- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Thomas Arthur Russell
- Location of story:
- Devonport, Southampton, Gibraltar
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 25 November 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Thomas Arthur Russell, and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Approach of the storm Chapter 5
Thomas Arthur Russell
From then on, we fell into the barrack routine of duties and working parties either down in Devonport Dockyard, or in the barracks themselves. It looked a bit ludicrous for the dockyard parties to be marching at the back of a blue jacket band with all the regalia of leopard skins and drum batons being trailed around, and thrown in the air to the strains of "A Life on the ocean wave" or "Hearts of Oak", and then step all over the place.
One of the worst jobs I ever had was cleaning the bilges of a submarine. Her crew were on leave except for a few men left to keep an eye on proceedings. We had donned clean overalls and in minutes they were utterly filthy and stank of diesel oil. In the cramped spaces it was no good trying to avoid it.
We used loads of cotton waste in the dim light of the single electric bulbs on the end of long leads. When I think of that, I also remember how difficult it was to get a lather on overalls impregnated with oil, it took lots of hot water and if was hard work with the bar of purses issue soap, to even start a lather on those overalls. But eventually I managed it and got help to turn the handles of the large spinner, which was provided in the barracks command washroom block. This was organised with its own boiler house to provide the hot water and one large drying room.
Before you pushed your numbered clothing back into the interior of the heated box, the details of the washed items were entered into a book by a vigilant sentry and signed by you. On collecting your dried washing you were checked again and then crossed off, and so the routine of washing was organised to avoid theft or pilfering, and of course, your name was stamped on everything. It was cold dark and wet and although it wasn't yet time to shut up, I couldn’t get my stuff, for the sentry who controlled the book was missing and I daren't take my gear without authority.
One rating winked and said, "Try the boiler room." This aroused my curiosity, and taking him at his word, I banged on the door. I could hear grumbling and the door opened. I got a quick glimpse into the gloomy interior, for it looked as if some of the lights were off and I saw a female figure in NAAFI uniform. "Oh, oh," I said. "Don't say anything," said the sentry as he ticked the book. "I won't, you jammy bastard," for I knew now what was going on in the boiler room and envied them there bit of home comfort.
Every dinnertime, we would eagerly dash into the mess, hoping to find on the large circular table, a draft chit to a ship. These used to come in daily, sometimes one or two, sometimes three or four, just a small piece of paper with a report to D.F.D Officer on it for draft to HMS so and so, and whoever got one immediately went off to the detailed draft office for further information, to a chorus of, "Lucky b*******",” but we were not waiting long. After about two weeks, the inevitable happened. The mess was agog with a hum of conservation. As we came in, round the table we gathered a large group of men, nearly all my class. They were collecting chits, some were a draft to the carrier Glorious, some marked MED DISPOSAL, and I was in the latter category. We queued outside the DFDO and after confirmation of our draft, we were told to listen to the loud hailer and have kit bag and hammock ready for departure.
No working parties down to the dockyard now. We were kept on work near at hand, ready to go at anytime. My classmates for HMS Glorious got their call, and among excited handshakes, we said, "So Long and good Luck." We didn't know it then, but it was goodbye forever for they were to die not long after when HMS Glorious was surprised by Scharnhoust and Gniesnsnau(?) off Norway, and sunk with most of her crew, along with her escort HMS Acasta.
So we parted and now I remember why on Remembrance Day they say, "From the rising to the going down of the sun, we will remember them. They will not grow old as we who are left grow old." It must be true for I remember them as young lads, their faces come up before me often as I doze and close my eyes when tiredness overtakes me, and I don't see old faces, but young as they were when we said goodbye, and they never appear sad, but cheerful, just as they were when we used to indulge in banter or frivolity. I remember most of their names too.
