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15 October 2014
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His Majesties Motor Gun Boat No. 21 part 1

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
J E Quinlan
Location of story: 
English Channel
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
02 July 2005

This story was submitted to the Peoples War site by Jas from Global Information Centre Eastbourne and has been added to the website on behalf of J E Quinlan with
his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions

His Majesties Motor Gun Boat No. 21

It was early evening now and having located the gunboat jetty, had to find the boat, not easy, the tide was out so all the craft were about twelve feet below the level of the jetty and some of the boats, all of the same type on one side of the jetty, were moored three abreast, the identity number on the individual vessels was painted on the bows of the boats each side, all of which faced out to sea ready for scrambling in case of air attack..

Having found my quarry, which luckily was tied up directly alongside the jetty, saving me from hopping from one boat to another, I without giving it any thought, and being exhausted anyway, dropped the hammock and kitbag onto the deck of the boat, and this brought immediate response as it must have sounded like a bomb going off below decks, but I was now really past caring.

It brought immediate action, as once down the steel ladder and on the deck, a head appeared at the tiny bridge and a man (probably in his fifties) introduced himself as the coxswain and welcomed me onto the boat, he then showed me where the radio quarters were and suggested that I got all my baggage stowed away and get settled in, and then he disappeared again. His attitude seemed friendly enough, I thought that he could not have known that I had been travelling since eight in the morning and I never said anything about it, (My kit incidentally, had actually landed on deck above the captain’s cabin and sleeping quarters but luckily for me he was not on board at the time).

I had great difficulty getting my bulky kit bag and six foot hammock through the narrow hatchway then down to the minute radio cabin and then into the operators “sleeping” quarters, the available width of everything being less than three feet, but having managed to get my stuff pushed into the “cabin”, I ventured back to the wheelhouse and found the mini “mess deck” such as it was. I looked around in an effort to get something to eat but there was no food and no one around, the rest of the crew were apparently ashore and there was nothing, but then a smiling Scot appeared from a hatchway and made me a mug of tea from boiled used tea leaves, Carnation pasteurised tinned milk and brown sugar, it was very sweet but hot, and there was a chunk of that plain slab cake which left me wondering if there was a massive cement factory taken over by the government churning the stuff out, (local Portland cement was well known), but the state that I was in made even this a welcome meal, and the tea must have been genuine, as the coxswain was given a mug as well.

The Scot, introduced himself as Jock, and on the spot nicknamed me “Sparks” which remained with me, (I was unaware at the time that every telegraphist was called ”sparks”) and said that he had taken it upon himself as an able seaman to do all the cooking for the crew, there being a very small gas ring in the galley the size of which measured three feet by two, this cook house being screened off the mess deck was just big enough to stand in sideways.

He gave me some good information and advice during this initial “welcome on board” conversation, such as, the normal dress of the day, unless told otherwise was plimsolls, navy slacks, white woollen polar necked jersey and cap, (that’s more like it) the plimsolls and jersey I could obtain from the H.M.S. Attack naval base main clothing stores the next day on the “temporary loan clothing” system to be entered in my pay book and I could also obtain an H.M. M.G.B. hat band which however had to be paid cash for.

It was not the “done thing” to enquire about the last telegraphist on board, if there was one, but there was no sign of anyone having been in the radio cabin section before me and there was no ships radio log book which would have provided me with a vital clue, although it made me wonder, but I never asked.

My radio cabin was on the starboard side, and the total deck space area was half the size of a single bed, so from the wheelhouse you went down the aluminium ladder five feet or so and you were in it.

The operators table was about two feet nine inches square with the right hand side and back fixed to the bulkhead, the Marconi radio communications receiver (B28) was on the table with the transmitter on top, (as it was fixed on one frequency it really did not matter as no adjustments had to be made at sea) this left a six inch deep section of the table in front of me to write down the messages, on an eight by seven inch message pad, which had to be turned ninety degrees and written on sideways to get it in, (and I can still write that way) and on the right a standard British Morse key was fitted, a revolver should have been in a holster on the bulkhead to hand but I think that the second in command, the midshipman, purloined it, perhaps it made him feel safer.

When you sat in front of the radio equipment, even with a flat stomach, (then) you touched the table edge and your right hand side was in contact with the bulkhead, both seat, side and back were covered in black leather and padded, with a belt to hold you in. To the left of the transmitter, just within reach, was a voice tube and when you blew into it, which took much puff, there was a whistle sound at the other end and the coxswain in the wheelhouse would take the verbal message and pass it to the captain using a similar method.

