Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
The ship we were to go over on was the Andes. None of us had ever heard of her. Names like the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mary, the Normandie, the Ile de France, Pasteur, and the Mauretania, famous names all, we'd heard about, but the 'Andes' didn't ring a bell. In peacetime the Andes sailed the high seas as a holiday cruise ship, one of more than a dozen luxury liners converted into troop carriers shortly after war was declared in 1939. When she carried vacationing passengers, her passenger list numbered about 1800, but after conversion to a no-frills troopship, some 5000 souls, namely service personnel by necessity were crammed into every nook, cranny and cubbyhole. Comfort wasn't something the big-wigs of troop movement were concerned about. "Jam 'em in and get 'em across to the other side as fast as possible," was their aim.
Once aboard, I spent some time searching for my assigned berthing compartment, and then found to my dismay all the hammocks taken. And no matter how much I and a few others complained to the officer overseeing that particular deck about the fact that we had no hammocks, he just shrugged his shoulder and gave us an "I'm sorry" look and that was that. So, for the next ten nights we had to sleep on the cold, hard steel deck with just one blanket underneath us. Mighty hard on the shoulders and hips.
Once I staked out my three feet by six feet sleeping space on E-deck, well below the waterline, I hurried out on the open deck anxious to see what Halifax Harbour looked like and to examine the ship from stem to stern. After all, this was my first time ever to be a passenger on an ocean liner, and curiosity, it was only natural, got the better of me. On the starboard side there was little to see except the long sheds close up against the dock side, and troops moving up the gangplanks to join our company. Most of the rest of that afternoon I spent leaning on the rail on the other side of the ship watching vessels, both naval and merchantmen moving one way or another across the wide basin between Dartmouth on the far shore and Halifax.
The rich furniture, decorations and ornate fittings that had once graced this vessel, had, of course, been removed and put in storage for the duration. Replacing the fancy, highly-polished varnish-finished tables in the dining-rooms were plain, unpainted utilitarian tables and benches set up end to end on both sides to handle the more than 5000 troops taking meals in two sittings twice a day, at breakfast and evening meal. It was understandable why the expensive stuff had been put away. Inside of three days the rough and ready troops would have reduced them to junk.
The magnificent crystal chandeliers that had once hung from the ornately decorated and painted high ceilings in the dining lounges had given way to single lamps hanging from long cords. Also in the lounges, where plush velvet upholstered chairs and sofas once accommodated the bulky backsides of money-flushed passengers, now the place was almost empty of furniture of any kind except for a few folding deck chairs. As for the individual berths themselves, they were reduced from stately beds and normal bedroom furniture to the spartan conditions of hammocks and canvas stretched between tubular steel supports in which men slept jammed in against each other like sardines in a can.
In the hectic hurry to get the drafts aboard, arriving hourly in troop-train after troop-train, no meal had been laid on for that day, so we were a pretty hungry crowd by the time we bedded down for the night. The last time we'd eaten was at noon when we were handed out baloney and jam sandwiches. By mid-evening I was so hungry I'd have eaten the asshole out of a skunk.
Bright and early the next morning, May 10th, I awoke to the sound of the ship's engines throbbing several decks below. It didn't take me long to hustle out on deck to see what was going on, simply because I had slept with all my clothes on. I made my way to the promenade deck at the stern of the ship where I stood at the rail for the next two hours or so watching the shore of Canada gradually receding in the distance. In another hour it had dipped below the horizon and was gone. And when it was gone I got to thinking, "Would I ever see it again?" And I could lay a bet and win that most of the others on board were thinking the same thing. For some it was indeed their last sight of Canada. Their remains lie buried in cemeteries all across the face of Europe. There had to be amongst us at least a few whose fate was such that they had no known grave.
What surprised me was the fact that there were only three ships in the dash across the Atlantic. In line, the three ships set out for the dangerous passage through the sub-infested waters of the North Atlantic. I thought we'd be travelling in a large convoy, with cruisers, destroyers and corvettes to escort us across, so it came as a surprise when I saw only two other ships. We were the middle ship. On the second day, however, as I went out on deck, I was surprised to see that we were all alone, no ship ahead of us, no ship behind us. Where in heck had the other ships gone? This question immediately came to mind. I figured, "Oh boy! Now we're in for it!" Now that we were on our own, the rumour mill started cranking out all kinds of fearful stories. U-Boats had sunk them, and we'll be next. "But they couldn't have been sunk I kept telling the guys around me, or we'd have heard the explosions." But that nagging fear wouldn't go away.
