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A wartime sea voyage

Written by Ryman Healthcare
on April 23, 2020

SHORT STORY COMPETITION - Entry by Robert Boyle, resident of a Ryman village

It was July 1940 and World War II was about to enter its second year. I was nine years old and a boarder at a boys’ preparatory school that had recently been evacuated from the Essex coast to an old castle in Shropshire near the Welsh border. The school had previously been in the flightpath of enemy bombers heading for cities in south England - the evacuation had been a wise move.

When we arrived at Rowton Castle we found our school roll had grown to now include a number of both Jewish boys and girls who had escaped the Gestapo in Germany. We were horrified to hear their stories of how they had been taken away from their parents and been treated so violently. They were most grateful to now feel safe, although their new life seemed strange for them.  I well remember in our dormitory boys crying all night and shrieking in their sleep and then awaking from their horrific nightmares. I know that for myself aged nine, and am sure for everybody, their trauma was extremely upsetting.

While at Rowton Castle, I learned that my four-year-old sister, Anne, and I were to leave England and sail to New Zealand. For the foreseeable future, we were going to live with our maternal grandmother in Timaru.  My mother, a New Zealander would remain in England, while my father an Englishman - like many of his forebears – was an officer in the Royal Navy and on active service somewhere at sea. Weeks later, I received a letter from him telling me that in fact he was posted close by but was not allowed to reveal his location.

We heard that we would be sailing with the NZ Shipping Company's SS Rotorua, a vessel of 11,000 tons that carried both passengers and cargo. The ship would be leaving from Liverpool, though for security reasons, the departure date could not be disclosed until the day of sailing. Information could have been leaked to the enemy and, as you of a certain age will recall, ‘Careless talk costs lives.’                                                         

My mother and I stayed with friends near Manchester for several days before leaving, and then we moved to a hotel in Liverpool. Here, we were joined by my sister and a young friend of my mother’s who had agreed to take care of us on board ship. The young woman was Molly McTamney and she was newly engaged to fellow New Zealander, Charles Upham. Molly and Charlie were engaged in 1939 just before the start of war and they eventually married in 1945, following Charlie’s release from imprisonment in the German stronghold, Colditz Castle.

I don’t think my sister and I could have had a more kind and caring person than Molly to look after us on. After the war both my sister and I remained life-long friends with Charlie and Molly.

On the day of departure, just five days before my tenth birthday, someone must have contacted my mother and told her we were to board immediately. I remember a tearful farewell at the hotel as we said goodbye to our mother. She, like all others, was not permitted to accompany passengers to the dock. Spies could be anywhere.

The SS Rotorua sailed out from the Liverpool dock early evening with subdued passengers lining the decks wondering what lay ahead of them for the next five weeks. We were about twenty-five children on board and nearly all of the others were accompanied by one or both of their parents. I am sure for the younger children like myself there was more a sense of excitement than fear.

Once we had reached the Atlantic, a convoy of fifty-two ships under different allied flags, was then formed. We sailed with support from two Royal Navy destroyers, one on each flank of the convoy, but neither vessel was visible from our ship. Our convoy was so spread out that we could only see twenty vessels at a time. The speed of the convoy was limited to the speed of the slowest ship.

All passengers were issued with life jackets, not like the modern type - or perhaps they were for their time. The ones we had were white and protruded about eight inches in front and behind when we put them on. While in convoy we had to have our life jackets with us at all times, and on several occasions we were told to get them on quickly, because enemy submarines had been sighted. 

Lifeboat drill was part of our training and we were also told the 'Rules of Convoy’ - what to expect if our ship was torpedoed or sunk by an enemy mine. Should this happen to any ship, the convoy would not reduce speed and nor would it stop to rescue survivors in the water or in lifeboats. This was alarming to hear.

Our ship was fitted with paravanes, two sharp wires on both sides of the ship that could slice through the anchor cable of an enemy mine. That way the mine could be destroyed by gunfire before it came in to contact with the vessel.

Our ship had been armed – if you could call it that - with several depth charges. These were cylinders about the size of a forty-four gallon drum that contained high explosives, and they were are dropped from the back of vessel on the vicinity of enemy submarines. There was also with one small gun mounted near the stern. The SS Rotorua was a merchant ship and whether the crew were even trained to use either the depth charges or the gun was another matter. Fortunately none needed to be used.

Of the original fifty-two ships that set out, only twenty-six still remained when the convoy disbanded. Half of the original vessels had been sunk, with the loss of many passengers and crew. I can remember I would go up on deck in the morning and where there had been a ship in formation the previous evening, there was now open water.

