Voyages to and From Korea on Her Majesty's Troop Ship Asturias

Following my initial training as an RYO in REME and after a short pre embarkation leave I reported to the REME Depot at Arborfield with orders to proceed to Southampton and board HMTs Asturias on 8 September 1954. I had been given a Posting Order to join No1 Infantry Troops Recovery Unit R.E.M.E. in Korea. The detailed Embarkation Order instructed me precisely on what kit I was to take, how much luggage I was allowed, where the ship was docked and the exact time at which I was to report for boarding.

After such a long time I cannot remember exactly what I was directed to do. But I recall going by the boat train from Waterloo Station to Southampton Docks, in uniform and in the company of many other soldiers with the same fate. We were disembarked on the quayside opposite the old Asturias.

HMTs Asturias was a large vessel for those days with a Gross Tonnage of over 22,000 tons. Her length was just a fraction short of 200 meters and her beam was 24 meters. Originally fitted when launched in 1925 with diesel engines and twin screws her cruising speed was about 16 knots. But after several refits and a rebuild she was capable of 29 knots making her one of the faster passenger vessels of her time.

She was painted white and wore a blue stripe along her length on either side and a single yellow funnel.. This "livery" distinguished her as a Troopship like all the others contracted by the Ministry of Defence to carry service people to all the stations of the British Empire and Commonwealth where Britain still maintained a presence. The Asturias served her time along side other ships that were well known in the services, like the HMTs Empire Orwell and the HMTs Nevasa.

Asturias started life as a comfortable liner capable of carrying 1318 passengers in 1st, 2nd and 3rd class cabins. She was built in the Harland and Woolf shipyard in Belfast and was launched in 1925. She became part of the Royal mail Lines fleet in the 1930's. On the outbreak of World War 2 , like so many other commercial vessels she was taken over by the government and became an armed merchant vessel cruiser. Asturias was torpedoed in 1943 and was badly damaged, but did not sink. She was towed to West Africa (Freetown) and laid up there as a total loss. Finally in 1945 she was towed back to Belfast via Gibraltar and was repaired and refurbished to serve again as a passenger vessel.

She was returned to commercial service in 1946, but as an immigrant ship. In that capacity she carried thousands of people to Australia until 1952 when she re-entered Government service as a troopship.


HMTroopship Asturias

Her capacity for carrying troops, not surprisingly, was greater than when accommodating civilian passengers. Over 200 extra spaces were found to cram in more people. As a troop ship she carried 1559 passengers with a crew of 435. The decks for the main body of troops accommodated some 544 men who for some mysterious reason were referred to as "standees". In fact on the troop decks, as I was to find out later, men were crammed into cabins 8 to 10 at a time. Officers and NCO's with families were accommodated less densely in cabins on the upper decks. All single NCO's and officers shared cabins.

Anyhow, on 8th September 1954 I embarked via the quayside gang plank and reported to the Ship's Orderly room where I was allocated a bunk in a cabin with three other young officers. The embarkation process was very smooth and well organized. All troops were under the command of the Ship's Commanding Officer. He was a Lt Colonel and had been posted with other members of his headquarters on a semi permanent basis to act as CO troops with responsibility for the administration and command of all service personnel embarked for the voyage. The job was not exactly a sinecure, but it must have been sought after because it involved for its duration travelling with the ship on all its voyages. The routes served the traditional ports of the British Empire, such as Gibraltar, Malta, the Suez Canal, Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The voyages had been extended to include Kure in Japan and Pusan in South Korea when Britain joined in the Korean War. Thus the permanent military staff on board Asturias enjoyed a sea going life in the relative comforts of a reasonably appointed vessel.

So the permanent staff was alright, but life for the servicemen who were there for just the one voyage out and home again was not all so easy going. The ship was run as a military camp with all the routines and discipline typical of such places. There were parades of various sorts. Typically there was the regular inspection of the military accommodation by the Commandant. He would tour all the decks occupied by the people under his command inspecting anything and everything that affected the health and welfare of the military population on board. His entourage included the ship's Adjutant and Sergeant Major. The latter was a formidable man of large bulk and fearsome countenance; once a sergeant major in one of the senior infantry regiments he brooked no nonsense. At each deck the Commandant and his entourage would be met by the Troop Deck Officer responsible for an allocation of cabins and men. The inspection party would then tour the whole deck including not just the cabins, but also the heads (naval parlance for the toilet and ablution facilities) and messing areas. Anything out of order was listed for report and the men responsible detailed off to put it right.

