Christmas party with self-made tartans aboard HMS Maloja. Stephen on Right. 1940John Rankine Stephen
HMS Maloja while at Greenock leaving for FreetownJohn Rankine Stephen
HMS Porpoise (submarine) alongside Stephen's ship in Halifax. Christmas 1940John Rankine Stephen
Stephen and crewmates ashore on IcelandJohn Rankine Stephen
"And you could have walked on the superstructures of sunk ships that were hanging all the way down the coast."
Well, my name is John Rankin Stephen. I was born in a little town in Scotland, on the east coast of Scotland called Musselburgh. It’s spelled M-U-S-S-E-L-B-U-R-G-H. And finally we got told to get moving, we’re leaving to go. But we didn’t know where we were going because you never know your orders. It’s kept secret until you’re sailed, until you’re well out into the ocean before you know the orders.
So anyhow, we took off the land to go down the coast of England and you wouldn’t believe it. The sight I saw then going down the coast of England, the ships had been hugging the coast for safety. And you could have walked on the superstructures of sunk ships that were hanging all the way down the coast. And I know, I had that proved and I spoke to pilots, previous pilots when, has been, come back from the war, they saw the ships there, sunk there.
And on the way, they found out why it was when they [Germans] dropped one of these magnetic mines, down at the estuary of the Thames [on 22 November 1939]. And then they got the, what do you call it,the bomb disposal squad to check it, to find out what it was. That was the bomb disposal squad. And they run what you call wires around the ship to degauss them. So that the ships could go past them without them coming up with the magnetic mines, the ship’s body, you see, magnetic, that brought them up.
When a ship gets hit, you don’t do anything, you just keep on your way to the port where you’re going, wherever you’re going you know that. Even a naval ship; a naval ship is not allowed to stop. When that big ship going fast, going across the Atlantic and it was struck, the convoy just keeps going, they did not like to stop, in case it gets torpedoed, you see.
The only ship allowed to stop during the thing was just like a corvette and what you call a ship that’s, it’s a safety ship for picking up people and get them out of the water. That’s the way it is. So I didn’t have anything like that. They always leave an escort ship behind. Always at the end of the convoys. But then awful times the submarines had special mines on the lines of the convoy, your convoy’s lines, when six or eight to ten ships spread out in miles of square miles.
Across the North Atlantic. The North Atlantic, which is they pick as the worst sailing there is for storms. And I crossed 31 times. Which is a lot. And then that last trip I was on, it’s the same ship as the Maloger The HMS Maloger. It’s a big cruiser, you saw the picture. Anyway, across there and that was the last ship, a troop ship, it got torpedoed. It wasn’t sunk, mind you, they were able getting out of the boat for safety.
And we went into Southampton and Southampton was on fire from bombings, German bombings. And then I remember walking up the street, we were getting transferred into the HMS Mersey, so we had to go up to the station, walking up the coast there. There was, one side of the street was metal buildings which all crumbled with the heat. The other side was wood, big timbers. They were smoldering, were burned and didn’t collapse. But metal with heat collapses. But the wood stays in place.
There was just that, we went up, I went into London at that time and then we got up into Liverpool and we went into Liverpool. I was in Liverpool, then I got orders to go to my pool on leave. And we were transferred into another ship called the HMS Maron, M-A-R-O-N. Now, the last I heard of the Maron was when she was in the landings in Africa, the landings in North Africa. She was bombed there, I know that.
We came into Halifax for Christmas, 1940. And this submarine came in, it was this, the Porpoise and it was alongside of us on the starboard side. And then they invited the crew on the other ship for Christmas dinner. And we had a party and you saw us dressed up for a party.
And we had the commander and the captain and everybody came down to see what was going on. We put on skits. And that was enjoyable, that. I remember the painter, I think it was, the painter or someone had made kilts out of canvas and painted them. And so we wore them and I put on a skit that way. And yeah, quite a good time. And then we were invited to go to the submarine, so we went to the submarine, they invited us in there. See, we had the petty officers from the submarine come aboard our petty officer mess. So they invite us down to go to the submarine.