John Derrick Cutcliffe
John Derrick Cutcliffe
I was fortunate enough to be born in Ilfracombe, a lovely small seaside town in North Devon, in 1922. My father was Alfred Stanley Cutcliffe, my mother Adelaide Francis Cutcliffe (née Hill), and my sister Joan Marguerite Mundy is 4 years older than I, having been born in January 1919. Historians think that the town may have originally been called “Alfrien Combe”, or something akin to that – meaning “Alfred’s Haven” – yes, he of the Burnt Cakes or “bannocks”. We are not aware if any Cutcliffes were around then, in the mid-800's, but we do know that the family has been centred here in North Devon for many centuries, with the earliest record being that of the reforming Friar John Cutcliffe of Damage Barton, Lee (near Ilfracombe) who was imprisoned for anti-papal writings in about 1340 at Avignon, to which city the Papacy had moved from Rome, and who died in prison there. We have an account of his statement before the two Cardinals who tried and convicted him, and in effect he said “You ‘top dogs’ are puffed up with your own sense of self importance and look after yourselves far too well. Until you divest yourselves of your trappings of luxury and vanity and come back to simple basics you will not be following the right path and leading your flocks properly”.
We lived in the vicinity of the harbour, and although my father was not directly connected to the sea it was very much part of our ambience. For many years the RNLI had stationed a Lifeboat there (and still does). Because of the very large rise and fall of the tides in that part of the Bristol Channel – over 30 feet at Springs – it was not possible to house the boat in a house connected to a slipway from which it could be launched directly. So the boat was mounted on a carriage fitted with huge wheels, which tended to get stuck in the mud at some tide levels, and this was pulled by ropes manned by two teams made up of anybody and everybody from the immediate area. Shopkeepers, hoteliers, a quartet of publicans, the milkman, the postmaster, a baker, a fish’n’chip shop owner, the chemist, a taxi-driver and the older boys were just some who would turn out, whatever the time and weather, to run down to the pier and pull the lifeboat some 250 yards to the harbour for launching. Once that maroon went off the reaction was immediate and help was given freely and without question. Men’s lives were at risk – hopefully we could save them. At all stages of the tide except at high tide this meant, because of the gentle slope of the beach, that the only way that the boat could be ensured sufficient water for her to float as she came off the carriage was for the pullers to wade out to their necks. I have a vivid memory of them, my father included, struggling to do this one winter night in the 1930’s at about midnight in awful conditions. As far as I can recall that shipwrecked crew was saved. Not all were so fortunate. In later years a tractor took over the pulling, and the carriage wheels were replaced by caterpillar tracks which didn’t get stuck – but most people still turned out just in case they were needed. Not to pull, of course, but when our boat returned the rescued men, who were cold, wet and very frightened, needing all the TLC that our small community could give them – and there was still the Lifeboat to recover and make 100% ready for the next emergency. Looking back on that time the thing that stood out above all else was the strong sense of community and oneness. Each played his or her part (unpaid, of course) not because it was expected of them, for they had no obligation to turn out, but because they wanted to do it. I'm sure that sense of communal duty prompted my father's involvement with the RNLI into old age. For many years he served on the local committee, latterly as its chairman, and his coffin was draped in the RNLI Ensign as a mark of appreciation for his years of service on their behalf.
With our close proximity to the harbour, and a father who was a keen sea-angler who fished for the pot as well as for sport, I grew up in a house where seafood formed a substantial part of our diet. At an early age I was taught all the spots in the rock pools at low tide where, with luck, you could expect to pull out a crab or two. And I mean “pull out”. Getting around the rocks at extreme low tide in the short time the tides allowed you was an art in itself, and it called for a fair amount of nerve and agility. In most cases the technique of catching involved lying down at the pool edge, inserting your hand at arm’s length into a hole, feeling carefully around to gauge if there was a crab in there and then, if so, grabbing it and pulling it out! If it turned out to be a ‘cock’ crab, then back went your hand for the ‘hen’, as 99% of the time there would be one in there. You couldn’t see anything of course, so it all had to be done by feel. I have seen grown men, including a holder of the M.C., back off when it was suggested that they might like to ‘have a go’. You didn’t try that trick with the lobsters though, so you had to know which holes were the crab ones and which the lobster. My father had been taught the best holes by his uncle, who was still fit enough when in his 70’s to ‘catch his tea’, and do so in shorter time than his nephew too! There were prawns and shrimps to be had just for the effort, and when the tide came in we could catch mullet, bass, pollack, whiting and conger. When you got them home you had to gut and clean them., and that stood me in good stead many years later when living in East Africa.
It is difficult in these days to remember how much so many facets of our lives have changed, and changed by so much since the 1930’s. For instance in our street only a few homes had telephones and nobody owned a car, in fact, apart from the man who owned a garage, I don’t recall anyone in our whole area doing so. Apart from one or two who had seen service in the Great War, I knew of nobody who had ever been abroad, and most would probably only have been outside North Devon once or twice in their whole lives. Certainly none had ever been abroad for a holiday. Recently an old colleague of mine from East Africa paid us a visit, and in passing he mentioned that his grandchildren had been to Portugal, then to the USA and finally down here to Appledore all during this summer holiday period, and that they had enjoyed the latter bit the most. It was the norm for people in our part of the world to be born, live and die within the same small area. None of us felt deprived, I fancy, and were happy with things as they were. I had always imagined that I would finish up working in Ilfracombe, possibly in a Bank or a Solicitor’s office, or some such dreary existence. When in about 1936 and 1937 other classmates of ours went off to sea in the Merchant Navy, and then returned months later with exciting and lurid tales of their adventures in ‘foreign parts’ I thought ‘that is it – that is the life for me. I shall away to the Briney and do likewise’.
The usual path to becoming an Merchant Navy officer in those days was to take up a four year apprenticeship with a shipping company. That could sometimes mean, if the vessel you joined was “tramping”, i.e. taking a cargo from A to B, then another from B to C, and so on, being away from this country for several years. Just recently there was a big fuss made over a ship which had been on a voyage of five months, and counselling was arranged for the families! The alternative route, if one’s parents could afford it, was to gain entry into a nautical training college. There were three such colleges, HMS Conway on the Mersey, HMS Worcester on the Thames at Greenhithe in Kent, and Pangbourne College on the Thames in Berkshire. From those places, if you got top grades after the two-year course, you could with luck gain entry into the top UK companies like P & O, Union-Castle, Shaw Savill, Royal Mail, etc., and – in a depressed industry - continue with them in later years when qualifications had been gained. A successful passage through the college was discounted by the Ministry to the tune of 1 year, cutting the apprenticeship period from four to three years at sea before qualification was allowed. That still meant that it took in all about 9 or 10 years, with three examination hurdles to overcome, to become fully qualified, so there were no easy quick fixes. My good folk reached down to the very bottom of their not very deep pockets to send me to HMS Worcester, and I was eternally grateful to them for their sacrifice.
I joined HMS Worcester on Friday 13th January 1939. She was an old wooden ship, somewhat along the lines of HMS Victory, and moored close to her was the famous Tea Clipper “Cutty Sark”, which was also part of the college. Discipline was very strict but fair. Everything was done “at the double”. You were given three weeks to find out what was what, and if after that you failed to toe the line you were ‘beaten’. That was the phrase used, and it aptly described what happened. On one occasion I got six for being too nosy and looking through a doorway into a cabin which was out of bounds to such a low form of life as a ‘first term Cadet’! You learned fast. With the ship being wooden smoking was totally forbidden, and if anyone was stupid enough to do it and was caught the punishment was flogging with a rope’s end in front of the whole ship’s company followed by expulsion. No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. You learned to carry out orders quickly and without question, and sadly it wasn’t too long afterwards that such reactions could well save your own life as well as those of your companions. The idea was “First carry out the order. If you didn’t know why the order was given ask "why?”. The basic principles of your craft were thoroughly drummed into you, and that stood you in good stead too. I left the college on Friday 13th December 1940 and joined the Union-Castle vessel Richmond Castle at Glasgow in March 1941. A few days later we sailed for Capetown via Freetown in Sierra Leone.
Built at Harland's, Belfast, in 1938, the 8,000 ton vessel was refrigerated throughout and had been designed for the South African fruit trade, from where the cargo would only be chilled, but we could also be used to carry frozen cargoes, such a meat, as well as carry ordinary general cargo. With a speed of 16 knots, and carrying some additional armament such as a 4.7” naval gun, we were not sent in convoy but were routed independently. It was a high-risk strategy, but so desperate was the country for foodstuffs that it was deemed necessary. In our sister town of Barnstaple there is still, in the year 2000, a street of shops in the middle of town named Butcher’s Row, for obvious reasons, and one of these had belonged to one “Butcher” Elliott. Well known and respected locally, he played a prominent role in Barnstaple’s civic life.
To my surprise, on arrival at Capetown, I was introduced to some friends of our Chief Officer and found that the man of the house Harry was not only a butcher but also an Elliott, and was the nephew of the famous North Devonian. With too many brothers to work in the one business Harry’s father had gone to South Africa to make a new life, and had done very well for himself! After completion of discharge at Durban we sailed ‘light-ship’ across the South Atlantic to the River Plate and docked at La Plata in the Argentine to load beef. On the passage across we became quite used to seeing close up the truly magnificent Wandering Albatrosses, with a wing span (the world’s largest) exceeding about 11 feet. These aerial giants would soar and glide, without ever moving their wings, to within only a very few feet of us on the bridge wing using the updraft caused by our ship’s movement through the air. They obviously had no fear of humans or of our strange noisy moving islands.
The homeward passage passed without incident, and the next voyage was almost a repeat of the first except that on this occasion we sailed some 170 miles (that’s the equivalent of London to Manchester plus some) up the River Paraná to Rosario to load the first half of our cargo of meat. While there four of us went ashore for a meal and a drink, and rather naively we wandered into a place called the Munich Bar. Sitting propping up the bar was a large group of young blonde German-speaking lads. One of our group had been brought up in Hamburg, where his father had been the Rep for a UK firm, and he spoke fluent German. He whispered to us to keep quiet while he listen to what was being said, then told us that the big group were crew members from the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Von Spee. She had sought shelter in Montevideo in December 1939 after the Battle of the River Plate. After about four days the German commander Captain Hans Langsdorff, having been bluffed into thinking that large reinforcements had arrived to join the Cruisers Ajax and Achilles, landed most of his crew and, with a skeleton crew, took his warship to the outer harbour and scuttled her. Three days later he shot himself. The Uruguayan authorities were obliged to put the crew under arrest, but were quite happy to turn a blind eye to any of the crew who decided to escape over the border into Argentina where there were large numbers of people of German extraction living. Our friends at the bar were obviously some of those escapees so, bearing in mind the adage about discretion being the better part of valour, and being grossly outnumbered, we beat a strategic withdrawal with dignity just as soon as we could. A week later, having completed our loading at Buenos Aires, we called at Montevideo to pick up our Admiralty sailing orders, and sure enough there was the rusting conning tower of the battleship still poking up out of the muddy waters of the River Plate. Best place for it, we all agreed!
