Red Ensign – White Ensign
The Young Man of the Sea
with apologies to Ernest Hemmingway
Throughout Hemingway’s career as a writer, he maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing: that it takes off! whatever butterflies have on their wings. Well I talk about my writing by way of my blogging website and on the whole, I’ve had a very lucky, long life. So, for all his skill and masterly writing, he wasn’t always right.
A few weeks ago, one of my offspring asked me, “is there anything you haven’t done?” I’m not sure if this was meant as an admiring observation, or whether it was the words of someone who was sick of hearing my rambling anecdotes about my exploits in Mexico and the Americas, Japan, South Africa or in Arctic warfare training much later, most probably it was the latter, since I do sometimes tend to reminisce about the past. At my last count I have visited 74 different countries. As you dear reader, will know we always call it swinging the lantern. I’m sure everyone has heard the phrase, “the older I get, the better I was.” Well that’s me!
Sooner or later my mind is going to slow down, some will say the process has already started, and my recall won’t be what it once was. So before these tales disappear forever, I have self-indulgently begun to recount a few of these memories. The funny thing is, as I think about incidents in my past and start to write, a state of amnesia sets in and those obscure memories crystallise and de-pixelate to a point where I can again become that 16 or that 20 year old person – and in a way it is an invigorating and inspiring exercise.
I started with a Blog – and will continue to do so, until my memory finally gives out, or until someone tells me to stop; or I run out of ink (or enthusiasm), I’ll put them here.
To begin at the beginning. ……..
My Pa joined the Royal Flying Corps as a boy nearly at the end of the first World War and continued a career in the RAF with a couple of breaks until he retired at the end of World War II. I suppose you could call me an airforce brat. But there was no way that I would ever have followed him. I hated the very idea. I was about eight years old in 1943 when I first fell in love. I lived in a village not far from Bletchley Park of the Enigma fame and the were literally hundreds of Royal Navy wrens working there as back up to the boffins, I assume! Most of these girls were aged 18 and upwards and of varying ranks. They were billeted at a large mansion called Wavendon House which was the next village to mine. Christmas 1943 most of the kids at my local village school, received and invitation to a party at Wavendon House and some thirty of us accepted the invite. It was there that I met Sub Lieutenant Sheila Maughan WRNS and we got on like a house on fire. I was the kid who stabled his pony in the field next to Wavendon House. Sheila was the officer in charge and before the war was a farmers daughter and had her own horses. To cut to the chase, I let her ride my pony, she gave me small gifts and quite a lot of attention. I was in love. I was going t6o be a sailor when I grew up. I vividly remember a march past along Woburn Sands High Street I can’t recall what the occasion was but at the front of the parade marching a troop of some sixty or so Wrens was Sub Lieutenant Maughan. I was standing in the High Street with a bunch of my mated some hundred yards from the cenotaph. Sheila shouted Eyes Right and saluted me and all her troop marched past me eyes right! Not only was I in love, I was joining the Navy.
After passing my 11 plus and becoming settled attending the nearest Grammar School to my home and having to travel twenty or so miles on a pre-war bus each way, thus adding about 3 hours to my school day. I was able to complete my homework during this tedious journey but did nothing to add to my love for school or my impatience to get on with my life.
My father had a wealthy, very close friend called Herbert, whom had already gifted me a horse that he had originally bought for his locally ensconced mistress, the lovely Iris and it turned out she was terrified of horses. So for three or four years I had the sole ownership of a beautiful roan pony of 14 hands that I spent a lot of my young life on. The deal was that I exercised the horse that had its paddock and stable free and all its tack supplied. The only downside was that my elder sister often refused to eat at the same table with me, because for some reason she said I smelled of horses.
Somehow this same wealthy friend, Herbert, who owned a large shoe factory in Northamptonshire and was chairman of his local council, heard of my wish to adopt a seafarers life and he used his influence to get me any grants available plus his greatly appreciated sponsorship and I found myself giving up my daily three hour commute and moving my life lock, stock and barrel, to become a boarder at Greenwich Naval College. I remember vividly, at the age of 13, being taken to the railway station at Bletchley by my father with a huge trunk and a smaller case and being helped into a railway carriage and being waved off with lots of instructions on how to get from Euston to somewhere called Cannon street and then to Greenwich. Of course it’s now all a blur in my mind but I succeeded in finding my way.
I absolutely loved being at Greenwich, even getting chased by a tutor/boatswain wielding a knotted ropes-end at 0530 hours along with the hard to row, on the Thames, whalers and cutters before swimming and showering before breakfast. I took to seamanship and navigation like a duck to water. Another memory that stands out was my home leave at the end of the first term. Our uniform was that of a Naval Cadet/Midshipman and we were only allowed to travel in uniform.
I had arranged to meet Ma and Pa on Waterloo station prior to a day in London. We were going to see Vic Oliver at the London Palladium – Gosh that memory has just come back to me. Anyway at that time, not long after the war had ended and there were armed soldiers on guard at the start of each platform. Don’t ask me why, probably there was a surfeit of soldiers. Picture me a jumped up little snob pretending not to be a schoolboy, posing as a Naval Officer and as I walked past to pair of soldiers they stamped their feet to attention, presented arms as I strolled by. Frightened me at first but I realised they had mistaken me for a genuine officer and as I had been taught, I returned their salute.
I am so ashamed to admit it now but I had over an hour to kill before meeting the venerable parents and I deliberately walked along the concourse and imagining myself as Jack Hawkins or some other hero of the Western Approaches and earned myself at least three more salutes from armed guards. You dear reader, should be honoured that I have added that minor confession because it still embarrasses me and I don’t think I’ve told the story before.
I always made sure that whenever I could I kept in touch with Herbert my sponsor; my Ma and Pa were completely out of their depth at Greenwich, seemingly overawed by the pomp and circumstance of artwork, the painted ceilings and the very history of the place. However when I invited Herbert and his model girlfriend, they belonged there. To cut a long story short the following Spring I was contacted by Herbert who it transpired had shares in the Ellerman Lines which also had acquired the Temple Steamship Company. “Was I set on the Royal Navy? or would I be interested in a career in the Merchant Navy” because he could pull a few strings. There was a British ship in port which was short of a couple of hands. If I was interested there was a job for me as a Deck Apprentice with an option of promotion to Third Mate as soon as a position became available. Remember I was 15 years old and immortal.
Herbert pulled his strings, and I left Greenwich quite amicably. I signed on a couple of weeks later as a crew member on the SS Temple Bar as its most junior of junior member of the Upper Deck – my official position – “Deck Apprentice”. The Temple Bar was what is known among seafarers as a ‘Fort Ship’ built in a hurry in wartime, using welded plates instead of traditional riveting, all for speed to keep the allies fed with basics.
The ship was registered in Liverpool. She was 7,130 tons (tons dead-weight), built in Canada during World War Two and was one of a fleet of cargo tramp Steamers of welded construction some 424.5 feet long and a 57 feet beam. She was fitted with triple expansion steam engines. A total of 198 of these ships were built with the hope that if they survived at least one voyage with cargo intact they would be in profit, each subsequent voyage, being a bonus.
The ship’s captain was Harold Collins, a small insignificant looking man, who had survived several Murmansk runs and in reality was a more forceful character than he looked. I had a tiny cabin in the fo’c’sle of the ship (where crew were separated from officers) at my young age and having been fully trained Greenwich I knew it all. Looking back I know exactly why Midshipmen are given the soubriquet ‘Snotty’, I can think of more appropriate names.
Luckily I was taken under the wing of Ronnie Brown an Able Seaman, who may have had Scouser ancestry but was a Londoner through and through. He was a generous, down to earth fellow, who used to wake me every morning with “Come on then Lofty, rise and shine, you’re not on your Daddy’s yacht now, y’know!” Initially I was a day worker – 7.30 to 5 o’clock with a half hour for lunch. I spent the initial few weeks on the bridge, watching and learning but really following the Skippers instructions to get over there and keep out of everybody’s eff’ing way!.
I didn’t have the most auspicious start because we sailed from King George V dock in East London and made our way down the Thames bound for South Australia. As I looked across the wing of the bridge I was violently sick, much to the amusement of officers and crew alike. “Ha-ha! The ‘Prentice is having a ‘Kit Inspection’“
I shared the Officers Mess, a little room just across from the galley where we would eat our meals and meet for smoko during the day. It was here that I learned to put condensed milk in my tea, because it wasn’t easy to find fresh milk at sea and of course, this was before Long-Life Milk appeared on the scene. The additional advantage of condensed milk of course was that it also obviated the need for putting sugar in your tea!
There were four deck officers on board, the Skipper, Second Mate, Third Mate and me. – Then there were three engineers, the Chief Engineer, a morose individual who hailed from Stornoway and who seemed to spend most of his time in his cabin. I don’t think we exchanged more than two words the whole time I was on the ship. The second engineer was a genial portly middle-aged fellow, who had been in the merchant service since the war. Always shirtless when he was working, he seemed to know everything that anyone was ever going to need to know about marine engineering. The third engineer was a sharp tongued, sandy-headed Glaswegian whose frequent expression was “och awa’ an’ keek” (which I translated as meaning you are full of shit, go away). This happy band of brothers……..
I can’t finish this little memory without talking about the second mate. He was another interesting character, an archetypal grumpy old Scottish mariner in the twilight of his career. He had been twice shipwrecked during the second war, and was without a doubt the hardest man I ever had the misfortune of trying to wake up when it was my turn to call him. He would be lying on his back on his bunk, making a noise like a bull farting, fully clothed with his smelly feet hanging over the end of his bunk and he would refuse all attempts to wake him. In the end, it was only vigorous shaking, and shouting in his ear which got him to stir at all, and then I had to dive out of the way as this great claw of a hand would come around to swat me away as if I was a fly. I used to dread this job.
The “deck crew” were an interesting lot – mostly Scots plus a few Englishmen, one Romanian Able Seaman named Janek, who was heavily tanned and possessed a full set of stainless steel teeth. Probably why he smiled a lot, like many of the seamen he took it upon himself to teach me all the things that Greenwich had missed from my education. Janek together with Ronnie Brown, between the two gave me a great training in life at sea as well as seamanship, simply because we were shipmates. Just thrown together by chance, they were the sort that Rudyard Kipling said you’d want beside you East of Suez, proud to call them friends.
Then there were the Stokers/black gang/greasers; now these were a mystery to everyone. They consisted of over twenty men and included morose men from Stornoway whom spoke seldom and then only amongst themselves, several Glaswegians who chatted a lot but I couldn’t understand them, they sang a lot especially with a drink or two. There were a couple of West Indians from the Caribbean who were happy go lucky fellows with everybody. Then there were half a dozen Lascars who worked in the black gang and communicated less than the Stornorwegians.
I learned that our lot were Muslims from the Indian continent, they didn’t eat our food so had to be catered for separately. They didn’t use our toilets but used a sort of ‘outhouse’ that had been hung over the stern and lashed with ropes to guardrail. In reality they just pooped directly into the ocean and to complete their ablutions they carried a small tin, like a Colman’s mustard tin, filled with water. This motley crew also were allowed up from the engine room five times a day in order to pray to their deity. The general opinion of the rest of the ship’s crew were that they were a dirty lot of ‘fuzzy wuzzy’s (back to Kipling again) whose biggest failing was that they didn’t drink alcohol. Shocking!
On then to the adventures of this happy breed, this band of brothers.
The most notable thing about being on a tramp steamer is that one minute you are bound for South Australia and the next your destination can change faster than you can change your clothes. We had got as far as Ushant in the Western Approaches when our masters decided that our general cargo, destined for Adelaide would make more money in Tampa in Florida – “Starboard Twenty.” . . . . . .
The ‘scuttlebutt in the wardroom was not particularly happy because we had been wrong footed. However the rest of the crew were furious. I quickly realised that more than half of the men had only signed on because they had designs on illegally ‘jumping ship’ once we had made landfall in Australia. When I think back it was totally illogical because at that time for just a £10 fee they would have been welcome immigrants Perhaps they needed a sense of adventure. Just as in the Canterbury Tales one cannot read the Ship man’s mind.
