- Thomson, Max
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1986 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
MANY AN AUSSIE SERVICEMAN carved his initials on the wooden guardrail of the massive troopship Queen Mary.
Indeed, when she was finally converted back to a luxury trans-Atlantic liner after the war a section of guardrail with so many of those carved signatures was specifically preserved as a tribute to the liner’s years as a troop transport.
Queen Mary‘s wartime service makes incredible reading. But it also makes rivetting listening – especially when related by the ship’s captain.
One hundred miles inland from the sea, in a quiet corner of Bendigo’s historic Shamrock Hotel several years after the war, I enjoyed an enthralling lunch with Sir James Bisset. Just he, myself as a young journalist, and one of Sir James’ colleagues; with my mind agog at the thought of how many world personalities had jostled and manoeuvred in years gone by just for the privilege of sitting at ‘The Captain’s Table’ when he was Master of the Queen Mary and then the Queen Elizabeth.
Sir James’ story was the epitome of every young boy’s dream. He first came to Melbourne, aged 15, in 1903 from Liverpool as a crew member of a small sailing ship. Just over 40 years later, when the mammoth Queen Mary visited Australia, it was Captain Bisset who stood on the bridge directing operations.
Of his 40 years at sea, the last five he spent as Captain of Queen Mary and then Queen Elizabeth. ‘During those five years we carried three quarters of a million troops to the various war theatres without losing a single life,’ he said.
‘We brought the first American troops to Australia in 1942 – 12,000 of them. A year later we came to Australia again bringing home the 9th Div AIF from the Middle East. In that convoy 38,000 troops arrived in Sydney,’ said Sir James.
‘Then I returned to the North Atlantic run, carrying GIs – 15,000 at a time. Biggest complement ever carried in one trip was 15,760 on the Queen Elizabeth – plus 1100 in the ship’s company – a total of 16,860 people.
‘When the war ended we made five or six trips to return American troops home and then the Elizabeth was laid up to undergo reconversion to a passenger liner. That took nine months and, after trials, she went out on her maiden voyage.
Originally she had been deprived of that maiden trip because during the war she was first taken under great secrecy to the United States to be ‘stowed away’,’ said Sir James.
‘It was considered that her size presented too great a target for enemy raiders and that the ship was too valuable to risk.
‘When finally impressed into service as a troopship, Queen Elizabeth mounted 70 guns.
But she never fired one in anger. As far as I know, we were never attacked,’ Sir James Bisset said.
‘Gun crews totalled 150 of the ship’s crew, supplemented by another 150 from the troops aboard. It was a coveted honour to be chosen as a member of a gun crew.’
Asked who was the greatest of all personalities he had met while commanding the mammoth Queen ships. Sir James unhesitatingly said ‘Winston Churchill’.
‘Churchill would come up on the bridge and spend a lot of time with me. He was never interested in small talk. He had the worries of the war on his shoulders. The only time we ever had an escort was when Churchill was aboard. On one occasion Mrs. Churchill travelled with him, plus a staff of about 150. He even had his own guards and sentries – marines who guarded every entrance to the deck on which Churchill lived and worked and who prevented anyone from getting near to the coding and cyphering offices. We strictly adhered to radio silence and any messages were flashed to the escorting cruiser, which frequently steamed hundreds of miles away from the ship before breaking radio silence to transmit her priority signals,’ added Sir James.
Strangely enough, he said his most thrilling experience was not on either of the Queen liners, but aboard the 20,000 tonne Franconia when she was bombed in Quiberon Bay while evacuating troops from Dunkirk.
There was a strange little touch of irony about that luncheon with Sir James Bisset in Bendigo’s Shamrock Hotel. I didn’t tell him at the time, for it seemed inconsequential and I was too enthralled at his anecdotes. But as a young Navy signalman during the war, I had been on the bridge of probably the smallest oceangoing unit of the Royal Australian Navy. ML 817 – a Fairmile patrol boat which, with a gaggle of corvettes, had been carrying out anti-submarine patrols along the east coast sealane to Sydney. Lt. Cdr. Athol Townley (later Australia’s Minister for Defence) exhorted those on the bridge to keep their eyes peeled ‘for shortly you will see something about which you can tell your grandchildren’.