Wednesday, 5 April 2017

AC's War is Over: the return voyage

Part 4. Homeward Bound
Bombay to Southampton 
(AC’s diary resumes: first entry here undated)

The weeks at Worli transit camp seemed like years, but at last the day dawned when we were to move again. Breakfast at 3.30 a.m. – what an unearthly hour – then off to the docks at Bombay, in a convoy of forty transports, all in the dead of night. About 7.30 a.m. we were all sorted out and ready to embark. The ship is the Capetown Castle, about 27000 tons. Quite a nice bunk again, on the upper deck; time seemed to drag but eventually it drew to a  close and that night I slept like a log.

    Late up and almost late for breakfast. We’re due to sail today. We had a remarkable send-off. The Bombay police brass band came to play us off. They gave us a rendering of popular songs. Then at 1330 as the ship started to move, guided by two tugs, they struck up with “Will ye no come back again” (that’s a laugh). Then as we drew further and further away, they played “Home sweet home” and “Auld lang syne”. When they finished the troops sang the inevitable “They say there’s a troopship just leaving Bombay”. I watched the city fade until it was just a speck and beyond just a rumour of land. By 1630 India was completely out of sight, and all around us was just sea and more sea. 

    Now with nothing to see the troops have spread out more, and the decks are comparatively clear. There are, however, still a few hanging over the rail. It’s an amazingly fascinating occupation, watching the curving bow wave speeding past. The sea is dead calm, and we are doing a fair turn of speed. Gramophones have appeared miraculously. Here and there are groups playing cards, others are reading books or writing like myself.  Others are just sitting and staring at the sea, or at the people who wander past along the deck. There are a few married couples on board and they sometimes make an appearance on the promenade deck. Most of the time, however, they keep to their cabins or the part of the boat deck reserved for their use.

    On the whole the troops are more subdued than when they came out. There is something in their eyes and a strength of character stamped on their faces that was not there on the way out. Some of them have known the horrors of Japanese captivity. Some have known what it is to have fought in the jungle with the cruel sun beating down and all the while being stalked by death. Some like myself have had quite an easy war. Yes indeed, here we have a sadder and wiser crew.

    With evening comes a nice soft breeze that makes you feel it’s good to be alive. Now the sun is setting in a blaze of golden glory and we’re heading straight for it.

(The next day in the record is annotated as 21st; I would guess the month is January and the year 1946. – AC)
21st      Just another day at sea, nothing happening of any interest, just the usual round of reading and lounging about. Rumour has it that we’re out to beat the Mauretania’s record. I like to get away by myself in the evening… to watch the sunset… With it come quiet thoughts and pleasant memories…

[AC passed much of the time on board developing his way with words. 
There are several passages of “fine writing” in his record, e.g. descriptive of successive sunsets, some of which have been abridged or omitted here.]
22nd      It is good to watch the sun come up. First the ship is dull and grey, then it changes as the eastern horizon becomes tinged with red... It is warmer today with just a slight breeze. There’s nothing much to break the monotony. Today, however, we had a cinema show, but of course only a limited number could see it. There’s a deplorable lack of entertainment, very different from the “Andes” on the way out. It seems as though the dying day seems to apologise for its own weakness by giving us a most wonderful sunset.

23rd      Today I was copped for “orderly dog”, still it did not entail much. The day passed quite uneventfully, except that for entertainment we had a film, a concert and horseracing [on radio, presumably]. It’s rather a pity that we’re heading straight into the (westering) sun as this makes it difficult to find a vantage point to view the sunset…

24th      6.30 a.m. When I got on deck this morning, we were just abreast of Aden. The land was just a dim outline away to starboard. Later on, lad became visible to port and as we sailed on we seemed to get closer again to land on the starboard side. We came at length to a barren lonely island with no signs of habitation, a lighthouse and a cluster of huts. At about 11.30 a.m. we swung to starboard, rounding the island, and heading almost due north. I think this means we have just entered the Red Sea.
   Slowly the land fades astern and is soon hidden in mist. The weather seems to be more warm and sultry. About 2.30 we passed the Andes (the ship I went out in). She was outward bound. We sailed steadily on with the land becoming visible occasionally through the mist. About 4.30 p.m. we passed between two groups of islands, the ones to starboard being little more than rocks. One of them was surmounted by a lighthouse; what a lonely existence.
Map showing the area of the voyage, as in 1942
25th     Still sailing through the Red Sea. This is undoubtedly the most historic sea in the world.  It washes the shores of five different countries. The sea which the bible says was divided to allow the Israelites to cross. It is very warm and sticky. It is slightly hazy, visibility is poor and there is no sign of land anywhere. The sunset was less spectacular tonight… At 11.30 a.m. tomorrow we are scheduled to pass the Deadless [Daedalus] Reef. It is just an organic rock of insect deposit formation, with a lighthouse. Apparently the Red Sea is full of such rocks making it very dangerous for navigation. To date we’ve covered 2,500 miles. 

26th      Although the sun is up, it is very cold and breezy. At 9 a.m. today we passed the Daedalus lighthouse, 2½ hours ahead of schedule. From a distance it looked as though the lighthouse was just sitting on the water. The day continued very breezy, and after sunset it became very cold. Forgetting that the clock had been put back, I almost missed the sunset. I was just in time to see the outline of the land against the red. This time it seems much closer.

