By Captain Philip Andrews

I returned from leave in London early in July 1942 to find the ship in turmoil. Dockyard workers, Navy blokes, blokes in bowler hats giving orders - who are these people, and what on earth is happening? Dirt, rubbish, steels-off cuts, how do they expect us to get this mess cleaned up and the ship ready for sea?

The ship was the 12,700 tons Empire Hope, of Shaw Savill and Albion,71 and was berthed at Avonmouth on the Bristol Channel in the UK.

Making my way aft, as I picked my way around welding lines and pieces of sheet metal, I couldn’t help but think that what was one month ago a nice clean and tidy ship, was now a mad house of confusion. We were beginning to look like an AMC (Armed Merchant Cruiser) as there seemed to be new gun pits everywhere.

Dumping my gear and clearing out four card-playing workers from my cabin, I changed and went on a tour of inspection to find out what was going on. Nobody knew anything; I then met the 2nd officer on the boat deck, who looked as puzzled as I was.

“What’s happening?” I asked. “Dammed if I know, ask the cook.” I went to the galley to scrounge a cup of tea. You never know, the cook just might be a fountain of knowledge.

“What’s happening Cookie?” “Don’t know, don’t care and get out of my galley! I’ve got enough problems. Go and see the Peggy!’ Good idea – why didn’t I think of that before. Peggies are always a mine of rumours. Going further forward in search of information, I noticed a character coming down the dock, wheeling a wheelbarrow filled with concrete, and above him a barrage balloon attached to the wheelbarrow. “Hey, where do you want this bloody thing?” He yelled at me. As he was only a small man, it was just the size of a balloon that stopped me from telling him where to put it!

Holy Hell! They were putting gun pits on the forecastle and paravanes – what next. I finally found the chief officer who told me to get some of the crew together and start cleaning up as best we could. I asked the inevitable question – “What’s happening?” “Buggered if I know – the bastards have gone mad!” Going aft to find who was about, I ran into the Peggy. “What’s happening Peggy?” “We’re going to bloody Iceland!” “Who said?” “Got it from the cook.” He replied. Ah well, stranger things have happened.

Found five of our crew. “Come on, you chaps; let’s see if we can do something about this mess.” Plenty of grumbles and groans, with somebody saying, “I suppose we’ll have to paint everything again!” Somebody asked me, “Where are we going? Don’t know – go ask the Peggy.” I replied. “Already have and he reckons Iceland, got it from the chief steward, so he says.” Rumours – everyone has heard something.

The day finally came when we got rid of the dockyard gangs and we moved the ship to the loading berth. Thank goodness we can wash down and get the damn thing in some sort of order and make her look like a ship again. When we arrived at Avonmouth we had one 4.7 inch gun on our stern. When we left we had eight Oerlikons pits, four Bofors pits, twin Brownings on each wing of the bridge, sixteen depth charges on each side of poop deck, one 4.7 inch gun and two curious looking objects called Aerial Mine Throwers, (FAMS’s for short).

Our elation at getting rid of the dockyard workers soon wore thin when we were inundated by navy and army blokes who were going to man some of our guns. I wished they would get out of the way so that we could do our job the right way and not the Navy way. The Army just got in the way.

If we had any thoughts of going to Iceland or maybe New York, they were soon shattered when we got that blasted barrage balloon on board, and we started loading our cargo.

Trucks and trains started arriving. Kerosene in 4 gallon cans, hundreds of the bloody things, was being stowed in the lower holds. Aviation Spirit, also in 4 gallon cans on top of that and then ammunition in the tween decks – all sorts, all types – and then the bombs mixed up with everything else. On top of this floating potential Vesuvius, they stacked sacks of flour, till we could take no more and then we battened down- or so we thought. Where are we going? I didn’t like it, something was going on somewhere. Nobody knew anything. Rumours, and more rumours everywhere.

Next thing we knew we were taking military vehicles on deck. Tanker wagons and trucks, glory be! The tankers were then being filled with gasoline and the trucks with cases of kerosene! What next? Well, next we get sacks of coal to be stacked nine high on top of the hatches. Did someone mention Vesuvius, as it would have nothing on us, as all the holds had the same cargo and all stowed in similar order.

When loading was completed we were ordered to Milford Haven for firing practice. Still don’t know where we were going and it was probably some consolation to find out that the captain didn’t know either.

Arriving at Milford Haven we drifted around for a few hours and had a few shots at a drogue being towed by an aircraft. Managed to hit the jumper stay of the fire control vessel that had about six hoists of flags up at the time, so that put an end to our practice session.

A signal received from shore that we were to proceed to Greenock. Thank goodness, maybe the Peggy was right. Greenock during wartime was a major port for the convoys to form. This would be the first convoy for the Empire Hope since it was launched.

Ships started to arrive, Almira Lykes, Brisbane Star, Clan Ferguson, Deucalion, Dorset, Glenorchy, Melbourne Star, Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle, Santa Elisa, Waimarama, Wairangi, and the tanker Ohio joined us after we sailed. All were modern and fast vessels. With our cargo, who needs a tanker in our midst?

