"Capt Sam K Williams"
A Taste of the Spanish Civil War
After serving two years on the Santiburcio, I saw that the shipping situation was improving; consequently, I thought I could risk taking the holiday I deserved. In any case, I handed my job over to my only brother who was also a seaman. He also spent two years on the same ship.
My next ship was the TSS Napier Star, a refrigerated cargo ship. With accommodation for 17 passengers, and she carried a Doctor. She was a fine ship with 32 cargo derricks and 29 winches, plenty of work, and plenty of overtime. She was loaded with general cargo for South Africa and Australia; then we loaded meat, eggs, cheese and butter for the UK – a very interesting voyage.
I then returned to the Eagle Oil Company. I joined a new motor ship the MT San Arcadio – a fine ship, very modern in every respect. Her Chief Officer, later gained fame and notoriety when in command of the tanker Ohio, running the enemy gauntlet into Malta. It was a close run thing, but she made it, with just her gunwale out of the water and the remnants of a dive bomber on her decks. Dudley Mason got the George Cross for his gallantry and determination in getting his ship, with a valuable cargo of petrol, into port in the beleaguered island of Malta. He was a good man to work for and I got on really well with him.
After making a few voyages on the San Arcadio, I decided to have another holiday. By this time, I had almost completed the sea time necessary to qualify for a Second Mate’s certificate. I only needed a short voyage for this, and I was fortunate in my quest for such a ship. With a friend of mine, I signed on in a small fruit carrying ship called the MV Patcheco, employed on the Spanish trade. Spain was in the grips of a civil war at the time, but it didn’t concern me. Little did I realise then that the belligerents would not stop fighting because of my presence.
The Patcheco was a fine looking little ship, painted white with yellow funnel and green boot topping. She looked like a yacht, and she was quite fast for a pre war ship. Her speed combined with her size produced movements and gyrations that I had not been used to. I well remember talking to the Chief Officer as I did a trick at the wheel steaming down the St George’s Channel. All of a sudden I felt squeamish. On being relieved, the Chief Officer informed me that I was sea sick. I indignantly refuted such a notion, but, alas, how right he was and how sick I was !!! The indignity of it all – after serving almost four years at sea, not mentioning the time I had spent in a small boat at home where I first made my acquaintance with Father Neptune, and had become fully initiated. Yes, I was ill, and no mistake about it. In a moment of respite I sadly informed my friend who was relieving me on the lookout. He was quite amused at my discomfort and dilemma, but he who laughs last laughs loudest. I had no sooner disappeared towards the doubtful comfort of my bunk, when my friend was also assailed by a violent attack of sea sickness. We were both in the same boat, and a sad one to boot. The delicacies we had brought with us as a special treat were untouched.
During this trying period, the redoubtable ‘Bay of Biscay’ was at its worst. She was only a small ship, and she took a battering. Cargo became loose in the holds, and we spent the best part of the day wrestling with the cargo before it was finally tamed and secured. It was a rough tough passage, all the way to Gibraltar. I then got used to the ship and overcame my sea sickness, as did my friend; but we never gave up; we performed our duties in the normal manner.
Although I spent less time on this ship than on any other, it was an epic voyage in more ways than one, and my experiences on that ship have indelibly impressed on my memory. After passing Gibraltar, a great big Spanish cruiser, rushed up to us in a threatening manner and inquired our business, cargo, destination etc. Although we were proceeding on our lawful business with a cargo for the lawful government of Spain, the cruiser deemed differently, so we turned about and put into Gibraltar where the captain reported to the British Navy. We were told to resume voyage and contact them if molested again. It was nearly midnight when the cruiser appeared out of the darkness and circled us in a menacing manner, but the shot was not fired and we proceeded on our way. This was our introduction to the hostile atmosphere that dominated the Mediterranean at that time. Aircraft swooped so low with a terrific roar, almost knocking our masts over, always causing mirth and hilarity when the danger was over.
We were at a port called Palmanos, a little way north of Barcelona, loading slab cork from pony traps. It was a small and picturesque and a seaplane lay nearby testing its machinegun, otherwise everything was peaceful. It was just after lunch and I was working on the monkey island (space above the wheel and chart room) when a drone in the sky attracted my attention. On investigation I suddenly spied a plane coming in from seawards at an altitude of 5000 feet or thereabouts. Aircraft always had a fascination for me and I’m afraid I paid more attention to the plane than my work. She had three engines I noticed, and was a thing of beauty. By this time, the captain and three other men had come out on deck to investigate. As the captain scrutinised her through his telescope, I heard him remark “ By golly. She’s dropping them”. I paused to look again, and saw the projectiles unerringly gliding and zooming towards us. These missiles of death glistened and sparkled in the brilliant sunshine as if rejoicing in the foul mission allotted to them. Humanity was their objective and that term meant myself and my shipmates. On that brilliant day, we were to be liquidated, erased from the face of the earth, purely because we were following our lawful vocation and supplying one of the belligerents, which, in fact, was the recognised government at the time. I did not tarry to watch the bombs as they hurtled towards us, but with great alacrity, dashed to warn my shipmates. I had hardly blurted out the news when the very air was torn asunder with three violent explosions. We clung to the decks feeling naked and unprotected; cordite fumes contaminated the air. When an eerie silence pervaded the scene. I looked around and found my shipmates similarly occupied. Lo and behold, we were alive ! The ship was covered in bomb fragments, providentially, no one was injured. Then, in typical British manner, we joked and poked fun at each other – how wonderful to have escaped almost certain death. The sun shone with greater brilliance; the sky was the bluest I have ever seen; mother earth was still exultant in spite of man’s puny effort to inflict a wound and leave her scarred. The poor ponies with their traps had turned tail and fled towards the town; a very fast horse would have found it hard to pass these poor demented creatures at that time. In such a manner, I was introduced to and endured my first experience under fire. After that, it became a fairly frequent occurrence and we became inured to the attacks.
I made another voyage in that ship. We were getting danger money on the Spanish coast and I needed the extra cash to pay for my tuition for a Second Mate ‘s certificate, not to mention lodgings and other expenses. On our return to Liverpool after the second voyage, I obtained admission to the Technical college and commenced my studies. Two months later, I emerged holding a Second Mate’s certificate – a proud possession and one of the happiest occasions that I can remember. It was worth the worry and the effort. Achievement is a far more savoury morsel than wealth.
My parents were quite delighted with my success, especially my father who was a retired Master Mariner himself. Contrary to what I had been told (“What’s the use of getting a ticket, you will never get a Job”?) and the general belief and opinion at the time, I had obtained a Third Officer’s berth within a month. I rigged myself up in a new uniform, purchased a new sextant, (an expensive item, and I was broke at the time) and started my career on the bridge. The ship was the SS Dalcairn, a tramp ship, which in spite of my privations was a happy ship, I circumnavigated the globe twice in that ship – out through the Panama Canal, and home through the Suez Canal.
The Panama Canal has several locks with electric mules to pull the ship through. There are no locks in the Suez Canal, which is 87 miles long and three hundred feet wide. Ships drawing a draft of 37 feet can navigate the canal. In the middle, it is linked by the Bitter Lakes where the south bound convoy anchors to wait for the north bound convoy to pass through. The Panama Canal is the most interesting of the two, with verdant vegetation flourishing on either side.
In the Dalcairn, I visited many countries, Australia, Japan, Indo China, Finland, North America and South Africa, all the time gaining experience in navigation and seamanship. We were sailing from Finland with a full cargo of timber, just before the war started. The ship called at the Tyne for stores and we parted company. I returned to school to sit for a First Mate’s certificate. A week later war was declared.
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