Empire Comfort July 1948 - October 1949
When the Palestine Mandate ended with the formation of the state of Israel the tasks allotted to EMPIRE COMFORT became more routine though always dependent on the operational requirements of the Middle East Command.
The pattern was set with a voyage from Port Said to Cyprus carrying military personnel; most of whom were taking local leave to escape the enervating heat of the Egyptian summer. We berthed for an overnight stay in the little harbour beneath the Venetian ramparts of Famagusta. There was little evidence of commercial activity apart from a few local caïques, because the quay was occupied by the Israeli vessels PAN YORK and PAN CRESCENT, released from their imposed internment for the carriage of illegal Jewish migrants. The destroyer H.M.S. CHEQUERS was alongside PAN YORK transferring sufficient fuel to enable her to reach Haifa. Having exercised the maximum effort to prevent thousands of migrants reaching the Promised Land by arresting them and keeping them under guard the British Government was doing all it could to clear them out of Cyprus. Such intentions were being frustrated to a degree by the United Nations resolve that no men of military age should set foot in Israel and add to the problems posed by the escalating war between the Jews and their Arab neighbours.
Empire Comfort, Pan York, H.M.S. Chequers
As a crowd of migrants flooded the quayside frustrated U.N. officers were endeavouring to ensure that only women, children and the elderly were embarking in the two PANS. Their task was not made easier by the ingenuity of the younger Jewish men who had assumed disabilities, disguised themselves as old men or dressed as women. The British authorities, naturally anxious to see the back of all their unwilling guests, were unhelpful spectators, though they did provide a platoon of A.T.S. girls to check that all the migrants wearing skirts were in fact female.
The camps must have been cleared quickly because on our next visit to Famagusta three weeks later, all the migrants had left Cyprus. In the meantime we had been to Tripoli and Malta before settling into our normal routine which with occasiona1 variations, was to be our destiny for the remaining months of 1948. We sailed from Port Said every Tuesday at noon, reached Famagusta at 0800 the following day, stayed overnight and were back in Port Said on Friday morning. As Third Officer I kept the standing eight to twelve watch and under normal conditions, had only eight hours watchkeeping in a week while both the Chief and Second Officers had twice the amount. As a consequence I was given the additional duties of Troop Officer, a far from onerous task in which the most vital activity appeared to be the submission of appropriate pieces of paper to the Sea Transport Officers at the proper time! Most of the service passengers we carried were taking local leave from Egypt and were listed as 'Indulgence Passengers'
|Grille at Beirut 30th August 1948 |
With so much time spent in port, coupled with the regularity of our voyages we were able to enjoy a social life denied to many who served in the Merchant Navy. We were members of the Officer's Club, golf and sailing clubs and were invited to use the 'Plage d'Enfants, the Suez Canal Company lido in Port Fouad at any time. On Saturday evenings we frequently enjoyed the formality of the dinner dances at The Eastern Exchange Hotel. Cyprus offered an open air life, swimming from the golden beaches of Famagusta, walking and visiting the many historic sites and local markets, dining at The King George hotel followed by lively evenings at one of the open air night spots.
At the end of August the ship was sent to Beirut where a hundred Polish students joined for an overnight passage to Famagusta where they were to join EMPRESS OF AUSTRALIA for passage to Europe. We were berthed close to GRILLE, the beautiful Nazi Admiralty yacht. A well proportioned, slim vessel, she appeared to be in good condition.
Nobody could tell us who owned her or what her future was to be. With a tonnage of 2500, driven by geared turbines at a speed of 20 knots she was probably too costly for commercial use and too complex a design to become a rich man's plaything.
With engagement in regular trooping the ship was invariably -moored opposite Navy House at Port Said with both anchors down and stern lines to bollards on one of the artificial islands at Rive-Asie. EMPIRE COMFORT was one of the few fully efficient and certainly the most modern of the small ships at Rive-Asie. Most of the vessels were coastal ships which seem to have grown long funnelled with age. An elegant steam yacht said to have been owned by an Indian Rajah stood out among all others despite obvious neglect. Invited by the watchman who lived on board, we were shown over her. Streamers of weed eddied below her waterline and clung to the rusting anchor cable, her teak decks sadly in need of caulking, were grey with grime, paint peeled from the once white hull, scabrous yellow paint encrusted the funnel, brass fittings had turned green and the canvas covers to her boats had all but rotted away. She was an aristocrat fallen on hard times. We found a log book in the chartroom emphasising her descent from grace. With the end of the war she had found employment as a passenger tramp ship within the Mediterranean. Log entries were spasmodic and laconic but sufficient to indicate the vicissitudes of her recent days. One entry stated that "a female was apprehended leaving the ship with a silver teapot concealed in her bosom", another gave the sketchiest details of a fight in which an officer was "badly stabbed".
