On a damp and grey day in November 1943, No. 5 Army Commando and 44 Royal Marine Commando embarked on HMT Reina Del Pacifico at Liverpool Docks. Rumour was rife about their intended destination and even though they had been issued with tropical kit and bush hats (surely just a ploy to fool the enemy) they passed the time speculating on the different possibilities:
“Italy for sure. Just look at Salerno. Bags of room for another Commando there – probably more than one.”
“Look at Burma. No commandos there yet. Just our bloody luck: leeches and cannibals.”
“Look at Australia. Sydney…”
“Coo, know a girl from there too. Real smasher.” *
After two days docked at Liverpool, the ship sailed north to Gourock on the Clyde. With a backdrop of the snow-capped Greenock hills they joined the other ships that were to form their convoy including the Ranchi, carrying No. 1 and 42 RM Commandos.
In the frosty dawn light of the 15th of November, the Reina Del Pacifico eased herself down the Forth until she reached open sea and then began the long journey to carry her charges to active service overseas.
Conditions on board the ship were fairly grim for the men; their quarters were cramped and claustrophobic and reeked of sweat and seasickness. In some areas the bunks were stacked eight high in the gangways. The officers had much more favourable sleeping arrangements and were allocated to one of the cabins sleeping a maximum of three. They also had access to what had been the First Class areas of the former passenger liner with its Moorish-influenced wood panelling, elaborately carved with cornucopias; schools of fantastical sea creatures; grape-laden vines; and frolicking plump cherubs.
During the evening of the 24th of November, the convoy passed within five miles of the Moroccan coast and everyone gazed in wonder at the lights of Tangier blazing in the distance. Britain had been subjected to night-time blackouts for the past four years but as a neutral country, Spanish Morocco could safely shine. Someone started singing Till the lights of London shine again and the sole voice was gradually joined by others. The men’s thoughts turned to home and whether they would ever see their loved ones again.
Two days later, as the convoy cruised along the Algerian coast, the relative tranquillity and monotony was shattered. Just after four o’clock in the afternoon, the hum of approaching planes began to drown out the sound of a choir practising Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring ready for the Sunday service. Those who had been strolling on the decks paused and peered up at the sky; those who had been reading closed their books and joined them; a member of the ship’s crew who had been doing a roaring trade as a barber threw down his scissors and sprinted towards the nearest gun. As the hum grew louder, a formation of more than a dozen German Heinkel planes could be seen heading in the direction of the convoy. As the order was given for the top decks to be cleared, there was suddenly an explosion of noise as the booming anti-aircraft guns began to blast skywards. RAF and USAF aircraft streaked across the skies, hot on the trail of the Luftwaffe planes.
There were plenty of near misses with great plumes of water rising around the Reina Del Pacifico, as bombs and damaged aircraft plummeted exploding into the sea around them but eventually the ‘all clear’ sounded and with the Luftwaffe finally despatched, Reina Del Pacifico and the rest of the convoy limped on.
Issue 9 of the Third Jungle Book is available to read in full on the Commando Veterans’ Association website
Liverpool’s Cornmarket pub website