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RMS Samaria: sailing off to war

Updated: Jun 4, 2022

Just after New Year’s Day 1941, Jasper took a train from London to Liverpool Docks. There, along with several thousand others, he boarded a troopship bound for North Africa.

He sailed to war on the R.M.S. Samaria, a transatlantic ocean liner built for the Cunard Line, until it was requisitioned by the Royal Navy. Pre-war it carried around two thousand passengers in comfort. On this sailing, four or five thousand men were crammed in.

Alongside the Samaria were other troop and supply ships, formed into a convoy, with armed escort ships to protect them from air and U-boat attack.

“I felt intensely excited. I was going to realise my ambition to try out war-magic on wider fields than England’s.”

Setting sail on the night of 4/5 January 1941, the Samaria took a long but safe route to North Africa. She headed first to the coast of West Africa, then down around the Cape of Good Hope, and up through the Red Sea to the Gulf of Suez. There were several brief stops en route to refuel, take on supplies and receive mail. The stop at Freetown, Sierra Leone gave the troops their first sight of Africa. Jasper recalls watching, “the jumble of shipping, the splashed tropical colour, and the Negroes, and then, to my joy, I saw a dug-out canoe shooting rapidly towards the ship. It was propelled by a colossal native, wearing not a stitch of clothing.” Incongruously, the native paddler started singing the Lambeth Walk as he approached.

With little else to do during the nine-week voyage, Jasper was kept busy entertaining the troops, giving variety shows along with other soldier-entertainers. While briefly docked in Durban - a city he’d visited a decade earlier during his South Africa tour - Jasper was called on to do several shows to entertain troops there.

On the final leg of the journey to Egypt, Jasper was quite ill, suffering from food poisoning or acute dysentery, with a fever. He was still sick when the Samaria reached Egypt, and harboured “a wretched and persistent cough” for some weeks after.

The convoy arrived at Port Tewik at the southern end of the Suez Canal on 3 March. For a week, the R.M.S. Samaria anchored several miles offshore, dispersed from other ships due to the threat of air-raids. During this time, the Officer Commanding Troops on the ship, wrote Jasper a note:

“My Dear Maskelyne,

Our long voyage is fast drawing to a close and I feel I must convey the grateful thanks of everyone aboard this ship for the wonderful entertainment you have provided on many occasions throughout this journey. I would like to personally thank you for your tremendous loyalty and for the great many sacrifices you have made for the troops on board, who discipline and wellbeing has been your unstinting concern …

I would also like to congratulate you on your very fine personal style and for the healthy comradeship you have constantly displayed throughout the voyage, not forgetting the real ‘pep’ you have instilled in everyone on the ship.

With many thanks and every good wish,

Yours sincerely,

H. M. Davis. Lt Col RA.”

Finally, on 10 March, the Samaria docked. Grateful to be back on dry-land, Jasper disembarked and caught an afternoon to train to Cairo to receive orders for the next part of his military service.

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