A sailor manning an Oerlikon 20mm cannon, similar to the one used by William Parker.Harvey Burns
"We were very fortunate, we got a direct hit, the 12 pounder hit the plane as it was coming in, low level and as it roared over us it dropped its bombs, we made of course an emergency turn at that time and they just missed us."
And I thought, oh, a friend of mine, he’s away in the Merchant Navy, why don’t I try to the Merchant Navy. So I got in touch with him and sure enough, no problem getting in there. So I had an interview with them and they said, well, what would you like to do. I said, I’d like to learn to be a sailor on deck. Well, he said, we’ve got plenty of sailors, what we really need is cooks. I said, cooks, I said, I couldn’t even boil water. Well, he said, think about that. He said, you know, a cook’s job is not a bad job on a ship. You’re your own boss, you work in daytime, mostly, you don’t have to do watches, you’re in a reasonably comfortable place, you’ll have a warm bed, think about that.
So I did, I thought about it for a couple of weeks and I spoke to my mother and dad and they said, oh, that doesn’t sound too bad. And they sent me away to cooking school for a crash course and a month later, I was away at sea, as an assistant cook.
Well, it’s a very, actually, it’s a very important job on the ship because if you get a good cook, it makes a happy ship. You know, some of the ships were very unhappy, they had poor cooking or they didn’t have enough to eat and there was also quite a bit of monkey business going on when they got stores onboard, there was a lot of, they would order 100 pounds of meat and they’d only deliver 70 and you’d split the difference. There was a lot of that going on, on ships. And it was, I would say that the food we had was adequate, not luxurious but it was adequate.
The job itself was very interesting because we all had action stations and I was allotted to go up on the bridge and I got training in shooting Oerlikon machine gun. And there were two of us allotted to each gun, we just had two, one on each side of the bridge. And whoever got to the gun first, he did the shooting and the other guy helped with the ammunition.
When I was going to Portugal, I made several trips there, we used to break off from convoy and go in ourselves. So we’d be on our own during nighttime and get in before daylight if we could. Leaving Portugal was a different story. They knew we were leaving and there were Germans there and they just picked up a phone and said, there’s a British ship leaving right now. And we’d get outside the harbour, out about a three mile zone, sometimes they didn’t even wait for that, so we’d just barely get outside and there’d be German bombers there, waiting for us. And they were generally long range Focke-Wulf [Fw 200] Condors. One occasion in particular, we’d gone out early in the morning and it was a wet, misty day and it was at breakfast time and we were looking out and there were three planes on the horizon circling us and they kept circling us and we decided, well, they’re Focke-Wulf Condors, they’re high level planes, they were made a little bad mistake. But I guess they couldn’t see, so they’d be coming in really low and looking us over and we were all by ourselves, going to join a convoy.
So eventually, one plane decided to attack us, the first one. We had a 12 pounder gun aft and we had two naval ratings that were gun layers [who aim the gun] with us and one of the officers and a few deck hands, they looked after the gun and I was up on one Oerlikon with a sailor and there were two other guys on the other side. And it looked like, well, this guy is going to take a run at us. And it was very low level. Well, as it turned out, we were very fortunate, we got a direct hit, the 12 pounder hit the plane as it was coming in, low level and as it roared over us it dropped its bombs, we made of course an emergency turn at that time and they just missed us. But anyway, we raked it with our guns and he went down.
People ask me questions about what it was like and what do you tell them, the same as I’ve told you, you know. It was short times of utter terror and I would say 90 percent of the time, you were happy enough, peaceful enough. Action was always very quick, came out of nowhere, seemingly, you know, you’re coasting along on a nice sunny day like this and all of a sudden, you’ve got half a dozen planes attacking you out of nowhere. So it was, you know, just sheer terror.