One morning a small flat bottomed vessel under the Lebanese flag fell alongside us. She was weighing her single anchor and as she had neither capstan or windlass this was an arduous task which entailed shackling a runner to a link in the anchor cable and taking it through a block at the mast head to the only cargo winch forward of her bridge. When the cable reached the mast head it was stoppered off before being fed into the chain locker, the whole process was then repeated. It was clear that operation was going to be lengthy and with the northerly breeze she was bound to end up alongside us so we prepared for the inevitable by raising our accommodation ladder and placing adequate fenders. Some weeks later we overtook her at sea on passage to Cyprus, she had a wisp of staysail rigged and appeared to be plunging up and down in the same place and making no headway. We saw no more of her but it was rumoured that she ended her days by foundering in the Red Sea.
The Suez Canal Zone in the late forties was a shipwatchers, dream. With passenger berths at a premium and vast movements of human beings in the aftermath of war all shapes and sizes of ships were pressed into service. Famous vessels were making voyages far from their normal routes (Comfort must have been totally lacking on those liners built for the Atlantic that found themselves traversing the Red Sea in the height of Summer). In addition the shipyards were at full stretch with a new keel being laid the moment a launching slip became vacant. The new ORCADES on her maiden voyage created a great deal of discussion but, no matter what opinions were held about her appearance, there was no doubt that she was an impressive ship. A regular passer by was the French liner PASTEUR which had never been in commercial service; and was maintaining the garrisons in the French colonies in the Far East.
The new WILLEM RUYS with her lifeboats stowed well below the upper deck set a fashion that was not to be evident for many years until the advent of ORIANA and CANBERRA. Among the older ships gradually being released from government service were the Orient ORION, ORONTES and OTRANTO and one by one the surviving P & 0 liners shed their war paint. STRATHAIRD made a name for herself in the winter of 48/49 when a howling North West wind tore many ships from their moorings in the harbour of Port Said. Her captain took her to sea without assistance from tugs or pilot while avoiding ships not under command in the harbour and countering the massive effect of leeway in the narrow fairway. Many famous liners were still engaged in trooping, some were destined never to return to their scheduled routes. The Cunarders FRANCONIA, SCYTHIA, SAMARIA and ASCANIA had all been released by the end of the forties but the rebuilt GEORGIC and the Anchor Line CAMERONIA were to end their days carrying migrants to the Antipodes, as were the Shaw Savill 'Bays' and Royal Mail ASTURIAS, A number of German. Passenger ships came under the M.O.T. and were manned and run by British companies, having been given 'Empire' names. The oddest of all the migrant ships was HELLENIC PRINCE. She had been built as H.M.A.S. ALBATROSS in Australia as a seaplane carrier in the twenties, was transferred to the Royal Navy just prior to the war as a repair ship and finally converted to carry passengers. With her funnel well aft of midships she must have been the first 'liner' to have her engines so far aft.
The procession of tankers to and from the Gulf grew in numbers and size, the most notable being the stark new Ludwig ships with the minimum of deck fittings, spartan accommodation block and ridiculous upright stove pipe funnels.
Liberty, Fort and Empire ships began appearing in familiar company liveries and were soon joined by an array of fine fast cargo 1iners BENS, CITIES, PORTS, BROCKLEBANK, SHAW SAVILL, B.I., HOLTS and GLENS. Almost indistinguishable from them in appearance were the modern British tramp ships.
Southbound ships entered the canal during the morning and late evening while the northbound convoy left Suez in the early morning to reach Port Said in the evening. The normal transit time was twelve hours which invariably included some time at anchor in the Bitter Lakes or made fast in the El Ballah by-pass. These times varied considerably in winter when strong winds caused delays or on the rare occasion when a ship grounded or broke down.
The first of the autumn gales delayed our arrival at Famagusta by four hours after a very uncomfortable passage. Fewer service men and women were taking leave, so from mid October to early December we made only five voyages. We made up for this when the first snow of the winter fell on the Troodos mountains and encouraged the winter sports devotees to take leave in Cyprus, creating the need to make seven successive voyages with no more than a few hours in port at each end.
