TWELVE OF THE BEST
Within two years of joining the navy, I had the chance to serve on a ship based in the Far East at Singapore.
“That’s for me,” I chortled. “The Far East and its mysteries.” I lost no time in volunteering. Within days I underwent the torture of various inoculations against every disease known to mankind, and some against ailments the doctors were not sure of. And they did use big needles in those days, I can tell you!
A week later, in the company of half a dozen other volunteers I was bundled onto a lumbering Hermes aircraft that vibrated its way to Singapore via Bombay and deposited us into the oven-like atmosphere of the mystic Orient.
It did not take me long to get acquainted with the ship and my duties in the engine and boiler room. In fact I discovered that the boiler room was the coolest place on board, thanks to the large fans that supplied air to the furnace.
We had been swanning up and down the coast of Malaysia looking for signs of conflict when, in what I assumed in a spirit of adventure, our captain did something that took the crew by surprise. Near the army outpost of Port Swettenham, we sailed a mile of so upriver and anchored in the vicinity of a small village.
The quartermaster took a deep breath, blew on his boson’s whistle, and made the following announcement.
“To show the natives how friendly we can be, a party will be held on board for the children of an orphanage in the locality. All hands will don Pirate rig and entertain our guests.”
“Well, it’s a change from the usual routine,” I said to Tubs, the rotund signalman, who sported the beginnings of a beard. “You look like Blackbeard already.”
On the appointed day we lined the upper deck in our pirate clothing cobbled together from unwanted shirts and scraps of coloured bunting, courtesy of the signals department.
As the small armada of canoes of various shapes and sizes approached us, we waved wooden swords, shouted ‘Pieces of Eight’ Vast, ye lubbers’ and other phases that were not in
vogue around Blackbeard’s day, and got busy hauling up the Jolly Roger, and forcing several ratings to walk the plank and fall into the water with a resounding splash. They were rescued by the ships life raft, helped up the ladder and made to walk the plank all over again.
“Here they come,” I said, as a mini-armada of canoes and rafts made their appearance. “Blimey, I never knew there were so many kids in one orphanage.”
The flotilla of small craft suddenly stopped several yards away from the ship, and started to back paddle.
“Now what are they up to?” I asked a blacked-up seaman who thought all pirates were Negros.
“Dunno” he said, waving his sword around.
Very soon a small canoe carrying one minuscule nun approached the ship and clambered aboard.
The captain met her, and she explained, in pretty good English, at some length.
It wasn’t a pretty tale. The children thought we were real pirates that had taken over the ship and killed all the sailors. She said that a few weeks ago a nearby village had been raided by real pirates who had killed many villagers. Some of the children in the boats, she indicated the fleet that hovered a safe distance away, are orphans from that village.
That sobered us up pretty quick, and within seconds the tannoy blared out, ‘clear the upper deck. All hands to wear the rig of the day.’
Five minutes later the ship was once adorned with the union flag and other ensigns, and a crowd of real British Sailors were waiting to welcome the kids aboard.
The little nun resumed her place in her canoe and energetically paddled among the people explaining that all was well, and that the pirates had disappeared. At times her small craft disappeared amongst the other boats and she appeared to be walking on the water, bestowing blessings on the children.
“That’s what Nuns do out here, I guess,” I said.
After that first misunderstanding, the party got under way, and was a huge success. Several of the older children stated their intention to join ‘Her Queens Ship Navy’ as soon as they reached the right age.
We returned to Singapore and spent a day or two lying off an island called Paula Tiomin whilst the technicians checked the ships compass and other electrical gadgets.
It was during that period that I achieved my early ambition to frolic on a palm shaded tropical beach with a dusky maiden. We declared undying love for each other, and I bet she was faithful to me right up to the time my ship disappeared over the horizon.
All too soon my tour of duty in the Far East came to a close, and I was flown from sultry Singapore to the chill of an English summer.
The powers that be decided that I would appreciate a change from the continued heat of the tropics, and promptly drafted me to a ship that was needed to patrol our fishing fleet in the Arctic. As a sideline we also cruised around the Scandinavian fiords looking for any stray mines that the Germans had carelessly left in the vicinity.
I wasn’t happy about this and protested vigorously as I packed my tropical gear away and replaced it with everything I could think of that would keep out the cold.