Other memorable members of the ship’s crew that I have not yet mentioned were the Geordie Chef, who turned out some really excellent meals but had a roaring drink problem and on odd occasions we found that the deck boy/cabin boy always known as ‘The Peggy’, was doing the cooking. Peggy also deserves a mention he was a ‘rather fey’ young lad with the unfortunate name of Gilbert Buttery from Plumstead which summed him up to a T. More of Gilbert later.
Sharing the amidships cabin to respect their seniority, were the Bosun (boatswain) who was an Irishman of about 40, who seemed to always in a bad temper. We never crossed swords but I was often to hear him cursing me below his breath. I must say that I steered clear of him if I could. His cabin mate was the Shipwright (Chippie) another ‘Geordie’ well sort of, he was from Middlesbrough, which is in Yorkshire but spoke with a Geordie accent to everyone’s ears, wae’aye man! He was a happy go lucky 50 years old. His job appeared to be a Mr Fixit, repairing anything that needs fixing.
He sticks in my memory for his performance when he totally lost his cool. The Bosun and the Chippie used to eat in their cabin suite and took it in turns to collect their meals from the galley. One lunchtime as we were approaching Florida landmass, we were being greeted by flocks of noisy seagulls. The Chippie was carrying two plates as he collected his and the Bosun’s lunch.
He was happily singing as he danced along the deck when a couple of seagulls swooped towards his plates and he shouted to frighten them off, the birds veered skywards and one of them crapped in fright and bird shit splashed right into one of the plates. That was when Chippie completely lost it! He hurled his plate of food at the appreciative swooping gulls, and began screaming “You fecking shitehawks, why couldn’t you shit in his dinner instead of mine?” He was nearly foaming at the mouth.
By this time I was close behind him and was laughing – He promptly threw the Bosun’s dinner plate at me and thankfully missed. There must have been 50 odd birds swooping at the food splattered all over the deck. The pair of us were completely overwhelmed by the feathered rats and by this time both could see the funny side and dissolved into fits of laughter and another friendship was formed.
We docked alongside in Tampa and were unloaded overnight, while the crew had our first run ashore. The next morning, I was involved in a conference among the deck officers and that evening we moved for 30 miles along the Florida coast to a US Naval establishment where we loaded to the gunwales with mixed general cargo, the loading took two days.
We set sail with the crew believing that we were waiting instructions. In reality we were heading to Korea with general stores for the United Nations troops who were fighting Kim il Sung’s North Korean troops who had overrun South Korea and America together with United Nations troops were pushing them back. ………. another fine mess you’ve got yourself into Jake hmm! We were escorted alongside at a port near Inchean and set about unloading out cargo, tout de suite!
Meanwhile the US 7th Fleet lay offshore and were shelling the forest above the docks where we, me in particular were cringing, absolutely terrified, watching shells flying over us, they looked the size of double-decker buses as they hurtled into the jungle – I don’t remember any retaliatory return fire. I know that I was a very frightened 16-year-old boy doing a man’s job, but I was no more frightened than most of our crew. In the early hours the sporadic shelling ceased and Jet Fighters began flying from an aircraft carrier, streaking over our little ship as we carried on our business of unloading as we listened to cannon fire in the distance. That unloading was literally all hands-on deck.
By the time all our holds were empty we were into our third day and the shelling had become sporadic. Oddly enough and I can’t speak for the crew but I no longer felt scared. The Captain disappeared ashore to confer with our agent by telephone and the powers that be. The Second Mate told me that we would probably make our way back to the USA to wait for instructions. I was convinced in my ‘Boys Own’ mind that we had been hi-jacked by the yanks to bring more goods back to the war-zone. We remained alongside for a fourth day well aware of the fighting going on around us. I remember going into the seaman’s mess and jokingly asking if anyone fancied a run ashore. No-one seemed to have a sense of humour any more.
That evening while partaking our evening meal the skipper took out four small boxes and passed me two of them, saying that as I was the youngest officer, they would probably be of more use to me than anyone. That was the ceremony when I was awarded the pair of United Nations Korean War medals. I was quite pleased to see that the Third Mate was really pissed off that he had been excluded! Can you imagine later in my life being asked “I see you have the Korean War medals when were you there?” Me, mumbling “Four days, but I heard a few bangs” My medals remained in their boxes.
We ran back to America to pick up a cargo from a place called San Pedro in California, mightily relieved that we were not to be seconded to the US Navy. San Pedro is a really exotic location with the entrance some ten miles along a river that appeared to be lined with really large pelicans and flamingos who totally ignored our passage, in fact all passing shipping – They were perched on every single post or withy along our route. Before docking to take on our cargo, we stopped just offshore at a fuelling jetty to refuel.
It was there I met the most obnoxious and offensive immigration official, one of nature’s bullies. Remember, we had been cleared some two or three months previously in Tampa and had loaded stores in a US Naval base in Florida and had been with the US Navy in Korea. This ignorant pig was hell bent on cross examining me as to my politics – Had I ever been a member of the Australian Labour Party? I’d never even been to Australia.
It turned out that he’d misread our manifest and had spotted our original destination. Rather than admit his mistake, the idiot took 45 minutes of third degree before signing my permission to land and go ashore in the land of the free! I kept his precious immigration clearance piece of paper many years and had many laughs over it for the name of this All-American boy was HERMAN HOSTETTER perhaps he should have said “Ve haf vays of making you talk” – Joking apart if you Google the name (and I did) it is in fact a common long established name in the US.
Apart from Herr Herman my first visit to California was great but too short as after only a few days we were loaded and on our way to British Guiana which was then a part of the British West Indies on the North coast of mainland South America. We docked in the main town which was Georgetown where we were unloaded by a local crew which was to take four days – If I tell you that Georgetown is at the mouth of a large river called Demerara, it will not take much of an imagination to guess what our cargo was to be once our holds had been emptied.
The good news was that we now had at least 6 days to sample the delights of Georgetown which was highlighted with lush rain forests full of exotic wild life and the people are laid back easy going west Indians full of calypsos and happy people.
Now I might have got that a bit wrong but the place was delightful, the exchange rates were very much in our favour and the atmosphere was fun. We donned our best bib and tucker and myself and the Second and Third mates set off to enjoy, a good time was had by all. As we made our way back to our ship, replete, happy but not drunk we bumped into our Deck Boy the redoubtable Gilbert Buttery from Plumstead. He had gone ashore on his lonesome as was his nature.
We continued on our way joking and generally teasing Gilbert, when a large, very black man, appeared in front of us, totally blocking our path. He was big, not very tall perhaps 5’6” but he was about 5’6” across. I can’t remember how he was dressed other than a bright red baseball cap, I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone wearing one before – It suddenly dawned on me that the guy was carrying, no wielding an enormous machete/cane knife and threatening us with it and demanding our wallets, watches, cash, in fact empty all of your pockets.
I came out of my blue funk haze when Gilbert began screaming at the top of his voice and he took off shrieking like a girl and doing about 20 knots down the hill. The robber kept his cool and continued to relieve us three remaining victims of every single valuable that we owned and then turned and walked coolly away. We acted like zombies, really not knowing what to do other than return to the ship.
Gilbert the Peggy had already alerted the ship’s crew and they met us with about a dozen crew members and they went off in search of the robber, while we waited at the ship for the Police to arrive.
I was particularly upset because I had lost a nearly new Rolex Oyster Air King watch that had been a gift from my sponsor Herbert and was the most valuable thing that I had ever owned. A couple of cops arrived dressed like the military and took us for a drive round to see if we could identify out assailant. At the same time giving a lecture on how poor the local population was and that it was no surprise that they were driven to temptation, etc. Not a lot different to our police today. They didn’t just give us a crime number; we were each supplied with a copy of a crime report.
All three of us spent hours on the following day at the British Embassy being issued with a Seaman’s identity card the equivalent of a passport. In those days the country was a British Protectorate, part of the British Empire. It is now an independent country named Guyana, still covered in dense rain forest, English speaking with cricket and calypso music. I don’t suppose it has changed much in the past 60 years but I have never felt the urge to return.
We departed full to the gunwales with large sacks full of unrefined sugar bound for the Far East. Sugar to Singapore, where we refuelled. Some of our crew were unlucky enough to have to spend 2 days with the shore crew, cleaning out the cargo holds where the stinking Demerara had leaked into the bilges and turned into molasses in the tropical heat. This gave the majority of the crew the opportunity for some time ashore. My first visit to the lovely city, island and country of Singapore – Over the years I have had the opportunity to return and each visit it seems to get even better. I always feel that the government has got it right.
I keep saying that a tramp steamer is quite unique as it has a company agent shuffling cargoes between ports. A ship can be laden with general cargo, say electrical goods and set sail to a buyer in Hong Kong and two days out the buyer in Hong Kong has sold the whole cargo to one or two of the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines. – Hence, wrong, footed again! So its Starboard 30 to an island names Bataan.
My nearly 17 year old mind is thinking “Back to Bataan” – 12 years previously the Japanese marched 76,000 prisoners of war some 80 miles across the Bataan peninsula during WWII, The famous death march with a death toll of at least 10,000 and once they got to the prison camp thousands more perished from starvation and disease over the next few years. The survivors were rescued by US troops in 1945 when they re-took the Philippines.
My only real knowledge was from films and a few newsreels but I approached the Island of Bataan with a little trepidation. The truth I learned was a little different – The death march took place on the peninsular of Bataan, we were bound for the Island of Luzon to the city of Bataan in Manila Bay. Navigation was a real school lesson for me as we plotted through coral reefs littered with shipwrecks – not all from wartime. Stunning blue seas, white sand beaches, marine turtles and exotic bird life. I saw a huge towering memorial commemorating the Battle of Bataan in WWII.
Once we docked in the city we were descended upon by the largest number on dock workers imaginable, cheap labour? We obviously weren’t needed but had no chance to go ashore as we were turning around in less than 24 hours with only two holds for Bataan. What I could see was beautiful scenery full of colourful bird life. The housing had a sort of temporary look about it. We could have had a cheap and interesting run ashore but time is money and the promise of the capital Manila just a short hop across the bay looked promising. It is still on the same Island of Luzon and there lay more broken dreams of this young mariner!
If you Google Manila, it will tell you that it is one of the most populous cities in the world – I would put money that in my day 1954 it was the world leader. We still had six holds stacked with miscellaneous electrical goods that were the pride of Singapore. As we docked we were descended upon by hordes of workers. In Bataan we had the impression that we had been taken over by thousands of Dockers.
In Manila we were overrun by swarms of black ants who emptied holds, cleaned them and promptly and tidily re-stacked all holds with what else but Manila rope and cordage, coconut products such as coconut oil in 5 gallon drums, dried coconut copra, at least 2 holds packed with soap products that smelled far nicer than Demerara sugar. Finally all the holds were topped off with layers of green bananas. – That’s what you call a mixed cargo. I was on duty overseeing the Dockers, what delightful people they were!
On the day before we were due to sail, the 2nd Mate and I grabbed a taxi and headed for the city which had some stunning architecture with really historic buildings, BUT – did I mention its population? If you think London or New York are busy and then multiply by 100 that was Manila. We were nearly stationary in our taxi and apparently there aren’t many cars. Anyway we gave up after a couple of hours and grabbed a rickshaw for our return journey. That was only slightly quicker than our taxi ride.
We left the Philippines on the following morning with our destination and route fully laid out for us. We set our compass once again for South Australia – Adelaide here we come and the spirits of the crew had lifted.
But that’s another story. ………Watching the deck crew I could sense a lift in the atmosphere. I swear I often heard Waltzing Matilda sang and whistled. I was spending 90% of my time studying charts on the bridge as we picked our way through the reefs and islands under the tutelage of the 2nd Mate – I had earlier described him as an archetypal grumpy Scotsman having been twice shipwrecked during WWII, as usual my first impressions were wrong. – He had virtually adopted me and I learned more from Hamish Orr in eight or nine months than three years at Naval College. Practical seamanship and navigation can only be properly learned on the job, and Hamish had set his sights on my passing my 2nd Mates ticket. In reality I was doing all his work for him but loving it.
