Ray on the left with Gerry Waldon
`RAYMOND WATTS M.N. - JOURNAL OF MY LIFE AT SEA 1939-1947
I was born in Bristol and up to the age of 13, life was a pretty hard thing to bear.
The families shortage of work and money in the 1920`s was the lot of most, so no wonder
I tried my luck at joining the Merchant Navy.
I had been going up and down the rivers from Avonmouth to Sharpness with my father and grandfather (ex Pill Pilot) and we used to take a barge of cargo, all kinds of goods including T fish or Toerag which
is Newfoundland cod! - this came in big salted barrels.
I decided to go to the Shipping federation in Princes Street in Bristol. There I saw a Captain who said they wanted a Galley Boy for a ship at Avonmouth. But before I could start I had to get permission
from my parents. Mother wasn’t too keen but Dad said it would be the making of me.
Most of my family and relatives going back a long way were all Navy men, Merchant and Royal. Having got my parent’s signature on the form of consent I returned
to the Shipping Federation and was given a train pass to Avonmouth. I arrived at the docks late afternoon and reported to a ship by the name of Imperial Monarch.
The ship was about 7000 tons and quite old. I found myself in a cabin with about
four other lads.
I started my duties next morning for the beginning of breakfast. We sailed about 10am on the morning tide and I was quite sad as I watched the docks disappear and the Bristol Channel approaching. We went to the docks of Barry, South
Wales to fill up with coal as we were a coal- burner built in the early years of the 1900`s . After a couple of days in the dock we sailed and met a convoy of ships getting ready to set out for the different ports. We were with a convoy of about 12 ships.
We were at sea for a few days when we were told our destination - The Gold Coast.
A week later found us in Freetown.
We anchored off for about 3 days having to wait for another ship to come from the narrow waterway as only one ship at a time
could pass. The place we were heading for was called Rokel. We had to load iron-ore - that was worse than loading coal. Dust everywhere. We loaded 3000 tons of the ore and found we were almost level with the sea. We all hoped the weather was going to be kind
to us or it could get uncomfortable on the way back. A convoy of 7 ships left Freetown and began steaming back to England, our destination was Ford’s works at Dagenham. We arrived back safely and my first voyage had not been bad.
I came home for
a week’s leave which was very welcome, even my parents were glad to see me. I then went and reported to Capt. Henderson, he then sent me again to join a ship the Nyanza at Avonmouth. She was a really old ship built in the early twenties “a
rust bucket” the crew called her. She could only do about six knots and that was with a following wind. But what an exciting trip followed!.
Joining a convoy in the Channel and sailing to the coast of Canada, Halifax ,Nova Scotia and then onto
New York - a trip that took 18 days to reach. Having loaded at New York we sailed to the Isle of the Dominican Republic to a port called
“La Ramana” . My first insight to a tropical Island.
Beautiful beaches and tropical trees growing
everywhere. Ten days was the time it took to load with sugar and molasses. Before we sailed most of us bought whole stems of bananas green as possible . Each bunch contained about 60 bananas . These were hung outside our cabins.
Then back to New York,
loaded more cargo for our home port of Avonmouth. Because of the weather etc. by the time I reached home only about 20 bananas were edible but what a treat for the family!.
Another seven days leave and then back to the Shipping Federation. In between
waiting for a new ship I was asked to go on a gun firing course at Portbury for which I was awarded £2.00 for each of the days I went to fire a Pom-Pom and a rocket gun!
After reporting to the Shipping Reserve Pool, I was asked about going on
a catering course at Wallesey (Liverpool). I thought it would give me a new chance of promotion on any other ship. It was a six week course so I decided to go. After a long trip on the railways I got the “Ferry across the Mersey” to Wallesey and
reported to the officer in charge . It was a Royal Navy Sea school.
The weeks following consisted of boat training, rowing, seamanship, flags, codes then down to waiting on tables and three weeks of cooking and general galley work. It was a very happy
6 weeks and I met some very good lads that I would sadly never see again!.
Back to Bristol and after a few days at home I got a call from the Shipping Federation to go back to Princes Street and find another ship. It was a lovely clean ship the Port
Dunedin which was berthed at Avonmouth.
