At regular intervals, all vessels are placed in Dry Dock where they are thoroughly examined and repaired before being licensed to return to the high seas. The great ocean liners were no exception. The then 16-year-old Michael Walsh was one of the skeleton crew left to man the RMS Britannic during its repair and renovation in north Liverpool’s Dry Dock.
The repairs may last a week or so during which time, especially at night, there is little or no human activity. The writer later recalled that there were just several quartermasters deployed to act as a fire party. ‘I had been tasked with being the liner’s watchman and was to be positioned in the great liner’s wheelhouse.
Back then, I was still wet behind the ears deck boy and I had volunteered for this night-watchman’s job. The watch duty began at about 6 p.m. and didn’t finish until 8 am the following morning so it was a soul-destroying but well-paid duty. All one could do during the night watch was read a book and maybe catch a little shuteye whilst stretched out on a ship’s deckchair.
The RMS Britannic was the last of the White Star Shipping Company liners. This was the company that had once owned the luckless RMS Titanic. Built-in 1930, the Britannic featured much that would be familiar to the great passenger liners like the Olympic and Titanic. The deckchairs hadn’t changed since that period.
‘During my brief instruction, I learned the ropes relating to the watchman’s duties. Having shown me the various alarms, handles, switches and lights, the officer of the watch then took me across the great liner’s wheelhouse to where there was located a glass cabinet set in the wheelhouse bulkhead.
The cabinet looked very much like one of those museum display cabinets that hold and display artefacts. However, this wheelhouse cabinet differed in that the bottom was lined by about 30 small pipe ends. Think of 2’ of a vacuum cleaner pipe and you have the picture.
The system like most clever ideas is simple. Each pipe led to a different section of the great liner, a hold, storeroom, workshop, or a utility room. In the event of a fire breaking out the smoke would be vacuumed up along the pipe to emerge in the wheelhouse glass cabinet whereupon the fumes would set off the alarm. The number inscribed on each pipe would indicate the room affected.
The officer was blasé about this part of the instruction and seemed to me to be going through the motions only. With that, I was left to my own devices. It was admittedly lonely. On the ship’s bridge and confined to the wheelhouse, I was far from any human activity. I had no idea where the ship’s officer would be. The four or so ship’s quartermasters were ten minutes of ladders, walkways, staircases and alleys distant.
Each night watch passed uneventfully until during the early hours of one morning the alarm in the wheelhouse cabinet sounded. A false alarm I suspected. When I reached the cabinet, I stood horrified as I watched black smoke pouring from one of the pipes. Ours is not to reason why ours is but to do and die. As earlier instructed, I ran from one alarm to another, pulling levers, pressing buttons, raising and lowering handles.
One is totally unprepared for the bedlam that follows. Every damned light on the darkened liner came on. Simultaneously, the great ship’s whistles on its funnel continually blasted their whistles. These ship’s whistles could be heard six miles away.
One could barely hear oneself speak to the backdrop of clanging ship’s bells. Far below in the liners corridors the watertight doors, far heavier than most bank vault doors, were slamming shut. The darkened liner immediately lit up like Blackpool promenade at the height of season but with far greater effect and noise.
Unsurprisingly, the officer of the watch came through the wheelhouse door like fucking batman on steroids. With the glazed-eye look of an unhinged madman, his eyes rolling and his mouth soundlessly mouthing, I gathered he was saying something along the lines of, ‘what the freaking hell have you done, you half-witted little bastard.’
I was by now aware of the noisy arrival of fleets of fire engines called from all over Liverpool. Stretched along the dock’s quays were already fire appliances, their bells ringing, blue lights were flashing, and hoses were already being laid out?
Unable to utter a word, I jabbed my finger in the direction of the see-all smell-all ‘go and fuck yourself’ glass cabinet. Only then did the ship’s officer realise the seriousness of the situation.
The cause of the shipboard fire was later revealed. Welders, working deep down in the ship’s bowels near the bows had unwittingly allowed sparks to settle in old burlap sacking. The effects of the slow burn had taken a period of time. The welders, their day finished had gone home. Only much later in the evening did the smouldering burlap sacking burst into flames enough to cause the smoke that was to set off the alarm.
The incident reminded us all of a similar fire that precisely six years earlier in 1953 had gutted and capsized another great ocean liner in the nearby Gladstone Dock. Then, the Canadian Pacific Railways Atlantic liner, Empress of Canada, at 20,000 tons smaller than the 27,000 ton Britannic, had been destroyed in a similar situation. Did I receive an award, frankly no, not even a ‘well done, lad’ and a handshake. Such is the reward of duty.
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MICHAEL WALSH is a journalist, broadcaster and the author of RISE OF THE SUN WEEL, EUROPE ARISE, TROTSKY’S WHITE NEGROES, MEGACAUST, DEATH OF A CITY, WITNESS TO HISTORY, THE BUSINESS BOOSTER , THE FIFTH COLUMN VOLUME I and II, FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT SPEAK, IMMORTAL BELOVED, THE ALL LIES INVASION, INSPIRE A NATION Volume I, INSPIRE A NATION Volume II , SLAUGHTER OF A DYNASTY , REICH AND WRONG, THE RED BRIGANDS, RANSACKING THE REICH , The Exiled Duke Romanov Who Turned Desert Into Paradise , THE DOVETAILS and other book titles. These illustrated best-selling books are essential for the libraries of informed readers.
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THE LIVERPOOL TETRALOGY
The revenge of a predator is a city-vigilante epic better than Death Wish A LEOPARD IN LIVERPOOL , 30 lavishly illustrated first-hand stories by a Liverpool sailor BELIEVING OF LIVERPOOL, Latest Killer-Thriller From Michael Walsh the City Vigilante Supremo The Stigma Enigma , A powerful thought-provoking paranormal romance The Soul Meets, How to form a naughty ménage a trois THE DOVETAILS.
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