Oriental Valiant, Chapter One
Forenoon, Monday 1 December 1941
‘How’s the prickly heat?’
‘Och, shite! Was I scratching again, Skipper?’
Second Mate Ian Lamont glared accusingly at the hand scrubbing at his chest.
‘I’ve got a tin of Meritt’s powder in my cabin,’ I said. ‘You’re welcome to borrow it.’
‘I’ve tried that, and Johnson's. Best thing I’ve found was the bottle of calamine lotion from the Medical Hall in Singapore. I’ve nearly run out.’
‘There’s bound to be a chemist in Bangkok that can fix you up.’
I raised my binoculars to study the white-painted hulk moored off the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. The pilots were stationed there. We were waiting for one to navigate us across the bar and upriver to the city. I’d wired our estimated time of arrival before leaving Hong Kong, and the flag whipping on the signal halyard in the brisk nor-easter confirmed our request. As yet, there was no sign of the pilot cutter and high water was less than an hour away.
‘I wish they’d get a bloody move on. If we miss high water, we’ll be stuck here until tomorrow morning.’ I reached into my pocket for the tin of Senior Service—and swore. I’d given up smoking.
I strode to the end of the bridge wing and gazed down at the muddy water of the anchorage. Its brown surface was chopped into sharp wavelets by the stiff breeze. Thick clumps of vegetation swirled around the ship in the eddies, where the last of the flood tide met the outflowing river current. It was the dry season when the flow of the normally swollen river slackened. It was also supposed to be the cool season but, even at the start of the forenoon watch, the temperature was already over 70 degrees and the humidity approaching 80 percent. Sweat trickled down my chest but, unlike Lamont who had joined me on the bridge wing, at least I hadn’t erupted with miliaria.
‘Take your shirt off. The breeze will cool you.’
‘Och, that would never do, Skipper. Can’t go letting the side down by appearing semi-naked. What would Mr Khoo think?’
‘I’m sure the chairman’s seen a man’s chest before. Anyway, Second, what are you doing up here? It’s your watch below.’
‘Couldn’t sleep.’ His hand lifted involuntarily towards his chest. Grimacing, he forced it down again. ‘Too bloody hot.’ The grimace turned into a grin. ‘I told the clerk at the Reserve Pool that I was looking for a nice quiet berth in a Clyde Puffer, running out to the Western Isles on nice days only. Rothesay, Oronsay, Taransay. How was I to know that Cathay was on the far side of world?’
‘Didn’t they teach you geography in Inverness?’
‘Aye, they did. But I must’na been paying attention that day.’
The previous second mate had contracted influenza which had turned into pneumonia. Lamont had been sent down by the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool to replace him. The Pool had been established in May, to ensure the supply of officers and ratings for merchant ships. More importantly, it meant their pay was guaranteed if their ships were lost or they were taken prisoner.
I was surprised the Pool had sent us Lamont. He bore the clear hallmarks of a future captain, and by rights deserved something better than a berth in an ageing, coal-burning tramp steamer. Their loss was my gain. He was short and stocky, almost as wide as he was tall, with a face that looked as if it had been hewn from granite with a blunt chisel. Brimming with confidence, he was a born seaman with the briny blood of the Norse Gaels flowing in his veins. His father was a minister in the Scottish church and he had a younger brother in the Royal Navy, but I couldn't hold those against him. Apart from ebullient cheerfulness and the pipe he smoked, there was little to fault. He was also DEMS trained and happy to assist Petty Officer Bullen and his gunnery team.
‘I still find it hard to believe you’ve been at sea all these years and never been to Asia,’ I said.
‘Aye, never left the Atlantic. It was all trips to the Med for iron ore and sugar from Cuba. The owners, Maclay and McIntyre, were men of little imagination.’
He had also never crossed the equator. We rectified that on the passage to Singapore. King Neptune appeared at noon as we crossed the line off the Gulf of Guinea. A trident wielding Brian Cramp, the shipwright, had been accompanied by an elderly Nefertiti played by Chief Engineer Fraser with the head of a mop plastered over his sparse grey hair. They dragged a weakly protesting Lamont onto the main deck. After the traditional punishment of a slathering with galley scraps and waste oil, they turned a fire hose on him. He took it in good grace, and I stood his afternoon watch while he shared a couple of bottles of rum with his shipmates to celebrate his new shellback status.
