Good News and Bad on Friday the 13th!
Although I’ve never been superstitious, Friday March 13 1942 was both lucky and unlucky, and did have a significant impact on my life. It was the day I sailed overseas on the troopship Nea Hellas, but first let’s go back to the beginning.
I joined the RAF on September 19 1941, after living in the East End of London near the docks and getting bombed out (but that’s another story). I was 20 years old, and thought that with the help of a few others I should go and try end the war a bit more quickly. Although I failed the medical for aircrew, I trained as a wireless operator then decided to. volunteer for overseas service – which is how I found myself boarding the 17,000-ton liner Nea Hellas , once called the Tuscania, in Glasgow.
On charter back to the UK from Greece, she became one of our many troopships. That Friday the 13th there were 3,000 troops on board and it certainly seemed like it! After sailing along the Clyde to Greenock we all setded down for the night.
The next thing I remember was being awakened at 3am by the ship rolling quite sharply. I went up on deck to find the roughest seas I’d ever seen (30ft waves) – in fact my only other experience on a boat had been sailing from Tower Pier up to Southend on the Royal Eagle!
I spent the next week being seasick, and when I was well enough to take in my surroundings we were in mid-Atlantic in one of the largest convoys to leave our shores, 90 ships, including two aircraft carriers, two cruisers and quite a few destroyers. There was plenty of discussion about where we were going, but the fact that we’d been issued with khaki back at Padgate didn’t convince some that we were heading
for the tropics.
The first port of call was Freetown, West Africa, where we took on water. After 24 hours we were on our way again, with a warning from the Captain over the tannoy not to undress at night as they thought a couple of U-Boats were in the vicinity.
Just 24 hours after leaving Freetown everyone on the ship was suffering from diarrhoea and sickness which lasted for three days. They said it was the water we’d taken on at Freetown.
After a few more days we were in the South Atlantic, and it was quite pleasant, with lovely sunshine and calmer weather. The next port of call was Cape Town, where the local population made us very welcome, taking us to their homes for dinner, and there was lots of free entertainment in the town. At that point the Blitz and blackout seemed quite a long way away!
After a week in Cape Town we were on our way again, this time heading north up the east coast of Africa. We’d been on board for six weeks and were still wondering where we’d eventually end up.
There was to be one more port of call -Aden – before our final destination, This was just a 24-hour stop before heading into the Red Sea, where the Friday the 13th jinx hit me. After leaving Aden I was put on fatigues with many others, our job being to assist in getting the thousands of kitbags up on deck to prepare for disembarkation, and the destination seemed pretty certain to be Suez.
While helping with the kit bags I pushed a plank of wood above a steel joist, and as two other chaps pushed from the other end my small finger on my right hand was trapped and completely crushed. The pain was indescribable: I was rushed down to the sick bay, where it was put in plaster -so there I was, a day or so before our destination, with my arm in a sling.
It was the last night on board, I was down on ‘D’ Deck four decks below, trying to get some sleep, resting my head on my kapok life-preserver and wearing just a pair of khaki shorts (it was very warm below deck). At 11pm there was a terrific jolt, out went the lights and the bell for boat stations was sounded. At that precise moment, somebody snatched my life preserver, and we all made for the stairs, reaching the top deck in an orderly fashion.
We’d hit an American oil tanker amidships and we were listing badly. As I stood there in just a pair of shorts and no life-preserver (and I’ve never been able to swim) I suddenly remembered the date on which we’d sailed. We’d been holed just on the water line, the tanker was beginning to sink and we were picking up the crew.
However a little luck did play its part, because we ran aground, were refloated on the next tide and next day sailed stern-first all the way to Suez.
Eventually I developed gangrene in my little finger, which had to be amputated.