War Diary of Captain Alan W. Willis (Lieut.Cmdr. R.D. R.N.R. Ret’d )

Whatever was the case, he joined the British India Steam Navigation Co. (later to become part of the P.&O.Group ) in 1928 at age seventeen and served as a cadet for 4 years learning the trade - and being general dogsbody of course - splicing and serving ropes, cleaning, painting, watchkeeping , basic navigation, and generally getting the feeling of how a sea-going ship works. Incidentally, sea-sickness did pursue him throughout his service, though he discounts its frequency and effects. In those early years he served in cargo and passenger ships working out of the U.K. to Indian and East African ports until 1936 when he was to work coal and general cargo ships between India , Sri Lanka, Burma and Malaya. A feature of officer service in the Merchant Navy was that, though you might pass examinations, qualifying you for more senior positions, you did not necessarily obtain the appropriate promotion until years later. So it was that in 1932 he obtained his 2n d mates certificate but not until the following year was he appointed 4th officer, and from thence gradually climbing the promotion ladder until he was to become 1s t mate in 1939 (for which he had qualified in 1936) shortly before the outbreak of the 2n d World War . At that time he was due to return to the U.K. to take his Masters Certificate but events overtook him delaying for 7 long years his completion of this qualification. He had however, as early as 1936 joined the Royal Navy Reserve and was as a result immediately called up for active service as soon as war was declared. He was to be commissioned as sub-lieutenant and subsequently as Lieutenant to serve on the armed Merchant Cruiser H.M.S.Hector (14,000 tons). A word about armed Merchant Cruisers. It had been recognised that although we had a large and powerful peacetime Navy, the demands made on it in times of war would be greater than its ability to meet them in view of our world-wide Empire and Commonwealth commitments. One of the ways of plugging the gap was to utilise merchant shipping capable of being converted for war service. Thus fishing trawlers and pleasure steamers were used as minesweepers, boom defence vessels etc. Armed merchant cruisers were simply large merchant vessels whose design made them suitable to be armed, mainly with 6” guns and some anti-aircraft weapons for this purpose. They had no armour plating and were no match for enemy surface ships in pitched battle. They did however perform a very useful service. So Alan joined such a ship in October 1939 where he supplemented his normal watch-keeping and navigational duties (there was no radar available in those days) with responsibility for a battery of three 6” naval guns. After the usual Page 4
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