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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

War and Rumours of War

page 25

War and Rumours of War

CONSTANT BOAT-DRILL, alarms (practice and real), and a trick of German radio announcers of speaking as though they were in constant consultation with the British Minister for Shipping protected the soldier at sea from feelings of false security. We-See-All-And-We-Know-All was what the Germans tried to convey, but they spoilt their effects somewhat by sinking ships about whose safety one could reassure oneself merely by going on deck and looking around.

From the moment the ships carrying the Second Echelon to England left Fremantle the German radio took an enormous interest in them, sinking the Queen Mary, which had joined the convoy from Sydney, more than once. (Actually there is very good reason to believe that a torpedo did pass between her and the Aquitania off the Irish coast.) Again, New Zealanders in the Felix Roussel, which took to Egypt in October 1940 about 600 members of the Third Echelon who had been left in Bombay to await transport, heard over the German radio that their ship had been sunk. She very well might have been too, for the convoy had been bombed several times in the Red Sea, attacked by a surface raider, and that very morning straddled by bombs while replenishing in Port Sudan.

The experience of having their ship hit directly by a bomb, and of putting back to port in England, was reserved for some 200 Second Echelon reinforcements in October 1940. None of them was hurt, and the majority went to Egypt later in the convoy that included the Duchess of Bedford. Had they sailed with the earlier convoy they would have shared with the troops in the Rangitiki the experience of being shelled in the North Atlantic on Christmas morning by the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper. One merchant ship in this convoy, the Empire Trooper, was holed above the water line.

Most voyages, however, were mercifully dull, and for this the soldiers could thank the Royal Navy and the Dominion ships. One or more of the latter—HMNZS Achilles, Leander, and Monowai, and HMAS Canberra, Perth, Australia, and Sydney—would hand over their task to Royal Navy ships somewhere in the Indian Occan, and then, in farewell, steam down the lines of transports, spray dashing from their bows, while the bands played and the crews—brown line of faces, wider line of white tropical shirts and shorts, brown line of knees—stood stiffly at attention. What had been grey shapes scarcely moving on the horizon were then seen in all their swiftness and beauty by the soldiers dressing their own ships. Every detail was clear: sharp, graceful bow, guns cleared for action, control tower a miracle of strength and balance, after flat gleaming white, and long straight wake, silver like a healed scar.

‘Kiwis thank you for safe escort. Your fine displays of naval efficiency have increased our pride in the British Navy.’ Thus a typical message from an Officer Commanding Troops to the captain of an escort.