As a temporary distraction from the war, it had been good for morale. The Nazis had invaded Russia in May and Britain was no longer fighting alone, but the Red Army had crumbled and the Panzers were on the outskirts of Moscow. The Royal Navy was doing its best but, at sea, the only thing that could be said of the war was that we had not yet lost it. Ships were still being sunk and merchant seamen lost at a terrifying rate. We’d been fitted with the long-awaited 4-inch naval gun soon after arriving back in Liverpool in February, and our anti-aircraft capability boosted by a 12-pounder on a high-angle mount. They provided some comfort that we could hit back, and Bullen had claimed a share in a Condor shot down on a subsequent voyage. Despite that, I was glad when the Ministry of War Transport ordered me to take the ship back to the Far East. These were waters I knew, in which U-boats and surface raiders were few and far between.
They were warmer waters too, although Lamont was finding it hard to acclimatise. His thicker Scottish blood was better suited to the wintry reaches of the North Atlantic.
‘Pilot cutter’s on the way, Skipper.’
I turned, to see Third Mate Lakshman pointing towards the anchored hulk. A steam launch was puffing its way towards us.
‘Nip below and tell Cramp to go forward to raise the anchor.’
Lakshman bounded down the stairs. Lamont continued to shadow me on the bridge wing. That was another of his faults. He had an insatiable curiosity about any place he was visiting for the first time.
‘I can’t promise you an interesting river passage. The country’s as flat as a chart table and the river twists and turns until you imagine you’re heading back on yourself.’
‘I have my guidebook.’ Lamont pulled a slim paperback out of his pocket. ‘Conrad took up his first command in Bangkok, the barque Otago. He describes steaming up the Chao Phraya on his way to join her.’
‘The Shadow Line … don’t look so surprised. You and Lakshman are not the only ones who read. I’ve even seen the chief mate absorbed in a copy of Fu Manchu.
Lamont reached into the other pocket for his pipe.
‘You can put that away,’ I snapped, before he managed to strike a match. ‘No smoking on the bridge while I’m here.’
Below me on the foredeck, Cramp climbed onto the forecastle head. The pilot cutter had rapidly closed the distance. I raised an arm and circled my hand. There was an answering hail, followed by the clank and hiss of the windlass as Cramp engaged the gypsy to haul the anchor in.
Twenty minutes later, the anchor was stowed, the pilot safely embarked and the ship steaming towards the Outer Bar lightship.
‘What your draught please, Captain?’ asked the pilot, an immaculately uniformed Siamese.
‘Ten feet aft.’
He nodded. ‘Fourteen feet over the bar today. Should be plenty clearance, but maintain good head steam and close boiler feed valves as far possible. Also plenty weed. Keep eye on sea chests.’
I blew into the engine room voice pipe and relayed the instructions to Fraser.
‘Tell him he’s teaching his granny to riddle the fire grate.’ The gruff Scottish brogue boomed up the brass pipe. ‘It’s the same every time we cross a bar, whether it’s here, the Hooghly or the Rangoon.’
‘Thanks Angus. No need to be so touchy.' I quickly replaced the cover, hoping the pilot hadn’t heard.
Ahead of us, the broad expanse of muddy water stretched away to the low-lying coast, a brown smudge along the horizon. Beyond the Pilot Hulk, the Outer Bar lightship marked the start of the passage across the bar. It was hardly a channel; the chart showed a narrow gutter, between six and nine feet deep at low water.
As we passed the red-painted lightship at little more than half a cable to port, the pilot called a small course alteration. The helmsman spun the wheel spokes.
‘Steady as she goes.’ The pilot raised an arm and pointed right ahead. ‘Five miles to Inner Bar Lightship. Steer straight to it. Then leave to port.’
I raised my binoculars and rotated the adjustment ring until the green painted lightship swam into focus. There was nothing else to mark our way, other than the gap between the fishing stakes thickly populating the shallows on either side.
Lakshman was standing beside the engine room telegraph, jotting down entries in a small notebook.
‘Good work, Third, You’ll need that to write up the log at the end of the watch.’
‘It is also for my own education, sir,’ he replied, his brow knotted with concentration. ‘I make notes of all the pilotages I observe.’ He finished the entry and looked up. ‘If I might ask, sir. Why did the pilot suggest the boiler feed valves be partly closed?’
‘That’s a good question, Third. But this is not the right time. I suggest you ask Mr Fraser after we’re safely moored.’
‘I can answer that,’ called Lamont, from the bridge wing.
‘The third mate’s got a job to do,’ I growled. ‘I don't want you distracting him. A moment’s inattention and we’ll be on the putty.’
Footsteps clattered up the bridge wing ladder and McGrath appeared in the wheelhouse. ‘Both anchors ready for letting go, Skipper. Cramp’s standing by on the brakes.’