Our orders took us around the eastern tip of Brazil at Cape Recife and then in a north-westerly direction towards the Caribbean, the idea being to keep the maximum distance between us and our U-boat friends, now operating out of French Atlantic Coast ports, for as long as possible. During daylight hours we followed a series of zigzag courses, but at night we steered a straight course but without navigation lights. We had been routed from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, but what we didn’t know was that some idiot in the Admiralty had routed another British ship from ‘B’ to ‘A’. On a dark night, about 0100 hrs, there was a report from our forward lookout that he could see something dead ahead, and so it proved. Under such circumstances, i.e. vessels meeting 'end on', the law dictates that each vessel shall alter course to starboard to pass down the port side of the other. This we did – but to our utter horror she turned in the opposite direction. The next 30/40 seconds were, without any doubt whatsoever, the most frightening and horrendous of my whole life. Once committed there was nothing that either ship could do to avert the certain disaster. With an approach speed of 30 knots we ploughed into the starboard side of her No.2 hatch, and as she maintained her way past us we swept away her bridge, much of her starboard accommodation and starboard boats with our forecastle. The noise and feel of 30,000 tons of ships and cargo crashing into each other at that speed was unbelievable. Men were screaming in pain and fear, and just writing about it after 59 years it still makes me feel sick to the pit of my stomach, so vivid is that awful dreadful memory.
The other vessel turned out to be the British vessel “City of Bangalore,” outward bound to Capetown with a cargo mainly destined for the armed forces. Both ships were severely damaged, but remarkably had remained afloat. Throughout the remainder of the night we managed to rescue most of the other vessel’s crew, but sadly a number of her Indian crew members were never found. At daylight the next day we started to attempt to tow the City of Bangalore towards Trinidad, the nearest ‘friendly’ port. It was a dangerous task as, even had we been successful, progress would have been painfully slow and both ships placed at great risk. In fact after several attempts the operation proved impossible due to the severity of the damage she had suffered. After consultations the two Captains very reluctantly decided that in the best interests of saving something from the incident we would sink the City of Bangalore by gunfire. I had been the junior on the bridge at the time of the accident, the 2nd Officer being the O.O.W., and it so happened that he doubled as the Gunnery Officer and I as the Gun Layer on our 4.7 inch gun. It fell to the two of us to give the ‘Coup de Gras’ with six shells along her waterline – a sad task. At Trinidad temporary repairs were made to our bows, where virtually all our damage was limited, and we then continued at reduced speed to Halifax in Nova Scotia to await a UK bound Convoy. The naval authorities there considered that the chance of successfully crossing the Atlantic in our condition was so slight that the plan was aborted, and we went back to New York to discharge our cargo into another British vessel. We then went ‘light ship' to Galveston, in Texas and stayed there, having a completely new bow built on, until late November, when we returned to New York to load. We sailed on a fateful day, the 8th December 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the day that the USA actually declared war. It was also my 19th birthday. Having spent the three previous months in the USA we were all too well aware that, while there was great sympathy with the plight of the UK and a willingness on many citizen’s part to help where they could, there was no discernible will to enter the war at our side. The Japanese attack proved to be the most stupid thing that they could have done as it catapulted the USA straight into the war by just this one fateful action.
The next voyage – to Argentine via South Africa again – passed off without incident. Our charmed life was not to last, however, and it was on the one following that when we were torpedoed. We had sailed from Montevideo for Avonmouth on 18th July, routed independently as usual. We were struck by two torpedoes at 1125 on 4/8/42 in 50°25’N, 35°05W, about 750 miles to the east of Newfoundland, and the ship sank at 1132 (just 7 minutes later). We learned many years afterwards, that we had been attacked by U176 under command of Lt-Com Reiner Dirksen, in fact we were first vessel to be sunk by U176 and by Dirksen. He and his U-boat were sunk with the loss of all hands on the 15/3/43 off Havana. It gives me no satisfaction to write that. He was doing his duty just as we were, and I thought of him and his men during the unsuccessful rescue efforts last week in the Barents Sea. Three out of our four lifeboats were launched, but one (No.2 boat) capsized in the process and most of the equipment was lost. This boat was later righted and was the one in which I spent the next 9 days. No.4 boat proved impossible to launch due to the heavy list. No.3 boat was rescued on the 10th August by the “Hororatah” bound for Liverpool. In that boat 8 men died. On the 13th August No.1 boat was rescued by the “Irish Pine” bound from Halifax (Nova Scotia) to Kilrush in the Republic of Ireland. Four men, including the Captain, had died. Later on the same day, the Friday 13th August, No.2 boat – the one I was in - was rescued by the ‘Flower Class’ Corvette HMS “Snowflake”, which at the time was searching for the boats of the “Letitia”. Unfortunately their search proved unsuccessful, and they then took us back to their base port Londonderry. All 17 of us in No.2 boat survived, although it was ‘touch and go’ for several by the last day, and we would undoubtedly have lost men (as did the other two boats) had we not been rescued when we were. Don’t ever tell me that Friday 13th is unlucky!!
Not surprisingly, considering we had come through 9 days of severe weather and very testing conditions including a full Atlantic gale in a small ill-equipped open boat, some of the crew were in such bad shape when we arrived in ‘Derry’ that they remained in hospital for some while. I managed to hide most of my problems – I had 13 boils on one leg, 11 on the other and 3 on my right arm. Both feet were so swollen that I had to wear slippers which had to be cut open in order to get my feet into them - as I was determined to get back to my home in Ilfracombe, North Devon, just as soon as I could. I started my long journey by train/ferry within a couple of days of landing there.
It turned out to be not too brilliant an idea, as I had overestimated my reserves of strength and I only managed to get as far as London before I collapsed in a heap - literally. Luckily I had relatives there. I was treated to the luxury of sleeping in cousin Nick's bed (he being off soldiering) and they took great care of me for a couple of weeks until I was strong enough to carry on homewards. Our house in Ilfracombe was near the harbour, and when I did finally make it back home I went for a stroll down there. Sitting in his boat was an old sailor whom I had known all my life called Tom Souch who, when he saw me watching him from up on the quay, shouted up “Like to go for a sail, Sir?”. There are no prizes for the best guess at my reply. He told me later that he had heard that I had been reported as “missing - presumed dead” and hadn’t recognised the rather wild unkempt figure who had shuffled along the quay and was looking down at him! In fact it took until well into October before I was sufficiently recovered to resume normal duty.
The principal cause of the problems we experienced was the lack of almost any protection from the weather. This meant that with constant exposure to the continuous wind and spray our body temperatures dropped dramatically, and that takes its toll both physically and mentally. Hypothermia, or “exposure" as it was called in those days, is an insidious and deadly enemy, killing you slowly and surely. Exhaustion sets in, the will to live goes and the mental processes fall apart. Once that starts to happen it is downhill all the way, and from our own experience, and later on reading the reports of the other boats, it is an accelerating business. In No.3 boat one poor chap started to switch off during the morning, and although he was still alive after they had been spotted by their Irish rescuers his comrades were unable to get through to him sufficiently to keep him going, and he died as they came alongside the ship. In our boat we had managed to get hold of the canvas cover of the potato locker from the boat deck which we found floating around amongst all the other debris from the ship. Without any doubt that rough and ready windbreak provided just sufficient shelter to play a significant part in saving the lives of all of us, especially those of us who were not properly dressed for the occasion. (I was dressed in a shirt and shorts !) It is significant that although we were the least well provided for in many ways because of the boat overturning we were the only boat in which there were no deaths. I have had a soft spot for spuds ever since – at least, that is my excuse. Additionally at that period in the War the safety regulations allowed water to be stored in wooden ‘breakers’ – small barrels – which were lashed down but not otherwise secured. When No.2 boat overturned as we were attempting to launch it all our water reserves were lost. Fortunately it had been possible to cut loose two life rafts prior to the vessel sinking, and we were able to recover a small canister of water from each. With 17 men in the boat that meant severe rationing of drinking water right from the start, in fact for the first two days we had none at all. Thereafter we had only about the equivalent of two ‘tots’ per day. Consequently we became extremely de-hydrated, and quite literally for months afterwards I was permanently thirsty. I could drink a pint of liquid – water, milk, tea, whatever - and within a very few minutes I would be parched dry and wanting another drink. All my skin peeled off like a snake casting its skin. Food – or the lack of it – was not such a problem, in fact we had enough food in the boat, but couldn’t eat it because we were so dry mouthed. I vowed to take care that I never went thirsty again, and I never have! “Barman- I’ll have another, please” Even after all these years – 58 in fact – that lack of fluid intake still has its effect. Not long before we were rescued, thinking that we must be approaching Ireland soon, and dreaming of the liquids we would then consume in vast quantities, we decided that we would sell the boat to some Irish fishermen, and with the cash we would book rooms at the local pub, have the baths filled with Guinness, and then lie in it and drink the bath dry. It became so real a fantasy that I could ‘see’ that bath as if were there in front of me, and I still cannot drink a Guinness myself (I have one before lunch every day), or even see another person drinking one, without reliving that as clearly as in 1942. I only own a few shares – not surprisingly they are in Guinness.
As a result of the experiences that other survivors, and we, underwent the regulations were tightened up. Properly secured and fastened lockers were fitted for all the loose gear such as sails, etc. (most of which we lost, and in fact we sailed some 450 miles with two blankets sewed together). Water tanks and food containers were fitted into the boats in such a way as to ensure that even if the boat overturned, as ours had done, none of these essentials would be lost. Nowadays there is a much greater emphasis on the provision of inflatable rafts which come with a hood attached, in which it is preferred people stay put inside, try to keep snug and warm out of the weather and wait for their radio beacons to bring their rescuers homing in on them. Looking back it is incredible and bordering on criminal that such obvious and simple precautions were not made obligatory well in advance of when they did, and that it needed many men’s lives to be lost before these simple lessons were learned.
