World War Two: The Viceroy of India (not quite completed ) Hubert Stanley Mollett
Most of the information we have about Dad in his war service comes from little titbits of stories he mentioned when we were children but also from his Merchant seaman discharge book. I have been able to piece together what he did during the war by researching the ships he served on and in this way giving a rough idea of whereabouts he was during this time.
We know from Dad’s stories that he served on troop ships and from his war service medals the approximate areas he sailed in.
So back to 1939 - the year the war broke out. At this time Dad was a young, newly married man, we can only imagine what it would have been like to be plunged into war in these circumstances. At the outbreak of war he was serving on the Viceroy of India which he had joined in February of 1938. It is the one part of Dad’s war service that he spoke of as the ship was sunk off the coast of North Africa in 1942 but more of that later.
At the beginning of the war not all ships travelled in convoys and when Dad was serving as a canteen steward on board in 1939 the Viceroy was travelling independently, presumably still as a normal passenger liner. I have been able to find out that during the latter half of 1939 the ship was travelling from Southampton to the Far East and China calling at exotic places like Aden, Alexandria, Bombay, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. We take all these names with a pinch of salt nowadays but in the late 1930s and early 40s they would have been exotic indeed. (insert something about Shanghai here)
At the beginning of 1940 he does this trip again with the exception of Shanghai and this seems to be the case for the rest of the year going back and forth either from Plymouth, Liverpool, Southampton or the Clyde In July of this year the ship returns via the Cape, Freetown and Mombassa.
At the end of 1940 the Viceroy joins a convoy (WS:4B) having been requisitioned by the Ministry of Transport for war. She spends 10 days in Durban over Xmas and continues to Port Said in January with 1068 troops on board. Strangely the ship seems to have returned to Suez independently - one wonders how dangerous this was. For the rest of 1941 the Viceroy of India with Dad on board ferries troops from Liverpool to Freetown and Durban. Interestingly in June of this year the ship is carrying 167 troops and 1012 POWs from Aden to Mombassa and Durban and even in July diverting to Trinidad arriving back in Liverpool on 6th July.
The trips to the Cape continue throughout the year being away for about a month at a time but always it seems returning to Liverpool so one wonders how much Dad actually saw of his new wife during those years.
The convoys continued and in September 1941 they are in convoy WSO11 on their way to Bombay with 2472 troops on board. It’s possible he may have spent Xmas at home in 1941 as there appears to be a break in service between December 12th and January 12th 1942. These times must have been precious moments enjoyed back home in Portsmouth where it seems Mum spent most of her war years living with her Mum, sisters and brother.
But it was back to the troops and convoys at the beginning of 1942 travelling to Freetown and Durban and Aden returning to Liverpool in April and onward to the Clyde in May. Two days later they are back at sea again with another convoy WS.19P to Freetown and Durban with 3528 troops on board and this seems pretty much the picture for the months of June, July, August and beginning of September - troops being taken to South Africa, Aden and Durban.
Leaving the Clyde on October 24th 1942 this was to be the last voyage of the Viceroy of India.
Operation Torch was a campaign to put troops into North Africa in order to push the Axis forces out of North Africa and so advance back into Europe via Italy. (check these facts) So on the above date the Viceroy left the Clyde with 2800 troops on board heading for Algiers with convoy KMF. They arrived safely on November 8th, disembarked the troops and left again on November 10th with 432 crew and 22 passengers on board.
In the early hours of November 11th U-Boat 407, under the command of Ernst-Ulrich Bruller, surfaced to recharge her batteries, 50 kilometres off the coast of Oran in North Africa and torpedoed the convoy hitting the Viceroy of India. HMS Boedicea, commanded by Lt. Commander FC Broderick), picked up 450 survivors and took her in tow but she sank at 08.07 hours.
(insert photos here)
Only 4 people were lost - 2 officers and 2 firemen and the survivors were taken by the destroyer to Gibralter, Dad amongst them I guess!!
The first Mum knew of this was Dad turning up on the doorstep with only the clothes he stood up in!!! She was also some three months pregnant at the time. Was this the first time Dad knew about his new family member to be!!!
And so a great ship died. She had been launched in 1928 as the crowning achievement of P & O with turbo electric engines and first class passengers having cabins of their own for the first time. Her regular route had been:
London (Tilbury)- Gibraltar - Marseille -Naples-Port Said- Suez Canal- Aden- Bombay.
Transporting no doubt wealthy passengers to the Raj in total luxury, breaking the record for the fastest trip between London and Bombay.
A sad day when she was requisitioned (as were many passenger ships at the time) by the Ministry of War Transport as troop transport in November 1940. Within two years she was to be the only ship torpedoed in Operation Torch.
In one of her pre-war trips (not with Dad on board) she had stopped at the island of Tristan da Cunha to report on the population’s wellbeing. In August 1940 she had picked up 279 passengers from the Cunard White Star liner Ceramic which had been in collision off the coast of Cape Town.
The Viceroy of India in happier times