On the 15th of May, 1950, I strode down Chatham high street to meet my destiny.
Taking a deep breath, I entered the Royal Navy recruiting office.
“How soon can I join?” I asked the officer sitting at a desk that was covered in pamphlets and forms in various colours. He looked like a new recruit himself. His uniform was so sharply creased and pressed that I thought it would either break or cut him to the bone if he made a careless move. A pool of sunlight settled on a blotter on the desk. The officer’s sleeve, bearing two bright gold rings, rested casually in the centre of the sunbeam. He never moved that arm throughout the interview.
“So you want to join the Navy?” he asked.
What did he think I was here for, I wondered. Of course I want to join the navy. I wouldn’t be here if I wanted to be a coal miner or bus driver, would I?
Aloud, I said, “Yes, that’s right.”
He pushed a wad of papers towards me. “Right. Read this form. Fill in this form. Sign this form. We’ll be in touch shortly. Good bye and good luck.”
I spent the next two weeks stalking the postman, and accusing him of deliberately delaying the most important letter that I would ever have in my life.
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Eventually it arrived. “Go it,” I cried, whirling into the kitchen and grabbing the cat which was the only occupant at that time. “I’m in the Navy.” I waved the letter in front of its amber eyes.
She gave a disinterested sniff, as if to say, “So what do you want me to do? Celebrate? Have a night on the tiles?”
My family were more responsive to my news. Father was pleased and proud, Mother trying to be pleased, but apprehensive, and my sister, Pat, waiting to boast to her mates that there was a real live Jack Tar in the family.
“That won’t cut much mustard,” I scoffed. “We live in Chatham. It’s topped up to the gunwales with sailors.”
That didn’t stop her grinning from ear to ear for the rest of the day.
Came the day for my departure for HMS Raleigh in Cornwall. The family stood on the platform of Strood railway station. I carried a suitcase packed with food, clean underwear and a supply of anti-seasickness pills, which Mother considered to be absolutely essential.
“Come over here,” Mother said, pulling me a couple of steps to my left. “Stand right there.” She pointed to a crack in the concrete.
Obediently I did as she wished, wondering what she wanted of me.
“Do you realise,” she murmured, looking extremely emotional. “Ten years ago your dad stood on that very spot, waiting for the train to take him to war. Now you are literally following in his footsteps.”
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“Don’t worry, Mum,” I said. “I’m joining the Navy, right? But the war is over. The only fighting I expect to do is when I want to escape from all the girls that will be chasing me.”
Pat made a sardonic noise that was drowned out by the arrival to the train.
On its way to the West Country the train made numerous stops, and the carriage in eventually became full of males around my own age, all bound for the good ship HMS Raleigh. I wondered how big this ship was, for there seemed to be hundreds of new recruits all ready to embark upon a life on the ocean waves. I made friends with the two persons squashed into the seat each side of me.
“I’m James White,” said the serious looking one on my right. “Most people call me Chalky White.”
“I’m George Weaver,” rumbled the man on my left. “My dad works on a farm. Well, he did before they caught him in the barn with the master’s 13 year old daughter He wants me to be a farmer too. But I want to see a bit of the world, not stay in the same field all my life.” He spoke in a very low voice, as if each word had to be chewed over before being uttered. “Ma said that it would save them a lot of trouble if I went to sea. So here I am. It will be a surprise for Pa when they let him out. I don’t suppose anybody’s told him yet.”
Tumbling from the train at Plymouth, we were met by an officer and a couple of naval ratings who ushered us into a waiting
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coach. The coach trundled aboard the Torpoint Ferry across the river Tamar, and two of the group immediately claimed to feel sea sick.
I became concerned when to coach continued its journey. It was taking us deeper into the countryside. “This can’t be right,” I said to Chalky. “All the ships I have ever seen need water to float on. Where’s the water for our ship?”
The coach suddenly turned into a drive between two gleaming white posts supporting a sign, ‘HMS Raleigh’
“’Ere, where’s the ship?” cried someone who answered to the name of Izzy.
We stared down a wide path lined with whitewashed stones leading to a parade ground. There was not a drop of water for miles around. Green hills, blue sky, white clouds like freshly washed duvets and crows, not seagulls, hovering around. Everything but the sea.
“This isn’t a ship,” said Chalkie White, who was quick witted enough to note the difference between a line of barrack buildings and a battleship of His Majesties Royal Navy. “It’s an Army camp.”
“This is HMS Raleigh,” droned the officer, as if he had said this many times before. “You will do your training here before we let you loose on a real ship.”
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“This way, Gentlemen,” he ordered, briskly leading us into a large hut smelling of disinfectant. It was the medical centre or sickbay as we quickly learned to call it.
A man in a white coat approached us. “Right. Strip off. Everything,” he said.
Everything?” squeaked Chalky White, turning as red as the proverbial sails in the sunset.
“Everything,” said the doctor firmly.
The medical was embarrassingly extensive. Poor Chalky burst into tears when he failed the examination and was told that he was not robust enough for navy life. We never did find out why he failed. He dressed and walked out of our lives.
Monday was our day of destiny. This was our do or die moment.
We assembled in the lecture room where the Commodore addressed us. He told us how pleased he was to see such fine fellows anxious to serve their country in the Senior Service, and was sure that we would all be a credit to the Royal Navy. He bleated on for a few more minutes in a patriotic vein, and then left us.
