Archive for the ‘ Serving Her Majesty before the Mast ’ Category

 

HMS Vigilant

HMS VIGILANT

 

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

 

POSTSCRIPT

 

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.

 

HMS VICTORY (Renamed HMS Nelson with Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory now reposing in Portsmouth Dockyard)

So it was back to Pompey Barracks to practice my new skills as a Writer.  I began in the Supply Office, me, a manager and a couple of Wrens.  A dark, Dickensian place.  There I learned one important lesson about the Royal Navy.  I was the young firebrand.  I want everything to change.  There must be better ways.  But the fact was that most of everything had been going on since Nelson was a boy; and it just wasn’t going to change now for me.

After a while, I was moved to the Pay Office.  The PO in charge, I believe Petty Officer Chalk aka Chalky, specialised in making alcohol out of just about anything. Bread and rhubarb, I remember.  And all of it was made in his bath at home.  His pallid complexion suggested he succeeded as a distiller though what he used instead of a bath I never found out.  There was a young, shy Wren working with us.  She had just taken up with a bandsman.  Every morning, when she came in, Chalky asked her how her lessons were coming on learning to play the one-eyed piccolo.

It was lovely walking across the parade on a nice summer’s day.  Surprisingly very calming.  Perhaps, once in a while, a group of guys from Detention Quarters (DQs) would jog by in line doing so many circuits, rifles above their heads; or they could be doing press-ups.  Made a nice change from sitting in their cells picking oakum strand by strand (‘a loose, dusty hemp or jute fibre used chiefly for caulking seams in wooden ships and packing pipe joints’).  This wasn’t used for anything except to be a complete and utter waste of time.  Just mixed up and put back in the sack afterwards. They had to do so much of it a day or they wouldn’t get their smoke.  This meant lining up in a row.  A Petty Officer would walk down giving each of them a cigarette, then he would to the top again and go down lighting them.  Then back to the top and walk down chucking them in a bucket.  The Navy wasn’t going to give in.  A punishment was a punishment.

It was about this time I was interviewed to see if I could be officer material. Nothing came of it.  The sub-plot was the Navy didn’t want National Servicemen in the first place and took as few as they could get away with.  This obviously reduced the number of National Servicemen they made up to officer.  Whether I would have made it anyway is another question.  Some time later, an officer friend read me the report of this interview.  It appeared I had upset the lady Lieutenant Commander interviewer.  No doubt I thought I was being fascinating at the time.  Story of my life really.

I started playing rugby for the Barracks, moving from full back to fly-half as my eyesight got worse.  It was a bit off and on.  The officer players liked to play on duty weekends but not on free weekends.  The lower decks made up the numbers.  I remember one weekend I had a really severe, cricked neck.  The medics told me they knew the answer.  One of them grabbed my feet, the other one my neck.  The neck medic drew my head and neck back and wrenched it sharply to the left.  The pain was extraordinary. But I played the game; with a severely cricked and wrenched neck.

The other thing I remember was borrowing someone’s spare jockstrap.  I’d managed to leave mine behind.  It is always a mistake to borrow someone’s jockstrap.  This one gave me an itch, you know that itch in-between, which went on so long I can’t remember when it stopped.

(An aside – Let me tell go about this itch.  At times it drove me crazy.  I had it even when I left the Navy.  I had had a polio injection and didn’t feel good.  My mother called the doctor.  Just a mild reaction, he said.  Then he saw the tube of tineafax cream (treatment of tinea cruris – jock itch) on the bedside table.  We all used it.  ‘What’s this for?’ he said.  I told him.  Instantaneously the bedclothes were flung back and my legs were in the air.  ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, he said.  ‘It’s all in the head.’

Some time later, I was off to be a student in America. America at the time insisted I get a doctor to sign off that I didn’t have VD.  Girls too had to sign off they weren’t going to be whores.  Nothing much has changed.  Anyway, while I was in there, I reminded him about the itch; and this is how the conversation went

Me:  ‘I’m off to America.  I still have the itch and, whether it is in my head or not, I should appreciate your help in getting rid of it.’

