Operation TORCH and Life Aboard Reina Del Pacifico
By Doug Harrison, RCNVR and Combined Operations
Operation TORCH: American troops land at Arzeu, near Oran, Nov., 1942
Photo credit - Imperial War Museum (IWM)
Reina Del Pacifico Served Well in War Years
[This newspaper column was first published in The Norwich Gazette, circa 1992]
This is the story of a large passenger liner converted to a troop ship called the Reina Del Pacifico which carried 200 Canadian sailors and other personnel back to Liverpool, England after the invasion of North Africa, which started November 8th, 1942.
Approximately Nov. 14th, 1942 the dark green, two funnel Reina Del lay at anchor at Arzew, and those two funnels were active enough to indicate steam was being brewed in the engine rooms, and she was as anxious as the sailors to head for home. Our landing craft one by one manoeuvred to the gang-plank on the port side of the Reina Del and Canadian sailors waiting for the proper swell of the wave jumped to gang-plank and hurried up the steps and went aboard through the large cargo door. Each one was checked off by name by a Canadian officer standing inside the cargo door, complete with clipboard. The landing craft were now manned by English sailors returning at a later date.
Reina Del Pacifico - Link to Photo Credit
As my turn came to jump aboard the gang-plank, my eye spotted a large unexploded shell imbedded in the side of the ship not far from the officer’s head. I was very tired but not that tired, and inquired of the officer about the unexploded shell and he replied that the Captain had the shell examined and it was a dud. “I sure hope he is right because my mother will miss me, Mr. Wedd,” I said.
Mr. Wedd was dog-tired too and in no mood for an argument. “Your mother will miss you a lot more if you’re not aboard on the next swell, Harrison, because we are leaving. Do you hear me?” He added a bit more which wouldn’t be printed and his ultimatum enabled me to time the swell of the next wave perfectly and I jumped to the gang-planks, and though tired, I found new energy at the cargo door and was soon amidships. The shell never exploded but it was sand-bagged and roped off.
It wasn’t long before the clank of the anchor cable could be heard in the hawse pipe. The anchors stowed, the gang-plank came on board and we were underway and in a few hours steaming at 27 knots (about 33 mph) we were safely inside the submarine nets at Gibraltar. In those few hours we organized bridge and crib tournaments.
The scene at Gibraltar was one of carnage, war at its worst. Nearby were destroyers which had been mauled by bomb and torpedoes, with gaping holes in their sides and deck plating, and some of the large guns were bent and pointed at bizarre angles. Miraculously they floated with pride and here and there steam came from the odd funnel. We thought of what the crews had been through and the fire and heat that had buckled the plates, how anyone could have survived. But Malta had to be fed.
Aboard the Reina Del at Gibraltar the Captain advised us to sleep up top under cover at night and those Canadian sailors who were not taking part in the tournaments became look-outs as we sailed west into the Atlantic alone. Naval tradition prevailed aboard the ship and at 11 o’clock each morning we were given a tot of navy rum which we didn’t have to drink under the watchful eye of some Chief Petty Officer. Buryl McIntyre and I were partners at bridge; we received good cards and placed second in the tournament; there being no main prize it was agreed that whichever team won the rubber of bridge also won their opponents’ tot of rum. Buryl and I slept quite well most nights, but with one eye open and one arm through our Mae West life jackets. Each ship has its own peculiar quirks and sounds; it is the unusual sound that brings sailors awake.
The Captain wished to miss the Bay of Biscay and as we skirted the western edge heading north we ran into a severe electrical storm. Standing well inboard under cover we witnessed the worst electrical display of our lives. Also, it seemed to rain so hard it pounded the sea flat. The ship retained good speed throughout and reached Liverpool safely in about four days.
Liverpool, such a friendly city, has welcomed sailors for centuries and we went ashore soon after our arrival to a seaman’s home, a large, warm, clean barrack-like building with good food, showers, and cots with white sheets and pillow cases. Heaven! Soon mail arrived and I can still see myself and my friends discarding our boots and stretching out on the cots to read the latest from home. Everything went quiet until someone shouted, “Hey guys, get a load of this!”
“Pipe down!” The old familiar phrase. “Read it to us later!”
We shared our parcels with anyone who may have missed out and showed new photos all around. Although we had shore leave, many chose to stay where we were, get some rest, and write some letters home. We did not see the Reina Del Pacifico again. One evening she slipped quietly away, but I for one have never forgotten her, our home for a few short days.
