It was not long afterwards that we proceeded to sail through the Outer Hebrides round the 'top' of Scotland and on through the Pentland Firth (an extremely rough passage indeed, my did we roll!). Skipper's orders were, "Do not turn off that radar at all!" Then onwards down the East coast to Newcastle on Tyne. We were pleased to hear this was to be our new base port, because you can't beat the 'Geordies' for real good friends. It was not long before we were loaded and off down the North Sea, escorted of course. We carried two 'Q' ships and their crews and soldiers. Actually they were two large fishing trawlers with concealed guns. We sailed on through the English Channel and out into the Atlantic before turning East into Gibraltar, for a very short stay and then into the Mediterranean for our first visit. Passing the beautiful Isle of Capri in hot calm seas and blue skies in perfect weather, our young blonde Shipwright did his acrobatics on the anchor cable hawser, hanging on over the lovely blue water with one hand.
We entered the Bay of Naples and discharged our cargo at Castellemare, with the volcano Vesuvius (erupting at that time) overlooking the beautiful vista of Naples bay. We went on to Messina in Sicily under another volcano, Etna, having passed the island of Stromboli with its huge flames of red lava shooting up into the sky at night, an awesome sight and glad to pass quickly at 10 miles distance. Back to Naples, and then by lifts we had a very interesting trip (the four of us) to Pompeii, the town devastated by lava eruption many hundreds of years ago. We were shown some of the secret exhibits, (being knowledgeable sailors?), such as the painting of the King of Italy's private parts being weighed on a pair of scales, to determine how much gold he would get that year. We also saw paintings of the 'Karma Sutra'. No holds barred!
After this very educational (?) tour, we went to the Forces canteen, outside in tents, in lovely hot sunshine, and orange groves galore, the four of us had a few glasses of beer during which Frank got involved in an argument with some drunken GI's. In no time we four were well outnumbered by five to one, so we took the main option and quickly retreated to the exit. There were plenty of British Army trucks on Highway 60 going to Naples and Rome because the retreating Germans, (and what was left of the Italians) were being pushed further north. We were very lucky, a huge British Army lorry stopped and the driver said, "Jump in the open back". So we hopped up and found he was carrying a full load of camouflage netting. Our ride could not have been more comfortable, lying full length on this netting taking in the views of Vesuvius and Naples Bay better than any tourist has done! All for the price of two packets of our duty free cigarettes!
Some very pleasant times were spent in Naples, where Eastway was anchored. We saw the former Royal Palace in all its splendour, where the King and Queen had scarpered from at the imminent fall of their Kingdom. I remember hearing a beautiful voice singing 'Cheri Biri Bin', obviously an Italian opera singer, resounding from one of the Palace rooms, so I traced it to a music room (unchanged from the palace days), where a young girl singer and a three piece orchestra were practising; lovely music, so I lingered and listened there for a while.
Leaving Naples again, to Sicily, on to Bizerta on the North African coast, then Oran, Algiers, and Gibraltar, giving us enough time to purchase some bananas and chocolate, unobtainable in the UK. Also, we brought home some 50 officers and men who had served their two years on a cable ship in the Red Sea, and they gave us some concerts on the return journey. One of their chaps was excellent on the guitar, and got many encores from us for his playing 'La Cucaracha'. We of course enjoyed their company, and it seemed to speed up the journey home.
We did several of these trips to the Mediterranean on the same sort of mission, taking war material, a lot of it destined for the Far East, to be transported further on by other ships.
The general conception of the 'Med' is a calm, azure blue, sun drenched sea. But some of these voyages were the roughest we ever made; with smaller ships following in our wake to avoid the frightening waves. Once we had to take shelter in Ajacchio (Corsica) harbour till the height of the storm had passed. Another time we received a 'May Day' call from a sinking British hospital ship, strafed by German bombers, contrary to the Geneva Code of War (rotten Nazis!). But the St. Anthony sank before we could reach her.
