Life on a troopship bound for overseas training

John Colville had worked in Downing Street throughout the Blitz, now he left the shattered city behind.The destruction around St Paul's Cathedral caused by air raids on London is softened by a heavy dusting of snow. A mobile crane and truck can be seen at work to clear up some of the debris, January 1942

John Colville had a First Class Honours Degree from Cambridge and had embarked on a promising career in the Diplomatic Service before being transferred to 10 Downing Street. He had served as Private Secretary to Winston Churchill since he had become Prime Minister in May 1940, becoming intimately aware of the machinations at the heart of government. He had also forged a great friendship with Churchill. His diary provides many insights into the way Churchill worked.

Feeling compelled to to serve his country in the armed forces he had volunteered for the RAF. Now as an ‘Aircraftsman 2nd Class’, after initial training, he found himself on a troopship in Liverpool destined for further training overseas. It was an experience he would share with tens of thousands of troops during the war:

The prospect is gloomy. Our space between decks is unnaturally overcrowded and the ceiling is very low. A large cage rails off one of the holds which is covered above by a tarpaulin. The whole scene resembles very closely the living quarters in the Victory.

This is the first time that I have known real discomfort without any escape which money or influence or friends can provide. There is nothing to be done but to accept the situation and I really feel quite cheerful, considerably more so than most of my companions. But I never expected to experience worse than Padgate; and Padgate was luxury in comparison. [the transit camp in Lancashire where he stayed before boarding the ship, which he described as 'acutely uncomfortable ... dreary and depressing ... obscene and utterly uninteresting companions"]

We had lunch at 12.00 hours. It was edible, if not particularly appetising: a tasteless soup drunk out of our mess tins, boiled beef with potatoes and multi-coloured, bullet-like peas, and sago pudding.

The ship left the dock, together with several others, presumably intended for the same convoy, and anchored in the Mersey ready to sail. It was piercingly cold, but bright and sunny.

I have found two observers who, more lucky than most of us, have a cabin on an upper deck with a wash basin. They have agreed to let me shave there, which is as well since below there are only twelve basins for about four hundred of us.

It is interesting to note how often one hears it said, here and everywhere, that Russia has turned the scales in this war and has saved us. It is also noticeable what a trend there seems to be towards the Left, coupled with an almost universal faith in Winston. We were blamed for cold- shouldering Russia before. How short the public memory is!

See John Colville: The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955.

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: