Episodes & Studies Volume 1
The First Voyage
The First Voyage
ALL WAS READY in the liners. In the cabins the fluffy, woollen blankets were folded on the beds as for peacetime passengers, the hand-basins were spotless, the floors polished. The ships’ military staffs—Officer Commanding Troops, his adjutant, quartermaster, messing officer, senior medical officer, sergeant-major—were aboard and at work, and the gangways waited now for the stamp of boots: brown boots and black boots, boots polished that morning in Trentham and still bright, boots dusty and dulled after the long train journey from the northern camps, Papakura and Ngaruawahia.
As the troops came aboard they were directed to cabins—first class for officers, second for senior non-commissioned officer, third for the rest. As yet, there had been no time to convert liners into transports, and only a small proportion of the First Echelon was given improvised quarters in the ships’ holds. Many of the third class cabins contained six berths, but some only two, and groups and pairs of friends hurried down the companionways and shouted along the corridors in an effort to keep together during these few moments that would determine their cabin mates throughout the voyage.
After stowing their gear and, in some cases, waiting to change into deck shoes and grey jerseys, the soldiers went above to wave and shout to the crowd gathered on the Wellington waterfront to watch them sail—an event the authorities had naturally tried to keep secret. Meanwhile, with a steady roll of boots on gangways, unit after unit came aboard, the ships moving into the stream to anchor as soon as they were full. Until nighfall the crowd watched and waited, tooting motor horns and waving to the four liners: Orion, Strathaird, Empress of Canada, and Rangitata.
The ships sailed the next day, 6 January 1940, the Polish liner Sobieski and the troopship Dunera, which had embarked the South Island contingent at Lyttelton, joining them in Cook Strait. Then the whole convoy, guarded by the battleship HMS Ramillies and the cruisers HMS Leander and HMAS Canberra, headed west. At six in the evening land faded from view, and soon afterwards the light went, leaving the sea dark and drained of colour. The submarine lookouts, who for two hours had been straining their eyes for periscopes and torpedo tracks, came off duty, and the convoy closed on the Orion, the commodore’s ship. Behind, in the darkness, six trails of rubbish— broken butter-boxes, bad oranges, empty tins—bobbed and eddied.
No chink of light showed from any of the ships. Only the streams of air from the ventilators, hot and tremulous and carrying a stench of cooking, moist bodies, and rubber shoes, told of the quick, crowded life hidden behind deadlights and thick blackout curtains—1428 men in Orion, 1357 in Dunera, 1352 in Strathaird, 1147 in Sobieski, 811 in Empress of Canada, 444 in Rangitata: men playing cards in mess rooms; men lying in their bunks reading or writing home (‘Bill and me are in one cabin, just ourselves—we’ve got an electric stove and fan, also carpet and wardrobe!’); men drinking in crowded beer bars at small tables completely covered by glasses (Australian and English beer fourpence a pint, New Zealand beer tenpence a quart bottle); men in long queues waiting for a supper issue of cocoa, ship’s biscuit, and cheese; keen sergeants in quiet corners reading training manuals; four men in a cabin opening a tin of peaches bought that afternoon from the canteen after an hour’s wait in a queue; men playing housie-housie (tombola) in recreation page 4 rooms (‘Number three—the sergeant! Two-one, the key of the door! And another little shake!’); men, furtively and with scouts posted, playing Crown and Anchor, while veterans of an earlier war, with the years slipping off them and leaving them boys again in Base camps at Zeitoun and Mena, intone their magic: ‘Where you like and where you fancy—the club, the heart, the sergeant-major, and the old hook’. In lounges, designed and furnished by famous interior decorators, officers sit over their drinks and discuss the future: ‘The Division can be equipped more easily in England, but the tactical situation—Italy not showing her hand—points to Egypt’. Squatting in corridors, smoking and sipping cocoa, the troops talk: ‘I’ve got an aunt in England—Dad was in Cairo last war’. A sentry posted near a galley straightens his lifebelt at the approach of the duty officer and prepares to answer questions: ‘What,’ says the officer, ‘would you do if you smelt smoke?’
Far behind in the darkness, the butter-boxes and oranges, spread now over many miles, float home.