James Donaldson

Ship name / Flight number: Ranchi

Arrival date: 07/11/1951


*Below: St Pancras Railway Station , London shows Gordon Cooke, Jim Donaldson  and “Huckleberry” Norry  on the day of departure. September 1951


On the 70th Anniversary of the the Voyage of the Ranchi

19th September -7th November 1951.

It does not seem like seventy years ago  that the S.S. Ranchi ( 16,738 tons) a ship belonging to the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Navigation Company, set sail from Tilbury Docks on the River Thames  on Wednesday, the 19th of September 1951, bound for Sydney. She carried 42 Little Brothers bound for Sydney Australia, accompanied by two Australian escort supervisors, returning home. It was an adventure of a lifetime, for many of the young men immigrating had not left British shores before, and perhaps  some of them had not even lived away from home for any period of time. By the time that we landed in Sydney, after seven complete weeks at sea, on the 7th of November 1951, at No 6 Berth Woolloomooloo, two weeks later than anticipated, we were absolutely filled with experiences that we could never have anticipated After our arrival in Sydney, we then set sail on uncharted waters to make a new life in Australia, setting off with high hopes, excited anticipation and unbridled enthusiasm into the future, with all the confidence of youth in the land of opportunity.






The “Ranchi” had been part of a four vessel “R” Class of ship, her sister ships being named, “Ranpura”, “Rajputana” and “Rawalpindi”, all built in the period 1924-1925. She was 548.5ft long (156.72m) and had a beam of  71.3ft. (21.7m) The “Ranchi” was launched on 24th January 1925, built by  Hawthorn Leslie and Company of Hebburn, County Durham in England, on the River Tyne at Newcastle. Before the Second World War, the hull of the “Ranchi” had been painted black with a white band, her above-deck fittings red, her superstructure stone-coloured and her two funnels and air ventilators painted also in black. One of her funnels had been removed in Bombay in 1939, as part of an overhaul, which included the fitting up of eight six-inch  and two three-inch guns as armaments.

Before the Second World War, the “Ranchi” had been one of the most luxurious steamers of the P. and O. shipping fleet.  She was commissioned for the Bombay Mail Service, and was part of the India Mail and Passenger Service  for the shipping line. She was said to be “even more sumptuously decorated and furnished” than any of her sister ships. It was a custom of the Company to detach one of their newer mail steamships each year, to serve as a cruise ship sailing around the coast of Europe. It was the  “Ranchi” that was chosen to cruise the Mediterranean, including  trips to Dubrovnik in the late 1920s and to the city of Venice, in the spring and summer seasons. The poster below, advertising cruises to Norway as well as to the Mediterranean, effectively attempts to show the glamour and class of such holiday cruises.  All this glamour was to change in 1939. All frivolities ceased as the lights went out.











The “R” Class ships were heroic little vessels. Each of them were converted to being armed merchant cruisers as War approached, and were deployed as convoy escorts in the dangerous tasks of convoy duties. They were the only larger ships available to protect the vital convoys apart from the smaller corvettes and older destroyers in the early years of the War. The “Ranchi”, was commissioned into service on the 27th August 1939, barely four days before the War commenced. The now “H.M.S. Ranchi” sailed as a Royal Navy vessel in the Eastern fleet in the Indian Ocean, for four years, during which service as an escort and patrol vessel she steamed 300,000 miles. Her sister ship “H.M.S. Rajputana” was torpedoed and sunk in April 1941 by a German U-boat. Her other sister ship “H.M.S. Rawalpindi” was also  sunk in 1939, by the “Deutschland”  in a famous surface action in the early months of the War and which involved the famous German battleships, the “Scharnhorst” and “Gneisenau”. This “R” class ship fought on until every gun aboard her was silenced and the “Rawalpindi” left to sink, ablaze from the damage from the deadly enemy shellfire.  After 1943 the “Ranchi” later acted as a troopship for the Ministry of War transport division until 1947. The “Ranchi” herself narrowly avoided being sunk near Benghazi in North Africa when a German bomb was deflected by the wirespan of her forecastle and which luckily fell through the ship without exploding or sinking her.

I include this wartime section within this short article, because having sailed to Australia on board the “Ranchi” in the very crowded conditions of a migrant ship, commissioned under the dark and depressed economic conditions being experienced by the British people after a long War, the “Ranchi” in 1951, could easily have been dismissed as a battered and worn-out old steamer, which she was. Her glamourous pre-war days as a “sumptuously decorated and  furnished” liner, were totally over; her refits had drastically altered her former underdeck appearance; her best days were behind her, yet her heroic service for the sake of her country in the harsh times of war were second to none as a vital warhorse and workhorse of the sea. She was there at the beginning and there at the end. She was, after a fire on the very next voyage, consigned to be sold as scrap in 1953.

We left St Pancras Railway Station on the Wednesday morning train bound for Tilbury Docks, having posed for our photograph outside the station. We are dressed in the garb of the day, with 1950s hair styles, most boys wearing ties and everyone in a coat. Looking back, I remember many of them with great affection, and the times we spent together.






