The Liverpool Nautical Research Society, Maritime Archives and Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AA UK
LIVERPOOL NAUTICAL RESEARCH SOCIETY
The Liverpool Nautical Research Society Maritime Archives and Library Merseyside Maritime Museum Albert Dock Liverpool L3 4AA UK
LIVERPOOL NAUTICAL RESEARCH SOCIETY
Three Weeks to Colombo in 1945
Three Weeks to Colombo in 1945
by LNRS Member Peter Cloves
First published in the Bulletin of June, 2008
The war in Europe had only a few weeks to run when I joined the Reina del Pacifico at Liverpool. I was a humble writer in the Royal Navy at the time and I was in the habit of scribbling daily entries into a spiral-backed notebook that I kept in my kitbag.
With several hundred other officers and ratings I had travelled through the night from Devonport barracks by special train. As our coaches were shunted down to Riverside Station at about 10.30am, railway and dockside workers waved us ‘farewell’. Then we saw our home for the next few weeks – the Reina del Pacifico looming over the landing stage, her hull painted a dull grey and streaked with rust after five years of war.
Our quarters, on the waterline, were rather overcrowded as the Reina was carrying 2,500 passengers this trip. There was little sign of the charming Spanish and Moorish interiors which had graced tourist travel in pre-war days.
At 7.45pm on 15th April 1945 we pulled away from the landing stage and then lay in mid-Mersey overnight. I joined in an informal football match on the after end of ‘E’- deck before going below, queueing with a tin mug for a special ration of grog from the rum bosun, and then slinging my hammock over a linoleum-topped mess table.
There were ’emergency stations’ the next morning, each man wearing a blue lifebelt and red safety light, and at 1pm we steamed down the Mersey with other ships, including several American tankers, before anchoring off New Brighton for another night.
On 17th April the Reina del Pacifico hoisted pennants and steamed out of the Mersey, past the protruding masts of the Ullapool and the Tacoma City which had been sunk by mines earlier in the war. With us was a mixed batch of tankers, cargo steamers, troopships, a destroyer and two frigates, all proceeding in line ahead with the Rock lighthouse abeam, and then forming two columns when clear of the swept channel. Several more vessels were waiting top join us at the Mersey Bar.
The Reina del Pacifico formed part of convoy KMF43 which turned out to be one of the last escorted convoys to leave the shores of Britain in the Second World War. We were guarded by the destroyers Escapade and Icarus, the frigates Loch Katrine and Ness and the corvette Oxford Castle.
We steamed at about 13 knots. Morning mist was followed by afternoon sunshine. There was a long steady swell and I swiftly succumbed to a short, sharp bout of seasickness. I obtained a couple of tablets from the sick bay and retired early to my swinging hammock.
The fourteen ships being escorted towards the southern Irish coast, and then south to Gibraltar, were in columns with a gap of three cables between each ship. The Reina del Pacifico ploughed through calm seas, immediately astern of the Capetown Castle, carrying 3,200 men to India. To starboard was the Georgic with 3,850 troops for Malta and Egypt, followed by the Samaria with 3,450 men for Italy and India. The third column was led by the Alcantara (3,700 troops and airmen for Algeria and Italy), and H.M.S. Princess Beatrix, a former Harwich-Hook ferry and a veteran of the North African landings, astern. The convoy commodore, Sir Arthur J. Baxter, was on board the liner Orion.
On 19th April several of the ships in the convoy held a thirty minute exercise for their gun crews, the 40mm Bofors guns on the Begum providing the most impressive show. There was some excitement in the early hours of 22nd April when the ‘River’-class frigate Ness dropped a pattern of depth charges at a suspected submarine contact.The Clyde based Escapade and Ness were relieved by two escorts from Gibraltar on 20th April as our convoy neared the Mediterranean. When the Rock of Gibraltar hove into view throughout a blanket of haze, all the ships in the convoy steamed into the roadstead.
