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.
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.
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
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.
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.