Sound: life at sea in the Merchant Navy

Hear Les Watson talk about the food and accommodation aboard the Raranga.

Les was born in Dunedin in 1922. Unable to join the armed forces because of a sports injury, he signed on the Shaw Savill & Albion cargo liner Raranga as a steward in 1942. On his first trip to Britain, the ship crossed the North Atlantic as part of convoy SC121, battling huge seas and frequent U-boat attacks. Les later served on the Liberty ship Samavon, the big troopship Ile de France and a number of other vessels.


My meals were quite good; I ate what the officers ate. Because I did the officers' mess and the 'old man' [captain]. So I had pretty good food. But there was some terrible food went to the crew. They used to, on the Raranga, when they used to come out after their watch, they looked like skeleton wrecks – the [firemen and] trimmers. Back-to-back they were, shovelling into fires either side. And they were just bones. Shocking conditions, but they survived. And yet the same ship was one of the few that maintained its speed across the Atlantic in all weathers, [even compared] to the modern ones. It was still more seaworthy.

Where was your accommodation?

Mine was aft. The seamen were for'ard, and the firemen and that. We were aft with the galley staff. And actually speaking, in the Atlantic the waves come over and flooded our cabin, and I was on the top bunk. And I always remember this to this day, I am sitting there, and there was no way I was going to get out and paddle in the water, if the ship was sinking I was staying in the top bunk!

Les Watson posing for a photo on a ship's deck

Les Watson in his deck steward's uniform aboard the Ceramic (II) in 1948

Community contributions

4 comments have been posted about Sound: life at sea in the Merchant Navy

What do you know?

Richard Quartermaine

Posted: 04 Nov 2012

In August 1947 on my second trip to sea I signed on the SS 'Raranga' in Sydney as Scullion - that is the 'Galley Boy'. I remember well the voyage to London via Durban and Las Palmas. Captain James was the skipper and The cook was a Scouse who kept a dipper by the large cauldron of water on the coal fired stove. Once there was a group of firemen, stokers and trimmers at the galley door complaining about the food. Cookie stood by the cauldron with the dipper in his hand listening to the complaint. It was all resolved satisfactorily but there was no doubt what Cookie would have done had any violence erupted.

Eleanor Stewart-Richardson

Posted: 10 Apr 2012

My mother Mary Stewart was travelling to India on the SS Britannia. The ship was attacked and sunk by the German surface raiser THOR. The date was 24th March 1941. My mother was in either Lifeboat No 3 or No 5. After four days at sea they were picked up by a Spanish ship heading for Montevideo. The ship was either the Bachi or the Raranga

Neill A

Posted: 27 Sep 2011

According to Frank Bowen's wartime history of the Shaw Savill and Albion Co, the Raranga rescued 57 survivors from the Anchor liner Britannia. Other sources confirm the Britannia, bound from Liverpool for Bombay, was sunk off west Africa on 25 March 1941 by the German auxiliary cruiser Thor. There were more than 480 people on board and 249 died. Some other survivors were picked up by a Spanish ship, while 38 made a remarkable 1500-mile lifeboat journey to the Brazilian coast.

sheila young

Posted: 27 Sep 2011

My uncle Jimmy (James Kirton) was on a boat which was sunk by a German U-boat. There were a small group of survivors who manned a life raft. They were at sea for several days before the Raranga came by and rescued them. My uncle was forever grateful to his rescuers and named his house Raranga, after the ship. He lived in Carlisle, UK.
I would love to know if anyone is still alive who recalls this happening. I forget the name of the ship my uncle was on.