Dr: ‘What’s the problem with it?’

Me: ‘Well, for example, today I was in the barber’s and had this terrible urge to scratch myself.’

Dr: ‘No-one minds you scratching yourself in the barbers”

Me: ‘I know.  But sometimes I can be in mixed company.’

Dr: ‘So, are you saying you get this itch when you’re with girls?’

Me: ‘No.  But the other night I was at the theatre with a girl and, while we were having a drink at the interval, I got this itch again.’

Dr: ‘Well the thing to do is to get up very close to her, look her directly in the eyes, and have a jolly good scratch.  She’ll never know.’

********

My father had just bought me an old car.  Remember the Flying Standard with its flared mudguards and its stand-up-and-beg headlights.  More like a Flying Deathtrap to my mind.  The flared wings had rusted and the headlights turned in.  The brakes only just worked.  I spent weekend after weekend haring up the A3 for the joys of London; and down again the next day.  Most of it was like driving in a black-out, the twisted lights occasionally catching the cats eyes or a white line to guide me on my way.

I also met a girl called Molly.  Some local nurses wanted a few sailors to dance with at their party.  So I danced with Molly.  She was an assistant nurse.  She had a small flat in Southsea.  She was a sweetheart.  I wasn’t very good at these things.  I had spent most of my time as a teenager improving my golf handicap.  Molly taught me that there are better things in life than a low score. “Do I have to send you a telegram” she had said.

One evening I was driving through Southsea when I was stopped by the police.  ‘Do you mind asking your young lady if she would mind sitting in her own seat while you are driving?” he said.

These were my halcyon days in the Navy.  Duties were light.  Occasionally we did a march past and occasionally one of the team would lead the contingent.  On my day, there I was leading the continent, barking out the commands like a good one: quick march, eyes left, this kind of thing.  Went off like clockwork.  ‘Sounds a bit sergeant majorish’ said a snotty nosed subby (sub-lieutenant) to his colleague.  Surely that is what it is all about, I thought.

They were a bit like that, these midshipmen.  We had a kit inspection competition.  Mine was perfect.  His mother must have done it, said the midshipman.  So what, I thought.  Mind you, there was only one thing worse that a recently graduated boy midshipman; and that was one made up from the lower deck.  They were just a pain in the arse.

We would get our own back on these Middies.  Kim, a mate of mine, and I joined a small club in Southsea, The Golden nugget would you believe.  It was an Officers’ Club.  We must have sounded right.  There we could have beers, talk to some pretty girls and do a little dancing all in a nice environment with nice people and dimmed lights.  The evening’s sport would be to find a likely sub-lieutenant, who was making the Navy his life, and ask him what it was like to be a sub-lieutenant making the Navy his life.  Well.  This was wonderful (wow) and that was marvellous (geewizz) and so it went on for a week or two.  Then the time would come for our turn.  What about this?  How do you cope with that?  And what would you do if this happened?  By the time we were finished, he would be totally deflated, maybe even considering resigning his commission.

It was pretty safe walking around Portsmouth at night too.  If the local thugs picked on someone, they would have it coming back to them.  When he got back to barracks, the shore patrol would set off looking for them and, when they found them, set about them.  It was standard for many these leading seaman apparently, when they had done their time with the Navy, to join the Police Force.

And, as the months rolled by, I had all the guard house sorted.  Whether it was ‘sippers’ or ‘gulpers’, I would roll up in the Flying Standard, they would open the gate for me, sign me in while I parked the car and strolled off to the dormitory.  After I had learned the ropes, very few weekends too were ruined by tiresome things like duty responsibilities.

But, as we know, all good things must come to an end.  Life must move on to pastures new.  And let’s face it, what is a sailor if he doesn’t have a ship, one that floats?  And what is a sailor if he doesn’t go to sea.  That was my next assignment, HMS VIGILANT.  To hell with wearing glasses!   (To be continued 11/11)

 

 

 

HMS CERES

 

So the time had come.  We were off to HMS Ceres to earn our gold star Writer’s badge.  Sounded hopeful too.  Ceres: the Greek Goddess of Fertility no less (or was it TV Programmes?).  HMS Ceres was a brick battleship, the type that doesn’t float but doesn’t sink.

