Last updated on 22 September 2019
Jim’s recordings about the second World War can be found via this link:
The following story was written by Jim Blackburn (1920-2007) for the Tollerton newsletter. (Jim lived and farmed at Hall Farm, Tollerton Lane.)
A television programme ‘The Liners’ on Ch.4 has awakened memories of my experiences on the greatest of them all, in my opinion, the “Queen Mary”.
The story begins on a troop train leaving Nottingham Victoria Station mid-May 1942, heading we knew not where. We’d had our embarkation leave, been kitted out with khaki drill and puttees and were ready to face the great unknown. The train travelled through the night and we awoke to find ourselves on Gourock Station on the Clyde. The other side of the platform, not a train but a ship which we duly piled onto. Out we sailed into the bay and round the stern of this large ship bearing the legend Queen Mary Liverpool. We couldn’t believe our eyes.
I was allotted Cabin 64, unfortunately so were 11 others. Yes 12 to a cabin with 12 wooden bunks. The bathroom door would open about 6 inches so that was out. 15,000 troops on board and lifeboats for about 3,000. Ah well! (According to records on the web there appears to have been 9537 troops on this voyage and 872 crew, so not sure who is right, afterall Jim was there!)
There were 3 sittings to every meal held in the great dining room with a map of the Atlantic facing us, a reminder of its peacetime role in winning the Blue Riband of the Atlantic. Then I was allotted my duties. A small gun turret had been welded on top of one of the giant ventilators, with a small machine gun attached. My brief, as far as I could understand it, was to shoot down any attacking aircraft and warn the Captain immediately if I saw any packs of U-Boats in the vicinity. Looking at the size of the gun and knowing my own expertise, I felt that Queen Mary would have been better advised to say at the launch “God help all who sail in her” rather than the official version. However, no aircraft were ever seen and no submarine could possibly have matched her speed.
Off we sailed into the North Atlantic rolling quite heavily to begin with and three destroyers keeping us company, pitching and tossing like corks. They soon gave up and we sailed on south alone. My shifts on the gun were 1am to 5am and 1pm to 5pm. So for a whole month I never had any breakfast. Came off at 5am and slept like a log till about 10.30am. As we approached warmer climes the weather improved, the nights were clear and still. From my vantage point the whole bowl of the sky was visible. I could see the slow wheel of the heavens about the pole star. The jewels of the Plough and when that dipped below the horizon, the full glory of the Southern Cross. During the day I watched the flying fish emerge, skim for 20 yards and then dip in again – shades of Kipling! Occasionally a school of dolphins would appear and all the time the zig-zag of the wake of the ship at the stern.
Freetown was the first port of call. Hot and humid. Swarms of natives in little boats all around the ship trying to sell their wares, mainly fruit I think. Then up anchor and away to the South. Where were we going? The Far East or the Middle East? Who knew? Now into Table Bay, Cape Town, and the mist forming a tablecloth on Table Mountain. Two days and away again, this time up the east coast of Africa, but now with a cruiser for escort, no doubt with the Japanese threat in mind. Then into the Red Sea and the off-short breeze coating the rigging with an inch of sand. My God, what are we coming to! And then finally into Port Tewfik and all disembarked into tiny Arab Dhows and deposited on the quayside. Then, with a last look back at the Queen, majestic in the water, on to the train to Cairo on the 22nd June, the hottest day of the year. Then on to make up the depleted regiments of the 8th Army where we soon became somewhat contemptuously known as the Queen Mary Boys. We had come late on the scene, our knees were not brown, we hadn’t felt Rommel’s hot breath on our necks at Gazala!
But many a Queen Mary boy still lies in the sand of Alamein or the Mareth Line of the hills of Enfidaville.
Those of us lucky enough to survive, look back only with affection and pride in that great ship which bore us safely to the shores of Africa and into the history books long, long ago!
May 22 to June 22
Embarkation/Debarkation: Firth of Clyde, Scotland to Suez (via Freetown, Cape Town, and Simonstown)
Source: S. Harding – Gray Ghost: The RMS Queen Mary at War
|War Service Dates: March 1940 – September 1946
War Service Type: Troopship
Former Operator: Cunard Line
Built: 1930-1936 – John Brown & Co., Ltd., Clydebank, Scotland
Engine Type: Sixteen geared turbines – Quadruple screw
|Length: 1,019.5 feet
Beam: 118 feet
Tonnage: 81,237 GRT
Speed: 28.5 knots
Units on Board: 9,537 troops (to Suez)