Today, Dad talks about sailing to Gibraltar and describes buying watches from the Spanish in exchange for cigarettes.
It was called the S S Mataroa which conjures up a picture of idyllic cruising in the South Seas. In actual fact it was a cargo ship with limited passenger accommodation which had been captured from the Japanese towards the end of the war. The holds had been cleared out and fitted out with bunks other ranks of all three services Navy, Army and RAF occupied. There were two of these holds forward and each hold must have held several hundred men all in close proximity. There were no toilets fitted and therefore there had been built platforms across the bows into which has been fitted washbasins in one row and opposite them a row of toilet bowls. Thus several hundred men were washing, urinating and defecating over the sea. Where the waste went can only be assumed – it went into the sea.
Exercise for the men could be taken on the forward deck above the holds. There was a smoking saloon cum games room just aft of the forward deck but beyond this were marine sentries who barred passage further aft. Beyond these sentries out of bounds to the rank and file the remainder of the ship was devoted to officers and to women personnel to whom the officers were no doubt devoted or so the lads in the holds thought.
Meals for the rank and file were taken in a large saloon served American style. That is you were given a tray with several indentations in it together with a soup bowl and a mug. You passed down the line when you were given a ladle of soup, a pint of tea of coffee in the mug and then each identation in the tray received a portion of meat, a portion of vegetables, a portion of potatoes, gravy if you wanted it and a portion of pudding and custard. Inevitably one portion flowed into the other particularly when going through the Bay of Biscay.
The Navy were issued with their tobacco ration in this case four tins each containing 50 Phiiip Morris cigarettes. In many cases, these were stakes in card games of brag or poker on the three day journey to Gibralter. There we anchored in the bay where a few troops were disembarked.
Here at Gibraltar we had our first experience of bun boats. These were locals (Spaniards) who rowed out to the ship to trade their wares in exchange for cigarettes. The rais were crowded with men as this was a new experience to most. Some of the men entered into the barter system which went like this. There were a dozen or so bunboats and at sea level they were some 20-30 feet below the ships rails. An occupant would hold up a watch (watches were a popular buy). He did not want cash; we only had English money not pesetas but in any case tobacco was the better currency. An interested party at the ship’s rail would ask how much and the vendor would say 200 cigarettes. A few calls of “bollocks” or similar expletive would end up with the vendor agreeing to accept 50 cigarettes. (They were wise to the fact that our cigarettes were in tins of 50)
A sale was agreed and then came the testing point. Did the vendor get the cigs before parting with the watch or vice versa. Again a haggle but the British sailor felt that Philip Morris cigs were rubbish and so he agreed to hand over cigs first. The bun boatmen expertly cast a string up to the rails and tied an empty tin can on the end. The buyer hauled up the can and put his 50 Philip Morris in it and lowered it back. At this stage the vendor should have sent up the watch but when he saw the tin of Philip Morris he gave a howl “No Philip Morris, only Camel or Lucky Strike which we didn’t have. Philip Morris lowered their currency value amongst the boatmean. Instead of 50 cigs, if they were Philip Morris they wanted 100 cigs. Some transactions were agreed and some of the lads got reasonably good watches for their cigs.The ship was about to raise anchor in the afternoon and orders came to get rid of the bun boats. However, the boatmen were not to be got rid of that easy and the ship’s crew on the Captain’s orders turned the hosepipes on the bun boats to disperse them. There was no love lost between the British and and the Spaniards at that time.