HMS Ceres was in Wetherby in Yorkshire.  It’s a lovely part of the world.  Near Harrogate, near York and its magnificently Gothic Cathedral, near Ripon Cathedral, with its Saxon Crypt, and Fountains Abbey, the beautifully preserved but ruined Cistercian Abbey; and, indeed, near Wetherby Race Track.  We even took expeditions into the Yorkshire Dales, hopping from rock to rock as the streams gurgled beside us.  In fact one chap fell over on the rocks and ignited a box of Swan matches in his trouser pocket.  For a while he did a bit more hopping about than the rest of us.  The downside was Wetherby was very cold in winter, at least for those sailors who hailed from ‘south of the Thames’.

The camp itself was charming too, all low level buildings, pathways running between them with little green verges and rose beds bounded by diagonally-set bricks.  If people weren’t walking around in uniform, we might of thought we were somewhere else. It was all very relaxed.

One day two of us were walking with the rubbish bin between us having just emptied it.  A trainee chef with a beaming smile decided it was such a lovely day he would run up from behind and jump over it.  Would we mind? No, we said.  What skills he had in cooking evidently did not rely on logic.  He hadn’t worked out that, from the moment he took off, we would have walked on a couple of steps while he was in the air.  Sure enough, up he galloped, took off and landed right in the middle of the empty bin, the whole lot going head over heels.  We were shaking with laughter as we walked on while he sat on the path rubbing away at the bruised bits.

As you walked in the gates of HMS Ceres, generally speaking the billets or dormitories were to the left.  To the immediate right was a huge parade ground, facing inwards with the large flag pole centre edge and, behind it, a low level brick building, with a small rectangular water tower in the centre of the roof.  The officers would step out with this building behind them in full uniform and address the morning parade facing them.  The guard would present arms.  The Union Jack would be unfolded and raised on the pole.  The parson would hold prayers.  We would all sing a hymn or two to a small mobile organ which had been pushed out and opened ready. Then we would march past stiffly with the officers returning the salute.  Something like that anyway.

The dormitories were like Nissen huts, quite comfortable with double bunking beds end-to-end down each side and a double row of steel lockers facing outwards down the middle.  Toilet and wash facilities were the other side of the entry door at one end.  I chose the upper bunk as near to the door on the left side as I could.  I had already learned, when right handed people walked into a room like that, they tended to turn right; and most people are right handed.  This gave me a few seconds more in bed most mornings.

The biggest problem with the dormitories was we had to share them with the trainees chefs who were also trained at HMS Ceres.  Chefs tended to be rather more basic than us Writers and, when they got drunk, occasionally chose to piss in their own lockers rather waste sleep time staggering off to the toilets.  If you were unlucky, they mistook your locker for theirs.

We hadn’t been to Ceres long before our Chief Petty Officer (CPO) gave us our welcome and our warning.  There was a local young lady, he said, who couldn’t wait till evening leave time came to earn her pennies.  She had taken to offering herself through the surrounding chain linked fence.  Our CPO gave his advice with these succinct words.

          ” She’s got it, you want it.  She’s got it, you’ll get it”.

For our group, that was advice enough.

Our group was a nice bunch, mostly quite well educated and from all over the country.  There were 12 of us.  We would all take of evening ‘shore’ leave together.  That meant 12 pints of beer which was pretty inebriating; and you had to be careful.  You had to be able to walk back through the gate and check in unaided.

On one of this outings, one of the guys became desperate for a crap.  He dived behind a hedge.  We were well in the country.  He came out smiling and off we all walked together back to the camp.  Suddenly, after about 300 yards, he discovered he had left his belt behind, a pretty difficult thing to do.  Navy belts are wide bits of webbing which go round your waist to be locked in place by the front flap of the trousers.  Anyway, back we all went.  He dived back behind the hedge and had some difficulty finding it.  Oops.  There it is.  Underneath.  He carried it back to the camp very gingerly.  I am not quite sure how we navigated it past the guard house.