Following a break at Christmas we expected to resume the sailings to Cyprus early in the new year. We scorned waterfront rumours voiced by our crew who insisted that the ship would sail for Transjordan. We should have known better, there was a school of thought claiming that the chandlers, providores, bumboatmen and even the gully-gully men were arbiters in the matter of strategic and tactical policy, to say nothing of the decisions they made on behalf on the directors and personnel managers of shipping companies!
Thus it was on the morning of 4th January as we prepared for the embarkation of passengers for Cyprus, we were boarded by a Sea Transport Officer bearing orders to be under way with all dispatch to join the Southbound canal convoy. Within fifteen minutes a barge with the statutory canal searchlight was under our bow, the light was secured and engines were on stand by. Anchors were soon aweigh and we set off at the tail end of the convoy bound for Suez, pursued in vain by a landing craft full of soldiers looking forward to a skiing holiday in the Olympic Mountains. It was obvious that we were to undertake a mission so secret that the Navy had not even let the army know about it!
The winter chill from the desert had made it's presence felt by the small hours when we anchored in the roads at Suez and we had all searched for long unused gloves, jerseys and duffel coats. During the forenoon a bunkering vessel came alongside and when our tanks were full we moved to the military harbour at Adabiyah beneath the bare escarpment of Gebel Ataqa. Three Tank Landing Ships REGINALD KERR, FREDERICK CLOVER and HUMPHREY GALE; flying the defaced blue ensign of the R.A.S.C. were already alongside and loading tanks, military stores and equipment.
Frederick Glover loading at Adabiya 6th Jan 1949
All these vessels were to form a force to occupy Aqaba at the invitation of the Transjordan government to deter an Israeli force reported to be advancing in the direction of the port, with the presumed intention of severing communications between Egypt and the rest of the Arab world while at the same time depriving Transjordan of it's only outlet to the sea. Since Israeli aircraft were expected to be operating in the area we were to sail in convoy.
We spent a quiet night alongside but activity accelerated after sunrise. During the forenoon we embarked the H.Q. Staff and a number of officers and senior N.C.O.s of The Loyals and left the wharf for the anchorage. As the sun went down and a mist enveloped the hollows of the Ataqa escarpment H.M.S.VERULAM signalled us to weigh and follow in her wake and as we passed the Newport Rock light the three L.S.T.s fell in astern of us. During the eight to twelve watch the convoy moved slowly southward, keeping to the eastward side of the Gulf of Suez; the mountains to the west misty in the light of the waxing moon.
When I went on watch at eight in the morning of 7 January the sea was calm and the sky cloudless, the conical peak of Gebel Gharib stood clear to starboard, an Anchor Liner and B.T. Tanker were passing on their way north and our convoy maintained station in line ahead. During the forenoon army personnel were assembled on deck to be briefed on the intentions for the following day. Before noon VERULAM instructed us to take guide of the convoy while she became free to undertake an escort role where the Gulf of Suez widened south of the Gubal Strait and Ashrafi Reef. Off Shadwan Island we were ordered to break convoy and make best speed towards Tiran Island and negotiate the Tiran Strait during daylight. EMPIRE COMFORT was the only ship in the force without radar and it was deemed wise to pass between the unlit reefs before nightfall. We entered the Gulf of Aqaba in the pearly light of dusk and marked time until the remainder of the force; now joined by two slower L.C.T.s which had sailed in advance of the convoy; had passed through the Enterprise Channel. The force re-formed in line ahead with all ships darkened apart from dimmed steaming lights. The sky was clear and the moon sufficiently bright to pose no problems in maintaining station. Not a light was to be seen among the precipitous mountains on either hand of the narrow gulf, those of the Sinai peninsula to port were bathed in the light while the rugged peaks of the Hejaz were starkly silhouetted to starboard.
Reginald Kerr approaching the beach, Aqaba
On the approach to Aqaba early on Saturday morning; a bitter North wind whipping the flags, the force was joined by H.M.S. CHILDERS and as the ships dispersed to allotted anchorages the two destroyers circled with all guns manned. The radio was informing the world that five R.A.F. reconnaissance aircraft had been shot down by Israeli fire the previous day, so nothing was being left to chance. An aircraft came out of the North, passed over us, circled and came in low to land. A signal from CHILDERS told the force that General Glubb had arrived to meet the soldiers who were to support his Arab Legion.
