I joined HMS Vigilant as a seaman. HMS Vigilant (numbered F93) was one of the Type 15 Frigates. These were fast destroyers from WW2, converted to frigates to meet the challenges set in the development of submarines technology. The conversion meant much of the heavy gunnery was removed to be replaced by anti-submarine armaments, the bridge enclosed and the main deck raised to give sailors’ some protection when the ship was in action in a nuclear age. The ships complement at my time was 240 rather than the 170 ‘fighting weight’. The trouble with the ‘extra’ deck is it made the ship top-heavy, or so the sailors said, which meant rough seas became rougher!
At the time Vigilant was command ship of the Dartmouth Training Squadron along with HMS Roebuck (F195) and occasionally one or two of those wooden minesweepers that didn’t attract magnetic mines. Obviously the squadron was there to train the midshipmen from the Britannia Royal Naval College above the river Dart. This is a fast running river. The ships would tie up in the middle of the river. Buoy jumpers would attach mooring wire through the bullring to the buoy and the ships would swing around with the tide.
There was no initiation ceremony. There was a time at sea, the folklore says, when the older sailors would tell the boy seaman about the golden rivet. This, they said, was the last build rivet to be put into the ship; and it was gold. He would have to look for it. He wouldn’t find it. Inevitably they would have to show him. It was just outside and above that porthole. The young seaman would put his head through the port hole, the heavily framed port hole glass would be lowered on the back of his neck. Suitably secured, he would be introduced to the golden rivet. I am sure this is just an old sea story.
The first thing you learn on a ship is to go down the ladders facing outwards. Much faster. They had handrails either side. We were kept very busy. And interested. It was a life of constant sea exercises. You can imagine, they didn’t ask the midshipmen to do the work. One day it might be jackstay transfers at sea where one or two lucky guys would be passed in a cradle to a ship running in parallel and back. Or similarly fuelling at sea. Another day it could be gunnery practice. This might mean first loading the shells packed in canisters. Thank God they didn’t go off being dropped! The sister ship would tow a target at some distance and the other ship would pop away with only one or two close shaves.
Another day we might run paravanes, a towed underwater “glider” (as Wikipedia tells us). These marvellous things are let out on cables and run in parallel with the ship, the idea being the cable would either cut the cable of an underwater mine or the paravane would hit and explode it. Most fun was practicing with the SQUIDS, the then modern depth charges. Our job would be to sit around and watch as the ship accelerated, at the right moment a pattern of ‘squids’ were fired to fly over the mast and explode behind us when they had reached the required depth. All big boys toys.
You can picture a ship as 3 sections, the front, the middle and the back: the forecastle, or foc’sle, with the bull ring and the front winches on deck; and the main sailors’ mess underneath, hence the idiom ‘Before the Mast’; the Top where the deck equipment was stored (and the spuds if you wanted a quick snack), with the junior mess underneath; and the quarter deck where the rear deck winches, the ‘Squid’ tubes and the steering gear were housed at the original destroyer height, though foreshortened. I was stationed on the Top Deck and in the junior mess.
The mess slept 23 sailors with only 13 slinging spaces for hammocks. People slept everywhere, under tables, on benches. That’s what sailors can do. They can sleep anywhere. If you go to a mainline railway station and there are military guys around, it will be the sailors who are sleeping. At break time during the day, the race was on. Who could get to the benches first? Then they would be asleep immediately. A great skill to take into later life.
As the junior mess, you came last in everything. If one mess lost a bucket at sea, they would take a bucket from the junior mess. We had one bucket. It was used variously to wash the floor, wash the dishes and, when at sea and it’s rough, to throw up in. When you go to sea covering distances, there is just about nothing to do. If it’s rough, most sailors throw up. They would sit in a big circle passing the bucket between them.
You can imagine living in close confinement made for pressure; and, inevitably, there were outbursts. On one occasion while we were at sea, another frustrated National Serviceman, announced to the assembled company, most of them locked into 12 contracts, words to this effect: “This is a really shitty life. I don’t know how you can stand it. I can’t. I am given jobs so menial I wouldn’t give them to a dog”. For a moment I thought I would have to fight for life, his life. As it was, the sailors shrugged and the incident passed by. No doubt though, the boys who had been to boarding school survived in this world better than the boys who hadn’t. They had lived here before.
Jonno was the Petty Officer in change of the Top deck. He scheduled me to do some painting for an inspection and I was chipping away at the old paint on the deck with a chipping hammer. ‘Not too hard’, he said. ‘We don’t want a hole in it’. The deck was aluminium. It made me wonder what happened when a ship like this went into action and was strafed with gunfire Would the bullets just zing around on the deck below. I was glad we didn’t see action while I was there. The Writers are sent below to pass up the shells. If the ship gets badly hit, they shut the flood doors. I’d seen too many movies.