August 1st. The chief officer musters all the ship’s company and reads a signal to us. Those of us who wish to depart from the ship may do so – now – as the mission on which we are to embark could be extremely dangerous. It was to the credit of all the crews of all the ships that, to my knowledge, not one man took up this offer.

August 2nd. Convoy conference aboard the cruiser HMS Nigeria, within minutes of the skipper’s return, the whole ship knows. We are going to Malta.

At 2000 we up anchor and get underway, rather slowly at first, finding our position in the convoy. With HMS Nigeria in the lead, Operation Pedestal, has begun - the most fateful of all the Malta Convoys.

August 3rd. Daybreak, what a fantastically wonderful sight, warships everywhere. Big ships, small ships, aircraft carriers and battleships formed up on both sides of the convoy in the Irish Sea. Coastal Command was flying Sunderland aircraft overhead.

We, all of us, were thinking that if this mob stays around us, we won’t have much difficulty in getting to Malta.

Another signal came around for all crew members, from no lesser a person than the First Lord of the Admiralty, telling us what great blokes we were and for God’s sake, get the damn ships to Malta. That’s not what the message actually said, but that’s what it meant.

The run to Gibraltar was uneventful, except someone with an itchy finger shot down one of our Sunderland’s – mistaking it for an enemy plane. How on earth can you mistake a Sunderland for anything other than a Sunderland?

We all had plenty of work to do getting everything in order and drilling our teams, while the ships were practicing their emergency turns to port and starboard. All this in a 16 knot convoy. By the time we reached Gibraltar, we weren’t too bad at manoeuvring. That means that we were all more or less in the designated spot when the manoeuvre was completed.

Saturday August 10th. At 2200 passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. Amazing how many signal lamps start up both from North Africa and Spain, no doubt telling all and sundry of our passage.

Sunday August 11th. The convoy forms into a close-knit battle group. Battleships Nelson and Rodney in our midst and the carriers Argus, Eagle, Furious, Indomitable and Victorious each with their attendant cruisers floating around astern of the convoy.

What a beautiful day it was. Everybody lazing around trying to look busy, when all of a sudden we heard a big THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, as though an empty drum was banging on the side of the ship.

Action stations. Sirens going, nothing in sight. Away off on our port quarter, the Eagle has been torpedoed and was starting to list to port. We could clearly see her planes toppling down her flight deck into the water – her crew walking on the side of the ship, as she slowly turned over, 7 minutes and she was all gone. Just 7 minutes! My God! A ship of that size to disappear in 7 minutes. Frightening!

Sirens going, destroyers everywhere, depth charges everywhere. I wonder how many of our men were killed that day. 45 degree emergency turn to starboard, speed 18 knots. Zigzag courses and action stations all afternoon. A few enemy aircraft hanging around, no doubt wondering how to get in through our screen. Nelson and Rodney open up at a couple of high flyers, otherwise all quiet. The first time 16 inch guns have been used on aircraft.

Dusk comes and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Within 2 minutes of standing down, we were back at action stations, and then all hell broke loose! JU 888’s and Heinkel 111’s, with torpedoes. Tracers everywhere, red, blue, green and gold, the noise was deafening. Bursting shells and great white plumes of water shot into the air by near miss bombs.

It would seem that nothing could get through our barrage, but they did. One JU 88 down on fire, another to port streaming black smoke. On top of this entire din, we had destroyer’s sirens whooping, ordering emergency turns to port and then 45 degrees to starboard. Suddenly, silence. A peaceful night – we hoped. We are all completely fagged out and sleep at or near our action stations. Galley shut down, so no hot food for anyone.

August 12th. With the dawn came action stations. We counted the ships. We were all still there. We were dead beat. Most of us dozed at our guns. About 0900 we smarten up, enemy aircraft – JU 88’s again. The carriers had dispatched their Hurricanes and they did a first class job in dispersing them. Two destroyers out to starboard started a concentrated depth charge attack.

Came noon and we smartened up again. Planes dead ahead. An Italian Savoia, dropped what we thought were parachute mines. Emergency turn to starboard. Dive bombing started from a small flight of JU 87 B’s.

More torpedo bombers on the port bow, another lot on our starboard bow, our fire power was terrific! How each ship managed to keep their place in the convoy will never cease to amaze me, as it was clearly the enemy intention to separate us. We all knew what the consequences would be if we lagged behind. Mistakes, especially at 16 knots in a close knit convoy would be a disaster.

JU 87 B’s came in again at us. Bombs, water spouts, shrapnel, smoke, cordite and the sea flecked all over with fallout. What goes up must come down – just as long as it doesn’t come down on me!

A new menace appeared that day. We discovered that deflection bars on our gun pits protected our ship from our over enthusiastic gunners, but they didn’t protect us from gunners on other ships.

Deucalion hit and falling behind. We all know what her fate would be. Silence once more. Depth charges started up again, there was no respite. We were all dead tired. For the whole day we had to endure the heat of the Mediterranean sun and continued attack by anything and everything. Thank God we had those fighters.

Alarm bells again! Italian torpedo bombers and more dive bombers. Don’t these guys ever give up? For the next two and a half hours they never let up. The carrier Indomitable hit by bombs on her flight deck. To see one of those mighty ships disappear in a flash and a giant cloud of smoke, and then to see her serenely emerge again is a wonderful sight. She was on fire, but she was still shooting!

