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The last V.2 rocket fell on London in March 1945, and I returned home for the third time shortly thereafter, and to Church Street School. In ’46 I was sent to Enfield Road Central School, just past Dalston. This school had been a Rest Centre for bombed-out families in the War, and was only now taking in pupils again. 1951 was a landmark year for two reasons. Our school was to enter students for the very first-ever GCE examination; and I had met Sylvia, the girl who was to become my wife – and Bulawayo Association member.
Of about 100 or so pupils at school at the end of their fourth year who were eligible to go in for this exam, in fact only 8 did so, five boys and three girls. We were not allowed to take more than six subjects, but could take fewer, and reluctantly, I had to drop French. Only two boys entered and passed all six – English Language, English Literature, Mathematics, Geography, History and Commerce (which consisted of shorthand and book-keeping). They were Roy Ashton, and ME!
My first job on leaving school in July 1951 was with the London County Council’s Supplies Department at both its London Fields and Stamford Hill depots.
My brother and I had three older cousins – a set of twins, Alec and Jack and their younger brother Frank whom we admired tremendously. All three of them volunteered for the Royal Navy during the War, and all three survived the ordeal relatively unscathed. When our turn came to be called up, we too, wished to enter the RN. Stan had been a sea cadet, after which he joined the London Division RNVR at H.M.S.President in 1948 because he had discovered that if one served one year in the reserves beforehand, entry into the Navy was guaranteed. Thus, by my enlisting into RNVR in 1952 – and getting my very first sea-going training out of Portsmouth aboard a very happy ship the frigate H.M.S.Redpole, (pennant number F.69) I too, got into the Navy for my two years. I had also had some valuable experience with a .303 rifle on the ranges at Bisley where RNVR had its own clubhouse.
My brother had been a signalman in cadets and RNVR, but entered the Navy as an aircraft handler (on H.M.S.Illustrious). His advice when my turn came was “Don’t do as I did, the food’s lousy. Be a ‘Jack Dusty’, then at least you’ll be in a position to do something about it.” So I went in as a Stores Assistant, and following our examinations, the top one-third became Victuallers (rum, bum & ‘baccy merchants) whilst the bottom two-thirds became Naval Stores Assistants. I entered the Navy at Victoria Barracks, Portsmouth and received both basic and trade training at H.M.S.Ceres, near Wetherby in Yorkshire, right opposite the racecourse, which in fact was our sports field. We were put through hell at the York Road Camp where we were physically taken apart then put back together again in a manner acceptable to the Navy, doing all the ‘square-bashing’, rifle drill, kit musters, dhobeying by hand with bars of ‘pussar’s hard’ and so on, then moved up the road to Moorlands Camp for our specialist victualling training. Suddenly, life was not quite so bad, and we were almost treated like human beings. Moorlands also had another advantage – it was a Wrens training camp! Some good had come out of our ordeal at York Road, in that we took part in the pre-Coronation Parade through the streets of York and the Service of Thanksgiving in York Minster that followed. Truly a memorable experience. I treasure the programme of that event to this day.
Our Part l training instructor, one Petty Officer Garnham whom I believe, we had to call ‘Sir’, had been a Barnardo’s Boy and had joined the Navy as a junior seaman at H.M.S.Ganges at Shotley, near Ipswich. He literally was as hard as nails, and at first, he ensured that we all suffered. We had to work together as a team because it was quite clearly, ‘us against them’ – that is, ratings against instructors. We very quickly formed the opinion that P/O Garnham’s parents were most definitely not married! Gradually however, as we became more proficient, and after we had performed well during our spell as Captain’s Guard, we began to look upon him in a new light. When the time came to say our final farewells to him, we all went to his cabin where we saw on his bed, an eiderdown on which had been embroidered in brightly coloured silk threads, a beautiful peacock. You’ve guessed it – it was all Petty Officer Garnham’s own work!
Sent on Leave & Draft from ‘Ceres,’ I joined RN Barracks, Chatham – H.M.S.Pembroke. This had been the year of the East Coast Floods, and working parties were still active from barracks helping the unfortunate victims. For Chatham Navy Days, I was one of the team at work on the main barracks entrance, relieving visitors of their cameras and issuing receipts – there was to be no spying allowed in our dockyard! My day job was in the Main Clothing & Bedding Store, where all those being demobbed handed in their kit. They had all been in receipt of ‘kit upkeep allowance’ during perhaps 22 years’ service which may well have been spent on beer and loose living, but they all nevertheless had to return 3 sheet, 2 serge suits and all the rest of it. Often they had visited ‘Slops’ to buy brand-new kit merely to hand it in a day or so later. I was actually told by my Stores Chief Petty Officer “If your kit’s not second-to-none when you leave here, it will be your own bloody fault!” So it was perfect.
