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All At Sea

by M_F_Burton

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Morley Burton
Location of story: 
The Middle East/Pacific Rim
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
03 September 2004

Royal Navy (Hostilities Only) 1943-1946.

Served on two Aircraft Carriers. The first in home waters (H.M.S. Furious) and the second (H.M.S. Venerable) abroad.

Joined the Furious in late December 1943 after completing training at Lowton St. Mary's, near Warrington, as a “Coder” (communications). She was at that time stationed in Scapa Flow which meant a train journey from Plymouth North Road to Thurso in Caithness, via London as I was a Devonport rating.

Arriving at Thurso Station (it was very mild for December) we travelled on a naval lorry the short journey to Scrabster where we boarded the St. Ninian, a small packet, to Lyness-on-Hoy crossing the Pantland Firth. Arriving at Lyness - the crossing wasn’t all that rough - we were consigned to the Dunluce Castle which we were told was cemented to the bottom to await the tender to take us to our ships in the “Flow”. I arrived on the Furious just after Christmas 1943, not that I would have noticed any difference!

She was an old first World War cruiser converted to a carrier by the addition of a flat top! She had had considerable service in the Med before I joined her. During my time at Scapa we made several sorties into the north Atlantic. As a coder I had to request in code for the boom defence vessel to open the Hoxa Gate so we could proceed to sea accompanied of course by our escorts. The most memorable of these excursions was in April 1944 when we proceeded north to about latitude 72 degrees to attack the Tirpitz which was sheltering in Alten Fjord off the coast of Norway. We had a massive task force, or cruising disposition, or screening diagram, or whatever it was called. When we arrived off the said fjord (about 50 miles off the coast) our aircraft with those of the Victorious flew off to attack the Tirpitz. When the aircraft returned there were lurid tales about what they had done, like dropping bombs down the funnel etc; however the R.A.F. finished her off much later further down the coast. During my stay on the Furious we went down to Rosyth into a dry dock to have the bottom scraped - the ship's not mine! Whilst we were at Rosyth the king came aboard. We were all lined up in the aircraft hangar below deck for inspection. He never got round to us although I did see him in the distance. George VI that is.

I was at Scapa when "D" Day took place. I remember a quiet afternoon in the wireless office listening to various goings on over the radio.

It was sometime in the October or maybe November when the Furious was decommissioned she was stripped of all her bits and pieces and went into Gare Loch off the Clyde for this. She had a very lengthy paying off pennant for all the years she had served. Towards the end of 1944 I joined the Venerable after a short stay at barracks. In the case of communications ratings "barracks" meant Glen Holt down by the River Plym off the Tavistock Road in Nissen Huts.

H.M.S. Venerable was just being completed when I joined her in Cammell Lairds dockyard, Birkenhead. Cockroaches had not yet had time to infest the galley and messdecks etc., but that was to come. The ship left the dockyard for sea trials around the Clyde estuary, The Minches, and even went into Belfast Loch. She was a light fleet carrier welded above the water line (not riveted) of which there were more than one built at that time. Sometime after the war I presumed that she had been acquired by the Dutch, judging by the change of name which I took to be hers. That of course is another story! After sea trials we set off right into the Atlantic to avoid U-boats nearer the coast. This was February/March 1945 time and the weather was poor and overcast. After what seemed like several days I awoke one morning and looked out of the messdeck porthole into bright sunshine and I could see a big rock - we were in Gibraltar!
We left Gib after a day or two’s stay and headed down the Med towards Malta, with our escorts of course.

Whenever we left harbour there was a pipe over the Tannoy followed by an instruction "Close all X and Y doors, escape hatches and scuttles, special sea duty men to your stations". This was followed when we were under way by "Special sea duty men fall out, sea duty men to your stations" I presume that Z doors were kept permanently closed! On carriers at that time there were two lots of men, ‘ship's company’ and ‘fleet airarm personnel’. I do not know what obtains nowadays. The routine was like this: when we left harbour we would take on board the latter who had their own messdecks and then we would head out to sea. The aircraft would be flown on, and off we would go. Conversely the aircraft would be flown off and the fleet airarm people would go ashore on entering harbour.

The trip to Malta was uneventful and we anchored in Grand Harbour, Valletta. One could see that the harbour had been extensively bombed by the Axis powers in the past. We were at Malta for some considerable time engaging in flying exercises. It was during this time in April 1945 I think that "VE" day was declared. I remember locals lighting small bonfires on the harbour on that day.