Other times I had to paint the side of the ship. Battleship grey. Two of you sit on a trestle with the paint tin on a rope, start at the top and lower yourselves down the side. I couldn’t climb ropes at that time so they would pull me up on the trestle, we’d swing it round, and down we’d go again for the next section. Well, that was until one day. Beautiful blue skies. I was painting the side down by the quarterdeck, relaxed as they come, when I happened to look round only to see the liberty (shore) boat coming straight for me. It’s way they came alongside. They would bump the boat into the ship’s side to spin the back round and get a rope across. I had three choices. Stay on the trestle and get squashed like a fly on a windscreen, jump in the water and get run over, or……. I could have been mistaken for a monkey; and the applause of my colleagues was considerable.
Jonno was one of the good guys. I was working on the railings with a marlin spike (like a big pig sticker) in bad weather and a lot of rain. ‘Weather’s too bad to be doing this”, he said. “Anyway you couldn’t do it if you didn’t have a marlin spike and that’s the only one there is”. With that he took the marlin spike and chucked it overboard. I retired below.
Jonno also was very aware just how dangerous the sea really can be. It all looks to be fine and manageable then suddenly something goes wrong and someone’s gone. You read it all the time in the papers. In fact we did lose a guy overboard when some railings managed to undo themselves. The watch on the quarter deck spotted him, gave the alarm and threw over a life ring. You can imagine the size of the circle, and the cost, it took to turn the ship around and get him out which, thankfully they did. If you fell in in the North Sea in winter, they gave you about 3 minutes.
Jonno made his opinion clear. His simple line was
“I believe in terra firma. The more the firma, the less the terra”
Whenever we arrived at any port, Jonno and the heads of the foc’sle and the quarterdeck lined up on the dock in their party best and marched off with military precision. They were all long service men. No doubt off to see some old girl friends in the ‘street of the thousand arse-holes’. Every port has one, the sailors say. We never did see them though until they were back onboard.
The worst day in my time with the squadron was a Sunday on the river. The ship needed re-victualing with potatoes. I was playing rugby so was out of it. The Lieutenant in charge thought otherwise and cancelled me out of the game. Potatoes first. It was raining. The bags of potatoes were dockside. They had to be moved to where on the small motor boat could reach them. Maybe a 150 yards walk with a bag of potatoes on your back. We lowered the boat from the davits. About 9.00am. Took it ashore. It started raining. We had to wear wet weather gear. The sacks were numberless, it was hot in waterproofs; and mud from the potatoes was running down our necks. Finally loaded. We took the boat to the ship and started heaving the spuds up on to the quarterdeck, above shoulder height. Then we noticed river water was coming in. The weight of the spuds had spread the boards on the clinker-built boat. Real haste now. The boat was finally unloaded and raised again on the davits. Now all we had to coil the heavy sisal ropes. But the ropes had been left lying around all over the place in the rain. They had become what sailors call ‘a bunch of bastards’. It took hours to uncink them and put them away. At 1800 hours, the job was finished. Wet, muddy and exhausted. Couldn’t wait for the next day. It had to be better.
After I left the Navy, people would say things like ‘the Navy knows how to sail if anyone knows how to sail’. But the fact was ‘things happen’ in the Navy just like they ‘happen’ with amateur sailors. A few examples. We were tying up on the Dart one day, the buoy jumpers attached the wire to the buoy, the order went down to bring the ship up to the buoy but, instead of quarter ahead and easy, it went down a quarter astern. The result: the bullring on the prow, and a foot or two of prow, were pulled at a rakish angle sharply seawards. A good piece of welding to be done in port. The postmortem proved the inevitable. No officer was responsible. All the fault lay with a Leading Seaman!
Another time we tried to tie up to the dock in Kiel, next to that important but seldom mentioned Kiel Canal that connects The North Sea to the Baltic at the base of Denmark. The ship came alongside the dock, the sailors feverishly threw lines (weighted with ‘monkey fists’ knots) trying to get the wires ashore to winch the ship into the dock; but to no avail. The strong wind was against us, the lines wouldn’t reach. The ship slowly drifted away from the dock. Wry smiles and not a few ‘f**kits’. After the second attempt, the officer on the bridge had to bring the prow right up to the dock to get the first line ashore before the aft wire could be connected.
