3 Leaving Tripoli, July 1942

The camp at Castel Benito held several hundred prisoners, was equipped with tents, had latrines and troughs for washing, with piped water, although this came on only at irregular intervals and in total not more than an hour or two each day. By now everyone was infested with body lice, something which we had never known before but was endemic in the Italian army. The shame and degradation of being always lousy was worse than the irritation itself, but from then on, during all our time as prisoners, it was going to be impossible to rid ourselves of this vexation. I doubt if our meagre daily ration of food conformed with the rules of the Geneva Convention. This should have allowed us, as non-working prisoners, half the quantities issued to Italian soldiers who, in addition were no doubt able to supplement their rations by outside purchases. We were not actually starving but we were certainly always hungry.

All the news which reached us from the outside world was now very bad; the Germans had taken Tobruk and were moving into Egypt; in Russia and in the Far East things were equally disastrous. The Dieppe raid, reported to us as the defeat of a full-scale invasion, seemed even worse. We had no books; nothing was heard from our families at home, nor could we write to them. All this compounded the misery of being hungry, lousy and, above all, bored. Of course all soldiers are used to long periods of boredom but this was of a different order. One evening a few evangelically inclined individuals, including a former Salvationist, organised a religious service and this was repeated on subsequent evenings with increased enthusiasm until nearly the whole camp attended what had become highly emotional revivalist meetings. Several preachers emerged, some of them showing real histrionic talent at calling sinners to repentance. It was astonishing to see apparently hardened old squaddies coming forward to confess explicitly their wickednesses in the brothels of Cairo or Alex. Cynics such as Harry and myself attended as spectators only; it was the only entertainment available.

Harry Brown was a Geordie from Whitley Bay, one of the more posh areas of Tyneside, who had joined the territorial Elswick battery which, like the other batteries of the 72 Field Regiment, was a very family affair. Our officer commanding – shades of Dad’s Army – was a local bank manager. Harry had been to Grammar school and then worked for an insurance company. Like me, this extra little bit of education led to him becoming a surveyor in battery headquarters. We had not been particularly intimate – I had no idea what had become of my closest friends – but now that we were thrown together we had enough in common to get along quite well. Certainly we had time enough for conversation and must have exhausted most subjects during our time in this camp.

We were assembled and counted twice a day, but after about five weeks, early one morning, we were paraded with all our kit. After a roll call we were marched out of camp under escort on our way to the docks at Tripoli. We seemed to take a somewhat roundabout route, I suppose to avoid going through the centre of the city, and it must have been seven or eight miles. Surprisingly, considering the general state of health, few people fell out on the way although the Italians did supply some trucks in the rear to pick up any stragglers. We boarded an elderly tramp steamer – built on the Clyde, I noticed – went down a ladder into the cargo hold and sailed almost immediately.

Fifteen months earlier, on the morning of 17 April 1941, we arrived by troop train at the quayside of the Prince’s Landing stage in Liverpool. Travelling overnight from Weston-super-mare we had tried to guess our destination, peering from behind the window blinds at the name boards as we passed through the blacked-out stations. It had hardly been a secret that we were to go overseas. Certainly it must have been known to everyone in Weston where we had once paraded for inspection on the promenade wearing sun-helmets and tropical kit, looking like badly cast extras from some epic film, perhaps set on the North West frontier. In the signal section we had even practiced with a heliograph on the beach although the sun was never consistent enough for an actual message to be sent to anyone.

Waiting for us at the Prince’s stage was what seemed an impressively large ship, and we went up the gangway into a grand entrance hall with the sort of decor that might have been expected in the palm court of an Edwardian hotel. The ‘Empress of Asia’ was indeed Edwardian, just, having been built in 1910 for the Canadian Pacific line and until recently had been in regular passenger service between Vancouver and the Far East. It had however been newly fitted out as a troop-ship and this accommodation was less palatial. We lived in mess decks, where we fed at long tables and at night slept hanging above them in hammocks which were rolled up and stowed away during the day. Although the ship was very crowded, there was still room to move about on the open decks and, for a short voyage, it would have been reasonably comfortable, even enjoyable. We still had no information about where we were going although there was plenty of speculation; even had it been known that we were setting off on a voyage of more than twelve thousand nautical miles, we could not have guessed that it would take over two months to complete.

