Life on board the Aquitania
The Aquitania was 48,000 ton and this in itself makes it one of the largest ships to be built and certainly, except for those who bunked down in G Deck was the most luxurious accommodation any of us had during the rest of the war moving from one theatre to another. Not even the sergeants or officers would have had the same comfort again. I know I was able to make the giddy nark of sergeant by the time I left for Furlough and I can assure all and sundry, the accommodation was never the same as the first berth on the Aquitania as a gunner.
Life on board was quite entertaining, first one had to be fed. This for the O.R.'s was in a magnificent dining room and all in all the food was quite good, and dished up at tables with tablecloths on. Three good meals a day and the world looked good.
While at sea there was a lookout set up for aircraft. This consisted of groups of 20 men with rifles. The general idea was that with 20 rifles firing in groups someone was bound to get a hit. Just what would have happened had we been attacked I don't know, but after a few experiences with planes later on guess it was a morale builder at the best.
Then there was the usual cabin inspections, where one still had to have everything laid out neat and tidy for daily inspection. At this stage in 'A' troop the following were the officers and sergeants:
During the day, besides the stint one had to do as a lookout, there was still training to be done in the way of lectures on fire discipline, map reading, and P.T. This all making for the days to pass very quickly.
One of the officers who must have made a study of it, was Lt Ackland. Later to be known as 'Gas'. Lt Ackland's talks on the Battle of Jutland, I can still vividly recall, as they were really thrilling to a young soldier like myself. Especially as the lecturer really knew his subject.
After the evening meal was of course the time when as usual most people were able to relax and enjoy their ale, or natter. And believe me it was an education for one to see the queues. There was, it seemed thousands of thirsty soldiers in a line with their pint mug moving slowly along. For about 4d, I think we were able to partake of the warm liquid they called beer. If you were lucky maybe you would manage two mugs. but if you did you were really lucky. So there would be everyone, did not matter what Corp lining up and sitting down all over the ship sipping at their mug of beer and talking cunning. Usually from there it was easy enough to get engaged in a game of two up, crown and anchor, or slippery sam. So the time slipped by, and in very little time the convoy was enlarged by the Queen Mary, which came out of Sydney Heads with the Aussies on board. So once again there was the Australians and New Zealanders joining forces to go and fight the common foe.
The first port of call was Fremantle. There the Australians were not allowed ashore and showed their displeasure by heaving a lot of the furniture overboard. But the New Zealanders were put on trains and taken into Perth. You can well imagine the excitement as we passed by a street which we came to know as 'Rose Street' and all the girls were giving the troop train a great welcome, by waving their knickers. It is now a well known fact that a great time was had by all in Perth, so I will leave it to all those who were fortunate to be on that leave in Perth to do your own explaining
Having settled down to shipboard life again, and as we thought, heading for Egypt, one night we felt the ship changing course. And it was not long in the morning that all on board knew we were heading for Cape Town and England. The reason being Italy had declared war and the powers that be had thought it would be a little dangerous to steam up past the Italian bases on the East Coast of Africa.
So the day arrived when we on the Aquitania watched over the rails as those other ships from the convoy berthed and discharged their troops ashore for a spot of leave,
Next day the Aquitania up anchored and sailed around to the naval port of Simonstown. There we were taken ashore by barge. But not before we had had a lecture on what we could do and where we could go though. So there we were all lined up on the wharf getting our last words of advice when a couple of cars driven by chauffeurs arrived. It turned out an English millionaire, Sir Abe Bailey had sent the cars to take 10 of the regiment on a tour of Cape Town. As I happened to be one picked for the trip, I can only say the boys from what I heard, had a great time in Cape Town. For us who had the good fortune to be Sir Abe's guests, we had a marvellous time. It was Gunner's Day, 26 May and we were all late back to the ship.
At this stage of the trip we had lost our nice little cabin and been shifted to a deluxe cabin with private amenities. There was eight of us in this cabin and I cannot remember them all, but there was Eric Allen, Slick Rush, one of the Scully boys, Herb Sampson, Bas Mitchell and myself. Now why I am talking about this is that Eric Allen had been on the trip with us in Cape Town, and like the rest of us had our full of brandy and hospitality.
The next morning we had sailed, but Eric could not, or would not get out of bed, and there was the rest of us standing to our beds when Captain McAvoy came to do his rounds. I do not think Captain McAvoy could have had much of a time in Cape Town and certainly was in no mood to see Eric in bed. So was telling Eric what he thought of him when Eric rolled over, hung his thing out and let go over the floor. To see the look of horror come over the Captain's face was something to behold. At that stage I thought it hilarious and with my warped sense of humour, still do!
As you can well imagine we who were on the trip were not the only ones late back. So as the ship sailed serenly up the Coast of Africa to a place called Sierra Leone we who had been charged, had to do something called ship's punishment. And depending on who was in charge depended how it was done, But in the main it was done, with full packs up facing the wall.
One sad occasion was the burial at sea of one of the boys. This did quieten the boys down for a little while, but being what we were, soon were over it.
At Sierra Leone we were anchored out in the stream. There all the bum boats would come out and barter for goods. They had their little boats full of fruit, and many a piece of army equipment went down the rope in exchange. But the most amazing thing to see was the boys diving into the sea for any coins thrown in. Now, well you might say, is what is amazing about that? Would you dive into the sea with sharks swimming around and not just an isolated one! There was literally dozens of them, all looking hungry too.
When we left Sierra Leone we headed up the Coast before turning into the Irish Sea and making for Greenock. Two things of interest here. One morning the whole convoy wheeled at a sharp angle and the cry went up - torpedoes. The other I think which brought home the fact there was a war on, was when we steamed through a wreckage and the only living thing to be seen, was a cat sitting there on some of the salvage. And in the distance we did see a ship on fire.
So we steamed up the Clyde and anchored out in the stream off Greenock. Eventually to disembark and by train be taken to Aldershot. The first part of what was to take us into some mighty precarious positions had finished.
This article first appeared in a 5 Fd Regt Newsletter.