One Monday morning, returning from seasonal summer leave – up at 5.0a.m. to catch the 5.55 a.m. bus to Victoria Station, there to board the 7.12 a.m. train then to fall asleep, to be woken up by the rumble of the train crossing the steel bridge over the River Medway before entering Rochester Station, then on to Chatham, there to join the crocodile of blue-clad ratings walking back to barracks before leave expired at 0830a.m. – I was ‘invited’ in no uncertain terms, to present myself at the Drafting Master-at-Arms’s Office in the Drill Shed. Upon arrival I was told that I was on draft to Reserve Fleet, Clyde, HMS “Jupiter” no less. I had to fly around barracks doing my leaving routine in time to enable me to be at King’s Cross to catch the overnight ‘Aberdonian’ that left at 1900 hours. Shortly after 6.0am the following morning, I, along with a few others, was in Glasgow, then onboard at ‘Jupiter’ in time for a hearty breakfast.
The base at that time consisted of three ships, HMS “Buchan Ness,” then dear old “Bulawayo,” outboard of which was “Ben Nevis.” Most of our storerooms were on “Buchan Ness,” whilst our Mess (where we slept in hammocks) was up in the bows on the port side. At that time, the only purpose that the tank landing craft Ben Nevis appeared to serve was to provide the ship’s company with a cinema – the tank deck was ideal, if a little chilly. Later, however we were messed on board her. The Gareloch where “Jupiter” was situated, was regarded as ‘arduous conditions,’ being tucked so far away from civilisation that we actually received extra Duty Free cigarettes as some compensation, but as a result there were no ‘free gangway’ facilities, consequently Libertymen always had to fall in to be inspected, before proceeding ashore. Another welcome concession we all appreciated – we always got the very latest West End films as soon as they were released. I was therefore able to write and tell Sylvia from the West Coast of Scotland what would be a good film for her to see locally!
The Navy at that time still possessed five battleships, H.M.S.’s Anson, Duke of York, King George V, Howe and Vanguard, the first-named three of which I was able to see every day ‘swinging round the buoy,’ together with an aircraft-carrier, a floating dock, plus two cruisers, either Tiger and Blake, or Blake and Defence. The duty I was allocated was the one that the out-going Portsmouth ratings wanted to get rid of the most, that of ‘Bubbly Bosun.’ I believe Their Lordships in their wisdom were switching the manning of the base over to Chatham. Thus it was that I became responsible for the daily issue of the tot of rum, and was consequently the only member of the S.& S.Branch that the rest of the ship’s company said good morning to, on a regular basis! A position of power, at last!
It was no word of a lie to say that I consumed more rum when I was not entitled to it, than I did when I was! One had to be twenty years of age to qualify for it. The strokes that we were able to pull on a regular daily basis worked virtually every time. More often than not, the Officer of the Day witnessing the issue would be watching the two seamen ‘tankies’ measuring out the quantities I had called out, rather than me. I could therefore call out the wrong amount, thereby placing an extra tot or two into a particular mess – no messman would ever query the fact that he had received too much! If I myself was under scrutiny by the officer, then it was up to the two tankies to issue too much, as prearranged.
To compile my figures each day I HAD to work closely with the Regulating Office, coming into close contact with the MAA – the chief of police – and the Regulating Petty Officer, his deputy, known as the ‘Jaunty’ and the ‘Crusher,’ respectively. It would therefore be wise for me to ‘keep my nose clean’ and my head down. Even they were human, however hard to believe, but true – I know, I was there. Imagine my surprise when the Master-at-Arms, God, no less, asked me to sell him a cigarette coupon. Question: Do I do as he asks, thereby confirming to him my willingness to commit a misdemeanour, or do I say “No, I can’t, it’s against regulations” thereby incurring for ever more, his wrath. As I recall, I sold him one – I’m no fool!
