At 4.30 p.m. a few days ago a handful of shipping representatives and stage hands waved and wished us a safe voyage as we slipped out of dock on “a ship”. There were very few passengers eastward bound and we knew we must be all British returning to an England which was now an island fortress. Up on deck, rather wistfully watching America’s shores retreat, we soon became acquainted.
Hugh, brown and fit, was travelling to see his younger brother, now in hospital having lost a leg at Dunkirk.
“I am going to join his regiment, I hope” he said quietly and this was in spite of a good job in the States where he had lived since 1928.
A young Canadian had seen a film showing French refugees being machine-gunned by German air pirates – so he had immediately thrown up a good job to join the RAF.
“This ship can’t move quickly enough for me,” he said.
Another man had had an adventurous time trying to make his way back from Central Europe, his chief asset being an ability to speak several languages fluently. He had shipped part of his way as a stowaway and thrown his passport overboard when the ship was searched and the scent became too hot. His troubles were not over when he reached New York, for he was left kicking his heels on Ellis Island for six weeks – until the authorities decided to send him to England as a deportee. All he had was what he stood up in, his sandals and belt he had made himself on the island.
The next day was calm and sunny and we saw two Portuguese ships in full sail. They were part of a fishing fleet and looked very beautiful, like old-fashioned schooners.
At breakfast the table steward told me how his last ship went down. “It was frightful,” he said. “Some had broken necks because they had forgotten to hold their life-belts down as they jumped. Some of the men clung to the turned-over boat and were machine-gunned. Thick oil covered everything.”
“No”, in reply to my question, “I did not bother about a boat station; some of the boats were smashed and others couldn’t be launched. I just slid from the deck and my whole life passed in front of me.”
I asked him how he felt now and he replied, “Life is very sweet.”
After boat-drill, the rest of the morning we played shuffle-board and tennequoit. Richard Greene the handsome young film star was on board so in the afternoon many of us went to see him in “The Adventuress” which is a fine film and would be finer if Zorina had danced more. In the evening we danced or played games.
At boat-drill practice the officer advised us to have a warm coat handy and asked us to be prompt at meals so that the bulk-heads could be closed immediately afterwards. By now most of us had stopped losing our life-jackets – we found they were good to sit on.
Sunday was another day of sunshine with dancing foam-flecked blue waves and purple shadows of clouds on the water. It was good to be alive. A service was held at eleven – the stewardesses in their starched white caps and grey uniform sat on one side and on the other, in their navy uniform with brass buttons, sat the bell boys, stewards and officers according to their rank. The altar was covered with the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack whilst behind was the ship’s orchestra. The purser conducted the service in a simple and seamanlike way. The ship rolled gently and through the windows of the garden lounge the sun streaked in and we could see the blue waves dancing and curling creamily. We thought of America, the land still at peace we were leaving far behind as prayers were said for the President and the King.
After lunch everyone seemed to be lazing on top deck in the sun and conversation ranged from Shelley to Stockbroking, until there was an excited hail and away on the horizon we picked out through the glasses a convoy of fifty-two of our ships sailing slowly westwards. Everyone felt cheered and proud.
That night we had a concert in aid of the wives and children of the merchant seamen. Isobel Baillie and Gladys Ripley sang for us and from a miscellaneous collection of coins of all kinds and values from a dime upwards we raised £15. On deck the brilliant stars in an indigo sky seemed to sway slowly backwards and forwards behind the dimly outlined masts of our blacked-out ship. Looking back, I could see our trail in the sea, churned and creamy, sparkling with phosphorescence.
One foggy night all the Scots on board gathered together – we danced eightsome reels, let out wild skirls and were generally fey.
As we approached home waters, the men passengers now took turns in volunteer submarine watch duty. We had the grim spectacle of seeing two empty life-boats and some ship’s wreckage being tossed like nutshells on the waves. Gas-masks were issued and everyone was instructed how to use them.
After ten days at sea, I was woken early by a voice shouting,
“Come and hear the haggis howling and see the Manx cats waving their tails.”
Out I dashed to see a superb view of the Scottish coast on one side and Ireland on the other. The passengers soon mustered on deck and we were thrilled to see British planes dipping in front of us searching the waters, and two destroyers coming to meet us. Some passengers threw their life-jackets down.
We anchored outside the bar – amidst jokes about travelling thousands of miles to England and finding the bar closed. The other ships lying outside flashed their signals.
But that night the dancing was stopped early by Captain’s orders; hoses and buckets of sand were in evidence. There was an air raid on over the port. We went on deck and saw the shore lit up by gunfire – and a plane crashing in flames.
Next day lunch was curtailed in order that the bulkheads could be closed; all passengers were ordered to put on lifebelts and keep below deck in the smoking lounge. There was another air raid on.
However, the Immigration Authorities came out to us on a tender. All the men of military age were told to report for duty within seven days. The hazardous but happy trip was over; we once more set foot on England’s soil, eager to join in the fight for a great ideal – Freedom.