Joining the Wavy Navy in World War II
Many will have similar memories to those recorded here, and may or may not like to be reminded, but before very long there will be none of us left and it would be a pity if this one-carat gem of Royal Naval history was not recorded for posterity, if it has not already!
Sixty years ago Their Lordships believed the making of a seaman should follow the traditions of the days of sail; some of which, thankfully, are not entirely lost today. In the 1940s introduction to the rigours of service life were not quite as much of a shock to a teenager as they would be now.; We had been disciplined at home and school; there were few ‘mod-cons’ and we were already, as a matter of course, living the harsh conditions of wartime.
We boys, joyously or otherwise, were given time off school or work to make tedious journeys for our ‘medical’. This I recall involved little more than the use of a stethoscope, a hand pressed on the tummy, two fingers pressed over one ear-hole while the word ’Birmingham’ was whispered and of course the order to cough. All of this while standing stark naked in a draughty cold old building that no-one had a better use for.
Two or three months later our first OHMS brown economy envelope would arrive containing, in my case, a travel warrant to Skegness and instructions to report to H.M.S. Royal Arthur a notorious stone frigate except that much was of wood. Mr Billy Butlin had this large holiday camp which he could not use for the ‘duration’ so he removed all things thought necessary for the happy camper and kindly leased it to the Admiralty. I joined during a particularly cold winter and being on the East Coast it was cold. We slept on iron bunks in unheated, thin walled wooden chalets; Mr Butlin had not planned for winter occupation. Our first three days were largely spent in chipping ice, sweeping snow and at night fire-watching from concentration camp-like towers. There was of course complete blackout at night; between my chalet and the ablution block was the swimming pool; I fell into it at 05.30 on the first morning and kept myself from turning into an ice sculpture by shivering for three days until our uniforms were issued. I think there were a whaler and a cutter in the pool but naturally, there was not space to use them.
Our issued ‘slops’ included exceptionally good quality towels, underwear, clothes and shoe brushes etc. and uniforms. Some of the quirkier points of the last might interest the uninitiated. Their Lordships ordered me to report in my sea cadet uniform; in very short time I cut off my P.O. badge and stripes to stop understandably queer looks and remarks from the old hands of the ship’s company. However it did give me one great advantage over the others when it came to dressing, sufficient to overcome prejudice against my accent or rather lack of one and for a day or two I was in great demand to teach the strange ritual that had to be followed to dress properly.
First the square necked shirt or dickey; over this went the collar (a bit like a tabard having tapes to tie round the waist and the well-known blue square flap with its three white border stripes. Next the bell-bottomed trouser and button up the full width front flap. It is said that these were designed by King Edward VII; and were folded inside out concertina fashion. This way they certainly made a comfortable pillow in a hammock and were self-pressed while asleep. Now the jersey could be pulled on, then extract the collar-flap and knot the folded black silk tie behind your neck to be secured at the front with short tapes from the jumper. Lastly came the immaculately white lanyard looped and tucked in the correct manner. You can see why the novice needed help! Being suitably dressed we were then instructed in basic messing and organisational arrangements divisions, semaphore, morse, tying seamanlike knots, bends and hitches. Again past Sea Cadet experience was a big advantage but I rapidly learned not be thought a know-all nor seen to be too keen, while actually being in the right place and doing the right thing. Above all there was drill, drill, drill with our without .303 rifles and khaki gaiters. In those days the Navy still paraded and marched in two or four ranks. ‘Form Fours’ was an easy command, but you can imagine what it was like for a youthful voice to command ‘Form two-deep’ with the last part sounding like a single executive word? Our instructor was the legendary Chief (I think) Petty Officer ‘Dusty’ Miller who had been dug out of retirement to break in recruits, yet so eccentric as not to be really feared by more than a few. One of those few would be some poor wretch he would select from each intake to call ‘Gladys’; Gladys went through Hell.
It was said, and widely believed, that no way was ever found to make him moderate his language and that when on the parade ground the Wrens would be moved to offices on another side of the building. C.P.O. Miller’s command of foul language was unsurpassable. He had original theories he would impose on his pupils to prepare them for life in the Navy. The force of his tuition must have been effective for a number to have stuck in my mind for about sixty years. Here are a few:-
"You, you wet behind the ears ignorant useless ...... You think that when an aeroplane is shot down in flames it is because the incendiary bullets set the petrol on fire Well it ain’t. It’s because the ordinary rounds cut off the blades of the propeller so the engine races, gets too hot and burst into flames." One incredulous titter and there was big trouble.
"Don’t march with the backs of your hands forward, that’s for pongos and Brylcream boys. Sailors march with thumbs forward or better with palms in front so the air can harden them against sores they’ll get from ropes and salt."
"You!", he would bellow at some poor victim. "You you’re mad; well ain’t you? Come on boy, speak up, Ain’t you?" Fearing the wrath of his tormentor and not daring to contradict, the lad would answer "yes". "Well that’s the difference between us, I’m sane and I’ve got a certificate to prove it".
Following the morning we received our big T.A.B. jabs we were entitled to an afternoon’s made-and-mend. Not so. C.P.O. Miller had his own theory. He made us parade and practise semaphore (no flags) for an hour to "spread the chemicals round our bodies to make them work better". All but two of us suffered none of the usual pain nor stiffness. Those two (gladly, I suspect) ended up confined to the sick bay.
After two weeks of this interesting experience great excitement our first pay day; for many of us the first in our lives; 3/- (15p) per day and two NAAFI soap coupons. After three weeks, including some intelligence (?) tests, two of us were selected to enjoy the relative luxury of Nissen huts, complete with noxious coke-fired stoves and large aluminium spittoons used for litter and kicking against iron bedsteads at ‘wakey-wakey’ time aboard H.M.S. Raleigh at Torpoint.
By John Bolton King
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I have just come in from sweeping the horizon with my trusty deck scrubber,to read about poor didums,Iin the early 50s spent 18 months at H.M.S.Ganges[ sorry I am to helpless with laughter,] to read of your holiday camp romp makes me relise some of us just got on with it, so I am off with my green coat on to find the golden rivet.