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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

At the Fleet Club

At the Fleet Club

IN THE EARLY DAYS of the war New Zealand soldiers in Egypt had no club of their own, and if they chose to spend their leave in Alexandria rather than in Cairo one of the reasons was the Fleet Club for men of the Merchant and Royal Navies. There, over a bottle of Stella, the ‘tiffy’ from the Ramillies and the sergeant from the 5th Field Park Company could renew a friendship started first in Fremantle in January 1940 and continued a fortnight later in Colombo. All the old memories came back: that day in the Australian Bight when smoke rolled from the Ramillies and the convoy scattered in star formation, while, away on the horizon behind mist and smoke, the guns of the Leander and Canberra blinked brightly, the reports, something between a cough and a thud, sounding long seconds later. (It was a practice attack, but the troops lining the rails had watched and wondered.) And that day when the shadows lengthened on the Orion’s boat-deck and the angry soldiers, boots polished and uniforms pressed, waited for pay, though leave to Fremantle and Perth had started an hour ago. But when they did get ashore—well, the ‘tiffy’ would remember: he was there, too. And that day when the Kiwi fell overboard—a welcome change from lost medicine balls—and the consequent warning that in future no one need expect to be rescued: the safety of the convoy came first. The day (it was 23 January) when the troops were told officially that Egypt was their destination. Then, in the Indian Ocean, manning ship to salute the aircraft-carrier HMS Eagle as she steamed down the lines of transports; and the next day seeing one of her aircraft crash and sink. The oily calm of the Red Sea; the coast of Italian-owned Eritrea slipping past on the port side; the anchor rattling down off Port Tewfik; Anthony Eden and the British Ambassador to Egypt, Sir Miles Lampson, speaking from a hatch-top covered by the Red Ensign; a message from the King: ‘I know well that the splendid tradition established by the armed forces of New Zealand will be worthily upheld….’

White-coated Achmed brings more beer, and at another table a greaser from the Orcades talks with members of the Third Echelon of ships they know: Mauretania, Empress of Japan, Orcades, Ormonde, Orion, HMAS Perth, HMNZS Achilles, HMAS Canberra—ships they have seen page 5 ducking and tumbling in the Tasman in a grey flurry (Troops must remove artificial teeth before being seasick: Routine Order No. 91), or watched all day sliding past them through seas flecked with flying-fish, or gazed at wonderingly from wharves in Fremantle or from the ferry Rohna in Bombay Harbour.

With memories of the Duchess of Bedford still fresh in their minds—in fifty-seven days she took them from Newport, England, to the patrolled lanes near North America, where the cold was bitter, to Freetown (Sierra Leone), to Capetown, and at last to Tewfik—members of the Second Echelon describe their two Odysseys. With them the talk is of the Athlone Castle, which was in the same convoy as the Duchess of Bedford and also carried New Zealanders, and of the Aquitania, Empress of Britain, Empress of Japan, and Andes, and the escorts Canberra, Australia, Shropshire, and Hood—ships that helped to carry or escort the Second Echelon from New Zealand to England, taking it by way of Fremantle, Capetown (to which the convoy had been diverted in the Indian Ocean because of Italy’s attitude to the Allies), Freetown, the Atlantic, St George’s Channel (where wreckage floated and the soldiers saw a tanker hull down and burning), and at last safely to the grey Clyde: a journey of 17,000 miles in forty-six days.

Small wonder that the rest of the Division called the Second Echelon the ‘Glamour Boys’ or the ‘Cook’s Tourists’, and listened not always courteously to their tales of the Battle of Britain, alarms at sea, and the antics of the Duchess of Bedford, the ‘Drunken Duchess’, the world’s champion roller….

‘Last house,’ announces a black-bearded petty officer known by sight to nearly everyone in the club. ‘May I remind you, gentlemen, that the snowball is now worth over fourteen pounds?’