The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

All the talk of war made me unhappy about sailing to the Antarctic less the fleet found itself trapped there for the duration, having spent two seasons at Leith Harbour, I did not wish to spend another. I was fortunate and secured a position as the second engineer with, Blue Star Line. They being amongst the better shipping lines, at that time, carrying a combination of passengers and refrigerated cargo. There main sailings were to South America and Australia, carrying meat, perishables, businessmen, and diplomats. However, by the 1930s a worldwide depression had put an end to the luxury passenger business and ships such as Avalon Star, owned by the Blue Star Line Ltd. found herself in Greenock for modification. All passenger accommodation was removed as was her dummy funnel. The superstructure lifted and moved forward increasing her refrigeration compartments to eighty chambers giving a total cargo capacity of 699.000 cubic feet. Powered by four Parson steam turbine engines she could romp along at 17 knots. By 1939 we had circumnavigated the world a dozen times, now lying in Dakar, Senegal we received the news that Britain was at war with Germany and ordered to sail light-ship for Buenos Aires and return loaded with 8,800 ton of frozen meat for London. The trip was uneventful, by way of Santos, Brazil and Freetown, a port we reached on 15th June, sailing the following day to rendezvous with a thirty-four ship convoy, which we overhauled three days later on the 18th June, with them we now zigzagging our way back across the Atlantic Ocean.

At 10.00 hours in the 30th June, 200 miles north-west of Cape Finisterre, the first ship in our convoy was hit by a torpedo and sunk. The red and blue signal flag was immediately hoisted, and all turned to starboard and continued to zigzag. One hour and thirty minutes had elapsed when Avalon Star herself was hit, blasting open her Number 2 hold. Big as she was Avalon Star was she was lifted clean from the water, carcases thrown clear into the air as hatch covers burst open. She settling back with a 20-degree list, before righting herself. It was the collapse of the aft bulkhead that finished her as tones of seawater flooded into the stokehole exploding her boilers. The order to ‘abandon ship’ quickly followed. Within minutes of the order, all but the four men trapped or dead in the engine room were in the boats and safely away. MV Beignon steamed to our rescue and plucked us from the water at great danger to herself, then continued at her best speed once more to chase down the convoy. At 03.00 hours she too was struck on her starboard side by a torpedo, listing badly she started to go down by the head. Beignon, normal compliment was thirty men, now carried an additional eighty she had insufficient lifeboats so a raft was fashioned from odd planks of timber and empty oil drums, commonly found on ships decks during times of war. I clung, with twenty-five others, to a rickety structure waist deep in oily water, shivering with fear and cold. Our SOS sent out from the sinking ship had been picked up and the destroyers HMS Vesper and HMS Windsor who arrived at 05.00, all 110 survivors from both ships were picked up and taken on to Plymouth. Maggie welcomed me home, a shadow of the man, she sent off to Antarctica. I had lost weight and my hacking Woodbine cough as bad as it had ever been.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: