Many North Ayrshire men were serving at sea as Masters, Mates and Engineers so, when I left school in 1944, I volunteered to join the Merchant Navy and train as a Navigating Officer.
Once I had passed the medical and eyesight test I was issued with a Merchant Navy Identity Card, a Ministry of War Transport “Continuous Certificate of Discharge” (My Discharge Book) and its issue number, R328011, became my Service Number. I also received some clothing coupons and a “ Silver” MN Lapel Badge as ratings had no uniform to wear.
Now a member of the Merchant Navy, H Hogarth & Sons, 120 St Vincent Street, Glasgow were “pleased” to offer me, with no pre-sea training, a four year apprenticeship, the minimum sea time required before being eligible to sit for Second Mates certificate.
I was soon on my way to join my first ship the SS Baron Herries (Captain James Muir) at South Shields. There were three other apprentices on board, now veterans of three, two and one year at sea. They taught me how to live and work on board a ship. They called me “A useless bit of ballast” and other things, which was the same for every “First Tripper”, saying “Learn Quick. There are no passengers on this ship” and “Learn Quick” I did.
The Mates did not consider it part of their job to teach us anything and we did not work with the Indian crew of which only a few of the more senior ones spoke English.
From South Shields we went to Sunderland where rubble from bombed houses was loaded, as ballast six feet deep, into No 2 and No 4 holds. This was later discharged at New York into barges and taken away to be dumped as reclaimation landfill and some of New York stands on it to this day. We then proceeded, alone, to off Methil in Fife to await a convoy through the Pentland Firth to Loch Ewe in Wester Ross. Here we lay at anchor for a week in howling gales and near horizontal rain while ships gathered for a convoy to America.
When the ship eventually sailed south, in line ahead, Mr King, the Mate, considered that I could steer well enough and had learned enough to stand a watch and put me on his 4 to 8, no doubt to keep a close eye on me.
Off the coast of Northern Ireland we met up with ships out from the Clyde and Liverpool and a huge convoy of some 70 ships formed up. As the ships took up their allotted positions, we were flying the flags for 1 and 2. Tich, the Senior Apprentice, explained to me that we would be No 2 ship in the outside No 1 column. “Not a good place to be” was his comment.
The convoy headed west at a nominal six knots, but the weather was so bad that, some days, we didn’t make much headway at all.
One day, when the weather had improved a bit, I have no idea of the date or where we were in the Western Ocean, I went watch at 4pm and took my trick at the wheel from 4pm to 6pm. It was nearly dark and I stood inside a protective screen of plastic armour, built inside the wheelhouse, to protect the compass, wheel and helmsman. There was a small hatch at the for’d end, through which, when open, I could see the ship ahead or it’s violet stern light. There was a complete blackout and the only lights on the bridge was the one under the compass card and a dim one lighting the clock face. The helmsman also acted as a speaking clock. When the Captain or the Officer of the Watch shouted out “Time” the helmsman shouted out the time.
At 6pm, one of the Indian Seacunnies (Quartermasters) relieved me at the wheel and I went below for my 10 minute break. On returning to the bridge I was told to relieve the starboard bridge wing lookout. It was now a pitch black night with a strong wind whistling through the rigging and waves crashing against the ship’s side and throwing spray over the bridge. My duty was to watch from right ahead to 2 points (22 degrees) abaft the beam. Another lookout watched the port side and two gunners aft watched our stern.
Despite having on as many clothes as I could manage, sea boots, oilskin coat, so’wester and woollen cap and with my lifejacket on top, I was still freezing cold. The frequent rain squalls didn’t help, and cold water trickled down my back despite a towel wrapped round my neck. Time means nothing when stuck out alone on a pitch dark night. I looked over the dodger then ducked down out of the wind to look out to starboard, constantly sweeping back and forth. After a while at this, you begin to imagine you see things in the darkness and have to keep looking back to make certain that there is nothing there.
After a while, I began to think that the night just abaft the beam was a bit darker than the rest of my area, but concluded that it was probably another rain squall. On another scan abeam I thought I could hear a strange noise. Be-dub, Be-dub, Be-dub, but quickly lost it among all the other noise. Next time on that bearing, I saw a flash of white low down and I suddenly realised that the black bit of night was the hull of another ship from Column No 2 closing in on us, the noise I had heard was the beat of its engines and the white flash was it’s bow wave.
I called out “Ship close abeam to starboard” and Mr King came running out with a “Convoy Torch” (a large torch with a morse key and a red glass) and started flashing U U U in morse code, U meaning “You are standing into danger” in the direction I indicated. By now the other ship was so close that we could hear its lookouts cry of alarm and the officer on the bridge shouting “Hard to Starboard.” It swung away and vanished into the night.