Journey to Britain

This essay is part of the the Antoni Paszkiewicz project.

Troopships RMS Aquitania and SS Ile de France

Troopships RMS Aquitania and SS Ile de France

In the spring of 1943, Toni Paszkiewicz volunteered for service with the 1st (Polish) Independent Parachute Brigade—another essay will cover the formation of this fine brigade and Toni’s service with it.

His journey from the Middle-East to the United Kingdom was to be aboard the French liner SS Ile de France. This was a majestic ship—she was reputed to have had the most beautiful interiors of any of the ocean liners built for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, the ‘French Line’.

Laid down in 1925 at Saint-Nazaire, the Ile de France was built by Chantiers de Penhoët, a major French shipbuilding company with a world-class reputation for the quality, size and style of its ships. She was decorated in the Art Deco style with large, open interior spaces, which were the subject of numerous magazine articles and news stories.

Launched on 14 March 1926, she sailed on 22 June 1927 for New York on her maiden voyage. The beauty of the ship and her popularity on the transatlantic crossing led to record profits for her owners. The ship had a catapult-launched seaplane fitted in 1928, which, carrying mail, flew from her rear decks for the first time on 13 August as she approached New York, reducing transatlantic mail delivery by a day.

SS Ile de France in her heyday

SS Ile de France in her heyday

The final pre-war journey of Ile de France as a commercial liner began only hours before war was declared on 3 September 1939 when she sailed from her home port, Le Havre, to New York, berthing on 9 September. Her early wartime role was as a general transport, first for the French and then for the British, primarily on routes across the Indian Ocean between Durban and Suez, with the occasional foray to Bombay. In South Africa she was gutted of her beautiful finery and converted to a prisoner of war troopship to move German and Italian prisoners from north Africa to South Africa. In late-1942 she underwent another overhaul and refitting and, now able to carry over 7,000 troops, she began her final northward journey from Durban in April 1943.

Ile de France departed Durban on 19 April, sailing independently and relying on her speed to evade detection and attack. This ability to sail independently of an escort was a characteristic of the fast (more than 20 knots), large (over 35,000 tons), ocean-going liners used as troop ships and known as ‘monsters’—RMS Aquitania, SS Ile de France, RMS Mauretania, RMS Queen Mary, RMS Queen Elizabeth, and SS Nieuw Amsterdam.

Toni Paszkiewicz's diary describing the beginning of his journey to the United Kingdom

Toni Paszkiewicz’s diary describing the beginning of his journey to the United Kingdom

Ile de France arrived at Suez on 30 April and Toni Paszkiewicz and the others of the Polish party destined for the United Kingdom, along with a contingent of Commonwealth troops, embarked on 1 May. She sailed the following morning at 6.30am on an independent run down the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea for Aden, where she arrived three days later, on 5 May. She departed Aden the next day for Durban and sailed through the Gulf of Aden, south through the Indian Ocean and into the Mozambique Channel, arriving in Durban on 16 May. This was not the simple journey that it sounds. There was a considerable threat from German and Japanese submarines off the eastern coast of Africa, particularly around Madagascar.

Again sailing independently, Ile de France departed Durban on 22 May and sailed around the Cape into the south Atlantic. She was destined for Freetown in Sierra Leone but sailed to Rio de Janeiro, where she arrived on 3 June. The final stage of her journey took her back across the Atlantic to Freetown, arriving on 11 June and the next day she sailed alone for Scotland. Ile de France arrived safely in the Clyde on 20 June 1943.

Toni Paszkiewicz disembarked with his fellow Poles the next day and was transported to his new home with the 1st (Polish) Independent Parachute Brigade in Fife.

As for the Ile de France, she worked as a troopship for the rest of the war and returned to commercial use after a major overhaul and refitting that began in 1947. Her first crossing to New York was made in 1949 and she remained a popular ship until she was sold for scrap in 1959.

Her final role was as the SS Claridon in the disaster film The Last Voyage.

Acknowledgement:
Arnold Hague Ports Database for the detail of the journey of Ile de France from Durban to the United Kingdom.
British Pathé for the film clips of Ile de France.

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