Joining The Dorelian at Swansea

On 17th May 1940 Alister's indentures to the Donaldson Brothers & Black Limited were agreed and signed.  He travelled down to Swansea to join his first ship, the Dorelian which was under repair at Swansea. On 20th May he signed on.

The Dorelian was a general cargo steel steam ship, built in 1923 of 6,431g. It was powered by coal fired boilers driving a 4 cylinder steam engine. It was certified to carry 73 crew, there were three apprentices, but Alister was 5 years younger than the other two and was the only person under 18.

I do not own a picture of the Dorelian but you can see it on this Clyde Built Ships page.

This is Alister's own memory of joining the ship.

The ship was berthed at the coal tips loading bunkers, so it was not a shinning start. We were a coal burner with about 14 firemen on board feeding the boilers about 30 T/day. They worked 3 shifts of 8 and came out the stoke hole in need of a bath. Coal was loaded down coal shoots up to 1,000 tons.

I sailed on my first voyage on the SS Dorelian on 25th May 1940 bound to Montreal. The war was already 9 months old so we carried a 4” gun on the poop, I was made sight setter because of my height 6’ 2 ½ “ and told to hold both sights tightly when we fired and keep my mouth open.

We mainly kept bridge watches as part of the time we were in convoy and had to watch the Commodore’s ship for signals. 

The trade was Montreal to Avonmouth and Swansea. In port we kept gangway watch for security. The air raid sirens went off sometimes twice a day but seldom did we see a plane.  In Avonmouth one night a large piece of shrapnel fell alongside the gangway but caused no damage.

On the 26th May Britain started to evacuate its remaining forces from mainland Europe. Now Britain depended on the few men of the RAF to defend the country and the Merchant Navy to bring essential food and supplies. The Merchant Navy was protected as best they could by the Royal Navy and Air Force.

The capture of the French Atlantic coast line enabled the Germans to greatly increase the pressure on British shipping in the Atlantic. Almost immediately the Germans would have U boat bases along the Atlantic coast in France as well as the North Sea. And now it was summer with better weather and long days.
On the 26th May at 7am, as the Dunkirk evacuation started the Dorelian, captained by Duncan Macqueen, sailed from Swansea to join convoy OB-156 bound for Montreal.


Getting Involved

On the 1st September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war on the 13th September. Immediately, Britain was critically dependant on the umbilical cord provided by its Merchant Navy and they were instantly under attack.

In three months the German Battleship Admiral Graf Spee, sank nine ships in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean but was then trapped by the Royal Navy and scuttled by its crew.

Near to home the German surface war ships in Europe dared not leave port. Initially U-boats attacked the Royal Navy but they were not winning. The Royal Navy sank the first U-boat the day after war was declared. The lack of access to the Atlantic and foul weather over the winter limited the German U-boat threat to the new convoys across the Atlantic, but Britain could now see what was coming and struggled to get the equipment to counter it.

It is incredible that Statesmen with full personal knowledge of the horrors of the Great War were prepared to start the same thing again. People start wars because they believe that they have the upper hand and will win, but technology catches them out. In the Great War the machine gun was a surprise, and the battles did not go as expected because of it. Now the Germans though they had the upper hand. They had set the timetable and were ready, their tanks and blitzkrieg tactics quickly overran the Western defences.

In April 1940 the Germans gained Norway and direct access to the Atlantic ready to apply their U-boat technology to strangle Britain. Fortunately for Britain it appears that Hitler did not see this as his winning hand from the start and the U-boats were not fully resourced. The human cost of the Battle of the Atlantic was immense but the pendulum would be swung by the technology.

Though he had just started his fifth year Alister decided he was going to join the Merchant Navy because he had good knowledge of the sea and little was happening at school; they spent their time filing sandbags.  He left Glasgow High School to do a course at the School of Navigation at the Royal Technical College, now amalgamated into the University of Strathclyde.

Alister and his classmates encouraging people to help the war effort. Even in 2010 you can still see where railings were removed for their metal and never replaced.

In April 1940 Alister was sixteen.  On 8th May 1940 the Donaldson Line Limited wrote to Alister at the school house in Furnace placing him on a weeks notice to go to sea, his Indentures were being prepared ready for signature by his parents.

As an apprentice Alister was not just going to the Sea, it was the start of a professional career leading to a Master’s Certificate so maybe he saw it as a good option in the circumstances.