As a very junior officer I was responsible for several cabins (I was allocated four of these) and their occupants on "F" deck, about 30 men in all. Their cabins were in the bowels of the ship with no portholes. There were just ventilation ducts for fresh air.

The worst of my jobs was the regular inspection of feet. These were scheduled for about every 3 days and usually took place just before lunch. It involved having the men stand by in their cabins for "foot inspection". Each man had to place each foot in turn on a small stool for me to check for any of the problems that men living cheek by jowl and sharing ablutions could contract. The complaints I had been instructed to look out for were typically "foot rot" or athlete's foot. This was a degrading process, especially for the men involved. As each man presented his feet for inspection he had to spread the toes to reveal the hidden areas. But on occasions I used a stick to perform the operation and that needless to say increased the risk of spreading disease from one man to another. However, the insistence on the inspection of feet, I suppose, was dictated by long Army experience and the need to ensure good hygiene and health. Any disease could spread like wild fire in those crowded conditions unless discovered and dealt with early.

A common medication was the application of "Gentian Violet" a liquid of a particularly repulsive hue of purple that, when applied to toes made them look like a rather bizarre glove of painted appendages almost detached from the rest of the owner's anatomy. It was supposed to dry out the skin and was commonly used for tinea ; e.g. Athlete's foot , jock itch , and ringworm. It provided and effective treatment but it was rather demeaning as it advertised to all that the soldier was suffering from an unpleasant and contagious skin problem.

There are other skin diseases that it was ( and is still) used for, but fungal growths between the toes was its main use on board the Asturias. So, thank fully, the inspection was confined to the feet. Presumably the men were considered sensible enough to report themselves sick if any other parts of their anatomy developed problems. But the logic of this escaped me.

I must say that the foot inspections were hardest to sustain at the best of times, but they were particularly awful during the early days of the voyage when the ship was passing through the Bay of Biscay, notorious for bad weather. The sight and smells of dozens of bare feet paraded for inspection were made worse by the nausea of sea sickness and the need to maintain one's dignity. These parades were never a welcome prelude to the lunch that was to follow.

We all had to parade also for inoculations. All passengers were destined for service either in the tropical climates of places like Malaya and Singapore or in active war zones like Korea. So everyone had to be inoculated against one disease or another. Those going to Korea were served a fiendish cocktail that required two separate sessions. I have no complete idea of what it was that we were being protected against except that it included illnesses like typhoid, tetanus, TB, and cholera. We were also issued with some pills to defeat the onset of malaria. These had to be taken regularly and the course of pills had to start before we arrived in theatre. Chloraquin was the prophylactic agent of choice then and had replaced the quinine of the past.

The passenger population was a really mixed bunch. They were a representative microcosm of the Army itself. Nearly all the support service branches were represented ( R Signals, R. Army Ordnance Corps, R. Military Police, R. Army Service Corps, R. Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and many of the so called teeth arms (R.Artillery, R.Engineers, Royal Tank Regiment, Infantry regiments etc.)

Formal Dinner on board HMTs Asturias

There were single regular Army men and married men with there families going out on normal posting to stations like Aden, Singapore, Penang, Hong Kong. Others were reinforcement drafts of mainly National Servicemen sent to join their regiments to complete their two year stint after initial training in the UK. The draft of people destined for Korea perhaps amounted to a quarter of all the passengers and we were going right through to the last destination for the Asturias on that voyage which was Kure in the Sea of Japan. From there we were to tranship for Pusan and our units.

As the voyage progressed, so the passenger population dwindled. The first port of call was Port Said at the start of the Suez Canal. We anchored in the evening of 16 September 1954 . There was no shore leave; the only people allowed ashore were those who had been posted to the local garrisons.

However, those left on board were not short of entertainment. As soon as the ship had anchored we were surrounded by all sorts of boats. Some were there to provision the ship with water, food and fuel; others provided transport for the shore bound party's. But there was also a swarm of smaller craft crewed by locals hoping to trade with the men on board Asturias. These so call "Bum" boats carried a huge variety of things for sale, ranging from the banal through to the bizarre and the ridiculous.. I can recall amongst the things on offer were fly whisks made of camel tails, carved ivory, Egyptian Fez, tobacco, "hubbly bubbly" pipes, carpets and trinkets of all kinds.

"Bum" Boats Ship Side at Part Said

Trade was a haphazard affair made difficult by the fact that the sellers were not allowed on board and the prospective buyers were confined to the ship.. A deal was achieved after much shouting and gesticulating. The seller first had to catch the eye of a customer. Once a prospective customer was identified, the article of interest and a price had to be negotiated through the din of competing dealers. Once agreement on the article and a price was reached the seller threw a weighted line to the customer some thirty feet above. This sometimes took several attempts as the customer had to lean over the deck taff rail to catch the line as it went snaking past. A basket containing the article sold was then pulled up by means of the line and the purchase price sent down in the same basket on the reverse trip. Much mutual trust had to be shown by both parties to the deal, but especially by the seller as he had no way of retrieving an item sent ship wards if the buyer refused to pay and threatened to keep the article anyway. But in fact the system was not abused and much business was achieved accompanied by good humoured banter and some teasing. The bum boat activities went on for most of the afternoon and were a great source of amusement even for those who were just spectators. The honesty of the participants was probably helped by the presence of RMPs who did their best to ensure fair play.

Later that day yet another boat brought out special passengers. These were the "Gully-Gully" man and his two assistants. Dressed in traditional Egyptian flowing robes and wearing red Fez they made a remarkable sight. Their arrival marked the start of a traditional routine for most ships carrying passengers through the Suez Canal. The Gully Gully men were local sleight o'hand artists and entertainers. They put on three shows in succession, two for the main troop decks where they were a great success, and one for the first class passengers where the children were the most receptive. The GG man was really skilled and could make coins, eggs, other small items and false teeth disappear and reappear seemingly at will. HIs two assistants played stringed instruments to produce wailing melodies appropriate to the mysteries he was practicing.

               Entrance to the Suez Canal and  In Transit from Great Bitter Lake

The delay at Port Said lasted just a day waiting for the convoy of vessels about to make passage through the canal to form up. I awoke early next date and rushed out to the promenade deck hoping to see the ship get under weigh , but I was too late. Asturias had weighed anchor much earlier and was already in the canal. On either side there was nothing but empty desert mainly desiccated rock outcrops and fields of sand almost in all directions. Ahead was another steamship and behind was a warship of some sort. Both were making passage as part of our convoy heading for Isamliya and Buheirat Murrat El Kubra ( The Great Bitter Lake). The lake is about half way through the canal and it turned out to be just a large expanse of water surrounded by the endless sand with markers showing the deep water route to be taken by convoys passing through it. The lake served as the place where the south bound convoys passed the north bound ships. In those days the canal was not wide enough to allow the passage of ships in both directions at the same time. Our own southern passage was delayed for about 12 hours in the lake whilst we waited for the northern bound ships. At anchor, with no ship made breeze, the inner decks of Asturias became like an oven as the ventilation systems failed to cope with the heat.

Fellow Passengers en Route via The Red Sea

We stopped only briefly at Port Suez as we exited the canal to enter the Gulf of Suez and head on south towards the Red Sea. If the temperatures of the canal were oven like, those in the Red Sea were furnace like. The only relief provided was the breeze generated by the ship as she moved through the glass like water. But we saw porpoises and sharks on the way to Aden at the bottom tip of the Arabian Peninsula.. We also had the company of seabirds and flying fish.


The stop in Aden was overnight and we were allowed shore leave. The place then was relatively quiet as it was still a British Crown Colony. So there were few restrictions on where we could go.
Together with another young subaltern I ventured into the town, taking a rather shambolic taxi to get there. My recollections are somewhat hazy but I recall the road leading along the thin peninsula from the port, past the large BP oil refinery and into the old town situated in an ancient volcanic crater.

The Old Town of Aden

On the way back we stopped at Little Aden. There we found a very welcoming seaman's mission with swimming pool and air conditioned bar. A brief swim in the sea from the beach opposite the club was a welcome break form the heat. But we were told only afterwards that swimming from the beach was dangerous as sharks were frequently in the area and were notorious for attacking the unwary swimmer.