Then one grey morning after breakfast, came the call we had been impatient to hear: "Will ratings on draft for Med disposal muster with kit bag and hammocks at 9.30 outside the DFDO." So in a fever of excitement and handshakes from those friends we were leaving, we quickly got our gear together and clomped off across the asphalted square to the DFDO office. We lined up and our voices were soon stilled as the regulatory CPO shouted, "QUIET." Now answer your names. When the roll call was completed, he told us to board the two khaki coloured lorries with RN in white on their sides.
We hadn't long to wait before we arrived at the railway station and were given a general railway warrant to Southampton. This in itself mystified us. It seemed a bloody funny way to get to the Med and the buzz got around we were going to join the BEF as part of a naval brigade.
On arrival at Southampton we were reloaded on to lorries and by now, it was dark and we didn't know where the hell we were as they took us through the darkened streets. Eventually we arrived at a place which we were told was an internment camp for aliens and my recollections of the place were vague, but I know I and a mate managed to climb out over a wall, poorly protected by barbed wire or glass, and into town to size up the local girls and sample its beer. We tried several pubs and ended up half drunk and in the company of two of the local girls. We walked around a while and chatted and tried to take matters a little further.
I fell behind with my "party" but it was not good. The soft curvy form my arm was around and the scent of her hair was doing my sexual inclinations no good at all, as she repeatedly said, "No, you can't," and finally I gave up and we hurried on to catch the other two up.
We left them and made our way back, feeling a trifle unsteady after the beer and now tiredness was catching up on us. "Did you get anything Yorky?" "Did I f***? Why, did you?" "No, they were a pair of mangy b*******, Never mind better luck next time, besides they might have poxed us, you never know.” On arrival back, we got in the same way as we got out; the rest of the boys were fast asleep so we never knew if anyone else had been into town and we never asked.
Next day, we were roused about 6 am. My head felt full of cotton wool after the previous evening’s escapade, my mouth tasting like a fouled-up dustbin. A good wash in cold water and a brisk use of toothbrush and toothpaste made me feel a bit better.
Breakfast didn’t appeal but I managed a few mouthfuls. My mate Eric of the night before, turned out and was promptly sick. He naturally had a pale complexion and it was like chalk now. As I tell my experiences at sea, Eric and all the others I knew, where are they now, how many still survive.
Breakfast over, we were now mustered and loaded aboard RN lorries. Our destination was the railway station. After a cup of tea, we hung about waiting for a train that never seemed to be coming. It was a grey, day but cool morning, and eventually we managed a crafty pint or two at the refreshment room and felt quite merry once again. Eventually the train appeared and amid a bit of joking and laughter we lowered our gear in the luggage van and sorted ourselves out into some semblance of order and got aboard.
The next thing we knew was we were going back to Devonport. "The bloody war must be over, they don't need us," was one response to this news. But this conception proved too good to be true. After a quick seemingly short journey, we arrived in Devonport dockyard. By now, it was evening and moving towards dusk. We saw we had pulled up opposite a low grey profile moored alongside and even as we were unloading our kit, there was a bustle of activity. Voices and orders rose above the hum of machinery, and we realised that the ship was preparing for sea.
We were met by a CPO, led up a gangway and taken below to 'stow our gear. Warm air mingled with the smell of paint, oil and humanity, peculiar to a warship.
The steady hum of ventilators and electric motors gave a feeling of vibrant life and power, We felt excited and wondered what lay ahead. All our weeks of training were coming to fruition.
We thought we were to become part of the crew of the ship, the light cruiser HMS Carlisle, not much bigger than some fleet destroyers but to us, just then she seemed very large. I managed a quick view of her from the upper deck and saw a quick puff of black smoke from her forward funnel before I was ordered below.
"Special sea duty men to your stations prepare to leave harbour." Well, that was it; we were finally on our way, but where? No one seemed to know. The next thing was the pulsing vibrations through the ship as her engines turned and manoeuvred her clear of the jetty, then you could feel her settle down more smoothly as she made her way through Plymouth Sound.
