Burma Star Association
Burma Star Association

Going to war with an unarmed ship - Merchant Navy Memories

As told by Percy Smith to Mr Michael Hall

 

From the time he was five until he was 16, Smith would snorkel and spear tropical fish  most every Sunday afternoon off the sandywhite shore of Sri Lanka. He used to look up across the Indian Ocean and wonder what existed beyond its vast horizon from where tall ships looked like bathtub toys.

 

Percy dreamed of sailing on one of those ships. He had hitched rides on fishing boats at dusk to the Maldives islands before, but had never gone past them.

 

At, 18, Percy would join the British Merchant Navy and sail to places he never imagined existed. He would see things that he'll never forget; some so gruesome that they didn't seem real at the time.

 

Percy is fortunate to have lived through World War II and remember those things. It is important to remember, he tells young students in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows gyms each year just before Remembrance Day.

 

It is important to remember those who rest under crosses and stars in cemeteries in this country and faraway lands.  Percy says. "Let us remember that their sacrifices were not in vain.”

 

At 16 Percy didn’t understand  freedom. He knew there was a war going on. British and colonial troops occupied India while Japanese soldiers infiltrated Malaysia. When Japanese planes flew over Colombo, the Capital and main port of Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, Percy went outside to see them, thinking they belonged to the British. He ran inside when they started dropping bombs, and watched the explosions out the front window.

 

Many people died in the 30minute attack and a second one a month later. Life on the island changed after that. People started rationing food and clothing. Percy remembers going to school one day and many of the seats usually filled by boys were empty. They had enlisted in the military forces, including Percy's younger brother, Roy Edward, who joined the Royal Army Service Corps.

 

While Roy Edward went to Egypt and Tunisia, Percy stayed in school. He was still too young to join the merchant navy, so he waited until after graduation.

 

Percy then studied for eight months at the HMIS Dufferin naval school in Bombay to become a ship steward. The training was intense. The merchant navy needed more men quickly because the death rate on its unarmed ships was so great.

 

Percy didn't consider that. He thought only of being at sea on his dream boat. "I was looking forward to going on the ship," he recalls.

 

He was anxious to finally see what was beyond the horizon. He knew something was there, but imagined wrong.

 

Percy's first ship was the MV Cromwell, a 10,000tonne British tanker. It was 600 metres long, 45 metres wide and five stories tall. Percy, then a lean young man with a thin moustache and coifed black hair, was overwhelmed by its size. He remembers walking up the gangplank thinking, "I've got my own ship. I'm part of the war now. Finally."

 

He didn't consider the danger. "You don't think about dying. You think about what you are going to do."

 

The MV Cromwell left Trincomalee, a port on the northwest edge of Ceylon, carrying 75 men and fuel south east to an aviation base in the Cocos Islands, near Indonesia. It was an uneventful trip, considering what Percy experienced next.

 

The tanker then headed west to Madagascar for cleaning and continued on to Cape Town on the southern tip of South Africa to load up with bunker C fuel. Before arriving at Cape Town, the MV Cromwell was diverted to pick up survivors from a Dutch tanker that had been torpedoed by a German U boat. There had been 175 men on the tanker. About 25 were swimming in oil that had spilled into the Atlantic Ocean. Percy remembers helping hauling them aboard his ship and spraying them with salt water to get the oil off their bodies. Five more of the Dutch men died before reaching Cape Town.

 

It was Percy's first burial at sea. The bodies were enclosed in canvas bags and weighted down with chains. After a Christian ceremony, the bodies were slid down boards into the ocean, where they sank to un marked graves. Percy thought to himself, "Maybe that will be me one day". He wasn't scared, but for the first time realized the horrors of war.

 

From Cape Town the M.V. Cromwell sailed north up the Atlantic to Freetown in Sierra Leone, then to Gibraltar, at the foot of Spain. Next it traveled up through the English Channel and docked in London, where Percy was dis­charged. After a week's leave, he reported back to the ship­ping master and was assigned to Southampton and his sec­ond ship, the Empire Viscount. This would he his second and most horrifying voyage.