“You’re lucky,” said the Chief Petty Officer who was making sure that I had everything the navy deemed necessary for a sojourn in the Arctic Circle. “I have to stay in these warm barracks, and my wife expects me to go home to her every week end.” He shook his head sadly. “Life is hell.”
I offered to visit his wife each week-end if he could get me out of this draft to the realm of icebergs. He regretted that it was beyond his capabilities to do so, but appreciated the gesture.
The ship sailed to and fro, and relieved the monotony by calling in at various places such as Tromso, Honningvaag and Halsted. The officers attended receptions at these ports, and other ratings found solace in the bars, which were very clean, and full of friendly faces.
I was higher than usual that Christmas, and not enjoying it.
At Hammerfest, our youngest officer, full of zest and enthusiasm, hired a guide and ordered six of us to volunteer for a spot of mountain climbing. The guide said that we could climb the mountain, sign a book that was kept in a hut there, and then come back down to join in the Christmas Eve celebrations.
“Seems an awful lot of trouble to go to just to sign a book,” remarked ‘Streaky’ Bacon, echoing all our thoughts.
“You will enjoy the climb,” ordered our keen officer.
After ninety minutes of staggering uphill in knee deep snow, the guide called a halt.
“Good,” we puffed. “We can go back now.”
“This is the foot of the mountain,” the guide informed us. “Now we go up and up.”
The mountain consisted of a vast heap of tumbled ice-glazed boulders that looked at if the god Vulcan had caused an upheaval, and just dumped the rocks in an untidy heap, and left them there for the next god to clear up.
The guide, his name was Olaf, skipped up, over and under the rocks with an agility that lead me to believe that his ancestors had at some time enjoyed very intimate contact with mountain goats.
Five hours later we reached the top and crowded into the small shack that contained a book awaiting our signatures
“You will sign, please.” Olaf gestured to the rather tatty volume that lay open on the table.
We looked rather nonplussed. Not one of us had realised that pens were deemed to be essential items of mountain climbing equipment.
“Do you mean to say that we’re not the first people here?” wheezed Leading Seaman ‘Streaky’ Bacon,
“Many tourists come here. This is a very popular mountain,” Olaf said. He produced a handful of pens from one of the numerous pockets in his clothing and offered to sell them very cheap. We bought one, and passed it around for each to add our autographs to the pages.
Most of us used our correct names, although I did notice that Mickey Mouse and Captain America had once visited the hut in the past.
Before leaving, I took another look around, and realised that after hours of exhausting effort, we had succeeded in reaching the top of what was a mere bump in the range of mountains that loomed around us. So there was nothing to boast about, really, although we did sneer at the weaklings who had declined the opportunity to climb Norway’s smallest mountain.
I had climbed the Peak in Hong Kong, and have a photograph to prove it. I was that proud of reaching the top without use of the rail car. But compared to my present location, the Peak is but a pimple on the face of the earth.
“We go down now,”
“That’s the best thing I’ve heard you say today,” I told him as the group gave a heart-felt cheer. Olaf opened the door. A great cloud of mist billowed in.
“When the fog goes, we climb down. It is dangerous to go out in the fog,” Olaf told us with a cheerful grin.
Our howls of protest could have been heard in the valley, but there was nothing to do but wait and shiver until the fog drifted away.
We got back to base just before dark, and by then our intrepid officer had lost his enthusiasm for mountaineering. We thanked him for giving us such a unique experience, but he detected a trace of irony in our speech, and didn’t smile upon us.
Just for the fun of it, we sailed down the Kattegat and called in at Copenhagen. I don’t know why we did so, but then, the Captain seldom took me into his confidence to ask for my approval of his actions.
An afternoon’s leave was granted to the Starboard watch, and I took advantage of the situation to saunter along the sea front and take a look at Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid as it gazed sadly out to sea. I felt sorry for her. She seemed such a lonely figure, alone on her concrete pedestal.
I bade her farewell and returned to my ship, which returned to Chatham where I soon found myself marching around the the parade ground of the Royal Naval Barracks.
“Hi there, Chief,” I hailed the CPO who had kitted me out for arctic waters several weeks ago. “How’s the wife?”
“Still there,” he grunted, and didn’t thank me for asking.
