In memory of HMS Dunedin and her Men

Part Two: Concert Party and Preparing to Leave Freetown for the last time

The sinking of HMS Dunedin and the Epic of the “Dunedin”, by Harold Woodley

The ship’s company of the Dunedin could be described as a very happy one. Most of the men had been aboard the ship for over two years and naturally enough everyone knew each other well, as would be the case when you are living together and sharing dangers and experiences as they did over so long a period. Even new members of the crew soon settled in, for the feeling of friendliness and comradeship on board soon grew on you.

One of the direct results of this comradeship was the formation of a “Ship’s Concert Party”. It was formed from members of the ship’s company and was beginning to make a name for itself throughout the “Fleet”. Any Concert Party that performed in front of a crowd of “matloes” had to be good, to stand up to the remarks and the ready wit of the sailors. Many E.N.S.A. Concert Parties had experienced that wit during performances they gave to the troops throughout the war, and the soprano who screamed or faltered, the blonde actress who unconsciously showed a knee when she sat down, the effeminate male – all had experienced the sharp end of that wit.

However the Dunedin’s artistes had come through all the skirmishes with their audiences with flying colours, and in fact, the sketches and comedians invited remarks from the audiences – as in old time drama, where the audience booed the villain or cheered the hero, for it made good fun for all.

At the last ship’s concert the Officers had produced a domestic sketch, which had proved a great success – especially the good looking Paymaster as the “blonde wife”, and everyone was looking forward to the repeat performance tomorrow night.

Tomorrow, though, was a long way off yet, and as we all knew – many things could happen before then! However, as the ship’s repairs and alterations were not completed yet, it seemed safe to assume that we would not go out on patrol until they were finished, and that would be after the concert.

So a tiring forenoon passed. The heat mingled with the smell of the sea, sea-weed, oil fuel, burning paint and the curious odour of acetylene welding, all too familiar on a ship undergoing repairs. Noise, too, was paramount – sawing, hammering, riveting, the staccato chattering of a thousand pneumatic implements and the upraised voices trying to make themselves heard above the din. Then, amid all the noise, the Boatswains mate came along the upper deck piping “Cooks to the Galley”, and the din gradually subsided – it seemed that everyone must be duty cook of his mess the way they disappeared.

Among the first was Able Seaman Smith, known to his shipmates as “Darkie”, whose job was the blacksmith’s mate, and sweltering in front of a furnace and swinging a heavy hammer for the blacksmith in this tropical climate was no pleasant job, and he felt glad to get away and clean up before dinner.

It was almost two and a half years ago that “Darkie” joined the “Dunedin”, and to him now it seemed “home”. He had joined the ship as an “Ordinary Seaman” and was now an “Able Seaman” waiting to be rated “Leading Seaman”, having passed his exam sometime previously.

He was proud of this ship, for it had carried him safely to many parts of the world he had never expected to see, given him adventures that he would never forget, and his shipmates were as fine a crowd of fellows as one could wish to sail with. They knew each other as brothers.

As he went down the hatch to his mess deck after a wash, Darkie wondered what would be the latest rumours to be spread around the mess table, whether there would be any mail from home, and also if his tot of rum would be waiting for him.

It was strange how they still looked forward to that rum ration, even though after they had drunk it, the normal perspiration of their bodies increased until the sweat ran from their foreheads and chests forming little rivulets that ran into their eyes and soaked their clothes – rivers of rum! Still it gave them a good appetite to eat some of the food the chef was supposed to have cooked!

The heat, like walking into an oven greeted him as he went on to the forward mess deck. Space on the mess deck, with a war complement of men, was very small for there were hammock nettings filled with hammocks up to the deck head, the big gun supports, ammunition hatches leading down to the magazines below, a maze of pipes, electric wires and cables, ladders and hatchways leading down to other mess decks with electric motors and many other necessary parts of a fighting ship’s equipment. It was a very small place indeed when you considered all the sailors who had to sleep, eat and live there.