HMTS Malaya

The Asturias sailed on the evening of the 21 September and our next stops were Colombo, Singapore and Hong Kong. We had brief shore leave at each of these old British ports. The stop at Colombo was notable for the fact that the ship re-embarked several soldiers under arrest for some misdemeanors ashore. They had probably tried to alleviate the boredom of the voyage by making the most of their few hours of shore leave in the bars of red light district in the areas of the city that had been declared "out of bounds". They were caught by the Military Police and charged with being drunk and disorderly and with "Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline". They had doubtless (and with some justification) vented their pent up frustrations caused by confinements of on board life and the restricted shore leave by resisting the RMPs and generally causing mayhem.

The permanent staff working for the Ship's Commandant did their best to make the voyage interesting. There was no avoiding the military routines that included PE, weapons training, inspection parades, lectures on current affairs and on other topics relevant to the theaters we were being sent to. These routines were relatively undemanding and there was plenty of time for other activities like deck quoits and deck tennis, concert parties, bingo and the daily competition to see who could guess the distance run by the ship in the previous 24 hours.

Guessing the "Daily Run" achieved by the ship was a traditional shipboard lottery. It took place just after the routine midday navigational "fixes" whereby the ships office's determined the exact ship's location and the distance run in the preceding 24 hours. Anyone interested put what they thought would be the distance run on a slip of paper with rank and name and paid a fee for the privilege before midday. These tickets were put into a box outside the Ship's Orderly Room. The ticket recording a distance closest to the actual distance (to the nearest nautical mile) declared by the Navigator won a cash prize. The lucky winners would be announced over the ship broadcasting system (the so called "Tannoy".

The Ship's "Entertainment Officer" organized a ship's boxing tournament to take place on the leg to Colombo. This was announced a few days beforehand over the ship loudspeaker system and a call went out for volunteers to compete. It was not difficult to tap into the usual Army rivalry and competition between the various units and services represented on the ship and quite quickly a number of eager competitors came forward to represent their unit or service and show who was best. It turned out that there were enough to have several bouts for at least 5 of the conventional weight divisions of the sport, including two contenders each for the heavy weight and welter weight divisions.

Boxing was a particularly popular sport in the Army and tournaments were always well run along traditional lines. On this occasion particular care was taken to produce a good "show".The ring was set up on the rear deck. The ropes used must have been ship's hawsers as they were much thicker than usual.. Two of the corners of the "ring" (how does a square with corners  become a ring is  good question....but there imust be a traditional explnation somewhere) were marked red and blue where the fighters would sit between rounds. The referee was an imposing sergeant major in full evening regalia less jacket. The other officials essential to the sport including the timekeepers, the doctor, the Master of Ceremonies were all also in evening dress.

The contenders came into the ring as their bout was announced. They wore the amateur boxers' equipment, including gloves over bandaged hands, trunks and singlet, plimsolls and gum shields. They came into the ring with their two "seconds" who were there to support them in the intervals between the rounds, minister to their needs and give them advice.

Fortunately the sea was relatively calm on the night of the competition, but still the fighters had not only to contend with their opponent, but also with the slow rolling motion as the Asturias ploughed her way across the Indian ocean. Yet that did not put the fighters off; nearly all the bouts were hard fought and generally no quarter was given.

One contest in particular was between a tough Warrant Officer from an Infantry Regiment who was unpopular with some of his fellows. He fought a very rough and closely contested battle with a private soldier from the same regiment who was the larger and younger more agile of the two. Needless to say much vocal support was given to the junior man, who eventually prevailed. But the senior man had shown so much mettle and determination that he won new respect from his erstwhile detractors, who cheered him off the ring after the bout even though he was the looser.

That bout illustrated one of the remarkable things about the British Army in that it was possible, even encouraged for fights ( albeit in the context of the framework provided by sport) to take place between two men irrespective of great differences in their rank and seniority. Despite the hard discipline and the hierarchy of rank that separated these two men in the normal routines of service life the contest was, curiously, just one of the many ways of establishing and cementing the comradeship and "Esprit de Corps" in the Regimental system that was and still is the back bone of the Army.

