A DESERT RAT'S STORY
ON THE S.S. BRITANNIA
The day we boarded the S.S Britannia in 1940 was my sister Kitty’s
birthday, the 10th September. Conditions on board were disgusting. We lived
below decks and it stunk of sweat and other smells from hundreds of bodies.
Only after a long while was it possible to get a good night’s sleep
in the hammock. During the day our food was brought down in vast metal containers
and was doled out in the rectangular mess tins which were part of our issued
Very little air filtered down from the hatch. Each day when a junior officer came down to inspect, we could clearly see his nose wrinkling with the stench and he got out as soon as he could. Every morning we would parade on deck for another inspection to see whether we had shaved and had dressed properly as discipline had to be maintained. We never saw Captains as they stayed above. Each Captain had a single cabin, a batman to look after his needs, a proper restaurant to eat in, and apart from the occasional scare from submarines, he could look on it as a pleasant cruise.
Class distinction was appalling. A rope was in place across a certain part of the deck and all below officer rank were forbidden to cross it. Also on board were some young nurses and members of our Women’s Army enroute to take up positions in hospitals and base camps, but fraternising was not allowed, not for us Squaddies. However, where there is a will there is a way!
Ted Hartland, from 1940 or thereabouts
Boxing as a pastime was introduced on the upper deck and became very popular among all ranks. I recall a contest between a Captain who was a titled nobleman, and a Sergeant, both heavyweights. When they shaped up I could clearly see the class of the Sergeant and the spirit of the officer who took a bit of a beating but never gave up. The officer got an enormous voice of appreciation from the crowd.
Among the hundreds on board were a vicious gang of “scousers” from the Liverpool area. Some got in the ring and started to challenge onlookers to come in for a fight. I really didn’t want to get in as I didn’t fancy roughing it, but one of them specifically challenged me so I had to enter. I looked a bit soft and innocent in those days.
At the first bell he came tearing across the ring with his arms swinging wildly. I stepped aside and let him fly past me. A roar of laughter came up and in a flash he came at me again with his face contorted with fury. Once more I stepped aside but this time I hit him a cracking punch on his jaw as he fled past me and then another as he started to fall. He lay in a crumpled heap for some while. I expected some troubles from his pals after this but none occurred at all. They accepted that he had asked for trouble. After that my victim gave me a smile every time he saw me which pleased me very much.
On board also were a large contingent of reservists from Scottish regiments, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Black Watch and other famous clans. They had been recalled and were going out to rejoin their regiments. These fellows were really tough as well as great companions to each other. Every night the canteen opened and those that wanted it could get bottles of beer. Non-drinkers would allow the Scots to take up their share but with disastrous results. They would quarrel and fight amongst themselves, and then were friends again when sobered up the following morning. Most of these men died in action not long afterwards as the Scottish Regiments were always in the thick of things when our war really started. The Scots were really very proud and brave.
Now and again the alarm would go off and we would rush to our
allotted points with our life belts on. We were made aware that submarines
were nearby causing enormous damage to our shipping. Of course we never saw
any as we had an escort of warships and the subs kept below the surface. We
made huge detours towards the Atlantic in the direction of the United States
as the Krauts were very active in the Bay of Biscay area. This added a week
or so to our journey.
We awoke one morning and saw a beautiful sight – land. We were near Freetown off the coast of Africa and could see lots of green vegetation. Rumours abounded that we would be able to go ashore for a few hours, but after taking on water and some stores previously arranged for, we sailed away and kept on for days on end. We were not told of our final destination, only that we were headed for the Middle East, which covers a wide area and which could have been a stopping off place for somewhere unpleasant. None of us wanted to be shifted to Burma as it seems so far away.
Then we came upon another great sight as we sailed into Cape Town Bay. Table Mountain was just as we expected it to be, absolutely glorious, and we wondered if this time we could get off the ship, even if only for a few hours. The announcement came that we were staying for at least four days and that we could depart from the ship after breakfast the following morning. As we walked down the gangplank we saw the entire dockside lined with luxurious cars. Waiting at the wheel of each were well dressed and attractive ladies, carrying on a tradition of welcoming all troops who called on their town enroute to the war zones.
Les James and I were invited into the first car and were sped away, finally arriving at a superb and huge house. Our hostess was a charming and intelligent lady who did her best to put us at ease. Several coloured servants attended to our needs. Wearing our thick and ill-fitting uniforms with heavy boots, we made ourselves comfortable and waited for her husband to arrive. We had a splendid lunch together and were later shown the sights of this beautiful town. After a wonderful day we were driven back to the ship.
The following morning we again took the first car in the line and had just as good a time visiting another luxurious house. Our hosts did all they could for us and we left them at around 4.p.m. as we wanted to walk around the town on foot.
We visited a few shops but did not have enough money to buy anything. Coming into the main street we asked directions from a couple of very good looking girls of our own age group and strolled along with them. After a while an elegant looking gentleman called us aside and asked, “Do you know those girls are coloured?” We were astonished as he was darker than the girls. This was the first time we ever heard of the colour bar. We completely ignored his question much to the pleasure of the girls.
All of us were now in high spirits as we returned to the ship that night. Having been told that morning that this would be our last visit to land for some while, we made the most of the last few hours. When roll call was taken it was found that ten men had either missed the ship or had deserted, probably mistaking the friendly welcome of the South Africans as an invitation to stay on, hoping no doubt to get a job and forget all about the war. This was a serious matter with severe punishments in wartime. They were likely rounded up by the police ashore and put on the next ship that called. The convoy that preceded ours was full of Australian troops who surely made an impression on the inhabitants and sunk quite a lot of the local brew, but this was all taken in good spirit by the locals.
We set sail early the next morning. I looked behind and saw
a large banner held aloft which said, “Good Luck Britannia” or
maybe “Britannic,” I’ve never been sure. It was quite an
emotional sight as most of us would never see the place again. Having tasted
the joys of the luxury homes with decent food, we hoped that our next port
of call would be Durban, a few thousand miles away. Sadly we passed it by
and we never got to hear the lady in white who sang to all the troops and
about whom we heard so much for many years from those who had arrived after
Most of the day was spent on deck as below deck was now unbearable with the stench and the lack of fresh air. We still ate below and longed for the journey to end. The morning inspection continued to take place with the usual 2nd Lieutenants on parade. Boxing still went on, but this time weights were evened out. After three or four fights I got tired of the whole thing. Having boxed for the previous ten years, I did not want to take advantage of the inexperienced but willing lads, all of whom I liked.
For the first time we saw enormous quantities of flying fish. We never saw land and the weeks drifted one into the other. Now and again we got some snippets of news about the war. Invasion by Germany to our country now seemed not to be imminent and the possibility that we could lose never came into the equation. We all somehow were convinced that we were on the winning side, we always were.
From the direction of the ship and the odd clue from some of the crew, we now knew for certain that we were headed for some other part of Africa. The favourite spot suggested was Port Said although there were plenty of other places on the way. We felt immense relief that it was not further afield. Not one person in the whole ship wanted to be taken to the Far East. Despite the fact that we had been told that Burma and Singapore had their attractions, it seemed just too far away. Many of the pre-war soldiers had such a good time in India they wanted to return. They recounted how nearly all of them had a servant to take care of their laundry and many of the other tasks, making peacetime soldiering much easier. Most of the population were so poor that menial employment for the thousands of troops kept them from a rather squalid life. All Indian Regiments were first class and well trained and led at the time by English officers.