Aboard the Devonshire
The grey ship looked dirty. We went on board and were shown our quarters. All ‘troop deck personnel’, as we were designated-in the typical military and British class system-occupied the lower decks. To say our accommodation was spartan would be an exaggeration. It was a metal compartment painted grey with watertight doors in the bulkheads between it and the next. The floor was of a composition material and to avoid damage to it we had to remove our boots and wear shoes or plimsolls. Our troop deck was just above sea level with two above it. Across these compartments were fixed mess tables and benches seating about 20. At one end was a porthole which gave some light and sight of waves passing by. Above the tables, another surprise, we were expected to hang hammocks and sleep.
We discovered the galley on the deck above were our food, served in containers, had to be carried down to our deck, shared out and eaten at the mess table. The accommodation was so restricted when all the hammocks were slung, head to feet, we were packed in as snugly as sardines in a tin. We moved from deck to deck via stairways (companionways). In this compartment we were expected to live, eat and sleep. The mess table was our home. Ablutions and the ‘heads’ (lavatories) were forward in the bow of the ship. We were issued with saltwater soap (which never lathered) for washing in sea water. Fresh water was restricted. Conditions on the troop decks were not all that different from the times of the old wooden walls of Nelson’s day and before.
We then found that troop deck personnel served as working crew too. The next day we were to form a baggage party to assist passengers board when she berthed at the Princes Landing Stage across the Mersey.
The ship was cold and as we were the only troops aboard very empty. It was a little eerie. That first night, we had a meal of some description and not being confined to the ship I ventured ashore – this shows a lot of trust in us not attempting to abscond – to attempt to visit the parents of my school friend Mac, whose parents had moved to nearby suburban Wallasey. I telephoned and they promised a welcome. But try as I might I could not find their home, and after wandering for many a mile around many unlit streets and the dark and inhospitable docks I gave up.
We had also been given our ports of call. These were Port Said, Aden, Colombo, Singapore and Hong Kong with expected dates of arrival so one of the first things I did was to dash off a note to my father with these. And along the route at these ports of call it was pleasing to get letters from him.
That night was our first in a hammock. It is a peculiar thing to sleep in for it closes around one. One sleeps in a ‘U’ and it is hard to get in, but easy to fall out of. Eventually the cold night passed-there was no heating at all. Then next morning standing on deck I thoroughly enjoyed the trip from the outer Float, through all the other docks and various locks of the Birkenhead dock system as the Devonshire was towed stern first through them by tugs.