Caroline Davies’ Convoy

Caroline Davies 
 
 
 
Caroline Davies’ collection Convoy is published by Cinnamon Press. She was born in Norfolk to Welsh parents and spent much of her childhood by the sea. She studied East European History at the University of London and Creative Writing with the Open University. Convoy was inspired by the experiences of her grandfather, James ‘Jim’ Honeybill, who served on the Blue Funnel Line ship M.V. Ajax during the Malta convoys and also by her mother’s stories of growing up in North Wales during the war. Her poem ‘At Sea’ won an Honorary Mention in the 2011 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition.
 
She blogs occasionally at http://advancingpoetry.blogspot.com.
 
 
 
 

Photograph by Sergeant Bill Lazell

Photograph by Sergeant Bill Lazell

 
 
 
“A compelling narrative sequence documenting the dramatic events of the Royal Navy’s Malta convoys to supply the besieged island in the Mediterranean Theatre in the Second World War.
 
Malta’s significance was its position as a strategic base from which British sea and air forces could interrupt the flow of men and resources to the German armies in north Africa, which in turn threatened Egypt, the Suez Canal and British controlled oilfields. Severe naval losses were sustained and as German bombers and submarines tightened the sea blockade, Malta’s situation grew more desperate. By mid 1942 the island urgently needed supplies, including fuel and food, and had temporarily ceased to be an effective offensive base. Against terrible odds convoys attempted to get through, including the M.V. Ajax, on which Caroline Davies’s Welsh grandfather served. Charting a narrative from the point of view of her mother as a child who has come to see her naval father as a stranger to the voices of the men who often gave everything to see the convoy through, Convoy is not only distinctive and meticulously researched, but powerful and moving. Skillfully incorporating a wealth of found material, recordings and interviews, this narrative poetry sequence captures a slice of history with visceral clarity, engaging audiences who might otherwise never engage with poetry as well as poetry lovers.”
 
 
 
 

© Tony Randell

© Tony Randell

 
 
 
 
Convoy is a fantastically ambitious book and a great concept for a poetry collection. Terse end-stopped lines, brilliant images and minute descriptions of war from right in the middle of it, as well as a semi-experimental feel using technical language, combine so that the reader gets a sense of the people.”
 
– Katy Evans-Bush
 
 
 
“This is a fascinating and unusual collection of poetry. It is, indeed, a modern epic poem about a theatre of war about which relatively little is now remembered: the vital role of the Merchant Navy in convoy duties. It is authentic, told from the point of view of the men who were there, from records and verbal testimony of their experiences. As such it has much in common with Nordic sagas, which record for posterity deeds from long ago. Both factually accurate and emotionally charged, Convoy is an historical document as well as being a first class collection of poetry.”
 
– Judi Moore
 
 
 
“With a deep regard for precision of language and lucidity of voice, these powerful poems honour the memory of the Malta convoys in WWII – the ships and the men who served on them. Davies writes with great compassion and empathy, but not an ounce of sentimentality. Carefully researched, beautifully written, she has crafted a compelling and moving collection. ”
 
– Vanessa Gebbie
 
 
 
“I read Convoy in a single sitting. In a series of vivid poems Caroline Davies lets us hear the voices of those involved in the Malta convoys. We feel the swell of the sea, watch as ‘the sky trembles’ under the onslaught of bombers scouring the ships of the Merchant Navy scattered over ‘deep unprotected water’. A wealth of research gives these poems strength and authenticity. Moving and honest, these poems are never mawkish or sentimental. They form a fitting tribute to these courageous men – and those left at home.”
 
– Caroline Gilfillan
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
Written on Board the Ajax
 
 
South Stack.
Three hundred and ninety-nine steps.
Wind spits soft rain.
 
The Blue Funnel Line,
two days out from Liverpool.
Four hours on. Four hours off.
  
Cape Town.
Pineapples and water melons. Sent home
postcard of Table Mountain.
 
Bombay.
Coconuts and curry. Half the crew
down with dysentery.
Four on. Four off.
 
