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Warsailor Stories - Page 9
Warsailor Stories - Page 1
John Simpson's Story Norwegian Elsa, Troja and Tiradentes
By April 1942 I was on board the Elsa, a Norwegian tanker, in the Bay of Bengal.
We had made several trips from Australia to Sumatra and Singapore, evacuating stocks of aviation fuel from Singapore to the Dutch East Indies ahead of the advancing Japanese. On the last of these voyages the Japanese got to Singapore first, so we diverted to Sumatra. We loaded at Palembang in Sumatra and headed for Batavia, Java (what is now called Jakarta). We were in a convoy of six Norwegian tankers. Three were sunk and two others were hit by Japanese bombers. We were the slowest ship, but we were the ones who got through to Batavia unscathed. After unloading the fuel, we set sail for the Persian Gulf via Sundra Strait, arriving at Abadan.
It was dawn. I woke up to the noises of shellfire. I looked out towards the horizon and saw guns flashing on a Japanese cruiser. I actually saw holes appearing in the decks, as the shells were arriving quite accurately. I was on the starboard side at the after end of the ship, with the accommodation block ahead of me. I went that way to see what was going on, and saw the holes appearing, from the shells landing at a flat angle and going through the deck and out the far side.
Meanwhile the Second Mate was organising the lowering of the lifeboat. It all happened so quickly. The main concern was to get off this explosive vessel. Fortunately we were not carrying aviation spirit on that occasion - the ship had been condemned in Abadan for carrying aviation fuel, and they loaded power kerosene, six thousand tons, and we had discharged some at Colombo, and some at Madras. The rest was for Calcutta, but we never got there.
In the final count of heads on the two boats, there was just one man missing, the brother of one of the Norwegian sailors. We can only assume that he went back to his quarters - he had been the lookout - and he was past saving. We were told not to go back to the quarters, so I was in the boat in my pyjamas. I had nothing with me at all. But it didn't matter. Nobody salvaged anything.
The captain and the mate and the Third Officer got away from the bridge in the captain's gig, a small boat, along with the chief steward. The port boat got away with some men in it, and the starboard boat had most in it; there was enough room in any boat for the whole of the crew, either port or starboard.
We got clear of the burning vessel, and in the head count the Chief Engineer was missing. They decided to set the captain's gig adrift and use the port lifeboat as a sturdier option, and had moved off about a mile when they saw something moving in the gig. The Chief Engineer had apparently dived overboard at the last minute and managed to reach the gig. He was an old chap, about 60. The explanation for him being there so late was he was looking for his dog. The dog, of course, was terrified and had gone and hidden somewhere and he couldn't find it. Eventually he realised he had to leave it or die with it. So he lost his dog, and he was very upset about that, but he was in one piece.
When the attack was over the Japanese ships steamed past us with all the ratings lined up on the deck as if they were on review. Fantastic. We all thought they would machine-gun us for sure, the Norwegians thought that, and everybody started holding the gunwale of the boat, watching for the machine-gun fire, because you can see the shots landing before the bullets get to you, all ready to dive into the water. But nothing happened, which I thought was very good.
There were 60 ships sunk that day in the Bay of Bengal.
We sailed overnight. Just before dark we sighted land. Of course, we couldn't risk going in during the night, so we put the sea anchor out and rode the night out offshore. With daybreak we could see what we were doing, so we rowed the boat in like a surf boat and everybody hopped out onto the beach. We had landed in the state of Orissa, in North-East India. The only serious injury among us was the mate, with a big lump of his face blown off by shrapnel. We improvised a stretcher and carried him in turns, and the natives, the Indians, directed us walking inland through what was pretty much jungle - I saw a cobra hanging in a tree - until we were eventually picked up by transport, lorries, and taken to Cuttack, the capital of Orissa, and put up in the university and given food and clothing. They seemed to be well organised, the Indians, and I was given khaki shorts and a shirt and underwear.
The next day we were sent by rail to Calcutta, where we were put up in the Grand Hotel on Chowringhee. We were there for about three weeks while the port was closed due to enemy action. Then we were sent over to Bombay, a two-day journey. In Bombay we were put up at the Norwegian Seaman's Rest Home, a delightful place north of the racecourse.
I was given the option of returning to the UK or to the place of embarkation, which was Australia. So I opted to return to Australia to see my girlfriend!
We got paid, by the way, during all this hassle. We got paid. The Chief Steward did the wages, the accounts, for everybody. He had to estimate what you were owed, and on his say-so they paid out that amount. There were no delays, you had money in your pocket. That was where I got my Indian passport, given to me in Bombay to replace the one lost by enemy action.
I got on the Dominion Monarch in Bombay as a DBS, a distressed British seaman, and was returned to the place of embarkation. We arrived off Sydney Head - while it was under attack by Japanese submarines!
I reported to the Norwegian Consulate in Sydney, because it was the best way to get in touch with the Norwegian shipping line that had employed me, and told them everything that had happened to the Elsa. I said I wanted another job, and they posted me to the Troja in Melbourne. The ship was Norwegian, owned by Wilh. Wilhelmsen Lines, a very large shipping company which had 73 ships at the outbreak of war.