At breakfast we got the more reassuring word that both ships had to go back to Halifax because of boiler problems. One backtracked not long after we passed over the horizon, followed shortly after by the other. Ever since the war started I'd assumed that all ships travelled in convoy for mutual protection. To go it alone was asking for disaster. But then I had no way of knowing that convoys travel only at the speed of the slowest ship, and that could mean as slow as 8 knots (about 10 miles per hour). Their protection lay in the efficiency of the escort ships close in and on the outer screen keeping the subs down deep, whereas, it was the speed of the troop-carrying ships that was their saving grace. Most of them travelled fast enough to avoid torpedoes, and to make it even tougher for U-Boat commanders to send a torpedo into the hull, every seven minutes they changed course, zig-zagging their way across the Atlantic with their precious, irreplaceable cargo.
The weather, which hadn't been all that cheery the morning the Andes slipped away from her berth and steamed out into the open seas, by the secondday had turned downright bitter, with a cold wind blowing from out of thenortheast, roiling the ocean into a seething mass of mountainous waves. Although it wasn't exactly freezing, it was cold enough that we had to wear greatcoats with collars turned up, and cover our heads with our winter Meltons when venturing out onto the open decks. The ship's route took us in a wide northerly sweep that went well up into the North Atlantic. By the third day it was cold enough to freeze our nuts off. For all of that day and into the next two we spent very little time outside standing at the rail. It was simply too damn cold. The wind blowing across the decks had a knife edge to it, cutting right through the greatcoat as though it was netting. With the seas as mountainous as they were, I expected to be seasick, but I wasn't, at least not sick enough to throw up. I remember my mother telling me stories of how deathly seasick she and all the other people on ship were when she was on our way to Canada as an emigrant in 1912. She related how people were so sick they wanted to throw themselves overboard. Throughout the ten days we were at sea I managed to keep the contents of my stomach down, although at times I came pretty damn close to upchucking.
It wasn't until the fifth day that the weather improved enough to allow us a chance to soak up some fresh air and enjoy walking around the decks and to stand at the rail. The wind died down considerably, and what there was of it was nowhere near as cold as it had been the last three days. By another day, it turned warm enough for us to walk about on the open decks with our tunics open. Some guys were even sprawled out on the decks fore and aft reading whatever reading material they were lucky to have latched on to, or had the foresight to bring with them With the seas now calm, and the weather most agreeable, it lured a good two-thirds of the passengers out from the smoky, fetid and close atmosphere of the compartments. I spent most of the day at the rail looking down at the sea and the foam rushing by, and I couldn't help but notice what I thought was a peculiar quality or property of the water. It was quite unlike the fresh water of the Great Lakes in the way it flowed. Ocean water, to a depth of at least six inches had an aerated appearance, that at times gave to the water a pale, milky look. This was caused by the huge hulk of the liner cutting through the waves. But then I had never seen the water of Lake Erie get so bubbly in the wake of a lake freighter.
Quite often I saw long strands or clumps of seaweed floating by, and what looked to be grapefruits bobbing past on the surface and a few inches below. I wondered if they actually were grapefruits that, not long before had been part of the cargo of a ship that had been sunk, or whether it was some sort of ocean vegetation or marine life. Every now and then I'd catch a glimpse of schools of porpoises lunging through the waves and swells as though they were racing with the ship. Other than the few schools of porpoises, I saw no other signs of sea creatures, no sharks, no whales, not even so much as a fish. It was an empty, empty ocean. And by the looks of things, we were the only ship out there.