In the radio room to the left (running amidships) was the long narrow sleeping cabin under the wheelhouse, and inside this area on the left was a six foot long padded hinged seat under which was a kit storage locker, this complete fitted unit, like a lidded coffin, formed the telegraphists sleeping bunk. A shelf had been newly erected on the right of the cabin making it difficult to move in the place as it was shoulder high and jutted out ten inches, on it was fixed another piece of brand new electrical equipment like a small steel cased radio, with which I was unfamiliar, it had various buttons which I decided not to touch (it all looked as if it had been fitted recently).

Late that night I put my excess kit and kitbag into the storage space beneath the bunk after sorting my clothing etc out, (we had to go ashore for washing and the toilets). On folding back the bunk lid, the seawater could be heard splashing about in the bilges below so I changed my mind and put all my gear back into the kitbag in case the bilge pumps packed up sometime in the future, in which case the whole lot would have become saturated.

As there was no one on board except the Scot and the coxswain, I had a mini wash in the mini toilet room and prepared myself for the morning, and it was lucky that I did. Right, so the general situation so far was this, there was hardly any room to move as the size of all the accommodation was very small, but this radio section pleased me as I had my own cabin, such as it was, and for the moment at any rate, I appeared to be my own boss, and treated as a person, this seemed to indicate that the radio operators were, in this respect, slightly better off than the seamen. (This, by the way, was the first time in my life that I had a room to myself).

The current war situation in the English Channel was that now, our forces were gradually gaining control and the threatened invasion of Britain by the Germans, (named by them as Operation Sealion) was receding, delayed by the bombing of their coastal installations and invasion barges. They appeared to have spread their war activities over too many areas losing vast amounts of troops and equipment, in an effort to defeat the Russian army and reach Moscow.

Back to the English Channel, and early the following morning the sound of shouting and the sudden roar of the main engines bursting into life woke me up with a start, already half dressed I glanced up into the wheelhouse to see the coxswain standing at the helm, and the boat was moving. I was so tired that the whole night had passed in a flash and the sound of the crew returning in the morning had been unheard, unless they had slept ashore, even the two craft tied up alongside us had gone out on patrol sometime earlier, so our boat was on “standby”

I switched on the radio receiver and came to the conclusion almost immediately that it was a useless gesture as there were no instructions as to how to operate it, and more importantly neither was there any indication as to which naval H.Q. Morse station I should listen to or the radio frequency, also the code letters both of the shore radio station and the boat were unknown to me, so the best thing to do, I thought, was to report to the bridge. On arrival there, I could have been a door to door salesman, it was obvious that they never even knew of my existence on board.

The captain told me to take up visual signalling with the Aldis lamp as we had now left the tranquillity of the harbour and were now cruising in very rough seas off Portland Bill with the main signalling tower of HMS Attack just in sight.

What had never been told me during training was that when you have received and understood a complete word by flashing light, you sent a dash back on the lamp in acknowledgement and they would then send you the next word and I kept wondering why the ”blithering idiot” kept repeating the same word over and over again, but the captain put me right, but in a nice way, my former theory that we had not been trained properly on the Coastal Forces course seemed to be justified, it was much time wasted.

According to the captain a ships lookout had reported something floating on the surface outside the harbour entrance, possibly a German floating mine, or a one-man submarine, but after a couple of hours we found nothing and returned back inside the harbour out of the really rough sea, these “sightings” were apparently made frequently in this area, by various captains of vessels using Portland or Weymouth harbours.

At this particular time the roles with the enemy were reversed, our forces were preparing for the invasion of France, and the Germans were keeping a close watch on our coasts and ports, looking for unusual activity, the massing of invasion craft, equipment, etc. Our local naval authorities were probably on edge as just one mine in the harbour entrance could cause mayhem, as you can imagine, a sunken ship there could really cause it to be closed for months, this is probably why British landing craft were dispersed all along Chesil beach outside of the actual harbour..

As mentioned before, the sea beyond the harbour wall was vastly different from inside, and while we were searching for the unidentified object, Jock brought round a mug of tea and a slice of thick beef dripping toast and I was lucky enough to get a double portion as most of the crew were feeling a trifle squeamish, and I thought at the time that Jock must have had very good sea legs with matching stomach to prepare this “meal” in the horrendous rough seas.

Our bows were cutting under the waves and briefly disappearing beneath the surface and the speed of the boat had to be kept down to prevent the three propellers rising above the surface of the sea, which could cause severe engine “racing” and strain, all really exciting stuff.

When we reached our moorings again and had tied up alongside the jetty, I found that there was a feeling of dis-orientation in my balance when I walked, this lasted about twenty minutes after which it wore off, this sensation only happened the first time at sea.

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