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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Food and Accommodation

Food and Accommodation

USUALLY YOU HAD the choice: you could sleep on deck or you could sleep below. Sleeping on deck meant that you were woken at dawn by Lascars (‘Wash-ee deck-ee, George!’) or by British seamen (‘Mind your eye, chum!’), the perfunctory warning preceding only by seconds the stream of cold salt water. Sleeping below meant that you woke six mornings out of seven suffering from a slight hangover caused by the soupy atmosphere of the troop-decks, which smelt always of soft soap, warm oil, stale tabacco, greasy dixies, and unwashed socks.

Troops of the First Echelon were for the most part accommodated in cabins, but later drafts, travelling in the same ships after they had been modified, slung hammocks above the linoleum-covered mess tables and unrolled mattresses on or under them. Rising early to avoid queueing for a hand-basin or a shower (and in most ships, though reveille was at six o’clock, any time before seven o’clock breakfast was considered early), you bumped against laden hammocks or stepped heavily on out-flung arms.

Mess orderlies were of course expected to be among the early risers. In some ships they were appointed for the whole voyage, but in others only for a day or a week, how often their turn for duty came round depending on the number of men at their respective tables: usually it was somewhere between twelve and twenty-four. Grabbing dixies for tea and porridge (fruit in the tropics), and shallow trays for bread, butter, jam, and the meat course, they hurried to join the page 6 queue rapidly forming outside the galley. Here they showed their table cards to the chief steward, an officer whose naturally suspicious mind was likely to have been soured by many hundreds of attempts to change ‘13s’ into ‘18s’ and so draw extra rations.

The food varied in quality and quantity from ship to ship, though the New Zealand Government was always at pains to make sure that the shipping companies gave the goods and services for which they were paid. On the whole, our soldiers ate well at sea. That is to say, the food tasted very nice during the first week of the voyage, was tolerated during the second and third, and from then until the ship anchored at Tewfik was the subject three times a day of bitter and sometimes brilliant invective. This was due less to any real falling off in the quality of the meals than to a daintiness of appetite caused by tropical weather, the debilitating effect of shipboard life, and the certainty that if you had prunes and rice on the first Monday of the voyage you would have them every Monday till the last.

This is what the men in the Sobieski ate on 27 January 1940. Breakfast: oatmeal porridge, beef goulash, boiled potatoes, bread, butter, marmalade, tea, and milk. Dinner: tomato soup with rice, butter, cheese, rock cakes, jam, pickles, and lime juice. Supper: grilled steak with onions, mashed potatoes, spring cabbage, peach compote, bread, tea, and milk. Nothing to complain of there.

And this is what a lance-corporal wrote in his diary about the messing conditions in the Duchess of Bedford during her voyage from England to Egypt: ‘We have two dining-rooms and there are three sittings to each meal. I’m in the last sitting, by which time the tables are sticky with spilt tea, jam, butter, gravy, bread-crumbs and fish bones, according to what the meal has been. Our own men do the waiting—one man to a table of eighteen, and he’ll bring eighteen plates on one tray, so that the bottoms of the plates are always mucky from resting on the food beneath. Sometimes with sloppy food such as porridge or custard, the top plates have nearly emptied themselves into the bottom layers, which, overfilled, drip as they’re handed down…. Quite often we’ll get the pudding before the meat and often we’ll get the meat put out for the previous sitting when not enough men have turned up at their right times.’

When there was trouble in the ships—on the whole there was very little—it was caused nearly always either by bad food or by bad accommodation. The trouble in the Ormonde, to which Third Echelon troops were trans-shipped from the Mauretania in Bombay, was the result of both. While embarking, the men saw native stevedores dragging fly-covered carcasses—provisions for the voyage—through dust and filth. This, and the fact that the ship was very crowded and rather dirty, led the next day to an outbreak of disorder in which troops took possession of the bridge and the wheelhouse and refused to let the captain put to sea. Happily, the men’s mood was neither ugly nor even unduly truculent, so the officers were able to handle the situation without assistance from the shore, and the next day the ship joined the rest of the convoy, which had been sailing at reduced speed.

Far less serious was an incident that occurred at Freetown in the Rangitiki, which, with the City of London and Elizabethville, took part of the Second Echelon from England to Egypt in December 1940. An order prohibiting troops from sleeping on deck because of malarial mosquitoes was disobeyed by about ninety men, some of whom treated British and New Zealand senior officers with a certain amount of disrespect—the euphemism becomes apparent when one remembers that the decks were unlit and the night dark. They were persuaded to go below at last by their page 7 own officers, and the incident is worth mentioning only because of the unique defence of the New Zealand non-commissioned officers who were court-martialled as a result of it. ‘They maintained,’ runs an official report, ‘that when the men had a genuine complaint the NCOs should be with them if they wanted the men to follow them into battle later on. A somewhat New Zealand outlook.’

Against these breaches of discipline it is agreeable to remember a tribute paid to New Zealanders by the master of the Netherlands liner Nieuw Amsterdam, which brought the first furlough draft back to New Zealand from the Middle East in 1943. ‘We felt uneasy,’ he wrote; ‘you were so many. You invaded every corner and did not ask questions; you did not complain and did not want service. Your whole attitude taught us a proud and useful lesson….this was war and no business…. when you left us we felt much more confident. Trooping, after all, was not so bad as it looked, the passengers did not smash the ship to pieces, nothing was ruined. We became friends. Only twice we have had the privilege to work with you in this war. We can assure you that every time something unpleasant, or minor difficulties, have occurred on board with other passengers, we remarked truthfully: “The Kiwis would not have done that!”’