An involvement in the North African invasion followed by a more direct one in Sicily as part of a special “invasion” unit, kept me busy for the next year or so. It was exciting stuff. I then came ashore to Cardiff to study and sit for the first one of my exams. While doing that I missed out on the Normandy invasion. After qualifying for my 2nd Mate’s Certificate in 1944, I was posted off to Durban to join the small Union-Castle coaster “Rovuma” which operated between there and the port of Mozambique. This involved a voyage as a passenger, and I duly joined the brand new “Empire Captain” at the builder’s yard at Leith, near Edinburgh. We sailed from there through the Pentland Firth and The Minches to the Clyde for what was thought to be the formality of “trials”, and then things came unstuck. The vessel was fitted with high pressure turbines and when everything was wound up on trials all the packing in the steam pipes blew, with steam escaping from just about everywhere in the system. So it was back to the “Tail of the Bank” off Gourock for us while this was sorted out – a delay of about three weeks. The ship was a cargo vessel fitted with 12 cabins into which were crammed 36 passengers, one of whom was a very pregnant lady bound for Durban. We carried no Doctor- in ships of that size that was a side function of the 2nd Officer’s job – so as the delay in departure extended there was a fair amount of study went to the “Ship Captain’s Medical Guide”. As we had already embarked at Leith, and so ‘officially’ had already sailed from the UK, none of us were allowed ashore, and this was an extremely frustrating business.
On the way out to South Africa, and “independently routed” – i.e not in convoy, we called at the islands of Ascension and St Helena in the South Atlantic, which were a bit off the beaten track. The inhabitants of the former were the few employees and their families running the Cable & Wireless station, to which had been tacked on a small detachment of RA gunners who manned a small gun battery, set high up on a hill overlooking the landing bay, and charged with the defence of this vital communications outpost. Amongst the goodies we landed were several films, and I recall hearing that when these were screened at the C & W canteen the Gunners had to carry their own chairs down from their hill and back! At St Helena I took a trip up to the highest part of the island to visit “Longwood”, the house where Napoleon Bonaparte had lived in exile after Waterloo from 1815/1821 and where he had died at the early age of 52. More recent analysis of his hair showed traces of arsenic. It was later alleged that it was arsenic, a common constituent of paint at the time, and also in the paint used to decorate the house, which had hastened his death! It was also alleged that the British Governor and a French Aide conspired to poison him as he was considered so dangerous a man, and the possible consequences of him being rescued so awful, that the risk of him continuing to live was unacceptable. The British also annexed and garrisoned the island of Tristan Da Cunha, some 1500 miles to the south, just in case the French tried to use it as a rescue base! Considering that he had been the most powerful man in the world utter boredom and frustration must have been major contributory factors too. Confinement on St Helena must have amounted to a living death to a man of his drive, character and background.
Much to the relief of the 2nd Officer our pregnant lady managed – just – to hang on until we reached Capetown, and we later heard that her mission had been accomplished successfully. When the Empire Captain arrived at Durban I found that Rovuma had sailed back up the coast only a couple of days previously, and I was faced with a six weeks wait until she returned. That was a tough assignment – all that time footloose and fancy-free, at Company expense, at the age of 21! I stayed at a hotel that boasted its own squash court, a game new to me, and there were plenty of offers of a game. After a couple of weeks I began to fancy my chances and could give the regulars a “run for their money”- all except one, that is. He was the owner of the hotel, a man in his 50’s (so in my young eyes already a geriatric) and he regularly gave me a complete drubbing. It was exercise I wanted, and he saw to it that exercise I got. It wasn’t until I left to join Rovuma six weeks later that I found out that my tormentor had been the South African champion for several years!
“Rovuma” was named after the river forming the northern border between the Portuguese Colony of Mozambique and what was then the British Protectorate (ex German Colony) of Tanganyika, and was the only ship in U-C not to be named after a castle. Prior to WW2 the U-C had run a Round Africa service from London, known as the “Intermediate Service”, consisting of eight passenger/cargo vessels, with half sailing down the west coast, then home via the east coast and Red Sea, and calling at Mediterranean ports en route back to London. The other ships did this same trip in reverse, the whole voyage taking about three months. The original function of Rovuma, which had been built in 1927 at Ardrossan, on the Clyde, had been to act as a feeder service, on a tight schedule, for the Intermediate vessels from all the small ports in Mozambique back to the main port at Beira. With the onset of war the larger vessels had all been diverted to other duties. One converted to an “Armed Merchant Cruiser”, another to an aircraft carrier, two others, in both of which I had served, were fitted out as special “invasion” vessels, and so on. This meant that Rovuma was free to operate on a much less restrictive schedule, and we got to call at many small outlying ports, often far up rivers and creeks, which had not previously been in her orbit. Since most of these ports did not boast a pilot service it meant some exciting navigating, and many of our charts carried such hand written additions as “Two tall coconut palms”, “Tree with Sea Eagle’s nest” and, in one case “Essential to enter just after sunrise and sail just before sunset in order to see unmarked coral reefs”. With the sun behind you – and only then - was it just possible to peer down and see the coral heads, and there was precious little room for error.
The crew was unusual, too, in its makeup – unusual for the U-C, at least. There were nine British officers, a Chef – and I mean a ‘chef’, not a ship’s cook - from Goa (in India), nine leading hands from what is now Pakistan, including their own Bandari (Cook), and the balance of seamen, stokers and stewards were local Africans. These latter sailors were a superb lot. About half of them came from Quelimane and the others from Beira, and they were required under Portuguese Law to work for a minimum of six months in every twelve. In the 17 years in which the ship had been in service we had, as a result, created two completely interchangeable and utterly dependable crews. Each time we called at either port a few would come to the end of their six month’s stint and would be replaced automatically by their ‘brother’, who slotted in without any problem. The Chef, a brilliant “artist” in the galley (he had been, at one time, chef to the Viceroy of India’s No.2, no less) was unfortunately also an alcoholic (hence his fall from Vice Regal grace), and whenever we called at Lourenço Marques, now called Maputo, he would go on a ‘bender’ with a mate he had there, and for the next three days would be logged as suffering from ‘malaria’. His stand-in during his “illness” was the African 2nd Cook called “Sixpence” (we couldn’t pronounce his real name and for years he had quite happily gone along with our substitute tag) whose sole but expertly cooked “piece de resistance”, when standing in for his boss, was Lancashire Hot-Pot. Perhaps not exactly the ideal choice for the steamy tropics, but it was a brilliant and very acceptable substitute. However, after three days on the trot, we were ready to welcome back his mentor. Since we bought virtually all our foodstuffs, fresh and often still alive, from the local markets – fish, poultry, pigs, king prawns, goats, etc, - and with arguably one of the finest chefs ever to sail the seas to deal with it, it was not surprising that we lived like the proverbial ‘kings’. In all the years I spent at sea, including some spent in the luxurious Union-Castle Mailships sailing out of Southampton, where standards were of the very highest, my two years in Rovuma were easily the gastronomic tops.
On average Rovuma would call at Durban about once every four/six months, and this provided us with a much-appreciated break from our somewhat non-existent social life. In mid 1945, on one such call, I chanced to meet the girl who was later to become my wife. Her name was Stella Irene Murray, she was a schoolmistress, and for both of us it was the classic case of “love at first sight”. Another call at Durban a couple of months later confirmed our feelings for each other, and when we sailed there was a tacit understanding – a “definite maybe” - between us that at some time in the future we would get married. Our next call was scheduled for late December for dry-docking, and we went alongside at about 9.00 AM on Saturday 22nd December, after battling our way south from Lourenço Marques through one of the worst storms I ever experienced on that stretch of coast. When I phoned from a call box on the quayside to Stella at about 9.30 she told me that the Law Courts closed for the Christmas Holiday at 11.00 AM, and that if we wanted to get married on that call I had better get my skates on! My answer was “Right, we’ll give it a go”. I ran back to the ship, got the 3rd Officer Malcolm Chisholm (who incidentally had been a Cadet with me in “Richmond Castle” in August 1942 when we were torpedoed) heading for one shower while I shot into the other, got rigged, borrowed some cash from the Chief Officer, ran out into Point Road, stopped a passing car who kindly gave us a lift up to the centre of the city, grabbed a taxi, collected Stella and her flatmate Joan, went to the nearest jeweller and bought a ring (with Stella’s money, she reminds me, as I hadn’t got enough on me!), and we were married at about 10.50 AM. We confidently lay claim to what must have been the shortest engagement of all time – 1 hour and 20 minutes – and we are still together after 55 years! Remember that at the ceremony there were just five people – the Magistrate, Joan (who left right afterwards to spend Christmas with her family in Zululand), Malcolm (who went back on duty), and the two of us.
Clearly there had been no time in which to alert Stella's family in Dundee, Natal, or her brother who was in the Durban area, let alone mine in Devon, . That was a pity, and quite naturally they were somewhat upset. But they all forgave us in time. On Boxing Day the ship laid on a dinner party for us. The chef, now fully recovered from his most recent bout of “malaria”, did himself proud by producing Roast Suckling Pig. As Charles Lamb so elegantly wrote in his famed essay “A dissertation upon Roast Pig” (Essays of Elia) – “Of all the delicacies in the whole mundus edibilis, I will maintain it to be the most delicate – princeps obsoniorum.” In this day and age we would probably put it more bluntly as “If you haven’t tasted Roast Suckling Pig you haven’t lived”. Either way, it was a meal to remember!
Malcolm and I saw out the rest of WW2 in “Rovuma” and left her at Beira in May 1946, travelling by train from there, through Salisbury and Bulawayo in what was then Southern Rhodesia, and then down through South Africa’s Karoo Desert to Capetown, a monumental journey lasting 5 days. Hence it was to Southampton as 'supernumaries' on "Rochester Castle". Stella, in the meantime, had already made her way to the UK in the Dunnottar Castle, as one of a ship full of wartime brides. So having said goodbye to my bride in Durban early in January the next time we met was at Southampton on 15th June. We settled in Ilfracombe, my hometown, and she took up teaching again. I was content with life at sea and continued with my career in U-C. Our marriage had been blessed by the arrival in 1953 of our first daughter Lesley and our son Simon was well on the way. It was then – in February 1956, two months before Simon was born - that something happened that was to change our lives completely.
