End of the COMLIEBANK

One of 18 sisters built in 1925/6 in Govan. Served for 35 years, through WW2 and beyond. Here is an account, written in a ‘factional’ style, of her last trip.

Second trip continued having negotiated the Panama Canal-M.V. Comliebank

The ship headed due West for about two to three days before altering course to Port when due south of Clipperton Island at the start of their long and not uneventful journey across the Pacific Ocean. After a further two days the port engine stopped and soon after, this was followed by the starboard engine.

Fortunately, the seas lived up to their reputation and were as clear as glass. This lasted for well over the week it took for the engineers to mend the engines. Less fortunate was the over-worked generators that succumbed, causing both freezers to fail. The order was given that to preserve the produce as long as possible, access was limited to once a day or more accurately, once at night when it was a little cooler.

In 1957/60 all merchant ships had to be as self reliant as possible and carried extensive spares and tools, most of it not being available elsewhere. An added reason was that communication at sea was not possible other than by morse code. 

To break the monotony of drifting, some of the Europeans took to swimming in the calm deep blue ocean completely oblivious to any sharks or other deep water dangers. In between duties the soot clad engineers joined in these pastimes to cool down and wash off their grime and sweat.

Surprisingly, the crew whose main pastime was fishing, were totally unsuccessful but with hindsight this was probably because the ship was drifting between the extremely deep water Galapagos and Clipperton fracture zones. 

A new course of 220 degrees true was set that would take them to the South of Kiritimati but this was unable to be confirmed due to the arrival of cloudy weather obscuring the Stars and Sun for several day’s. With normal sights being impossible, dead reckoning was the only option and it was difficult to accurately account for the week’s drifting to the North, whilst they had earlier broken down.

Several days later, Sparks rushed excitedly onto the Bridge with a decoded morse message that read.

XXXXXXXXXXX. URGENT.  URGENT.  URGENT.   XXXXXXXXXXXXX.

To the MASTER and/0r duty Officer.

This is Her Majesties Frigate ‘Ulysses’.

Immediately alter course to due South (i.e. 180 degrees) and stay on this course for three hundred miles before resuming your passage.

This is mandatory and to avoid being fired upon you should reply the affirmative to indicate that you have received, understood and taken the required action.

Rear Admiral J. Cummings.

Nobody, even Captain Moody, had the slightest idea what it was all about but discretion being the prefferable part of valour, Sparks duly replied and the ship altered course as required.

Needless to say speculation was abound. With the Internet over twenty years away and secrecy being paramount it wasn’t until after the event that they found out through the services of the BBC overseas radio channel that there had been a successful nuclear detonation of a hydrogen bomb on Christmas Island. It was the spring of 1958.

Some of the crew reported a bright flash around the right time but there were no explosions heard or mushroom clouds seen.

After being on the new course heading south for three hundred miles they altered  hard to starboard and having finally obtained a good ‘fix’, they headed 255 degrees true to pass between Tonga and Fiji.

By this time the victuals were nearly depleted and certainly they were suffering from a very limited menu. So much so that for the final three days before making port in Brisbane, all they had left to eat was tinned kippers and jam supplemented by japatties from the Asian crew. It was shortly after that the apprentices came up with a scheme involving an increased diet. 

The crew were made up from a mixture of mainly Muslims and some Goanese who required a different diet consisting of ‘Hal -al’ food that had to be ritually and freshly slaughtered by the holy-man. They kept pens of live chickens and goats for that purpose so its not rocket science to imagine what the apprentices had in mind.

In the dead of the night they had liberated some chickens and furtively gave them to the Chinese carpenter for dealing with. The chippy and the engine room fitter, who was also Chinese, lived separately from the crew and were of an entirely different culture, being from Hong Kong and brought up under British rule. As part of the arrangement and in order to share in the bounty, the carpenter and his colleague agreed to deal with the birds from despatching, plucking and cooking in the tiny facilities of their storerooms. 

Subsequently, the Captain and ship’s officers were never appraised as to how the welcome food had suddenly appeared.

 A couple of days later, having passed the New Caledonia Islands to Starboard, the ship reached it’s first port of call for thirty nine days and due to the frozen food stores being spoilt following their breakdown, everybody was keen to get ashore for a hearty meal.

The Captain rather magnanimously gave everybody an unconditional advance (not to be repaid) of £10 per person to assuage the hardship. Some sceptically thought this was to discourage complaints but nobody turned the money down and without exception, once safely tied up, a mass exodus was underway.

The junior officers and apprentices headed straightaway to a restaurant come bar, that had been frequented by one of the junior officers on an earlier trip.

The cold draft beer was the flavour of the day and the restaurant being noted for its seafood, the large succulent prawns and crab were a close second.

Their scheduled stay in Brisbane of five days became extended to three whole weeks to allow for necessary servicing and repairs to the engines and generators. 