I joined her in the afternoon and met the Cook George Hall, he was from Hull. He turned out to be a lovely fellow and mate. I was signed on as Assistant Cook. He taught me more in a day than I ever
learned at the Sea School ! George had been at sea for over 20 years. Nothing worried him and he never got flustered.
The Port Line was a very good company to work for and supplied the crew with most of the gear wanted on a voyage - jumpers, caps etc…
We left Avonmouth on the evening tide and after a day or two we gathered in the English Channel where we joined a convoy of around 20 ships with three destroyers as escort. We sailed about 3 days later and came to the Azores where we took fresh water and provisions.
From there we proceeded across the Atlantic Ocean to New York.
Our convoy was now about twelve ships. It was a stormy crossing but George’s meals were always gratefully received by the crew and his breakfasts of American tinned bacon, eggs
and sausages were always devoured like crazy!.
The crew worked hard and George always said a “A happy crew is a good crew”.
It was another 4 or 5 days when we came into Halifax Nova Scotia Canada and we discharged part of our cargo,
reloaded and after 4 days set sail for New York. I remember when we went past the Statue of Liberty and seeing the skyscrapers it was amazing. We landed at Ellis Island for FFI (free from infection) and passes allowing us to go ashore in New York.
It was late in December and New York was getting ready to Christmas. The shops were bulging with goodies that the people at home in England hadn’t had for a few years!.
We stayed in Port until 20th. Of December which meant Christmas
at sea. We were on our way to New Zealand via the Panama Canal another milestone to go through as it was a wonderful experience with the ship being lifted up and down as we went through different locks.
Colon is the first port where you pick up your
dockers to go through then you come to Panama City and get to the Pacific ocean.
So began another moment I’ll never forget. One of the stories you hear of as a boy is `Mutiny On The Bounty` in which the Captain (Bligh) is set adrift in a boat
after the crew mutinied due to his brutality towards them. The Mutineers then set sail to eventually come upon an island away from the normal sea lanes - it was called `Pitcairn`. After we had left Panama we were set for a long voyage across the Pacific Ocean
but after about 10 days we intercepted a radio call to go to Pitcairn Island and take a sick child - a young boy- who was an actual descendant of Fletcher Christian who had been the first Mate and leader of the mutineers .The lad was thought to be suffering
The illness could affect all the rest of the Islanders and have a terrible effect on the remaining population and see the end of the Islands as we know it.
There were only 2 New Zealand radio operators stationed there to make
sure the Japanese were not active anywhere around. We continued on our way until the fourth day we came to Pitcairn. No wonder nobody could find it in the old days as it suddenly appeared off the ship’s quarters out of nowhere.
It was an amazing
sight seeing history before your eyes. The deck crew sent a boat to the rocky shore to find how we were going to get the sick lad to the ship. They rowed round the end of the islands and found a reasonable beach to land. The Islanders were very religious so
no bad language was the order of the day. The crew never gad shoes and their feet were quite large . Some had whiter skin than others. I bought a few wooden carvings that had been carved by hand. The wood they used came from an island one hundred miles away
at Henderson Islands. The wood was rowed behind the outriggers they used. The wood used produced it’s own oil and never needed polishing. We anchored off the islands for 24 hours and then sailed for New Zealand.
This took about ten days. It was
when we neared Tasmania when we knew what a storm was like - wind and rain was horrific. The ship could do about 12 knots but in that kind of storm we could manage about 6 with luck. So it was a great relief that we saw the port of Aukland. It was good to
step onto dry land for a change. The young lad was taken to hospital. It wax in the harbour at Aukland that George the cook showed us how to catch your dinner. You throw some `gash` over the side, put a hook on a line and wait. In minutes we had our meal -
a six foot King Fish was caught and the cook got 40 large cutlets out of it. It was not unlike cod. It was quite a nice port, plenty of refreshment and the like. Most of the deck crew had time off so it was easy to cook for the skeleton staff. We all had plenty
of time to see the local sights etc…The main street in Auckland was a long hill, the main building being the Post Office so it was nice to be able to send letters home. We stayed in Auckland for about a week then it was off to the port of Wellington.
