Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Short Story re Sicily, The Long Way 'Round 1

Aboard the S.S. Silver Walnut, Part 1

The S.S. Silver Walnut, initially labelled 'a dud' by D. Harrison

[This is an account of a voyage Leading Seaman Doug Harrison (RCNVR, Combined Operations) took aboard a merchant ship, S.S. Silver Walnut, from Wallasey and Liverpool to Port Said (sigh-eed) in the Gulf of Aden in spring and summer of 1943 on the way to the invasion of Sicily by the fighting 80th and 81st LCM.]

Voyage to Sicily Begins

At about the same time our small convoy entered the green waters of the Irish Sea, other convoys were leaving other British ports carrying more Canadian sailors and their landing craft as well, for a destination known only to a few. Our escort ships appeared far too small and far too few, but the supply of war ships was stretched to the breaking point at this time in the war, April 1943. We headed south on a murky day on a quiet sea.


The Canadian S/Lt aboard called us all together in the waist of the ship to lay down the routine and laws for the journey. We had been through all this before, but a reminder did no harm: cover all portholes at night; we could sleep on deck if weather permitted, but we were to wear life belts or have them securely fastened to one arm; a lighted cigarette can be seen over a long distance by a surfaced sub-marine at night, so if you value your life and that of your comrades and ship, don’t smoke on deck at night; any garbage was to be tossed over the stern at night.

The officer went on to say that in the event we were torpedoed, the lifeboats were designated for the crew; our hopes were in the Carley floats. We all knew how to cut the lines that let the floats slip over the side, praying at the same time we would never have to use them.

The Walnut chugged along, past Lands End and the seaward edge of the Bay of Biscay, which was a very dangerous zone because of German submarines. If we made it through this area there were great hopes of making it all the way. Perhaps out of fear the Walnut’s engines purred along at about ten knots (one knot equals roughly one and one-fifth mile per hour). Our course now took us reasonably close to the Spanish coast and at Opporto in Portugal the huge white lighthouse warning of a rocky shore could be clearly seen. Far off Gibraltar, the British bastion, we passed through the inky blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea as they joined the battle with the green waters of the Atlantic Ocean, which ruled in the end.

"A swastika, symbol of a German submarine destroyed, is painted on the
funnel of a Royal Canadian Navy ship - but top billing goes to a maple leaf.
Canadian warships flew the White Ensign used in the Royal navy and could be
mistaken for British ships until the maple leaf marking was adopted."
Photo w caption - The Canadians at War, 1939/45, Reader's Digest

Although we Canadian sailors scraped and painted large maple leaves on landing craft aboard ship, we also became voluntary lookouts. No one was relaxing his guard, as we hoped soon to enter less dangerous waters off West Africa. The purser must have received a bargain on flour because we had a steady diet of pancakes and treacle for breakfast. It was beastly hot and as we worked on our landing craft our white navy middies turned to a yellow colour.

I spent as much time as I could on the gun platform on the stern which was in the charge of a man and his son about 16 years of age. The Walnut didn’t travel fast enough to stir up much of a breeze, but the gun platform offered a little movement of air plus clear vision for many miles. The Chinese crew went about their daily business thinly clad and with an old oily cloth sticking out of the back pocket of their slouchy pants. They had seen many ports and the Walnut was their home, and they showed it as they caressed here and there with their oily rags. What could shine, did shine.

Engine Troubles Start

Quite possibly there was the odd submarine when the Walnut started her antics off the African coast. The first hint of trouble was when she slowed down, and a more severe hint was when the Captain ordered the engineers below in the deplorable heat to make repairs. About 15 minutes was all the men could stand, and then the Captain, in no uncertain terms sent more men below; meanwhile the convoy was stopped, the escorts were circling, and all eyes were on the Walnut. Minutes became hours; we allsuddenly became quiet, our stomachs churned, and we doubled up on our lookout stations. After what seemed eternity, temporary repairs were made and we slowly came back to speed. I longed for a drink of cool water, free of the taste of oil and rust, and oh, for a nice juicy apple, or any fruit.

The ship stopped several times for short periods, which made us all sitting ducks. The Commodore in charge of the escort became exasperated and sent signal flags to the Halyards. “Look, the old man’s got his washing out again.” He told us we were placing everybody’s life in jeopardy. “Hurry up or we leave you to sink or swim.” The engineers, some nearly overcome with the heat, worked feverishly to get us underway again; they knew only too well the dangers of working in the engine room of a dead ship if a submarine was lurking in the area. The Captain continued to harass the already weary men and their efforts prevailed; in due time the Walnut dragged herself and convoy into the outer harbour of Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. I remember it was early evening.

