“Dawn was breaking when our train stopped at a platform which was in a dock. Through the doorway labelled Customs we could see a mighty ship. We had arrived at Greenock. We dressed in our equipment and, wearing our greatcoats, climbed up the gangplank and into the bowels of the ship. The ranks were separated. Officers and Warrant Officers (WOs) were led off in one direction, sergeants in another while the men were led below deck by their corporals. I was allocated a cabin on the boat deck which I shared with three others. Double bunks almost filled the space.
Our ship was RMS The Duchess of York, a vessel of 22,000 tons deadweight. I knew it as one of the Canadian Pacific Railways’ liners which Mr Harris, the Hawkes’ traveller, used on one of his Canadian trips.
On the dock, we bought a copy of the Daily Express which had headlines telling of an Anglo-American invasion of North Africa. We were to sail that evening and we guessed where. The date was 11 November 1942, the twenty-fourth anniversary of Armistice Day 1918.
The sergeants were called down to the mess decks where the men were quartered. It was hot and crowded. The men’s kits, hammocks and life jackets were kept on long tables. A demonstration was being given of how to rig hammocks and how to stow them afterwards. I was glad I was on the boat deck. The saloon where the officers and WOs were to eat was luxurious and had been used by first class passengers. The officers’ cabins were in the 1st and 2nd class accommodation. The WOs were more closely packed. Our cabins were former third class and tourist accommodation and our mess was their former saloon. There were 3,000 people aboard. The majority, all below sergeant’s rank, had been packed into what had been the hold space which had been converted into navy-style mess decks.
The ‘Come to the Cookhouse’ bugle call was sounded over the tannoy and I went to the mess. Here, I was served the best meal I’d had for years. The WOs and officers had a peace-time menu. The men’s fare, though good, had to be eaten in the furnace below.
We pulled away from the quay in the late afternoon, steamed into the Clyde estuary and down into the Firth of Clyde where we were joined by other vessels. We had lifebelt and boat drill and went to bed. As darkness fell, everything was closed up. We could use the boat deck but dare not show a light. I slept badly. I felt queasy though the sea was like a millpond. Next day, I could see from the boat deck the extent of our vast armada. It comprised about 80 vessels and spread over many square miles of ocean. I was able to identify the Orient Liner’s Orion, the CPR’s Empress of Britain and many other great vessels as we steamed out into the Atlantic. We did not zig-zag a great deal as we were a fast convoy. Destroyers and other naval vessels moved around us sounding their sirens.
Among the fleet watchers was a major dressed in service dress with riding breeches and puttees. I was able to recognise his badge as the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. What was a vet doing with an armoured division, I wondered? I would soon find out (the British Army in Tunisia and Italy was to depend on mules).
Just prior to our embarkation, The O’Donovan had left the brigade and had been succeeded by an Irish Fusilier, Brigadier Nelson Russell. After sailing for almost a week, elements of our convoy seemed to peel off. I believe we went through the Gibraltar Straits at night as I cannot remember seeing the rock. I remember, however, seeing the vivid white houses and the towns of the North African shore.
I was ordered to arrange a pay parade. It was held on the mess deck. It was hot and crowded. I had barely started when I had to run to be sick. The foetid air was too much. The men were paid in a strange currency: Allied Military Francs, which could be used in French North Africa. I attended an Orders (‘O’) Group where our destination was confirmed as North Africa. I was issued with maps that filled two bren gun magazine cases. I was ordered to issue every person with a 48-hour emergency pack. Our part of the convoy separated.”