After a while, you could sense the next turn of speed as a steady smooth vibration took over, we were now out at sea and were allowed on deck for a while. Dusk was turning to darkness and the land laid a dark mass astern. The wake gleamed white in the dark and the deck heaved gently beneath my feet. Only the beam of a distant lighthouse far away to the west, illuminated the ship in flashes, darkened as she was for war. Her upper works were stark and black against the night sky and as I went down below to sling my hammock, I wondered what tomorrow would bring.
I'd to find a place to sling my hammock and my mates had managed to find places leaving me with a place under a pipe, which ran along a narrow passageway and not far from the washroom. Really it was the worst place I could have slung, for the beer was still affecting me and the pipe was warm, probably a steam pipe, for it was well lagged. I didn't sleep very well that first night on the Carlisle, I was far too warm and I hadn't yet grown accustomed to the swaying motion of the hammock, which increased hourly as we entered the area of Biscay, the ship vas rolling violently and as we turned out of our hammocks, I found it a terrific effort just to lash up my hammock. My legs felt like rubber, my mouth tasted foul and I felt really miserable as seasickness took over.
Staggering with each lurch of the ship, I managed to find the washroom and an unoccupied basin and filled it with cold water hoping to cool my fevered brow. Everything seemed to be creaking and moving and the water level in the bowl before me was constantly changing. Some slopped over, my legs ached as I braced them to counteract the motion of the ship. At times I'd to make a wild snatch at the basins or I'd have gone flying. The regular crew didn't seem a bit put out. One said the first two years are the worst. "Bloody hell I hope I get used to it, before that." Another voice said, "Dear mother, it's a b******...Dear son, so are you."
Humour of a rough kind flowed back and forth as we were shown to a mess table. "If you can't eat it you’ll save our bloody lives," one crewman said as with twinkly eyes. They took note of any spare bacon and the tiny yellow and white singed orb that passed for an egg. One kindly voice said, "Try to get a bit down, it will help you and you’ll get used to it. We’ve all been through it and you're in the roughest place on earth, the Bay of Biscay."
I tried but I'm afraid I wasn't very successful. I pushed the plate away and dashed for the upper deck where I thought I was parting with my very guts as I vomited over the side. I felt as if I had flu. My legs were like rubber; I did what many seasick men have done before. I hid myself away and kept out of the way. We were lucky for we had not been allotted any duty up to then.
A kindly leading hand brought me a bite of dinner and this I managed to get down. It's wonderful how these men seemed to be there when you needed them. Complete strangers, they'd make a joke of your seasickness, but they knew the correct psychological approach. They helped you overcome it by being tough but kind. I did overcome it and I felt more of a sailor then, but I always felt grateful to the men of the Carlisle, especially one who I can only call old Stripey, because he was a three badges stoker and was mess man for the Chief and E.R.A.S. mess, the engineers of the ship. He saw to their meals, collected and served from the galley, he cleaned and tidied up after them and drew the rum when up spirits was piped about 1130 hours.
I was appointed his helper and I enjoyed every minute of it, though I didn't draw my tot at first on the ship. He used to say, "Here Yorkie, have a sip of this, it will do you good, but don't drink the bloody lot." We refuelled at Gibraltar and left again in brilliant sunshine. Once clear of the Rock, I went on deck with an old hammock cover and lay it on the fo'castle. The wooden deck planking was warm and the radio was playing somewhere, music from Madame Butterfly. As I lay there sunbathin, I wondered what the family was doing at home right then and how soon I'd get any mail.
Soon I fell asleep and I must have been asleep about an hour, lulled by the gentle swaying of the ship. I awoke and felt sunburnt, I hoped it wouldn’t blister, I looked over the side and saw the sea, looking like blue pop. As it hissed from our passing, the sun’s rays probed right down into the clear depths. Astern lay the towering outline of the Rock, rising sharply, white out of the haze and falling steadily behind as we increased speed.
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