Jim maintains that the heroic catch-phrase that men joined up for God, for King and country was all bull-s..t; they joined up purely for the adventure.
The Master of the ship, Captain John Lewis from Wolverhampton, England, was thoroughly respected by the British officers and crew. He was very fair-minded and would listen to both sides of a story, should any issues arise. One order which crew members always obeyed was to wear life jackets when on deck.
The Merchant Navy ships were of great importance to the Allies, sailing through dangerous enemy waters, loading and unloading much-needed provisions from ports world-wide. The cargo would mainly consist of rations, radio parts, ammunition and drums of high-octane petrol for the Royal Air Force, to name a few.
On 9 July 1943, a convoy comprising the MV Port Fairy, HMS troopships Duchess of York and California with HMS escorts Iroquois, Douglas and Moyla, sailed for Freetown, Sierra Leone. Two days later, near the Bay of Biscay, there was a sustained attack by three German Focke-Wulf aircraft.
The bombing left both troopships blazing. Ropes from the MV Port Fairy were thrown overboard in the hope of rescuing some survivors. The damaged vessels were torpedoed by the escort ships in the hope that the blaze would discourage further attention from the U-boats.
Jim commented that the Luftwaffe pilots were masters of their trade. It was reported that more than 100 of the seamen were killed.
The MV Port Fairy was lucky to be left unscathed, but only for a further day, when it was damaged in a second attack. The HMS Swale, a frigate returning from Gibraltar, became the escort vessel as the MV Port Fairy made her way to Casablanca, but this was not to be smooth sailing. The two ships were attacked and the MV Port Fairy was hit on the port quarter by a 50kg bomb which breached the hull and disabled her steering. Jim, who was both the refrigeration engineer and fireman, was now really amongst the action. Ammunition in cargo spaces was jettisoned and compartments flooded. The crew set up a bucket chain to douse the fire.
Many cabins had been destroyed and when it was safe for Jim to return to his cabin, another surprise awaited him. There he found a sailor on his bunk that had spotted the bottle of whisky Jim had bought for his dad. His words to Jim were “Come on Kiwi, open the bottle because we won’t be here tomorrow!” Obviously they were still there “tomorrow” and Jim’s dad missed out.
The MV Port Fairy, with only partial steering, was able to limp in to Casablanca, now under American control. It was first estimated the ship would be ready for sailing in three weeks but it was actually three months to the day.
One evening Jim and some of his mates, returning to base, missed the curfew, which according to Jim was ridiculously early – something like 9.30 or 10pm. This meant an appearance before the Officer-in-Charge and a reprimand. Jim thought it was all a bit of a joke until he was confronted by the officer whipping out a gun from his holster and slamming it on the desk, remarking “You beat this and you beat me.”
The MV Port Fairy was still in port on Bastille Day. Unbeknown to all other crews, apart from those of the French and the United States navies, permission had been