One of these missions took us to Malta's Grand Harbour, and we were instructed to tie up to a buoy in the centre of the harbour, by the C in C staff ashore, right in view of his Headquarters. Two large tugs tied lines to us and pulled us as near to the buoy as possible. It was then that our 'Chippie' went out in our motorboat with a shackle, to jump onto the buoy and tie us up with a line attached to our ship. Athletic as he was, his first attempt failed, and to make matters worse he dropped the shackle and bolt into the deep waters of the harbour. The two tug skippers started shouting. Their (red) comments through their loud hailers, could be heard in Italy! Our skipper, face like a turkey cock, was even worse. The motorboat brought Chippie back to the buoy for a second jump, when lo and behold on the rocking buoy, he dropped the shackle again! This time the pandemonium from the tugs and our Captain was even worse (if it was possible). The bridge shook, and he came down and shouted at the bewildered young Shipwright, who then had to wait while another shackle was obtained. I said to the then very scared 'Chippie', "What did the Skipper say to you?" He replied, "By Christ, I'll hang you from the yard arm by your heels if you drop another in the water!" "Can he do that?" asked Chippie anxiously, "A Captain can do anything," I replied solemnly. Fortunately it was third time lucky for the tie-up, much to everyone's relief, as we had no more shackles.
I wasn't too keen on Malta, dishos, small brightly coloured boats came out to us, and asked us for our 'gash' (left over food) which they would serve up rehashed in their bars in the world famous 'Gut' main street of Valetta, the only town of note. The bars were infamous for the girls who never paid for their high glass drinks, but got commission on those that any servicemen bought, and any other dubious favours they provided afterwards. I remember the 'Lucky Wheel'. What went on there was what Tommy Trinder (the English Cockney comedian) warned us of when we stepped ashore. We all had a ride in a Gari, like a Hansom Cab pulled by a horse.
The next day I walked miles in the heat, looking for the Naval store for spare valves for the ship's broadcast system, for which I was also responsible, but I had no luck. At night it was almost impossible to sleep because the noise of mines being detonated at the harbour entrance to stop 'U' Boats or submarines making a surprise entry. No doubt Malta had suffered terrific bombing because of its strategic geographical position, but had survived due to the British Forces, especially the Navy. I always had the impression that even after accepting the 'George Cross' for bravery, that after the war they would ditch the British, which they eventually did. Also the Maltese dockyard men who came on board worked as little as they could and slept under their crucifixion crosses at any time of the day. I regret to say that our football team was beaten 11-0 on Florentina's sandy pitch.
When we were in Malta, we thought our next destination would be Sri Lanka (Colombo, Ceylon) as our papers were marked. But 'Pincher' Martin the Petty Officer Writer told me that our orders had been changed and we were going back to the UK, and added that I could win a few bets on it happening. But of course I wouldn't do anything like that! The next day though, we took on board about 20 Royal Navy Officers, Captains, Commanders, etc. with their suitcases marked UK. "What did I tell you?" grinned 'Pincher'. Needless to say, all Eastway's crew were happy at this news, because had we gone to Ceylon it would have meant a two or three year stay in the Far East War Zone, which none of us wanted.
We were all glad to leave Malta, and after a few days out in the 'Med', it was a rainy, misty, Saturday afternoon, and we were rolling in heavy swell, lifelines everywhere for safety. I was down in our mess listening to a football match on World Service Radio, with the lads, when the Bosun's mate came down and said I was wanted on the bridge as the radio telephone set (communication throughout the ship) was not working, my responsibility. Regularly the two power valves in this set, situated in the wardroom flat (passageway) packed up, so I knew what to expect. So on the way up to the bridge I collected two new valves from the nearby radar office, and then crossed the slippery deck with its lifelines and reported to the officer on bridge that I would carry out the repair. On my way down, a shout from behind a ventilator, called "Petty Officer!" So I carefully went over the slippery steel, wet, flag deck, and it was a RN Captain (who was taking passage) and who had called me. He then added, "If you were on my ship, and I sent for you, you would come at the double (run)!" I was astounded at this outburst, but politely replied, "What! Run across the slippery deck, with lifelines in these conditions, I don't think anyone is expected to do that, Sir, especially with two radio valves in my pocket."
Feeling very annoyed at this uncalled for reprimand, I went back (after quickly changing the valves) to my football broadcast. About an hour later I was again called by the bridge on the radio telephone which I had just repaired, to attend to the radar set which had stopped working, and was vital in this weather. When I went into the darkened radar office, Frank Jelley, the duty radar operator said that while he was operating the set in these bad conditions, this had Captain burst in and watched the screen, then had turned a control (to make it clearer he said) and the picture went altogether. Then immediately I guessed what had occurred, the main power switch had been turned 'off', so I switched 'on' again and everything was alright as I suspected.
