Chapter 2 - Troop Ship

His Statement of Service [2]  makes only one mention of Stephen's next experience by showing a posting to South Africa on 8th January 1942. 

This diary belongs to LAC Smith 991606

It is intended to be a simple record of events commencing from the 8th January 1942 as might be noted by any casual observer
I hereby say there is no political or party bias in my record & it is purely intended for my own interest & amusement

S F Smith


Stephen's own diary, started on that day, describes in some detail the discomfort suffered on an unidentified troop ship. Inscriptions on and in the diary confirm it to be the property of L.A.C. SMITH 991606 RAFVR.

The first entry is dated JAN 8th 1942

I have completed by ITW training for the intended role of an observer in the RAF.

Left P...... at 1130 for embarkation to South Africa.  Arrived at station with escort of RAF Military Band who gave joyful renderings of Tiger Rag and many hot numbers on the station Platform. Stephen obviously respected the censor. "P" was almost certainly Padgate which is near Warrington and thus within easy range of Liverpool.

1230 Arrived at - and proceeded on board ship. Discovered I was to spend 7 weeks on board with some 120 other cadets - somewhere in the bowels of the ship with barely enough room for a quarter of that number to be housed in comfort.  The afternoon we spent in a vain endeavour to make our abode reasonably presentable.

The evening I spent in the Rest Room (a large and not unpleasant room on one of the higher decks) playing Housey and feeling quite miserable.

The smallness of our quarters became quite apparent when 120 airmen started to swing their hammocks.  The resulting sight was inconceivable, there was hardly room for a cockroach, but room had to be found on the floor for 30 airmen for whom there was no hammock accommodation.

So the night passed.

JAN 9th 1942.  Having been alternately boiled and frozen during the night I was only too glad to be up by 6-0AM and wait my turn in a seemingly unending queue for a wash, in cold water.

Breakfast consisted of porridge, tea and a rather dubious version of cottage pie.

1000 hrs we had a room inspection by about a dozen senior officers including a rather pretentious individual with a monocle.

1100 We all assembled at our action stations in preparation for an emergency.

1200 Lunch time. Meat, potatoes, peas, and sago pudding. The meat tasted rather like good horse, but pretty bloody.. anything else.

Managed to wangle a cabin for three of us from some friendly merchant seaman, at a price, so providing nothing untoward happens we may be able to live in comparative comfort for the voyage.

At approximately 3-0 o'clock the ship proceeded out of L..... docks

The evening passed uneventfully and after a short game of Housey Messrs Wooton, Smith and Kayser passed into the land of the Gods.

Stephen's diary continues in much the same style.  He makes reference to the fact that the ship was "built to carry a total of 1000, and we have on board, 3500 military alone"  His accounts include reference to a routine of meals, which he criticises, and regular card playing (often for money).  

On Jan 11th he describes "During the morning we had the unforgettable spectacle of a convoy assembling, ships of every kind, merchant ships, troopships, destroyers, sloops, corvettes etc all destined to play their parts in clearing the seas of the enemy and hunting him wherever he may be found."

It transpires [3] that Stephen had joined one of two ships that departed from Liverpool and arrived at his ultimate destination of Durban in South Africa.  The two ships were the Arawa and the Letitia. They carried 1509 and 2232 troops respectively. Noting Stephen's assertion that there were "3500 military alone", it seems most likely that he sailed on the Letitia.

SS Letitia [4]

The Letitia sailed from Liverpool on 10th January. Other ships, from the Clyde, sailed on the 11th. The convoy then formed up off Oversay on the 12th January before sailing out into the Atlantic. Oversay is a small island off the Scottish island of Islay. Examination of the map shows the shelter that would have been afforded by Loch Indaal which leads to Bowmore. Though not mentioned by Stephen, one ship the Llangibby Castle, another troop ship, was torpedoed by U402 just four days later. 26 men were killed but she managed to limp to the Azores [6].

Stephen's diary continues:

Jan 12.  The first signs of the Atlantic swell were now making themselves apparent.  I quite enjoyed breakfast at 7 o'clock but two hours later the boat started to heave with similar effects in my inside.  At 1028 G.M.T. I was sick and brought back approximately 1/2 lb haddock, 1 pint of tea and three slices of bread and butter and marmalade.

Stephen then continues to describe an increasing deterioration of conditions as more passengers succumb to sea-sickness. "There was literally sick everywhere and yet no room to be sick anywhere."  He suggests that the Atlantic may not be entirely to blame and refers to many fellows buying 2 or 3 worth of chocolate.  In his account of January 15th he remarks "at 6 o'clock I suddenly realised it was my birthday and cheered up quite a bit". It was Stephen's 25th birthday.