Eating arrangements aboard the Andes were terrible! Chaotic was the more appropriate description for what the cooks on board fed us, and how it was fed. If we had had to sit down to this kind of crap back in Ipperwash we would have had the right to complain to the Orderly Officer. On board the Andes, however, we had to accept what was set before us or we didn't eat. It was simple as that. For one thing, we had to literally claw our way to a seat at the long tables. There was no seating plan&emdash;and with no seating plan, every meal was a shamozzle of shamozzles. An every man for himself situation, and the devil take the hindmost. If you were a little too slow with the footwork and not assertive enough, you'd find yourself at far end of the long, long table up against the bulkhead where you'd end up having next to nothing to eat. The best seats were at the head of the table where the trays of food were dropped. Each man would take what he figured was his fair share (which almost always was more than his fair share) as the tray or serving bowl moved down to the far end of the table. But as it always turned out, there was nothing or hardly anything left by the time the tray or the bowl settled in front of the last four men.
As for bread, nothing got past the first two thirds of the forty or so men waiting with great anticipation to feed himself. It didn't come in slices. It came as uncut loaves, with each man tearing a piece off. But most guys apparently didn't know or didn't care that there were people farther down the table who could use some bread. They tore themselves oversize chunks of it, and that was that. Though the lamentations were loud and long even above the hubbub, nothing was done to rectify the sorry situation. If it hadn't have been for the canteen where we could buy cans of fruit and other goodies like chocolate bars and Arrowroot biscuits, more than a few of us would have been near to starving by the time the ship reached its destination.
Things got so bad meal-wise I began to wonder why I even bothered to face the hassle at every meal jostling fiercely so as to get a seat up near the head of the table, especially when the food was so lousy. For breakfast almost every morning we ate, or at least tried to eat the pastiest and most tasteless porridge that ever passed lips. It had the consistency of wallpaper paste. Smoked herring came a little too often, both for breakfast and the evening meal. If there'd been a dog or cat around and we threw a few morsels to them, I'm sure they'd have turned their noses up at the crap and slunk away. It was pure garbage. How anybody could keep it down was a mystery to me. About all I cared to eat was the bread, that is if I was lucky enough to get my hooks on to it. As for the other crap, menu now long since forgotten, though it was so wretched it was not unusual to see half the diners hurry away from the table, their face green with sickness.
About the only thing that could be said in favour of the Andes was the canteen. For one thing, it had to have saved a lot of guys from near starvation. Like I'd mentioned earlier, you could buy Arrowroot biscuits, a whole cubic foot tin of it, and besides the fact it was tasty and filling, it was the best thing to keep the stomach settled. I munched on them all day long. Also available, were canned fruits, custard, puddings, and Mars chocolate bars. I practically subsisted on what I could buy from the canteen. The only problem here was that you had such a long wait to buy your stuff. If you dilly-dallied for a little long at the rail looking out sea, and then you decided to buy something from the canteen, you'd find yourself in a long line-up running completely around the ship. But since you had nothing to do anyway, you decided you might as well spend it there as anywhere else. It might take you almost a whole day to reach the counter, but that way you at least bought what you wanted, and you knew you wouldn't be going to bed with a growling stomach. There was one occasion, however, when, after moving at a snail's pace in the canteen queue through half a morning and the better part of an afternoon, just as I got to within five customers of it, the place closed for the day. I could have cried in frustration.
By the seventh day at sea the weather had turned summery-like with hardly a cloud in the sky and scarcely a trace of a breeze wafting over us. The weather couldn't have been nicer. It was so ideal that the decks were crammed cheek to jowl with troops basking in the sunshine. We must have entered what is known as the Gulf stream, that warming current of water that comes up from around the Bahamas, follows the U.S. coast, swings northeastwards up into the north Atlantic, then swinging south again past the coast of Northwest Europe and the British Isles. It was so pleasant on deck that a lot of the fellows took their tunics off and bared their pale skin to the sun.
I'd always been a voracious reader, and now with so much idle time on my hands I found myself with nothing to read. How shortsighted I was too have neglected to bring reading material along with me. And so I found myself prowling the deck like a predatory beast ready to pounce on anything in the way of reading material lying loose and unattended. And I wasn't the only one starved for something to read. It seemed like half the passenger list had the same idea in mind. If a guy sprawled out on a blanket sunning himself happened to have a book and had fallen asleep, you could bet your bottom dollar it'd be long gone before he woke up. I got so desperate for something to read, I even took to reading the labels on cans, would you believe it? Except for sleep at night and frequent naps, there was no better way to pass the interminable hours than by reading. Much to my regret, I didn't have any.