 

Percy was now a chief steward, a junior officer's position that required him to purchase, stock and prepare all the ship's food. The Empire Viscount left London for Glasgow, Scotland, where it loaded up with am­munition, planes and tanks destined for the Russian front. Britain was supplying Russia with war materials for its battles with Germany. The Empire Viscount would have to swing around Norway, enter the Arctic Ocean and navigate the Barents Sea en route to the port of Murmansk in northern Russia. "It was the most dangerous voyage in the war," Percy says. "Ask any seaman."

 

German Uboats patrolled the sea during the day. German planes flew overhead a night. One in three ships that attempted the "Murmansk run" were sunk.

 

The Empire Viscount was in the middle of three ships in the last 10 rows in a convoy of 30. Only 10 of them made it to Murmansk, including the Empire Viscount. "We were lucky" Percy says.

 

He remembers when the first torpedo struck. He couldn't see which ship was hit. It was near the front of the formation. There was an explosion, then fire and billowing black smoke. The ships broke formation and scattered.

 

Percy and his mates spent much of the remaining time of their 18­-day trip rescuing navy men from the icy sea. The water was so cold most men didn't survive more than five minutes in it. "Most of the bodies we just left in the sea. They were already dead."

 

Many who did make it aboard the Empire Viscount died soon after from hypothermia or injuries they suffered in the explosions, Percy says.

 

He saw bodies without legs, arms and heads. He tried to block such sights out of his mind. "It could be you or your bunker mate, but you see only another soldier," he says. "To see it makes you angry. It makes you want to fight the war. You want to survive to make sure whoever did that is punished." But the Empire Viscount was only a cargo ship.

 

Finally it reached Murmansk. However, the port was full with other ships and the Empire Viscount was diverted to Archangel. The ice was so thick, though, that the ship couldn't make it there alone. A Russian icebreaker cut the Empire Viscount a path, which froze shut behind us within 15 minutes of passage.

 

Percy and his mates were not allowed ashore in Archangel. They watched as women unloaded their ship. Its ballasts were then filled with water and the Empire Viscount eventually set sail for Liverpool.

 

The trip back along the "Murmansk run" went smoothly. The German Uboats ignored the Empire Viscount, knowing it was empty.

 

Once in Liverpool, Percy joined his third ship, the Rifle Queen, on which he traveled to Canada for the first time, delivering general cargo to Halifax. Percy made another trip on this same ship. He witnessed more ships being blown up in the Atlantic, but most of his time on the Rifle Queen was uneventful. He was never in much danger.

 

Percy later sailed on another tanker, the Empire Record. He was on that ship, carrying highoctane fuel in the Persian Gulf when the war in Europe ended, June 15, 1945.

 

But the war with Japan continued. The Empire Record carried fuel from Abadan to Bombay, then to Trincomalee, where Percy joined his fifth and final ship, a tanker supporting a British fleet heading for Burma.

 

The United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 15, 1945.

 

"And the war was over"

 

So were the best days of Percy's life: fishing and reading to relax; playing badminton on the deck with his mates; writ­ing letters to his family and also for those who didn't know how to write. Talking about wives, sweethearts, children and home; talking about what they were going to do once they got there, and what they did there before leaving: sharing boy­hood stories, drinking all the beer he could and smoking freeissue cigarettes, staring at pinups of Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo and singing along with the Andrews Sisters.

 

"Above all, we fought for a just cause. I'd never trade that for anything in the world."

 

Percy spent about five more months at sea, supplying more ships with fuel while word of the war's end trickled to Japanese outposts. One of his last trips was to Batavia (now Jakarta), Indonesia to pick up Dutch war prisoners; men, women and children so malnourished that their bones jutted out. "It was revolting," Percy says. "That hit me more than all the horrors that I had seen during the war."

 

The Dutch survivors were taken to Singapore, from where Percy shipped home two months later.

 

He wrote articles about the war for a newspaper while in Singapore. "Nothing made sense then," he says.

 

It does now.

When you go home

tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow,

we gave our today

Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945 Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945
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