After an exchange of signals, Captain J.V. Longford of the Reina del Pacifico ordered speed to be increased to 15 knots and we headed east, alone, through the Mediterranean. Sun awnings and canvas air chutes for the engine room were erected. Many of the Navy passengers lolled in the sunshine on ‘D’-deck, reading tattered books and magazines from the ship’s limited library. We had a medical examination and then washed our uniforms with rubbery soap in buckets of sea water, and fitted white covers to our caps. I leaned over the bow to watch graceful porpoises keeping pace with the ship which was vibrating considerably as she increased speed.
On 25th April we passed the island of Pantelleria with its high cliffs. There was tombola on ‘E’-Deck – £15 for a full house – but I was unsuccessful. A ship’s concert was held in the evening. Captain Longford steamed a smoke float the following morning and gave the RN gunners an hour’s practice. The Reina zig-zagged to let the Bofors gunners aft have a fair share. Our biggest gun, in the stern, proved the most accurate, hitting the target several times at ranges of up to two miles. Then rocket-fired crimson parachutes floated in the blue sky as the midships Oerlikon cannons blazed away. Everyone on board was delighted, not least a party of Wrens leaning over the rails on the upper deck.
Later in the week I had to queue for a haircut from a leading stoker in the next mess. Another concert was held, but the noise of the Reina’s overworked ventilation plant made it difficult to hear what was going on. The concert ended with the massed singing of Just a Song at Twilight as a silvery moon floated over the distant coast of Egypt.
There was a commotion on 27th April when fire broke out in the stern galley. Smoke and fumes spread for nearly an hour before everything was brought under control. When I went on deck the next morning we were steaming slowly past the waterfront at Port Said, taking our place in a convoy of vessels making its way through the Suez Canal. Water and fuel boats came alongside when we reached Suez. Egyptian feluccas with high lateen sails arrived to conduct business with fezzes, handbags, wallets and belts. Baskets were used to haul the goods to the Reina’s decks and the lissom, brown merchants, climbed their masts to bargain with us. At 6pm we weighed anchor and set off down the Red Sea. Blackout restrictions were lifted and everyone was ordered into white tropical rig. I was appointed mess cook and had to scrub the deck and scrape clean the garbage bins in the sweltering conditions below. There was more laundry work, using sea water not very successfully; but there were fresh oranges for supper and these made a welcome change from our almost unchanging diet of tinned pilchards
We were soon in the Arabian Sea and had our first sight of flying fish skimming over the smooth water. I went to a 16mm film show on ‘E’-Deck – seeing ‘The Wicked Lady’ for the third time – while the officers and Wrens danced on the floodlit boat deck. There was another ship’s concert on 7th May and at the end Captain Longford informed everyone to rousing cheers that the end of the war in Europe had just been announced. We sang Land of Hope and Glory lustily as the Reina del Pacifico sped on across the Indian Ocean.
I was scrubbing the messdeck when the Reina passed the breakwaters at the entrance to Colombo Harbour at 9am on 8th May, ‘V.E.-Day’. The town of white, red-roofed buildings seemed to be celebrating. The officers, Wrens and Royal Marines disembarked but most of us were confined to the ship and bought pineapples and coconuts from the Sinhalese traders who came alongside in droves. A supply of beer – one bottle per man – was brought on board.
As darkness fell at 7.45pm, Winston Churchill’s voice came over the loudspeakers. The Reina del Pacifico‘s deep siren joined the shrieks and screams of every other ship in the harbour. Throughout the night searchlights blazed, rockets were fired and flares ignited. The cruiser Cleopatra, moored close by, hoisted a mass of fairy lights across her forecastle.
I disembarked the following day and went to the Royal Navy’s transit camp, H.M.S. Mayina, which lay in dense forest a few miles outside Colombo. I never saw the Reina del Pacifico again, but her name cropped up in the news from time to time. Although the liner has now vanished from the seas, she still retains a place in my heart. I was only 18 when I sailed in her and it was the first time I had been to sea. My old tattered diary brought back many memories.