Chapter 4: Shipping Out July 15 1942. Submarine Attacks. Egypt!
On July 15,1942 as the 57th Fighter Group boarded the HMS Pasteur for the 33 day voyage to what we subsequently learned was Port Tewfik, Egypt, the Red Sea entrance to the Suez Canal. At first light the morning after sailing, (around 4 AM) a group of us who were unable to sleep were playing blackjack, on the floor on our knees, when suddenly the ship tilted violently to one side.
The players, cards and small change, all slid in the direction of the tilt. Articles which had been placed on the boards above the bunks began falling on the men, and there was a constant clanging noise to be heard.
When we tried to go out on deck a British seaman sought to stop us. Well, there were 1000 of us and only one of him so we ran out on the deck and holding on to the ship’s rail we had a front row seat to what we promptly realized was a naval sea battle. Our troopship and a small destroyer (corvette) were under attack by enemy submarines!
(left) Corvette Dropping Depth Charges (Right) Protective Royal Navy Destroyer
We watched the proceedings in stunned silence, our ship zigzagging like mad and steaming at over 30 knots, sometimes leaning heavily to port and sometimes to starboard. Even from our position on the sports deck (the top deck of a 6 deck ocean liner, the 2nd fastest liner in the world) we could still hear the gongs of the depth charges against the sides of our ship! The little corvette was thrashing about at an incredible speed, the water foaming around her, her tannoy (loudspeaker) blasting short high toots, and the catapults heaving depth charges into the water simultaneously on both sides of the ship.
No Quarter Given: Them Or Us. Ruthless Destruction of U-Boats
We were close enough to the Corvette to hear their loudspeaker issuing orders, preceded by the words 'Now hear this'! We passed near a large oil slick in the water, which could only have come from a sunken submarine, and shortly thereafter we witnessed the nose of the 2nd one trying to surface unsuccessfully.
The 2nd one was attacked by a B-24 (4-engine bomber) as it flew right over us, low enough for us to see the racks of 500 pound bombs in the bomb bay. The entire load was released as the plane was above us, and the bombs fell on the angle of flight a thousand yards ahead of us, causing a tremendous upheaval of water. It was only a short time later when we reversed our position to pass near that area that the damaged sub tried to surface. Its nose rose out of the sea momentarily, with water running off it, and it hung there for a while, before slipping into the sea, the water above where it disappeared was agitated, marking the site of its disappearance.
After things quieted down, and we once again resumed our normal sailing procedure we held 'Action Stations', and as the roll call was being taken, the Captain came by to speak to us. He was announced by a bugle call from a British sailor who accompanied him. He told us that the Captain of the British corvette said there were 3 German submarines in the wolf pack that attacked us. Two of them were sunk, one by the corvette and the other by the B-24. He said the third one escaped.
There can be no question, that this wolfpack was spread out, waiting for us. The Corvette stayed with
us for 3 days and after that we were on our own for the rest of the voyage!
The voyage was made longer than normal because the ship zig-zagged (changing course every seven minutes) to try to prevent an enemy submarine from getting a firing fix on our position. We stopped at Freetown, West Africa to take on fuel and water, and the next morning we resumed our voyage, exiting the port when the submarine net was opened for us.
We were then advised by the Captain that since he had to maintain radio silence he would have no way of knowing if the British 8th Army was still occupying the Suez Canal when we arrive there. He knew that the British 8th Army was in full retreat from Tobruk, leaving behind 30,000 troops to be captured. And that the British High Command intended to stop the German Army at El Alamein, in order to protect the Suez Canal.
While at sea I was made 'Buck' Sergeant, (3 stripes) having been made Corporal the previous month.
At that time it was not explained to me that I had to achieve the rank of Staff Sergeant, because the ‘Table of Basic Allowances' required the Crew Chief of a single engine fighter plane, to be a Staff Sergeant.