Eventually we moved further into the eastern Med and anchored alongside in Alexandria. The ship only stayed there a day or two and I remember going ashore. This was the first time I heard the distinctive Arab cry in the East, it must have come from a Muezzin summoning the faithful to prayer from a minaret. I also saw Hookahs being smoked. We left Alexandria, at night I think, because when I awoke the following morning I could see we were in the Canal and moving. As a carrier we were steered by instructions from a pilot who sat on the top of a large stepladder arrangement in the middle of the flight deck holding a microphone. At the southern end of the Canal I remember seeing on the ' port side the statue of LeSeps who engineered the canal. We anchored for a brief while in the Gulf of Suez before proceeding through the Red Sea to Aden. It was about this time that I acquired boils on my lower leg as well as sweat rash and prickly heat!

It was very hot in the Red Sea particularly as ratings we were waiting in the corridor below the flight deck waiting to go ashore at Aden. All I saw of Aden in the brief time we were there was a small half moon shaped coastal strip with some little shops. In places the Red Sea appeared to have streaks of yellow paint on it. I was told that this phenomenon was very fine sand which had come off the desert and blown onto the surface. It looked like yellow paint to me!

From Aden we sailed to Bombay; we were there a week or so. I can't remember a lot about the place, though I have some photos of it taken by the ship's photographic branch somewhere.

From Bombay on to Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where we were based for some considerable time. We had now become SEAC (not steak, eggs and chips) but South East Asia Command. The ship oscillated (if that is the right word) between Colombo and Trinco (Trincomalee). It made me dizzy, we must have made that journey around seven times. Flying on exercises. It was at Trinco that I sunbathed for about half an hour and the next day my feet were so swollen I couldn’t get my shoes on and it was Sunday Divisions. To the uninitiated that means lining up on the flight deck in branch order for prayers, hymns etc. Anyway I got Commander's Report for not attending and that meant appearing on the Quarter Deck. Anyhow I managed to get away with it without any penalties!

In the fullness of time we left Colombo and headed for Australia, crossing the equator. They tried to sell us (jack) crossing scrolls and they had a ducking ceremony. The scrolls were too expensive, I didn't see anybody with one. On to Fremantle and through the Australian Bight to Sydney NSW. We were based on Sydney and had now become British Pacific Fleet. The exact sequence of events and dates I am not too sure of, so you will have to bear with me from now on. Suffice to say the ship was moored alongside at Wollomoloo dockyard not far from the harbour bridge. It was from there after the bombs had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima that we were ordered out to sea. This was the 15th August 1945 and four days later we dropped anchor in Manus, Admiralty Islands. It was the 19th August 1945 and it was my birthday - I was 20years old.

Being 20 years old I was entitled to "grog" (rum to you) and took up my tot. I didn't let on it was my birthday as I would have been given "sippers" and finished up under the table. I wasn't a boozer anyway. The pipe each day around lunch time was "one hand from each mess muster for rum". If you were "cook of the day" on the mess you would report to the galley, giving the number of ratings on your table, and you would be given the relevant amount of rum in a mess fanny.

Leaving Manus we were supposed to be heading for Hong Kong, but the harbour was supposed to be mined so we were diverted to Subic Bay on Luzon in the Philippines. Subic Bay was an American naval base and when we arrived we could see several old fashioned American destroyers with four funnels at anchor. At night judging by the flickering lights on their decks their men were enjoying a little cinema - more than we ever got.

We remained at Subic Bay for about a fortnight and then were ordered to proceed to Hong Kong and berthed alongside the Peninsular Hotel at Kowloon on the mainland. That building is no longer there but I believe there is a new hotel there. We looked across the harbour to the island (Victoria) but there was no activity apart from tiny flashes of light over on the island which may have been sporadic small arms fire. Remember that the Japanese had only recently surrendered: this was September 1945 time. We were the second carrier into the harbour and I believe the other ship was the Illustrious but I am not quite sure. Whilst we were there we saw a contingent of Japanese troops being marched down Nathan Street near us. A large amount of Japanese officers swords were brought aboard and we had to draw lots for them. I got one and it remains under our bed to this day. Typhoon warnings were common at Hong Kong and consequently we were ordered out to sea more that once whilst in Hong Kong. I must say that I never saw any signs of rough weather. It seemed like we stayed there for a month or two before heading south. There was a quick stop at Hai Phong in French Indochina (Vietnam) but I didn't go ashore. Back to base then in Sydney. From there we made trips to two bays on the NSW coast viz. Jarvis Bay and Two Fold Bay. One of them had such a big swell in it that one could not stand upright properly on the flight deck for Sunday divisions. Melbourne saw us for about five days. I thought it looked more anglicised than Sydney. We also showed the flag at the Fiji Islands for about five days, going through a gap in the reef at Suva on Viti Levu. I remember very clear water in the harbour with small sharks hanging round the side of the ship whilst Jack threw bread to them. On the waterfront one of the shops was double fronted - it turned out to be Boots The Chemist! The natives were big fellows with a lot of bushy hair whereas the people who ran the business were Indians. We thought at one time that we would see New Zealand but we only got as far as Norfolk Island. I didn't get ashore, there were supposed to be descendants of Fletcher Christian on the island. At one time we visited Singapore, going round the back through the tall reeds. The ship had orders to proceed to Batavia, Java to pick up 600 Dutch women and children and take them to Colombo, Ceylon. This operation was under the auspices of R.A.P.W.I. (Reparation Aid To Prisoners of War and Internees). You must remember that this is or was the Dutch East Indies and there was trouble even then with the people we now know as Indonesians. These women and children were from Semerang and Surabaya further down the coast. We awaited there arrival tentatively as I remember - it was all hush-hush. Jack prepared the hangars as messdecks and obtained balloons and other fripperies for the children. As it happened they didn't invade our messdeck! We sailed with them to Colombo, Ceylon and they disembarked, presumably returning to their mother country, Holland. We returned to Australia for the second time from Ceylon, calling in at Fremantle and the short train journey to Perth. The ship's company were given their Christmas Dinner at the YMCA at Perth. I remember going down into a basement and having a cold meal - it was warm outside.

After Fremantle/Perth we returned once more to Sydney. So we had crossed the line twice in getting back to base. During our stay in Sydney we (a friend on the messdeck had an aunt in a suburb of Sydney known as Sans Souci whom we visited by underground train or rather over ground). She plied us with ice-cream (home made) in a gas fridge, the mixture had to be taken out frequently and beaten up! It was gorgeous! We also had a fresh pink melon from Victoria. Her house was not far from a place called Cronulla which could be reached by bicycles which she supplied. This was an ocean beach but quiet, not like Bondi or Manly, I enjoyed wading out and being thrown back on shore by giant waves. This was also not far from Port Hacking which I was told at the time was the starting place for the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. There were no yachts around when I was there. My friend's aunt had a woman friend who kept house for a doctor in Parramatta a little way out of Sydney. It was really up country in those days. She took us to see the friend. There was a little cow in the backs presumably to supply milk to the household. I think the doctor and family must have been away when we visited! We had homemade ice-cream at this house. It was made with cream from the cow and I found it too sickly for my liking; I learned whilst I was at Sans Souci that the aunt of my friend or rather her husband had worked on the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 30's and had been unemployed for quite a while after that. I cannot remember the exact time that the ship left Sydney and returned to Colombo for the last time. Suffice to state that at some point we were in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra and it was pointed out to us that the low lying island we were passing was known as Krakatoa and was the centre of a massive volcanic explosion in the 19th Century which covered the world with ash. Peculiar sunsets were also created for years afterwards not forgetting the enormous tidal waves which followed the explosion in the region In the fullness of time our cypher officer left to be demobbed and I was given the job of deciphering wireless messages in the cypher office. The cypher office was a little 'cubby hole next to the wireless office with a hatch between. So I was promoted to deciphering wireless messages without the relevant pay! I also slept in the cypher office on a camp bed. My demob number was 55, and when I read 54 in code I thought it won't be long now before I can leave the ship on route home to be demobbed However at this point the ship was ordered off to Hong Kong from Colombo - what a blow.

Arriving back in Hong Kong for the second time I couldn’t help noticing the enormous change that had taken place since we were there last. The change was commercial. The ferry was operating between Kowloon and the island, there were loads of sampans and other native boats in the bay. They were busy flogging silks and numerous other things to Jack. I made my one and only trip to the island from the ship to have a quick look round. There weren’t numerous tall skyscrapers that you see in pictures today. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building was there just as it is today. Eventually we returned to Colombo which was our base and my Demob number came up! I left the ship there and I can still remember going down the gang plank to a waiting tender with my hammock and kit bag to take me ashore. Getting home was a very slow process. I had quite a wait in Colombo for a trooper to take me back to the U.K. One did come of course, I think it was called the Cameronia but I am not quite sure. It took us ages to get to Bombay where we stayed for a while before moving on to the Red Sea. It was a very rough crossing most unlike anything I had experienced on the Venerable. I don't remember going through the Suez Canal, it must have been through the night. I do remember berthing alongside at Port Said before moving through the Med. I slept on deck on the flat of my hammock for most of the journey home. I realised it was getting progressively colder - we must have been crossing the Bay of Biscay. We arrived in Clydebank in early July and I made my way to Glasgow Central Station to await a train back to Plymouth. I remember getting my hair cut in Glasgow Central and I had to pay ten shillings (which included a face massage) which I thought was outrageous.

The train from Glasgow went through my home town - Preston - and I don't remember it stopping either! I stayed the night in Devonport Barracks before reporting to the regulating P.O.'s Office in the morning and they were automatically about to assign me to another ship when I reminded them that my demob number was 55 and I was ready for demob. I was given several weeks leave tacked onto my Demob leave which lasted into early October 1946. Suffice to state that I was home in good time for my 21st birthday.

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