One of the larger drafts aboard ship was an infantry battalion, the Dufferin & Haldimand Riflles from the Brantford area. They were a wild and unruly bunch, and and it didn't take us long to find out that what was said about them was not just hearsay. They were mean bastards, almost every damn one of them! We hadn't been more than an hour out of Halifax when we saw for ourselves just what these bastards were all about. They always walked the decks in groups of three or four looking for some easy mark to rough up. Most of their dirty work was done down in the lower decks where it was less likely they'd be seen doing their dirty work and in turn not likely be ganged up on. They'd walk down a corridor looking to bump into some lone character(small guy, almost always) on his way to somewhere or other, and if the jostled one made remark or a fuss, the lousy buggers would give him a working-over with their fists and boots. They'd never take on a big, burly bugger. They always looked for the meek and mild. I didn't like the way they operated and more or less stayed out of their way, but on one occasion as I was on my way to the open deck I found myself smack in their way. I'd be damned if I was going to turn tail and go back or turn my back to the wall, suck in my stomach and let them go by like they owned the ship. Not on my own or their life would I back off. I had a stubborn streak when it came to situations such as I was heading into. I gritted my teeth and marched on to either doom or victory, whichever the case might turn out to be. They gave me that look that said, "Out of our way Buster or we'll knock you down." Well sir, as they went to go by or through me, I braced my left shoulder, the shoulder that had taken some pretty big guys down in the days when I played end in football at high school, and it caught the shoulder of the guy next to me and spun him half around. Instead of him throwing a punch at me or grabbing me in a headlock, he practically whined. "Watch where you're going, eh!" I gave him a defiant look, said nothing, and went off down the corridor on my way to the open deck. The tough guys, or so they thought they were, didn't come after me. which they could easily have done. But they didn't. Frankly, I breathed a sigh of relief. I felt I could have held my own with the one I bumped, but I don't think I could have handled three guys in the narrow confines of the corridor. There simply was no room for footwork. Anyway, such was the kind of guts, or lack of it that some of these guys had. I must have psyched him and his buddies into thinking I was tougher than I really was. It works sometimes. When it doesn't, man, you're in trouble.
It didn't take me long to come to the conclusion, after hearing about more such encounters, that it wouldn't be long before an ill-disciplined outfit liked the Haldimands were would be disbanded and parcelled out to other infantry battalions. And sure enough, not long after we landed on the other side, this unruly, undisciplined Regiment was broken up and used as reinforcements to fill out the ranks of half a dozen other infantry battalions. When I heard of this in Aldershot that summer, I wondered whatever became of their CO. He couldn't have been much of an officer when he allowed his men to carry on like back-alley thugs wherever they went. If he wasn't aware of their behaviour off the parade-square, then he must have been either blind, deaf or dumb, or all combined. The army didn't need his kind on the battlefield or even in the back areas. Most likely somebody at CMHQ 'kicked him upstairs' as the saying went, to a desk-job at the base depot in Avellino, Italy, or in one of the Reinforcement Centres in and about Aldershot in England.
On the morning of our ninth day at sea I saw what I thought to be a sliver of land on the horizon off to our right front. So did most everybody else. But, much to our disappointment, it was only a cloudbank. We knew though that land couldn't be all that far away because land birdsappeared, flying just above the water surface as though escorting our ship to landfall. Shortly after noon, an RAF Short Sunderland Coastal Command flying boat flew in from out of the east to provide us with welcome escort until twilight when it left us. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I hadn't felt this way since I was a kid awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. I guess everybody else was as excited as I was.
It wasn't until late afternoon the next day that land did finally appear as a pencil-thin line on the horizon almost dead ahead of us. In no time at all, when word went 'round the ship that land had been sighted, the rails were three and four deep with troops anxious to get their first sight of the shores of the British isles. I could almost imagine what was going through everyone's mind; "Land! Beautiful land! How exhilarating it was to see land again!" I never had been a lover of water&emdash;didn't care for boating, swimming, or for that fact, even taking a bath. And now, after ten days at sea I had seen enough water to last a lifetime and the only time i wanted to see it again was when I'd on my way home when the war was over.