At some stage too, I spent a short time on the HMS Undine (F141). We spent a lot of the time patrolling the English Channel and helping a surprising number of commercial ships that got into trouble. Sailing close by the Queen Elizabeth was like going by a big black cliff. There were so many incidents when we re-entered port that the Harbour Master apparently told the Captain that he would prefer the ship not to tie up at the dock if he kept on knocking bits off it. We certainly managed to dent a few ‘friendly’ ships anyway.
One day we set off to the port of Vigo in Spain. The direct route was across the Bay of Biscay. The sea in the Bay is different from other seas. Everyone you meet who has been across it talks about being seasick. The sea has a particular motion. You go up each wave in one big lurch; then you come down the other side in what is almost 2 or 3 smaller, steep waves. On occasions, it certainly made our top heavy frigate bucket about. Then you’re best on the bow which is where the senior seamen messed.
I was doing a lone spell on the quarterdeck for the middle (20.00-0000) and morning (0000-0400) watches. The moon was bright shining across the sea, the air was heavy with condensation; and my mind was already forming the high pitched whine from the steering gear into classical melodies for orchestra and strings. Every now and then I would relieve the loneliness by going up for a steaming mug of kai. This is a sugared dark chocolate drink with a sea of cocoa butter floating on the top, Delicious and very sustaining.
On this particular night a couple of chefs turned up for a last smoke before turning in. They had a well rehearsed story. They started talking about the extraordinary effect of music coming out of the steering gear. Then one of them said “Have you heard about that story during the war….” “No,” said the other “don’t tell him. You’ll only upset him”. “No” I said. ‘You won’t upset me. I can cope with a story”. Well, after a lot of persuasion, this is what they told me.
Apparently, during the War, on a night just like this, a whole ship’s watch had been lost overboard. No-one knows quite why but the story is that an image of a beautiful woman, ‘clothed in white samite, mystic wonderful’ kind of thing, rose from the moonlit sea and beckoned the men to come to her. Which one by one they did. It happened a second time to another ship but fortunately some were able to resist. “Probably just a load of old rubbish” they said; and they went on their way.
Well it does sound like a load of old rubbish but, when you are standing there with the dampness, the brightness of the moon on a calm sea, the ancient melodies filling the air around you, the mind starts doing strange things. ‘No that can’t have happened”. “They seemed to be talking about something that actually happened. “No”. “What would it look like if she suddenly appeared in the sea over there?” “Surely, if it did happen, you’d resist it.” “But how could you know you wouldn’t find it totally compelling?” When the watch was over, no man ever ran faster from his watch station than I did that night. And for some nights afterwards.
We arrived in Vigo. We all headed of to ‘the street of a thousand arse-holes’. Had a few drinks, the girls came out in profusion, offering a feel here and there, going and coming back every 30 minutes or so. A good time was had by all and we were back on the ship and heading back out to sea.
I’m not quite sure if it was at this time we went on to Gibraltar. One time or another we did arrive there. The thing about sailors is, when they have a drink, they do like to conclude the evening with a good fight. If there’s no-one obvious like a pongo (soldier), they’ll have a fight with one of their mates. Fortunately, when we arrived in Gibraltar, there was an American ship in. Perfect. So everyone got together; and they had a very good drink together. Swopping sea yarns. Arms over the shoulder stuff. Probably drank far too much! Anyway the street bars were going full tilt; and then it started. The Brits started singing “We are all good kids in harbour, but Oh my god at sea………..” It’s jealousy really. The Brits sleep in hammocks while the Yanks have bunks. The Yanks have machines that chuck out cokes and chocolate, the Brits have sweet FA. Hence the ‘Oh my God at sea’ reference. Anyway, once a few roundels of the song have been sung, someone puts a wine bottle upside down in a bucket and the fight is on. The place gets wrecked, there’s blood and vomit everywhere. A cost to the Gibraltarians for staying British. But remember also, we need these boys when it comes to war!
So I had had a quiet night out with a mate but decided to set off back early. There was already talk of me going to America and I didn’t want to risk a clean sheet. As I walked back there were sailors lying about all over the place in a considerable state of disrepair. I passed one pissing on someone’s front door. “Good thing it’s not your front door,” I said in passing. Stupid really. I’d gone a few yards when I heard these footsteps running up behind me. Here we go, I thought. “What did you say, mate? What did you say?” He was in the crouched boxer position, fists raised. I muttered something, then something else. And then I heard another pair of feet running up. “I’ll take him mate. I’ll take him.”
I walked on maybe 20 paces and looked back to see them squaring up to each other. Then I saw my saviour lean forward with a straight left to the mouth. Excellent punch. Heavy. My assailant stumbled back, hands to his mouth. It was over.