Even now, after all these years, I remember those nights waking up, freezing cold, sitting on the toilet.

So life went on.  We were all given duties outside our training sessions.  Mine was cleaning up the kitchen vessels after meals in the camp cook house.  Those huge steel vats.  Not long, everything began to stink of rotten cabbage, you, your hair, your clothes.  You took them off at night.  They stunk at the end of your bed.  And you put them on in the morning. You just couldn’t get away from it.

The other side of it was the long waits between meals and washing duties.  We used this time playing draughts.  Endlessly.  Draughts.  After a month or so, everything I saw became draughts.  I’d stand talking to people and, before long, my mind was moving them around on a draughts board; and, when I slept, the same games were played over and over again.  It took months afterwards to get it out of my head.

When I was relieved these duties, I became one of the camp gaolers.  I had to sit in the cells and make sure everyone had what they needed!!  The camp had quite a big, residential contingent just to keep the place running.  Inevitably, some of these transgressed and some got locked up.  Most of them had tattoos; and most of the tattoos were pierced hearts or scrolls with the mother’s or girl friend’s name; or vertical swords and banners with things like Death before Dishonour written on them.  It was here I discover how unbelievably hard some of these kind of guys are.  There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that would make them change their mind – no insult, no hardship, no bribe.  They were resolute.

Some of the guys in the cells were there, trying to work their ticket, trying to get out of the Navy.  In those day, there was a 12 Continuous Service contract.  They would sign on at the age of 16 as a boy seaman.   You see them in those old photos standing on the top of the mast.  But the contract didn’t begin until they were 18.  By 19, they hated the place and wanted to get out.  But there was no way out.  They couldn’t usually buy their way out, even if they could find the money.  So the choice was to do things where the penalty was detention for 13 weeks.  Three of these and you could be chucked out.  So some of them would go out and pick fights with shore patrols, do their three months, take a rest, have a few beers; and then set about a valuable bit of Naval property, like a kitchen with a fire axe.

Another way was to piss in your bed.  As we know, some people have this problem they can’t help. The Navy couldn’t have people in a mess at sea pissing in their hammocks, then trussing them closed for storage.  Clearly it would be a health hazard, even if you could cope with the flies.  So the brighter ones would have a good night’s sleep, then piss in their bed before they got up in the morning.  One of my ‘cell’ jobs was to go round every hour through the night, wake them up and ask “Want a piss?”  It was then a question who would give in first.

As we know, all good things must come to an end.  We had passed our exams.  In the next few days we would graduate.  The question then was what could we do to be remembered  at Ceres forever.  We formed discussion groups.  Over and over it we went.  Suggestions came and went.  Ho ho ho, we said.  That won’t work, we said.  We could put a live chicken in the organ.  We could fill the flag with confetti so it would blow all over the parade ground.  That’s nothing, we said,  That’s be done before, we said.  Then my friend Jerry Guiton came up his his idea.  Ho, ho, ho, we said.  That’s impossible, we said.

But not for Jerry. It was possible; and he had worked out the timings.  He must have been an engineer. I helped him.  We crept out in the dead of night.  We gathered bricks from the garden and built a low, false wall in front of the water tower on that low flat roofed building by the parade ground.  A mattress cover cut open made a 12 foot (3.7m) banner.  Jerry found 2 x12 foot sticks to attach to keep it open.  He found a ball of strong twine and a good number of vine eye hooks to run the twine through.  He was ready.  The night before our graduation day Jerry was up on the roof for the final touches.

We did not have to attend the parade on the day of graduation because we were meeting the Camp Commander directly afterwards.  We waited at the back of the long, low building, in fact just where the end of the piece of twine was hanging.  We heard the parade set up and we saw the officers step out.  This was the moment.  Jerry pulled on the twine.  Amazingly it worked.  Slowly a banner rose up in front of the assembled sailors.  Of course the officers couldn’t see it.  It was behind them.  Beautifully scripted the words said

GOOD MORNING CAMPERS!