Although none of us were aware of it, we were entering waters even more dangerous than the open Atlantic. We were into the Irish Sea, where in the early years of the war, German U-Boats played bloody hell with Allied shipping. A good many ships nearing the end of their hazardous crossing of the Atlantic met their end here within sight of land and safe arrival in harbour. Next morning I was up at the crack of dawn thinking we were getting ready to dock. In fact, we had a ways to go yet. The Andes cut its way through the gentle swells of the Irish sea for the better part of the day before we entered the mouth of the Mersey River to dock at Liverpool. Throughout the morning, the grim reminders of the sinkings that had occurred in this stretch of waters earlier in the war were there on both sides of a buoyed channel, the rusting masts and superstructures of the sunken freighters protruding out of this shallow part of the channel that would take us into harbour. We were indeed in a danger zone, not as dangerous though as it had been two years before, but still dangerous to some degree. Germany had enough U-boats out on the high seas, and it's quite likely they'd have one or more patrolling in and around this once happy hunting-ground for the U-Boat fleet. It was literally a cemetery of torpedoed and bombed ships.
When I went to bed that night, it wasn't the hard, cold steel floor under my one blanket that kept me awake, it was the excitement and anticipation of what would greet my eyes when morning came, and the disembarking that would soon follow. Since I found it hard to drop off into the 'Land of Nod', I headed for the open deck in hopes of walking myself into a sleep weary state. A lot of others were also suffering this type of insomnia, as I soon found out. There must have been a couple of hundred souls strolling aimlessly around the deck or leaning on the rail looking to the landward side, which in this case was the starboard side, not the larboard where I figured it should have been. We were off the coast of Ireland. After an hour or so out in the fresh, early morning breeze I felt myself ready for 'shut-eye', so down below I went. And I had a good sleep, notwithstanding the hard discomfort of my steel-deck bed and the not exactly comfortable haversack pillow my head rested on.
At about six, or maybe it was seven bells, I awoke to the usual racket of some two hundred men bustling around getting ready to partake of their last unappetising breakfast aboard the Andes. It would be the last of the wallpaper paste mess of porridge we'd have to put up with, and no longer would we have to suffer trying to force down our gullets the near-inedible smoked herring! I was at such a high state of excitement, I put my sox on inside out, buttoned my tunic and then remembered I had forgotten to put on my blouse. I was all thumbs. Getting out on deck and finding a spot at the rail was far more important to me than sitting down to another lousy excuse of a breakfast. I chose to forego it, not realizing that I might be sorry and damn near to starving by the time I got fed again, which happened to be not until just after midnight next morning.
As I mentioned a couple of paragraphs earlier about the string of half-sunken ships we saw on both sides of the buoyed channel, one of the hulls had settled on its bottom sitting upright with enough of the hull above water on which was painted in huge letters the word W R E C K. It was still there more than two years later when I was on my way back to the UK from Italy. It was one of those sights, insignificant as it was, that somehow impinged itself on the memory over others that should have been remembered, but continue to evade recall. Ask anyone who made that passage through the Irish Sea during the war if they remember seeing the ship with the six-foot high white letters W R E C K painted on the side, and their answer will be " Hell, yeah! I sure do!".
By mid-morning, the Andes came under tow of two tugs that slowly nudged her into the dockside at Liverpool. The general feelings on everyone aboard, passengers, that is, had to be one of unbounded relief. "We made it! We made it!" you could almost hear them say. If there was any breath held during the crossing, it sure was let out all in one big gush of relief right then and there. Nobody would admit it that they were more than just a trifle scared or on edge throughout the crossing, but once we arrived in port we let our fears, 'all hang out', so to speak, and made fun of them.
Original Story from messages received on 26 March 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 1 April 2002.
The story above, the Andes, was written and contributed by Mr. Stan Scislowski, who served with the Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division. The moving story is a part of his published work entitled: Not All of Us Were Brave which was published by Dundurn Press.
Would you care to read more tales of World War II written by Mr. Stan Scislowski? His work is featured on a website devoted to the Perth Regiment of Canada. Check out this very interesting website and while you are there look at Stan's Corner .
We at World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words wish to offer our profound "Thanks" for the excellent material contributed by Mr. Stan Scislowski.
September 5, 2002.
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