Viewed from the anchorage Aqaba appeared to be little more than a few scattered single storey buildings dispersed on the sandy slopes of the foreshore, a fringe of palms and a 'Beau Geste' fort. To the East and West, walls of gaunt mountains rose, the only lowland was the narrow rock strewn desert forming the Wadi Aqaba and the land link.
Our motor launch was lowered, filled with soldiers and set off for the small quay in charge of the Second Officer. HUMPHREY GALE had beached and was discharging vehicles. By mid-morning when I took the second boatload ashore REGINALD KERR was making her way to the beach alongside her sister. Soldiers, stores and vehicles were mustering on the quayside and moving inland. General Glubb and his staff were conferring with senior officers of the force while detachments of the Arab Legion looked on and saluted all and sundry with military precision.
Landing the Troops at Aqaba
By noon we had the ship to ourselves and after lunch a group of ship's officers went ashore to stretch our legs. There was much activity in the vicinity of the quay and adjacent beach, tents were being pitched, transport and weapons readied as the army dug in. Only a few minutes brisk walk away from the shore the atmosphere changed and became timeless, the local population among the flat roofed, sand coloured houses seemed to regard the influx with the dignified imperturbability attributed to Orientals. Their attitude contrasted vividly with that of two American officers wearing armbands defining their status as representatives of the United Nations. They paced restlessly outside a building only a little bigger than the other houses but dignified by the title of 'The Aqaba Hotel' and a makeshift flagstaff from which a small U.N. flag fluttered forlornly. One of the officers greeted us as unwelcome guests and forcefully stated that he didn't like the situation and that he couldn't do anything other than report the event to his superiors, he was absolutely right: the British garrison was present without authority from the United Nations but had the Israeli army advanced unchallenged on Aqaba the United Nations would have faced a more explosive fait accompli.
When we returned on board the town and bay were in shadow, the higher mountains tinged with pink by the setting sun. An L.C.T. nosed into the beach. The breeze was chill, flickering lights appeared and all seemed quiet. An hour later we weighed and set off down the Gulf.
Reaching Suez at dawn two days later we anchored, promptly embarked another load of soldiers and set off once more for Aqaba. We were met inside the Enterprise Channel by CHILDERS to escort us. A strong cold wind funnelled between the high mountains and raised a steep sea which eased as the day progressed, falling calm as the anchor was let go off Aqaba. An L.C.T. came alongside to convey the soldiers ashore and the rigours of life in the tented village that had been erected since our last visit. As the ship sailed from Aqaba for the last time a signal informed us that the ship was to drydock when she reached Suez.
Reaching Suez we were ordered alongside at Port Tewfik to wait until the drydock became available. This resulted in an idle ten days during which shoregoing was limited by a general lack of interest. Though charming in it's way, Tewfik was little more than a village street and the town of Suez; two miles away, seemed to be a settlement of dull tenements suffused with the stench of oil from the nearby refinery.
February was half over before EMPIRE COMFORT returned to Famagusta. Winter weather; there had been a couple of vicious gales in our absence, may have deterred service personnel from taking leave by sea. Our departures from Port Said were erratic and we rarely carried the full complement. In the middle of March a hundred and twenty African soldiers embarked for Tobruk. It was only a few weeks since they had first set eyes on the sea and set off on a calm voyage from Mombassa to Suez. EMPIRE COMFORT administered a rude shock, the weather was appalling, the ship rolled, pitched and corkscrewed violently, hanging on the crest of a wave before plunging headlong and rising with a lurch into the next. Taking a course to ease the motion had little effect other than giving us the opportunity to gain a terrestrial fix off the coast of Crete. The passage, which should have been no longer than thirty six hours extended to three days. During that time no African stirred from the troop decks or took so much as a mouthful of food.
The arrival of Spring regular sailings were resumed with an occasional extra sailing at a weekend with a quick turn round to enable maintenance of the scheduled departures. Summer voyaging was idyllic with fine calm weather, the Lotus eating delights of Cyprus at one end and the pleasures of sailing and a full social calendar each weekend at Port Said.