27th      I awoke to find ourselves lying in Port Tewfik harbour. The town is quite visible, even in the dim light of dawn. It is icy cold, and already most of the lads have changed into blue [from tropical whites]. There is a fair amount of shipping in the harbour, and already the natives are on their way out to try to sell their wares – mostly leather goods. In a couple of hours we are completely surrounded by them, shouting their pidgin-english sales talk. They are worse than the Indians and their prices more exorbitant.

   At 1430 after filling up with fresh water, we weighed anchor and headed for the canal. There is a modern road running along the canal with houses on the far side of it. It seems strange sailing along just a few yards from the houses, almost in people’s back gardens. The folk all come out to wave to us, and are lustily cheered in return – especially the girls. After passing the houses we seem to be in an absolute desert, nothing but sand for miles and miles. It is as flat as a pancake, but still the road is with us, reminding us that even here is civilization. The canal is just yards on either side. This trip is a bit more interesting than the trip out round the Cape and, however bleak, is more interesting than never-ending sea. About 2030 we reached the lake in the middle of the canal and dropped anchor. At 2200 we are still at anchor, waiting.

28th      0700 we are still at anchor in the lake. 1400 we’re on our way again. From here on the canal is very straight and there’s nothing to see but sand for miles and miles. About 1530 we passed an army camp and there was much shouting and exchanging of rude remarks. We sailed on, passing occasional staging posts, until at 1700 we slowly nosed our way into Port Said harbour. There are lots of ships in the harbour including one of the Castle Line. We were hardly tied up at our berth when we were again surrounded by bum-boats trying to sell us leather goods, dates and Turkish delight. We are refuelling here and will be leaving in the morning.

29th      0600 we have cast off and started to move towards more open sea. There at the mouth of the Suez Canal is the statue of De Lesseps… We’re on our way into the Mediterranean Sea. As we progress the wind is getting up and there is  strong cool breeze. We’re tossing about quite a bit, and the Med (the bluest sea in the world) is a dirty grey colour, flecked with white foam. Towards afternoon the wind has died down a little and the sun has come out. It is, however, still quite cool. We’re making good speed, 21 knots I understand. This evening we passed a floating mine only about fifty yards to port. We also passed the Stirling Castle, the ship on which I went from Durban to Bombay.

30th      Still at sea. What an amazing coincidence – today we passed the Ascanius, the ship that took me from Capetown to Durban. It’s almost unbelievable. The weather has continued cold and rather stormy.

31st      The weather is still very cold and stormy. We were scheduled to pass Malta and Sicily this morning but the weather was too bad for us to see either. In the evening we passed Pantellaria 4 miles to starboard so we must be now just abreast of Sicily. Pantellaria was bombed during the war and surrendered to a single spitfire which had to make a forced landing.

1st (Presume Feb. ’46 – AC)    I went on deck this morning to find ourselves sailing with land about 10 miles to port, presumably the north of Africa. The dawn showed the promise of a better day, and sure enough the sun has come up and the sea has gone down. During the afternoon land became visible to port again but very far off; we can only see it because of the very good visibility. We have been told that the first 1000 men to disembark from the ship (and I am among them) are to proceed to Kirkham instead of Henesford. It doesn’t matter to me. Towards evening land becomes visible on two sides, although very distant. We must be approaching the mouth of the Med.

2nd        The sun shone through for a couple of hours this morning, but the wind is very cold. We’ve been sailing along with the Atlas Mountains to port and the snow-capped Pyrenees to starboard. Towards midday the sky has darkened and we seem to be heading for a bank of storm clouds. Despite the black looks of the sea, however, it did not come to rain. The sky has now cleared up a bit but it is still bitterly cold. About 1430 Gibraltar is visible in the distance. Eventually as we draw level with it, it really does look quite grim. Every bit the impregnable fortress it is reputed to be. Sloping up gently to a peak then a long sharp ridge connecting it to another peak and then a sheer drop to the sea. The gleaming white houses of a Spanish village are visible in the distance, with towering mountains behind. I always thought that Gibraltar was at the very tip of Spain, but apparently not. We still have a good bit of Spain to pass before we round out into the Atlantic Ocean. On the African coast, opposite Gibraltar, is a fair-sized town nestled at the foot of a mountain. The mist thickens towards evening and all that is visible is the intermittent flashing of a lighthouse.

A few years earlier: the western Mediterranean in 1942.
(Note areas "under Axis occupation" in yellow.)
3rd        We’ve altered course and are now sailing almost due north again, along the coast of Portugal. We’re too far out to sea to see anything interesting. There is quite a swell and the ship is tossing a bit but it is still not really stormy.

4th        Still windy. We’re in the Bay of Biscay now. Towards evening the wind gets up and the ship keeps rolling and pitching. In fact we’re heading into what seems to be a full gale. We should be in the English Channel tonight and at Southampton by midday tomorrow.

5th        Sighted the English coast about 0830 this morning. Just a dim shape in the mist. It is very cold and inclined to drizzle. We’re sailing with land to port. Apparently it is the Isle of Wight. It is 1000 hours and we are sailing up the Solent. The English countryside looks very pleasant. It is now 1230 hours and we have docked at berth number 105. We have the RAF Central Band to greet us as well as a crowd of civilians. We disembark tomorrow.

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