Travelling since early morning, provided with food vouchers, eating on the run was difficult. The trains were full, and one spent the journey uncomfortably seated on a suitcase, while guarding a small case and kit bag, with a hammock in the guard’s van, At big junctions there were barrows selling sandwiches and tea and there were always the canteens run by the Salvation Army ( God Bless ’em ), but the problem was that, if you were alone, you risked having everything stolen, or had to take it with you to make a purchase, and risk missing the train. One tended to buy food at termini and not on the way. When I arrived at the ship, it was late afternoon, she was about to leave harbour to pick up a convoy in the North Atlantic. My first impression was of how small it was, two hundred and fifty feet odd in length and only twenty odd in the beam was not what I had expected, but as I was hurried aboard and sent straight down below, I saw little in that first glance.
After saluting the quarter deck, giving my name to the Boatswain’s Mate, I dropped my hammock and kit bag through a hatch and followed gingerly down a steep steel ladder into a world of new noises and smells. The nickname for those ships was the ‘sardine tin’ and it was apt. Passing on the corridors, or ‘flats’ as they were called, was an intimate affair and all living a prescription for claustrophobia, even before they battened down the hatches on us at times of action. There were strict levels of social strata, unwritten rules concerning movement from one stratum to another and relationships across strata boundaries, but these rules, provided stability if not confidence. I had arrived just as the evening meal was concluding and someone asked me if I was hungry. I was starving, and was presented with a huge plate of roast meat, potatoes, and vegetables all swimming in greasy gravy. I tucked in. I have written elsewhere of my initial problems with being a Hostilities Only rating and in living in the Petty and Chief Petty Officers’ Mess.
We left the Firth of Forth even before I had finished eating and for a while I tried to get myself sorted. We sailed north and then followed a route the men referred to as ’round the North Cape’, which I took to mean through the Pentland Firth, and out into the Atlantic. That was where we really found the weather. The ship rolled and pitched for all she was worth and it was then I regretted the roast dinner; I was ill.
At some point later, one of the Radar operators came and told me that one of the sets had broken down and that I would have to fix it. Seasickness was no excuse and duty came first, so I went. I discovered that soldering was called for and that was my personal Waterloo, in more ways than one. The radar set I was working on was large enough for me to be able to fix a bucket within its confines and use it as needed while breathing in the cloying and stinking fumes of the soldering flux, which only added to my nausea as I hung on for dear life, while the ship tossed itself about. At the same time, I was trying desperately to give a good account of myself on my first trial. From that moment until we brought the convoy to harbour more than a week later I was permanently ill, I could not bear the heat of the air at hammock level and slept on the floor of my office, which was not much better as the steel floor vibrated in tune to the engines. I prayed for death and gave not a single thought to those who would accompany me. I was prostrate, in pain and almost demented. When I ultimately went ashore, the jetty appeared to be rolling and pitching as the ship had, until my brain got itself in gear. This affect is not uncommon after very bad weather. The strange thing is that after that voyage, in similar circumstances later, irrespective of the weather and not withstanding that some of the experienced men around me were sick, I was never ill again.