Embarking on a troopship – destination unknown

Security meant that few men knew where they were going until they were on board ship.

Travelling by troopship was a common experience for most who served in the war. In general they were faster and safer than merchant shipping and the the U-boat threat was not as great – but for many it would have been an unnerving experience. For troopships there were strict orders to keep going whatever else might happen to the ships around them.

Life on board a troopship varied greatly between the different ships and the status of the passenger but it was generally not a pleasant experience. Jim Buchan wrote a long account of his experiences – this is just part of it:

It was Wednesday the 9th December 1942 and above us the grey imposing hulk of the Troopship T.S. Cameronia loomed menacingly as we struggled from the sides of the King George V dock in Glasgow up the gang planks laden down with our kit bags, full marching order equipment and our small arms.

As we stepped on to the deck we were greeted not by a naval crew piping us aboard but by a member of the Military Police who handed each one of us in turn a slip of cardboard with a number on it signifying which part of the ship we were allocated to. Ours said ‘Messdeck D.8’ and awkwardly we struggled down gangways and flights of stairs until we reached our allotted space.

The implications of D8 slowly dawned on us, each deck was given a letter starting at A which was the one with the life boats on it and extended the full length of the hull. Above this were the shorter decks with cabins, offices and wireless rooms and finally the bridge and the deck from which the funnel rose. The troops were accommodated on the decks lettered A to D, in messdecks, which were areas sectioned off on each deck, numbered in rotation from stem to stern.

Each messdeck held about 100 men, and each man had a space at a long table each table having about 12 men grouped round it. There was some space around the tables and here all our equipment, blankets and bedding were stored. Hammocks were the order of the day, and they were slung on brackets over the tables and around the walls (or should that be bulkheads).

So this restricted space, four decks down on a converted liner, just above the water line and with only another messdeck – D9, between us and the propellers was to be the home for what we estimated would be about two weeks for the 254th Battery of the 64th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. bound for overseas service somewhere as yet unspecified.

Reveille was sounded at 6.30 and we rolled out of our hammocks, those of us who were still in them. Quite a few had been unable to get comfortable and had decided to sleep either on the mess table or on the benches or even on the deck. Breakfast would be at 7.30 so we had to get along to the ablutions wash, shave and get ourselves tidied up and gear stowed away ready for inspection by 8.30.

Another new experience, washing in salt water ! Fortunately we had been able to acquire some salt water soap the night before from the canteen but even so it was difficult. Drinking water was severely limited so cleaning of teeth was done using our mugs with drinking water in them, a little being saved to try and get a decent shave before washing off the soap and lather in salt water (cold). By now the ship was again at anchor only swaying slightly and when the mess orderlies came back with our breakfasts they had managed to have a look outside and were able to inform us that we were anchored off Greenock at what is known as ‘The Tail of the Bank’ which is the last point before the open sea.

Breakfast was surprisingly good, porridge followed by bacon and tinned tomatoes, doorstop slices of bread a spot of jam and lashings of tea so we were reasonably content as we had our first parade on deck and could view our surroundings. Many of us were familiar with them from pre-war trips down the Clyde on one of the many pleasure steamers so we knew the towns and hills we could see along the shore.

The river itself was almost covered in ships of all shapes and sizes from troopships like ours and some even bigger to battered looking cargo ships and puffing officiously about little tug boats ferrying people and instructions to the various vessels. In the distance moving slowly about we could see the sleek grey hulls of the Royal Navy destroyers which presumably would be our escorts when our convoy – P7 finally set sail but everywhere was dull, grey and damp, after all it was December and we weren’t off on a pleasure cruise

Read more of Jim Buchan’s story on BBC People’s War.

The Cameronia made unescorted transatlantic crossings even after the war started, until she was requisitioned as a troop ship by the British Admiralty in December 1940. In December of 1942, she was hit with an aerial torpedo, with the loss of 17 lives, but carried on to port for repairs. The ship woould later go on to become the largest troopship to take part in the Normandy Landings. After the end of WWII, the ship was laid up, but was broguthout of retirement and converted for use as an Australian emigration ship.

Details courtesy Pride of the Clyde.

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