Morning brought much yawning and stretching. There was a fearful fug in the train and windows were opened to let in the outside air. All around the stationary train was an expanse of dock and within seconds it was known they were in Greenock, a port down river from Glasgow they were informed by the triumphant ‘Jocks’ who had tipped this as their likely destination the day before. They had much information to impart to their companions on the train. They were back in their homeland again, albeit briefly, and let no one doubt the fact that they were proud of everything Scottish, as B had noticed the Welsh had been of everything Welsh, while the English never seemed to show the same feelings, except as a reaction against those feelings expressed by the Scots, Welsh and Irish. It was strange.

They were on their way to the next stage of their flying training with the Royal Air Force and, as yet, that destination was still unknown to them as it always is in wartime. (BLOG – wartime – continuity drill and the need for straight arms). Across the water lay the largest ship any of them had ever seen. It was indeed, the largest ship ever built up to that time, the Queen Elizabeth. She lay anchored in mid-channel, a sign so impressive, that she dominated the whole scene with her towering immensity blocking out great sections of the sky with her splendidly graceful bow lines cutting into the line of the horizon; the proportion and size of her dwarfing everything within the range of sight.

Those cadets who were hungry finished the rations they had been given at Heaton Park. Orders were called out and the search to gather kit together began, before they clambered stiffly and awkwardly from the train and formed up in a detachment on the quayside, to be counted and checked and roll-called again and again until they were all accounted for. A nearby mobile canteen served them cups of tea and, clasping the hot mugs, they stood around in groups in the morning freshness, some shivering, others bantering or speculating as they waited their turn for the tender that plied between the shore and the ship, their eyes constantly drawn to the gigantic, camouflaged liner, immobile at her anchor. As his group stepped into the tender the escort party was waving goodbye but few of his companions noticed, their attention all on the  great ship towards which they were heading. She was a structure, unique in her class, and awe inspiring in the sheer beauty of her style, setting her surrounds in contrasting relief of plain anonymity or just drabness. The sailors on the tender bustled about their work, indifferent to what the cadets gazed at with such admiration. The sheer side grew larger and larger as the tender approached, until it was like being beneath a towering cliff, overhanging the small craft with its incoming passengers. The wonder was tempered with impending movement as the tender nudged along the open side of the vessel and was made fast by the crew. The baggage-laden cadets stepped on to the inclined walkway and, with sailors lending helping hands, swayed their ways along it to board into an interior the size of a palace, fitted out for war.

The Queen Elizabeth was a great uncharted city to the new arrivals. They were ushered around by officials to their sleeping quarters and eating and toilet facilities. There were ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s’ to be listened to, but in everything they did or in anything they experienced, the over-whelming sensation was in being inside this mighty floating environment.

For the first few days this feeling overshadowed all others. Timorous at first, they gradually expanded their areas of awareness and, as time passed, their confidence in their relationship with their surroundings grew. The mess hall was immense and stark, stripped of its civilian adornments; the food they found to be plentiful and good. The toilet facilities mostly a matter of indifference once it was seen that they were much better than any camp-site ablutions, except for the strangeness of taps running sea water into basin or bath. But the sleeping quarters were not to B’s liking at all. They lacked privacy and any degree of comfort so, after the first night aboard, he roamed the corridors, trying the handles of cabin doors until he managed to find an unoccupied, spacious cabin with several beds or bunks and separate bathroom and toilet. He moved into this and invited Ollie and Paddy to join him, which at first they declined to do, knowing B’s propensity for running head-long into trouble. After a few days they became exasperated at having to listen to his stories of how comfortable and restful his nights had been. And so, first Ollie, and then, Paddy moved in to complete their first Atlantic crossing in what had been a luxury cabin in pre-war days.

For Paddy this was a voyage his father had set out to make in the aftermath of the First World War and never finished. Starting out from his native Ireland, he had trans-shipped at Cardiff and it was while waiting for a boat to America he had met and married a Welsh girl, and they had made their home in Cardiff. From the union came Cornelius O’Sullivan, a true Celt; as idealistic as the Saxon B, but articulate with it, which B was not. He had been an amateur boxer, and was ready at any time to back his feelings with his fists, especially if a cause was concerned. At the same time he had the Welsh sense of the ironic and was mischievously aware of human weaknesses, and was able to inject a direct and personal angle into the more generalised Anglo-Saxon bantering style. He had blazing blue eyes which were deceptively innocent looking, and a badly healed broken nose that saved him from Adonis-like features because, with his goldeny fair hair and other regular features, he might once have looked pretty, whereas now, he looked dangerous, someone to steer clear of in an argument. He had been trained as a boxer, and was a good one, in spite of his broken nose. It was a sign, that in a fight, Paddy would never give best to any opponent. But he was always sparing in the use of his talent, and was blessed with a lively, laughing nature, under which lay the curious, cautious wonderment of an untrained mind, eager to know, in a serious yet scoffing sort of way.

