weeks. You don't travel far in a day in a seven knot convoy zigzagging to avoid U-boat attacks. Our ultimate destination was Freetown, Sierra Leone. Milk was made from powder. We had rice and navy biscuits which needed a hammer to crush them to make them edible. The cook kept a strict watch on the drinking water, the pump having a lock on it when the galley was closed. We had rice cakes for breakfast, salt fish that looked and tasted like wet cardboard for lunch, then soup, which had been made from peas and onions for the evening meal.
To keep up morale the Chief Steward baked a fruitcake, of which we were entitled to have one slice as a Sunday treat. We had lost a lot of weight by now, what turned out to be a lifesaver was a pint of limejuice per day. There were some good moments though: it was great for instance to go on deck on balmy days. The sea and the sky were the same rich blue. We could see flying fish and lots of dolphins, frolicking around in the warm waters.
While men were making war, they had better things to do. Three days from Africa we could actually smell the aroma of tropical spices in the air that made us all quite excited land was so near. As the weather got hotter, we were issued with pith helmets. The Captain was a health nut. Woe betides anyone who was caught not wearing his helmet. The Captain had a peculiar habit. He would call out at you as you walked by and throw a medicine ball for you to catch. My friend, Eccleston, the engineer's boy, was taken unawares and made no attempt to grab the ball which, much to the Captain's consternation, went over the side in the direction he had thrown it. The old man was a complete sadist. He dressed my friend down to such a state that the poor lad believed that at the end of the voyage he would find two stamped D.Rs.I in his discharge book for his perceived misdemeanor.
Once we arrived in Freetown we discharged our ballast into barges. The fresh water tender then came alongside, followed by another with fresh food that we relished for days. The locals came out in their bum boats to barter with us. The cook soon wised up to the fact that while the fresh water pump didn't need watching now, his food locker did. Someone even bartered the blankets from my bed when I carelessly left the cabin unlocked, leaving me no blankets for the return voyage. We voyaged on to Takaradi where we loaded 2,000 tons of iron ingots.
The captain took the younger crew members into the saloon, where he raged on about the `black pox' we could catch from the whores, telling us there was no cure for it. I was so frightened I wouldn't even touch the native girls to accept change. We stayed ten days then sailed for Lagos. On that leg of the voyage a young seaman threw himself overboard and was lost. The word went around, he was one of those corralled into the ship's saloon for the Captain's strange rantings. The poor lad might have strayed, but he could have just been suffering from a bladder infection, a common enough complaint on poorly victualled tramp steamers. We stayed in Lagos for fifteen days where the ship was fully loaded, even taking a deck cargo of palm kernels and peanuts. We also embarked forty pilgrims going to Mecca.
The carpenter built a toilet on the stern for them. They did their own cooking and were basically self-sufficient. We sailed back to Freetown where they went ashore and we picked up a convoy heading back home to Liverpool. Again we had no trouble from the enemy. There was only one moment of panic when we were sailing up the Mersey, almost in sight of the Liver Buildings. A mine suddenly popped up. Our gunners took shots at it, trying to sink it. They could have done without the help of a plane overhead whose rear gunner took a liking to having pot shots at it too.
Memories came crashing back of the Chief Steward on the Hotchkiss gun. My wages were £7.10.0 per month, £4.0.0 of which was danger money. I sent the £4.0.0 home and lived on £3.10.0. I decided I`d had enough of the Aldrington Court and signed off. A year later, she was torpedoed by a submarine and I believe was lost with all hands.
Submitted by Dennis Harper (V'41)