September arrived with the prospect of six consecutive voyages to Tobruk and it was on one of these that a signal brought news that a Third Officer was on his way out to relieve me. I signed off the ship at the end of the month and watched her sail away on another passage to Tobruk. I had been twenty months in her, had made 49 voyages to Famagusta and 8 to Tobruk, enjoyed life in a small and handy ship, experienced fear and exhilaration in equal measure and relished many opportunities that rarely came within the scope of an officer in the Merchant Navy.
The only available passage home was as one of twelve passengers in J&C Harrison's HARPALYCUS; a handsome tramp ship built in the thirties. She was at the end of a long voyage home from Darien and it was obvious that her good looks belied her dismal lack of speed; it took fourteen days to reach Liverpool. A sea kindly ship, she was comfortable and well appointed. One evening while off the south coast of Spain HIMALAYA; a few days out on her maiden voyage, swept past at a lordly twenty one knots, magnificently aglow with lights. It was a sight to fire ambition and set a target for the future!
Copyright : Captain J.L.Chapman
Bellever, Casterills Rd., Helston TR13 8BJ
By Joe Chapman
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would like to know if Joseph Haughton who sailed from Port Said in July 1948 to UK was on list of passengers, and if so what was his work at that time?
He had served in RAF between 1937 and 1946 in Middle and Far East.
All information appreciated.
John , dad also served on HMS Childers, and i belong to exmilitarymates site if you with to find me.
Served in HMSMAGPIE 1949-1952.
Three Patrols to AQABA a beautiful place then now a garbage dump.
Issued with a Seine Net To entertain
ourselves during three week patrols.
Escorting an LST Through Enterprise
Channell it gotHAIRY! EGYPTIAN ARMY had a Field gun battery ranged on the Port Bank This is going to be anotherAMERTHIST, after all MAGPIE was a sister ship same as her in theYANGTSE
THIS was POINT BLANK RANGE we CLOSED UP
at ACTION STATIONS behind the gun shields, one up the breach waiting.
The Catain HARPER gave a running comantary "The Oficer cannding the battery is on dias loud speaker to his lips "Good morning Mapie PLEASANT VOUarge" That was it we Carried onto
AQUABA,Met KING ABDULLA fired a 4 inch
gun for him put him ashore in the afternoon anchored off shore had a two day sand storm caught 27ft plus Shark
Happy Days! JIM
My late father (Fred Costin) served on HMS Childers and spoke a little of what he called 'the Haifa Patrol'I am not sure what the role of Childers was,any information information on this or indeed anything relating to HMS Childers would be appreciated.
Now I know why my Late Father-in-law Brian Selwood(Engineer aboard the FREDERICK CLOVER) was in That part of the world. This article will give his son some information about his father he didn't know about.
I am looking for anyone that knew Brian and his wife Gertrude please if you do check on www.missing-you.net for posts for selwood.
An interesting article. I was only a smallboy of 4 at the time but we were living in Famagusta - Port Said - Ismalia - Cairo 1947-1948. Needless to say the Empire Comfort is stuck in my memory.
The smell of the fuel!
The noise of the refuelling at Port Said which seemed to go on forever.
I remember that we were late getting to the ship which had waited for us.
Also I remember that there had been a bug on the ship and all the washing that was every where. Mother refused to get on until it was clean!
I also remember a trip that got a bit rough. Mother ended up under (I think) morphia for sea sickness in the sick bay. I did not see her for about 3 days, and I was left in the charge of the ships officers who kept me down stairs and seemed to feed me scrambled egg the whole time. I did get loose once and a ships officer pulled me back from the unrailed part of the ship while watching the sea. I was not left alone from that time. The ship did seem to wallow a bit but small boys no not seem to mind. There was tell of a lot of sea sickness on board.
I have never heard tell of the times or the Empire Comfort until I read your article. Of course the Empress of Australia is also mixed up in the story what with changing ship in the middle of the sea. The narrow gang planks and the small launches going between the ships. All before the days of risk assessments. The Empress was a much better ship. It even had a shop with some toys. I was bought a wind up dust card. It's first trip on the deck ended up in the Med.
Some of the ships had long steel girders welded on to them at right angles and a wire streached along the ends to ward off mines that were still a concern on the ships.
I also remember the DDT! The cardboard monkey and parrot that were covered in the stuff which you could hang up in the rooms. Also having the powder put down your clothes, and then the Flit guns! It is interesting that there is not much written about that part of history. It left an impression on me.
The most powerful memories though were the smells.
My father served on HMS Childers, and talked alot about his time on board this destroyer.
haltedpresidentwarfeild at sea