In East Africa the firm of stevedores (longshoremen) which loaded/discharged the cargo on our vessels was an independently run but jointly owned subsidiary of the two shipping concerns Union-Castle and British India. They invited me to “swallow the anchor” and join their management team. It wasn’t long after the Mau-mau troubles, and it was evident that sooner or later independence would be a major factor in the region. Jobs ashore were not easy to come by, but we felt that, in spite of the obvious drawbacks, it was at least a foot in the door, and we decided that in order to be together as a family unit it was worth the risk. It wasn’t an easy decision. I loved my life at sea, and provided nothing untoward occurred there was every chance that I would end up in command of one of the great U-C liners, and probably as the Commodore Captain of one of the greatest shipping companies in the world. That was what I had aimed at from the time that I first went to my nautical training college in January 1939. It was a lot to give up, or so it appeared to me in 1956. What none of us ever foresaw was that with the phenomenal growth of air travel, and the almost complete switch away from the traditional stowage of cargoes in ship’s holds to containerisation, such mighty shipping companies as Union-Castle and British India, with incomes based on cargo and passengers, were doomed to extinction. In fact by 1977, some 10 years before I would have been due to retire, the last U-C Mailship – the "Windsor Castle" - sailed from Southampton to Capetown, and soon afterwards the Company ceased to trade.
I flew out to East Africa in May 1956. It was my first flight, leisurely and by modern standards almost beyond belief. Heathrow was still a collection of wartime Nissan Huts. We took off some time around 0900 hours and then stopped at Nice for lunch! Yes – really. We disembarked, went into the airport restaurant, and had lunch there! Then it was on to Malta, where we disembarked and stayed in the top hotel overnight. The next morning we flew to Benghazi in Lybia for breakfast, followed by a long hop across the dessert to Wadi Halfa on the Nile. We were flying at an altitude of about 10,000 feet, and could clearly see the terrain beneath us. Incidentally that lovely hotel on the banks of the Nile is now under the waters of the Aswan Dam. Day 3 saw us move on to Khartoum (in Sudan) for breakfast, then long hop to Entebbe on Lake Victoria in Uganda for lunch. Nairobi was reached in time for tea, and I spent the night at the renowned Norfolk Hotel. The next morning I switched to an internal East African Airways flight for the last stage to Mombasa, finally arriving at my destination in time for lunch on Day 4! By modern standards it was a journey almost beyond belief, and it was a measure of the speed of change that when I did the reverse journey three years later I left Nairobi in the afternoon and arrived at Heathrow early the next morning! On that last stage in 1956 I was seated on the starboard side of the aircraft and had a wonderful view of Kibo, the snow capped peak of the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro massive, at 19,340 feet Africa’s highest mountain. Rising from the surrounding semi-arid scrub plains at about 3,300 feet, and with its glaciers sparkling in the bright equatorial African sunlight, it was an awesome, breathtaking and splendid spectacle. I made up my mind right then that given half a chance I would have a go at climbing it.
Our company, The African Wharfage Co. Ltd., operated as stevedores and lightermen in five ports, i.e. Mombasa, Zanzibar, Dar-es-Salaam and the small southern Tanganyika ports of Lindi and Mtwara, where one Superintendent was responsible for both as well as acting as the Pilot in Lindi. The first three ports were familiar to me, having called at them on a number of occasions, so the plan was that I would work my way south from Mombasa, spending a few months familiarisation in each, then take over the southern ports for the last year and a half of my first three year ‘tour’. Early in 1958, while at Dar-es-Salaam – the “Haven of Peace” - well named as such by the early Arabian mariners who were the first to explore this coast down to Moçambique, we had a lull of about two weeks between vessels, so I took two of my four weeks entitlement of ‘local’ leave, and took off in my VW ‘beetle’ for Marangu, on the foothills of Kilimanjaro, over 600 miles away over very rough dirt roads. It was an interesting drive. My arrival coincided with some foul weather, and I had no option but to stay put in the hotel at Marangu for about three days until the deluge ended. During this wait I met up with a young RAF lad on leave from Aden, and he asked if he could come along. A quick journey into the local town Moshi (meaning ’Smoke’) to stack up with one additional spoon and a few more tins of baked beans and corned beef, and we were ready.
The massif extends in a NW to SE direction for about 50 miles and is crowned with three volcanoes. The oldest, Shira, is to the NW and rises to 13,000 feet. Towards the SE end is Mawanzi at just under 17,000 feet, and is the eroded and very jagged core of what was once the principal summit. Between these is the familiar and enormous ice-capped cone of the ‘youngest’ volcano Kibo at over 19,000 feet. All three are officially extinct, although there are fissures and fumaroles on Kibo which still show signs of volcanic activity. From the hotel to the top of Kibo is 36 miles, and involved a climb – more accurately a ‘stiff hike’ - from 4,000 to 19,000 feet. The Mountaineering Club of East Africa had Built three small huts, one at the 12 mile stage and 9,000 feet, one at the 23 miles sage at 11.500 feet, and the final one at 15.500 feet on the slope at the foot of the cone at the 33 mile stage. To say that they were rudimentary is, if anything, understating the case, but nonetheless they were very welcome. (I understand that since those days much better facilities have been provided as thousands of hikers now attempt the climb every year, and pay a stiff fee in US$ for the privilege). Our little party was made up of our Guide and four porters, all from the local Chagga tribe, i.e. one for the guide’s gear, one each for ours, and one for theirs. All the food for the two of us was heated in, served in and eaten from my one and only small saucepan. It was a “no frills” concept, but it worked, and to this day in our house if we mix up food in this manner it is known as “Kilimanjaro Stew”. The first day our route was up a path that had become one of the streams down which all the rain of the last few days was trying to get off the mountain, and was mainly through dense woodland that started at about 40 foot high and gradually diminished in height to about shoulder height until we emerged near the first hut. It was then that I realised that what I had thought were trees were, in fact, heathers (botanical name "Erica"), of which Africa boasts about 600 species. With a 12 miles walk upstream and a climb of 5,000 feet behind us we were not at all fazed by some cheeky little brown-striped mice which scurried around on the table as we ate, not did we need any rocking. Incidentally we shared the hut that night with a descending party of four Austrian men, only one of whom had been able to reach the crater rim, The others had all fallen prey to ‘mountain sickness’, and as experienced mountaineers their failure to cope had hit them hard.
On day 2 we traversed across the flank of the mountain, and it was very comparable to a pleasant stroll over the sort of moorland that we get in this country. Gaining only 2,500 feet in our 11-mile walk it was a lot less testing, and altogether a great deal more pleasurable, than on the previous day. Again we shared the hut with a descending party, several of whom had been unable to complete their mission. One even said that on the last 200 feet, no longer able to stand, he had no option but to scramble up on all fours. On Day 3 we set out for the hut at the foot of Kibo, stopping after a couple of miles to collect water, the spring being the last source of water available, then our route took us almost directly upwards to the lower slopes of the mountain’s lesser peak Mawenzi before leading across the 7 mile long ‘saddle’ to the lower slopes of Kibo itself. This proved to be a most unpleasant section as a snowstorm whipped up with strong winds blowing across our path. At close on 15,000 feet we were already starting to feel the effects of a shortage of oxygen, and both of us being smokers did nothing to help. Suddenly out of the snow and gloom we could make out figures approaching. They were a group of Kenyan police, Africans and Europeans, out on a training exercise and making their way back down the mountain. Only a few of them had managed to get to the top, and one asked me if we intended to “have a go”. When I replied “Yes, of course” he commented “Then you must be bloody mad!” Not very reassuring, but neither of us wanted to turn back, so on we went to the hut at the foot of Kibo.
With around 3,000 feet still to climb in order to reach our objective, the two of us, led by the Guide, set out from the Kibo hut in the dark at around 0200 hours. Why so early? Well, it was Hobson’s choice, really. The lower slopes of Kibo, although covered with snow, were no problem except for the utter weariness that goes hand in hand with oxygen starvation, and the higher one climbs the worse that becomes, of course. Altitude sickness is an odd problem. You cannot predict who will or will not be effected, in what way or by how much. We were fortunate and suffered only minor headaches, but some people can be completed debilitated, with severe ‘flu-like' symptoms, chest pains, nausea and vomiting. It can be extremely dangerous too, with a real risk of pulmonary embolism, which in some cases can be fatal, so there must be an awareness of it. At about half way up there is a small cave, named after Hans Meyer, and we stopped there for a very welcome short rest. The next two hours were, without any doubt whatever, the hardest and most difficult, in terms of physical effort, of my whole life. The final slope of Kibo consists of an ash scree, about 1,500 feet in length and at a 40° slope, which thaws out and is loose in daylight after the morning sun gets to work on it, but which freezes solid again at night. During daylight it is heartbreaking stuff – three steps up and two back down again – not the sort of exercise you need at that altitude! Our problem was different. On top of the frozen scree ash was a 3 foot deep layer of snow with a crust that was just strong enough to bear your weight for a few steps, and then on the next would give way so that your leg sank down to the thigh, and more often than not you pitched forward on to your face. I can remember lying there completely exhausted after one such collapse and wondering “what on earth am I, a mariner, doing here lying face down 17,000 ft up on this mountain?” – or words to that effect. One thing was certain – it is no place for the half-hearted and you must really want to achieve your objective in conditions like that. The Guide was marvellous. He was acclimatised, of course, and clearly not suffering from the shortage of oxygen anywhere near to the same extent that we were, and with his encouragement to try “ten more steps - pole, pole (“slowly, slowly”)", he gradually coaxed us up to the top at Gilman’s Point on the south-eastern rim of the 1¼ mile wide crater, at 18,500 feet. We duly signed the book stowed in a box at the foot of the simple cross marking the place. It was about 0700 hours on Tuesday, 18th February, 1958.
