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City of Newcastle - Recollections

The following article has been transcribed from an un-named magazine and written by an un-named author, so apologies to both - we will, of course, be happy to correct these omissions if anyone can supply us with the relevant details.

The City of Newcastle was an old ship, having been built on the north east coast in the early days of the Great War. Indeed, she had been fitted out in West Hartlepool when in 1914, German cruisers steamed up the North Sea and shelled the town. One of the shells had passed clean through the funnel before exploding alongside, and when I joined the ship, the two patches on the funnel were still in evidence. This was told me by the chief officer who had been a cadet on her at that time.

There was no running water, no fresh milk and there was not even a fridge on board; so meat and vegetables were sealed in large ice boxes which did keep things fresh for a while. But on a long voyage, particularly in hot climes, the meat didn’t last and the ever increasing number of curry dishes was grim evidence that the ice was steadily melting.

The officers’ toilets were down aft, in the after well deck and were always clean and kept locked, so were not too horrendous – at least, in port. At sea, if the ship were heavily laden and in a heavy sea, sea boots and oilskins were the order of the day, as one never knew when these ‘services’ would be awash with the seas breaking across the well deck.

Situated directly above was a large steam winch used for handling cargo, so the noise when in port – in the confined steel boxes below, was ear shattering.

Alongside the toilet was a large, cast iron, white bath, standing four square directly on the steel deck – and although this did have running water which gushed out from a large brass tap, it was sea water only! – but it was hot, if somewhat rusty! Apart from some salt water soap, there were no other luxuries and the ship was Spartan in the extreme.

Around the decks, hatches were being covered and tarpaulined, derricks were lowered and the ship was being readied for sea. Word passed that we and the other ship, the Cape Howe, were to sail on the tide in the morning, so those who were not on duty prepared for a last night ashore.

Next morning we were up early, for it was sailing day and there was much to do. It was the job of the two cadets to provision the lifeboats with emergency rations, i.e. water, pemmican (a kind of meat paste), biscuits, condensed milk, chocolate and nothing much else to eat. In addition there was a pannikin for sharing out water from the water breakers, storm matches, a lantern – a bucket for the obvious, some flares and that was just about it.

It was a beautiful day with a powdery blue sky with cotton wool white clouds which contrasted with the ugliness of the grey slate roofed town and factories beneath, sloping in an untidy fashion down to the docks in which we were lying.

Clad in a seaman like fashion of brand new jeans, navy blue, roll neck sea jersey and uniform cap, with a knife on my belt, I climbed up into the first lifeboat and began the tedious task of provisioning. There were four boats on davits; and whilst at this stage, they were in board and resting on their chocks, at sea they would be swung outboard ready to be lowered away – whatever the sea conditions – in the event of the ship being torpedoed. That, of course, assumed that the boats themselves were not blown to match wood by the explosion! There were four of these lifeboats on davits and an additional life boat on number three hatch, designed to float off as the ship took her final plunge. Just what the surviving crew members were supposed to be doing at this stage in any such drama was not stated – and best not even to be imagined.

In addition there were six wooden life rafts, with old oil drums for buoyancy and these were suspended at an angle of forty-five degrees, either on purpose built stands of welded angle iron, or on the main rigging shrouds themselves.  Climbing up to these rafts, perched high above the water, was a precarious proposition and hazardous in the extreme; but by midday, the job was done and “my mate” and “I” went off to the galley where we begged some soup from the cook.

During the morning I had seen a fleet of lorries (or trucks) draw up alongside, laden either with mobile fire fighting equipment on wheels or green painted canisters, about three feet high, which I later found out were smokefloats.

One by one these were hoisted on board and I watched as they were positioned along the ship’s rails where they were secured by steel wire at about 50 foot intervals, right around the ship.  Just what these were for nobody had any idea – but they were there for a purpose and, obviously, somebody, somewhere, knew what it was for.

Meanwhile the ship was being made ready to sail, the decks swept and washed down, telegraph and telephones tested and mooring lines singled up while we awaited the arrival of the tugs which were to get the Cape Howe under way first.

During the testing of our steering gear on of the chain links snapped and had to be replaced – but while repairs were being put in hand, the brake to the quadrant on deck down aft had not been screwed down.  Thus, this massive part of the steering mechanism measuring about six feet by three feet was free to move without warning.

Being on deck it was surrounded by a guard rail.  However, at this very moment one of our Indian crew had chosen to duck under the rail and seat himself on the deck close by the steel stop which prevented the rudder being out over too far.  He was there for no other purpose than to pound dry chillies for the crew’s curry that evening.

