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 Life on a Whaler during World War 2

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Life on a Whaler during World War 2

Bill Smith's Story

Brought up on the Shetland Isles I was a butcher?s boy but wanted more from life. At 16, in Leith, concealing my age I joined the crew of a Christian Salveson Norwegian whaler. I had a medical, the Doctor was a drunk and did not do it properly, but I was fit anyway. These were desperate days when Britain needed every ounce of whale meat, every drop of whale-oil, for, it was the start of World War 2.

Winston Churchill later wrote that the only thing that really frightened him during the war was the U-boats. After the Battle of Britain, we could not be invaded, but, the U-boats could starve us into surrender. Britain was unprepared for war and merchant ships were defenceless against the U-boats.

The Battle of the Atlantic, which we almost lost, was the most important battle of the European Theatre. Navy escorts were ineffective little sloops which herded us into convoys. Later, the Navy and RAF got the upper hand over the U-boats, but the U-boat commanders said it was ?the Happy Time? when I first went to sea. They sank many of our ships and killed thousands of our merchant seamen. They almost killed me and I am lucky to be alive. 

My bed was a gunny sack I stuffed with straw ? we called it ?The Donkey?s Breakfast? We would sail out of Liverpool, assemble into convoys escorted by the sloops. When in the open sea steamed alone to the Dutch West Indies to refuel and go on to the Antarctic. In Curacao or Aruba we had run-ins with tough Dutch police, but, we were a pretty tough bunch ourselves. We were away for 6 months at a time, and, would sail back via Freetown in Sierra Leone where we refuelled, convoyed and went on to Liverpool. Once, a crew member was swimming round the ship in the warm African sea as another was almost pulled off the side whilst line-fishing. It was a huge shark, the same size as the one in that ridiculous ?Jaws? movie, but a lot meaner and tougher.  We were a hungry crew. The only decent food we seemed to get was whale meat. We hauled the shark on board and it too went to help the war effort! Nothing could be wasted then.

The ship?s winches used to haul whales aboard were bigger than a four-bed-roomed house. The steel cables were two inches thick. The old sweats on the crew kidded me that once I saw the blood and gore of whaling I would not be able to take it. They said a young boy like me would not stand the hard dangerous work, noise, slippery deck and the twelve hour shifts. This rough kidding prepared me for what was to come. I found I could cope with the back-breaking work. I had seen blood and gore in an abattoir and found I could handle that too. If the crew had not given me all that kidding maybe it would have been harder to cope. However, nothing could prepare us for being torpedoed. As we went through the ?roaring forties? I could not believe how high were the waves. These are world?s stormiest seas.

I will go on to tell of the whaling and about being torpedoed. No-one could ever properly describe how tough and terrifying it was to be, but I shall try.

After steaming 10,000 miles we arrived in South Georgia, where Sir Ernest Shackleton fetched up 1916 after his epic journey. Whaling was not for the delicate. ?Catcher? ships harpooned the whales then injected them with compressed air to keep them afloat.

Factory Ships upon which I served would haul them in and process them.  This was called ?flensing? which meant hacking them to pieces.

Many a time we were covered from head to toe with blood, oil, and worse. I once saw a man knocked clean off his feet by a jet of blood that squirted out of a dead whale. Once I felt I was drowning when suddenly drenched in gallons of spermaceti oil from the head of sperm whale. I must say it was a harsh and cruel business. However, back home people were going hungry and the whale oil was used for many vital things. We hunted Fin Whales, Sperm Whales and Blue Whales. Sometimes we used dead whales as fenders between the ships. This meant slinging the whale?s body alongside so as to prevent the ships grinding together in the waves. These would go rotten and stink.

We wore knee high leather boots and, to the top of our thighs we had canvas covers. Work was exhausting and dangerous with continual pressure to cut corners. I saw broken limbs, knocked out teeth, and men knocked unconscious. I still have a scar where a broken harpoon piece tore a huge gash in my wrist when I held down the whale whilst a Norwegian cut into it with a razor sharp flensing knife shaped like a big hockey stick.