Daylight had broken as we were on the final 200 feet. What greeted our eyes was almost beyond belief, especially considering our close proximity to the Equator. Kibo itself and the whole 980 foot deep caldera was covered in new snow, and on the NE edge the great vertical cliffs of the Northern Ice Rim glacier were glistening in the early morning sunlight. To our left was the Ratzel Glacier, and on the far side of the crater Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze, the highest point of all at 19,340 feet. Having accomplished the most difficult part, we were keen to carry on around the rim, but the Guide was most unhappy about the snow conditions following the heavy falls of the last few days and, after an investigation, advised against it. As far as we could see there was a complete covering of fluffy cloud, through which Mawenzi, 7 miles away across the saddle, Mt. Meru at 15,000 feet and 45 miles to the west in Tanganyika, and Mt. Kenya at 17,000 feet, just visible 200 miles away to the north, were the only other signs of Mother Earth. At that moment the three of us were the highest people, in terms of altitude, anywhere on the whole of that great Continent, and quite probably in the whole wide world too. It was a sobering and humbling thought. I knew what exceptional personal effort it had demanded and, although many have climbed to that same spot before and since, that was without doubt a very special moment for me.
We left Gilman’s Point on our way down after spending an hour there, and by about 1100 hours we were back at the Kibo Hut to rejoin the other four of our party. After a rest and a mug of very welcome tea, we set off on the 10 mile hike back to Hut 2, where we spent the night. We needed no rocking. The next morning, before we set out for the last 23-mile hike back to the hotel, the porter’s presented each of us with a garland of wild flowers with which they decorated our hats. This was an honour only given to successful climbers, and we were quite bucked by their gesture. With the lure of a shower and a pint before us – and not necessarily in that order – we romped down the 7,000 feet, getting back to base in time for lunch. The next day I drove the 600 miles back to Dar-es-Salaam. Mission accomplished!
Not long after that we made the move down the coast to what was then the “Southern Province” of Tanganyika, where I was to be responsible for the Company’s activities in two ports about 60 miles apart. The principal one, where our home and main office was situated, was called Lindi, while the other was the newly created port of Mtwara. Just after World War II the Labour Government, anxious to be seen to be doing all in its power to alleviate the effects of food rationing, and specifically the shortage of edible oils, decided to fling everything at a scheme in Central and East Africa to grow groundnuts – or as most of us would call them – peanuts. John Strachey was the Minister in charge, and in about 1946 an area in the Southern Province, centred on Nachinwea, of some three million acres- that is nearly twice the size of Devon – was earmarked for the project. Berths were Built in the superb natural harbour of Mtwara, the bare bones of a modern town, including a University and an airport, were laid out in what was then a sisal plantation, and a railway was constructed from there to Nachinwea, some 90 miles away. Many thousands of tons of equipment, a lot of it war surplus, were shipped out from the UK, and hundreds of personnel, many of them ex-Servicemen, were recruited. Clearing and planting the vast area of scrub, and the construction of the port and railways, got under way.
The Groundnut Scheme was based on a feasibility study which stated that it was possible to grow peanuts in that area. True. What it didn’t say – and what the locals could have told them – was that conditions were only favourable on average for one year in five. For the remaining four it was an utter waste of time trying. The whole scheme wasn’t long in grinding to an ignominious halt, and by 1958, when I first went there, only a token farm at Nachinwea remained. Most of the equipment had been shipped out, as had the railway, but a lot of it was abandoned to the bush, which lost no time in reclaiming what was its own. The whole fiasco had cost the UK taxpayer about £30 million, which by today’s values would easily be of the order of £ billion plus! About the only end product was a port which was used by about five ships per month, a matrix of roads leading nowhere in a sisal plantation, and a pub, affectionately known by all as “The Dysentery Arms”, run by one Vic Bobbett, an eccentric character and onetime Colour Sergeant in the Welsh Guards! The few miserable tons of groundnuts which did manage to find their way on to the market must have been worth their weight in gold!
My wife and I loved it in Lindi, and have always regarded it is our most pleasant ever posting. Facilities were rudimentary, to say the least, and one had to use a deal of ingenuity in order to meet the family’s everyday needs. There was one small grocery/general store, but no butcher, and so we were dependent on the good offices of the Captain of the BI coaster “Mombasa” which called once every two weeks, for our meat. We would place our orders with him, and he would kindly arrange for the ship chandler in Mombasa to fulfil them. Having a large garden we soon decided to keep our own chickens and ducks, the main problem being to construct a compound of sufficient integrity to keep out the jackals and leopards who had the idea that the feast was for them! I had the use of a motor boat, and the game fishing was out of this world, so by fishing (trolling more accurately) for about three hours about once a fortnight I could have wonderful sport and supply all our fish needs, together with those of several of our neighbours. To the back of our house it was just wild bush, and it was not unusual for us to hear the howling of hyenas at night and, on rare occasion, the roaring of lions on a kill. It was not a good idea to wander around outside in the dark, especially as on one occasion I found a leopard sitting near our front door!
At the end of my three year first ‘tour’ of duty we had UK leave, during which time Sally, our third child, was born, and on our return to East Africa we were posted to the island of Zanzibar. It was a delightful and special place in which to live. Our flat was over the office, right on the beach. It was to a room in that building that the great Dr David Livingstone’s body had been returned from Chitambo, in what is now Zambia, in 1873 by his servants to await shipment back to the UK and to his final resting place amongst the nation’s great and good in Westminster Abbey. The island was a British Protectorate ruled by a Sultanate of Arabian extraction – the Al Busaidis had moved from their original home in Oman to the much more pleasant coastal strip of East Africa and had laid claim to the area from around Lamu (to the north of Mombasa) to about Kilwa (to the south of Dar-es Salaam), including the islands of Pemba and Zanzibar. The population on the island was approximately 60% of African origin, most being the descendants of slaves, 30% Arabs who forefathers had hailed from Oman and the Hadramaut coat of Arabia, and who were mainly owners of plantations producing the cloves for which the island was rightly famous, and the remaining 10% Indians, in whose hands most of the financial activities of the island lay and most of whose ancestors had come to the area as shop keepers and traders. The Sultan, a slight figure, highly regarded by all sections of the community and who, incidentally, had shared an open landau with the physically imposing, expansive and very popular Queen Salote of Tonga at our own Queen’s 1953 Coronation, ruled with the assistance of a British Resident and a Legislative Council, and the inter-racial harmony was remarkable. (The story goes that the radio commentator describing the coronation procession was reputed to have asked his colleague “who is the small man riding with Queen Salote?” and was told “her lunch”). Sadly, over the next few years, with the prospect of independence looming, and stirred on by politicians anxious to promote their own personal causes, this harmony was dissipated and polarised into political groups based almost entirely along racial lines. With elections in the offing the imbalance that existed in the distribution of these groups over the island – Zanzibar town was almost entirely Indian, the residential area of Ngambo on the outskirts of town was African, and the rural districts mainly Arab – posed an obvious problem. It didn’t take a political genius to figure out that any election was almost certain to reflect the ethnic imbalance, and that such a radical redistribution of domination would not suit the powers that be. An Electoral Commission, headed by some top British administrators, was brought in, and spent several months re-drawing the constituency boundaries in an attempt to even things out. They failed completely, and when the first election under the new system took place this became glaringly obvious. In Ngambo, for example, there were results along the lines of 5,000 votes for the Afro-Shirazi (the African) candidate and only 25 votes for the others, so it was argued that 4,994 Afro-Shirazi votes had, in effect, been wasted. In Zanzibar Town, however, the imbalance went the other way, but the numbers were much smaller. Voting went hand in hand with the ethnic grouping. The overall effect was that although numerically the Afro-Shirazi party came out well on top, the other parties got the bigger number of seats, and with the granting of independence formed the government. The majority of the hundreds of British administrative staff and their families were promptly withdrawn, leaving just a few of us commercial types behind. As foreseen the dream of power for the majority ethnic African population appeared to them to have been stolen – and in the name of democracy.
It didn’t take long for the resentment to come to a head. Led by Cuban trained revolutionaries a massive upheaval took place on December 4th 1964 and after only a few hours the Government was overthrown. Guns were popping off all around us, and for several hours things were much more lively than was healthy, especially after the mob gained access to the nearby prison and armoury. The racial hatred whipped up in the preceding months took over, and during the next few days something of the order of 10,000 + people, mainly of Arabic extraction, were murdered, some it seemed very brutally. We gave shelter to about 12 of our neighbours that first night, and for several days and nights thereafter. The new Sultan - Khalifa's grandson - fled. About a week after the Revolution a RN Frigate and a Fleet Auxiliary vessel arrived in the harbour, and the British High Commissioner was able to negotiate with the "Revolutionary Council" a safe passage to the docks for any wives and children who decided to leave. Most of them did so, and I must admit that I breathed a huge sigh of relief when Stella and our three children left the jetty in the safe hands of the Navy. They were all taken to Mombasa, and the next morning my colleagues there took over their care and soon had them housed. It took about a year before things settled down again into some semblance of order, in fact things never did return to the pre-revolution state. For example one morning a leading light in the Revolutionary Council, a rather unhinged chap called Said Washoto, suddenly appeared in my office and stuck the business end of an automatic rifle to my forehead. I knew that a few days before this he had burst into a mosque full of praying men and had gunned down 12 of them in cold blood with no prior warning and for no reason at all. I admit that it crossed my mind that I was just about to join them. After what seemed like minutes staring at each other, but was probably only some 30 seconds, he relaxed and asked who I was and what I was doing. He seemed satisfied with my answer and moved on, but it was a bit off-putting!
Within days the Russians, East Germans and Chinese had all moved in, with the East Germans taking over security, the Chinese running the medical services, and the Russians providing the military needs. In fact, within three weeks of the Revolution a Russian vessel berthed which was full, according to the manifest, of “musical instruments”. Working back from the day it arrived it was clear that the ship must have been fully loaded and ready to come before December 4th. My colleague and I, being British, were banned from the dock area for several days while the "musical instruments" were discharged. It wasn’t too long after that when the USA was given what the Revolutionary Council obviously considered an impossible deadline. They were told to remove their by then unmanned tracking station for the Mercury space exploration project within a couple of weeks because it was a ‘spy station’. The newly appointed US Consul was Frank Carlucci, (later Assistant to President Reagan for National Security Affairs), and unbeknown to the Zanzibaris he had this already well lined up. Within two days all the Mercury technicians were back from the USA, an American freighter came into port and, much to the annoyance of the Council, the last of the dismantled and crated equipment was loaded with a couple of days to spare! Obviously the USA was much concerned by the foothold the Communists had gained in East Africa, and Frank was later followed by Tom Pickering (later US Ambassador to Israel, Russia and the United Nations) and by Jack Matlock, (a gifted linguist who spoke fluent Russian and who, in only six weeks from his appointment, had learned to speak Swahili so well that he gave a speech in public in the language only a day after arrival on the island. He was also later Ambassador to Moscow, preceding Tom). The deep concern of the USA was clearly reflected in the quality of the Consuls they appointed – they were all up and coming grandees.