We were just passing the land mass of Papua New Guinea when the ships radio called our call sign. …… Temple Bar from Radio Portishead Call sign GKA – Temple Bar are you receiving? ……………… I dashed over to acknowledge. – Change of destination, you are to re-route to Cairns, North Queensland. Together with our new longitude and latitude coordinates. All of the mess decks have personal radios tuned into the ship’s radio so there was nothing secret about our instructions. Exactly when the cursing and swearing started but I returned to the chart table for some new dead reckoning and keeping my head down. Perhaps it was my imagination but the happy go lucky atmosphere seemed changed.
Personally I was even more excited by conning our way through the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef. In fact by the time we made landfall the skipper took me aside and I was given my own watch and we were able to split into traditional three sections with dog watches. I’m not going to explain further but it means less time on shift and longer off-duty. Mainly shift changes, daily; I took the ship right in to the bay until we met the Pilot and he took the conn! My cap would no longer fit my swollen head.
Cairns in the 1950s was still very much a shanty town, harking back to its gold rush roots – a lot of its streets were of compressed sand and sawdust with only a few tarmacadam surfaces. The Pilot took us alongside ad gave us the news that the Australian Labour Party had called out the local Wharfies (Aussie Dockers) on strike. It seemed that no-one was sure what their beef was and when I asked him the Pilot said “Our Labour Party doesn’t need an excuse to strike”. I heard him cautioning the Skipper not to upset the Unions, just sit back for a few days until they get bored and the Wharfies need to buy food for their family.
I believe that I originally described Harold Collins, the Skipper as a small insignificant man. Well when we had said farewell to the Pilot, Harold went ballistic, calling the Australian Labour Party a bunch of leaderless commies whose only aim in life was to do as much damage as possible to their own country. He expanded his wrath to the stupid Wharfies who weren’t getting paid while on strike and daft enough to let their families go hungry whenever the Party and Union blew a whistle like Pavlov’s dogs. I was tasked to make sure to organise shore leave on a roster but having a strong watch party ensuring no-one other than crew came aboard to discourage thieving of stores and cargo and malicious damage.
Were those words of one HERMAN HOSTETTER of San Pedro ringing in my ears? I wonder who had put a bug up his bottom about the Aussie Labour Party. Hindsight is a wondrous thing.
Hamish the 2nd Mate asked me to keep my ear to the ground to get an early warning on who was planning to jump ship. Ronnie Brown sounded me out as to whether Adelaide was still on the cards. Obviously Cairns wasn’t his ideal destination. The next bad news we learned was that licensing laws in Queensland were fairly rigidly policed and all bars and hotels had to stop serving alcohol at 1800 hrs.
I then heard of the famous six o’clock swill. An Australian and New Zealand slang term for the last minute rush to buy drinks at an hotel or bar before it closed. For the best part of the 20th century serving alcohol had to stop at 6 pm. A culture of heavy drinking developed between finishing work at 5 pm and mandatory closing time just one hour later. I never learned the logic behind this – who knows the mind of politicians. Within a week our crews had solved the problem of this minor irritation and we had found an hotel on one of the side streets where admission was by climbing through a side window after 8 pm and we were able to drink in a dimly lit room until midnight, together with most of the crew and about 50 locals. The things we do for excitement!
Another incident that sticks in my mind was being told by the Skipper, to get my uniform dry cleaned as a local English businessman and his family had contacted him and extended an invitation for a meal at the weekend. He had accepted on my behalf. He also told me to get them to sew on my new medal ribbons and to polish my shoes. – It turned out that this English family lived in a huge house on the sugar plantation that they owned. I can’t say that I was happy as a strolled along the sandy street to the dry cleaners. I was wearing a tee shirt (latest trend) and shorts with just a pair of flip flops on my feet. I kicked through the dried leaves when an enormous black scorpion ran over my bare foot with its tail curled over its back. When I say it was the largest scorpion that I’d ever seen, it was the only one I’d ever seen. I was far more scared than I had been during the shelling in Korea. – I didn’t stop running until I slammed the door behind me at the dry cleaners. They kindly allowed me to wait inside until my cleaning was ready and my ribbons sewn on.
When I related my tale to Hamish, he didn’t believe me that they had scorpions the size of bantam hens, or that I was able to run a four minute mile. At the weekend I went to carry out my duty visit first by running the gauntlet of wolf whistling ship’s crew and I was red faced as I climbed into what I thought was a taxi until the liveried chauffeur stepped smartly out to open the door for me – Oh God the things I have to do for my career. – Things could only get better.
And my goodness did they get better. My hosts Duncan and Elizabeth had married over 20 years previously in Kingston Surrey just before WWII broke out and immigrated basically for their honeymoon. – Duncan had a job offer to manage the cane farm and as they say he loved it so much he eventually bought the company. The news gets even better when I was introduced to their stunningly beautiful daughter also called Liz who was just about a year older than me. I was head over heels in love. I allowed myself to be talked into staying for the weekend…
Well it would have been churlish not to, especially as Liz was to spend the weekend showing me the beauty of Cairns and the surrounding area. I prayed that the strike would continue for weeks.
My shipmates had stopped taking the Mickey once the beautiful girl collected me in her little Italian car and took me off to the delights of Cairns and The Great Barrier Reef. Would you believe it in daddy’s yacht, well more like his power boat and he even fixed me up with one of his wet suits. – Paradise! This state of affairs (hmm!) continued for 8 more days when we were instructed to leave quietly during the night and travel down the coast to the next port – Townsville. – I managed to get a message to Liz as to our plans. We slipped out and docked in Townsville in the early hours.
It was all to no avail as the strike followed us. I managed a couple more enthralling days with my lovely girl and it was at her suggestion that repeated our moonlight flit further along the coast to the port of Mackay. Would you believe it the strike struck again and two days later we slunk back into Cairns with our tails between our legs. Our local agent did a grand job and three further days of sitting quietly the full crew of Wharfies turned to. – Those three days were put to good use as Liz took me to a fantastic place call Airlie Beach. I learned from her before the Skipper knew that once our holds were empty we were to be loaded with refined sugar from her father’s factory and we were to be homeward bound.
Both our Agent and Harold the Skipper credited my diplomacy for getting a really profitable deal for the company. I took advantage of the situation and swung several further days with Liz and several dinners with her parents. Duncan was probing as to my intentions even hinting at a job if I wanted it. Thankfully Liz informed them that we were very good friends, adults but too young to be anything more. It may have been imagination but I thought her parents were equally relieved.
We had a few more dramas before we sailed. – I had the good fortune to have the alibi of spending the night with Liz in a Hotel owned by her family. I returned to the ship on Monday morning like a dog with two tails, or even a dog with two dicks!
I was stopped at the gangway by Ronnie Brown and Janek with the news that our paint store had been broken into and many hundreds of gallons of white paint had been stolen. – They were in five gallon drums and would have been impossible to move unnoticed. Ronnie and Janek both said they had been lax and had slept through most of the night. – Nothing rang true even though I considered them good friends. A part of a guardrail had been unscrewed seeming to indicate that the paint drums had been lowered into a boat alongside. – Something screamed of an ‘inside job’ where the glass window had been smashed and the glass lay outside. Police were called and gave Ronnie and Janek the third degree. Gave the Skipper a Police report suggesting that a lot of Wharfies hadn’t been paid during the strike, they supposed that they had inside help but couldn’t prove anything and one tin of white paint looked like white paint. – End of investigation.
Two days before departure date Ronnie Brown, Janek, Ronnie’s three cousins and four others from the black gang disappeared during the night together with all their belongings. A Chinese Parliament held in the Wardroom decided that it was good riddance to bad rubbish, and we wouldn’t report the missing men until the day before we sailed. I cannot report the language of the Skipper and the Chief Engineer.
After a couple more romantic days with Liz, we bade a fond farewell and set sail on a homeward bounder. A fairly uneventful trip but I must mention a couple of highlights that bear mention. We were crossing the Indian Ocean approaching the land mass of Ceylon (It didn’t change its name until the 1970s) on our starboard side. I was Officer of the Watch taking bearings and using a sextant, plotting our position on the chart. I noted a large tanker approaching us at a similar speed to us. I altered course slightly so we would pass, port to port within 100 yards. (If both lights you see ahead, starboard wheel and show your red) As we closed, I checked our Radar and it all looked good. – Suddenly with no warning the skies went black, and we were hit by a tropical storm and the Radar screen went haywire. We couldn’t see our own forecastle – It was worse than a pea soup fog.
Panic, Moi? Well, something took over and I shot down below to call Hamish – Thank God he was awake. He came up to the bridge in his skivvies under his oilskins. I quickly briefed him, told him what I had down. I recall him saying that I had done everything that I could and when I said that the tanker was riding high and looked to be empty. Quite memorably Hamish said “If we hit that, we won’t need life-jackets, we’ll need parachutes”. Both ships were sounding our sirens but they just sounded near. – Suddenly the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started and there on our port side some 30 or 40 yards away was the tanker. It was a British ship, one of the British Tanker Corporation with its name running the length of its hull. The name BRITISH MARINER, another name that I shall remember forever more.
My next memory happened in the Red Sea, we stopped to refuel at Port Tufic at the southern end of the Suez canal. There were three painting stages each with a couple of the deck crew who were painting the black side. I was busy, leaning over the side of the flying wing of the bridge and I could see a couple of tiger sharks cruising about 100 yards away. I heard a crash, a shout and a couple of splashes and saw that two of the paint stages had collided while lowering themselves down to reposition their stages and the four occupant had tumbled into the oggin! You might even say shark infested oggin! Their shipmates had quickly thrown them lifebelts and proceeded to haul all four to safety.
I ran down from the bridge to see if I could help when I heard a near apoplectic Dublin voice bellowing “I see you saved your feckin hats, what about my feckin paintbrushes?” He was scarlet faced and actually dancing as he stamped his feet! Now I don’t remember calling him Paddy but perhaps I did, I know that I suggested he go and sit down and cool off and I would sort it out. He began shouting “Don’t you call me Paddy you jumped up Snotty Whippersnapper! Snotty is a nautical term for a Midshipman/Apprentice maybe Whippersnapper is a similar nautical expression anyway I was relieved that he stormed off.
The remainder of the trip was again straightforward. The Suez Canal was interesting and a place I was to get to know more intimately later in my life. We were steaming up the channel, all excited at docking in King George V docks and then a good break. – We had passed the Isle of Wight, when the ships radio came on – Temple Bar this is Portishead Radio call in GKA. I answered and gave our position. – Change of destination, our new orders were to return through the Suez Canal and to take our lovely cargo of refined sugar through the Persian Gulf. What is it about bloody sugar and the SS Temple Bar? Perhaps we will exchange sugar for some beautiful carpets! But that’s another story.
. . . ‘ I’m beginning to think that someone up there believes it was I who shot the Albatross’ It is the Ancient Mariner, he stoppeth one in three
Our next instruction directed us to the Welsh port of Milford Haven to re-fuel and where we would meet up with another ship belonging to our owners that had put in for major repairs and we would take on several volunteers to replace our depleted crew. (Our owners have only our interests at heart)! I was involved with the refueling and the Skipper left to confer with the other ship’s captain. My innocent mind was thinking, ‘What an opportunity to clear out the dead wood’. The Skipper returned with five deck crew and six engine room crew. A short while later Gilbert Buttery came running up to tell me that one of the new volunteers was a cabin boy, so he wouldn’t be The Peggy any longer and the Skipper had put him in charge of sorting out the sleeping arrangements of the new men.
I disappeared to the chart room to be ready to head for the Suez Canal and we set sail a couple of hours later. Everyone was so busy getting settled in, that it was as though we were an all new crew and when I took over my watch I found that I had a new helmsman, a very experienced able seaman of about 40 named Roger Woolf, a Scouser, hereto known as Wolfie. When we took over the morning watch at 0600 hrs. we had turned in to the Gulf of Oman. I set our course for the Persian Gulf and onwards to our destination Abadan in Persia, which now is known as Iran.
I finished my watch and after a get to know chat with the two quartermasters, the newbie, Wolfie and the old hand, Glaswegian Jonno, who also explained our ship jumpers that we abandoned in Australia while I made a pot of tea. I could see us bonding into a good team. Our watch had been relieved by the 2nd Mate and after I’d had my lunch, a shower and a change of clothing I returned to the bridge to watch us passing Qatar and Bahrain on our Port side.
