war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper



Edwin Robinson


Part Two

After an action-packed life, Captain Edwin (Ted) Robinson, aged 94, now lives in well-earned quiet retirement in Walmer. His three-part story offers fascinating social insights into 1930s Britain and foreign countries he visited as a 16-year-old just before the war, and his eventful war years ...

The ship's next six-month charter took Ted to Morocco, to Spanish-held Melilla, where phosphates were loaded for delivery to Livorno, Italy. For the first time he crossed the treacherous Ba of Biscay, where U-boats would soon patrol, enjoying the warmth and the easygoing lifestyle along the Portuguese and Spanish coast. Eventually, however, Ted's ship, the Rio Azul, passed through the Bosphorous into the Black Sea to Nikolayev, Russia. Although at the opposite end of Russia to Murmansk, the ideological mask and tough conditions were identical.

Christmas Day aboard was a doleful experience. Apprentices were allowed to eat the meagre leftovers from the officers' festive dinner. However this resulted in a rollicking form the captain for finishing the turkey.

In a blizzard the ship's steam-winches froze on deck, making coal loading impossible. Eventually, by defrosting the winches in appalling conditions, this was accomplished. Ice-breakers had to be employed to enable departure. The frozen crew enjoyed no respite, forced to spend every available minute hacking ice from the endangered ship, to prevent the vessel becoming top-heavy. Eventually the weather eased on Ted's maiden Atlantic crossing to Boston, Massachusetts, via Naples. The clock ticked on; Naples was soon to be plunged into war and the Atlantic was soon to become a burning hell, infested with U-boats.

For a poor apprentice, Boston was paradise. Kind-hearted Bostonian women ran a welcome club to succour young seagoers of all nationalities. Apprentices rarely wore uniforms in Ted's ship as boiler suits were the dress for such skivvies. However, the captain could hardly forbid his uniformed apprentices from benefitting from American goodwill without appearing churlish.

Leaving the USA, the ship travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, via Norfolk, Virginia. Onboard work was unending as the holds had to be completely fitted out to prevent the scheduled load of grain from shifting. This arduous task was interrupted off the Florida coast when the ship grounded on a coral reef. For more than 24 hours the crew worked non-stop, trying again and again to plant a spare anchor, suspended between two oar-powered lifeboats.

Having secured the sea bottom, the ship engines went full astern to pull herself free, only to fail, so that the whole benighted exercise had to start all over again. Eventually, however, after running repairs, the ship arrived in Argentina. Buenos Aires was a vibrant noisy place, where loudspeakers blared ear-splitting South-American rhythms from every plaza. But time ticked onwards; the first sea battle of the Second World War, on the River Plate, was only 15 months away.

After bunkering in South Africa the vessel trudged onwards, to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, soon to become a pivotal naval base. The grain was unloaded in clouds of dust; holds were scrubbed and loaded with sugar bound for Melbourne. In Australia Ted felt so at home. Whilst street names were in English, the warmth, wide roads, luxurious spaces between houses, and absence of the greyness, dust, and noise of London were alien. His sense of wellbeing grew for, as in Boston, local women organised greeting parties for young seafarers, taking them out, respelendent in their uniforms.

As Australia slipped astern, Rangoon, Burma, part of the British Empire, beckoned. There rice was loaded for delivery to China. Grain residue permeated everywhere, including the bilges. There it grew, necessitating cleaning in awful conditions, known as "bilge-diving". The rice had to be specially packed to stop it sweating as, when damp, it deteriorates.

The war-clock ticked on; Japan's invasion of Burma was fast approaching. The ship arrived in Shanghai in June 1938. China and Japan were already at war so Shanghai was a hive of activity. The Rio Azul was chartered by the Japanese to import iron ore form the Philippines, with return loads of coal. Stories of Japanese atrocities against the Chinese were circulating, though with no visible evidence. Just two years later Pearl Harbour would herald Japanese incursions into the Philippines, Burma, Singapore, and Malaya, where gruesome evidence soon supported atrocity claims.

The ship arrived in Tabaco, Luzon Island (soon to be the first part of the Philippines overrun by the Japanese). There Ted bore witness to another dangerous maritime incident. While the captian was ashore a hurricane rendered the starboard anchors useless, as the holding ground proved inadequate. The shhip swung on its other anchor, perilously close to another vessel anchored astern. Danger increased as the port anchor refused to heave in on the windlass. The Rio Azul, swinging wildly on its jammed anchor, crashed repeatedly into the ship astern.

Given the emergency, the officer of the watch decided to sacrifice the anchor, ordering its shackles to be uncoupled. This was extremely hazardous given the tension on the wire. The battered ship limped to another anchorage. Eventually, the captain returned, having been rowed from shore through pounding waves. Maybe it was an understatement, but Ted opined that the master was "not best pleased". An anchor had been lost, the Rio Azul had suffered a huge hole in her stern plating, and had severely damaged the bows of the other ship.

 For the term of the six-month charter the ship commuted between Japan and the Philippines. In Japan, the authorities, like their Russian counterparts, exuded suspicion and hostility towards foreigners. Accordingly the crew was again lined upon deck for several hours as the vessel underwent security checks prior to port entry. The impression gleaned of Japan was of a very foreign and strange land, where women wore kimonos and click-clacked on wooden sandals, with narrow blocks under heel and toe.

This article first appeared in the Dover Express, 20 November 2014
Reproduced with permission


Copyright 2014 Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved