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John Mills: Chapter 3

by BBC LONDON CSV ACTION DESK

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Archive List > Books > John Mills - Memoirs

Contributed by 
BBC LONDON CSV ACTION DESK
People in story: 
John Mills
Location of story: 
England — Hurst Castle
Article ID: 
A8890833
Contributed on: 
27 January 2006

After Collingwood and seven days leave, found myself under canvas at Stockheath Estate (now Leigh Park) naval camp near Havant. It was October, wet and cold, ablutions was outside. Hundreds of post trained seamen awaiting a draft to ships, landing craft requiring crews for pending D-Day landing in France (Stone frigate) shore establishments, etc.

About a week passed, Frank Baker who was in my class at Collingwood found our names posted for Hurst Castle, us thinking we were to join an A.M.C. armed merchant cruiser.

On board a lorry with kit bag, hammock, gas mask, one small attaché case as issued we arrived at Portsmouth Harbour Railway Station to board a ferry to the Isle of Wight. The rail pass was from Pier Town Station, so had to carry our kit the whole length of the pier which seemed to be longer with every step.

Boarded the train to Newport and on arriving were told the next train for Yarmouth was in four hours time. With no meal vouchers and no money between us, not even for a pint, never has four hours passed so slowly before.

Steam trains over the island were not noted for speed, we reached Yarmouth about five in the afternoon. Orders were to report to naval duty Petty Officer at Pier Hotel, another lengthy walk with kit P.O. explained that our destination was Hurst Castle over on Hurst spit, back over on the mainland.

Hurst Castle, a fortified fort built mid nineteenth century to defend the Solent. There are more forts at Yarmouth named Victoria and Albert, plus one above the needles.

In Hurst Castle is a Henry VIII round tower. The point is of all shingle and the bank of some curving round connected to the mainland, at Keyhaven.

The army had some guns on the fort there; also the navy had a signal tower manned by naval signalmen for communicating with passing ships, checking their identity and passing messages.

On landing from launch which brought us from Yarmouth, Frank and I again carrying our kit from jetty to old coast guard cottages (since pulled down), that serve as accommodation for three Officers in one end house, two Petty Officers in the other end with the two centre houses joined for eight signalmen, and now plus Frank and I.

Time now on arriving at cottage was seven in the evening; ourselves having not had a bite to eat all day asked our new shipmates “anything to eat?” Answer was “We’ve had ours!!” so we two had to wait until the next morning.

The next morning we were told in no uncertain terms that we were there to be odd bodies, house cleaners, floor scrubbers, up at the tower cleaning, scrubbing steps inside and out. Clean the fires in the two outer houses and laying and lighting them, washing up utensils etc.

Stores plus coal came by launch from Yarmouth and had to be carried to billets, struggling with heavy loads across the shingle made it hard work. Frank and I went beachcombing for plants; surprisingly we found enough over a wide area to complete a footpath.

Once a week I had to take the officers laundry to Milford-on-Sea, I had a small motorboat to proceed up river, through wild brooks, many ducks and wading birds to Keyhaven. You had to know the river, could easily if stranded on mud bank, be there until next tide.

I had to walk a mile carrying kit bag and laundry up the lane to Milford. Next door was a café, just right to slip into, being on my own with no-one in authority overseeing me. I got to know the girls in the café, who said there is no need to pay they would put it on the other customers bills. Then picking up clean laundry, and back to Keyhaven and Hurst Castle.

I was able to meet a wildfowler in his long canoe; I would see him lying on his back paddling along through the marshes, boards attached to each of his hands, with a long barrel blunderbuss of a gun. He told us it was full of tin tacks and the like. Lying down on his back in the punt he could get close to the quarry, one would hear a boom and see ducks or geese rise up, some didn’t, his dog would swim and retrieve them.

A run ashore, meant we had to catch the army ferry boat to Keyhaven, and a walk across the fields on public footpaths to Lymington. Perhaps a Saturday afternoon, have a bit to eat in a café and go to pictures and see whatever was on. Not much chance of a pint as so many Canadian soldiers about, the pubs could only get beer for two nights a week.

We felt very isolated out on Hurst Castle, at odd times ENSA gave a show in the small theatre at the castle for the army, which we were invited to. I have been back as a visitor a couple of times, the theatre is still there with murals still on the wall. The castle is owned by English Heritage now. The jetty where we landed our supplies is still there, but ten metres of shingle lay in front so that it is out of use today.

I remember we had some terrific storms that winter, there’s no stopping the South West winds out there.

Bournemouth, we also visited a couple of times. At the Boscombe Hippodrome, song writer Irving Berlin had a show “This is the army Mr Jones”, an all male cast, some dressed in female clothes. Irving Berlin came on stage himself dressed in a First World War uniform to sing the song “This is the army Mr Jones”.

Coming back late sometimes we missed the ferry back to the castle which meant we had to walk back from Keyhaven, a half mile to shingle beach and two miles to castle, a narrow path with flags and notices “Mined” — charming!

In the middle of March the seagulls started to lay eggs, Jack Tar always hungry so we collected them for breakfast, but tasted very fishy. One warm sunny day in late March, being a Sunday, four of us decided to lie on the shingle beach in front of the cottages.

RAF planes, Beau forts, were practising dropping torpedoes in the Solent (with dummy war heads). Hearing a noise we looked up to see a torpedo coming straight at us, a terrific whirling noise from the propeller. Two of us jumped one way and two jumped the other way, with the torpedo sliding up between us. First time I had nearly been torpedoed.

In mid April a draft chit came for me to go back to Pompey, which meant I had to reverse the journey I had coming to Hurst Castle. At last I could join a ship and be in the real Royal Navy.

Lofty John Mills
For the next chapter go to: A8890725

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