We arrived at Durban, South Africa to take on fuel and water and we spent three days tied up at the dock. Everyone was allowed ashore for one day, and we really enjoyed visiting such a large modern city. We had fresh meat after three weeks at sea.
We then resumed our voyage, and entered the Red Sea. The night before we arrived at the Suez Canal some of our more adventuresome enlisted men discovered the huge cache of American canned goods which had been loaded on board at New York, and were covered by bulkheads (temporary walls). We were served none of this food. Instead we had been eating the food that had been taken onboard during the last voyage, somewhere in South Africa, and it was just short of being inedible.
For example, our breakfast consisted of liver and kidneys. It was so foul that we called it liver and maggots! We lined up where it was being handed out through the break in the bulkhead, and I was given a case of canned pineapple. The man behind me asked what was happening and without turning around I said 'Don’t ask, just help yourself'.
When I turned around, it was our Squadron Adjutant, (a Major) however he did help himself. We couldn‘t stop eating, it was so good! As we were lying around in our bunks, the Captain came around and was practically foaming at the mouth he was so mad. He said that we had no right to break into the ship‘s stores, and what was worse, we had thrown the empty cans and cartons overboard. He said there was a trail of those things bobbing on the surface behind for miles that any submarine could follow.
(He was irate because the ship was scheduled to go to England next, where he meant to sell all the American food and pocket the money). I am afraid we were rather rude to him at that moment, and he stormed away followed by our boo's, muttering all kinds of threats. We discharged the next day at Port Tewfik, the Red Sea entrance to the Suez Canal and were transported to the Pier by lighters. We were somewhat surprised to see that the stevedores who were starting to unload cargo from our ship being beaten with whips when they malingered. From there we went by truck a short distance, to the city of Suez where we spent the night.
I must add a footnote here, in the event you were to consider our actions in breaking into the ship’s stores as being an overly violent reaction to the miserable food we were supplied with for a whole month! A year after the above events took place; we were told that subsequent to our voyage, Australian soldiers in Australia mutinied when ordered to board the HMS Pasteur. They refused to go aboard the ship, because of the terrible reputation it had! The news of this event was obviously suppressed by the Australian Government, and we only learned of it from an Aussie soldier.
The next day we boarded an Egyptian railways train for the trip across the Sinai desert. The train was decidedly uncomfortable, the seats being wooden with no cushions, and the toilet was a compartment with a hole in the floor. We were quite surprised later on, to see the masts of ships in the middle of the Sinai desert. Upon approaching, we discovered a large ditch, filled with water, and various vessels passing through it. We thought 'So this is miserable ditch is the famed Suez Canal?'
At that point, the Royal Engineers of the British 8th Army, placed a rail pontoon across the Canal, and we crossed over safely. We spent three miserable days of stop and go travel at a snail’s pace, uncomfortably on wooden seats.
The next stop was the rail terminal at the Palestine city of Haifa. Upon arrival, we sat in the train awaiting instructions. While I sat there, an Arab held a small bundle through the window towards me, saying that he would sell his daughter to me for $25.00! We were quite taken aback by this, not comprehending how cheap a human life could be held.
Finally, we loaded aboard a bunch of buses and our convoy departed. Thus began a 17 hour trip by bus, seeking the 57th Group airdrome containing our advanced cadre, pilots and airplanes. It seems only one person in the lead bus knew where we were headed, and he became separated from the rest of us. We then went from one British airfield to the other seeking the Yank Airfield. Eventually we were directed to an airfield at Beit Daras (about 20 miles from Tel Aviv) and finally the 57th Group was re-united!
Thus began the odyssey of the 57th fighter group as it arrived in the Middle East to join the RAF in the Desert Air force of the British 8th Army of the Middle East in World War! II on August 16, 1942.
In later years I tried to imagine what my thoughts might have been at that moment in time. How could I have imagined that it would require a full three years of combat, and the help of three Inspecting Generals at war’s end, before I was returned home?
So ends Chapter 4 of my wartime memoirs.