TED WENT TO SEA IN 1937 AND SAW THE WORLD" by Mike
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 ...
1939, witnessed two historic events. Firstly, it was Ted's 19th
birthday. Secondly, war was declared.
Just before the
outbreak of hostilities, returning from Murmansk loaded with
phosphates, the captain received coded morse messages
instructing him to proceed to designated positions, plotted each
day to minimise potential danger. From that date allied shipping
observed total blackout, including navigation lights.
Accordingly, the Rio Azul blundered westwards, without radar,
totally blind at night.
News came that
the ship's charter was cancelled and British merchant ships were
now under the control of the Ministry of Defence. Instructions
were received to head to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to load iron
ore. The journey was undertaken on a war footing, with total
black-out, secrecy of movement, and under total radio silence.
However, onshore, in a moment of frivolity, Ted swapped a
blanket for a monkey. This eventually he presented to his
realisation of mortality. As his apprenticeship terms were not
being honoured, and as he owed £30, a debt that would die if he
did, he cancelled his indenture and became a seaman. Suddenly,
for the first time in his life, he was rich, £9 every month
instead of £18 annually as an apprentice.
Along the West
African coast, palm oil was loaded. Despite sweltering heat,
open deck fires were required to stop the oil solidifying before
being poured into casks, a dangerous and dirty task. The ship
returned unescorted to Liverpool. there it joined a convoy
assembled in the Irish Sea, in June 1940. As Ted explained, with
understatement, "This was my first convoy experience, although
there were many afterwards".
American coast the convoy split. The Rio Azul headed to South
America on a war footing. There life was lively and bright after
the duller and greyer condition of the Atlantic. They then went
to Nova Scotia to join a convoy for the return Atlantic
crossing. Ted said, laconically, "One at a time ships were
torpedoed and sunk, some blowing up, some catching fire. Tanker
losses were spectacularly awful as the surrounding sea caught
fire, making escape impossible. For me, tanker crews were
The ship arrived
safely in Liverpool in March 1941, but to no relief as the city
was under heavy attack. Convoys became even more dangerous.
There were regularly strafed and bombed by German planes. As
surviving ship drew out of range they came into the reach of
wolf-;acs of prowling U-boats - and Ted's ship was carrying
another Atlantic crossing, Ted arrived in Charleston, South
Carolina, on his 21st birthday. Although Ted had forgotten his
anniversary, a customs officer noticed and presented him with a
stick of chewing gum.
Crossing the Bay
of Biscay again, U-boats sank six ships from a convoy of 15.
Arrival in Gibraltar gave scant relieve. Returning to his ship
in total blackout, a fellow seaman fell into the water, dragging
Ted with him. Ted survived; his companion drowned.
Aged 21, after
five years at sea, Ted passed his nautical exams, was promoted
to 3rd May, joining the brand-new SS Shahjehan. In August 1942
he left the Clyde, in a large convoy, heading for Bombay, India.
Meanwhile the Axis powers were retreating along the southern
Mediterranean coastline. The convoy included thousands of
gallons of fuel, loaded in what appeared to be battered biscuit
tins. Such hazardous cargoes were necessitated by the war
effort. Captains on the huge 60-ship convoy opened sealed orders
and found that they were ot support the invasion of Sicily.
luck ran out. The one-year-old state-of-the-art SS Shahjehan was
torpedoed. As seawater poured in, discipline was bravely
maintained by the many troops on board. "Abandon ship" was
ordered, with only Ted as officer of the watch and the captain
staying on board until ordered off. Ted volunteered to return
onboard so that tow lines could be attached to a tug. The
stricken vessel was towed astern towards Benghazi in Libya.
Records show that onboard munitions were exploding. As fire
raged, the hull plating glowed red. Then the dying vessel keeled
over and sank. The volunteers just made it to the tug, which was
nearly capsized by the undertow. Ironically, far from receiving
a hero's reception, Ted was confined to barracks, to ensure
secrecy, until the invasion began. A lorry transported Ted 1,000
miles across the desert from Libya to Egypt for his return trip
five-and-a-half years of horror, deprivation, and fear, Ted,
from Melbourne to Bombay, learned that peace had been declared.
However, the war in the Far East continued. Ted, onboard SS
Malika, was transporting military supplies and troops for the
invasion of Japanese-held Malaya. Cargo included 20
truck-mounted, large-calibre rapid-fire, Bofors guns. These were
stowed below deck. Marine safety forbids ammunition for
transported armaments being carried in ready-to-fire positions.
However, army edict overruled these regulations, since the
troops had to be ready for immediate invasion.
Bombay, in a convoy of 40 ships, 15 feet of water was found in
number two hold, caused by a jagged hole. As Ted explains,
"Despite every precaution, the impossible had happened. We had
shot ourselves; probably the only ship ever to have done so!"
headed back to Blighty. His ship was packed with passengers. On
board were hundreds of Polish women who had fought for the
Allies after walking from Poland to Palestine, escaping the
Germans. Eventually, via Suez, the Mediterranean and the Bay of
Biscay, on board the Dutch ship SS Chistiaan Huygens, Ted
arrived back to battered peacetime England, after an incredible
three-and-a-half years with no home leave.
This article and photograph first appeared
in the Dover Express on 27 November 2014
Reproduced with permission