Our morale quickly hit rock bottom, when we observed all the major warships turn about and pick up speed – returning to Gibraltar. It was said that there wasn’t room for all the ships in the “Narrows”.

I’ve got news for all those decision makers; men fight wars, not ships. Maybe there were enemy in the “Narrows”. With our force we could have cleaned them out, but without, we were sitting ducks.

So far, we had lost one merchant ship. Night was coming on. Cruiser ahead torpedoed. A vast flash of flame and another flash of fire as another ship was hit. This time it was our tanker Ohio. When tankers catch fire, they rarely survive, but survive she did. It must have been hot work putting out that fire. During all this,

JU88’s and 87 B’s have kept us on the move. More warships turning back for Gibraltar. JU 88’s now coming in at little more than mast height.

Brisbane Star torpedoed in the bow and lost control. We stop our engines to avoid being rammed. At 2105 a tremendous explosion. We had been hit I was sailing gracefully through the air. The man on the flying trapeze had nothing on me! I had a fleeting thought that I might be able to dive into the water, but I hit with a thud that knocked the stuffing out of me.

I was well clear of the ship. She was lighting up the whole area with the fire. The sea was on fire, I hoped the others got out. Terrible screams from fellows caught in the flames on the water. Thank God I was to windward. I checked out my injuries, they seemed to be mostly to my face and shoulders. The rest of me was intact.

The Empire Hope was then torpedoed by one of our destroyers to put her fires out, which had lit up the whole area around her. That was the final straw, she blew up. I can’t begin to tell you what the jarring on the body does to you from the explosions and depth charges, when one is in the water. Thank goodness we never took off our lifejackets.

When the ship was gone and all was dark around me, I plugged in my light, in the hope that somebody would see me who was going my way - preferably Gibraltar!

About 2300 I was lucky, a cruiser stopped by, probably to ask directions, so I climbed up on the scrambling net and promptly fell asleep on the deck of HMS Manchester. The 12th of August wasn’t one of my better days.

August 13th. I woke to gunfire about 0100 and tried to make myself as small as possible – not an easy task when you are 6ft 5ins! No aircraft this time, but E boats. They seemed to be everywhere. Bang! Explosion in the forepart. Torpedoed and out of control, all systems out. Engines stopped. Sinking. Into the water again. Pity, I was just beginning to dry out from the last swim! Two destroyers appear and I again clambered up a scrambling net, this time onto HMS Penn.

Back into the fray, chasing E boats. We had stopped and picked up survivors from the Santa Elisa which had also been blown up. I didn’t want another night like this one. Daylight came and so did the JU 88’s. The Ohio was back with us. In all, only 7 of us remained.

The Waimarama was copping it up ahead, when all of a sudden she blew up with a tremendous roar and disappeared in a sheet of flame. The sea was a mass of flame, spreading very fast and threatening to engulf us. A bad day.

Dive bombing attacks again. They seemed to be concentrating on the Ohio. Every gun going flat out. One felt so helpless – wanting to do something, but there was nothing that could be done. Ohio eventually succumbed and stopped with no power. Miraculously, she still floated, even after a JU 87 B crashed on her deck, opening up her deck plates.

Our destroyer and HMS Bramhan took up station along the sides and started to guide her towards Malta. We were the target of everything that came along. We could see kerosene sloshing around in her tanks, through her split deck plates.

We let go of the ship while a torpedo attack took place. I wished to heavens we could get out of there, but there are no back doors, so we carried on. Went back to help support Ohio. More attacks. We could only make about 5 knots. Had to let go again and circle while a heavy attack takes place. Our ship is crowded with survivors. Tanker getting very low in the water. We went back and started towing again. We were all reaching the limit of our endurance. Men asleep everywhere. What morcould be done?

August 15th. Our tow is taken over by tugs from Malta, thank goodness. What a glorious sight as we enter Valetta Harbour. A military band was playing, welcoming us into port. It seemed as though we had been fighting for a month, instead of 5 days.

All of us only had the clothes that we stood up in. The Army gave each of us a new shirt, and a pair of ‘Bombay bloomers’ when we got ashore. The Navy gave us a double tot of rum. We were billeted in Sliema, to await our return to the UK, but that is another story to be told at a later date.

We arrived back in London and after a stay in hospital, I and 3 others, reported in at the office of Shaw Savill and Albion. We were given our discharge books, and a pay envelope. Looking at our books, we got the greatest shock of our lives. We just couldn’t believe our eyes; there it was in black ink! Signed off at sea, 12th August, 1942.

It is to the British ship-owners lasting discredit that it didn’t matter what you did, whether you were blown apart or mortally wounded, or spent 3 months in a lifeboat, your pay stopped the day you were sunk! We were also given another envelope with money in it. An ex-gratia payment, courtesy of H.M. Government, to replace the loss of everything you possessed. Exactly: Seven Pounds, Six Shillings and Eight Pence.

Author Captain Philip Andrews, article supplied by Captain Frank Pickering, Sydney Branch