I was lucky because the first person to come aboard was an ex Bristolian from Horfield. He had been in Wellington for quite a number of years and had a good job on the local council. We were invited to a meal and a weekend with him . The man’s name turned
out to be Robert James. A pleasant time was had by me and another Bristol lad on board.
We part loaded and left for a place called Bluff right at the foot of South Island. This turned out to be quite a revealing part of my voyage. It seems that when
a ship docked the people come from the surrounding area. The police were the best, drinking time was from 6am to 6pm but if you knocked on the back door of the pub it would be a constable that greeted you. My favourite drink there was stout and raspberry -
I quite enjoyed the `brew` also the fish and chip shop only sold oysters battered fresh and covered by a flour with herbs.
A must view was to see the sun rising over `Suicide Hill`. To the Maoris` it’s the hill the British drove their forefathers
over the side. The Maori people are a very happy race. We stayed about 10 days in Cambell town (Bluff) then sailed to our next port namely Lyttlton. The town nearest was Christchurch. It was just like being at home - shops were Woolworths, Bata and Home and
Colonial. It was a good place to celebrate but after about a week we were looking a bit shaky!
I have a lasting memory of the crowd of Maoris that sang `Now is the hour - it was sang in their language but it is something that I will never forget.
We sailed and made our way to the Panama canal and then on to New York. But it was off the coast of America when the worst storm I have ever been in blew up. This is at a place called Cape Hatterus.It was 3 days of hell!!
Everything was soaking wet
and flooded. I admit I did a bit of praying. We went into Houston Texas for a week for repairs before going on to New York then back to London for a spot of leave. Before we left New Zealand they gave each crew member a box containing fruit and a leg of lamb.
Mother was very happy.
I said about the best part of some voyages but for one good one you could have a couple of terrifying trips , like going to Malta. The convoy was picked from ships that could do 12 to 15 knots. We were at a dock in Scotland but
were sent to Southampton. They named this convoy Pedestal. When we gathered off Gibraltar the convoy of 14 ships was then sent to Malta. After weeks of being bombarded by aircraft and surface ships we got to Malta - Valetta harbour. Only 5 ships out
of the whole convoy reached port. 2 were badly damaged and 3 slightly damaged. The main ship limped into Valetta. That was the U.S.A. ship Ohio carrying the aviation fuel so badly needed by the R.A.F. She only got in by being tied to HMS Brabham.
Other ships that had been involved in this convoy were Rochester Castle ( My ship) HMS Ashanti, Melbourne Star, Brisbane Star and Port Chalmers.
9 of the 14 Merchant Navy ships and 4 Royal navy ships were lost, total loss of Seamen
was 3,063. It was a terrible loss of life, the only thing is, it saved Malta.
After a few days we went back to Southampton where I took a long leave. The next time I returned to Malta was on the Donnottar Castle - this was a much more peaceful
affair just picking up troops and taking them to Sorrento Italy and back to Southampton, then more troops but our destination was Norway, Bergan and Stavanger.
There our troops took over from the Germans who had surrendered. Another lovely country with
the house down to the sea all painted different colours. Back to England
and later to join the Queen Mary at Southampton where I was offered a cooking job. I stayed with the ship for nearly 3 years before I left. The ship had plenty of class
about her. It meant every 6 weeks I had leave in New York.
I had to make a decision after these 3 years whether to stay at sea or take a relief job working on a ship in the docks in Bristol. I took the docks job and worked on relief for a couple of
years until my wife was found to have T.B. and it became very difficult to go up and down to Avonmouth then to my mothers who was looking after the children.
As with most things good or bad it’s nice to look back and reflect and remember those
I will never see again. After the death of my wife I decided to join the Bristol branch of the Merchant Navy Association. As an ex seaman I had the honour of placing a wreath on our memorial on Welsh Back. Another wonderful honour was to be given the chance
to go to Buckingham Palace in the presence of her Majesty the Queen for lunch in the grounds on the occasion of 60 years of the end of World War 2.
This is the pinnacle of the life!
Here I have to put the lamp out
and say goodbye.
I have had a very happy time, mostly and I am grateful for knowing
Some very good friends that will always be in my memory.
I’ll sign off and say `Thank God` for everything.
RAMOND WATTS - M.N.