Well you are not meant to laugh on parade or even smile.  You’re certainly not meant to laugh out-loud.  The guard of honour fell about about.  Arms didn’t present.  The morning service collapsed and, of course, those marching past marched past the banner, and those saluting saluted the banner.  Tears were running down the faces.  It was chaotic. I think the march past was made to run again.

Jerry.  You were a star and still a very fond memory.  And I have to hand it to the Camp Commander too.  We could have been in real trouble, maybe even cell dwellers.  But the Commander took it in good heart.  I suppose it is one of those thing, if you do it well enough, you’ll get forgiven.  He merely stated his suspicion we were involved, advised us that, if it was us, we would be better not to do something like this again, and formally handed us our golden Writer star.  We saluted, about turned and marched out.  Goodbye HMS Ceres.  You’re a fond memory too.

We we off for our first assignment, for me HMS Victory in Portsmouth.                      (To be continued 9/11)

 

JOINING UP

‘I joined the Navy 

To See the World……

…..and what did I see?

I saw the sea.’

(Author’s note:  All this happened a long time ago.  What happened actually happened , but some of the details and timings could well be muddled)

It was my future brother-in-law’s fault.  He was still in the dating stage with my sister. We shared a bedroom when the family went on holiday to San Remo.  He was doing his National Service and had already made it to Sub-Lieutenant.  For a couple of weeks, when everyone had gone to bed, we sat around smoking his blue liners (Navy issue cigarettes with a blue line on them. 4p per pack!) while he told this ‘innocent’ all his eye-widening stories about life in the Navy.  In a nutshell, they all boiled down to this: all girls love a sailor.  It took me two years to find it out for myself: they absolutely don’t.  In fact they all run a mile.

The other decision factor was this.  At Haileybury, we all had a Combined Cadet Corps; and we had to do cadet training.  It was mainly about marching around, ‘judging distance’, and ‘presenting arms’ on Wednesday afternoons; but it was different on Field Day.  While the army cadets crept around, and did leopard crawl, in the mud & field ditches and in the rain, shooting blanks (and occasionally their foot), the navy cadets caught a bus to London to visit HMS President, built when ‘the ships were wood and the men were steel’ and ‘parked’ on the Thames.  After a bit of nosing round the gun decks and canons in the dry, there was usually time for a couple of pints before we set off back.  Game, set and match.  I signed on.

Inevitably the day of reckoning came.  I graduated from school, dug a few ditches for the toilet system for the London Bible College which was then in build.

(I must add a note here about Harry.  Harry was an Irishman who dug ditches.  In those days, we would all have a laugh about Irish ditch diggers who we always saw leaning around on their spades.  Well, let me assure you, Harry taught me what you see was not what you get.  He gave me the choice, dig the ditch or push the barrow.  If I dug the ditch, I had to keep up with the speed with which Harry took his barrow over the boards to empty it and to return for the barrow I was filling.  Or, if I did the barrow, I had to get my barrow back quickly enough over the slithery, slidey boards before the barrow he was filling became too heavy.  Whatever whichway I did it, and try as I may, I just couldn’t keep up with him; the easiest, most amusing day’s work Harry probably had ever done too).

The ‘Queen requests and requires…’ letter arrived.  I was a GUZ rating which means my home port was Devonport, as a probationary writer actually, clerical not seaman branch as I wore glasses.  I can’t quite remember where I signed on, Portsmouth, or Pompey as it is known, or Devonport; but I do remember vividly the gates of the Portsmouth Barracks ,with the huge crest above them, ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ or, as they say, ‘Evil is he who evil thinks’.  I cleared my mind of any bad thoughts, shrugged my shoulders and walked in, ‘prison’ for two, whole years starts now.

So initation at Pompey barracks was all about togging up to look like a sailor, marching around (I had become good at that), sloping arms and presenting arms; and settling into one of the huge dormitories. The dormitories were split into four sections, with double bunk beds in two rows facing each other, and a passageway through the middle.  Metal lockers in between and at the end of each bed.  Maybe, 15 beds in a row which meant 60 men in a section and 240 in the dormitory.

