RMS Queen Mary
We were soon put on board, four to a cabin on 'C' deck, a bit bare for a top class Cunard liner but it was great in bunks for us. As soon as we had parked our kit we nosed around this floating palace, with its shops, offices and salons empty of course; huge dining rooms and the main staircase with its large portrait of Queen Mary, and I must add, two machine guns and gunners. If we thought it was all a dream, we now knew it was reality, we were going to voyage on this magnificent ship.
During this short time a lot of activity was taking place. 5,000 German soldiers were brought aboard; we learned that they were some of Field Marshall Rommel's Afrika Corps captured in the North African campaign after Alamein. Surprisingly it took only a few British soldiers with machine guns to control them. The German POW's slept in hammocks which they had slung across the decks (which of course was the only way the thousands of American GI's could be accommodated on board on the return journey from New York. The German POW's waited on us at the dining tables, very disciplined. They clicked their heels at orders from their Corporal.
In the early evening during another tour of the ship we saw some ladies cleaning a cabin out, and we asked them if they knew when the Queen Mary would sail. "Oh yes, at 8pm the River Clyde boom would be opened up to let her through, and off she will steam to New York at 30 knots!" What a revelation for civilians to know such vital information. Well that's exactly happened, the huge liner weighed anchor at 8pm and with two Sunderland Flying Boats above, and two cruisers as escort away we went. The liner vibrated quite a bit at speed, but no sign of pitch or roll. The escort ships left us early the next day, but the flying boats kept with us for about 400 miles as we zigzagged North in the Atlantic almost up to Greenland at the same relentless vibrating speed.
Normandie, after fire in New York
According to theory, no German 'U' Boat could catch her, unless stopped, or they lay in wait, and that was hardly possible in this vast ocean. She had orders never to stop, not even for survivors from a sinking at sea, and from reports this had happened. Of course all these orders applied to her sister ship Queen Elizabeth doing the same voyage in the opposite direction.
To illustrate this, we soon heard of the tragic story of the escort cruiser HMS Curacoa that was not disclosed until after the war in a long Court case. The Curacoa was escorting the Queen Mary, zigzagging on the outward voyage, and suddenly the two ships were on collision course. The liner did not change course (according to orders) or could not at 30 knots, and sliced the cruiser in two halves with the tragic loss of 1,000 of the cruiser's men.
It was decided in Court that the escort vessel must always keep station on the vessel being escorted whatever movement is made. This terrible event emphasises how important the Queens were to the Allied war effort. The two biggest troop ships survived the war in both European and Japanese theatres without damage or loss of life. Remarkable really for such huge and rewarding targets, and in peacetime afterwards returned to their wonderful world cruises, and finally became showpieces of maritime history.
We arrived in New York after 5 days sailing from Scotland with our unusual cargo, into the harbour, past the Statue of Liberty and the skyscraper skyline so familiar in pictures, to the sound of ships sirens and hooters, and berthed at Pier 80. Immediately hundreds of New York Firemen were on board and on the pier head with hoses and equipment. Fire was their dread, and you could soon see why, in the next berth the former Atlantic Blue Riband holder, the French liner Normandie lay on its side ravaged by fire that should never have happened, probably sabotage. All this activity game me a chance to go up on the Bridge to see the liner's radar, at sea no one, only ship's company were allowed, but I had made the acquaintance of the radar mechanic, and he gave me the chance to see the equipment and of course the liner's bridge.
After docking was completed, we 300 Battleaxe crew were given work to do, unlashing the hundreds of hammocks used by the German POW's. We didn't have duties during the voyage, also the Queen Mary was a 'dry' ship. No rum or alcohol to comply with USA restrictions. The German prisoners, bowed but still very smart were paraded by the British (our British Guard) of soldiers and marched to transport to the farms and wheat fields of America's Middle West where they would spend the rest of the war (better than the African desert they had come from).