By Sandy Kinghorn
The Keren – Part Two
We played our part in various military exercises but most voyages were straight trooping runs and I found the little North Sea ferry took to the mighty South Atlantic rollers like a seagull. Her stabilisers helped to keep mal de mer at bay and despite having at any one time over 500 passengers and 80 crew aboard, she never seemed overcrowded. She also carried a permanent military staff with an army major as hip’s Commandant in charge. Fortunately he and I hit it off rather well. A North Sea overnight ferry’s facilities are, however, limited, as of course some passengers pointed out. “No swimming pool? Uganda has a lovely swimming pool!” But at least our lot were housed decently in cabins. “Uganda has dormitories from her former schoolship days”. Nine days at sea were no real hardship to anyone, and army commanders, especially, relished this rare chance of travelling by sea with their men. Getting to know and like our armed forces (most of ’em) was a great experience and they in their turn seemed glad to be meeting their Merchant Navy, “at home”, so to speak.
The armed forces of the crown are adept at providing entertainment, usually with a delightfully self-mocking slant, and many concerts were put on for us (at my suggestion) by them to an enthusiastic audience. The Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm even treated us to a Floral Dance, as put on each year at Helston, Cornwall, near their Culdrose base. Brave men in top hats and frock coats (outdated ship’s charts, paint and the ragbag came in useful here) danced gracefully with fair maidens dressed ravishingly in haute couture and gumboots. All these ‘damsels’ had enormous bosoms and many sported beards. After dancing to ‘that tune’, the Floral Dance, all through the ship, the way was led to ‘C’ Car Deck, transformed into a fairground with hoopla, coconut shies, ‘Penguin’ racing, cake-weight guessing, etc etc, an effort which pulled in over £400 for charity. There was deck hockey, and darts, tugs of war and rifle shooting. When the Commandant worried that his troops’ rifle practice would disturb the watch below’s sleep, we decided the best way round this problem was to invite the crew to participate, an offer taken up gladly. Targets from the ship’s stern were kites and balloons, boxes of rubbish and empty beer cans. The rattle of gunfire and reek of cordite intoxicating, and some of our best shots turned out to be young stewards who didn’t know they had it in them. A mock man-overboard one morning had all hands in a high state of trepidation as only a select few knew it was only an exercise. The ship was turned in the classic Williamson manner and a great shout went up when, an hour later, our ‘man’ was spotted right ahead. That he was only a dummy dressed in red did not, by this time, seem to matter.
In heavy weather passengers were escorted in small parties to the bridge to watch open-mouthed from the wheelhouse the whole wild panorama of the South Atlantic in majestic mood, from ringside seats. Almost miraculously the storm abated in time for the ship’s Remembrance Day Service on Sunday, 11th November, a most moving ceremony on the afterdeck attended by over 600 troops, civilians and crew members. As our wreaths were cast on the still quite stormy waters, the sun came out and a lone bugler, high on the flight deck, played the Last Post, followed, after a brief pause, by Reveille. Like the Lord’s Prayer, this seemed to us to say it all, as two albatrosses wheeled in our wake.
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