The toilets were at one end, of the modern flushing variety, OK until payday when half the place got Mozart (and Liszt or pissed) and continued to throw up in the stand ups which would go on flushing until we had a flood running out into the corridor and down the stairs.  Next day, broke, they would go round bumming pennies until they could afford two pints of scrumpy (high alcohol rough cider).  Then they could be back in the toilet again doing the same thing the next night.  Most sailors spent everything they were paid on outings; and moderation was not their forte.  As National Service men, I seem to remember we were paid 21 shillings and 6 pence (£1.075) each week from which we had two or three shillings taken out for social security!  This was 1957.  So it didn’t leave much to do anything with.

We had our inoculations at Pompey.  We lined up in a row and were injected.  I think it was smallpox that they dabbed on the top arm and gave us a little metal thing to pummel away at the spot.  Presumably the blood would rise up and take the antibodies into the body through the skin.  The trouble was they didn’t wipe the arm clean afterwards.  So we put on our heavy naval sweaters again and those with sensitive skins inoculated themselves again.  One guy even put his sweater on the other way round the next day and managed to inoculate himself a third time.  I think they called it double & triple vaccine poisoning.

Crabs and bedbugs were a bit of an issue.  The sailors cure for crabs, they say, is to cut a parting in the pubic hair with a razor, rub in plenty of alcohol and then some sand in the hope that the little critters would get pissed, start fighting and stone each other to death.  One hirsute leading seaman would come in to the barracks on his duty nights and be given a regular issue grey navy blanket.  Time and again he caught crabs in his body hair.  I can’t imagine what he used to tell his wife.

One of the first pieces of advice came from a Petty Officer.  There were only three things in the Navy that could really get you into trouble: rum, bum and ‘baccy (tobacco).

Sailors in these times would get a tot of rum every day.  It went back into naval history when a squadron of British fighting ships had saved a West Indian island.  In thanks, the islanders  had bequeathed the navy a supply of their heavy dark rum in perpetuity, either freely or for a peppercorn payment.  This meant every day, as we lined up along the hot plates to collect our lunch, we would pass a tray with these tumblers of rum on them, one part rum, two parts water.  After drinking it, you could feel your shoulders ache a little as a haze of relaxation came over you.  A sailor one day sat on the stainless steel food counter to drink his rum.  “Hoy” bawled a chef, “Gerroff.  This is for rissoles not arseholes”

You could get into a lot of trouble passing your rum around; but a wonderful subculture had developed around it.  Sippers (a monitored sip only) meant someone would do you a favour, gulpers (a monitored gulp) would probably get you off a night’s duty while, with the whole tot, you would probably never have a duty to do again.

At this stage, the navy hadn’t got its head around gay sailors or mixed sex ships.  These days they both are accepted.  But in my time there was always a fear that ‘love’ affairs springing up could affect the ship’s wellbeing and fighting capability.  Then, bum was a sackable offence.

Going back to bum and bedbugs, at one point I had a real issue with a bedbug.  Night after night, I would check out the bed before I got into it; and day after day I would wake up with patches of bites on me.  So this night, I went to bed with no pyjamas.  I woke up, in that half light you get around 2.00am near the sea, to see someone at the end of my bed going through my pockets, looking for my wallet.  “Oy” I shouted and off he fled with me, naked and in hot pursuit, yelling at the top of my voice “Stop that man”.  Down one side of the dormitory, up the other.  Heads popping out above the bedclothes.  Anyhow, to  cut the story short, someone else took up the chase, pursued him out into the parade ground where the guy was apprehended as I sloped back to bed.  The upshot was, he was brought forward for questioning.  Fortunately the ‘tribunal’ accepted my reasons for pursuing him through the dormitory naked, late at night.

‘Baccy’ was the blue liner cigarettes again.  The monthly issue was 200 at 4p per pack.  If you drank as a group, no-one missed their round of cigarettes either.  Knowing what we know now, it would be interesting to see an estimate of how many lives this privilege cost.  Buying someone else’s ration was strictly verboten.

But enough.  We were kitted out and ready to begin our Navy career.  Next stop HMS CERES (to follow 7/11)