The skin was about ⅝ inch thick and below was a six inch layer of blubber. The blubber was rendered down in ?kettles? and the fleet stunk to high heaven. The bones were cut to pieces with a huge axe.

Sometimes whilst the whale was hauled up with the winch the cutters dug in the flensing knife. This was fast but dangerous. One slip and that knife would have gone right through the person holding it. Injured men were shoved to one side to be treated. One man with both legs broken was immediately rushed to hospital in the Falkland Islands in a catcher across the roughest sea in the world.

Anyone who did not work at breakneck speed was cursed and harassed. People could become lonely and depressed. There was no time to listen to anyone?s problems. A Norwegian nicknamed ?Smiler? was found dead having killed himself because his wife had been collaborating with the Germans who occupied his country.

When not working we were dog-tired and ravenous. We ate the tough whale meat, but it was high in protein and very nourishing. I had a box brownie camera and when the weather was too rough for whaling I jammed myself between a ventilator and a hatch and photographed the catcher-ships. When developed these showed the unbelievable angles to which the ships were taken by the waves. Someone stole those photographs.

On the home stretch visits to Freetown and Liverpool helped us forget our harsh lives. However, in Liverpool the bombing was so bad we thought we were safer at sea. This was quite wrong as I shall describe.

On one trip we were just off the Mull of Kintyre heading out to go whaling. It had just got dark, I was below. There was a huge bang and the alarm bells sounded. A nimble 17 year-old, I vaulted over my bunk and belted up to the deck. The companion ways were full of panicking men. As I opened the hatch door the internal lights automatically switched off leaving me blinded in the darkness. I stumbled along the deck luckily remembering to duck low beneath a lifeboat. The bang was from another torpedoed ship and I saw it burning.

Even today I can still see the vivid colours of a sudden explosion close to me. A giant hand seemed to lift me in the air. I slammed into the funnel as the ship listed.  I got to the side, but did not jump because the kapok lifejacket could have broken my neck as I hit the water. A voice shouted ?Get in there?s only three of us?. I stepped into thin air over the side because their lifeboat swung suddenly swung away, someone grabbed me by my hair and hauled me in and I tumbled to the bottom. A maddened crewman lunged at me and I shoved him off. Only one davit was manned so the boat tilted, luckily someone manned the other but we splashed in stern first and scooped up gallons of water.

My face was smashed by the swinging lifeboat and bled. Someone took charge and told me to man the bow as he rowed to the side. He bawled that if I must obey when ordered to push off. Scores of crew scrabbled down the rope ladder and tumbled aboard. We became overloaded and I pushed off as ordered and cursed by those we had to leave. We rowed away and took the steering oar from a Norwegian who had gone mad. We wrapped the swimmers? arms into our boat ratlines. One man seemed to sit on the surface, but was actually perched on the bow of an upended lifeboat. We approached a ship, but it broke in two and we rowed away to avoid the suction. A U-boat watched us so it could sink any ship that stopped to help, but, after an hour the ?SS Industrious? saved us. They dare not stop, but threw down a rope and dragged us. Cautiously, I waited till last in case our rescuers were torpedoed. The crew calmly tended the scores of survivors on deck. A man screamed in agony, somehow his false teeth were jammed right down his throat. A crewman reached in and yanked them out. This was not funny like it sounds. I huddled on the deck and when it was light we arrived in Larne. Miraculously only one crewman died.

We were hurried along as other survivors were coming along. On a railway station bench I slept and an Irish girl woke me saying ?look, he?s just a lad?. On the train I came across a friend with terrible bruises who did not want to make a fuss so, I got him to hospital. Ferried to Liverpool and trained to Edinburgh we were put in a hotel.  Only 24 hours ago I had been in my cabin, and, we had not eaten. I was the only English speaker in my group. The receptionist gave me a pack of Capstan and the Norwegians shouted for cigarettes.

I was home for four weeks then re-called. I continued whaling for the rest of the war and will not forget my crewmates and the brave men of SS Industrious.

 

 
 

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