Fishing in Freetown

The anchors were no sooner dropped than the engine room crew went to work and the Canadian sailors stood about as the boat crew baited hand lines and dropped them over the side to fish. In a short time the fish were being hauled in hand over hand. I have never seen fish like those; they resembled lake bass but were every colour of the rainbow. By the dozens they flopped on the hot deck and as they did so, their lives ebbed quickly away as did their colours. I think these fish were called Bream, but I may be wrong. The snake-like fish which hung around the stern were called Tunnel fish. As suddenly as the fish had started to bite they quit, it was all over in 20 minutes, but the crew had a good supply. These men had been here before and they chattered excitedly as they pulled in their catch. It was a nice diversion for us Canadians who watched, as well.

Diving For Pennies

Early in the morning of the first day of our five-day stopover in Freetown, South Africa, a few of us Canadian sailors were leaning on the rail of the ship when we were surprised to see a canoe coming toward us, paddled by a black man who was doing a good job of singing the Lambeth Walk, a war time song. We were happy to hear the song being sung in our language. The man threw a line up which we tied to the rail and then began a conversation with him. He said his name was Charlie and that he liked to dive for pennies but not too many at a time, please. But three would be nice.

We started pitching the big English pennies into the water, and Charlie dove and retrieved them and returned to his canoe in a short time. This went on for a short time until I asked him, “Can you get us some fruit?” He replied that he would send his friends out with some. We were really in business.

We Were Beaten at Barter, But Oh, the Fruit!

Shortly after Charlie left two or three canoes arrived, piled high with wicker ware and fruit. We tied them aboard and started to barter for fruit - we were not interested in wicker. Soon we were passing down clothing, tobacco, navy dirks (large jack knives with many fixtures), and anything we could get our hands on in exchange for mangoes and limes.

Heaven was never like this. By the time the convoy departed our kit bags had shrunk considerably. We were novices and they were hard bargainers and very likable chaps. But oh, the fruit was wonderful. These black men were expert canoe men. The blades of their paddles caught my eye; they were absolutely round.

All too soon the bartering ended and as the convoy escort ships passed by we gave them a big wave. Soon the capstans on the Silver Walnut went to work. The anchors came in and the convoy moved again out into the Atlantic. Hopefully the engines, shafts or whatever had caused the problem were remedied.

Tropical Night Romance

We encountered moonlit nights in which the silhouettes of our sister ships could be seen travelling across the shiny moonbeams on the ocean’s surface. It was peaceful, beautiful, a strangely quiet but dangerous sight. The only sounds were the wash from the propellor and the sound of steam from the small stack, probably a relief valve. The escaping steam sounded like a man trying to conceal a bad cough.

In wartime all sailors feared a bright moon and coal-fired ships that gave off puffs of black smoke as the furnaces were fired. The smoke seemed to hang in the sky for an eternity for everybody to see. There were times when the nerves were rubbed raw. Since we still had a full complement of escort ships there must have been some danger about.

Sidling Past Neptune and His Servants

As we steamed in the heat we crossed the equator which is usually a time for a traditional ceremony. A sailor is seated upon a throne of sorts with a crown, robe and a sword of sorts with which he dubs a fellow seaman who is, therefore, knighted for having sailed across the equator. We dispensed with the ceremony, not being familiar with the tradition.

"Chuck Levett, member of RCNVR, Combined Ops and 55th Flotilla,
received this authentic certificate for crossing the equator on April 25, 1943"
Courtesy of his widow, Dot Levett, 2012

The voyage became interesting as we came upon a huge school of porpoise. There were acres of the large fish swimming through the convoy, their backs appearing and disappearing. As they came to the side of our ship they dived beneath, scraped the sea lice off their backs on the barnacles and moved on.

The above story also appears in "DAD, WELL DONE" (Amazon.com, pages 58 - 68) and in St. Nazaire to Singapore: The Canadian Amphibious War 1941 - 1945, Volume 1 (pages 160 - 166).

One can read Chapter 7: Sicily and Italy, part of L/S Coxswain Doug Harrison's memoirs for details concerning his time (27 days) serving Combined Operations in Sicily.

Please link to Short Story re Invasions of Sicily and Italy

Unattributed Photos by GH


  1. My father sailed on the Silver Walnut. William Freeth, or Bill as he was known.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mr. Freeth. I would be happy to learn more details re your father's role on the Walnut. Was Bill a longterm crew member? My father's assessment ("It was a real dud") may have angered Bill but Dad changed his tune by the time he arrived at his destination. I also have a little more information re the Walnut to pass along, if you are interested. gordh7700@gmail.com or gharrison18@rogers.com