Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Rock

April 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Prose

Gibraltar was a completely new posting for a Guards Regiment. Our normal postings were London, Windsor, Aldershot, and the Middle East.

Not being a ‘good sailor’ meant that the sea voyage became sheer hell. Seasickness from almost the first day confined me to either the ship’s rail or the heads. In a comparatively short time, it seemed to me that almost all the troops were in the same condition. Leaning over the rail, being sick, became a very hazardous business. It appeared, on occasions, to be raining vomit. Those on the lower decks risked having someone on the deck above vomit down the back of their neck. The top deck troops, running to be sick on the windward side, had their own vomit blown back in their faces.

Those few days in crowded, airless, stench laden troop ship was the worst experience of my entire life. The decks, despite being hosed down with water, were always slippery with bile and vomit.

I think the ship was H M S Shropshire, almost certainly well past its `sell by date.’

When, finally, we reached Gibraltar, the feeling of relief was overwhelming. A picture of me on the quay tells its own story. If I hadn’t my rifle to lean on, I would probably have fallen over. I was so weak from that ghastly sea sickness! Thank Goodness I didn’t join the Navy.

Duties on the Rock were quite light and surroundings and weather very pleasant. Trips to Tangiers, an open city, were very welcome. It seemed strange to see German sailors and soldiers strolling around on shore visits just as we were.

The only arduous tasks were assisting the Royal Engineers to carve yet more tunnels, making the centre of the rock rather like a huge underground station, with its own railway. We had, of course, our designated points of action stations should war be declared. It was at one of these defence positions on a fine sunny day, dressed in full fighting kit, on the beach leaning against the sea wall, that the expected news came through. ‘We are now at war with Germany.’

In those few weeks our ‘active service’ consisted of being ferried out to so called ‘neutral ships’ which the Navy had caught trying to slip through the blockade of the Straits. These ships were all shapes and sizes; filthy cargo vessels with sheep, goats, chickens, all live and living in the holds for the sustenance of the crew. The stench was horrific, anchored up alongside smart new combined cargo and passenger ships. On one occasion, at least, a pleasure steamer containing over five hundred passengers and crew.

One section of Guardsmen was allotted to each ship regardless of size, that is, five or six men and one NCO. The orders were always the same; prevent the ship escaping or scuttling itself, call the roll of all passengers and crew at least twice every day. It took the authorities about seven days to clear the ship. In the meantime the section had to carry out continuous guard duties which usually meant one man on the bridge, on in the engine room and one on patrol over the deck, on a two hour on duty, two hours eat and sleep basis. The NCO of course had no relief, just grab odd times of sleep when possible. A totally impossible job. Fortunately I had the Cup and Saucer Tree to help me through.

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