Destination Unknown – Part II

After a Luftwaffe attack on their convoy off the Algerian coast, No. 5 Commando’s journey towards active service overseas continued. Bren guns were mounted on the deck of the Reina Del Pacifico and manned during daylight hours and for the next couple of days everyone anxiously scanned the skies. Over on the Ranchi, Bill Stoneman of 42 Royal Marine Commando noticed that the sharks seemed to have singled out their ship and had been following them day and night – a portent of things to come.

Ranchi
Picture courtesy of http://www.photoship.co.uk/

A few days later, just after teatime on the 30th of November 1943, everyone was settling down to their books, letter-writing and card games, when an enemy aircraft warning was given and another formation of German bombers made their way towards the convoy. The decks were evacuated and the men gathered at their mess tables down in the Reina Del Pacifico’s hull, listening to a commentary of the unfolding events given over the ship’s loudspeakers.

Once again the Reina Del Pacifico made it through the experience unscathed but over on the Ranchi they were not quite so lucky. A bomb hit the ship’s forecastle, penetrated the deck and then exited through the vessel’s other side before exploding in the water. Amazingly only one man was killed as the flying debris caused by the bomb scattered inside the ship.

Once the Luftwaffe had been seen off again and the threat was over, all the ships in the convoy lowered their flags to half-mast and the Ranchi’s casualty was buried at sea, his white shrouded figure slipping beneath the waves. The sharks’ escort of the ship came to an end.

The Ranchi, carrying the 3rd Commando Brigade’s HQ together with No. 1 and 42 RM Commandos, was diverted towards Alexandria for repairs while the rest of the convoy continued on their way.

Featured
42 Commando at the United Services Club in Alexandria on Christmas Eve 1943

As the Reina Del Pacifico sailed into hotter climates, the men were ordered to wear their khaki drill uniforms in an effort to get them used to the high temperatures they would soon be facing. Some of them relished the heat though and soaked up the sun on the decks whenever possible, their skins turning pink then red and finally brown.

The convoy passed through the Suez Canal – one of the first to do so for more than two years – and then the Reina Del Pacifico dropped anchor at Aden where she remained for five days. A request by the Commanding Officer for the commandos to go ashore was rejected on security grounds and so they were confined to ship in furnace-like temperatures; only the sick were allowed onshore for medical treatment. An RAF band was, however, permitted to go on board to provide music for an all-ranks dance out on deck and the comparatively small numbers of Wrens and nurses on the Reina Del Pacifico were very much in demand.

Early in the morning of the 13th of December they were underway again, part of a new convoy sailing for India. The sea breezes were a welcome relief after the Aden heat.

On the 18th of December 1943, No. 5 and 44 RM Commandos began to make preparations for disembarkation and on the following day they docked in Bombay. Confined to ship once again, they were unimpressed with the view and decided that the ‘Gateway of India’ definitely looked better on a cinema screen.

gateway_india
Postcard bought by Allan Gent in Bombay. Picture courtesy of his son, Andrew.

At eight o’clock on the morning of the 20th, they finally disembarked and headed towards Bombay railway station to begin another journey to another unknown destination although this one would last for only 10 hours rather than the 38 days they had spent at sea.

Further information

From Mitcham Road to Mandalay: the memoirs of Bill Stoneman of 42 RM Commando Click here

Details and photographs from the WW2 RAF career of Allan Gent Click here

Pictures, photos, postcards, images and painting of old ships and harbours plus other historical maritime pictures http://www.photoship.co.uk/

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