I posted the last of Dad’s Navy memoirs yesterday. For months, early in the morning I have sat down, opened an England ring binder and worked through my Dad’s writing. I admit I shed a few tears as this period came to an end – I like to see me sharing the Navy memoirs as an act of love of sorts.
Dad loved the sea, ships and aeroplanes and I knew that came from his days working with aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy. He used to drive Mum mad always spending part of our holidays finding boats and planes to photograph. However, he spoke little of his experiences in the Navy. Mum could be quite dominant conversationally and as these tales pre-dated her perhaps he had learned to keep them to himself.
He would regale us with stories of his days as a police officer but not of his younger days as a sailor. He did write some memoirs about his police times but not as much as about his beloved navy.
As it happens as I have shared stories from the memoirs with my family. My teenager already knew them clearly taken into Granddad’s confidence.
Dad’s Navy memoirs and my learning
1. I was surprised that Dad could be naughty. The fact that he smuggled tobacco to make a profit came as a real shock.
2. I was amazed at the level of detail in his descriptions particularly around measurements.
3. I was reminded what a quiet and self-effacing man he was. At no point does he say how amazing he was in these memoirs. Of course, I see how brave he was to set off into the unknown from a small town in Yorkshire. He did not have to go. He chose to serve his country. He insisted that the Union Jack was to be placed on his coffin – a patriot for sure.
4. Dad always wound me up with his inability to enjoy a meal properly. By this, I mean that he would leap up to clear plates and wash up almost before eating his last mouthful. Now I see, this came from his experiences on cook duties where discipline in such matters was vital.
5, I loved how my Dad broke the rules so that he could get tinned food back to his parents. He was such a young man and I am touched that whilst overseas their needs were very much on his mind.
6. I recognise how challenging it must have been for Dad to remain in one market town for most of his life after such adventures. He was always looking to leave once to join the police force in Uganda but my Mum was not such a risk-taker so they stayed put.
7. I understand now why he insisted that my first foreign trip was to Malta where he clearly had quite an idyllic lifestyle.
8. It amuses me that on the last leave before leaving the Navy, he met my Mum. It is typical of him to have such time management. I can actually see him saying to himself that his youth was over and it was time to find a wife.
I know the memoirs won’t be to everyone’s taste but even if you read just one post, it would mean the world to me.
I feel a bit like I am saying goodbye to Dad all over again as I finish writing up his Navy memoirs but it is perhaps time for a new chapter all of my own.
Today, Dad’s memoirs see him arriving to serve in the Navy in Malta.
Three more days of sailing in Mediterranean sunshine brought us to Malta. Part of the time on the first of those day was sailing for hours off the Spanish coast now known as the Costa del Sol. We sailed mile after mile with empty Spanish beaches interspersed from time to time with small fishing villages. The Sierra Nevada mountains formed a backdrop to this almost deserted coast. What a different view it must be now with skyscraper hotels and traffic running along the busy coastal road.
We moored in Grand Harbour about 3pm in the afternoon of 14th February . The temperatures must have been in the high 70s and we sailors who had to disembark were still in British winter uniform. Personnel off the ship were going in various directions from the ship. Quite a lot were remaining on board who had another five weeks to endure on SS Mataroa but we were glad to see the back of it. About then of us Naval Ratings were en route to HMS Falcon. A boat arrived to take us off the ship and with all our kit were were taken across Grand Harbour towards the shore.
We couldn’t help but gaze in wonder at the majesty of the great harbour and also at the visible results of five years of bombing it had sustained. It was a big ignonimous when our boat bumped to a stop and we were ordered to get off and found that we had moored alongside a half sunken coal barge next to the jetty. We had to clamber over the wet coal to get ashore where a wagon was waiting to take us on the final stage of our journey streaked with coal dust.
This was the first time that I am my companions had set foot in a foreign country. On the journey to HMS Falcon I took in all I could see around me. The first impression was of solid looking buildings of a honey coloured stone that had been there for centuries but at the same time there was evidence on every hand of the runined buildings resultant from the bombing. The devastation was most visible from our starting point around the dockyard area and the homes of the people who lived in close proximity to it. Work was going on all around to repair the damaage but there was a lot to be done. The work was labour intensive because mechanical aids were rudimentary then.
It was obvious observing the people that they were poor not just because of the effects of the war but because the island had little in the way of natural resources and the people existed on work resulting from the British military presence on the island. There were several British Army battalions stationed there, the RAF had several squadrons of aircraft but by far the biggest presence was the Naval one.
This was evident as we drove along. Most of the traffic was Navy vehicles. Civilian traffic was minimal and even this was probably off duty military/Naval personnel stationed on the island. Tourism here was something for the distant future. As we moved out of the less populous area it was evident how barren was the island. Malta is mainly rock and where there is soil its depth does not seem to be great. There were few trees. People, men and women, were working in the fields and donkeys seemed to be the main mode of transport.
