'There came to the making of man'
We boarded the Britannia early in the morning on 10th March 1941, we were allocated cabins and a Canadian Volunteer called "Snowshoe" and I found ourselves bunked together in a very pleasant port side cabin. Having dumped our gear and selected our bunks we had a look round the ship. She was an Anchor Line and very comfortably fitted. I walked aft and watched the dockers loading ship and then to the rails and looked out over the Docks. Three or four of us strolled about making the usual investigations, where was the bathroom, the toilet, the shop and of course the bar. By the time we had covered our list of basic requirements of life we were ready for a snack in the dining-room and then awaited lunch-time.
It was a long day we spent aboard the Britannia, but eventually night arrived and Snowshoe and I slept the sleep of the tired and innocent. The new day brought us a native steward and a cup of tea, both were welcomed, also the realisation that we were under way. The Britannia headed down river, we left the grey shores, the mud flats and England. North we headed, past Ireland and then south for Africa.
The run out was pleasant and due to our escort, so far uneventful. The days grew warmer, the nights pleasant and star filled. I used to walk aft and look at our wake, creamy white and zigzagged with our course. The second day out I met up with George Nixon and his friend Frank, we fell to discussing gymnastics and various hand-balancing exhibits on the stage. I had been a keen gymnast for some years so Frank and I tried a little hand-balancing, with of course due allowance for the roll of the ship. It was while we were so engaged one day that an Indian Army Officer passed our group and the discussion became general. During our talk the conversation swung round to the question of fencing. The Officer fetched from his cabin a swordstick which he had purchased in London. It was decided that I would hone the blade for him. In true Navy tradition I always carried a sheath knife with me, remembering the words of Petty Officer Heath, "In the Navy lad, there are three you always have and you keep them sharp ... your knife, your pencil and your wits." To keep my blade keen I always carried a stone, so in the afternoon under an increasingly warm sun I sat and talked and honed the swordstick. In the mornings we fell in for boat drill and were allocated our stations. My boat I knew; how to get there and who would be with me; but its number I never remembered.
There was always PT in the morning before breakfast and the exercise and salt air gave me a hearty appetite for the first meal of the day. About the third day out there sprang up a fairly heavy sea, I enjoyed standing on the upper deck and watching the Britannia put her bows under, and rising, throw the seas through her scuppers. I used to watch our escort destroyer pitch and toss on the strident, heaving waters. One of them at least was an American four funnelled coastal craft that we had dearly paid for, here came to mind the Navy chant concerning them.
"Roll in the Hood, the Nelson, Renown,
This four funnelled bastard is getting me down."
I, aboard the Britannia, lived in comfort, I had no envy of our lads who were bobbing like corks in those small craft. Astern of us there came another large craft, which, I was told, was called the "Thermistocles".
The storm passed and the sun grew fierce, by twos and threes many of those aboard changed into tropical white gear. My gesture to the sun was to don my topee, the light, white helmet of the Englishman abroad. We pressed on across the large Atlantic, heading south towards Africa, the sun became hotter and we sizzled gently, our pale northern skins turning red or brown according to our luck. I grew quite attached to my topee, bearing in mind the words of warning of one of the Officers who had told us one morning at boat drill, "If we have to take to the boats, bring your top coats, the nights are cold, and wear a hat, the sun sends men mad." These words stayed in my mind, but at that time they had no deep significance, none of us anticipated that we would end up in the boats.
Our pleasant cruise went on in the ever increasing warmth, even to be on duty watch during the starlit sultry nights had its pleasures. On my duty nights I would watch the dark bulks of our escort and wonder if the phosphorescence of our wake would be guide to an enemy submarine.
There were days of loafing in the sun, a little hand-balancing with George and Frank and cheap plentiful drinks and cigarettes. I came on deck one morning to be told that the escort had left us, I looked around, the sea seemed large and the Britannia very lonely. Watches were doubled from here on and ships vigilance was increased.
Britannia plodded on alone, the sun was warm, the deck nearly hot enough to fry an egg. According to the usual lower deck rumours we were altering course to turn into the Cape and so another day passed and I went to my bunk looking forward to another sunny day's cruise, and night passed bringing daybreak.