At weekends it was lucky that the stevedores didn’t work which allowed sufficient time to visit town and attend the dances with the hopes of meeting some girls.

In the event this was interrupted by the arrival of the new Ark Royal, Britain’s largest aircraft carrier.

Some naval Admiral had underestimated what the addition of around three thousand sailors would have on the community. Coupled with the several thousand local Australian sailors it turned out to be less than harmonious.

The three apprentices together with the third mate, sparks and the second engineer, had found a lively bar to quench their thirst. 

It was a bit of a dive in that they noticed that the chairs and tables were screwed to the floor which should have indicated something!

A band we’re playing on a raised platform and the place started to fill up will sailors from both navy’s.

It wasn’t until about an hour or so later that it began. A typical Australian hippie started singing to the music and after an interval, she had decided to please her country’s seamen by a rendering of ‘Waltzing Matilda’.

A  gunner from the Ark Royal who was a bit worse for wear, threw a missile in her direction that happened to be an empty beer bottle. Without missing a note the ginger haired singer known locally as ‘blue’ expertly caught the bottle and returned it wence it came. Unfortunately her aim was a bit like her singing or so the Ark Royal lads thought. The missile missed its target and struck one of her own countrymen causing the uproar that followed. Glasses and bottles flew everywhere but the band and singing continued uninterrupted.

Fortunately the furniture, such that it was, held fast to the wooden floor otherwise the injuries would have been much more severe.

Soon the M.P’s arrived noticeable by the wooden batons they wielded and their white arm bands as well as the loud piercing whistles.

There was no attempt to isolate the trouble makers as everyone within the M.P’s range were targets whatever their nationality or even whether they were actually in the forces.

The six merchant seaman made a swift exit through a door marked ‘Sheila’s’ where they removed the steel mesh netting from the window. They squeezed through the opening and once out into an alleyway they speedily set off for an alternative hostelry without a even a bruise between them.

Three days later Sydney proved to be a much more preferred port.  For a start the climate was less hot and humid and the people being more cosmopolitan caused the seamen to feel a lot more at home. The world class beaches of Bondi and Manly became firm favourites as did the nurses home attached to the Mater Misericordiae Hospital on the North side of Sydney Harbour and close to where the Comliebank was berthed. 

John had kept his shore time to weekends and evenings only although a generous Bank holiday was enjoyed while the ship was in port. He had decided to save any leave for Adelaide and hoped to meet up with his brother whom he hadn’t seen since he was seven years old.

Their arrival in port Adelaide was a bit of an anti-climax after the splendour of Sydney. The wide road to the city had been destined to boast a canal but this had been shelved due to the expense. As a consequence the broad avenue into the City has the traffic to and from the city divided by a colourful display of tropical vegetation of all types including small trees and shrubs.

John arranged for three days shore leave and contacted his oldest brother. A meeting was made for the first Friday lunchtime and he had arranged the meeting outside Myers one of Adelaide’s large departmental Shops in the centre of town.

Arriving in good time, John readily found the venue and patiently waited for his brothers arrival. He hadn’t envisioned it further and apart from natural curiosity he had no idea of how the meeting would turn out.

When John had last seen Brian, his brother had appeared to be about eighteen inches taller than John. So it followed that he was attempting to look out for someone similar. 

When they finally met the growth gap had disappeared and was very noticeable to John who found that both he and his brother were of similar height. Nevertheless they got on extremely well from the start and later found that they shared very similar traits. 

Brian had arranged to meet his wife and the three of them had lunch at a restaurant just off of Rundle Mall offering a delicious and exclusive cuisine

After lunch, being the start of the weekend, Brian dropped his wife back to the hospital where she worked and took his younger brother to their house in the Adelaide Hills.

A bottle of Australian wine later, the two brothers decided to treat Brian’s family and his mother in law to a special celebration meal at a renown restaurant high near the top of Mount Lofty. It proved a great success and was the first of two visits during the ship’s stay in Adelaide.

Brian had taken a couple of days off so a game of golf was planned for the following Monday at the nearby golf course. The same evening John joined his brother and wife at a rehearsal of a ballet show in which they were taking part.

The still quite shy seventeen year old, particularly with the opposite sex, found himself sitting next to a completely uninhibited Australian girl clad only in her underwear. Most of the cast were similarly attired as it was a pre-dress rehearsal and led to Brians younger brother taking out his sparsely clad neighbour on an exotic dinner date to Mount Lofty, his second visit to impress his new friend in a car borrowed from his brother

The ship finally became discharged and proceeded light-ship to a place called Ocean Island  close to the Equator in the Pacific Ocean.

Just before departure a large box was delivered to the ship addressed to Mr. John Wale. It was a case of wine from his brother as a farewell gift.

The downside turned out to be that the wine was white and without means to cool it, it was unpalatable and being a Sauterne proved to be too sweet when warm so with much regret it joined the refuse. 

