- Contributed by
- HMS FIREDRAKE EYEWITNESS
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 May 2004
The next period of activity consisted of a very varied pattern of patrols, escort duties, and a Fleet escort with the main Battle Squadron. This latter entailed a sortie out in the North Sea close to the area of Norway, which had recently been occupied by Germany.
The Firedrake left Glasgow for the last time to go to Scapa Flow, which was the main Fleet anchorage. The general facilities were very basic but I do remember going ashore to a N.A.F.F.I. Canteen where a supply of beer was very welcome. I did not have much of a taste for alcohol before I was called up to the Navy, but I got to like a drink with my shipmates .The big attraction however was the Canteen where I ate generously of bacon, eggs and chips. At that stage of my service at sea it was the only meal I then enjoyed since as soon as we went to sea I was very seasick. Scapa was also memorable for a Forces concert troupe, which came up to entertain the Fleet and included the famous singer Evelyn Laye who was cheered to the echo by a very appreciative audience.
Whilst on escort duty protecting operations of mine laying (a coincidence since my Princess Victoria service) we eventually put into the Kyle of Lochalsh overnight. The contrast with all the warlike activities I had encountered was magic. I tried my hand at fishing over the side and in the evening light of a Scottish summer I gazed out towards the hills of the Seven Sisters of Kintail at the head of the Loch and made a promise to myself to return after the war if I was spared. (Thankfully I was able to make that return and the magic was still there.)
We resumed our duties, sailing up the Inner Hebrides, which was again an unforgettable sight. The next vivid memory in that period concerns a church service on board the Firedrake taken by the captain. A service at sea on active service was unusual. There was a special reason indeed. We were assembled below decks in the forecastle, awash with seawater during a storm, to hear the marriage Banns called for one of our shipmates. Every one was aware of the critical state of the war and the ship was still alive with rumours that we were to leave Scapa soon for the Mediterranean or even to Canada if England were invaded. I felt sad for the couple and it was not misplaced for we did sail for Gibraltar and the sailor involved may not have concluded his marriage.
As I record later in this account the Firedrake only once returned to England from Gibraltar for repair, it then went to Boston Massachusetts USA in 1941 for major repairs and then was subsequently sunk by a U-boat in 1942.
To continue we arrived back in Scapa and I had my special meals again, of all the things I could not face at sea; bacon, eggs, beef, stews etc. At some meals at sea the regular sailors in my mess did their best at putting me off the food. In one case I remember they suspended a piece of very fatty meat, which, with the motion of the ship in the usual choppy sea, swayed backwards and forwards over the mess-table. The sooner I got my sea legs the better I used to think.
A feature on small ships for feeding was quite special. Each mess appointed a mess caterer who organised the menu. The main items such as bread, butter, tea, sugar, meat, and vegetables were indented from the Pursers store with chits signed by the mess caterer. Access to the small N.A F.F.I. shop on board gave a choice of food such as tinned fruit, tinned ham and corned-beef, as well as washing powder, soap etc. The combined costs were calculated monthly and met from the total mess cash allowances fixed by the Navy. In this way the individuals in the mess could choose the standard of living and as a by-product, any savings could be paid out in cash.
For instance, some savings could accrue on occasions when we were in harbour and shore leave granted. The role of mess caterer was one I carried out many times and enjoyed the experience. It got me out of duty for a couple of hours each normal day as it was necessary to prepare all ingredients ready for taking to the galley. This was the domain of the trained Cooks who were responsible for the cooking process before the dishes were returned to the messes for serving to each mess table. The life in wartime particularly meant that this orderly routine could come unstuck by all manner of situations. Examples included, enemy action, extreme weather conditions such as gales and hurricanes, and running out of fresh supplies on long trips.
The reason I have given such detail, apart from my hope that it would be of general interest, is because for the rest of my life I have always enjoyed cooking and it is a blessing now that I fend for myself.
As mentioned previously a most impressive event for me at this period was the sweep carried out by the whole Fleet into the North Sea area towards Norway. I suppose this was a demonstration of the power and aggression of the British Navy and a challenge to the German Navy. This was my first experience of the prime role of a Fleet Destroyer, which included taking up the forward anti-submarine screen. The weather was very bad with high winds and mists and fog. My duties at action stations (for exercise only on this occasion) were as guns crew or more usually in the magazine preparing ammunition to the gun turrets. This was an occasion when being part of a major naval action even without actual combat gave an impressive sense of history. Reading books about the Navy as a boy was as nothing to the real thing.
There were two more events that demonstrated the art of a seaman’s life, which I still had to learn. When we berthed at Scapa we had to secure to a buoy in a designated position. This entailed one of the sailors boarding one of our motorboats, a small “Skimmer” it was called I believe. Another sailor was the pilot and the first step was to take a position near the buoy. The ship then made a careful approach towards the buoy and pass down to the seaman a securing wire with a shackle on the end. The seaman was by this time clinging precariously to the buoy and had to attach the wire to the buoy. A simple matter as described, but in a rough sea and rain driving down, the heavy gear was hard to control and quite hazardous.
The other event was an occasion when a wire attached to a mine sweeping Paravane (a device shaped like a small submarine which trailed out from the bows at a controlled depth) became fouled with our propeller shaft. The ship had to stop and obviously was in danger. A most senior non-commissioned sailor in the ship was our coxswain a regular of some years standing. He it was who volunteered to dive over the side and attempt to free the wire. After some hesitation the Captain agreed to the idea and the coxswain after a substantial tot of rum went over the stern into the very cold sea. Fortunately the sea was relatively calm and after a few attempts success was achieved. A great cheer rewarded the effort from all who watched and we escaped from a dangerous position with relief. I knew later that in fact these operations call for “special sea duty men” with special training. (I have accessed the web site of the Firedrake, and know now that the coxswain was Chief Petty Officer Peter George Armstrong BEM. He was killed 14 Dec 1942 when the Firedrake was torpedoed)
I mention these events because I knew at that time that no way could I have done either job effectively.
The routine on board ship entailed many mundane tasks. Apart from the food preparation, cleaning the messes was a regular daily chore. One of the most sought after jobs I had was that of cleaning the toilets or Heads, as they are known as in the Navy. The seamen’s Heads were situated on the side of the ship at the after part of the forecastle. The discharge of the toilets went directly to sea level. It was a job at which no one bothered you and with a generous use of the hosepipe and wearing sea boots was great. Another chore was washing clothes. Everyone did their own in a bucket with soap in the washroom and took the wet clothes down in the boiler room where clotheslines were rigged. Ironing was another skill soon mastered.
One of the traditional piped orders used in the Navy was the pipe-“ Hands to Make and Mend Clothes”. This was an official rest period, which gave the sailors a chance to get their kit in good order. Tradition played an important part in ship life and it had its own fascination for me. I still use these housekeeping skills, being able to sew buttons and press clothes etc.
The Firedrake finally left Scapa on the 22nd of August in the company of the Illustrious, an aircraft carrier, the Valiant, a battleship, and two cruisers, the Sheffield and the Coventry. I remember how impressive our departure was and at the same time feeling somewhat apprehensive. The news generally of the events in Britain was grim. The Battle of Britain had commenced in earnest on August 13th. The German order gave the name of Aldlertag (Eagle Day), and on the day after we left Scapa the air fields in the south of England became the major targets. The Mediterranean was in a similar grim state. Italy had entered the war on the 15th June and France had surrendered. There was still the rumour among the ship’s company that the Navy may have to operate from Canada or America if Britain became the next casualty.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.