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Rex Woodward
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Who Are They?
These photographs were taken on board the Asturias in November 1948, by Pat Piggott. His wife Irene (Rene) and son Michael are pictured with other passengers. If you can identify them, please let us know.
At Portland Beach
Passport Photo
My passage on the SS Asturias at the end of 1948 arose as my military service was drawing to a close. My military service had commenced in November 1946 shortly after my eighteenth birthday. At that time all UK males were still being conscripted for military service for a maximum of two years. Although the Wars in Europe and the Far East had ended in 1945, there were still many demands on all forms of the military for a number of years.

Initially, my training was in the role of an infantry soldier but following selection for a commission, I elected to be commissioned into the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) in October, 1947. I was then posted to British Troops Egypt (BTE) which at that time was situated in a strip of land from Port Said in the north to Suez in the south including the land along both sides of the Suez Canal.
Therefore, In November 1947, I embarked on the SS Empress of Australia which was docked in Liverpool for the voyage to Port Said. The passage took approximately ten days as it did not stop at any port on the way. It is of interest to note the history of the E of A as it was built by the Germans during the first World War and was intended to be the Royal Yacht of the Kaiser but following the end of the war, it became part of the reparations made by the German nation and title of the ship passed to Britain. It was then a liner on the Atlantic run until the start of the war in 1939 when it was converted into a troopship and painted grey overall, a colour it retained for most of its remaining life.

Bearing in mind the use of the Asturias in the 1950s, it is of further interest to note that there were also a number of civilian passengers on the E of A and they were Indian nationals returning to India following the grant of independence to India in August 1947!

Following my arrival at Port Said in November 1947 and after a short period in the transit camp at Suez, I was posted to a Transport Company of the RASC which was located near Ismailia and had the roll of distributing to other military units throughout BTE, all types of petroleum fuel. My duties were to command two transport platoons of approximately 70 vehicles which were involved in this role. Shortly after Christmas 1948, I received instructions to proceed immediately to the transit camp in Port Said for return to the UK to be demobilised from military service. I embarked on the SS Asturias which had docked in Port Said on the 28th December 1948! This was a totally unexpected event as I had not anticipated being demobilised until March or April 1949 following the ban by the UK Government in October 1948 on the release of all personnel from the three services for six months initially due to the blockade of Berlin by Russian forces.

  As Asturias was a troopship, accommodation for passengers is planned to ensure the maximum are carried. It was therefore no surprise to find I had been allocated to a small L shaped cabin on an upper deck with seven other junior officers. Sleeping was in four double bunks and we had to share two wash basins - there were no other facilities! Despite the limitations of the cabin, it worked very well largely due, in no small measure, to the efforts of the steward who was appointed to look after us.

The Asturias sailed from Port Said on the 29th December 1948 but soon after departure, her passage was subjected to the effects of a severe storm in the Eastern Mediterranean. While many passengers then retired to their cabins, those of us who were not similarly disturbed,found that an almost empty dining room at mealtimes provided an excellent opportunity for us to sample the full extent of the ship’s cuisine! The effects of the storm abated and the Asturias dropped anchor in Grand Harbour, Valetta, Malta on the 1st January 1949 to embark further military and married families also returning to the UK.

I will always remember coming up on deck on that New Year’s Day and hearing music from a Royal Marine band that were marching and counter marching on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier anchored across the harbour. It was the prelude on this special day to the daily flag raising ceremony at the stern of the carrier and under a clear blue sky; it was a very moving occasion. Malta, at that time was the Home port of the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet and there were many other RN warships at also anchor.

During the rest of the morning, military personnel and married families who were also returning to the UK were ferried across to the Asturias from the quay alongside Custom House. Shortly after midday, the Asturias sailed from Malta. The weather during the remaining passage through the Med was ideal and much time was spent by many at the vantage point immediately over the bows at the front of the ship from where porpoises could be seen swimming alongside the ship.

 Although of short duration, the whole voyage for me was an extremely enjoyable experience and I am certain that many of my comrades were also sorry to leave the ship when it eventually docked in Southampton.

Rex Woodward

7th October 2018