I was wearing my white uniform and a white cap to keep the sun off as I leaned on the Flying bridge. – I was watching the sun sparkling on the white wave tops and it seemed to get whiter. I seemed to have nodded off and when I awoke everything was still pristine white. I was lying on a white bed with white sheets and a white counterpane. The room walls were white, the furniture was white and once my eyes focused, I saw a beautiful girls face with gleaming white teeth smiling at me and I closed my eyes. I was woken by a grumpy but very familiar voice of Hamish the 2nd Mate saying “Have ye no has enough kip you crafty bastard?”. I learned that I had collapsed with severe sunstroke and was now residing as a guest of the Shah, in his showpiece Hospital in Abadan.
Our ship was being unloaded and cleaned and would then be taking on a full load of porcelain bathroom pieces and we would be leaving for Shanghai in China in five days’ time. The message from the Skipper was that my stay was all expenses paid by our host His Highness Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Persia and it would be rude of me to look a gift horse in the mouth. He looked forward to my presence back on board in four days’ time to prepare for the next leg. That was the gist of the message but with the addition of a few Scot’s witticisms and threats from Hamish. Oddly enough he spent a lot of time with the pretty nurses eating, drinking and otherwise partaking of the Shah’s luxury. He visited me every day but spent little time with me other than to enquire after my health. – I dutifully followed orders to the letter and returned to the ship wearing my neatly washed and pressed uniform, clutching a ‘goodie’ bag that contained a new bright blue silk dressing gown, matching blue silk pyjamas, silk covered slippers and a monogrammed toilet bag full of top-quality shaving gear including an ivory handled cut-throat razor. I also left with lots of hugs and kisses from several nurses. I have no idea why sailors call sunstroke ‘the Abadan Blues’ but it was very luxurious. As the Skipper reminded me it is a chargeable offence in the Royal Navy. I managed to stop my smart mouth from saying that mine was free of charge.
Back to earth with a bump as the Pilot guided us out past the biggest oil refinery in the world and out into the Gulf. I had already spent the previous day preparing our charts and I took over the Conn from the Skipper and the Pilot. Yesterday I had also had a stroll around the holds to look at this wondrous cargo. – Various assorted bath tubs that looked very regal with roll tops and Victorian legs, toilets, hand basins and even bidets. I was picturing hordes of Chinese peasants, scratching their heads, wondering at the purpose of this unfamiliar gear. The phrase ‘China to China’ stuck in my head like an earworm and I started to giggle. It became an oft repeated phrase on that voyage.
I took us through the Straits of Hormuz and was relieved by the 3rd Mate, still as bellicose and antagonistic as ever. Surely, he can’t still be pissed at me over not getting a Korean medal. I asked if he were feeling OK because he did look rough and he muttered about having a pain in his gut. Me being me just had to say that he should have gone sick in Abadan when I did and mentioned the luxury of the hospital and the lovely nurses and the fantastic goody bag that they sent me home with. Well that went down well! I don’t think I’ll tell him my joke about ‘China to China’. Fuck him! When I next came on watch, I took over from the 1st Mate and he told me that the 3rd Mate’s bellyache had worsened, and he had been in touch with the British Embassy in Ceylon to arrange for an ambulance to meet us in Colombo. I was to set the fastest course. Hadn’t I said he should have gone sick in Abadan? The engine room and the old ship did us proud, together with my brilliant navigation, we steamed into Colombo Harbour and were met by the Pilot boat together with the Pilot, a Doctor and what today we call Paramedics. The Quack diagnosed the 3rd’s ulcer as a severe burst appendix. The Embassy had arranged for the patient to go into the local Royal Air force Base, hospital.
The Skipper and Hamish accompanied the sick man to hospital and returned late in the evening to tell us that we were lucky that he hadn’t died on us and that he wouldn’t be returning – The Embassy would be arranging his repatriation once he was well! Hamish opined that he bet it would be on an RAF plane as that would be the cheapest This smart mouth just had to say “I bet he doesn’t get a Goody bag”. The Skipper then said “Hamish and I have been talking things over and he has nearly convinced me to make you up to 3rd Mate. I say nearly because I’m going to put down a proviso on your promotion. I’ll go along with it if you promise to button your lip, you are nowhere near as clever as you think you are, keep your opinions to yourself. You don’t always have to have the last word – Promise?” When he left Hamish said “You do come across as a bit arrogant sometime, but I convinced the old man that you were covering up nervousness. Don’t let me down”.
The next morning I went to clear the Third’s cabin and packed all his belongings into two cases, with the help of Gilbert Buttery and dispatched him in a taxi to deliver them to the British Embassy, I told him that if he didn’t come straight back we might sail without him and he would probably be repatriated with the ex 3rd Mate. (Note to self – Also I must stop teasing Gilbert) Having cleaned out my predecessor’s belongings I proceeded to make it my cabin. Gilbert returned post haste and had obviously been giving things a lot of thought. – The first thing he asked was could he join my watch as a runner because he wanted to learn how to steer the ship. I told him that we would be returning to a three-watch system and my watch would be permanently nights, 2200 hrs. to 0600 hrs. The crafty little devil said, “I don’t mind that at all Third!” The 1st Mate and Hamish were more than happy to leave most of the chart work to me. – My two helmsmen were more than happy to let Gilbert take the lion’s share of their work and make the tea. He was keen to also learn how to use a sextant, name the stars etc. So, all in all we were a happy ship.
In fact, the fey little boy, Gilbert Buttery from Plumstead no longer existed. During the chatter I suggested that my predecessor hadn’t liked me because I got the Korean medals and he didn’t, Gilbert put me straight. He told me that a long while before that when you were robbed in Georgetown, he heard that you had robbed of a nearly new Rolex watch that had been a gift for when you joined your first ship. He went off on one and was ranting about only a posh twat like you would have a daddy to give him a Rolex. Don’t hold back Gilbert! He went on “Then when you got those medals and he didn’t he went apeshit. He reckoned your daddy had bribed the Skipper to get you aboard” I didn’t enlighten him, in fact I made a vow that I would never pass on any of my personal information, ever. Gilbert was then earmarked as my personal informant as as he had named himself as my runner, I re-named him Gunga Din. I’ll also make certain that he’s not a better man than I am! A few days later Gunga Din told me that a lot of the crew reckoned that the ex-3rd had cleared immigration in San Pedro in front of me and he had set me up for special questioning by one HERR HOSTETTER. That bastard I hope that the RAF makes him parachute back into Wales and forget to show him where the ripcord is. Not that I don’t wish him a full recovery! Anyway, I got his medals, was treated like a king in the finest hospital in the world and a Goody bag. I also got his job and his cabin so sod him!
Our course took us between the Malaysian Peninsular and Sumatra and I received a visit from the jovial 2nd Engineer who appeared to run the engine room. I knew it was serious because he had donned a shirt for his visit. He told me that the Skipper had said that I was the man to see. – God, I must get myself a bigger cap! Apparently on our ‘blues and twos’ run to save the life of my predecessor (SPIT) we had put a lot of strain on both boilers, and we were a long way from home. If I could reduce speed by a few knots and plot a course accordingly the old girl would appreciate it and he would stand me a large drink on our next shore run. I told him that we were stopping over in Hong Kong for a couple of days – He blew me a kiss and left for his underground lair, removing his shirt as he went. I carried out the necessary course adjustments and unbelievably it added nearly 5 days to our journey. We all felt that we had nearly stopped and going through the South China Sea the wind had also dropped to a sea of glass.
Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath nor motion. As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.
We arrived at Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong and were berthed for refueling. Even in the 1950s it was a stunning place and I’ve returned a few times since. Only a few 100 yards away from the ship I found a tailor who instead of taking my ‘Snotty tabs off my lapels and fitting my 3rd Mate gold rings, he would make me a complete new uniform complete with two pairs of trousers and deliver it to the ship in less than 24 hours. He convinced me that he was the world’s best tailor and was a fantastic salesman because I also order two civilian suits in the finest material a mixture of wool and cashmere, one in fawn and the other in navy blue. I picked the style from that current year’s Gieves and Hawkes of 1 Savile Row, Mayfair, catalogue. I had no real idea of the currency rate of exchange was but when I offered to pay in US Dollars, I learned how the Chinese Kow Tow was performed. My total bill was $32 US or £24 GBP. If my predecessor had known that my sponsor, not my daddy, had also given me an envelope with $50 US in it before I left, he would have had a relapse!
I believe that the tailor put his workforce on all three floors of his building to work and I took delivery of my 32 bucks worth of tailoring the next afternoon. It was in three separate suit bags on hangers each bearing a Gieves and Hawkes of 1 Savile Row London label and when I opened up the uniform, not only were there two pairs of trousers but they had included a Mess Undress (evening dress uniform) jacket plus a black silk cummerbund. I would wager that you only thought that fashion house copying became rife when the Millennials were born. Well, this Ancient Mariner was in at the beginning. Moreover, I believe that Gieves and Hawkes could not have identified mine as being moody. Would it be remiss of me to suggest that we both used the same tailors, hence the catalogues and official labels?
Another discussion with the 2nd Engineer over dinner regarding our speed for the next leg to Shanghai. We decided to increase our maximum speed to 10 knots, and I altered our course and speed accordingly – the distance was something like 900 nautical miles so a nice smooth cruise of around 10 hours. It took us nearer to 12 so I was able to sleep on in my bunk that night safely berthed in the beautiful city of Shanghai with its lovely British Georgian style architecture – suddenly ‘China to China’ made complete sense. The beautiful Persian porcelain including the bidets were made with those lovely buildings in mind. I wonder what Chairman Mao Zedong would have made of them.
We left Shanghai with a general cargo bound for the port of Yokkaichi in Japan, as I was studying the chart I saw that the nearby port was called, Fukui, now that could have been interesting! We docked alongside in Yokkaichi, a large, very busy harbour. We were quite astonished at these Dockers who worked at a great pace, and we discovered that their average pay was less than a £1 per day. The exchange rate was 100 Yen to £1 and the hourly rate for a dock worker 90 Yen for a 10-hour day. (Perhaps I should have waited to get some new clothes here.) One of my lasting memories was buying a fine porcelain tea set, the sort that when you held a cup up to the light a picture of a geisha girl could be seen. The set was boxed up and shipped to my mother in England. The cost including packing and shipping was the equivalent of 15 shillings. It arrived in perfect condition.
At that time, I really had a chip on my shoulder about the ‘Japs’. – My Uncle Jack had been taken prisoner in Singapore when it fell. At that time, he had been an Army champion boxer at some 14 stone. – He had been put to work by the Japanese on the Death Railway in Burma. I was 11 years old when he was repatriated, and he was a skeleton weighing just over 5 stone. He never did recover his health or fitness. The country 1954 was still occupied by the Australian army and they had no love for the native population either. Unloading the ship by hand was very slow and after some 3 or 4 days we received a severe weather warning of a tidal wave centering on our very location. This is what is now commonly known as a Tsunami, a term that I had never heard of. I felt thankful that we were safe in harbour! The Skipper called a Chinese parliament (in Japan?) and then overruled all opposition, and we took the ship out of the cosy harbour to ride out the storm. Oh my God did we take a pasting. There were a lot of moans and groans from the crew, and I must say that I thought the Skipper had lost the plot Within five hours we found that we were keeping just enough headway to keep our bow, head on to the cyclone and the approaching tidal wave. Everything was battened down and our little ship met the first of the waves which appeared to be travelling some 40 or 59 feet above us as we climbed up it and as we went over the top the screws came out of the water and nearly shook the fillings out of our teeth. Thank God the old girl had a welded hull because rivets would have shaken loose. We had a pendulum, the piece of kit that was known as an inclinometer that recorded the roll of the ship. As we screamed down the back of the wave like a toboggan down a ski slope, we had two helmsmen plus Gilbert (Gunga Din) fighting with the wheel to keep on course. As we hit the bottom of the slope we crashed down and our port lifeboat was knocked out of its davits and was hanging by its forward falls. I saw the Bosun and a number of men lashing the boat into the ship’s side. All were wearing lifelines and May West’s. The 2nd Mate pointed out another wave approaching from the horizon about 5 miles away. I rang down to the engine room to warn them, while the Skipper was telling the Bosun that another wave was on its way and to make his men secure inside. It seemed like an hour before the mother of all Seismic Waves hit us and it was higher than the first. –
This time we seemed to climb it in slow motion. Hamish shook my hand hugged me and said “Well it’s been nice knowing you Lofty” I knew then what those poor guys fighting in the trenches in WWI felt like when they went over the top! I’ve repeated this story many times and no-one believes that I wasn’t scared but honestly, we had so much to do and were all so busy that we didn’t have time to be frightened. I was thankful that I wasn’t in the engine room. The same performance as the first wave saw us over the top and hurtling down, as we hit bottom the crash seemed even louder and this time the starboard lifeboat was stove in with more of the deck crew trying to lash in to the side. We had reached the centre of the cyclone and the sea settled down and there was SILENCE! We lowered our revs and just kept way on. I checked the Inclinometer and we had registered a 38 degree roll each way, when I showed it to the Skipper, he said that we should have rolled right over and thought we were going to be OK now but that was a bit hairy for a minute! Hamish said, “That was some minute, we were going through that shit for nearly four hours!”We spent the night cruising in the eye of the storm planning to return to Yokkaichi all being well at first light. We got little information over the radio that was in English, normally the international language of the sea. We crept back into the harbour, there was no pilot boat to meet us and as we looked around us it was just devastation. All of the orange dockyard cranes had been knocked over and lay buckled on their sides and partly underwater. We estimated that 3 or 4 dozen ships had remained in harbour and every single one had sunk. The water was deep and most of the wrecks only had a bit of superstructure showing and some just some rigging. At that moment Harold Collins our diminutive, little Skipper had so much praise and congratulations heaped upon him that he probably could have walked on water across the harbour we learned that the Tsunami death toll was around 400 souls.
