The Liverpool Nautical Research Society, Maritime Archives and Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AA UK


The Liverpool Nautical Research Society Maritime Archives and Library Merseyside Maritime Museum Albert Dock Liverpool L3 4AA UK


Evading Hitler’s U-Boats
A Long Voyage Home From India
by Margaret M. Nicoll
First published in the Bulletin in December, 1995

War had seemed to be only a remote possibility when we had arrived in India in 1937. My husband was serving as a medical officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps based in Bangalore. We had had time to settle into the colonial lifestyle. Things changed abruptly when, in 1942, my husband was posted to Iraq with instructions to commission a new military hospital near Baghdad. As a Japanese invasion on the eastern coast of southern India looked imminent, wives and families were instructed to return to England without delay.
I packed up the house and with my two small children caught the train to Bombay. Here we were able to stay with friends. A week went by before we received our sealed embarkation orders. The next morning we waited at the dockside for our boat to dock. Our ship for the long journey home was to be the troopship Orbita.
          It was fortunate that the only other person that I knew amongst the hundreds of other passengers who were waiting for the boat was the General Officer Commanding South India Command, who had been a family friend in Bangalore. As we were the only people that he knew, he was glad of some company.
          The Orbita was an old but lucky ship. Built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, launched in 1914, but not completed until the end of the war. In September 1919 she made her maiden voyage to Valparaiso via the Panama Canal for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company. She was 15,495 tons, 570 ft. long, max. speed 15 knots and designed to carry 190 1st class, 221 2nd class and 476 3rd class passengers. In 1941 she was requisitioned for use as a troopship.We were assigned to a dingy (3rd class) three berth cabin below decks. The ship remained in dock for the next two days while we sweltered in the heat and humidity of the beginning of the monsoon. It was my daughter’s 4th birthday on 17thJune 1942.

          Italian soldiers captured during the North African campaign had been imprisoned in camps near Bangalore and we had to wait for 2,000 of them to join us for the voyage back to Liverpool. We eventually sailed from Bombay without escort.. Hitler’s U-Boat campaign was at its height, and safety regulations forbade the closure of the cabin doors which instead were fastened ajar with a hook. At around midnight one night I caught sight of a large rat scurrying across the bottom bunk, at the time occupied by my two and a half year old son.
          For the entire journey I was encumbered with three adult-sized, kapok filled life-jackets. Quite how a hour year old and a two and a half year old were supposed to wear those adult jackets was never explained but there were no children’s sizes available. The food was of very poor quality and consisted of mainly bread and coarse fish.
The Orbita was carrying double the number of passengers for which she was designed. There were approximately 1,000 passengers and crew in addition to the 2,000 Italian prisoners-of-war accommodated in the ship’s hold. All the portholes and windows in the saloon were blacked out. Thick pungent cigarette smoke pervaded the atmosphere in the evenings. The hit song of the time was “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes”. This tune was on everyone’s lips for the voyage. On the open deck there were no chairs and we had to sit on our kapok life-jackets.
The Asdic made its continuous day and night echo soundings as the ship zig-zagged the whole way from Bombay to Liverpool in her efforts to avoid the German U-Boats. Towards dawn and dusk these manoeuvres would be intensified as this was thought to be the most likely time for an attack. The passengers were not allowed to know where they were or how far they had sailed as there was always the fear that the enemy might find us. The ship preceding the Orbita had been sunk by a U-Boat in the Mozambique straits.
          Things looked up a bit when we arrived in Durban as we were allocated another cabin on the main deck. Unfortunately we had to share this with another family as it had six berths. The General kindly entertained me to lunch in Durban and to dinner in Capetown, and best of all allowed us the luxury of using his bathroom on board ship.
          In Durban we enjoyed the glorious clear sunny skies of the South African winter, but we encountered rain and gale force winds for three days on the way to Capetown. Ashore at Capetown I treated the children to an ice cream, but only after they had licked them did I realise that I had no South African money with which to pay. The townspeople generously gave the ship a consignment of oranges for the voyage, which was welcome addition to our diet. The next port of call was Freetown, where only the General was allowed ashore. Two of the Italian P.o.W. took the opportunity to try and escape by swimming ashore, but were soon recaptured. We spent one day here before picking up an armed merchant cruiser which was to escort us for the rest of the journey home.
The Orbita had been converted from coal to oil burning in 1926. There was a fire in the engine room on the last stage of the journey and the drinking water tanks were contaminated with oil. From then on we had to clean our teeth in fizzy lemonade. We did not undress for the last two nights as the fear of being torpedoed was greatest. Our handbags were packed with food and warm jerseys, ready to abandon ship if necessary.
The Orbita eventually arrived in Liverpool at about 5 p.m. on 2nd August 1942, 47 days after leaving Bombay. My daughter was disappointed: “You promised me we would be able to have a trip in one of those little (life)boats!” The dockers had all gone home so we had to drop anchor in the Mersey for the night amidst the forest of masts of all the sunken shipping.
The next morning we docked and once ashore everyone had to go through the strongest security screening. The men first and only later the women and children. By the time we had finished it was too late to catch the train and we were one of the families which were accommodated overnight at the Adelphi Hotel. During the night there was an air raid and the sirens sounded. The Orbita shipmates met on the landing…….”She’ll be wearing silk pyjamas when she comes”. Would it seem too wimpish to go into the air-raid shelters after all we had endured? We didn’t go to sleep until very late and consequently overslept. Later the next morning we caught the train to Peterborough. We were back home with our family in wartime England.
The Orbita survived the war, as did her sister ship, the Orduna. After the war she was used to carry emigrants to the Antipodes, but was finally scrapped in 1950.