Then there was the RPO. On another occasion, I had been up on a charge, and appeared at Captain’s Defaulters, having been ‘absent from place of duty,’ namely the spud locker on the jetty at lunchtime. I was duly ‘weighed off’ with two hours extra work for this crime. The RPO recorded my name on the Punishment Board in his office, then said “That doesn’t look very good, does it? Were you thinking of going ashore this evening?” “Yes I was, RPO.” “Well, you still can if you really want to. The Master-at-Arms is on short weekend leave this weekend, and if his tot is not stopped, you can go ashore. Do we have a deal?” “Yes, RPO.” So it was that the tot was not stopped, I went ashore with my mates, and the two hours’ extra work remains undone to this day.
Life in the Gareloch was fairly routine, and I thoroughly enjoyed my work. I was always sober in the forenoon, coping with the figurework and thereby excused all parades. I ate my dinner through a roseate glow brought on by ample consumption of rum, and could get my head down in the afternoon, proceed ashore for a few beers in the evening, then do it all over again the next day.
The passing ships were a constant source of interest. We de-ammunitioned H.M.S.Relentless after she had been in a collision, in order that she could proceed into the dock in Glasgow to have a new set of bows fitted, Termagent spent a few days with us, the old Royal Yacht Victoria & Albert came up to be broken up, as did numerous merchant vessels. The all-welded tanker “World Concord” – or rather the bows half – was tied up on our jetty having broken her back in a severe storm. The rear portion ended up round the corner in Holy Loch. Then there was the French destroyer “Maille Breze” which blew up and sank on the far side of the Clyde during the War. She was raised and actually floated away under tow to be broken up. We also had the brand new midget submarine X.51 up with us for deep-sea diving trials, she having arrived by rail during 1954. As a matter of interest this actual vessel is now on permanent display in the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford complex. Some months ago, I took it upon myself to tell them that Pathe Gazette had filmed this vessel’s trials and that she had made front-page news in the local papers fifty-one years ago. I felt that it would be pleasing if they could screen the archive film as part of their display.
I had found a drinking pal, a Naval Stores killick called Maurice whilst in Chatham Barracks, and we had both been drafted to “Bulawayo.” We were able to borrow two cycles and could thus enjoy the fabulous surrounding countryside. On one of our trips we ended up on the submarine H.M.S.”Scorcher” at the top of Loch Long, and on another trip we managed to climb to the top of Ben Arthur, or The Cobbler as it is known locally, and immediately afterwards cycled to the top of the famous hill “The Rest & Be Thankful.’
We also indulged in quite a lot of sailing in 14ft wooden dinghies on the Gareloch, and one such trip almost cost me my life. I and two others, a qualified coxswain and an inexperienced lad, went out – with prior permission – in Commander (S)’s own personal dinghy on Sunday 24th October 1954. Shortly after 5.0pm.having passed through Rhu Narrows, we managed to overturn it whilst’tacking’ back to our base during a sudden and violent squall. We clung to the boat for over two hours, whilst my companions debated whether or not to swim for the shore. For me, there was no decision to be made. There I was, in over 1,200 feet of water in a storm off the Western Scottish coast at the end of October in pitch darkness, and me a non-swimmer. I was pleased that they decided to stay where they were, but I remember feeling outraged that this was actually happening to me – I was far too young to die!
Maurice it was, who reported us as overdue and raised the alarm, thereby saving the lives of two of us. The young lad, Brian by name, lost his hold just as we were about to be picked up by a motor fishing boat (manned by civilians but working at the Base) and disappeared. His body was never recovered. Obviously, we two survivors were exhausted and unconscious when picked up, and spent some days is Sick Bay recovering. I had been punched twice on each side on my jaw and a boot was brought down rather hard on the knuckles of my right hand in an effort to break my hold on the side of the dinghy, and Fred had fallen head-first through the MFV’s engineroom hatch.
The inevitable Court of Enquiry followed, and whilst we were cleared of any blame, the Duty Commanding Officer (ashore house-hunting when he should have been aboard) and the Officer of the Day (who had omitted to enter our names in the Duty Ashore book and had then completely forgotten about us) were not so lucky. Another ordeal followed shortly thereafter, but which the other survivor Freddie and I felt it was our duty to attend, was the traditional auction of the deceased rating’s kit for the benefit of his next of kin.
I returned to RNB Chatham three months or so later, on a Friday morning in February 1955, and did my joining routine swiftly enough to get a long weekend leave. Back I went the following Monday and was finally ‘demobbed,’ having served a few days over the regulation two years, but since I was ‘up the line’ for some of them, I was prepared to overlook that fact!