“Any draft chits going around?” I asked. “I’m fed up with barracks. Monotonous, that’s what it is.”
“Don’t you have a wife to go home to?”
“No. That’s why I want out of here. There’s nothing for me.”
Two days later he came up to me. “Here you are, P.O.” he handed me a yellow chit. “Your dreams come true. A trip round the Med.”
“Great,” I said “Come along to the canteen and I’ll buy you a cup of tea.”
“And a bacon sandwich,” he grinned.
“You drive a hard bargain, but what the hell. A bacon sarnie it is.”
I reported to my new ship, which promptly got under way almost before I had even visited the boiler rooms. It didn’t matter. It was like home from home for me. I was comfortable within minutes
At Gibraltar I offended one of the Barbary Apes, and got scratched for my pains. A visit to Nantes taught me that one does not gulp down absinth but sips the stuff, and adds water to it, and that French girls think sailors get paid hundreds of pounds and want to spend it all on them.
Part of our tour around the Mediterranean included a trip around the Dardanelles. I was delighted, for it gave me a golden opportunity to spend some hours inspecting the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus.
“Anyone want to come with me?” I asked my shipmates.
The sound of silence reverberated around the messdeck, and I took that as a ‘No’
Young Archie Andrews wanted to know why the Romans built so many ruins all over the place. He claimed to be educated, and boasted that he knew all about Helen of Troy.
“She was queen of Egypt, and shacked up with Julius Caesar,” he informed me.
I decided that I would be better off on my own in my visits to historic places after all. I didn’t want to be overloaded with historical facts like that.
Without a guide, I felt free to roam through the remains of this once great city, the people of whom had received a wordy epistle from Saint Paul back in the days when people could wander the known world and make a living by telling the inhabitants how they should conduct their lives.
Judging from the ruins, it appeared to me that the Romans had settled on one definitive plan for a city, and built copies of it all over the place. Rome, Pompeii, Herculean, Ephesus, etc. The basic idea was to build a palace for the Ruling Roman, then, to entertain
the populace, an arena capable of holding almost everybody, add a forum and a market place, and let the rest of the city take form around these essential structures.
Whilst wandering around the fallen pillars and arches, I noticed an abundance of bright green creatures like giant grasshoppers, all balanced on their back legs, with their forearms clasped together in front of their triangular heads just as if they were at prayer. A passing peasant told me that they were called praying mantis. He asked for a small donation for imparting this information.
Praying Mantis, are they? Well, I was well aware that Ephesus had been a centre of religious belief, but teaching big grasshoppers to pray as well? That was carrying things too far in my opinion.
Back on board ship, I announced that I would show everyone the photographs of the city as soon as they had been developed.
I wasn’t really surprised at the lack of excitement my statement caused, so when I did get them, I placed them with other pictures of historical sites I had visited.
These were troubled times, and occasionally something would upset our life of trips to sites of historical interest, or frolicking with dusky maidens and enjoying convivial evenings with the inhabitants of exotic places of entertainment.
One such incident occurred as we anchored off the Turkish port of Izmir. All was quiet as I came off watch at midnight, and after a quick wash, prepared to snatch a couple of hours sleep before taking over the morning watch at 4 A.M.
My eyes scarcely had time to shut before the alarm and ‘Action Stations’ blasted everyone into hurried motion. A lookout had reported seeing what he thought were two men swimming just under the surface close to the ship. Two divers quickly went down to investigate, and came up a few minutes later to make their report. We remained alert for a further fifteen minutes before the pipe, ‘Stand down from action stations’ shrilled through the ship. It was not long before news filtered through to the lower decks that our ‘enemy frogmen’ had turned out to be a couple of turtles having a midnight swim.
The only person pleased about the incident was the Captain. He told us that it had been an important exercise, and that he was very impressed at the way we had closed up without any panic or mistakes being made. The lookout came in for some praise for his swift
response to what he considered to be a danger. It was a week before we could stop him giving his version of the event and the heroic part he played in it.
A few weeks later the ship docked in Chatham again, and before I could volunteer for more sea time, I was hit by a sudden realisation. Like a lightning strike from the hand of Zeus himself it struck me that my twelve years service had come to an end.
I was on the verge of signing on for another ten years, when I met an English Rose, and signed a marriage certificate instead.