The group of three in the cabin is joined by a merchant seaman, Luke Fagan, who is able to acquire supplies of food. The voyage continues with an increasing risk of enemy attack.  Stephen refers to the ship "constantly altering course and all our guns are ready for action".

Jan 17. Very much warmer and very much calmer, and we were all thrilled to see sailing right alongside us a genuine battleship. Believe me this was a great comfort, after we had come all thus way accompanied by only 2 destroyers.  Of course everybody knew straight away what it was called, it was not only the Resolution, the Barum, the Queen Elizabeth and the Warspite, but it was obviously the Ramses, the King George Vth and even the Repulse. The battleship was HMS Resolution [4]

Stephen's account continues with many references to a surprisingly good diet, regular parades on deck and a general improvement in the weather. On January 23rd he says that he has put on tropical kit.  He also notes that they have seen some "coastal command aircraft overhead so presume we are near our first port of call".

The convoy put into Freetown, sailing again on the 29th January [4].

Jan 25. Sunday.   Today is Sunday and I am on a 24 hour guard.  As I write this I note the time is 4.30 and we have been anchored in F---- for about one hour......  Outside a negro in a home made canoe is busy singing "There's a tavern in the town" punctuated by some rather crude but very funny swearing.  Stephen clearly recognises the need to maintain secrecy but includes a reference that "this stretch of country is known as the White man's Grave".  He includes the fact that they can see over 60 vessels many apparently captured from Vichy France.  He also refers to the weather which although glorious at sea is terribly hot once at anchor.  Stephen inaccurately mentions that Dakar is only 100 miles away .

Stephen's account of their stay in port continues with their illicit purchase of fruit from the boat-traders.  Perhaps to relieve the boredom, Luke Fagan even manages to exchange a pair of trousers for a monkey.

January 29th saw them preparing to rejoin the convoy outside the boom.  Stephen comments that it is lovely to be moving again, the heat is not suitable for white men in F.  

On January 31st they went over the line at 2-30 to the accompaniment of much noise and hootings.  Dropped depth charges at 9-30 so presume enemy submarines are in the vicinity.

Feb 2nd. Luke's monkey, now known as Rosey, breaks loose and appears on deck in the cabin of OC Troops.  Being illegal on board, the animal is condemned to be chloroformed. Luke is later placed in goal for criminal assault against the steward who overpowered his beloved Rosey.  The whole affair had one affect on Stephen: No Luke, No breakfast.  The awful situation has arisen where we are bound to fend for ourselves.

Feb 5th. We are all very worried today as one of our "cadets" has gone sick suffering from a complaint which nobody seems able to fathom.  He is only a kid of 19 and he had been so shockingly sick all day that when he went to the MO at lunchtime he could hardly stand.

The worst was confirmed when we heard from a medical orderly 2 hours later that he was suffering from "spinal meningitis" or commonly known as spotted fever.  This disease is fatal on troop ships and is terribly infectious. This may mean 6 week quarantine on board ship as the authorities would refuse us permission to land if an epidemic of spotted fever occurred.

Feb 6th.  The cadet was buried at 6.0 in the morning.  The service was very fine but rather tragic and a large union jack was draped round the coffin before it was thrown to the deep.  We were are relieved to hear from the MO that it was not spinal but ordinary meningitis which is not infectious.

Feb 7th (Saturday).  Hear we are supposed to arrive in D on Thursday next.  I am getting very sick of traveling and have not had a decent meal for over a month.  We have now been at sea for 30 days.

The weather is much colder and the sea is becoming quite choppy, a sign we are probably rounding the Corner and heading out to sea again.  There is nothing to report apart from the fact that I'm bored and hungry.

Stephen's diary ends abruptly there.  For security he has only referred to his destination as "D".

Convoy WS15 arrived off Capetown on Monday 9th February with several ships including HMS Resolution putting into port. The remainder of the convoy continued to Durban arriving on Friday 13th February 1942. A number of ships, including the Arawa and the Letitia remained in port whilst others reformed and split ultimately into 3 new convoys: WS15A dispersed of Aden to proceed to Suez. WS15B proceeded to Bombay. DM3 which originally was destined for Singapore but because of Japanese activities, ultimately proceeded to Colombo Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) [4]. Even though Britain controlled the Suez canal, it is clear from these convoy details that the Mediterranean was an unsafe route to the far east in 1942.