We sailed from Liverpool within a few hours of embarking and moved to the Clyde estuary where, during the next few days, a big convoy assembled and set off westwards into the Atlantic with a reassuringly large escort which included the ‘Repulse’. Our feeling of security would have been less had we known that another battle­ cruiser, the ‘Hood’, would be sunk in the North Atlantic a few weeks later, and before the end of the year the ‘Repulse’ itself would be lost in the Far East. Life on board for us was extremely boring, although during the voyage there were a number of exciting happenings in the World outside. These included, apart from the ‘Hood’, the sinking of the ‘Bismarck’ and later what was certainly one of the most important events of the whole war, the German attack on Russia.

The convoy zig-zagged its way across the ocean, making a stop at Freetown for refuelling. Our old liner and the sister ship, another Empress of Something, were both coal-burning, and as there was no deep-water berth, we lay off-shore in the wide river estuary while the loading of the bunkers was carried out by gangs of coolies who man-handled baskets of coal from barges. This was a long job, and as the work went on through the night and one of the chutes adjoined our mess deck, we got little sleep. The next day a few of us had an hour or two ashore; it was Sunday morning and many of the more respectable black inhabitants were coming from church in their best clothes. They made a nice contrast with the near-naked coolies working on the coal barges. Somewhere in the colony at this time was Graham Greene, taking stock of the steamy goings-on amongst the expatriate community ready for use in “The Heart of the Matter”.

During the voyage I became a computer. In those days this did not imply an electronic device, but was an actual person, and in the Royal Artillery was someone who used mathematics to survey positions and to calculate ranges. The course of training – there were only three of us, including Harry Brown – helped relieve the boredom of troop-ship life and, in the long run, turned out to be more interesting than being a signaller.

In the South Atlantic we ran into a severe storm and the elderly ‘Empress of Asia’ developed engine trouble, causing us to drop out of the convoy and make for port. It was about midnight when we first saw the lights of Cape Town but, as it was too rough to get into the harbour, we sailed up and down all night. The lights of the city – there was no black-out – went by us several times, first on the port side and then on the starboard until, in the early morning a pilot came out to us and we were able to dock. Later that day we were all allowed ashore and to our surprise there were crowds of local people queuing up at the gates in order to offer hospitality. A pleasant middle-aged couple picked us up, showed us the sights, then took us to their home for a meal and arranged to meet us again. On returning to the ship we found that everyone had had similar experiences.

Next day we were entertained again, and we were taken on a drive around the Table Mountain. As a great treat, for someone from rationed Britain, we had tea with jam scones and lashings of clotted cream. South Africa seemed a puzzling place. We were aware of the divisions between the races and everyone felt uncomfortable about such things as seats in the park marked ‘Whites only’. All the people we met were white middle-class English speakers; they were marvellously hospitable but were apparently in a state of patriotic fervour that somehow seemed extraordinarily dated; perhaps rather how it must have been in England in the early days of the First World War. I suppose that as there was no conscription the enthusiasm was necessary to encourage volunteers. They spoke with justifiable pride of their ‘boys up North’ who were at that time in Ethiopia, subduing what had been the Italian East African Empire. Later one of the kind ladies who had entertained us wrote a flowery letter to my mother in which she referred to me as a young hero, thus causing my mother to say that the lady must be not quite right in the head.

The forced stop at Cape Town had caused us to lose the convoy, and for the rest of the voyage we were on our own except for the occasional company of an auxiliary cruiser. The engines were still giving trouble and another stop was made at Durban, where we stayed for several days and where we were again entertained hospitably. As we sailed slowly up the Indian Ocean we were entertained by flying fish – rather like herring but with long fins which acted as wings – which shot out of the sea and glided quite a distance, glittering as they swooped over the waves. For several days we were accompanied by a dolphin which allowed itself to be drawn along in the ship’s bow-wave.

Sleeping in the Mess Deck

Sleeping in the Mess Deck

The mechanical problems continued and were made worse by the stokers working to rule and threatening to go on strike completely. I do not know what the rights and wrongs of this were, but I expect that conditions down below were pretty awful. Some of the stokers were imprisoned in the cells and volunteers were called for from the troops to replace them. This did not lead to much improvement and there were days in the Red Sea when we seemed not to be moving at all. It was now extremely hot, particularly in our mess-deck and the medical officer condemned it for sleeping in, although we still had our meals there. By then most of us were already sleeping up on the open decks, wherever we could find a space. The ‘Empress of Asia’ arrived at Port Suez more than a fortnight after the rest of the convoy. The whole 50th Division of some fifteen thousand men and all its equipment had arrived in the Middle East. The following year the ‘Empress’ was sunk by the Japanese.

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