The middle of the pack
Panos George Livery recounts his shaky experiences on board the Shropshire in his memoirs from the early 1900’s
In late 1923, three-month old Panos Livery, along with his parents George and Evangelia and two year old brother Con, migrated to Australia from Castellorizo. The family settled in Ingham, North Queensland, along with many other Greek and Castellorizian families.
In 1942 Panos enlisted for the Royal Australian Navy. His first appointment was HMAS Canberra. On the night of August 9 1942, during the Battle of Savo Island in the Pacific Ocean, Panos survived the sinking of the Canberra. He returned home for a week's survivor leave.
The Australian Government was then offered HMS Shropshire as a replacement for the Canberra. Panos' next appointment was to the London Depot as a member of several Australian drafts, sent over to collect and crew the Shropshire.
This story relates to part of this journey, the trip across the Atlantic to Britain. Panos wrote his memoirs in the early 1990s. He died in 1996. The story has been submitted by his daughter, Florence Livery.
The Middle of the Pack by Panos George Livery
It was March 11, 1943. We pulled away from Pier 44 and steamed down the Hudson River, past the Statue of Liberty, through Lower Bay into the Atlantic Ocean. Whilst in New York, the HMS Wolfe was under very tight security. Guards were everywhere patrolling the wharf and on board the ship, so I imagined that for a ship to have such secrecy and security it must have been carrying something special in the way of cargo.
Only those with special passes were allowed on or near her.
Once into the Atlantic, we took up cruising stations, my station being the lookout on the port side of the bridge. Conditions were freezing, the wind was squalling and I was suitably dressed for the occasion - duffle coat, scarf, balaclava, thick socks and goggles to stop the wind getting into my eyes.
It was starting to get very rough. I could feel my stomach rolling. I had never been in seas as restless as this before but little did I realize that this was the calm before the storm.
As we steamed up the east coast we gradually picked up other ships to form a convoy.
On leaving Canadian waters the convoy consisted of over 110 ships guarded by five corvettes. Being an armed merchant ship, our position was right in the centre of the five mile radius.
The seas became rougher and the wind blew like a gale as we headed north-east. The convoy moved slowly. It could only proceed as fast as the slowest ship and a ship like ours may have been recording ten knots but the stormy waters kept bringing it back two or three knots. At times we were going forwards, backwards, upwards, downwards and sideways. You could not even see the ship next to you, that's how rough the Atlantic was and try sitting down and eating from a plate! Impossible and this went on for a week, day in, day out.
Surrounded by a false sense of security, I initially did not fear the U-boats. We were right in the middle of the pack and the ocean was so rough that I thought they could not possibly line us up. At best, I thought, the stragglers could be knocked off but even then it would be difficult to line up these tardy targets as one minute they were on waves that took them up 50 yards and the next minute they were on waves that took them down 60 yards.
But somehow the U-boats did get amongst us and depleted the convoy. The corvettes worked overtime but the best they could do was to rescue the survivors before the ocean swallowed them up. The corvettes were the only ships that could pick up survivors. No other ship could stop otherwise they would be sitting targets for a torpedo.
At dusk on March 18, in very cold and troubled conditions, the captain advised us that the ship's steering had gone amiss and immediately placed all personnel to action stations, warning that because of the rough seas and lack of steering, to be prepared for anything, even to abandon ship.
The hooter blew constantly as we gradually fell behind the convoy. Soon we were all alone. At least, by now it was night. A corvette came close by, more of a gesture of help as the sea was tossing it about like a tennis ball.
Scared and frightened, we thought that the end was near, especially when waves with such massive force and volume covered the ship. At times the ship was absolutely swamped but miraculously it would come up, again and again. That was the night of nights. No steering, U-boats, weather that was too rough to call stormy and on daybreak the convoy was lost from sight.
But the engineers worked on. By late morning, to our relief, the captain advised us that everything had been repaired and we would hasten to join the convoy. 24 hours later, we had repositioned ourselves as near to the centre as was possible.
By now, we had not slept for 48 hours and had eaten very little, but we did manage a little drop of rum occasionally to settle our nerves. How lucky we were that with no steering we did not ram another ship whilst pulling out of the convoy. How lucky were we that the U-boats did not get us while we were all alone in the rough and stormy ocean. All I can say is that someone upstairs was looking after me!
On nearing Iceland the convoy changed course to east south-east. The five Canadian corvettes were replaced by two British corvettes but the reality of it all was stated by the Pommy sailor on my watch.
"Look chum, every trip you make across the Atlantic is in the laps of the Gods."
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