Another officer took the stand.
“It is now time for you to make up your minds,” he said, with a smile of encouragement. Here,” he indicated a long table at which several ratings sat shuffling papers around, “Is where you sign on. If
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you have any doubts, or want to change your mind, you can do so. There will be no shame or blame attached to you. You will be given tickets back to your home town where you can carry on with your life as you please. You stay here and sign on entirely of your own free will.”
Good. Form a line along here,” he gestured towards the table.
On June 6th, 1950, I, in the company of three dozen others, signed on for a life on the ocean wave.
“Pay attention,” barked the officer as soon as we had laid down our pens. “Into the Quartermaster’s stores for issue of uniforms. Hurry up. We haven’t got all day.”
We stumbled out of the hut and formed three rather untidy ranks in the dazzling sunshine, and marched to yet another hut fifty yards away.
“Hardly worth forming up for that,” remarked Izzy.
“Silence in the ranks,” snapped our officer, who had suddenly changed from our guide dog showing us the way, into a hostile hound intent on snapping at our heels.
The Chief Petty Officer in charge of stores had his own method of gauging the size of uniform required. If you took a size seven hat then you were deemed to have a thirty inch inside leg
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measurement, and were thus medium build. Any deviation from a size seven was classed either small or large.
A confused twenty minutes passed as various items of clothing were slung across the counter more or less in our direction.
Each man clutched a great bundle of clothing and marched; we always marched, never strode or walked, back to our hut. There we indulged in a great deal of swapping trousers and other gear until we all had a uniform that more or less fitted our person.
Shortly after that discipline kicked in.
In what I thought was the middle of the night, when the dormitory, or messdeck to give it its proper name, was silent but for a few snores, there came a terrific din.
The lights snapped on, and a terrible figure strode into the area.
“Wakey, wakey,” it bellowed. “Time to get up.” They were not his exact words, for he conveyed the message in rather more abrasive language, but we had some idea of the gist of it.
“It’s only six o’clock.” The protest came from one of the recumbent figures.
“That’s right,” snarled the Petty Office. “We let you have a lay in as it’s your first morning.”
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The only person who didn’t protest was Farmer George. He was used to getting up at the crack of dawn, and was delighted to be able to lie in until six.
We learnt a lot in the first week. “On the double” was the most used command in the camp. We ran everywhere. Walking was a thing of the past as far as we were concerned. We also quickly realised that the only safe thing to say to an officer was, “Yes Sir.”
Archie Armington, a very well bred young man, and frightfully keen on things maritime responded to an officer’s order with “Aye, aye, Sir.”
He was told at great length by a plump officious office that ‘Aye, aye, Sir’ was not the correct response in this establishment.
Archie begged to differ, and became the first one in our input to be placed on a charge.
The Sunday parade, which, last week, we had thought so thrilling, lost much of its appeal when we had to join in. It required us to turn out in the early hours of Sunday morning and indulge in prolonged buffing with polish and brush to bring our boots to achieve a mirror finish, and delicate work with the Blanco brush to bring our caps to the required degree of flawless whiteness.
The petty officer in charge of us on our first excursion onto the hallowed expanse of the parade ground has some words of advice for us.
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“There is no excuse for missing Sunday parade. The only way to get out of it,” he paused to stalk up and down the ranks, “is by dying. Even then you have to be dead before forming up in your platoon. If you die whilst on parade, the man behind you will support you until parade is dismissed.”
“Do you think he means it?” asked blonde David Monroe, who has to suffer the nickname of ‘Marilyn.’
“Why don’t you die, and find out?” I whispered back.
Apart from marching around the parade ground, we listened to various lectures on how ships engines and boilers worked, and how to keep them running in perfect order at all times.
Very late in our training, were treated to several films showing the dire consequences of making a mistake when tending the boilers or maintaining the ships engines.
“What do they want to show us all those burns and crushed fingers and blood everywhere just before meal time?” asked David, ‘Marilyn,’ Monroe, eyeing his plate in which a mess of fried eggs, bacon and tomato slithered.
Excitement grew as the completion of our training grew near.
Days before the final passing out parade, we laboured under the strident instructions of our Petty Officer as he struggled to turn us into a smart band of seamen capable of impressing the Commodore with our knowledge of parade ground exercises.
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“I can’t see this being of much use to us in a boiler room,” gritted Farmer George, as we Right Turned, Marked Time, Turned to the Left in Threes and finally came to a Halt exactly on the spot marked with an X.
The P. O. shrugged his shoulders and muttered something about a shower in the offing, although the sky was a spotless blue.
“He didn’t swear at us,” I noted. “That means he’s pleased.”
Came the day we all awaited. Hours before the start of the ceremony we mustered around the perimeter of the parade ground in our carefully ironed uniforms; boots shining like highly polished coal, and heavily blancoed caps whose brilliance would have put the virgin snow on Mount Everest to shame.
Suddenly the scene became a mass of gold braid and medals as hordes of officers who we had never had occasion to meet, swarmed into the arena.
The band played rousing tunes, the Commodore took the salute, and the newly fledged sailors marched around for a bit. Eventually we vacated the holy of holies in orderly fashion and trudged back to our huts.
That was it. Finished. Done with. All I had to do now was wait to see what ship I was to be drafted to so that my life on the ocean wave could begin in earnest.