The first of June in 1944, it was the day the 35PRS arrived in India on its long journey to China. The SS Strathmore brought the squadron safely, if not worse for the wear, from Port Said, Egypt, from which they departed on 20 May.

The trip journal of a 35PRS Airman, S/Sgt. Anthony Garra, described the journey to Bombay from Egypt; first through the Suez Canal: “….we moved through it very slowly…the terrain was mainly bleak white sand although here and there I saw beautiful palm trees and picturesque native villages. I saw my first camels in their native haunts. At fairly regular intervals there were troops stationed, usually two or three men in a little hut. Often we passed troops or natives who were bathing. They didn’t seem to mind our presence one bit even though they were entirely nude.”

The Mooltan clos-up, a troopship, Suez Canal (Courtesy Acidhistory blog)

The troopship Mooltan close-up, on passage through the Suez Canal (Courtesy Acidhistory blog)

By May 21, the Strathmore had passed through the canal and on into the Red Sea. Sgt Garra continued: “…the water was very calm and very blue. On one side we were flanked by Arabia, on the other by the Anglo Egyptian Sudan. The heat was terrific to say the least.”

Cool clear water of Red Sea in Egypt in summer. (Courtesy Dreamstime.com)

Cool clear water of Red Sea in Egypt in summer. (Courtesy Dreamstime.com)

As for the experience aboard ship at that time, Tony Garra also wrote about that: “At night I would roll a blanket on the mess table, or rather half of it. Another fellow shared half the table with me. 0n either side and under the table and (on the) floor, were other men. It was quite a hard bed and I usually had a sore spot on my hip in the morning. The heat was terrible and all of us perspired freely during the night. None of our port holes could be opened consequently we had very little air. There was a system of blower tubes but that would benefit only a few individuals at one time.”

He continued: “At six A.M. we got up, rolled our bedding and at 6:30 had breakfast. Breakfast consisted of tea, bread, and oatmeal. No cream or sugar. Along with that there was sometimes fish, sausage or liver. None of it any good. At 10 A.M. we always had boat station drill for submarine alerts. At 11:30 we had a light lunch, no tea. The evening meal was at 5:30 and usually consisted, of tea, bread, some type of meat and a potato. It was so hot in the hold that every meal time we would strip down to shoes and drawers and at that the perspiration rolled in a steady stream from our bodies. Each meal I used to take half a tea-spoon of salt and wash it down with my tea. The food poor as it was, was doled out in too small portions for the amount of men. During the day between meals, I usually just sat on deck (if I could find room) sometimes I read if I chanced upon some reading material.”

The ship made a brief port of call at the port of Aden, arriving on the evening of 25 May 1944 before continuing on across to India. “We stayed there all the next day, taking on water and some provisions. We had quite a time throwing English pennies to the natives although they seemed to treasure cigarettes more than money,” Tony Garra recounted.

 A panoramic view of the mountain and cityscape at Aden, Yemen. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

A panoramic view of the mountain and cityscape at Aden, Yemen. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

On 27 May the Strathmore left Aden, accompanied. “This time since we were in dangerous waters, we had an escort for our convoy. The trip across the Indian Ocean was luckily, very peaceful,” wrote Tony Garra. It wasn’t always that way on crossings in the Indian Ocean, as German and Japanese submarines were still lurking even in those faraway waters. (See Indian Ocean in World War II link below)

Japanese submarine I-10 (A-class), at Penang Port on the west coast of Malaya, in between patrols, 1942 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Japanese submarine I-10 (A-class), at Penang Port on the west coast of Malaya, in between patrols, 1942 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The Strathmore reached its destination without incident on Thursday, 1 June 1944. Tony Garra wrote: “As usual, we had the tedious job of unloading. We then got into an Indian train ready for another trip. As we were leaving Bombay we passed an area about six blocks square which was completely leveled. Six weeks previous an ammunition ship had exploded causing two hundred and fifty million damage. Smoke still rose from the ruins and the smell was terrible.”

Aftermath of the Bombay Explosion on 14 April 1944 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Aftermath of the Bombay Explosion on 14 April 1944 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

What Tony Garra and the rest of the Redhawks saw was indeed the aftermath of a terrible explosion which occurred on 16 April 1944, when the cargo ship SS Fort Stikine caught fire and then catastrophically exploded in Bombay Harbor. It was heard 50 miles away.

SS Fort Stikine, a 7, 100 ton merchant ship bilt in Prince Ripert, British Columbia, Canada, in 192.  (Courtesy Wikipedia)

SS Fort Stikine, a 7,142 ton merchant ship built in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada, in 1942. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The fiery explosions rained flaming debris into densely populated slum areas half a mile away, which then caught fire and added to the death and destruction. It took three days to bring the fires under control. The calamity claimed between 800 and 1,300 lives, including hundreds of civilians, and 2,500 more people suffered injury.  Some were even injured by gold bars hurled skyward from the varied cargo aboard the Ft. Stikine. Thousand more became homeless with only the clothes on their backs. Key parts of Bombay’s infrastructure and economy were gutted in the blasts and fires. It also destroyed 13 ships and damaged many more. The incident was stark evidence of the dangers of transporting dangerous cargo.

The explosion of the Ft. Sitkine caused a huge tidal wave that swept across the dock and ripped ships from their moorings; one ship finished atop a warehouse. (Courtesy Bombay Photo Images)

The explosion of the Ft. Stikine caused a huge tidal wave that swept across the dock and ripped ships from their moorings; one ship finished atop a warehouse. (Courtesy Bombay Photo Images)

But that was already tragic history, as the Redhawks made their way past the carnage, and headed eastward across India on their way to the Far East to add to the history of the last year of World War II.  There was still a war to be won.
References:
Trip Journal of S/Sgt Anthony A. Garra, pp 6-8.

Royal Signals 1946/1947 in pictures – Part 6 – Ships in the Suez, troopship image at: http://acidhistory.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/royal-signals-19461947-in-pictures-part-6-ships-in-the-suez/

“Indian Ocean in World War II,” Wikipedia entry, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Ocean_in_World_War_II

“Bombay Explosion (1944),” Wikipedia entry at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombay_Explosion_%281944%29

“The Bombay Explosion – 1944” with many images, at: http://oldphotosbombay.blogspot.com/2011/02/bombay-explosion-1944-freighter-ss-fort.html

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