We tied up safely and spent the next couple of days sorting ourselves out. Our change of plans took us just a short hop to the port of Yokohama the port of Tokyo. Our cargo was to be unloaded and arrangements were made for Shipwrights to come on board to assess the damage to the lifeboats and they would be repaired or replaced. It looked as though we could be in for a longish stay in Yokohama. We had a visit from a Tokyo TV Station, I took the call from our embassy in Tokyo and Hamish, and I left our brave captain to explain his brilliant seamanship
I told Gilbert to make himself available as a runner for the Skipper during the interview and left him bricking it in as he had to speak on TV. Hamish and I went ashore for the day although he teased me that as I was the only one with a decent uniform, I should have jumped at the chance to show it off. Will I ever live down my posh clothes? Once ashore we chatted to an Aussie Soldier who told us that he and some fellow soldiers had arranged a coach trip in a few days to visit Hiroshima where the Yanks had dropped the first atom bomb and eventually caused the Japanese to surrender. We arranged to take 6 spare seats and they would call for us at the ship. Hamish said, “Christ you really know how to live the life.” I was thinking of my five stone living skeleton, Uncle Jack and the Death Railway when he was a slave prisoner. I jumped at the chance to view the spot where our allies had kicked the butts of the ‘yellow devils’ so I was feeling quite gung-ho visiting as a tourist.
As it happened only the two of us plus the skipper took up the offer of the free trip. Our new Aussie buddies arrived on time in a military coach with an Aussie driver. They were a noisy lot and very anti Jap, they even embarrassed me with some of the abuse they shouted out as we passed some of the native Japanese. The noisy journey took several hours. The countryside looked not unlike our green and pleasant land. We pile off the bus and I saw . . . . . . . . . . .
The sound of silence; I saw a flattened city covered in dirty white dust; I saw the shapes of human shadows burned as a negative flash and left for eternity on one of the few walls left standing; Utter, utter devastation!
No-one spoke on the bus coming home and the journey seemed to take forever from the spot where some 70,000 souls had been taught a lesson in my name. Where a further 100,000 died over the following five years from the effects of that terrible bomb.
I awoke the following morning after a troubled sleep to find that I had developed a high temperature and a sore throat compounded by a cold sore on my upper lip. I was convinced the I had radiation poisoning I hadn’t of course, but I was just seventeen and I had learned one of life’s lessons Man’s inhumanity to man!
One of the bonuses of the Tsunami was that it delayed us and gave me time to get to know the country. I managed to climb Mount Fuji and see the snow-covered apes bathing in the volcanic heated streams. There is a Japanese proverb about climbing Mount Fuji “He who climbs Mt Fuji is a wise man; He who climbs it twice is a fool. Well in my long life I have climbed it three times and it gave me a lifelong love of the mountains. It also makes me very old!
When I chatted to the Skipper about the sheer cost of the delay and the damage to both lifeboats and the theft of the paint in Cairns I was told not to worry, Lloyd’s have got our backs. The paint has already been replaced, I’ve seen the lifeboats and they’re like new and will be ready and in place by next week. The Bosun was happy with the layover because his ship was painted scrubbed, and the superstructure gleamed – it must be the newest looking Fort Ship in the world. The engine room had time to change the oil and clean the points and give it a new MOT or whatever needed doing. Imagine if our boilers had given up the ghost when we were fighting the tsunami! The stuff of nightmares!
I later heard that the deck crew had had professional assistance from a few locals with a lot of the painting – they had a whip round on the mess deck to pay them. I hope that they paid them more than 90 Yen a day.! The local agent had also been earning his corn and our cargo was diverted to the port of Niigata where we were to be loaded with Phosphate fertiliser bound for Mexico. Phosphate? And I moaned about Sugar!
Once in Niigata City our loading and unloading took about ten days, can you picture coolies dressed only in loincloths and a conical straw hat that looked like a lampshade, carrying wicker baskets from a huge barge moored alongside and the coolies running up a plank from the front of the barge with the basket full of phosphate – it looks like pink gravel, and tipping the basket into one of the holds. More coolies were in the holds shoveling so that it filled all available spaces. Meanwhile the coolie that had emptied his basket now running to another plank and running down it into the barge to continue the chain. This went on non-stop night and day; I called them coolies, but they were more like slaves. Another odd thing I noticed that more than 60% of them wore thick black framed spectacles. I can picture the scene vividly even today.
Another memory from Niigata City was an evening run ashore. Hamish and I were joined by Wolfie the new helmsman who had a very entertaining Scouse sense of humour and my shadow Gunga Din. We visited several bars and night clubs where we experienced the novelty of being served warm Sake the Japanese rice wine by Geisha girls with white painted faces. I said something like “So that’s where our white paint went to, and Gilbert began giggling so much that it became embarrassing and we eventually left. We weren’t staggering on our way back to our ship, perhaps slightly unsteady is a better description.
We hadn’t gone a hundred yards when we were confronted by four lovely ladies of the night, dressed to the nines in very tight silk cheongsam dresses slit to the thigh. We were offered a really good time, try out bath house and happy finish. Wolfie said “Oh dear ladies we have spent all our money, that’s why we are walking back to the ship. He then handed them Gilbert’s arm and said, “He’s the only one with any money left”. He then, like a conjurer, palmed a $20 dollar bill and showed them it in Gilbert’s top pocket. We all walked away giggling, nothing to do with the Sake consumed it was Gilbert shouting “Please don’t leave me boys!” as the girls dragged him away. – Oh, dear it was so funny! I wish you could have seen Gilbert’s face when he returned to the ship quite late the next morning and Hamish collared him. He was red faced but had a huge grin on his chops that had to be seen… Talk about a dog with two dicks!
We had a straightforward and uneventful voyage to our next port of call which was called Mazatlán in Mexico. (Nothing to do with the clothes shop of a similar name.) The place was just like a scene from early western lots of raised sidewalks, men in sombreros and gaudy shirts in yellow and red colours taking a siesta in the afternoon sun, sitting on the ground with their backs against the walls for what shade there was. The Mexican food is not really my favourite fare in modern times but then it was not great. The tequila was fantastic and the local beer they named Sol was fantastic. I chatted to an American tourist in a bar, as one does, and he told me not to miss an experience that he’d been on. A journey in a genuine stagecoach that the locals took regularly across the desert towards Durango to a daily market in a town halfway to Durango. I followed his advice the next day early in the morning I went into town and found the coaching station and with my only Spanish at that time being quanta costa and cerveza. I haggled a return ticket to the town whose name I’ve since forgotten, but its halfway to Durango. I got them to write the details on a piece of card.
When this huge stagecoach pulled by two scruffy horses, it was just as my American friend had described – the large coach had plenty of room to seat 10 or even 12 people inside and was slung on leather straps fixed to metal springs fore and aft. I judged the back wheels to be some seven feet in diameter and the front ones five feet, there was a driver and sitting upfront alongside him was his sidekick, I don’t suppose one would call his the conductor because he was actually carrying a short rifle that looked to me like a Winchester 73 I’ve seen the films I promise you that this wasn’t a film set, it was completely genuine. You couldn’t call up the choking dust and the smells. I only had four fellow passengers, all women, all dressed from head to toe in black, reminding me of black vultures. Ever the English gentleman I took their luggage consisting of hessian bags and large empty wooden cages and helped to hoist it up to the shotgun conductor who stacked it on the large luggage space on the roof. I joined the ladies inside. They were chatting happily among themselves and even tried to include me. I realised that I had learned even more Spanish from my visits to the cinema as a kid. One of the women opened a shopping bag and handed out spicy vegetable wraps (tortillas) to everyone including me, it was far better than my restaurant food of yesterday.
It’s difficult to describe the experience of my coach ride across the desert.
We were travelling at a fair lick – there was lots of dust, genuine tumbleweed, and cacti. I think the horses kept farting unless it was the driver and the noise of creaking springs, rumbling wheels, shouts from the driver and his shotgun, – the laughing and chattering of my newfound girlfriends. You really had to be there.
When we roared into the town and stopped in the square, I helped the two men get down the ladies bags, boxes and bird cages from the roof. I then discovered that the shotgun guy spoke good American/English and he told me that they were carrying on to Durango and would be back to pick us up at the market square in about 4 hours. I helped the ladies stack their baggage behind one of the stalls and I insisted they accompany me to a nearby outside cafe for coffee and cakes. Unbelievably we were entertained by a Mariachi band. My lady friends were all aged between 30 and 40 and not at all bad looking except that three of them had moustaches. I assume that the fact they were dressed in black indicated that they were married. Nonetheless we all enjoyed flirting and I had some difficulty convincing them that I didn’t want their company around town. I promised to see them later at the same cafe to wait for the stage, Whip Crack Away As I wandered around I was very tempted to buy a big black sombrero with crystal jewels as a gift for the Bosun but somehow I didn’t think he would take it as a peace offering.
When the stage arrived with its usual hustle and bustle there were four guys sitting on the roof rack and one new lady inside. My girlfriends now had 3 chickens in cages and their boxes and bags were full. The ladies insisted that I accompany them inside together with all their luggage. Very cosy return journey and I had a hand on both of my knees, and they weren’t my hands. I provided the picnic and when we arrived in Mazatlán, we parted good friends. Two of them were met by husbands in pickup trucks and all the chickens and luggage were piled into them. The other two ladies were being collected later from a friend’s house and both gave me a lovely kiss and a hug.
The local agent visited us the next day, the fertiliser had been removed and the holds cleaned. After having seen the poor local soil, I could understand the need for so much fertilizer. Our cargo was to be our most valuable the old ship had ever carried. A large amount of Mexican silver, coffee beans and raw cotton. The biggest amount taking up four of our holds was in silver items and our destination was London, England.
This leg was going to be a very straightforward trip I’ve heard that before back through the Panama Canal to complete our second circumnavigation of the world. Then across the Atlantic, Simple! We were towed through the Panama Canal, yet another mind-blowing experience through the rain forest that was teeming with wildlife. I had a Macaw swoop on to the wing of the bridge and settle on my shoulder and I fed a wild boar by tossing potatoes to it. The 2nd Engineer fixed with the Skipper for us to anchor off Panama City once we cleared the Canal, for them to carry out further repairs. It appears that our suspect boiler had blown again. The only good thing was that we were treated to the most amazing electrical storm over Panama City.