*James Donaldson is on the extreme right hand end of the photo with the crew cut front row

Although the “Ranchi” in earlier days had advertised herself to carry 600 passengers, the September “Cruise” as a migrant ship to Australia in 1951, carried 937 passengers. It was a one- class ship and passengers were free to move about in any of the areas available to the non-crew members. The “Little Brothers” were accommodated on one of the lower decks, in cabins that had four double bunks and each bedroom  slept eight of us. As one can imagine, there was little room for personal effects, but no one seemed to mind, and we enjoyed each others’ close company for seven weeks. We were allowed to visit the cargo deck every couple of weeks to open our heavy luggage. I remember that every morning, the P. and O. Steward, used to arrive punctually at 6.0 am to serve a trayful of steaming hot mugs of tea and toast. This was always quickly disposed off. Food and mealtimes were always popular.

Most days were spent outside the cabin, either boxing on the deck, or going for early morning runs after the deckhands had hosed the decks clean; or lounging on deckchairs, eating, reading or talking. Deck tennis and deck quoits were also popular daily pastimes, as was taking a dunk in the little swimming pool, with all the other bodies seeking to do the same. Watching girls and scenery were  also popular .

I remember most clearly, as we sailed  down the English Channel, looking over the rail, to see the marker buoys bobbing on the surface of the waters, to mark the position of the sunken British submarine, “H.M.S. Affray” lost at sea on the 14th of April 1951, with the loss of 75 lives. It was a touching moment to sight the little marker, where so many sailors had died on a training exercise, only months before.

The Bay of Biscay gave everyone out first taste of rough seas and wild weather, but not nearly as wild and woolly as crossing the Great Australian Bight was to prove. This second experience of stormy weather crossing the Bight had remained vividly with me for the whole of my life. I did feel queasy and uncomfortable, but made up my mind not to retire to my cabin, to lie down sick,  but instead to climb to the top deck and see it out. I was alone getting very wet and holding on tightly to the rail. The “Ranchi” was heaving up and down, to a great height and depth in the rain, dipping her bows into the very high waves that rolled over them, and lurching sideways with great force and power. The winds blew hard and cold against my face, and it crossed my mind, that I would not like to experience any kind of engine failure at that particular time. Considerably blown away and greatly invigorated by the  chilly, stormy experience, I later joined 7 others for Dinner, being one of only a few migrants present for dinner that night, out of a normal sitting accommodation of  over 100 or more other passengers, who did not front for the meal.  The dining room was nearly completely empty.  I remember that the Steward, kept offering everyone, complete tureens of roasted potatoes and meat dishes as seconds. Never had so “few” eaten so much for so “many”.

*Photo below was taken in Spanish Morocco where the ”Ranchi “was forced to stop because of engine troubles The “Little Brothers”  from left to right are Jim Donaldson, Bobby Graham and Peter McVey, September 1951

The most vivid experience of the whole voyage was the engine troubles that the “Ranchi” experienced on the voyage to Australia. We initially broke down and paid an unscheduled visit to Ceuta in Spanish Morocco, quite close to the British naval base at Gibraltar at the entrance to the Mediterranean. The weather at Ceuta was delightful, giving each of us a beautiful sunny day to walk around. A few days later, we were berthed alongside the dock at Algiers, the capital of present day Algeria. We were not allowed ashore. Who knows we might have joined the French Foreign Legion. We looked out from the deck-rail, over the darkened and deserted docks, but nothing stirred.

Repaired, and on our way, we broke down again in the Suez Canal and remained completely helpless at a standstill, without power, as we looked over the sand dunes at the passing military activities along the Canal Zone. This all took place in the midst of diplomatic wrangling when tempers flared. and  fears increased, as a result of the Eqyptian Government increasing pressures on the British Government and repealing the 1936 Treaty in October 1951. Local unrest and reprisals continued along the canal from Egyptian nationalists. It was to become much worse in the early months of 1952 when many people were killed. The weather was very hot indeed. Sadly, a baby died on board ship at that time and the bereaved family had great trouble in being able to go ashore for the burial. As we were towed out of the Canal and into the Gulf of Suez, there were lines and lines of ships lined up waiting their turn to use the canal. The “Ranchi”was given an enthusiastic welcome by the irate crews of 617 ships, honking their horns and blaring their sirens.Their crews may also have been personally anxious about stopping  or being delayed in the Suez Canal.

Crossing the Line was a big event, everyone being immersed in the food waste and porrage before being dunked in the swimming pool. This was enthusistically participated in by some young British soldiers migrating to Australia to join the Australian Army. It was a real fun day. People enjoyed themselves, and mixed freely.

Concerts were wildly supported, and featured a number of wonderful amateur particpants. I also remember waking up in the early dawning, at Colombo,  on the former island known as Ceylon having slept on a deckchair on an upper deck, to see the greatest red-coloured sunrise in my life, illuminating the tropical tree palms,  greeting the new day. My first sight of Australia was another milestone moment on the trip.

Our last morning on board the ship, was to wake up on deck, to see the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge rising majestically above us. Like the rainbow after the great flood, mentioned in the Bible, it seemed to be a  omen of hope for the future:  a chance for a brand new day and a new beginning.






The Gala  farewell dinner featured the above food treats for the migrants

James Donaldson







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