British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by J.D. Hunter-Smith
Wartime Passage
Newport Docks
The 'Maaskerk', 8000 tons, slipped out from the Newport docks. South Wales, during the blackout. It was December 1943.

We - four of us - had boarded her at night. Come daylight, we were plunging northwards through heavy seas in the Irish Channel.

During the next few days an impressive sight unfolded. We were with many ships making course together over a vast expanse of turbulent murky ocean. The few ships close by looked weathered and work-worn. On the aft-deck of a large merchantman was lashed a small 'plane. On ours was a cannon, with a shelter rigged alongside so that its crew could be instantly ready.

Wartime Passage
Maaskerk
It was after about a week that we caught sight of the corvettes ferreting around, presumably coaxing ships to keep station. This involved the convoy proceeding at the speed of the slowest vessel.

Each grey dawn revealed that we were alone. But during the ensuing hours of weakly strengthening daylight the corvettes beavered away getting us company. They had to do this without breaking radio silence.

These little vessels -- the corvettes- appeared to be below the water-line as often as not. They emerged on the crests of the huge swell before spiralling down again. Did their crew ever get a hot meal or dry bunk?

The large merchantman reappeared after many days' absence. She looked different somehow. We then noticed that her 'plane had gone - presumably catapulted off for duty. Had it reached land? Or had to be ditched? Had the pilot been recovered? With the seas as they were, this last possibility seemed remote.

Wartime Passage
Bermuda Dockyard
The storm, after raging for many more days, gradually ebbed. I awoke one morning to feel an unnatural, silent stillness. We were at anchor. The crew were tight-lipped about where we were and what was happening. In the dank mist neither ships nor land could be seen.

We left from wherever we had been -- Greenland? Newfoundland? -- and in due course found that we were unescorted. The weather improved steadily until, in glorious sunshine, on a flat blue sea, we were buzzed by some war planes. After initial apprehension we saw that they were Uncle Sam's and were greeting us.

Soon after this we reached Bermuda. What a haven of tranquillity, warmth and colour! The contrast to the midwinter wartime scene back home could hardly be greater. There was Scotch whisky on display in a shop window.

All too soon we were off again, heading south down the Caribbean. We expected the next stop to be Trinidad, but it turned out to be the small island of Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela. Its significance lay with its oil refinery, fed from the Venezuelan fields.

Wartime Passage
Port of Spain Sketches, 1943
Our Dutch-owned ship was visiting a Dutch West Indian territory to refuel. In a sense she was going to a home from home; while home was under occupation. The ship and her crew certainly deserved a welcome.

Safari - Old Style
Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture
Despite the arid and barren look of the island we also loaded vegetables and tomatoes. Water distilled from the sea, combined with the horticultural expertise of the Dutch, was making the desert fruitful.

On then to our destination. Port of Spain, Trinidad: reached five weeks after leaving South Wales. There we reported to the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, where we were to be trained for entry into the Colonial Agricultural Service.

This 'Wartime Passage' provides a small but revealing insight into the commitment which Britain had to her colonies. There are now many who equate 'colonial' with exploitation. Unfortunately those who can counter this from first hand experience of the Colonial Service will soon be gone.

Africa Map
1922 Map of Trinidad and Tobago
Colony Profile
Bermuda
Trinidad and Tobago
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 73: April 1997


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