I can say no more other than that I had to alter my previous plot, taking into account we would be completing a 5,000 miles journey at an average of 4 to 5 knots – can you imagine 54 that’s fifty four days at sea covering less than 100 miles in 24 hours. It did not make for a happy ship and I will not bore you with the journey and by the time we turned into the Thames Estuary we weren’t even excited by the fact that we would be paying off shortly, And then just into the Estuary the bloody radio piped up Portishead Radio to Temple Bar . . . . no-one gave it a thought that we were in no fettle to go round the world again. I heard later that one of the Deck Crew picked up his pride and joy a Hallicrafter Worldwide Radio and smashed it against a bulkhead in temper. Anyway, someone in their wisdom decided that we should be diverted even in our sick state to pay off in the lovely city of Kingston upon bloody Hull. So, another two days to try to lift our spirits. A sad goodbye, all shipmates had been through a lot together.
I later learned the wisdom of our diversion being that the raw cotton was destined for the cotton mills of Lancashire and the fine Mexican Silver to Liberty’s Department Store in Manchester. Ruddy bean counters, was it ever thus? Those extra miles could have finished the Temple Bar for good.
Skipper Collins and my good friend Hamish Orr were both going to swallow the anchor, and both presented me with brilliant reference for my next ship. We wished each other “Fair winds and a following sea” the sailor’s farewell, much nicer that a soldier’s farewell of “Goodbye and bugger you” I think you’ll agree!
I checked train times and decided to book in at an hotel near the railway station and booked a first class seat to London the next day. I dressed in my finery, my navy-blue wool and cashmere suit and carried my Louis Vuitton suitcase. Quite sad that I had completed my maiden voyage and gone from boy to man without realising.
I had a sudden awakening when I arrived home in my Buckinghamshire village of Woburn Sands and my mother’s first words were “Oh hello dear, when are you going back?” I met my sponsor, Herbert. at least he was pleased to see me. I regaled him of my stories, and he asked for the name and address of my tailor in Hong Kong and he actually did business later with them. I went to meet my friends in my Savile Row peacock clothes and found that they were all dressed in drape suits and brothel creepers with DA haircuts. I had completely missed the Teddy boy era. One of the girls in my old gang said, “I love your tan but you really look like a Posh Twat!”
Now where have I heard that before?
A memory of the slow old S.S. Temple Bar as we chugged across the Indian ocean considering our 4 to 5 knot speed was surprising. We crashed into an enormous whale. The crash was enough to stop the ship and we suffered loads of broken crockery and the like, and a deckhand suffered a broken wrist. The whale came of far worse. We had virtually come to a standstill anyway and we circled the injured beast. It began spouting blood and making the most loud and eerie sound, someone identified the animal as a Blue Whale and we estimated it to be some 20 metres long. It seemed only few minutes later when another even larger whale joined us, and it began swimming beneath the damaged creature and began pushing it up to the surface. We probably spent over an hour watching the performance. There was nothing that we could do to help them and so reluctantly we resumed our slow progress. Memory filed!
A couple of weeks after my visit home and much to my mother’s approval, found me at the Pool in London and I found myself, thanks to my papers and my generous references. I travelled to the Port of Southampton, where I joined RMS Capetown Castle as a Third Officer. Actually. I became one of several Third Officers, but my actual posting was of an Extra, Extra, Junior, Fourth officer, the job was very different to what I had become used to. I was 17 years old and serving as an Extra, Extra, Junior, Fourth Officer aboard Union Castle Line’s Royal Mail Steamer Capetown Castle. I spent my days in sheer luxury, The only time that I went near the Bridge was to show a few selected passengers around, “now this is the beating heart of the liner, where the ship is navigated from. This is the telegraph where the navigator can communicate with the engine room to control the speed, blah, blah, blah!” I must say that I felt slightly miffed, but I thought it worth it because of the sheer luxury. Four, Fourth Officers were in a suite of four single cabins, and we shared a personal steward and, would you believe it, a bathroom steward who saw to all our needs.
Our route and timetable were Southampton to either Las Palmas or Madeira or Freetown, Sierra Leone to Capetown. This leg including stops took 2 weeks. The next leg from Capetown to Durban, Natal, took another two weeks via East London and Port Elizabeth. At each of our stops, we took on board new passengers and discharged others. Interestingly at East London and Port Elizabeth we also took on board “deck” passengers who slept on the upper decks. They were usually Cape Coloured or Blacks, and the Company operated the same apartheid as the South African government, fortunately our mainly British crew didn’t feel the same and the Deck passengers were treated very pleasantly. Every evening I dined lavishly with a different group of passengers at their table and occasionally was entertained a female or two in their cabin. It was hell!
On one run ashore in Capetown I met half a dozen Norwegians, the hands from a Whale factory ship, berthed in the harbour. We were treating each other to rounds of Tikki Hock a local brew. I regaled them with my tale of crashing into a Blue Whale in the Indian Ocean. More out of nosiness and a slight tipsiness I followed them back to their ship.
Talk about the little ship of horrors, it was more like Dante’s Inferno as I was treated to a guided tour of the factory ship in full flow. A flow complete with blood, snot and horror that no-one had prepared this delicate seventeen-year-old for. The floating abattoir was as busy and noisy as any factory as workmen dealt with the huge carcase of a sperm whale with nothing wasted. Men were slicing huge lumps of flesh and blubber with long Fletching knives and tossing lumps of it into huge steaming vats. They were slipping and sliding on bloody slime as they carried out their gruesome tasks. The sight and smell and noise of this steaming hell I will not carry on describing but I am sure that you get the picture. I didn’t quite run away screaming, I just ran for the guardrail where I leant over for a ‘kit inspection’ of everything that I had eaten and drunk that day. I made my excuses and left.
Memory locked away in a filing cabinet in a folder marked not required on voyage through life.
Until that was when I read reports in the news that commercial whaling looks set to start up once more after the world had appeared to come to its senses in 1986 and said goodbye to the bloody slaughter.
I thought that we had become more civilised and had outlawed the hunting of great whales for good and allowed these marvellous and complex creatures to roam our ocean depths in peace. It now appears that the Japanese, Norwegians and Icelanders are about to convince the world’s politicians that they should be allowed to return to their barbarous ways in the of the innocents. I’m not sure that I want to still be around if they get their way. Perhaps I will hang around long enough to add my voice in opposition to try to stop this greedy and unnecessary trade.
Today, January 4th, 2019, headlines in the New Statesman reads Japan’s plan to resume commercial whaling could actually help whales. (not of course if you are a whale). The cynic in me says the Japan has never really stopped whaling, they just called it scientific whaling. The cynic on my other shoulder says if you want to know the outcome of this story FOLLOW THE MONEY.
My God! I’m beginning to sound like a tree hugger, but I assure you that I am not. I just love whales and Wales. Call me Ishmael. “There she blows! – there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”
On my seventh trip we left Capetown to return to Southampton. We called in at Freetown in Sierra Leone – now the home of the dreaded Ebola disease. I too picked up a dreaded disease; it wasn’t Ebola but an equally deadly one, a particularly virulent form of viral Malaria. I don’t remember much of the rest of that trip from the Cape, but not only did I think I was going to die, but that was also the opinion of the ship’s surgeon. Obviously, I didn’t pop my clogs as I am still here but it was decided that I needed convalescence (either that or the surgeon didn’t want the publicity of a corpse in his sick bay). It was decided that I should be put ashore in the beautiful island of Madeira to recover at company expense. I found myself luxuriating in what then was the most lavish hotel on the island, the Savoy, where I spent six memorable weeks being pampered; bliss! My memories bring back lovely cobbled streets, the biome wall lizards the heady smell of fennel growing everywhere. Fennel in Portuguese is funcha which gives Funchal its name.
All good things come to an end and the company agent decided that rather than wait for my ship to call for me, I should fly back to Blighty for further recovery.
In those far-flung days Madeira did not boast the lovely Santa Catarina Airport; in fact it had no airport at all. What it did have was Aquila Airways who operated a fleet (three I think) of second-hand Short Solent Flying boats that flew two of three times a week from Madeira to Southampton. I stress that these monstrosities were second-hand former WWII military machines. You know how experts can scientifically prove that a bumble bee cannot fly, well you get the picture.
This barely recuperated sickly teenager was ferried out with around 18 other souls into Funchal Bay, the sea was flat calm, Tennyson’s painted ship on a painted ocean, calm! The so-called flying giant sat wallowing looking more like a hippopotamus than an aeroplane and I was helped aboard by a beautiful liveried and heavily made up, air hostess. There were dining tables with crisp, white tablecloths and the seats facing in from either side. I also remember there were lovely frilly curtains at the portholes.
Remember this was the early 50s a I had never flown before. All the passengers were comfortably seated and the very precisely spoken air hostess went through the doors to manual, drill with great emphasis on life jackets. The captain spoke over the Tannoy and after introducing himself told us that because the weather was so still and there were no waves the liner as he called it may have trouble unsticking itself from the surface tension.
He would make his first run and attempt take off but we were not to worry if it didn’t work, it was standard procedure and our first attempt would make sufficient waves to enable a successful launch on the second run.
The engines made an unbelievable deafening roar and he gave it full throttle for what seem like a couple of miles. As he predicted we couldn’t get airborne and the throttle shut down and this flying pig slumped from about seventy or eighty knots and lurched forward and down to near standstill, then turned into our wake, engines roaring flat out and pop! – we came unstuck and shot into the air. Half-crown sixpence moment yet again!
Once again, I thought I was going to die. Not only that, when I looked at the faces of the other passengers and the cabin crew, they thought so too! I won’t bother you with the hellish landing in Southampton Water, suffice to say I later chose the Royal Navy rather than following my father into the RAF.
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. But that’s another story! . . . . .
May I wish you all Fair Winds and a Following Sea!
The White Ensign part
I joined the navy, but I’d already seen the sea. In fact, you could say that I sort of joined by accident. I was a Third Mate, (well actually an Extra, Extra, Junior Fourth Officer) on a Union Castle Liner. I had taken a 6 week break between voyages. I have to say that I was somewhat bored because my important job on board was holding passengers’ hands, showing them aboard the Liner and dining with them in the evenings. Can one really get bored with five-star dining? I was going to ask can you get fed up with it?
Anyway, was thinking about a change of ship, a change of route and my first mates ticket. I was exempt from National service but had received my call up papers which just needed completing with details of my exemption.
I met up one of my boyhood chums in the village, he told me that he had to attend his call up interview the next day in St. Albans. Short story I decided to go with him for the craic. Some craic, I was armed with all of my exemption paperwork and sat down for a friendly chat with a two and a half ringer. What a charmer! He convinced me that I would go straight in as an officer and with my experience as a navigator I could be an Admiral with a decade. Sign here! Liar, liar pants on fire.
I found myself in Royal Naval Barracks Portsmouth, dressed in bell-bottoms. I did have a white cap tally denoting that I was a National Service Upper Yardsman. The common advice in all the services is to volunteer for nothing! I volunteered for nearly everything that looked interesting. After 16 weeks training, I found myself at HMS Vernon doing an underwater clearance diving course and then an Underwater Demolition specialist.
My next voluntary posting was to Eastney Royal Marine Barracks near Portsmouth with a view to joining The Special Boat Squadron. The training was hell, but I finished up unbelievably fit, so fit that even the hairs on my chest had muscles. I don’t think that I volunteered for my next move, but I found myself first in Norway and later in Finland preparing for the Cold War. We were in two teams of eight playing at soldiers. It really was a phoney war as far as I was concerned. We even met up with our Russian opposite numbers, the Spetsnaz Special Forces. We didn’t exactly play football with them but had a good rapport. Exchanged hats with one of them, I got the best deal, ending up with a black mink Ushanka.
I next found myself on a frigate named HMS Redpole and spent the time showing the White Ensign doing the peacetime equivalent of sending a gunboat wherever the powers that be thought it relevant.
We spent day after day, week after week in the Norwegian Fjords teaching Dartmouth Cadets navigation and doing dummy anchor runs. In Tromso Fjord the sunken hulk of the German battleship Tirpitz, the sister to the Bismarck and the heaviest European Battleship ever. Tirpitz was destroyed by British ships and planes and then scuttled by its crew in one of the most famous Naval battles in the Atlantic during the war.
