Convoy to South Africa









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According to the naval history records, convoy WS 8A sailed from the Clyde on 26 April 1941 and consisted of 14 merchant ships plus escort vessels. Jim was probably aboard the S S Sobieski, one of only five that were destined for the Red Sea. His letters give only guarded information about the voyage but seem to fit with the convoy's itinerary.

Arrived Freetown 9 May, departed 14 May (10 ships). Arrived Durban 27 May, departed 31 May (5 ships). Arrived Aden 10 June. Arrived Suez 13 June.

SobieskiS S Sobieski was a Polish liner that "escaped" from France in June 1940 with 3500 refugees and was sailed to Plymouth to be used as a troopship.






At Sea, Tuesday 29 April 1941

“I’m just completing my third day in hospital as a result of a revisit of my old friend Tonsillitis – not a very bad attack this time as it is just about finished now. I was allowed to get up this afternoon – it was great to smell a bit of air that hasn’t been tinned.”

At Sea, 21 May 1941

“I know I am allowed to tell you that we have “Crossed the Line” so that I now see the Southern Cross instead of the old North Star… we had an old Neptune ceremony complete with all the trimmings. There was Neptune and his wife, a tall blonde “female” with rude remarks on her “gown”, a doctor complete with nauseous drafts (or is it draughts?), a barber, and sundry devils covered with boot polish. Certain gentlemen of the high middle and the low were initiated by being forced to swallow some of the nauseous medicines – liberally smeared with “soap” and shaved. Afterwards they were thrown into the ship’s swimming pool to be ducked by the waiting devils. Many were so treated in full uniform boots and all.”

“We have had one days Shore Leave since we left England at the place where I presume our first lot of mail was dropped. It was interesting in its way but certainly not the place I would choose to live in. My chief impressions of the place are mainly of colour. Colour was imposing – at a distance – but close up of it revealed that it was due to partial barrenness. Grass as we know it was non-existent and the bare earth glared through the few stalky apologies – this earth was responsible for most of the colour”

“Modern type transport consisted of a narrow gauge railway with perspiring engines pulling weights that seemed to crush them and a local bus service consisting of coughing boxes on wheels which seemed to conk on every hill. All the buses were literally packed with multi-coloured clothes stuffed with perspiring humanity. It was interesting but I can’t say I was sorry to get my feet on the deck again.”

This first shore leave would have been at Freetown, Sierra Leone just north of the Equator. The next one Jim describes was at Durban, on the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa.

At Sea, 7 June 1941

“Since my last letter was written we have had four days shore leave. I can’t say where it was but our reception left nothing to be desired. The townsfolk were very hospitable and invitations to lunch tea dinner etc. were more or less to be had “for the asking”.

“Fred and I plus two R.A.S.C. blokes were picked upon by an elderly gentleman at the suburban tram terminus and taken off for tea to his house. He left Glasgow 50 years ago he told us and since then has travelled the world. When convoys are in port he stands at the terminus every day to collect four men for tea. He can’t go any further than that as his heart is so bad – he must have been over 80 years old.”

“Not the least of our joys was in being able to order just what one liked in a café – there is no hint of rationing of any kind. I renewed acquaintance with Granny Smith’s thinking at the time how much you would appreciate a dozen or so. All transport in the city was free to the troops but as one couldn’t stand for five minutes waiting for a bus without being offered a lift to wherever one wanted to go it wasn’t used overmuch.”

Before reaching Durban they endured a three-day storm that caused chaos below deck. Jim seems to have preferred to stay out in it.

“The ship being lightly laden developed a beautiful roll so that on occasion she dipped her main deck rails under water – I know because on one occasion I was there with the sea apparently 20 safe feet below me and the next moment I stared fascinatedly at the sea about six feet above me in a sheer wall not four feet from me – then it just swallowed the rail and I was up to my knees not in a wave but in the sea itself.”

“We lost one lifeboat and several rafts. I was on deck when the rafts went overboard and the self igniting flares could be seen strung out behind the ship as she ploughed on.”

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