"I can remember one night we were loading ammunition, and a German air raid came in, and there weren't too many bombers, but it only takes one to give you a problem."
My name is John Collins, and I was a youngster from Vancouver, British Columbia, who went to sea at age fourteen, and wound up in England when the war broke out, serving on British merchant ships. I stayed at sea in England until the end of November of 1942.
We had come back to re-join a ship in Liverpool in November of 1940, and we spent quite a bit of time getting that ship ready to go to the Middle East. In Liverpool itself, we would be working on board the ship - painting and scraping, and things like that. And of course you'd go up to the pub and have a couple of beers after we'd finished work. And after dark, about ten o'clock at night, you'd be going back to the ship; about a two-mile walk, arms abreast down darkened streets with no streetlights and no traffic. And the sound of bombs landing here and then far over there, and anti-aircraft guns going off all around. And you'd have a pitter-pat of shrapnel falling down amongst the rain. And we would just ignore it. We'd be singing, you know, wartime songs as we'd be walking home.
About a week later, we were down in a Welsh seaport, and we were loading material that belonged to the New Zealand Second Division. They had been sent to England at the beginning of the war, and they'd been there ever since. So here we are, we're loading armoured carriers and jeeps, and all kinds of rations and medical supplies, and personal gear, and trucks and things like that, and over two thousand tons of ammunition. And I can remember one night we were loading ammunition, and a German air raid came in, and there weren't too many bombers, but it only takes one, of course, to give you a problem. And we were rushing around, trying to turn off the arc lights. The arc lights around the hatches where I was working - we couldn't find the switches, so we were throwing things at them, and eventually a couple of guards shot out the arc lights so we could get the ship into darkness.
Anyway, time went on, and we had to finish our load with an invasion barge. And we were a convoy of about three dozen ships, five of which were troop ships carrying the New Zealand Second Division soldiers, and the rest of us were carrying their equipment and supplies, and so on. And Christmas morning emerged as one of these days... we were in the gulf by France, and we had a storm. And there was low cloud. Heavy, heavy banks of fog and cloud all over the place, and you couldn't even see the ships in the next row in the convoy. And all of a sudden, the fog cleared away, and here is a heavy German cruiser right in the middle of the convoy - the Hipper. And, of course, she was absolutely startled, and we were all startled, and she just open-fired, firing all her guns in all directions, trying to hit as many ships as she could. And we were all, of course, firing like mad, and seeing what we could do to defend ourselves. And after minutes... well, it probably must have been about five or six minutes, the fog closed down again, and we all lost each other again, and heaven knows what happened to the Hipper.