I nodded in acknowledgment.
‘What are you doing up here, Ian?’ McGrath said, seeing Lamont on the bridge wing. ‘It’s your watch below.’
‘Making a bloody nuisance of himself,’ I said, before Lamont had a chance to reply. ‘Distracting the third mate. And I had to stop him lighting that foul pipe of his.’
McGrath failed to suppress the smile that split his lips.
‘And you can wipe that silly grin off your face.’ I’d suffered bouts of irritation ever since giving up smoking. There was an unopened tin of Senior Service in my day cabin in case of emergency. I took a deep breath and resisted the temptation to fetch it. It would be twenty minutes before we drew abeam of the lightship, and the pilot appeared to know what he was doing.
‘It’s in case we go aground, Third,’ I said. ‘The boiler feed valves are closed just enough to keep a full head of steam up, while restricting the amount of water in the boiler drums. It’s not recommended by the boiler manufacturer, it’s dangerous to starve the drums. But if we get stuck in the mud with them full of water, the steam demand by the engine will immediately drop. That’ll send the boiler pressures soaring, blow the safety valves, possibly damage the drums and risk the loss of the feed water.’ I paused, glancing across at Lamont. ‘Anything to add, Second.’
Lamont looked down at his feet. ‘No, sir.’
‘Good. Well enjoy your sightseeing, but let the rest of us get the ship safely to Bangkok.’ He still had the irrepressible grin on his face. ‘And if you want to light that bloody pipe, keep well out on the bridge wing.’ I smiled. There was a better alternative. ‘On second thoughts, since you’re up anyway, you can take charge on the forecastle. Keep Cramp company. He can point out the sights. That’ll keep you occupied until we reach Bangkok.’
‘Aye aye, sir.’ Clamping the curved stem briar pipe between his jaws, Lamont clattered down the stairs.
Moments later he reappeared on the foredeck, thick clouds of smoke billowing from his pipe. My nostrils twitched at the aroma of tobacco wafting aft on the breeze and I felt a desperate longing for a Senior Service. Fortunately, Da Silva chose that moment to appear with a pot of coffee. I waited until he’d served the pilot, then savoured the strong, steaming brew.
The bright green, Inner Lightship slid past close by to port.
‘Port ten.’ The pilot watched the bow swing onto a northerly heading. ‘Midships the wheel. Steady as she goes.’
The helmsman had hardly settled onto the new course when the pilot again ordered the wheel hard over to port. This time he let the bow swing four points to the west, until Sunken Junk Lightship was fine on the port bow.
‘Midships. Steady as she goes.’
The estuary narrowed as we cleared the bar and entered the deep water channel leading upstream. Sunken Junk Lightship marked the gap in a line of stone laden junks that had been sunk across the river mouth early the previous century. They, together with a heavy chain strung from shore to shore, were intended to prevent Europeans penetrating upriver to Bangkok. They had failed, although Siam, or Thailand as it had been named since 1939, was the only country in South East Asia that had not succumbed to western domination.
Beyond the lightship was the fortress at the end of West Point. Its white-painted fortifications concealed 6-inch Armstrong naval guns. Mangroves grew thickly along the tide line either side of the channel, and beyond them a flat, tree-dotted network of paddy fields stretched away on either side. Bamboo walled houses thatched with palm fronds clustered amongst the trees, and the occasional gilt spire of a temple gleamed in the sunlight.
After West Point, the river twisted and turned through numerous bends. There were no buoys to mark the channel and the brown, vegetation strewn water provided no indication of its depth. The pilot stalked from one bridge wing to the other, watching the banks and issuing course corrections. McGrath and I took station in the wheelhouse, with all the windows lowered to catch the breeze. I’d made the passage several times before, but had never worked out what the pilots used to guide them. Without one, I would have just followed the centre of the channel as best I could, and trusted to luck to miss any snags or mud banks.
Footsteps on the bridge wing ladder announced another arrival, and I turned to see Mr Khoo climb up to join us.
‘Good morning, Captain Rowden, gentlemen.’ He nodded to each of us in turn, including the helmsman. ‘Might I request your permission to join you on your bridge, Captain?’
‘It’s as much your bridge as mine. You don’t need my permission.’
Despite the heat and humidity, Mr Khoo, the line’s chairman, looked as cool and crisp in his cream linen suit, white buckskin shoes and Panama hat, as if he’d stepped out of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. He raised his hat as the pilot strode past. Pausing only to flick two fingers to the peak of his cap, the pilot continued out onto the other bridge wing. He watched a Junk scrape by, drifting down on the start of the ebb, its fan-shaped, battened sails spread wide to catch the breeze.