Coming back via Suez.
Malta. Sky dark with thunder.
Oil on the water.
 
Gibraltar: turning for home.
The Irish Sea – rain – a wet slap.
No light from South Stack.
Coastline for miles, dark.
 
Liverpool: Seventy two hours in port.
No time to go home.
 
 
 
 
*
  
 
 
 
Packing Cases
  
          Monday, 10 June, 1940: Declaration of war by Italy
 
 
350 bombers: Cants, Savoias, BR20s.
200 fighters: CR42s, Reggiane 2001s, Macchis.
First-class airfields sixty miles from Malta,
skilled pilots trained in Spain and Abyssinia.
 
Assessment of Maltese air defences.
Three airfields: Hal Far, Takali and Luqa,
none fully functioning.
Seaplane base at Kalafranc. No aircraft.
 
Chief Admin Officer’s report:
Have located packing cases on slipway at Kalafranc
Marked H.M.S Glorious, Norway.
These contain component parts for naval Sea Gladiators.
 
Air Commodore Maynard
to Admiral Cunningham at Alexandria:
Request permission to unpack crates
and make use of your planes to defend island.
 
Granted with the most cordial approval.
Don’t expect to get them back intact.
 
What odds – what fun.
Our few against five hundred and fifty.
Ours sturdy biplanes.
Theirs modern fighters.
 
We form a fighter flight of seven:
Squadron Leader Martin.
Flight Lieutenant Keeble (Pete).
Flying officers Hartley (Peter),
Waters (John), Woods (Timber).
Pilot officer Alexander (Peter),
and Flight Lieutenant Burgess
(George) – that’s me.
 
Our planes can turn on a sixpence
can climb like a bat out of hell
They have no vices at all.
More of the enemy than I can count
but we’ll give them a good fight.
 
Formations of Savoias
approaching Valletta
at fifteen thousand feet.
 
We climb and climb
till we are above them.
Get in a good burst at 200 yards.
 
Fire returned. I break away.
Machine guns behind me.
Go into a steep left-hand turn.
 
The Macchi dives and fires.
We circle tightly
til I get him in my sights.
 
Full deflection: he goes down,
black smoke pours from his tail.
Straight into the sea at Grand Harbour.
 
Malta is no longer defenceless but
The Italian bombers are faster. So our only chance
is to scramble and climb quick as we can.
Hope to get four or five thousand feet
above them by the time they reach the island.
Then dive on them from the beam.
 
Bastards are throwing everything at us.
Massed formations, decoy planes
shadowed by packs of fighters.
Stragglers falling out of formation
to tempt us into a fight we can’t win.
 
Over a hundred raids and we’re still airborne
but not unscathed. Land with tail unit
dangling by a single strut.
 
My Glad’s a colander with bullet holes.
Landing wheels shot off.
We struggle on.
 
I’ve enough St Christopher’s
to keep me on the ground,
and the prayers of the Maltese.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
Operation White, November 1940

          The range of a Hurricane MK II (tropicalized) in still air,
          at 130 knots, at 10,000 feet is 521 miles.

                    – Pilot’s Handling Notes
 
 
We need more planes.
We’re defending the island with only
one Gladiator, four Hurricanes.
REPEAT. WE NEED MORE PLANES.
 
‘Operation White to proceed. Admiral Somerville to escort Argus and her Hurricanes to within flying distance of Malta; aircraft to take off in two sub flights of six, each led by a Fleet Air Arm Skua (with observer to plot best course for the island). Air Officer Commanding Malta to have two Sunderlands waiting over the island to escort the Hurricanes for the final stage.’
 
 
 
Subflight 1: Flying Officer J.A.F. Maclachlan, DFC
 
Speed 150 mph, height 2,000 feet
 
 
Am dropping smoke floats.
The wind has changed. Dead ahead –
will be hard pressed to reach Malta
before we run out of fuel.
 
Sea mist thick,
a patchwork of fog and cloud.
I’m flying blind.
 
Forty-five miles short of Malta
I hear the engine of another Hurricane
cut. Stone silent.
 
