poppy field




By Ken Stephenson

I embarked with my unit, the 7th Armoured Troop Workshop REME in April 1942 in bomb battered Liverpool.  Our ship was M.V. Rangitata of the New Zealand Shipping Company.

Our unit was relatively small - approximately 80 men and being in the minority we were allocated the worst mess deck on the ship, located just above the ship's propellers.

As soon as everything was lashed and stowed we sailed to rendezvous with the rest of the convoy on the Clyde.  This was to be my last sight of England for over three years.

We anchored in the Clyde near the naval base at Gourock for a couple of days waiting for the rest of the convoy to assemble.  Whilst we were waiting there we saw a submarine coming in off patrol and we all gave the crew a hearty cheer.  Eventually the time came to weigh anchor and we started to move down the Clyde.  As we sailed past the submarine base a Royal Marine band was playing 'For Those in Peril on the Sea.'  Up until this time, as a callow 19 year old, I had not given any thought to the danger.  Then we sailed past Ailsa Craig, out into the Western Approaches.

Now that we were in open sea, it was possible to see the enormous size of the convoy.  There must have been at least 20 troopships, plus a similar number of cargo ships.  Our escort was the cruiser, HMS Frobisher and at least 20 destroyers: a truly magnificent sight.  The convoy had considerable fire power, because in addition to the warships, each merchant ship had a 4.5 inch gun mounted on the poop deck.  This awesome display made me feel that I was taking part in something really big.  It was a comforting sight to see HMS Frobisher sailing close on our starboard side, where she stayed for most of the voyage.

The commodore's ship took up station in the middle of the convoy from where all of the convoy could be observed.  So as not to give away our position a radio silence was imposed and all communication was by flags or aldis lamp.  Changes of course were signalled from the flagship.  All vessels in the convoy would acknowledge and then, with a toot on the foghorn, the whole convoy would change course together with parade ground precision; a wonderful display of seamanship.  This was a manoeuvre that had to be repeated frequently as we sailed our zigzag course across the Atlantic.

In peacetime the Rangitata was a refrigeration ship carrying carcasses from New Zealand.  Our mess was formerly a hold where the carcasses were hung.  Now our hammocks replaced the carcasses. They were so close that they almost touched each other.  The ablutions left much to be desired.  In rough weather they backed up and the toilet floors were awash with sewage.  Fortunately a high threshold prevented the mess flowing into our quarters.  For our washing we were allocated about 20 gallons of fresh water between two men every two weeks.  After doing our washing, the water was reduced to a grey jelly.  The galley was at the other end of the ship, so all our meals and cups of tea had to be carried the length of the vessel.  It was quite difficult to make it back to our mess without scalding ourselves.  Despite all we managed to keep a sense of humour most of the time.

We had a four day stay in Sierra Leone for refuelling.  Locals dived for coins in the harbour, only a short distance from basking sharks.  HMS Royal Sovereign, a World War One battleship was anchored nearby.  Then once again we were on our way to the strains of 'Those in peril on the Sea,' played by the Royal Marine band on the deck of the old battleship.  (Bless 'em!)

Soon we were to be reminded of the perils of being at sea.  I was on guard duty by a water tight door.  My orders were, in the event of an emergency, to make sure everyone was out of the mess deck, then to clamp the heavy bulkhead door shut.  I was then to join the rest of the men at the boat station.  Suddenly there was an almighty clang and the whole ship shuddered.  It was as if we had been hit with a giant hammer.  There was no panic, but the mess was emptied in seconds.  The last man out of the RAF mess helped me to shut the door and clamp up the bulkhead.  I can assure you that we were not far behind the others by the boat station.  From our position near the stern we could see a cargo ship sinking.  Someone on board was signalling with an aldis lamp.  Some of our men who were on deck at the time, said they had seen a huge explosion near the bridge.  Unfortunately our naval escort had left the convoy as these were considered safe waters.

As the sun went down, the burning ship was silhouetted against the sky.  There were shouts of protest all over our ship, as we did not stop to pick up survivors.  Eventually our captain explained over the tannoy that he was under orders to put the troops on board his ship first and had no choice but to continue on course.

I was never certain whether it was a torpedo or a mine that sunk the ship, but much later I did learn that the German Raider, the Graf Spee had sown mines at the approaches to Simonstown harbour, near Capetown.

The rest of the voyage was relatively incident free.  We disembarked at Durban and spent a pleasant few days under canvas overlooking the racecourse.  It was like Shangri-la after all that time cooped up onboard ship.  There was delicious fruit that we had not had for over two years available by the side of the road.  The local inhabitants treated us like heroes.

After this break we continued our voyage on the Mauritania to Egypt.  Before it picked us up she had taken Afrika Corps prisoners to USA.  We heard that there had been a plot to seize the ship, but fortunately it was discovered and squashed.  Because the Mauritania was a modern, fast vessel we went without escort, relying on speed to outrun any submarines.  We eventually arrived in Tel-El-Kebir on 21st June 1942, having completed the final part of the journey by train from the Suez Canal zone.