But I thought, I can have my own back here, so I took out two valves from the switched off set (only Frank Jelley and I knew about it). In no time at all our Skipper stormed into the radar office, as he didn't like to be without his 'machine' these days, especially in bad visibility. "What's wrong?" he shouted. So I explained that a Captain passenger had been in the office and 'messed up' the set. "No one's allowed in here. I'll soon see to him!" he raved on, "How long will it take to repair?" We were back to normal in half an hour (when I decided to switch back on again) and I was pleased to have had my own back on that 'stroppy' 4-ring Captain passenger. I heard from one of the Stewards that he hardly left his cabin for the rest of the voyage.
We had a few days in Gibraltar coming back, and I suggested to Chippie that as he was getting engaged to be married on his next leave, that we both go to the shops in Gibraltar and buy some goodies not obtainable in the UK. So it was agreed, and we left on the ship's first 'liberty boat' at 7 bells with a pillowcase each to put our purchases in. The shopping was soon accomplished and we made for the Petty Officer's canteen in Gibraltar's main street for a bite to eat and a couple of pints, but it didn't work out like that, because we spotted an empty snooker table in the club, and promptly had a couple of games. I noticed that during the play, Chippie was drinking several tots of the cheap whisky and was getting rather squiffy, so I persuaded him it was time for us to get back to the ship as we were due out very early next morning, and our leave expired at 6pm. Well he was so unsteady that I had literally to push him there, and luckily there was only a Junior Officer to be passed on the Eastway's quarter deck, which we had to salute and cross. Much to my relief he said "Get him off here and down below, and quickly off this deck!"
This I managed to do, more by luck, as he stumbled along the companionway, and two sets of stairs to our mess below, which was empty. Feeling pleased that we had managed to get back and avoided trouble, I sat down, tired out after all these exertions, not anticipating what was about to happen. Chippie had picked up a knife off the table and came at me shouting, "You Brummie Bastard, I'm fed up with you ordering me around and pushing me about!" I was shocked at this sudden uncalled for outburst, and managed to fend off the upraised kitchen knife, he was very strong and we wrestled for a bit. But the whisky he had drunk was taking its toll, and we fell flat on the deck with me luckily on top. He was sprawled out, frothing at the mouth, and the knife was dropped, so I sat on him wondering what I could do next.
It seemed like ages, but much to my relief, into the mess came Frank Rumney and I quickly told him what had occurred, he then told me to get off the Shipwright, which I was reluctant to do, but I'd had enough fighting and Chippie was now quiet. So Frank and I got him up, gave him a shower, and put him in his bunk, absolutely spark out, snoring his head off.
North Front & Spanish Frontier, Gibraltar
The next morning, very early and pitch dark, the ship's anchor party was piped, and out of the corner of my eye, as I was on the top bunk, I saw Chippie putting on his oilskins ready to do his job in the cable (anchor chain) locker to raise the anchor. I thought at the time that he looked a bit bleary eyed, but I dozed off to sleep again, thankful that I was not on duty. The routine for weighing the anchor is easy, and of course is carried out countless times. An officer on the forepeak of the ship looks down at the exposed anchor chain to see which way it is pulling in regard to the ship and answers the question from the bridge, "How does the cable grow?", with a movement of his arm at the same angle as the cable. Then with orders from the bridge, the ship is moved so that the cable is straight below. When this is done, a verbal signal to the Shipwright in the locker below to put the capstan in gear with a very large sort of spanner, and up comes the anchor, and is stowed away. All this had taken place in darkness, wind and rain. Whether Chippie had not heard the order or misunderstood the order not to proceed, the spanner was put in the capstan and thrown out again with force, penetrating his peaked cap and into his eye. A terrible accident to happen to this young man.
When we heard what had happened, and given time for him to have attention by our Doctor, the Eastway was well out to sea towards the Bay of Biscay. I went up to the Sick Bay to see how he was. The Doctor said he was very ill and had certainly lost the sight of one eye, and would receive expert attention at Southampton (Netley Hospital), which would be our first port of call in 3 days time. I then asked if I could see him, and his answer came back from the Sick Bay bed, "No, I never want to see him, it was his fault!"
I don't know whether this reply was prompted by him being in such a state of shock or not, and how I could be accused was beyond belief, but he refused to see me each time I tried to visit him. The result was that the only time I saw him again, was on a stretcher going to hospital at Southampton. I felt really hurt because he had been one of my best buddies. Of course, he would get an immediate discharge. The whole tragic affair upset me for some considerable time, to lose a friend like that.