A Passage to India by W B Longley
A Passage to India
Young men, 18 years old, who gained the certificate ‘A’ in military training in a School which had an Officer Training Corps (OTC) were eligible to volunteer to join the expanding Indian Army in Bangalore. As one such volunteer I was called up in November 1941, enlisted as an Officer Cadet in the Royal Scots, and set sail for India on 1st February 1942.
Travelling from the Firth of Clyde to Bombay was quite an experience. The convoy consisted of fourteen troop ships and eight store ships, protected by thirty-five war ships including the aircraft carriers EAGLE and FORMIDABLE, the battleship MALAYA and cruisers NEWCASTLE and HERMIONE the remainder of the escort were destroyers and corvettes. The troopships were all converted passenger liners. The STRATHEDEN, on which the Bangalore contingent travelled, was the largest of the troopships and carried 4,400 troops – (peacetime about 800 passengers). The quarters assigned to the Cadets was G Deck – a cargo hold well below the water line with watertight doors to shut off that section of the ship in the event of a torpedo hit. The Cadets slept in hammocks and paillasses on the floor. For the first week of the voyage everyone slept in their clothes and were not even allowed to take off their boots. Anyone on G Deck took over half an hour to reach their allocated Boat Station when the alarm sounded.
Altogether fifty thousand men travelled in the troop ships and there were great risks. The Naval situation had worsened since 1940 because of the fall of France. TIRPITZ, sister ship of the almost unsinkable Bismarck, lay in Trondheim Fjord, well placed for a sally into the north Atlantic. The battleships SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU (26,000 – tons each) lay at Brest, consistently bombed but never seriously damaged. They had even better access to the Atlantic. These surface units, either combined or acting singly posed a serious threat to the convoy which left the Clyde on 1st February 1942.
Another threat came from fast U boats operating from Lorient, Brest and St Nazaire and not singly but in packs. However, at the time we did not know of the efficiency of ULTRA which enabled the Royal Navy to have a much. better idea of the whereabouts of submarines than in 1940. It should be remembered that victory in the Battle of the Atlantic was not attained until about mid-1943.
The ‘Nar news on the radio was depressing beyond belief. On 13th February 1942 the net closed on Singapore and the city fell before the Convoy reached India. Not only that, SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU escaped from Brest and steamed up the English Channel towards Germany. Forty-two British planes were lost attempting to stop the battle cruisers without success.
The morning of 1st February 1942 – the first day of the convoy on the open sea – was misty and no flying from the Carriers was possible. Later the weather cleared and the view of the convoy was a magnificent unforgettable sight – twenty-one merchant ships and four major warships spread out over several square miles of the Atlantic Ocean.
Very soon the convoy was hit by a severe storm, wind strength increasing to force nine. When the battleship MALAYA plunged downward the fo’c’sle disappeared under the water and the foredeck took a dowsing. Two or three days later the weather calmed to force four but a heavy swell remained. Flying from the Carriers commenced and the following events were recorded: –
21st February Four Albacores took off from HMS EAGLE to search for stragglers in the convoy. When they returned two aircraft crashed, one going over the side.
22nd February From a number of Albacores from HMS FORMIDABLE one failed to return and one crashed on landing.
22nd February Outer anti-sub screen was maintained by Albacores. One crashed on deck on landing and another crashed into a barrier on the deck.
26th February One Martlet aircraft crashed into the sea on take-off.
The Albacore was the updated successor to the old Faire-Swordfish Bi-plane,
As the convoy neared Freetown, the U boat threat increased. In the area between Dakar and the Cape Verde Islands there had been consistent reports of at least one U boat sighted every day. Hence three destroyers were dispatched from Bathurst (the Gambia) to provide anti-sub protection and they then joined the convoy.
On 1st March 1942 the convoy entered Freetown harbour. The anchorage was immense. Native ‘bum-boats’ at once surrounded the ships and barter, accompanied by indignation on both sides went on for the five days the convoy remained at anchor to take on fuel, water and other supplies. Soon after leaving Freetown for the 3,000 miles run to South Africa a report was received that three ships sailing unescorted had been sunk in the south eastern approach to Freetown. The convoy took evasive action by steaming south west and did not return to a direct southerly route until 350 miles off the African coast All the time heading for the Cape, the Naval escort dwindled to almost nothing except for the cruiser HMS NEWCASTLE. On this leg of the journey the cruiser simulated a hostile attack on the convoy and the convoy exercised its usual zig-zag turns retiring behind a smokescreen. When the ships neared Cape Town on 1st March 1942 the convoy divided, one portion going to Cape Town and the other to Durban.
On 25th March 1942 both portions of the convoy reassembled off Durban for the final leg of the journey and eventually anchored in Bombay harbour on 8th April 1942 after steaming about 13,000 miles.
W B Longley
Author: The Long Haul to Bangalore.
Jim Morgan’ s voyage on the QUEEN MARY (unescorted) from the Clyde to Aden took 21 days whereas Convoy W16 from the Clyde to Bombay took 40 days.