With the business community decimated, either dead or escaped, the economy of the island went on to a steady decline. With the departure of the administrators the expatriates in commerce numbered about 100, and the British Consul appointed three of us who lived close to suitable beaches as his contacts in the event of any further serious civil unrest. We used to meet with him at monthly intervals for briefings, and on one of these he told us that just recently the security of the secret telephone line from his office to his boss the British High Commissioner in Dar-es-Salaam had been breached. He knew this because in true spy book fashion a percentage of the messages passed were red herrings set to see whether the East Germans running the security branch reacted to them, and sure enough that had happened. He had other wizardry available, he assured us, but he was worried that in case of trouble, and his office was suddenly closed down and the staff expelled, he would have a pocket of Brits in some danger with whom he would be unable to communicate. He needed a backup system – just in case. “Could we think of anything?”, he asked. “What about pigeons?” someone said. “Not a bad idea” said the all-highest, “anyone know anything about them?”. Goaded on by his excellent Scotch I told them that as a schoolboy I had kept a few as pets so knew a little bit about them, and could probably get one of my seafaring friends to bring some in from South Africa if he was serious. He was, it seemed, so that is how my boyhood hobby started up again for me.
The East German security headquarters was just 150 yards across the golf course from my home in what had been the Aga Khan’s home on Zanzibar, and so they had an uninterrupted view of my house and garden. Care had to be taken not to arouse suspicions. I already had a chicken house, so another similar wouldn’t be too obvious. From our dockyard I had ready access to the materials for a loft, and plenty of skilled chaps to knock one up, but no birds, and the project got under way. There were no corn merchants, of course, but as we ran the docks I was able to lay my hands on an almost unlimited supply of “sweepings”. All grain, such as rice and various beans (mung and dhall), occasional wheat and corn, were imported from India in gunny bags, and these often had holes in them and so, of course, leaked during handling. The leakages were swept up each day by our men in the import sheds, and I took the bagged “sweepings” home just as it was, dirt and all. The birds thrived on it! Eventually I was able to bring in racing stock from South Africa, and later on some further stock from the UK. To provide some cover I had to let it be known that I was hoping to start up the sport again in East Africa, where it had existed for a while shortly after the War. All the birds thrived, and I soon had a fine kit swinging through the coconut palms and casuarina trees and, on many occasions, right over the old Aga Khan bungalow. I managed to obtain some of the small message carriers that could be strapped on to a bird’s leg, and in fact I still have a couple. So well did the distribution of birds go that, by the time in 1969 when it all had to end, I had given away stock to establish some fourteen lofts in various parts of East Africa. The one of particular importance to me was that of a colleague Ian Mills of Dar-es Salaam, only 45 miles away on the mainland. Ian had been in Zanzibar at the time of the Revolution, and so appreciated the situation fully. Although we set up a couple of successful trial runs, thankfully we never had to use the system in an emergency. The commercial life of the islands ground almost to a halt under the stifling effects of our communist-type regime so more and more of the ex-patriot business community left for other, more rewarding, parts of the world. Politically things settled down somewhat with the coming together of Zanzibar and its much bigger neighbour Tanganyika into the new state of Tanzania, under the more moderate Julius Nyerere. The need for our lifeline receded into the far distance. But the bug had bitten again, and I had a loft of cracking birds.
Some time in 1969 the ex-President of the Dock Workers Union, now appointed the Commissar for the Dock Industry, who had been a good friend and colleague for several years, came into my office and asked me quietly “Have you got some pigeons at your house?” When I told him that indeed I had, he replied “Get rid of them – today”. Under that regime a wink and a nod from a member of the Revolutionary Council was ignored at your peril. Luckily I had enough training baskets to accommodate the birds on a short journey. I booked space for them on that afternoon’s flight to Dar-es Salaam and made arrangements with Ian for their reception at that end. Our dockyard was called on to provide the carpenters and equipment to dismantle the lofts, and by 6 PM where my loft had stood for the last three years was back to a garden. A couple of days later my friend the Commissar popped in to the office and whispered “Well done”. I missed the birds terribly. It seemed that the East German Security Police, the infamous Stasi, over whose heads my kit had exercised happily for three years, had at last woken up to their potential! One sad postscript. In 1971 Ian and his family followed me up to the Arabian Gulf to work for a sister company, and a couple of years later was transferred to West Africa as I/C group operations there. While travelling to the wedding of one of his managers his aircraft crashed, and sadly he was killed. He was one of the best.
By 1970 it was clear, with the drastic drop in the volume of cargo passing through the port, that two Superintendents, both Master Mariners, were one, if not two, too many. To meet the need for ‘localisation’ we had already set about training up our replacements. As the younger man with a wife and, by then, three children to support I opted to try to dig another hole for myself. With the Group operating on such a world-wide basis, there was a hope that something could be found for me in the near future either in the Middle or Far East, but there was no certainty. I am a fully qualified Master Mariner and I knew that, if all else failed, I could still keep the wolf from the door by returning to sea. But by then it had been fourteen years since I had “swallowed the anchor”, and at the age of 48 I was well aware that I would be in dire need of a refresher course if I were to stand any chance of getting the sort of employment that I would require. Luckily my family had already been relocated in 1967 back here to Devon, so the first step was to try and get myself a passage back to the UK by ship, brushing up on seafaring matters en route. As it turned out I was very lucky indeed and fell right on my feet. Nevertheless it was a most sad day when I stood on the quayside in Zanzibar and, one by one, these fine friends and colleagues, with whom I had shared such a large slice of my life, came up, warmly embraced me and wished me well. I had not only been their boss, but I had been able to profoundly effect their working lives. When I had first arrived on the island in 1957 they had, as a work force, been a disorganised shambles. It had fallen to me to help with setting up their Dockworker’s Union, and to write it’s rules, but also to set up the Joint Industrial Council for the Dock Industry in both Zanzibar and Dar-es-Salaam, and to write their rules too. Believe me that farewell was an emotional hour, and even after 32 years the memory of it still brings a lump in my throat.
Over the years since I started to work in East Africa I had been fortunate to get to know some of the top management in the British India Company, the famous shipping line which owned 50% of the cargo handling firm for which I worked, and whose vessels we serviced in East Africa as stevedores. When news got about that I was looking to work a passage back to the UK the BI very kingly offered me the chance of a free passage on their Cadet training vessel “Chindwara”, due to sail in early November 1970 from Mombasa back to London via the Cape of Good Hope. It was absolutely ideal and much more than I could ever have hoped for. From Mombasa down to the Cape I would have every chance to brush up on my coastal navigational skills, and from then on homewards on the ocean passage up the Atlantic my marine astronomical work could get a much needed make-over. The Captain, one Philip Pitcairn, and several of the Officers, were friends of mine. The ambience of a floating college, with its emphasis on learning, was exactly what I needed. And to cap it all there was curry on the menu in some form or other every meal and every day! A curryholic mariner’s idea of Heaven! I signed on in Mombasa as a Supernumerary Officer (rate of pay £zero per month) on 10th November 1970.
On the way south we called at Tanga, then at Dar-es-Salaam (named by the Arab Dhow captains as “The Haven of Peace”) and finally at Mtwara. The latter was the old Peanut Port in the southern province of Tanzania (as it had by then become) and where I had worked some 10 years earlier. In Mtwara in particular there were clear signs of increasing dereliction, the most evident of which was that The Dysentery Arms (the local pub) had closed and its renowned owner, the formidable Vic Bobbett was no longer evident. Like a fool I decided, full of nostalgia for the “good old days”, to take the opportunity to ride over to Lindi, some 60 miles away, where we had spent two very happy and thoroughly pleasant years. It was an awful mistake. Our Company’s interest in the port had ceased when all the mainland cargo handling operations had been nationalised in 1965. Without the presence of a Cargo Superintendent, who had also acted as the Harbour Pilot, the port of Lindi had folded up, and the once bustling little town was a like one of those ghost towns from some old Western movie. The well kept garden at our old house on the hill overlooking the bay was rapidly reverting to bush, and the whole atmosphere of the place was utterly depressing. Everywhere you looked the evidence of an almost complete lack of maintenance was obvious. The roads in the town were badly pot-holed, the buildings were dowdy and in dire need of a lick of whitewash, and there was a general air of decrepitude. In the 10 years since we had lived there Tanganyika had become independent and, very sadly, it was all too clear that, while their colonial masters of yesteryear were not by any means all exemplary in the execution of their duties, the present incumbents of those administrative offices had a great deal to learn! I resolved never to revisit anywhere again after such a long gap, and I am still convinced that was a wise decision. Friends who have done just that have, without exception, lived to regret it. “Remember things as they were” seems, in such cases, to be the best option.
From Mtwara, and only filled to about half our carrying capacity of 8,000 tons, we headed south down the coast of Moçambique – well known to me from my “Rovuma” days - then on down the coast of South Africa. Off Cape Agulhas, Africa’s most southerly point and the most northerly edge of the “Roaring Forties”, we ran into a bit of a blow which, in our half-full state, bounced us about a bit and made it necessary to reduce speed to avoid "Chindwara" suffering damage. I quite enjoyed it – in a sadistic way – and, for a short time, a gale can be exhilarating. By the time we had crossed False Bay, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and were weaving our way north past Hout Bay towards Capetown all was quiet again. You could place a Gin & Tonic on your desk once more without fear of it going into orbit! As we were not docking in Capetown, but just slowing down off the breakwater there to pick up mail, I took the opportunity to phone ashore from "Chindwara" to my friends the Elliott family to whom I had been introduced on my very first voyage in early 1941. There was quite a bit to talk about since we had last spoken in about April 1956!