There were two great islands near Australia that consisted of millions of years build up of seabird droppings. These were a valuable fertiliser known as phosphate. The shipping company had exclusive rights to freight the phosphate which would only take two or three days to load before returning to the Australian mainland for discharge. The whole process including the outward and inward voyages, took usually less than six weeks and to save cleaning, once a ship was on this route it usually did several voyages. Being little or nothing to do at the primitive ports of loading, the trips were unpopular with the ships compliment. However the Head-office in London had other considerations, notably the costs of running and repairs to the ageing ship. As a consequence after several phosphate runs that ended in discharge in Newcastle New South Wales, about two hundred miles to the North of Sydney, the ship was sold to the Japanese for scrapping.

On arrival at Newcastle amongst his mail that had been forwarded by the ship’s agents in Sydney was an envelope addressed in his eldest brothers hand.

 There was no note of any kind and the envelope just contained a cutting from a local newspaper in Adelaide. John read…..

‘……. at a coroners inquest yesterday a report recorded the sad and untimely death of Susan Mc Kinney aged eighteen which was registered as suicide being of temporary unsound mind. The Coroner added that being a nurse she would have had access to various medication including barbiturates that caused the end to her short life.

Susan, a trainee nurse at Adelaide’s Royal Infirmary had been reported as having been deeply affected by her parents splitting up some nine months earlier. She will be sadly missed by her colleagues and especially the members of the amateur dance troupe where she was a long term member and also the mainly males at the Port Adelaide rowing club.

John put the cutting down and silently remembered his joyful times with Sue especially his introduction to the adult world of female enlightenment. He was deeply saddened but realised that one could never alter some things.

A skeleton crew were kept on for the last passage of the Comliebank to Japan where it would also meet a similar fate to that he had just read about but putting both momentous events behind him, John decided to continue with what fate had in store.

Prior to departure of both John and the ship, a celebration had been arranged. It consisted of a procession from the ship to the officers favourite bar to present the ship’s solid brass bell. 

The nurses from the local nurses home had prepared the food and drinks and also provided a band of sorts for the procession which was to start at the docks and end at the Pub. The mainly deck officers were dressed as pirates and carried the heavy bell slung between two oars with one person at the each end of the oars. The band made up from students from the music college, played popular jazz tunes as the procession slowly made its way into town. They were all in sailors parlance ‘three sheets to the wind,’ and the merry crowd continued to the Quayside Arms where the main party began, with the ‘Saints come marching in,’ entertaining passers-by.

The dancing or jiving gradually diminished as people partnered up and couples found privacy. However the evening crowd served to liven things up so the party was re-kindled and continued well into the next day. 

The great bell had somehow been hung on the wall behind the public bar and was used and probably still is, to signal the hour in ships time and for calling last orders and other special occasions such as her Majesty the Queen Elisabeth’s birthday etcetera.

The following day the remainder of the crew were paid off and repatriated but a few less fortunate were to be transferred to the Tealbank in Fremantle. They consisted solely of John the apprentice and, at sometime a little later, the Second Officer, an ex Master Mariner called Jenks which was short for Jenkins.

The train journey to Sydney was uneventful and John spent the night at an Hotel close to the main Railway terminal. Early next morning he caught the overnight express to Perth in the far West.

Although John hadn’t been allocated a sleeping berth he found that the journey was well provided for especially as the seats were not only very comfortable but were fully reclining if needed’

However the train was unusually empty apart from a contingent from the Australian Army. The Englishman was fascinated by the soldiers strange wide brimmed hats, where the brims on one side were folded up to the crown.

The scenery was also fascinating as the express stopped at the principle places during its travels with changing scenery throughout the journey and finally arriving in Perth on the twenty ninth of January 1959.

The ship in Fremantle turned out to be a Liberty ship. Built by the Americans to send supplies and troops to Britain, these ship were extremely novel. They were constructed continuously with the bow and stern being added on later. The construction was fully welded which was unique at the time. 

After the war the surviving ships were purchased by merchant fleets being popular by sailors and owners alike, for their economic propulsion and the generous conditions required by the American seamen. 

The engines were steam and relied on a triple expansion system which provided endless amounts of hot water and electricity from the steam driven machinery.

The Tealbank was commanded by Captain Lidstone, who, at barely twenty seven had been the youngest Captain in the fleet. As well as ‘Jenks’ and myself, the only other person to join was the fifth engineer. He was a very affable individual and soon became a bit of a legend when at his first dinner the steward brought a large steak and kidney pie intended for the engineers table. Instead of waiting to be served with a portion,  the naive Australian took the whole dish and commented,  ‘The tucker here is really bonsa.’
  No wonder he was very fat.

This account written and kindly submitted by John Wale Esq. The text is copyright and may not be reproduced without written approval

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