One of my most striking memories I have to this day, happened was of late one afternoon as dusk was approaching. The vessel immediately behind us had been hit by a torpedo amidships, and from the deck I watched the ship break in half, and within minutes the bow and the stern disappeared into the sea. Seeing those people in the water unable to reach life rafts nor be rescued was extremely upsetting. To this day, eighty years later, I still remember this moment vividly.

A few years ago I asked my sister what could she remember about that journey. Her response was ‘Watching those people from the torpedoed ship in the water, and no one coming to their rescue.’  Our turn was yet to come. This happened around 9 o’clock one evening while I was asleep. To quote from an article I discovered online, written by the 2nd Purser on the SS Rotorua.

 ‘We sailed outward bound for Australia [a mistake, it should have been NZ!] with child evacuees, from Liverpool and were attacked by a German wolfpack. We lost fifteen ships and more with repeated attacks for two weeks.  A torpedo struck us amidships, the alarm sounded to man the lifeboats and get all children off first, however the ship kept afloat and we managed to get to the Panama Canal zone.’

Yes, thankfully the SS Rotorua stayed afloat. In fact, we did not go directly to the Panama Canal, we first sailed to the island of Curacao in the Caribbean Sea. In port, divers went below the waterline and found extensive damage below the water and we had to remain in Curacao for repairs to be carried out.

While in dock, Molly hired a taxi and took us on an exciting tour of the island. I well remember looking at the speedometer - it was reading 120 km per hour!  I was thrilled to be travelling at such a speed. It's funny - a child's perspective of what's happening, despite WWII going on all around.                      

Repairs completed, the ship was ready to head to Port of Colon, the entrance to the Panama Canal, and wait in line to enter the locks. I remember I was so keen to watch our progress through the canal, but unfortunately I had eaten an over ripe banana and needed to lie down in our cabin with a very upset stomach. Luckily I had the top bunk which was the same level as   our cabin porthole, and with it wide open I was still able to watch everything as we made our way through the massive canal. I could the little donkey engines, like tiny trains on either side, pull our ship forward as we passed through the locks. Then we sailed across the lake and finally down through the locks at the western end of the canal and out to the Pacific Ocean!

With strict food rationing in force, the ship could stock only basic necessities, making the meals on board sufficient. Initially the children were issued daily at 10am with a mug of a Bovril type drink. I didn't like it much but I'm sure we were lucky to have it. As the ship neared the tropics and the weather became warmer we were given ice-cream. A real treat !

We did learn from the galley staff that there were also hordes of ‘non-paying passengers’ below - an infestation of cockroaches that stayed with us until we reached NZ.

There was light relief for everyone when the ship crossed the Equator and as tradition demanded, Father Neptune came on board. All the children dressed up in fancy dress. My sister was a fairy and I was decked out as a newspaper boy. You can probably guess the tenor of my billboard headline - ‘100 German Planes Shot Down!’  

Our destination was Auckland, however after several days sailing in the Pacific we needed to change course for Sydney, because a German raider was reported to be in the vicinity of our proposed route. This raider the Orion, was a disguised merchant ship which in fact was equipped with arms, and this specific vessel had caused considerable damage to allied merchant shipping in the area. Luckily, we were soon back on course for New Zealand.

An interesting event was when we passed close by Pitcairn Island late one afternoon. The ship reduced speed to such an extent that that the local people could come on board to sell handcrafts. It was from passing passenger ships that the Pitcan Islanders derived their income.

After more than five weeks at sea there was an air of excitement when the New Zealand coastline came into sight. I well remember the thrill of standing up on deck that calm spring afternoon as the ship sailed between the beautiful islands of the Hauraki Gulf. We had arrived safely.

This was September 1940. I was to discover later, that during our time at sea, neither my mother nor my grandmother had received any news of the SS Rotorua. For our entire voyage they had no idea whether we had drowned or survived.

When we disembarked, reporters and photographers from the NZ Herald and the Auckland Weekly were waiting to meet us on the wharf. I was asked how I was going to like living in New Zealand. I answered, quite truthfully, that I had been in New Zealand twice before. My first visit to New Zealand had been just three months after my birth and then, a few years later I returned to Timaru with my mother in 1935.  My reply was reported in the paper as a ‘boy telling tall stories.’ In fact, it was absolutely true.

And I have been here ever since. I dedicate this story to all children lost at sea.


Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash

About Ryman Healthcare:

Ryman was founded in 1984 and has become one of New Zealand’s largest listed companies. The company owns and operates 45 retirement villages in New Zealand and Australia which are home to more than 13,900 residents and the company employs 6,800 team members.

Media advisory: For further information, photos, interviews or comment please contact Group Corporate Affairs Manager Silke Marsh on +64 27 294 3609 or Communications Advisor Maryvonne Gray on 027 552 0767.

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