Alan Mills – Farewell to Palestine

After almost daily rumours we were finally told we would be pulling out in August. We began to solemnly pack kit boxes and bags. We finally departed the billet on a hot mid-August morning aboard military transport heading for Haifa Port. We then embarked on the troop ship ‘Empress of Australia’.

On boarding we were relieved of all our weapons and despatched down into the depths of the ship to F Deck. As one, we refused to occupy this deck as it was unbearably hot. Our protests were vehemently directed at the military stewards who decided to beat a hasty retreat. We followed them through the ship like a howling mob. It became more serious as we parked ourselves outside the onboard first class restaurant which was busy serving lunches to senior officers and their wives. (The ship was returning from India). We jammed the entrances and exits of the kitchens and dining rooms, then one of our lot started ba-ahing and like sheep, we all joined in, one of the lads even joined in as a yapping dog.

Despite the humour it was all starting to look ugly when a detachment of Military Police arrived. They were not very well schooled in the art of diplomacy and we were soon all pushing and shoving each other before one of the MPs was apprehended with threats to throw him overboard. We had a ten day voyage ahead of us, this all happened before the ship set sail. Eventually the ships Commanding Officer and Captain agreed to go to F Deck with a thermometer. It was too hot and miraculously fans were found and a hatch was opened and a wind sock rigged, this made it a bit more tolerable and eventually the ship was given the go ahead to set sail.

alan_mills_empress_of_australiaHaifa port was roughly shaped like a horse shoe, the entrance and exit being open ended. We were berthed halfway down the left hand side. An American navy destroyer (here to take the American consulate) was berthed opposite us, about 800 yards away. At mid-morning the US destroyer cast off, neatly swinging round in her own length, then pointing the bows for the harbour exit. She then spectacularly unleashed herself full speed accompanied by blaring short blasts of her siren. On each side of the harbour exit were navigation lights built on a slightly submerged breakwater. As the boat approached the exit at full speed, it became obvious something was not quite right and frantic gesticulations by some of the crew on deck brought about absolute panic as the ship hastily ground into reverse – but it was too late – there was a sickening crunch as the bows hit the breakwater, rising above the rocks, then slowly slid back down into reverse, followed by a resounding cheer from a few thousand troops on board our ship. The destroyer painfully limped into Acre Bay. Passing her the following day, she was weighed down by the stern, with the bows well clear of the water, waiting for someone to come along and repair the damage.

The following morning it was our turn to cast off and we made our way slowly through the harbour mouth, our final departure from Haifa. There was no pomp and pageantry, all of us were on deck quietly subdued, immersed in our own nostalgic thoughts, I guess there were a few lumps in a few throats. By mid afternoon Palestine was but a smudge on the horizon.

Ten days later we docked in Liverpool and after a few farewell beers, I boarded the train and a few hours later I was back in Leeds. Waiting for me was a railway warrant card and instructions to attend a final disbandment parade at Buckingham Palace in the presence of King George V1 and Queen Elisabeth. The final chapter of a rewarding experience.

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