The journey from the dockyard to HMS Falcon was about 6 miles and the lorry deposited us in front of a red brick building which was the Administration building for the base. This was the main Naval Air Station known by the local name of Hal Far. The civilian aerodrome used jointly by the RAF was at Luca but because during the 1940-1945 siege other airstrips has been built to enable aircraft to be dispersed thus in fact although Luca and Hal Far were four miles apart with Kirkop airstrip between them planes could be taxied between the two airfields. There were two other airfields one at Krendi now disused and one towards the North of the island at Ta Kali which was still available to the Navy but only used in emergencies. Hal Far was on the top of the cliffs which were quite steep at the Southern extremity of the island.
Part of HMS Falcon was a detached section on the coast at Kalfrana about 1 and a half miles downhill from Hal Far via a winding country road. This had previously been an RAF seaplane base and consisted of a couple of barrack blocks, an Admin building, three hangars and a slipway into the sea. The slipway entered the sea at Kalfrana Cove on each side of which was a short jetty.
Of the dozen on so newcomers thus deposited at Hal Far we were now split up. At Hal Far was located 726 Naval Air Squadron, a training squadron. Also there were two or three flights of miscellaneous aircraft used for reconnaissance. photographic work and for us by VIPs! Most of our group were allocated to these and remained at Hal Far but three of us, George Bishop, Ted Versheys and me, all Safety Equipment ratings were despatched to Kalafrana. At Kalafrana was a Safety Equipment Unit under a Sub Lieutenant Comt who were responsible for the maintenance of parachutes and dinghies for the personnel up at Hal Far. There were about twelve of us in this unit although with the inevitable movement of personnel there were changes over a period of time. I did meet up with a couple of chaps with whom I had done my initial training back in 1945 namely Stan Davies and Ken Wheeler.
Punishment for sailors
Today, Dad’s memoirs show how he could be a very naughty sailor and sometimes learned a sailor’s lot was not a happy one.
Life in the RAF Station for a sailor meant that discipline was relaxed. We had no Navy Officers or NCOs to supervise us and we could get away with things that we couldn’t dream of in a Navy ship or base. RAF Officers left us alone as we were something of an anomaly. We were aware that if we committed a breach of the rules the RAF could not punish us but would have to return us to our Navy base for trial and punishment. Naturally if we did anything really serious they would not hesitate to send us back but we knew that minor infringements would be overlooked.
Service dress was a prime example. Although when we sailors set foot outside the camp we had to be absolutely properly dressed, when we were inside the camp we realised we could get away with not being properly dressed. It gave us a kick to know that we could flout the rules without reproach Bear in mind that in the three services in those days only Officers could wear civilian clothing. Other ranks had to wear uniform at all times except when on home leave.
By the time a few weeks had passed we sailors had shed some parts of our uniform and other bits so that eventually I was wearing Navy trousers, hoes and jumper but had divested myself of the jersey, silk collar and hat and had replaced these with a khaki battle dress jacket bearing Royal Navy on each shoulder and with a white silk scarf round my neck.
I remember a few months later on leaving to return to the Navy I had to have my card signed by various departments as part of my leaving routine. I reported to one officer who from behind his desk looked me up and down and asked me if I dressed like that back in the Navy. I looked him straight in the eye and said “Certainly Sir” Obviously he was not fooled but like I said, what could he do about it? When I left the next day, I was the perfectly dressed sailor “pusser” as it was known in the Navy i.e. by the book.
On one occasion a couple of us Navy men did suffer punishment by the RAF. It was evening meal time in the massive eating hall and the RAF food was excellent. It had been fried fish that evening and with two or three RAF colleagues we were yarning around the dining hall after the meal. With cups of coffee (another luxury we did not have in the Navy) we pulled out cigarettes, handed them round and lit up. The RAF men joined in but pointed out that smoking in the eating hall was forbidden. “So what” we said “we’re fireproof”
How wrong we were; along came the Duty Orderly Officer and a RAF Sergeant and told us to extinguish the cigarettes which we did. He then told us that he knew he could not punish us matelots but he could certainly put the RAF men on a charge. We said that was unfair. He said the only alternative was for us matelots to accept his punishment. We succumbed. The punishment was to wash the trays which had cooked in there the evening meal.There were over a thousand personnel at RAF Bassingborun and there were hundreds of greasy, fishy cooking trays, stacked six foot high all round the kitchen. It took us while nearly midnight to complete the job and we stank of fish for days. The Officer had made his point. We did not smoke in the dining hall thereafter.