As it turned out, they were both from Vigilant. Both were stokers i.e. they worked in the engine room. While I was washing before turning in, my assailant turned up in the washroom. “Sorry about that, mate. It wasn’t serious. I was just messing about. But look what he’s done to my teeth. He shouldn’t have done that.” And with that he showed me his bruised and bleeding gums with some teeth looking a bit loose. The guy who hit him turned out to be an amateur boxing champion. Nice guy. Nice smile. I suppose I would have a nice smile if I was an amateur boxing champion. Anyway I thanked him. Probably bought him a drink. Now that’s what I call LUCKY.
The visit to Poland was the most memorable time in my naval career. Poland was just beginning to feel its way tentatively to a democracy that didn’t include the Russians. Wladyshaw Gromulka had returned as Party Leader. Momentarily the ice was melting.
The Poles have a great military tradition with the Brits. Their brigades fought bravely with us at Monte Cassino where 1000 of them died. And, of course, the Polish ‘Kosciuszko’ Squadron flew out of Northolt during the Battle of Britain. The Memorial to their Dead is still to be seen beside the A40 there.
So you can imagine the scene as our squadron hove into harbour at Gdynia. We were the first British warships to arrive there since the War. The docks were crowded with thousands of Poles there to welcome us – shouting, cheering, singing, waving. The comradeship, the shared history between the Poles and the Brits was obvious and very moving. When we went ashore with our zlotys it was impossible to drink or eat alone; and difficult to pay for any thing. It was their time to give hospitality and, though they had little, they were determined it should be this way. For the number of days we were there, we lived on a diet of vodka and goose. And, of course, the vodka could only be drunk one way: straight back & chilled.
Needless to say, we went about our duties during the day. Our Captain was the very well known and likeable Captain Morgan Giles. He held cocktail parties on board for the local dignitaries which we served (and became at least as inebriated as the guests on the left overs!) Captain Morgan Giles was a player too. He brought his own little car with him on these trips, driven perilously from the dockside on to the quarterdeck over a couple of planks when the tide was the right height. Now that is influence. The car was something like a CinqueCento. How he fitted into it, and where he went in it in foreign ports, is still a mystery to me. I think he may even have flown his wife over to join him on this visit too. He retired a Rear Admiral. He had the contacts. Perhaps that’s the link.
One of my duties during the visit was shore patrol. We sat around on the ship waiting for the trouble. We got it. There was a brawl in a local night club. The duty Petty Officer was from the Supply side and unpracticed in the rougher parts of naval life. He chose me to accompany him, not because I was skilled in hand-to-hand fighting with a drunken rabble but just because I was bigger than the others! A Polish Maria picked us up. As we rattled on our way to the site of the brawl, he confided his plan with me. When we arrived, I was to go in first because it was a much worse naval crime if they hit him, a Petty Officer. I felt assured. We had the right team.
When we got there, thankfully the brawling was over, just the usual sight of broken fittings, blood, vomit and a body or two. Our candidate had decided to hit his image in a mirror with an open hand. Result: broken mirror and a badly cut hand. We picked up and put him on the floor in the back of the van. He was covered in blood and sick, murmuring to himself in his drunkenness. We were on our way to a doctor. The doctor had him put flat on his back on the table. It was a bad cut on the fleshy base of the thumb. The flesh was bulging out. There was no need for an anaesthetic. The doctor started cleaning and sewing when suddenly there was a ‘low moan’ as our Petty Officer crumpled to the floor. The sight was too much for him. We got him on his feet with smelling salts; and soon we and the bandaged sailor were on our way back to the ship.
If our arrival had been dramatic, our departure was tear jerking. We had a Marine band on board. Another lovely day. Can you imagine thousands of Poles on the docks waving and weeping? The squadron wheeling and hooting our departure with the marine band on the quarterdeck, dressed in their red jackets and white pith helmets, playing their favourite marches and no doubt the national anthems of the two countries. It was a moment to be embedded in our memories forever.
On the way back, a ship medic brought me back to reality. He told me that 30% of the ships company had caught gonorrhoea there. That was free too.
That time had come, the time was done. I was sent back to Pompey for demob. I had finished my 2 years and I lined up with men who had just finished 18 months. National Service was coming to an end.
“Thanks be to God for all the mercies he has shown him,” said the captive; “for to my mind there is no happiness on earth to compare with recovering lost liberty.” from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I didn’t choose to do National Service. If I had had the choice I would have refused it. As I travel through life, I am surprise at the number of people who did manage to avoid it. But, if life is something about filling yourself up with great memories, then National Service played a huge part in mine.