I managed to have a couple of runs ashore in Tromso. Unbelievably I found some booty from the Tirpitz in the window of a grocery shop, In the window together with five tine of carrots I saw a huge set of Leica Naval 10 x 20 binoculars I paid one of my emergency $5 bills, tucked them out of sight and hurried back on board. The bins had no provenance but we both know where they came from.
On then to show the flag to Denmark with a visit to Copenhagen where we had an unintentional 3 months stay. We berthed alongside Langalenie Park which was busy with tourists and only yards from the famous Little Mermaid statue. WONDERFUL, WONDERFUL KOBENHAGEN! What a place for a run ashore! The weather mind you were far from perfect. I was blood freezingly cold. The sea was starting to freeze and there were thin slivers of ice starting to form on the sea. Some of the crew had proved a story that if you pissed over the side it would freeze into droplets of ice before it hit the oggin!
Anyway, all good things come to an end and the time came to leave that lovely city. “Hands to leaving stations”, Let go for’ard let go aft” Goodbye Little Mermaid! It was blowing a hooley in Naval terms that translates to Force 8 – 9 on the Beaufort Scale and we were still in the inner harbour. As we passed through the walls into the outer harbour the wind increased and changed direction. We were blown violently to Starboard. The next ten minutes were quite unbelievable and seemed to be in slow motion. Our crew were lined up on either side of the ship in traditional leaving harbour station and heard the Petty Officer scream, “Hands, Stand Fast”. I was standing watching the performance from the flying bridge as though watching a stage show. We were full ahead, both as we passed through the harbour walls, despite this we immediately veered at some 14 knots towards the Danish Royal Yacht that was moored using its anchor cable secured to a huge metal barrel buoy.
We went over this cable and that pulled the bow of the Royal Yacht towards us. It had a long gold encrusted bowsprit, ridiculously the crew, standing at attention, leaned backwards and the huge figurehead passed by, meanwhile we were still making way over the huge steel cable and the figurehead crunched along our superstructure and the whole bow of the yacht broke off and disappeared into Davy Jones Locker. I saw a quick-thinking member of the Danish crew, let go its other anchor as the gale took it away.
We weren’t so lucky as the cable smashed both our screws and we were carried nearly a mile, out of control, carried by our speed and the gale. Eventually we came under control and dropped our anchor. Oh, bugger they are piping for me to report to the Skipper. I was the only diver aboard and had to put my training into practice. I tell you what, a dry suit over woolly long johns and a seaman’s sweater don’t stop the teeth chattering. I didn’t spend long examining the damage. Thank God it was obvious, we were in for a major dry dock. I believe that had we been in Blighty the damage was so bad that the old ship would have been scrapped. We were towed into dry dock and repairs put in hand.
As it was the whole debacle became a PR exercise. The U.K. Press got hold of the story. Our Skipper didn’t get Court Marshalled but there was an enquiry which cleared him of blame. After all one couldn’t expect a Naval Frigate to ask a Royal Yacht to move it’s mooring to allow it to leave harbour. The outcome was that ‘Jumper’ Collins was promoted to full Commander and eventually took command of an Aircraft Carrier. The Royal Yacht’s crew were found at fault and probably got a parking fine! The Danish Navy saw to our repairs and our crew had three months to discover the delights of Copenhagen.
I was returned to Portsmouth to under further training in underwater demolition using explosives on ships hulls on so on. Someone must have been reading their tarot cards. At this time, I was also a frogman stationed HMS Vernon the shore station of the Royal Navy Torpedo and Anti-Submarine Branch which trained Clearance Divers and Minehunters.
Before I got too over trained all hands aboard HMS Vernon (Only in the Andrew can hands be aboard a Stone Frigate which is Jackspeak for a shore establishment on land) was piped and all trained divers were taking part in a training evolution. We were told that a diver had gone missing somewhere in the area of Langstone harbour. He was one of our own.!!
This was an unforgettable time for me. Portsmouth harbour is famous for its thick black mud which is commemorated today with a bronze statue at Portsea Hard of the Pompey Mudlarks the kids who used to dive for coins for centuries. Somewhat less remembered is that this nasty black slime covers the bottom of Portsmouth Harbour, it is somewhat over a fathom deep, it’s black and it stinks to high heaven. It is full of centuries of detritus, a mixture of the contents of millions of gash buckets heaved over the side of every ship that has moored there since Tudor times.
Oh, my Lord! It wasn’t just the kitchen waste of millions of ships it was also the bodily waste of billions of sailors and my shipmates, and I were feeling our way through this foul slime looking for a dead body. It wasn’t just MI6 who were in the shit, we were spending some six hours a day groping around in it. One of our teams gave us a laugh when he related that as he probed through the slime, he thought he had found a head and when he brought it to the surface found that he was holding a large head of cabbage that had gone over in the gash. I think that is called ‘gallows humour’ or as Nietzschput it ‘any experience that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. All I can confirm is that we smelled very strong.
It was about two weeks before that story got into the newspapers and we were pulled out and given a few days leave, sworn to secrecy. The legend of Buster Crabb, with rumour and speculation goes on even today. MI6 is supposed to operate outside of Britain, while MI5 operates within the country. For some reason, Prime Minister Anthony Eden forced the resignation of John Sinclair the Director General of MI6.
- B. British government documents related to the Buster Crabb incident will not be released until 2057 – I should live so long!
Something Stinks, but that’s nothing new! There is a saying on submarines, that if you can smell something nasty and there is no-one standing behind you, mister it’s you!
I have included a full resume of Buster Crabb at the end of this chapter. Although much older than I was, I became fascinated by the similarities in our lifestyles. I missed out on his wars and his alcoholism, thank goodness.
Lionel “Buster” Crabb Served in the Merchant Navy and when WWII began, he was commissioned into the Royal Navy and volunteered for mine and bomb disposal. He trained as a diver and had an impressive war record receiving numerous commendations including the George Medal and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. He left the RN in 1948 and his CV shows him working in the private sector for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston. He also spent time searching through sunken Spanish Galleons.
He returned to active duty in the RN in 1952 where he is reputed to have spent time searching and investigating sunken submarines. In 1955 he worked with another frogman (Sydney Knowles), investigating the hull of a Soviet ship, the Sverdlov. It became later known that he had been recruited by the funny folk at MI6 and was assigned to perform surveillance on another Russian cruiser, the Ordzhonikidze, which supposedly had a propeller of an innovative design, (probably a bit of cold war propaganda). It was moored in Portsmouth Harbour where it had carried the Soviet Premier Bulganin and Future Premier Khrushchev on a diplomatic mission. Crabb got as far as inspecting the hull of the cruiser but disappeared and was never seen again.
Lionel Crabb was born in 1909 to Hugh and Beatrice Crabb of Streatham, south-west London. They were a poor family. In his youth he held many jobs but after two years training for a career at sea in the school ship HMS Conway he joined the merchant navy and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve before the Second World War. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Crabb was first an army gunner. Then, in 1941, he joined the Royal Navy. The next year he was sent to Gibraltar where he worked in a mine and bomb disposal unit to remove the Italian limpet mines that enemy divers had attached to the hulls of Allied ships. Initially, Crabb’s job was to disarm mines that British divers removed, but eventually he decided to learn to dive.
He was one of a group of underwater clearance divers who checked for limpet mines in Gibraltar harbour during the period of Italian frogman and manned torpedo attacks by the Decima Flottiglia MAS. They had dived with oxygen rebreathers, Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus, which until then had not been used much if at all for swimming down from the surface. At first, they swam by breaststroke without swim-fins.
On 8 December 1942, during one such attack, two of the Italian frogmen, Lieutenant Visintini and Petty Officer Magro, died, probably killed by small explosive charges thrown from harbour defence patrol boats, a tactic said to have been introduced by Crabb. Their bodies were recovered, and their swim-fins and Scuba sets were taken and from then on used by Sydney Knowles and Crabb.
He was awarded the George Medal for his efforts and was promoted to lieutenant commander. In 1943 he became Principal Diving Officer for Northern Italy, was assigned to clear mines in the ports of Livonia and Venice; he was later created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for these services. He was also an investigating diver in the suspicious death of General Sikorski of the Polish Army, whose B-24 Liberator aircraft crashed near Gibraltar in 1943.
By this time he had gained the nickname “Buster”, after the American actor and swimmer Buster Crabbe. After the war Crabb was stationed in Palestine and led an underwater explosives disposal team that removed mines placed by Jewish divers from the Palyam, the maritime force of the Palmach elite Jewish fighting force during the years of Mandatory Palestine. After 1947, he was demobilised from the military.
In 1955 Crabb took frogman Sydney Knowles with him to investigate the hull of a Soviet Sverdlovsk-class cruiser to evaluate its superior maneuverability. According to Knowles, they found a circular opening at the ship’s bow and inside it a large propeller that could be directed to give thrust to the bow. That same year, March 1955, Crabb was made to retire due to his age, but a year later he was recruited by MI6. By this point, Crabb’s heavy drinking and smoking had taken its toll on his health, and Crabb was not the diver that he had been in World War II.
MI6 recruited Crabb in 1956 to investigate the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze that had taken Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin on a diplomatic mission to Britain. According to Peter Wright in his book Spycatcher (1987), Crabb was sent to investigate Ordzhonikidze‘s propeller, a new design that Naval Intelligence wanted to examine.
On 19 April 1956, Crabb dived into Portsmouth Harbour and his MI6 controller never saw him again. Crabb’s companion in the Sally Port Hotel took all his belongings and even the page of the hotel register on which they had written their names. Ten days later British newspapers published stories about Crabb’s disappearance in an underwater mission.
MI6 tried to cover up this espionage mission. On 29 April, under instructions from Rear Admiral John Inglis, the Director of Naval Intelligence, the Admiralty announced that Crabb had vanished when he had taken part in trials of secret underwater apparatus in Stokes Bay on the Solent. The Soviets answered by releasing a statement stating that the crew of Ordzhonikidze had seen a frogman near the cruiser on 19 April.
British newspapers speculated that the Soviets had captured Crabb and taken him to the Soviet Union. The British Prime Minister Anthony Eden apparently disapproved of the fact that MI6 had operated without his consent in the UK (the preserve of the Security Service, “MI5”). It is mistakenly claimed that Eden forced director-general John Sinclair to resign following the incident. In fact, he had determined to replace Sinclair with MI5 director-general Dick White before the incident. Eden told MPs it was not in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which the frogman met his end.
A little less than 14 months after Crabb’s disappearance, on 9 June 1957, a body in a diving suit was brought to the surface in their net by two fishermen off Pilsey Island in Chichester Harbour. The body was brought to shore in a landing craft operated by members of RAF Marine Craft Unit No. 1107.
It was missing its head and both hands, which made it impossible to identify (using then-available technology). According to British diving expert Rob Hoole, the body had the same height as Crabb, the same body-hair colour, and was dressed in the same clothes, Pirelli two-piece diving suit and Admiralty Pattern swim fins that Crabb was wearing when he embarked on his final mission. Hoole wrote that given the length of time that Crabb’s body had been in the water, there was “nothing sinister” about the missing head and hands.
Crabb’s ex-wife was not sure enough to identify the body, nor was Crabb’s girlfriend, Pat Rose. Sydney Knowles was requested to identify the body shortly after its discovery. He described the body as being clad in a faded green rubber frogman suit of a type issued to Royal Navy divers, and the remains of a white sweater. The suit had been cut open from the neck to the groin and along both legs, revealing very dark pubic hair. Knowles examined the body closely, looking for a Y-shaped scar behind the left knee and a prominent scar on the left thigh. He failed to find any scars on the body and stated that it was not Crabb.
A pathologist, Dr. D. P. King, examined the body and stated in a short report for the inquest that a careful examination of the body failed to reveal any scars or marks of identification.
The inquest was opened on 11 June 1957 by Bridgman, who had received the pathologist’s report that there was no way of establishing identification. As neither Knowles nor Crabb’s ex-wife nor a Lieutenant McLauchlan, a Royal Navy torpedo officer from HMS Vernon, had been able to identify the body; Bridgman adjourned the inquest until 26 June to allow time for a positive identification.
The inquest had a nasty smell it resumed on 26 June. The pathologist, King, gave evidence that he had returned to the mortuary and once again examinee the body on 14 June. He reported that he had found a scar in the shape of an inverted Y on the left side of the left knee, and a scar on the left thigh, about the size of a sixpenny coin. King stated that the scar had been photographed whilst he was present.