Concert Party

Another entertainment were the concert parties. These were laborious to organize and so there were just or two in the four week voyages. Early in the voyage the entertainment officer called for volunteers to produce the party and it was surprising how many really talented people made themselves available for this popular activity. Perhaps the fact that most of them would be excused other duties for the duration was a major incentive.The volunteers had to be people able to perform on the stage as well as people to do all the work that was needed to put on the show, including set design, prop manufacture, costumes, lighting and electrics, stage management and so on. The problems were compounded by the fact that the concert had to be staged in the largest mess deck on board. This meant that all the work of producing the concert, including the rehearsals had to be done between meals. That entailed a lot of setting up and pulling down and putting away. Nevertheless once the volunteers had been found they set too with a will.

The programme usually consisted of skits that were meant to be funny ( and often were) as well as performances of popular excerpts from traditional British Music Hall, pantomimes and current West End musicals. Much of the material used came from the pens of people like Ivan Novello, Noel Coward, Gilbert and Sullivan. Some material was original and included poetry reading and quite a bit was traditional to the Army like singing "It's a Long way to Tipperary", "Mademoiselle d'Armentieres". It was all good fun on the night with plenty of laughter as well as nostalgia for those who felt sentimental.

The penultimate stops on the voyage out at Singapore and Hong Kong came and went very quickly. I was disappointed in that the shore leave in Hong Kong was very short and there was only enough time to get to Kowloon from the ship. I never got ashore on the main island either on the way out to Korea and back. I had so much hoped to be able to see more of the place where Grandmother Dealy had lived for so long. ( (See Grandmother's Box on this site for more details). Still I managed to get a flavour of the place as it was in the time before it started to grow into the huge commercial and shipping entrepot that it has become.

Mah Jong in Kowloon 1955 and Rickshaw in Kowloon 1954

Market in the New Territories 1954

The last part of the voyage from Hong Kong to Kure in Japan took just three days. The ship by then had disgorged perhaps three quarters of her passengers. The remainder were all the officers and soldiers destined for posting in Japan and Korea. Most of these drafts were destined for Pusan at the southern end of the Korean Peninsula, but we were told that we would all disembark in Japan and those going onto Korea would go by another, as yet undisclosed ship to Pusan.

The Asturias dropped anchor just off the port of Kure on the 7 October 1954 on a wet, miserable day. Disembarkation was rapid as we had no customs or immigration to go through, being officially part of the "Occuppying Power". Japan had yet to emerge from the shadows of World War II then and so all allied troops were allowed in under separate administration arrangements. We were even issued with British Armed Forces  Vouchers (BAFVs or "baffs" in Army parlance) instead of real money. However, we discovered later we could exchange these on shore for Yen .

We went ashore in motor boats and were directed into a large military camp as "in transit" to Korea. The camp had been one used by the Japanese Imperial Army and was well appointed. It had become the main base and transit camp for British Commonwealth troops heading for or returning from The British Commonwealth Division in Korea.

Disembarking from HMTs Asturias. 1954.

We had to wait about a week for the transport to Pusan, but that delay was very necessary as we were processed for the trip to the active zone. Most of the gear we had brought out for the voyage was taken off us for storage and we were issued with Winter Warfare Gear in anticipation of the cold season to come. This equipment was actually very good for its time and included double layered combat jackets and trousers, a heavy parka, string vests, woollen shirts and insulated boots. All this supplemented the standard Army woollen battledress that we were to take wit us anyway. As a final touch we were issued with the Divisional arm patches showing us as members of the "British Commonwealth Forces - Korea"  (BCFK for short) .

Whilst in the transit camp I managed to get leave to see the town of Kure. I found it to be a fascinating place as it had been a major Japanese Naval base with huge facilities for ship building of all kinds. It had been much damaged during the war and was still recovering. The main town was still a mess seemed to consist of streets and streets of flimsy houses, godowns and stores. But it was clean and for the most part orderly. The British still occupied a large part of the Japanese Dockyard and workshops where they had established a Base Workshop for the repair and refurbishment of equipment for the BCFK.

An interesting diversion at that time was the sight of a tug towing the remains of a sunken ferry to the shipyards for repair; evidently the ferry had sunk during the previous typhoon season. The exercise demonstrated both the ingenuity of the Japanese, their engineering and shipping skills and their need at that time in the aftermath of war to make do and mend

                                                     Salvage of a Partially Submerged Ferry - Kure Japan 1955

Finally we were told to embark on a smaller vessel for the voyage to Pusan. I think she was the MV Captain Hobson , but she was comfortable and provided enough accommodation for those of us ordered in transit to Pusan.

Copyright M.& M.M. Ough Dealy

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