In my seafaring days I had always prided myself on my efficiency as a navigator. It was an aspect of my work that I had always enjoyed. I had been fortunate enough to have received the finest of training, was fully qualified, and at times had been responsible, as the Navigating Officer, for the safe passage of some of the biggest and best known of liners sailing under the Red Ensign. When one had borne the responsibility for the well being of a vessel worth millions of £££’s, cargo worth even more (as well as our cargo amounting to about 15,000 tons we also often carried millions of £££’s worth of gold bullion from South Africa), but above all the lives of 1,000+ people, sloppy inefficient navigational practices could not be tolerated. In those days, as opposed to nowadays when getting from A to B is almost entirely, and probably more accurately, done by satellite navigation, we struggled with chronometers, sextants, nautical almanacs, spherical trigonometry and nautical astronomy in order to perform our Magellan-like duties. Life on Chindwara in 1970, homeward bound up the Atlantic, was still much more traditional and akin to the lifestyle in which I had been trained and had worked. After a gap of 14 years ashore it was not surprising that it took me a couple of days struggling to completely reconnect with the mysteries of star and sun sights, but it soon came back to me, and I found that it wasn’t long before I could more than hold my own with the young officers. I suspect they were a bit miffed that this ancient ex Union-Castle mariner from a bygone age – and from a rival shipping company to boot – could still cut the mustard. So I was honoured and delighted when the “Old Man” decided that I could take over all the navigational duties, and from then on I was responsible for all the AM and PM star sights as well as the traditional noon sun sights. The homeward passage in those type of vessels always imposed a lot of additional clerical work on the officers, who still had their 8 hours a day – 7 days a week – bridge watches to perform, plus some school mastering, so it came as a great help to them to be relieved of a significant part of those duties. It left them free to churn out all the voyage reports, while I brushed up on being Magellan. Apart from being forced to anchor off Southend because of fog the homeward voyage was uneventful. As we were being assisted from the Thames into the locks at the Royal Docks (featured most days in the introductory piece to “East Enders”) on the 10th December 1970 I recall the Dock Master shouting through his loud hailer to the stern Tug Skipper “Keep ‘er off the knuckle, ‘arry”, which of course the good ‘arry, as always, duly did! Five years later, when those once thriving docks had been overtaken by the switch to container cargoes, that same good “’arry” came out to work for us in the Arabian Gulf as skipper of Al Qawi, one of our fleet of tugs, and an absolute gem he turned out to be!
After some home leave, during which we spent some most enjoyable time in the Lake District and in Scotland, I began to start to scan the papers on Fridays to see if there were any vacancies being advertised for ancient mariners. Luckily before I had made any move towards a return to the briney our London office ‘phoned to ask if I would be interested in taking up a post in the Arabian Gulf, and in Muscat (Oman), to be specific. It seemed that a post had become vacant as Shipping Manager in Gray Mackenzies at that port, and I could have it if I wished. The only thing I knew about that area was that Muscat was rated as one of the hottest places on earth, with a summer temperature of about 110°F. When I pointed out that shipping agency work was not exactly my field they kindly said “We think you can do it, so why not give it a go?” I wasn’t so sure it was the right thing to do, but as they stressed “Our marine involvement in the area is increasing, and at least you will be on the spot if this doesn’t suit and other opportunities arise”. So, with some reluctance and trepidation, off I went. I flew out to Dubai in February 1971 to join the BI. Passenger ship Dwarka for the last stage down to Muscat. Dubai was in the first period of the enormous expansion that has since produced the superb modern metropolis that we have all seen on our TV screens, and the first berths in the new Port Rashid were coming on stream. Dwarka was one of a small fleet of passenger/cargo liners that ran the B.I.’s Arabian Gulf service from Bombay and Karachi to all the main Gulf ports such as Muscat, Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait and Basra. (One officer who had spent some time on that service was Sir Robin Knox Johnson, indeed it was during this period that he had his yacht “Suhali” built in Bombay) In 1971 Oman did not boast an international standard airport, and in retrospect I was glad, because to have missed that trip would have been a shame. It meant passing through the Straits of Hormuz, which forms the entrance to the Arabian Gulf, the southern shore of which is an island at the extreme tip of the Musandam Peninsula. This island is separated from the peninsula, both with steep rocky cliffs, by a deep narrow channel known to the BI Officers as “The Hole in the Wall”. It forms a short cut and by using it a considerable saving in time and distance can be made. Popping through it was quite a spectacular moment, and it was just as well there wasn’t anything coming the other way!
The harbour at Muscat is formed by a cove about half a mile wide and a mile and a half in length, with steep rocky volcanic cliffs on each side, and the town itself is in a basin surrounded by stark volcanic mountains, all devoid of any vegetation whatsoever. Over the years the crews of visiting vessels had painted the ship’s names on the rocks on each side of the cove – graffiti on a grand scale. On either side at the inner end of the cove, perched up on two hills, were two forts that had been Built by the Portuguese in the 16th Century. Amazingly both were still in use, with the easterly one being the main prison of Oman, and the other the Police Headquarters. The latter also housed some of the old original cannons, and on special occasions, such as at sunset during the Holy Month of Ramadhan, these were fired off using the original gunpowder left there by the Portuguese over four centuries previously. The town itself was walled, and until just before I arrived in March 1971 the gates had been closed each night. If you went out of your house after dark, you were obliged to carry a lantern – a torch would not do – and if you were late coming home – 'late' being after 9pm - and had been locked outside the town gates, that is where you stayed until the gates opened at daybreak on the morrow!
Underneath the Police Fort was a small barge jetty and over 90% of all the cargo into and out of the country had to cross it. This primitive facility was completely inadequate and permanently overwhelmed. Chaos reigned supreme, as I soon found out, with import cargo just dumped in a great pile. With the discovery of oil the country was undergoing a rapid and massive expansion under the new Ruler Sultan Qaboos who, with British help, had overthrown his arch-conservative father Said bin Tamur in 1970. His father had imprisoned Qaboos, who had been educated in England and also trained at Sandhurst, for six years on his return from Europe to Oman. One of his first priorities when he ousted his parent was to order the construction a modern port at Muttrah, a bay four miles to the west.
I can’t say that I overly enjoyed my work there. Running a Shipping agency just wasn’t my scene, and I must admit that I found the ineptitude and the general incompetence of the local staff most frustrating. Yet for them as people I felt quite an affinity. After all they were the same Arab stock from which many of our Zanzibar Arabs stemmed. In those days I was still a heavy smoker on 50/60 per day, and the combination of the unbelievably high humidity and temperature during the monsoon period knocked me for six. I had to continue working, but I felt absolutely dreadful – so much so that the last thing I needed was a ‘fag’. By the time the weather had turned, and my health improved, I had lost the smoking habit. I have never smoked since, or ever missed it, but it is not a cure that I would recommend! Yet for all its frustrations I enjoyed the 18 months that I spent in Oman. There were some interesting surprises. One day, for instance, I took our boat to the deep water about a mile north of the entrance to the cove for some fishing and suddenly found that I was – quite literally - in the very middle of a pod of about six whales, and they kept company with me for about 15 minutes as I trolled. They are creatures that I had always associate with the cold waters of the southern Atlantic, yet here they were quietly swimming along in the warm waters of the Gulf of Oman. The fact that the country had not yet come out of its long sleep, and was very much as it had been for centuries, added to its fascination. There were three small primary schools, one small hotel and two small and somewhat poorly equipped hospitals in the whole country, so it was a good idea to stay healthy. Today (2002) there are modern hotels, two fine ports (Muttrah and another smaller one near Salalah in the south of the country), an International standard airport, up-to-date communications systems, over 800 schools, a University and three modern hospitals with all the latest gadgetry, staffed to the highest standards, and a fine road system linking all the major areas of this vast country. By all accounts the country has come a very long way in the 30 years since I lived there– and it had a long way to come!
Fortunately a vacancy occurred in Dubai in 1973 in the marine department, and I moved there. We locally operated a fleet of small tugs and barges, maintained by our own small dockyard under the eye of a brilliant Sikh engineer called Rajit Singh. Prior to the opening of the new Port Rashid (named after the Ruler at that time), and at that time still under construction, all cargo came ashore from vessels anchored offshore via this barge fleet, and was landed on jetties along the creek at Dubai. With the discovery of oil 40 miles offshore at Fateh in 1966, and the enormous increase in revenue it brought, projects such as the port, the airport and modern communications were put in hand. The creek berths then concentrated on the thriving dhow trade to other Gulf ports, and an even more lucrative smuggling trade in gold to India, as well as the oil fields supply businesses and rig construction yards. The latter two kept our little fleet busy ferrying their needs from the port to their yards. My patch also included a crew change service for tankers that we operated by fast crewboats from the small port of Ras-al-Khaimah, some 60 miles up the coast towards the Straits of Hormuz. After about a year in Dubai I transferred to the Marine Department at our Head Office in Bahrain. This was even more to my liking. We operated the biggest fleet in the Arabian Gulf of support craft for the oil industry, including tugs, barges, supply and survey boats, crewboats and workboats, nearly all on charter either to the oil companies themselves, or to their contractors. Competition in the field was intense, and the oil industry brooked no slip-ups. When the ‘phone on the operations desk rang and a voice said “Can you supply a craft at Kharg Island, or Doha, or wherever by tomorrow” you answered “Yes, of course” – and then sat back to wonder how on earth you were going to do it! A positive attitude and a flexible approach were essential or you would be out of business in no time flat. We also operated a fleet of coastal tankers that took care of most of the Gulf area’s own needs as regards petrol, diesel and aviation spirit, using the local Bahrain refinery as their source. It was a busy, interesting and demanding task, and my work took me to Tehran, Shiraz, Kharg Island, Doha, Kuwait, Bombay, Karachi, Delhi (where I managed to sneak in a visit to the beautiful Taj Mahal), Dacca, Chittagong, Colombo and Singapore.
On the assumption that when you joined the Inchcape Group you would already be experienced in your field, but not older than 30 years of age, retirement was compulsory on reaching the age of 55. Having started a couple of years late at 32 it was clear that I was going to be short of my allotted span by some two years by the time I reached 55 years of age, and that would adversely effect my pension, of course. But about two years before I was due to be put on the back shelf it was decided that that the Group would extend its operations into Saudi Arabia. In order to do this it was necessary to go into a joint venture with a Saudi partner, and so MATSS - Marine & Transportation Services (Saudia) – came into being. I was offered the job to set up and then oversee the “Marine” part of the venture, and the London Board’s special approval was obtained for waiving the age limitation. I had my last glass of amber liquid for the duration, and headed off for pastures new. I was in for something of a shock!