She spirals into the sea.
I break formation and follow.
The pilot floats, a dark blob
amongst the waves.
I call up the Sunderland and fly
low over the pilot, rocking my wings,
until the Sunderland on the sea
hauls him aboard.
 
Four Hurricanes ahead
following the single Skua.
A veil of cloud: only
three come out.
 
Two minutes later,
Luqa’s dusty runway.
We plummet, manage to land.
There’s not enough fuel left in my tank
to cover an upended sixpence.
 
 
 
Subflight 2
 
‘A tragic loss of vitally needed planes’
 
 
No sign of the island.
No welcoming Sunderland.
 
SHEPHERD 2. SHEPHERD 2.
Where are you?
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
Overseas Posting
 
 
I pretend they’ve got a sudden posting
overseas. We’re abroad already
but they’ve gone on ahead.
 
To Egypt probably, harrying Rommel’s army.
The fact they took off with us but didn’t land
can be ignored.
 
They’re in another officers’ mess
somewhere. Still cracking jokes.
Phelps with his pipe.
 
His wife back in Blighty
with a baby on the way. I tell myself
he’s there with her,
 
getting ready to lean over the cradle.
The baby will have his blue eyes
and lopsided way of smiling.
 
So I never write the letter to tell her
I’m sorry he’s bought it.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
Sign of the Cross
 
Based on the account of Squadron Leader P B ‘Laddie’ Lucas,
249 Squadron
 
 
This island’s all limestone
rough, arid, rock-strewn.
Nowhere to force land.
 
Smoke from the engine thickens the cockpit –
I should step out into a limitless sky.
Fear clenches its fist at the back of my neck.
 
At a thousand feet a green glimpse
– a small field
beyond miles of limestone.
 
Wheels up, flaps down,
I slow almost to a stall,
hold her into the wind.
 
My Spit settles into soft earth, engine smoking,
a few yards short of a blunt stone wall.
I scramble clear.
 
Three Maltese women in long black dresses
stumble over rough ground.
Each clutches a hessian sack filled with soil
for the burning engine.
 
I signal them away
with my hands like an explosion.
They step back, shake their heads.
  
The oldest, to judge from the lines on her face,
walks slowly to the Spitfire.
She pats its wing and comes back towards me.
 
Gentle, she touches my forearm,
makes the sign of the cross,
smiles.
 
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
 
Glimmer of Light
 
10th August 1942 126 Squadron
 
 
Pilot officer Jerrold Smith flying with a sergeant pilot
standing in as wingman for his brother, Roderick.
 
Jerry who was always top of his class
who was only a year older
who always carried an electric torch.
 
There are reports of a parachute descending
east of Grand Harbour.
It’s dusk but Rod asks his flight commander
for permission to search the eastern approaches.
Going over and over the darkening sea
in the hunt for a glimmer of light.
 
 
 
 
from Convoy (Cinnamon Press, 2013).

Order Convoy

Visit Caroline’s blog, Advancing Poetry.
 
 
 
Ruth Downie interviews Caroline
 
Judi Moore writes about Convoy’s launch.
 
Vanessa Gebbie interviews Caroline
 
Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn interviews Caroline
 
Rebecca Gethin features Convoy
 
 
 
Caroline provides biographical sketches of a few people
in Convoy:

James Honeybill, Merchant Seaman – 8th March 1903 – 12th March 1993
 
Percy Belgrave “Laddie” Lucas, RAF Pilot, CBE, DSO and Bar, DFC, (2 September 1915 – 20 March 1998) 
 
Captain Thomas Sydney Horn, Merchant Seaman, OBE, 5 May 1899 – June 1971 
 
Thomas Francis Neil, DFC*, AFC, AE 

Lieutenant Commander Roger Percival Hill, DSO, DSC – 22 June 1910 – 5 May 2001
 
Margaret Ann ‘Greta’ Davies, née Honeybill – 20th May 1933 – 5th April 1991  
 
 
 
 
Caroline Davies 2
 

 

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