Once on board the action was all about the cadets and they were part of the action. The ship had been expecting them, as it had been expecting other passengers, as well as freight. There were 500 German prisoners of war, held securely below the water-line, and guarded by a special detachment of the army. There were stores for the British personnel working or training in the States. There were export crates and supplies and equipment of all kinds, all of which, including the several hundred air force cadets, were shown on the ship’s manifest as booked for this sailing. But it would have sailed without any of them sooner than miss the time and tide; that was the rule. Too fast to be confined to any of the convoys that regularly made this Atlantic crossing, the ocean Queen sped across the hostile waters alone, trusting to her speed to avoid the dangers of the marauding U-boats or isolated enemy surface warships that had been wreaking such huge damage to the British ocean merchant ships. She would have been a morale boosting prize for the German navy if she could have been sunk or captured. The latter was unlikely because the orders were to scuttle her if capture was imminent. One five inch bore gun mounted forw’d and one aft were all the heavy armaments she carried. Bofors and smaller calibre guns made up the rest to fend off the undesired attention from enemy aircraft. Her speed of 33 knots was her best defence, used with a zig-zag course that might take her as far south as the Azores or as far north as Greenland, with every light blacked out from the sight of outside enemy eyes.

The sailing time came in the late afternoon of 6th June. The Queen Elizabeth started moving her world slowly down the Clyde westwards, into the setting sun. Standing alone, in awe and suppressed excitement, leaning over a rail high up front, watching the unfolding changes and some of the crew at work below him, B was joined by McInnes, a nostalgic Scot. ‘That’s Dunoon, man,’ he said, pointing to the right bank, as a waterside town rose above the river line. This was no time for B to be taking in names of places. To be truthful, he would rather have been alone, absorbing the new images coming his way in unprecedented streams. To dream, rather than identify. But McInnes was inexorable; he was leaving his homeland and every land mark brought some comment as if from a tour guide. B liked McInnes, otherwise he would have moved on; so he stayed, rather as a companion in external gestures and monosyllabic replies only, his mind being elsewhere. But what was said must have stuck. Over forty years later, returning with ‘Whiskerlein’ from a holiday in the Scottish Highlands, they crossed the river at Dunoon on a car ferry, and a picture of the greatest of all ships, coming down the firth with the tide, and the two cadets, one English, one Scottish, watching from up forw’d, came clearly to his mind’s eye again, and McInnes’s hand pointing to the town, lying beyond and behind them, rising from the water’s edge.

Down they moved, past Great Cumbrae Island and Little Cumbrae Island, towards the open spaces of the Firth. Mull of Kintyre in the far distance on the starboard side, showed only as a darker smudge, bordering the sky above and the river below. There was a pause in McInnes’s commentary, as the daylight seeped out of the air and distances blended the land with the sea into a mixture of opaque twilight until, ‘Aye, there’s Ailsa Craig,’ came from the ever-alert companion. ‘The last sight of land for those leaving Scotland,’ he offered as explanation. B’s thoughts had no place for whatever sentiments were coursing through the other’s mind but, like Dunoon,  he had carried this last bit of information with him to re-surface many years later in Pakistan, where he correctly identified the source of a dog’s name given by his Scottish owner. Darkness brought with it a disinclination for the two to stay longer, and they descended together to the mess hall where a queue was forming, with blue, second seating cards, for a late supper.

As they zigzagged about the Atlantic Ocean there were days of cloud and chill when outside sorties were uninviting and day-long card schools developed, wherein one could join for any length of time, and re-enter again after meals or rest. But other days were fair and fine, and sun-bathing on the upper decks was popular. Roaming around the ship was another pastime meeting with, and talking to the members of the crew, to find out what life was like on the side of the Atlantic they were bound for. The crew had their own gambling arrangements which was ‘Crown and Anchor’ and banned by the authorities, so there was a clandestine atmosphere about participating, with look-outs posted while play progressed. Cadets were tolerated in the game, but few joined in. One cadet, while wandering about the many decks, uncovered a cache of dollar bills, hundreds, if not thousands, hidden away by someone. He was naïve enough to show his find around; fortunately for him, finders were keepers. The German prisoners were incognito, although it was possible to talk with their guards who knew little more than that the prisoners-of-war, like the cadets, were destined for Canada.

One morning the guns opened up and fired incessantly into the horizon where danger was thought to be, but whatever it might have been, nothing was seen. The life-boat drill that day was an extended one, going on longer than the usual daily ones. Time lingered on the voyage, in what some wag referred to as, ‘our wartime cruise,’ and news from the radio, posted up on a daily bulletin board, reported that the Allied forces had begun the invasion of Hitler’s Europe at Normandy in France. So, strangely, they were sailing away from the centre stage of war to be trained to go back into it, and help to finish it off in the air.

There was a feeling of change in the air, reinforced by the different pitch of the ship’s engines, and the sailors packing up their crown and anchor game. Small boats appeared, one of which carried the pilot. He came on board as the Queen moved majestically towards the waiting land of the Western World. Fortune Street had brought B this far and as, with his wartime comrades standing along the ship’s side watching the approaching sky line which brought into focus, the often heard of but until now, never seen, Statue of Liberty. He, a youngster, like his fellow cadets still in their ‘teens, was launched into a world of change whereafter, things would never be the same again.

JUNE 1944