* * * * *
What a Sight to Behold
My group went through much more training at H.M.S. Quebec and then we entrained for Liverpool. Prominent pub was The Crown in Wallasey. We left Greenock in October, 1942 with our LCMs aboard a ship called Derwentdale, sister ship to Ennerdale. She was an oil tanker and the food was short and the mess decks where we ate were full of eighteen inch oil pipes. The 80th and 81st flotillas, as we are now called, were split between the Derwentdale and Ennerdale in convoy, and little did we know we were bound for North Africa.
I became an A/B Seaman (Able-bodied) on this trip and passed my exams classed very good. The food aboard was porridge and kippers for break-fast, portioned out with a scale. We would plead for just one more kipper from the English Chief Petty Officer, and when he gave it to us we chucked it all over the side because the kippers were unfit to eat.
We had American soldiers aboard and an Italian in our mess who had been a cook before the war. He drew our daily rations and prepared the meal (dinner) and had it cooked in the ship’s galley. He had the ability to make a little food go a long way and saved us from starvation. Supper I can’t remember, but I know the bread was moldy and if the ship’s crew hadn’t handed us out bread we would have been worse off. We used to semaphore with flags to the Ennerdale to see how they were eating; they were eating steak. One of the crew cheered us up and said, “Never mind, boys. There will be more food going back. There won’t be as many of us left after the invasion.” Cheerful fellow. However, we returned aboard another ship to England, the Reina Del Pacifico, a passenger liner, and we nicknamed the Derwentdale the H.M.S. Starvation.
In the convoy close to us was a converted merchant ship which was now an air craft carrier. They had a relatively short deck for taking off, and one day when they were practicing taking off and landing a Swordfish aircraft failed to get up enough speed and rolled off the stern and, along with the pilot, disappeared immediately. No effort was made to search, we just kept on.
One November morning the huge convoy, perhaps 500 ships, entered the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar. It was a nice sun-shiny day... what a sight to behold.
Troops climb into landing craft, manned by Canadians, from Reina Del
Pacifico during landings in North Africa, Nov. 1942. Photo credit - IWM
On November 11, 1942 the Derwentdale dropped anchor off Arzew in North Africa and different ships were distributed at different intervals along the vast coast. My LCM had the leading officer aboard, another seaman besides me, along with a stoker and Coxswain. At around midnight over the sides went the LCMs, ours with a bulldozer and heavy mesh wire, and about 500 feet from shore we ran aground. When morning came we were still there, as big as life and all alone, while everyone else was working like bees.
There was little or no resistance, only snipers, and I kept behind the bulldozer blade when they opened up at us. We were towed off eventually and landed in another spot, and once the bulldozer was unloaded the shuttle service began. For ‘ship to shore’ service we were loaded with five gallon jerry cans of gasoline. I worked 92 hours straight and I ate nothing except for some grapefruit juice I stole.
Arzeu in Algeria during Operation 'Torch', November 1942. Photo credit - IWM
Our Coxswain was L/S Jack Dean of Toronto and our officer was Lt. McDonald RNR. After the 92 hours my officer said, “Well done. An excellent job, Harrison. Go to Reina Del Pacifico and rest.” But first the Americans brought in a half track (they found out snipers were in a train station) and shelled the building to the ground level. No more snipers. I then had to climb hand over hand up a large hawser (braided rope) to reach the hand rail of Reina Del Pacifico and here my weakness showed itself.
I got to the hand rail completely exhausted and couldn’t let one hand go to grab the rail or I would have fallen forty feet into an LCM bobbing below. I managed to nod my head at a cook in a Petty Officer’s uniform and he hauled me in. My throat was so dry I only managed to say, “Thanks, you saved my life.”
The Reina was a ship purposely for fellows like me who were tired out, and I was fed everything good, given a big tot of rum and placed in a hammock. I slept the clock around twice - 24 hours - then went back to work. In seven days I went back aboard the Reina Del and headed for Gibraltar to regroup for the trip back to England. During the trip I noticed the ship carried an unexploded three inch shell in her side all the way back to England.
Just outside Gibraltar, Ettrick was torpedoed in her side and sank, and one rating from Ingersoll, Ontario was among those killed. She took four hours to sink and many were saved. We arrived in England without trouble. Our ship was fast, could do about 22 knots per hour, a knot being one mile and a fifth per hour. (I am going to leave my memories about hilarious occasions during leaves I enjoyed until last.)
Please link to Short Story re "North Africa, S. S. Clan MacTaggart"