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Dodging u-boats en route to paradise

Tuesday, January 14, 2014
An areial view of PoS on the eve of World War II. PHOTO COURTESY ANGELO BISSESSARSINGH

In 1941, young James Gilman, with his father, mother and sister, travelled through “the U-boat-infested Atlantic to Trinidad, where my father took up the post of head of the Salvation Army in that part of the Caribbean and was also appointed civil defence adviser to the Governor, Sir Bede Clifford (grandfather to the wife of Britain’s present Prime Minister, David Cameron).”


He became a pupil at Queen’s Royal College, remaining there for three years until the family returned to England in 1944.


Now 81, he is writing his memoirs.


Gilman recently e-mailed the T&T Guardian with a copy of the section of his autobiography dealing with the perilous voyage to Trinidad and his time here.


“I have never forgotten those days in Trinidad, among the happiest of my life,” he wrote. “In fact, when I organised an international Youth Conference here in Wales in 1993 I invited T&T to send three delegates, largely as a way of my saying ‘thank you’ to your island for what it gave me all those years ago... 


“I am hoping to be able to visit Trinidad again while I am still mobile enough to travel—I have been in touch with the Salvation Army and it seems that our old house in Charlotte Street is still there, and I’d very much like to visit it again. I am also still in touch, after all these years, with my best friend in Trinidad at the time, now a retired headmaster living in Scotland, so old memories do not die out all that easily!”


This is the first of two extracts from his memoirs. 



On October 13 in that year of 1941, my dad had received a phone call from the Salvation Army’s international headquarters in London, asking if he’d be willing to sail the following week for Trinidad in the West Indies, to take up a post as territorial representative responsible for the work of the Salvation Army in Trinidad, Tobago, and Barbados. I don’t know how long it took for him and Mum to make up their minds but, given the traumatic experience that washing the doorstep and boiling up the wash each week must have been for Mum after the luxury of life in Tsingtao in a millionaire’s house replete with servants, and that living by day in a windowless house under enemy bombardment and sleeping at night at a pig farm must have been for all of us, I suspect the response must have been instantaneous! 


So it was that one October day in 1941 we left Hull for the port of Avonmouth, our transatlantic destination blacked-out on the labels stuck to our trunks and other luggage for fear of German spies discovering that we were heading for the Atlantic Ocean— and their U-boat packs. It being far too dangerous for one ship to run that particular gauntlet alone, we steamed up the west coast of England to Dunoon where, a small barrage balloon towing from our stern, we joined up with a convoy assembling in Scotland to make the hazardous journey under escort by Royal Navy destroyers. Among the ships we travelled with was an aircraft carrier taking 5,000 Fleet Air Arm personnel to Canada for training. 


Early on in the war the British traitor known as Lord Haw Haw, who'd become a propagandist broadcasting for the Germans, stated in a radio broadcast from Berlin: “We warn you that we are going to sink all five A-class ships of the Blue Star Line" of which our ship, the Avila Star, was one. The previous year the Andorra Star, sister ship to ours, was torpedoed and sank with a loss of 700 lives while our own ship, after depositing us safely in Trinidad, was torpedoed and sank on her return journey to Britain with the loss of many lives. These facts are a sufficient indication of the dangers we ran. 


The ship was relatively small by modern standards; at only 14,400 tons she was less than half the size of many of today's car ferries. Because of the constant risk from torpedoes the watertight doors leading from the open forward deck into the inside passenger section, normally closed, were kept open by the captain throughout our voyage, for ease of evacuation in the event of any “abandon ship” scenario. This meant that on occasions when we encountered heavy seas—as we did frequently —the water smashed over the bows and rushed along the corridors, flooding into the cabins on that deck, of which ours was one. I have memories of waking up and seeing Dad swinging along one of the overhead pipes, hand over hand, to get out of our cabin, the floor of which was awash with seawater upon which our suitcases bobbed along like baby whales.


We had to wear our lifejacket at all times, day and night, ready for immediate evacuation into the lifeboats should we suffer a torpedo hit, and were forbidden to take a bath—the most welcome command I'd ever been given in the whole of my young life!—in case we were caught “in the altogether” when the order came to abandon ship, resulting in what I sniffingly labelled “the pig farm effect.” 


Whenever a U-boat was about to attack a target, it would first raise its periscope—a metal tube with a glass lens at the end—above the surface of the sea, the better to estimate the size, speed, and distance away of the target ship. The sight of a periscope appearing above the surface was therefore the first sign of an imminent attack. As a consequence, the captain promised a reward of a shilling to any child passenger who reported such an object; between us we'd earned three of these shillings before we reached our journey's end. 


Each sighting brought an accompanying destroyer racing to our location, followed by the excitement of the bang of depth charges being hurled into the sea followed by a muffled thump as they exploded deep below us. It was an understood maxim among us children—though probably rooted only in our fevered imaginations—that for every U-boat thus despatched we'd each receive a captain's bonus of £1 (equivalent to a year's pocket money) but no dead submarines ever rose to the surface after these bombardments, much to our disgust. 


To me, it was all great fun; to my sister Joan, however, it must have brought a terrifying foreboding of what it would be like when the seemingly-inevitable torpedo struck.


There were some Fleet Air Arm personnel sailing with us, one of whom, Petty Officer Catchpole, a physical education instructor, took me under his wing, assuring me that we'd all arrive safe and well. 


And reach our journey's end we did, threading our way through the Bocas—small islets off the coast en route to our destination—and tying up at our moorings in the safe harbour of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in the British West Indies. 


The transition from the Blitz in Hull followed by the U-boat-menaced waters of the war being waged on the Atlantic Ocean to the balmy, tropical, flower-fragrant island of Trinidad was to move suddenly from our old black-&-white life to one ablaze with Technicolor. 


We felt like Dorothy arriving over the rainbow in Oz. 






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