Norway was occupied by the Germans, but the Norwegian merchant fleet, anything that had got away from Germany, was all over the world working for the Allies. The Troja had been doing regular runs to Australia and was on charter to the Australian government. It was a ship of the line, not a tramp, you see. Tramps went all over the place, but ships of the line had a regular run, for instance between Europe and the Antipodes.
I joined the Troja during her fitting out as a DEMS, a Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship - 4.7 inch guns on the poop, Holman projectors, Bofors on the wings of the bridge. The Holman projectors fired grenades using compressed air.
On the subsequent voyage to the Middle East carrying military equipment for the Australian forces we used to have gun practice. I remember the Holman projector wasn't aimed very well and the grenade dropped down onto the deck. Everybody scattered like mad. Nobody got hurt - they were very lucky. It went off as it hit the deck.
We discharged at Lake Timsah on the Suez Canal and Port Said, and made a return voyage with phosphate and copper; phosphate from Port Safaga on the Red Sea and copper ingots from Beira in Portuguese East Africa, as it was then. We returned to discharge in Hobart, Tasmania.
On the next voyage to the Middle East our main cargo seemed to be beer for the Australian Army. After landing 500 tons of Richmond Bitter at Lake Timsah, handled by the army, the Australian diggers, we were the most popular ship in the Middle East. For the Australians, anyway!
After discharge we proceeded to Port Said waiting for orders, and then had orders to proceed to Haifa with all speed. That was an overnight run from Port Said to Haifa. There were explosions during the night where somebody was being attacked by either the Eyeties or the Jerries, we don't know which, but we were not allowed to stop to find out.
We were told at Haifa that they were trying to make up a convoy to go to the relief of Malta. Anyway, back in Haifa, the requirement was for ships that could sail at 15 knots or more, and as we could only manage 13 knots we were not included in the convoy. All the Norwegians were quite disappointed, as they wanted to be in the action. So we had a couple of holds converted into troop quarters, and we took about 300 Australian soldiers on leave back to Australia.
After three or four voyages to and from the Middle East, I asked the shipping company if I could get a ship going back to the UK. They agreed to do this, with the Chief Engineer's backing. They were very good to me. And I joined the Tiradentes in Sydney, which was due to return to Liverpool via the Middle East. She was undergoing repairs, and loading with military supplies urgently awaited in the Middle East. We eventually got out of Sydney but broke down in the process. Everything went wrong with the Tiradentes. If it was possible to break down, it did. It was one of the very early motor vessels. I know I was on my feet from leaving Sydney to arriving in Melbourne, which took three days instead of the normal one or two as the generators kept failing. I only left the engine room to eat. But we got there, and carried out more repairs in Melbourne, then more repairs in Fremantle, and set off from Fremantle for Durban, and broke down practically every day. It was a hair-raising voyage and we eventually arrived with one engine completely shattered.
On one of these breakdowns we changed the exhaust valves on the starboard engine because the other ones had burned out, and the Second Engineer went to start the engine, which you did by turning a wheel attached to the starting manifold - six on air, three on air and three on fuel, and six on fuel - and there was an explosion, and the starting manifold disappeared into bits and the Second Engineer was left standing there with the wheel in his hand. I was at the top of the engine room looking down and I saw him standing there with this wheel in his hand. It was an absolute miracle, with this big heavy casting exploding to either side of him, that nobody was hurt.
The explosion started the engine, but there was nothing else that could be done because there was no means of starting once you had stopped - you just had to run it on and on getting gradually slower and slower until eventually it packed up altogether.
It took us 55 days to get from Fremantle to Durban. The port engine had to be stopped for repairs to the valve gear several times, but fortunately with no more explosions, and we eventually made it. The ship had been written off as lost. We said we weren't lost, just delayed!
They were very pleased to see us in Durban, but we were a bit late getting these military supplies to the Middle East - we thought at the time that the bloody war would be over before we got there!
The amazing thing about getting the repairs done in Durban was that they had all the drawings and the pattern blocks for the starting manifold. When the Norwegians left Norway when the Germans invaded, they had the good sense to get all the patterns and drawings from the shipyard and take them with them, so we were able to manufacture them in Durban. It must have been three weeks - you can't do it overnight, it was a very complicated manifold.
But we got it done and set sail for the Gulf of Aden - but we broke down before we even got to Beira. No generator power, and the generators were old, ancient. It was blast injection, the fuel was injected with high pressure compressed air rather than by a pump. That was on very early diesels, and they gave a lot of trouble. There was constant bearing failure on the generator engines. We eventually got repaired again in Beira, and went out and joined a convoy, then lost it because we broke down again and kept breaking down. We were left very much on our own.
We eventually discharged these military supplies at either Port Said or Lake Timsah, I can't remember which, and set off westbound in the Mediterranean, with a barrage balloon attached. You would see strange blobs appearing over the horizon, and wonder what it was, then suddenly realise it was barrage balloons over another convoy coming the other way.
We limped along once more, completely on our own, and eventually got into the Western Approaches. We had to wait outside Liverpool for a day in rough weather, and eventually got in. We discharged the remains of the cargo at Liverpool Docks and went across to Cammell Lairds at Birkenhead for repairs. It had taken us seven months to travel from Sydney to Liverpool, longer than in the days of sail.
Warsailor Stories - Page 1
I would again like to encourage others to send me more personal stories for inclusion on this page, these stories are very valuable.