Authors note: This identification happened while I was there as an interested party, and as far as I was concerned it had the smell of a cover up by the funny folk about it. But then what do I know?
Author’s Notes (totally unbiased)
I suppose I must first hark back to my days under the Red Ensign to explain why I’m not too fond of Egypt or Egyptians. In my later life I became a travel writer and I have spent quite a few visits to many hell holes in the Middle East and North Africa. Out of all of them if I were to recommend giving the world an enema (a procedure in which liquid or gas is injected into the rectum in order to expel its contents), Egypt is the country where I would stick the tube.
I have been dealing with lying, thieving Egyptians since the early 1950s when my ship moored at Port Tufic in the Red Sea. Thank the Lord we only had to endure their hospitality for 3 days on that occasion. The local natives in bumboats swarmed upon us like scavengers and stole everything that wasn’t bolted down. We spent the whole 72 hours of our stay cutting grappling hooks as the dirty Arabs tried to climb aboard. If the crew was momentarily distracted or inattentive, we were robbed of most of our personal possessions, clothes, cigarettes, cameras, watches from the crew. Most of the food from the galley disappeared along with every tin of paint together with paintbrushes, tins of jam and packs of rice all disappeared from the holds.
The only thing that was untouched was several thousand tons of unrefined Demerara sugar that was battened down in the cargo hatches. Three more trips on different ships as we passed through the Suez Canal produced similar raids from marauding Egyptians. So a visit that I made to Egypt in 1956 was less unwelcome.
This time I was aboard HMS Bulwark as a member of the Special Boat Squadron taking part in what was to be known as the Suez Crisis or the Kadesh Operation taking part in an invasion by Israel, Britain and France to take back the control of the Suez Canal and remove President Gamel Abdel Nasser.
The outcome of that SNAFU (Naval term – Situation Normal Another F*** Up) is well known
I then had the misfortune to be a qualified underwater demolition specialist and, on the spot, so we spent just over 3 months clearing the Canal of the ships that Nasser had scuttled in order to block the transit of ships through the Canal.
At least the thieving Egyptians were too afraid of us and tended to steer clear of us because of our reputation as killers. Even so we had an outboard motor nicked from one of our RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boat), slippery bastards.
In October 1956, Mollet, Eden and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met at Sevres near Paris and concluded a secret agreement that Israel should attack Egypt, thereby providing a pretext for an Anglo-French invasion of Suez.
Ben-Gurion then ordered General Moshe Dayan, (what a character, with his piratical black eyepatch) his chief of staff to plan an attack on Egypt. On 29 October 1956, the Israeli attack was spearheaded by an airborne drop to seize control of the Mitla Pass. Heavy fighting followed.
The next day, Britain and France issued ultimatums to both sides to stop the fighting immediately.
The Israelis continued their operations, expecting an Egyptian counterattack. Instead, Nasser’s army was withdrawing.
Militarily the operation was well on its way to being a great success.
On 5 November, some three months and 10 days after Nasser had nationalised the canal, the Anglo-French assault on Suez was launched. It was preceded by an aerial bombardment, which grounded and destroyed the Egyptian Air Force.
Soon after dawn, soldiers of 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, dropped onto El Gamil airfield, while French paratroopers landed south of the Raswa bridges and at Port Fouad.
Within 45 minutes, all Egyptian resistance on the airfield had been overcome and Royal Naval helicopters were bringing in supplies.
With El Gamil secured, the British Paras moved eastwards towards Port Said, meeting their first serious opposition en route. With air support, they overwhelmed the Egyptian forces then stopped and dug-in overnight because the beach area of Port Said was to be bombarded next day during the seaborne landing.
On 6 November, the sea and helicopter-borne assault went in. Royal Marine Commandos, together with British and French airborne forces supported by British tanks soon defeated the Egyptian forces, capturing men, vehicles and many of the newly purchased Czech-manufactured weapons.
At midnight on 6 November a cease-fire was called on the insistence of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. The Anglo-French forces had reached El Cap, just South of Port Said, but were not yet in control of the entire canal when they were stopped.
Militarily, the operation was well on its way to being a great success.
Politically, the intervention in Suez was a disaster. US President Dwight Eisenhower was incensed. World opinion, especially that of the United States, together with the threat of Soviet intervention, forced Britain, France and Israel to withdraw their troops from Egypt.
In Britain too there had been widespread outrage.
A United Nations peacekeeping force was sent in to supervise the ceasefire and to restore order. The Suez Canal was cleared and reopened, but Britain in particular, found its standing with the US weakened and its influence ‘east of Suez’ diminished by the adventure.
Eden told the Commons: ‘There was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt. There was not.’
Accusations of collusion between Britain, France and Israel started in 1956, but were denied in parliament by Eden who tried to avoid giving a clear and categorical answer.
He was at last asked whether there was foreknowledge of the Israeli attack and on 20 December in his last address to the House of Commons, recorded in Hansard, he replied: ‘I want to say this on the question of foreknowledge, and to say it quite bluntly to the House, that there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt.
In January 1957, his health shattered and his political credibility severely damaged, Sir Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, resigned. Guy Mollet, the French prime minister, survived longer despite fierce criticism, but his government collapsed in June 1957.
Since those heady days, I have visited Alexandria, Cairo, and the Valley of the Kings with my Travel Writer’s hat on but forewarned is forearmed and I have managed to hang on to my valuables. I have witnessed dozens of fellow travellers being relieved of their possessions. So, despite being an old Egypt hand I have never grown to even have a soft spot for either the country or its people.
Unlike my son and his fellow diving chums, who regularly visit Sharm el-Sheikh for fantastic diving in the Red Sea, although they do now tend to stay aboard a diving boat while they are there, I have made my feelings plain as to why would anyone want to fly out to a glorified Butlins’s Holiday Camp in Egypt (Spit), where they have scant respect for women and contempt for even basic human rights.
OK so it’s cheap and many holidaymakers have no idea whether they are in Egypt or Eritrea just so long as the sun is shining, and the beer is cheap Many venture no further than the all-you-can-eat salmonella buffet and the swimming pool. The whole point being to drink yourself silly and come home with a radioactive tan and a souvenir stuffed camel.
Sharm el-Sheikh has gained a reputation as being a relatively safe holiday destination thanks largely to the fact that it is heavily guarded by the Egyptian Military. It is heavily guarded because Egypt is full of Islamist Nut-Jobs looking for a chance to kill infidels.
End of the rant and back to The White Ensign.
In around May 1956 I was spending my time between Eastney Barracks with my Royal Marine besties, and HMS Vernon honing my skills in the Special Boat Squadron. I signed up for the Royal Naval Reserve and became a Sub Lieutenant RNR. I was enjoying playing soldiers and although highly trained in self disciple at the same we were a highly relaxed. We were usually found to be dressed in Number 8s (not quite jeans) and a white cable knit sweater.
Uniform, in as much that we were all similarly dressed but nicely laid back. Motto: “By strength and Guile” now known as the Special Boat Service, No difference except the size, I like to believe that we were more elite! Once qualified we were known as Swimmer Canoeists! I was also a skilled rock climber. As part of being swimmer canoeists, a further part of our training was a trip to Spain to a place called Cartagena to be entertained by the Spanish Foreign Legion. (No, until then I’d only heard of the French Foreign Legion, but I soon learned the difference).
Given no time to think about what was happening, we learned we were going to parachute from high altitude to low opening HALO. No problem! Not only that we were going to aim to land on or as near to a rescue boat positioned for secrecy some ten miles offshore. My first jump after a few hours in the classroom, was from a basket under a tethered halogen balloon, the bad news was that we were to get just three days training before being to have a go at the real thing. The good news was that our holiday was only going t6o last for eleven days, when we would be returning to Blighty as fully trained HALO parachutists. If we failed the course, we would be buried in Spain as we would be dead. Don’t you just love forces humour?
A couple of months later we were ideally positioned to take part in naval evolutions in the Mediterranean and two fully equipped, four-man SBS teams boarded an Aircraft carrier HMS Bulwark she was nearly brand new, only being commissioned two years earlier, She was bristling with armament and carrying a full fixed wing compliment of Gannet fighter bombers, plus squadrons of Sea Hawks and Sea Venoms, those are the one with a double fuselage. I’m not sure of numbers and what other specialist helicopters were aboard but the hanger deck was full. Our Mediterranean holiday was given the name Operation Musketeer. I’m not certain who had the foresight to prepare us for, but they certainly read their tarot cards correctly. We couldn’t have been better prepared or in a better position for when “Hands to Battle Stations” was piped. I’m sure that my fellow team members felt the same as I, excited, ready to go and kick arse! The scuttlebutt since we first boarded Ro8 HMS Bulwark was that we were girded for war and hat was so unlikely for a common or garden naval evolution. (Perhaps Anthony Eden was the only one who had been kept in the dark);
By the time we went in, the Israelis had taken out all of the Egyptian airfields and destroyed their airforce while they were still on the ground.
The French operation was surprisingly given the name “Operation Mousquetaire” what a coincidence! We landed on a beach near to Port Said and our two four-man teams launched our two RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats) from then on, we were busy doing our own thing and were completely unaware of the fact that HMS Bulwark launched over 600 successful sorties. We had a great time taking out a few Egyptian soldiers and tested some of our explosives by blowing up a mosque, that was a bit of devilment, but we needed to try out our ordnance. It was good to go. We made our way in our RIBs into Port Said and the canal where our destination was to be The Great Bitter Lake, where that Pig’s Orphan Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser had scuttled several ships to block passage through the Suez Canal.
Our job was demolishing the scuttled hulks in order to clear the route through the canal. This would also release the ships trapped in the canal allow traffic to once again travel through. We were joined by a number of Salvage ships and began our serious work blowing up a number of hulks. As we worked there were several Egyptian bumboats hovering although we had the reputation as killers, and they kept clear of us. The Salvage ships were not so lucky, and they were subjected to a regular attack by heaving lines with hooks throughout the night. Surprisingly this only lasted one night when a couple of the intruders were shot. Three days into our work we suffered an accidental underwater explosion. Both our teams suffering damaged eardrums of varying seriousness, but it was bad enough for all men to be picked up and taken to a hospital ship which part of the fleet. It was then that we learned that for political reasons our Suez war was over.
I initially returned to HMS Vernon, to hone my skills. My brief sojourn with the RNR was for hostilities only, so I spent just six months back aboard HMS Redpole flag waving in the Mediterranean, during which time my four my SBS team were together as another jumped up Army officer namely General Georgios Grivas had become involved in politics and was now causing mayhem leading the EOKA guerrilla organisation intend on ending British rule in Cyprus. He was responsible for killing some 400 British soldiers.
As a result of information received (Ullo ullo!) and because we just happened to be there. We proceeded to land on a beach and made our way up through a grove of lemon trees, the lemons were frozen solid. (I later learned that this is quite normal, and the lemons thaw out and continue to ripen.) We continued up the hill until we found a cave that had been described to us. As we stood listening, we could hear our suspects jabbering in Greek. Using hand signals, we gave them a wakeup call with two hand grenades followed by a volley from our machine pistols. We confirmed that EOKA was now four rebel’s light. A small piece of ordnance was enough to bring down the rock and seal the now unmarked grave. Shortly after I flew home from Nicosia airport which was still heavily guarded. I was quite relieved once we were out of rocket range. I was demobbed shortly after getting home and then had yet another enigma!
As a highly trained navigator I was unqualified for any job in civvy street. As a highly trained member of the SBS skilled in parachuting, diving, submarine infiltration and rock climbing I suppose I could look for a job on an oil rig – No! I could have found a job as a mercenary – No!
It looks like it’s back to the red ensign. A few weeks holiday and back to the Pool to find a ship. Groan!
My puzzle was solved by my beautiful girl friend! We decided to get married. I swallowed the anchor, hello civvy street!
We celebrate our 62nd wedding anniversary in a weeks’ time. That’s a very long time and there are an awful lot of happenings during that time! But of course, that’s another story, in fact an awful lot of stories, Watch this space.
There are never any heathens in a lifeboat so never stop praying, on the other hand for God’s sake keep rowing!