Ralph Stobart Robson, signalman, life in the British Royal Navy World War Two, sinking of Prince of Wales and the Repulse, Singapore
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  1. Chatham to Gourock
  2. The Messman Discovered
  3. Life on Board
  4. Crossing the Line
  5. The Sinkings
  6. H.M.S. Sultan
  7. The Signal Office
  8. Left to Our Own Resources
  9. Colombo
  10. Drafted to Mombassa
  11. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
  12. Sharks, Lobsters and Going Dutch
  13. Askari Skirmishes and Tea Making
  14. Tramp Steamer
  15. Molo
  16. Deer Hunting
  17. Ralph the Italian and off to Bombay
  18. Arrival in Bombay
  19. Vultures and Buffalos
  20. Poona
  21. Swimming Motorcycles and Monsoon Storms
  22. The Royal Corps of Signals
  23. 'Trixie' Vaughan Lewis and Drowning Men
  24. On Leave in the Himalayas

    Ralph as a telegram boy before the war

14 - Tramp Steamer invades Madagascar

The next day some of us received a shock. On reporting for duty we were told to go to the drafting office. Here we were told to gather certain items of gear together and report back to the Signal Office. We were then taken to Kilindini Harbour docks where we saw the vessel on which we were about to embark.

It was a rusty old tramp of a steamer. All eight of us stood in some consternation. Her bridge was right aft and behind it was a long spindly funnel. Her name had been blacked out. She had masts fore and aft and looked pretty dilapidated. The aftermost boom had been lowered and was held down by rope that ran over the end and was lashed to the ship's railing.

We climbed aboard the beds of eight hammocks, a covering, eight sheets and a length of tarpaulin that was to be our cover from the elements when slung over the boom and lashed to the rails - the hammocks were our beds when laid on the deck. When we had made our accommodation ready the man who had helped us then made himself known to us - he was the mate.

A little later a P.O. appeared - he had been getting his instructions from ashore and was in charge of us. We never saw the captain except as a mysterious form behind the wheelhouse windows. The crew consisted of black ratings and the engine room crew. We were on our way to the invasion of Madagascar and we learnt from the P.O. that our destination was to be the Port of Tamatave, halfway down the East Coast.

The next day we set out from Kilindini and steered a course SW from the African coast. As usual the sea was smooth and the sky beautiful and clear, sprinkled from horizon to horizon with a beautiful patina of stars - a display not usually seen in northern hemispheres. I reckon that old tramp couldn't steam more than eight knots flat out - a feat she did not attempt to attain.

After steaming for some time we eventually saw a mountainous land - the ship had reached Madagascar and was now slowly steaming towards Tamatave, the only real port on the East Coast. Here we spent the next few days lounging around the deck and sunbathing, where we carried our own rations and fed ourselves until the end of the third day when the ship was ordered to return north to Diego Suarez, a port at the extreme tip of the island. This port was supposed to be the biggest anchorage in the world and certainly seemed like it.

The ship steamed it's way through a narrow entrance and amongst the fairly large number of other vessels, finally anchored. Finally a little barge-like craft took us and our gear off - our part in the invasion of Madagascar was over and we had seen and heard nothing. The craft ran alongside what turned out to be a L.S.I. (Landing Ship Infantry) which turned out to have been an Irish Sea ferry from Dublin to Holyhead.

Three days were spent aboard and I was co-opted into watches on the bridge. However, I also got three days leave in Diege Suarez but it hadn't much to offer. The buildings were a sort of compromise between Frenaf and the Wild West and there wasn't much to be seen besides an interesting crowd of natives, especially the women.

One item of interest was a silver painted upright tank which stood along the shore and was alleged to contain rum - the ingredients were certainly grown there but "Jack" was certainly not allowed to get any! The Navy, so we heard, had recently been carrying out experiments to see if this stuff would propel petrol landing craft.

One day I was on watch and idly looking harbourwards when I noticed a landing craft coming towards the ship. The sailor at the helm stopped the craft and went down the hatchway that led to the engine before re-emerging to take the wheel. The craft then took an erratic course and finally started to turn in a wide circle, so I used the binoculars on the bridge to observe him just lying there against the wheel.

The Yeoman was called to take a gander. "There's something wrong with that lad", he said and called down to some of the craft moored alongside for somebody to investigate. A boat eventually left and went alongside the craft to discover that the helmsman was in fact drunk. If it hadn't been well known that he was normally a temperance man things would have been extremely hard for him. I never did find out if the local rum was ever used for craft fuel, but he had certainly put it to more traditional use.

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