- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Malcolm ("Jim") Hirst
- Location of story:
- At sea
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 January 2006
A Naval career — part 1 (of 4)
Soon the time came to `register', which I did with a preference for the Royal Navy. Unusual though this was from middle England I think I was still influenced by future hopes of marine biology, my experience with the Norfolk fishermen and because neither had my father nor brother fared well in the Royal Artillery or RAF. I was told to report to HMS Glendower at Pwllheli, N. Wales, this `ship' turned out to be a newly built Butlin's Holiday Camp. Accommodation was in chalets, each holding eight ratings. My eight had widely different backgrounds, few of us had ever been to sea but managed not to disclose that. I was unique in being the only one who had never 'done time'. It did not seem to be the occasion to flout my experience in the `Fuzz' as a Police auxiliary, although that had taught me much of the accompanying language that would otherwise have been a mystery.
Having been kitted, marched up and down, fired a few shots with a rifle, learnt to tie the regulation knots (some behind the back to ensure they could be done in the dark), even pulled an oar in a clumsy old cutter and expressed a preference to gain the extra three (old) pence per day pay for not accepting `grog' (the rum ration), as Ordinary Seaman Hirst P/JX 291295 T (T for temperance), I was deemed fit for sea about two months after my arrival. A week or so was spent in Chatham and Portsmouth dockyards while the crew for a new Hunt Class destroyer, HMS Lauderdale, was accumulated before commissioning at Vosper-Thorneycroft's yard in Southampton under the command of Lt George Pound RN, son of Admiral Sir Dudley Pound.
As a very raw and unskilled ordinary seaman my duties were simple, mostly deck duties in harbour, lookout duties at sea (practice with my brother had in fact made me really expert at aircraft recognition) or watch-keeping on a variety of guns. My action station was as a `loading number' on "A"Gun, the twin 4in. high angle/low angle mounting on the forecastle. In any sea this was a wet spot and, at high angles, fuzeing and loading the shells was exhausting to say nothing of trying to ensure that you were clear of the recoil as the guns fired. Close to the limit of my physical strength.
The messdeck was a quick way of meeting life in the raw but not a very comfortable home. There was no problem sleeping in harbour when hammocks were permitted but at sea in wartime these could not be slung as they would interfere with the flow of ammunition from the magazines below. The messdeck was often awash with water shipped over the bow that then gushed down through the open ammunition hoists. So when not on watch one had to grab sleep on a side locker, a bench or table; failing to brace against roll and pitch meant a wet roll on the deck. Although rough, the life, food, company and behaviour in the fo'csle were experiences that enormously broadened later understanding.
Once commissioned, we departed (midst a westerly gale and air-attack off Land's End) to `work-up' from Scapa Flow, spending much of the time acting also as escort for the, later ill-fated, battleship Duke of York which was similarly engaged. Becoming operational coincided with the appearance of U Boats in quantity in the western Atlantic, so we were rushed across to St. Johns, Newfoundland (to be met with the unaccustomed pipe, "The ship will not be darkened" and a snowball fight). We soon settled down to our routine convoy escort duties. Our fuel capacity limited us to shuttling between Halifax, Nova Scotia, mid-Atlantic and St Johns. Inevitably during winter we had our share of fogs and pack-ice on the Grand Banks mixed with gales. At first I admit to doubts whether the ship would break as it shuddered in the head seas or would ever manage to surmount the walls of water that seemed likely to submerge us from astern, as we dawdled with a slow convoy. Likewise, when down-below, confidence in the ship grew as the ship's thin plating withstood the flexing caused by pounding into seas or shoving ice floes aside. The conversion from Ordinary to Able Seaman had started!
We were lucky, although we did a few depth charge attacks and towed back a half-tanker or two and had our look-out duties much sharpened by reports of the pocket battleships Gniesenau or Scharnhorst in the Denmark Strait (the prospects were not good, although we were the best-armed ship to meet them!). Probably the U Boat commanders found no shortage of fatter and less hazardous targets than a new escort destroyer. Lauderdale was among the first to be equipped with gyroscopically controlled stabilizers to reduce rolling and give a more stable `gun-platform'. Usually being outside the range of the Focke-Wulf Condors it was seldom used, because we shipped much more water when it was in use. However, when passing through merchant ships assembling for convoy in the glassy calm waters of the Bedford Basin at Halifax, we caused amazement on board each as we roared past them blaring our signature tune `A hunting we will go' and rolling wildly as the stabilizers were oscillated in hand control. The Admiralty must soon have decided that a new Hunt class ship should be in waters more likely to require the use of its considerable armament, so when due for a boiler clean we returned to Londonderry and a brief leave, (accompanied by the amazed stares of Birmingham residents as I struggled home with a kit-bag full of little but sugar, butter, tinned meats and a couple of hands of bananas slung across my shoulders). Indeed `Jack' was, briefly, home from sea.