Although my remit covered both the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea areas it was envisaged that the former would be the principal one. A base somewhere close to the important ARAMCO oil terminal port of Ras Tanura was essential, and a house/office was rented for me in the predominantly Arab township of Rahima, just outside the terminal. Once the house, which had been unoccupied for a couple of years since being Built, had been rented I had popped across from Bahrain just to see what was needed to be done before I could set up shop. What I found was a bit disheartening, to say the least. The “home/office” was just a shell of a building. Someone had left most of the windows and inside doors ajar, so that every room in the place was ankle deep in sand. There was no furniture at all, no electricity, water, telephone, air-conditioning (essential if I was to work efficiently) or cooking facilities. Staff were non-existent and effectively unobtainable, and it was about a year before the authorities agreed to issue work permits for one cook-general servant and one office clerk, followed later by an Engineering manager and a team of fitters, welders, etc. Local Saudi electricians, plumbers and the like needed to make the house habitable were as rare as glaciers. The nearest place where furniture, office and household equipment could be bought was Damman, about 50 miles away, and the nearest butcher (of sorts) was at Al Khobar, about 65 miles away. It took six weeks of frustrating hard graft before everything was fixed and sorted out and it was possible for me to move to Rahima from Bahrain. Work kept me busy from 6am until each evening, for 6 days a week, and even on the 7th day (Friday) sod’s law often meant that some craft under my auspices would need attention. I had to be a real ‘jack-of-all-trades, ranging from cook, typist, business manager, laundryman, houseboy - you name it – I did it all simply because there was no other option, especially for the first 18 months until we could translate the work permits into flesh and blood. Saudi is 'officially' a strictly alcohol free zone, although there was a liquid dynamite distilled by the US staff at Aramco which was code named "Rafiki" (friend), and there was no entertainment other than the TV. The oil company, staffed primarily by Americans, had its own station which mainly put out sports programmes ex the USA such as baseball, golf, college football, basketball, etc. The local Saudi station did show some of the big soccer football matches, including the English Cup Final, but they had the somewhat disconcerting habit of breaking transmission off without warning. This was usually when there was only a few minutes to go to the end of the match – and was because it was time for the evening prayers. Unfortunately they didn’t bother to record the missing part and transmit it later, so you were all left frustratingly wondering what the final result had been!
Apart from a collection of taped classical music (records being soon damaged by the ever intrusive fine sand) I had plenty of mental stimulation in learning to make best use of my TI-59 programmable calculator. The first one of these super-calculators – in reality mini-computers - that I had come across was the Hewlett-Packard HP65, of which there were two in the Bahrain office, and it was in the mid 1970’s on one of those that a colleague and I (mainly the colleague) managed to write what was almost certainly the very first dedicated program for computing pigeon race velocities. The user could record a sequence of mathematical steps on to a magnetic card, insert that into the calculator, and the data would be juggled around to produce the desired answer. The “language” the H-P65 used was “reverse Polish notation”, which was as awkward to use as it sounded as if it might be! For example in “algebraic” logic we would write 2 times 3 as 2 x 3 = 6. In RPN, however, you would write “2 3 x” to get the same result. The machine’s capacity was only 100 steps and it had only 10 memories. The velocity program used the full capacity – right to the very last step and memory. But it worked, and did so with repeatable accuracy. In the office it justified its price of £500 by the hours of tedious work it saved. That was way out of my range. It wasn’t long, however, before H-P’s main competitor Texas Instruments came out with better and cheaper rivals, the TI-SR52, and the even more splendid TI-59. With many more Built in functions, up to 100 memories and 960 steps, and using algebraic logic, the range of mathematical problems that could be tackled was very much wider. With a price tag about half that of the HP version I couldn’t resist giving myself one for Xmas. It is on my desk as I write this in 2002, it is used almost daily and it is still fully functional! Not surprisingly the first task that I set myself was to re-write the pigeon racing velocity program into algebraic notation. I then wrote versions for metric distances, and a number of others. I had also written some programs for use at sea in solving navigational problems, including Great Circle Course and Distance and, by far the most complex of them all, one to compute the times of sunset, sunrise and civil twilight.
As the time approached for me to retire I began to give more and more thought to how I would then fill my time, and a return to pigeon racing seemed to be the obvious answer. In my sporting life I had always got most pleasure and satisfaction out of the personal participation in the activity, be it Rugby, Squash, Fishing or Dinghy racing, particularly the latter. Standing watching a sport did nothing for me. I had been fortunate to own what was without doubt the fastest dinghy in East Africa, and to race that very unforgiving and demanding boat hard, in the near perfect conditions which we enjoyed in Zanzibar, was joy bordering on bliss! I had imagined that I would get the same buzz out of racing my birds, but in fact I often found it to be very frustrating. Sitting around for lengthy periods waiting for the extreme excitement of just a few seconds between sighting my approaching bird to removing its rubber band and striking the clock proved too ephemeral for my temperament. The bird was making all the effort, while my input (apart from the essential husbandry needed for the bird to have a sporting chance of success) was almost that of an inconsequential spectator. Once the bird had been put into the basket prior to the race there was nothing that I could do further to help it in the task that I had set it. I also felt the inevitable loss of birds much harder to cope with than I had anticipated, and as the activities of raptors became ever more devastating this took away much of the remaining gloss. To exacerbate matters I was having to live with increasing arthritis in my hips. This made handling baskets of birds a traumatic and painful affair, and the training process, which I had enjoyed, became an unwelcome and painful chore. Eventually I had no option but have both ‘dicky’ hips replaced, and to put that side of the sport to one side.
On the other hand I got immense pleasure and had considerable success from breeding good birds for others to race. Among the champions in which I had a hand breeding was "Fallahill Superstar" which won the Scottish National from Rennes '86, 541 miles, against 4,175 birds, winning for his owner £1,761 and a new car. He was later bought for stud, where he proved very successful, for a sum reputed to be £10,000 - the highest price ever paid for any British National winner! There is little doubt in my mind that the most pleasure that I got out of my breeding activities was manifested in “Margaret’s Pride”. This cock, which cost £10, was part of a small draft of youngsters bought by the late Mrs Margaret Pearce of Washington, Tyne & Wear, as a birthday present for her husband George (“Geordie”). It proved to be an outstanding long distance racer, with a record of consistent excellence that will take some matching. In the great Up North Combine’s Blue Riband longest race from Bourges in Central France, 568 miles, against thousands of competitors, from 1990 to 1993 inclusive, he won 25th 9th 38th and finally, at the age of 7 years, he won 1st Open. He is thought to be the oldest bird ever to win this high honour, and many considered him to be the finest long distance racing cock of his era in the UK. I wouldn‘t argue with that. He won his club race from Bourges each of those four years, and won 2 x 1st and 2 x 2nd Houghton Federation, 1st Tyne & Wear Championship Club, 1st NE-2 bird Club and the Combine Gold Medal. That is some record! To my dying day I shall never forget the excitement in George’s voice when he ‘phoned to give me the news on the evening that the result came out, or the buzz that I got from that news. I could not have more delighted if I had won it myself! Sadly by the millennium I was no longer able to cope with the physical work involved with keeping the birds, and most reluctantly I sold off the stock. The RNLI did very well out of the proceeds, but I miss my birds tremendously.
When Personal Computers came readily available I couldn't resist getting one, and an invaluable tool it (and its successors) have been. As well as all the usual personal matters it also housed all the pigeon pedigrees, and I had great fun writing some programs to compute the mathematics of navigation and pigeon racing. My taste for this sort of mental gymnastics had been whetted years before in Saudi with my TI-59. It doesn't particularly matter to me whether the programs have any intrinsic merit, or whether they will ever be used. What intrigued me was the intellectual challenge of getting a machine, lacking anything approaching a human being's reasoning capability, to correctly juggle numbers and data, and make reasoned choices as to which mathematical options and outcomes were the correct ones. The ready access to the wide world provided by the Web never ceases to amaze me and give me pleasure. If I need to know the answer to any problem it is certain to be freely available at the press of a few buttons. What an unbelievable change from the cloistered confines of my youth in Ilfracombe!
God willing this coming December will see us celebrating our 60th - "Diamond" - Wedding Anniversary. We have been blessed with three lovely, and loving, children, and they have in their turn added two granddaughters and a grandson to our little branch of the family tree. In spite of our aches and pains, and we have a fair few, we have a lot for which to be thankful.
10th March 2005.
From Owen Keen
John and I enjoy many a happy hour remembering our days on the Kenilworth Castle, he the chief officer, I the first trip, straight to sea, 'son of Micky Mouse', cadet. On the morning after I joined the Kenilworth in Smith's dry dock, Middlesbrough, John sent for me.
"Ah, Keen, I've got a very important job for you."
What, thought I, already!
"I'm putting you in charge of the paint brushes, after work each day you are to clean them, count them and let me know how many brushes we have."
Wow, what a responsibility, and already!
For five months I spent an hour after everyone else had knocked off cleaning brushes, I can assure you it is no fun cleaning turks heads used for black bitumastic paint!
We docked in London and paid off to go on leave. John called me up to his cabin. "How many brushes do we have Keen?"
Like a parrot I reeled off the inventory.
"Now can you remember that until you get to Southampton?"
"Oh yes sir!"
"Good, please tell your father. Now I will tell you a story. The ship docked on Saturday morning in Southampton, there was only one train that day until Monday to get me home to Devon, at midday. With just time to catch my train I called at your father's office as was customary. 'Ah, Cutcliffe', he said 'I see you've ordered 6 three inch flat paint brushes, how many are left on board?' Being a truthful chap I replied I didn't know, to which you father replied, 'well I suggest you go back on board and count them'.
Of course I missed that train and spent a cold weekend waiting on an empty ship. Now are you sure you can remember how many brushes we have and tell your father?"
At home I was less than happy, not having had to clean all those brushes, the Kenilworth was one of the happiest ships I ever sailed on, and John without question one of my life's great friends.
My father's response to my less than complimentary remarks about his treatment of John?
"Well, I'm pleased to hear he has taught you the value of paint brushes!"
My Christmas present to John is always a 3" flat paint brush!
This year (2012) John celebrates his 90th birthday, he is one of those my father always called 'the salt of the earth'.
John passed away on 1st April 2016
Notice of his passing was posted on various Merchant Navy sites and elicited the following comments:
From Doc Vernon
May JDC now rest in Peace and may his sails be filled with calm winds and take him to the places he so well loved!
Condolences to all who knew and loved him
From Des Jenkins
My condolences to his family, may he rest in peace with his old comrades in calm waters.
Lest we forget
From John Strange
Though we often take the rise out of UCL there were some very good men on the ships.
Condolences to his family, 95 is a bloody good innings, well done.