As the tow tugs passed us on their way to the Cape Howe their combined wash hit our rudder which was unrestrained and free to move – which it did.  Without a sound and no warning, the huge quadrant on the rudder head swung swiftly round until it was brought up by the stop where, unhappily, the lascar sailor was sitting.  Both of his legs were smashed, pulped, or partly amputated; but the prompt application of tourniquets saved his life and he was removed, swiftly to hospital, from whence he was repatriated to his native Goa (India).

After the blood had been cleaned up, the deck hose down and repairs to the rod and chain steering completed, we were “in all respects ready for sea”.  It was now our turn to move and we all went to stations.  Now attired in uniform, wearing collar and tie, I took my place on the bridge, in the wheel house as instructed.  There it was my job to record the orders given to the engine room by means of the bridge telegraph, also to record the names of the tugs.

As soon as the tugs had been made fast, fore and aft, the order was given to the fo’c’sle and poop deck parties to let go the for’d and ropes, also to take in the springs; and soon a widening gap between the ship and the quay confirmed that we were under way.

As were entered the lock, the after tug was let go; and soon as we were safely in, the huge wooden gates closed behind us and the level of the water lowered until it was the same as the tide outside.  At this stage the deck of the centre castle was level with the side of the lock and a group of factory girls, in their lunch break, wandered over to wish us luck.

Slowly, ponderously, the massive outer gates opened, the telegraphs jangled, shovels clanked down in the stokehold and clouds of black smoke billowed up into the sky from our tall funnel as the stokers got to work shovelling good Welsh anthracite coal into the furnaces.

The ship trembled as the engines began to turn our single screw.  Then, slowly, very slowly at first the ship began to move along the lock.  Timbers, pontoons and fenders groaned, squealed and cracked as, at first, we ground against the stone work of the side of the lock until the rudder became effective and we had steerage way.

Soon the girls, from the factory who had shouted and waved to us, as we passed by, were lost astern.  The “Old Man” ordered the traditional three long blasts on the steam whistle; in farewell; and as we let go the for’ard tug. She responded with three long blasts in reply.

As soon as we were clear of the lock, the covers were cast off the guns, which were manned by naval and maritime regiment gunners, and made ready against possible air attack.  The armour plates designed to protect the wheel house, were bolted into position and finally, the lifeboats were swung outboard ready to be lowered in an emergency.

The telegraph jangled again; this time “full ahead”.  Course was set under direction of the pilot as we made our way down the Bristol Channel.

And so, at our maximum speed of nine knots (about 10 miles per hour!), we began our voyage into the war and the unknown that lay ahead. 

The porthole in our cabin was too small to be used as an escape route should the cabin door become jammed by an explosion, so I was shown how to kick out the door panel and make an escape, should this be necessary.  Life jackets and steel helmets were carried at all times now – even when visiting the toilets in the well deck – and of course, no one ever undressed when at sea, so we slept “all standing” with a life jacket as a pillow.

I was off watch as the afternoon passed and stayed on deck looking at the coast of south Wales slipping by the starboard.  It looked so green and peaceful on this sunny day, with white sheep scattered on lush, green hillsides.

The guns were tested about mid afternoon, their deafening noise shattering the peace of the day.  By now the close astern of the Cape Howe and I watched in wonder, as she likewise test fired all her guns in turn.

At four o’clock I went on watch on the bridge for the “first dog” (ie, from 4 to 6) then went down to tea in the salon before going back up to the bridge for the watch from 8pm to midnight, while the senior cadet, “J.C.” went below to get some sleep as he would be on watch again at midnight.

Slowly the light faded from the sky as we steered north now, up the Irish Sea, heading for our rendezvous with the convoy at the Scottish loch.  The coast, dark at first, faded into the gloom as we in our darkened ship steamed on.  The sustenance for the cadets during the night watches proved to be in a dirty wooden whisky ox which contained a chipped, brown enamel tea pot, two cracked cups, some sugar and a cup of condensed milk, together with two paste sandwiches which, in true British Rail fashion, were already beginning to dry out and curling at the edges.

On removing the dirty dish cloth with which the box had been covered before being left in the chartroom, it was evident that cockroaches from the galley had been attracted to the condensed mild, in which tow had already drowned.

We passed the Isle of Man, taking a bearing on the dimmed light of its lighthouse as we passed.  We had no gyro compass so navigation by instinctive seamanship was the order of the day – commonly known as “by Guess and by God” – and when I went off watch, at midnight, for my four hours sleep, we were approaching the Scottish coast in one of whose lochs the convoy awaited.

As this time we became aware that our cargo – and ourselves – were destined for a top secret operation; and as the upper tween decks were crammed with high octane petrol in cans, with ammunition beneath, there were many on board who wondered why we had bothered to swing out the lifeboats as the general opinion was that if we were torpedoed or bombed, we would not even have a chance to reach them, let alone launch them.

At dawn we reached the shelter of Loch Long where we dropped anchor amongst similar grey painted, rust streaked ships, and awaited our sailing orders.

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