Our next assignment was to escort East Coast Convoys, (Rosyth to Sheerness), the southern part of this was the so-called `E Boat Alley' but had other delights like the new acoustic mines which the diesel colliers for London power stations seemed to have a special facility for detonating, often well before they reached the mine themselves. For me, this phase did not last long either, because having been Canada-based, Lauderdale had not shed any quota of "CW (commissioned warrant) candidates". I was lucky enough to be among the half dozen posted to HMS King Alfred in Hove for officer training. Once in Edinburgh, on our way south, we considered the circumstances and having some hours to spare before catching the night train south, we decided to seek a meal indicative of the style that we hoped was to be ours. Nobody else having any suggestion, I said that I remembered my mother saying that she had once been taken for a fine dinner at the Caledonian Hotel. Clearly the hotel staff regarded us as an incongruous group among all the gold braid and staff officers. However, appearing sober, well behaved and doing nothing illegal, we gave them no reason to eject us. By comparison with messdeck food the menu was excellent but the real joy came when we asked for the bill and none less than the Head Waiter came to our table to announce that a resident couple (who wished to remain anonymous) were intrigued by our presence, had offered to pay our bill and "would we like liqueurs and cigars?" Of course we gladly accepted, wrote them a note of thanks and explanation and departed, collecting our seamans' caps from among the gold braid and red bands in an aroma of liqueurs and fine tobacco. We all slept well in the train compartment that night.
Officer training at HMS King Alfred and elsewhere
The first part of the King Alfred course was somewhat incongruously spent within Lancing College from which the boys had long since been evacuated. What I remember most of that spell was doing night sentry duty among a herd of cows which made it difficult to detect the approach of patrols I was supposed to challenge. I don't think that we would have been much use against paratroops! Lancing College was a mile or two inland, but King Alfred was right on the beach. Strangely, life at HMS King Alfred itself (the partially built municipal swimming baths in Hove) seemed somewhat nearer to the war than much of what had gone before. This may have been connected with the barbed wire which covered almost everything except the short length of beach from which the Navy insisted that it retain the right to swim. We were kept quite busy, but the only `sea time' was brief spells of ship handling training within Shoreham Harbour (where we got strafed by a fighter bomber one day). My only problem was passing the test at reading Morse code by light. The test was passed with the help of a Lauderdale shipmate (who aspired after the war to be an Egyptologist) and the exercise of what we regarded as an exercise of "the Nelson touch" (I much regret that I never had the chance to thank Peter Kirwan for his help in what, I do believe, has been the only exercise of real cheating in my life). Eventually, having been more resplendently uniformed by Gieves, we had two very pleasant final weeks at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, where the newly commissioned officers (or `temporary acting gentlemen') were given the opportunity to learn how to behave in a naval wardroom (besides being instructed in other officers' duties). The basement skittle alley provided amusement and some air-raid protection. The College and the famous "Painted Hall" provided inspiration, splendour and good food which were in stark contrast with much of bomb-damaged East London outside. We were then given our next postings, mine was, as requested, to HMS St. Christopher for training for Coastal Forces. Later I learnt that up to the previous week many had been posted to `mines-rendering-safe' duties, of whom many, like the army's BDS officers, had something like a ten weeks life expectancy! Having missed it, in retrospect, it is safe to say that (if surviving successfully!) I would probably have quite liked that assignment because I do enjoy trying to unravel a mechanism.
In preparation for meeting Fairmile "B" Class MLs at HMS St. Christopher, I had to do short courses, one in gunnery at HMS Excellent, Whale Island, Portsmouth. The gunners' love of drill is well known but was not equally appreciated by the "Light Craft Officers Course" who did not easily comply. Perhaps for this reason we were accommodated in seclusion (and considerable comfort) among the somewhat faded glories aboard the former Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert. I am afraid that I found the instruction in our light armament to be simple and painfully repetitive. It was in stark contrast to the second course among the more clever mechanisms, procedures and fiendish trickery associated with mines and torpedoes which were the responsibility of HMS Vernon. Although we lived in a rather sleazy hotel on the Brighton seafront, we took our lectures on mines and torpedoes along the coast at the vacated Rodean Ladies College, an interlude that has often come in handy in after dinner conversation. At HMS St Christopher in Fort William I got a first taste of firing a practice torpedo, hopefully to pass beneath a target ship; how to set and release depth charges and first contact with the mysteries of underwater detection with asdic. We also had an all too brief taste of handling an ML and coastal navigation, before I was released for a day or two of leave before proceeding south to be First Lieutenant of a new 112 ft Fairmile "B" Class ML, then nearing completion at East Looe in Cornwall.
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