‘Nevertheless, you are the captain. I am merely a passenger.’ The smile that crossed Mr Khoo’s lips suggested he believed it less than I did. ‘I have never been to Bangkok. Have I told you that before, Captain?’
He hadn’t, nor explained why he’d joined us in Hong Kong. Our orders were to load a full cargo of rice and deliver it to Singapore. We were too big to cross the bar fully laden. Instead, we would part load in Bangkok and top up from barges at the anchorage outside the bar.
‘No, sir, you never mentioned it.’
‘It was Hong Kong merchants who developed the Siamese rice trade,’ said Mr Khoo. ‘Such as the Wang Lee family. Their junks arrived in Bangkok with ceramics, tea and silk, and returned to Hong Kong full of rice. They migrated here in the eighteen fifties. I am distantly related. It would honour me to meet the descendants of such forward-thinking people.’
Mr Khoo had a remarkably wide network of clan relations, including among my crew. Some of them had been pirates in the junks sailing from Bias Bay, north of Hong Kong. His nod to the helmsman was probably more than mere courtesy.
‘I didn’t know that. So, it’s something of a busman’s holiday.’
Mr Khoo’s soft chuckle brightened his steely eyes. ‘Not at all. Merely sightseeing. We could have loaded the full cargo at the anchorage. But that would have meant hiring a steam launch to convey me to the city. What better way to arrive than on the bridge of my own ship?’
Having completed a series of ox-bow bends, in which we seemed to be steaming back towards the coast, the surrounding countryside became increasingly populated and industrial. Wood and bamboo dwellings clustered thickly alongside either bank. Interspersed among them were godowns, factories and rice mills with their chimneys belching smoke. Behind them rose the gilt stupas of temples with glittering spires. Ships were ranged alongside rickety wharves loading bags of rice. Others were anchored mid-stream. I kept a close eye on the pilot as he conned the ship past them.
Turning the final bend at Bangkolen point, the industry thickened to include sawmills, slipways and oil tanks. Ahead of us, the city sprawled out on either side of the river. The east bank was dominated by the grand buildings of European and American trading houses, hotels, diplomatic legations, the Dock Company and the Customs House, with the spires of the Royal Palace rising in the background. The west bank was densely populated with low housing, rice mills and temples. Many of the wooden houses fronted right over the water, supported on stilts. Women washed their clothes in basins dipped straight from the river. Children tumbled into its brown depths, splashing to the bank, uncaring of the current or the multitude of craft plying back and forth. A line of ships was anchored towards the western side of the stream, all with their bows pointing towards the city. Even at the height of the flood, there was usually enough fresh water flowing downstream, floating on the denser salt water beneath, to keep the ships from swinging around.
The pilot bustled in from the bridge wing, mopping the sweat off his face with a checkered handkerchief. He pointed to a space at the head of the line of anchored ships, opposite a large temple on the western bank.
‘You anchor there, Captain. Six fathoms even at low water springs. Good holding ground.’
‘Thank you, pilot. Slow ahead.’
I allowed the ship to slow until we were just stemming the ebb and then nosed her into position. My hail to the forecastle was followed by the splash of the anchor and the clatter and rumble of the chain tumbling over the gypsy. A cloud of rust enveloped the forecastle. The ship dropped slowly astern with the ebb, dragging the chain out of its locker, until I raised crossed wrists and Cramp furiously screwed on the windlass brake. He peered over the bow as the ship snubbed up, watched until he was satisfied, and hailed to confirm the anchor was holding.
Lakshman recorded the time in his notebook. ‘You can ring Finished with Engine, Third. We’ll maintain sea watches. I’ve never dragged an anchor here, but you never know. Even in the dry season, the current can get up to four knots. So establish some transits and keep a sharp eye on them. Call me if you have the slightest doubt. Let Mr Lamont know when he relieves you.’
‘Aye aye, sir.’ Lakshman rang the engine telegraph and made another note.
The journey upriver had occupied most of the forenoon watch. My stomach twitched at the welcome smell of curry wafting up from the galley. Free of the dreary restrictions of Britain’s rationing, since Singapore our diet had returned to something approaching pre-war normality.
There was a polite cough and I turned to see the pilot holding out a chit for me to sign.
‘Would you care for a drink and some lunch?’
‘No thank you, Captain. The launch is coming alongside.’
I watched over the bridge wing until he was safely embarked onto the cutter, and then went below to join Mr Khoo and the others in the saloon.