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John Mills: Chapter 13

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: 
Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
Article ID: 
A8889556
Contributed on: 
27 January 2006

Trincomalee

HMS Volage having commissioned early May 1944 and serviced in the Arctic for seven months. Our next posting, to serve with the East Indies Fleet, as with the rest of the 26 destroyer flotilla; Sumeraz (leader), Virgro, Verelum, Viglaint, Venus and Volage. Two Canadian destroyers Algonquin and Sioux who served with us at Scapa Flow were not to join us.

The six ships sailed independently to Ceylon (Sir Lanka). Volage having had a short tropical refit in Leith Docks (Edinburgh) plus starboard watch having seven days, including Xmas leave and port watch leave including New Year.

I, myself had it all set up for New Years Eve shore leave in Edinburgh, with a party at the Y.M.C.A. Club and to go first footing. I had my piece of coal, but not to be!! Having drawn the short straw, that is gangway guard duty at 12 o’clock, 2400 hours, midnight. Presenting myself at five minutes to midnight, the seaman I was relieving threw webbing, gaiters, belt and rifle at me and was gone!! — Ashore.

So at midnight, church bells of the city, plus ship’s sirens, singing the old year out and the New Year in. There was I, in the capital city of Scotland, by tradition noted for joyous occasions, possibly a once in a life time for me; ON DUTY ON THE SHIPS GANGWAY.

On leaving Leith Docks, Volage sailed around the top of Scotland, through the Pentland Firth (noted for severe weather and rough seas) into the Firth, past the rock Alsia Greag, to start our overseas assignment to last for the ship almost a year. Myself to be eighteen months away from the UK.

For “Exercise Action Stations” was always the command every time we left harbour. A guns crew closed up for testing gun firing circuits, having completed same while awaiting the command “Dismiss”, noticed we had company of other naval ships. An escort carrier HMS Triumph and HMS Eskimo a tribal class destroyer, which ha twice the guns we had — eight.

Our first destination was to be Gibraltar (Gib) taking five days, last day finding ourselves alone to proceed to Gib. Other ships diverted either to West Africa or West Indies by way of the Pacific.

Ourselves calling in to Gibraltar just for oil, no run ashore were the groans, out through the Straits into the Mediterranean. On watch could feel the warmer air, much to our liking, having been at the Arctic for so long.

First night on watch on B gun, feeling for the want of some exercise on this to us a balmy night, four of us started to pace across the deck forwards and backwards some twenty feet either way. I was the one being tall (lofty) had to duck under the gun barrel each time across the deck. We stopped abruptly port side, coming at us a thin white fluorescent streak of disturbed water at great speed, then vanishing under the ship, which could have been travelling some fifteen knots. We were dumbstruck at that moment, wondering what it was.

To this day, some sixty years on, shipmates wonder was it a fish — it had to swim exceedingly fast as it was at right angles to the ship, or a torpedo that was set too deep. Didn’t think there were any U-Boats left in the Med — or was there?

Passing both Algeria and Tunis towns at night, it was strange for us to see house and street lights on, had only been used to black out in the UK for five years and to us it was out of our world.

A seaman fell down a ladder and broke his arm, which meant a call into Malta to drop him off, out to sea within the hour — still no shore leave.

Arriving at Alexandria were soon greeted with bum boats selling their wares; oranges and grapefruits, the like we had not seen or tasted for years. We had been paid in Pesetas. A rope slung up to us with basket attached, a deal done, down money and up comes lovely fresh fruit for Jack Tar.

Port watch first for shore leave, a hustle down in the mess deck, Jack had ironed his best No 1 suit to look tidy for the call “Liberty men fall in”. Inspection over by duty Officer, those on shore leave jump into boat anticipating a good run ashore. Shore leave for liberty men ends on board at ten o’clock, we witness port watch ratings some not as smart as going ashore, some worse for drink, some lost their monies or locals had enticed Jack to part with same by selling souvenirs in the dance halls and some had been in fights. All trying to recall their adventures to one another before the call “Out pipes, out lights, pipe down”.

Next afternoon standard watch ashore, our turn to jump into liberty boat. Officers last in boat, first out. I myself and three others went ashore together, safety in numbers, our first objective to sightsee. All of us first time to Alex, walking down streets with palm trees, through the souks, watch out for the donkeys, dogs and chicks; a dozen in a small basket, completely different lifestyle to back home that our families and friends would be about those days. Ignoring locals selling souvenirs (we were not going home to buy rabbits) naval term to take duty frees through customs. Also some locals enticing us into the red light district “LOVELY GIRLS”.

At dusk we did go into a dance hall, had a beer and a meal. The place was crowded with all service men. Floor show of belly dancers opened our eyes, no chance to have a dance with the call girls, regular customer’s first choice, we were not foolish enough wanting to fight for them. We raised our esteem by having a gary ride back to docks and go on board ship. Unknown to me then of the Egypt antiquity that abound in the area, then an afternoon our meagre monies would be restricting us from seeing them.

Sailing that evening to Port Said, entering the Suez Canal around midday, us on the foc’sle lined up for entering harbour, interesting to see middle class locals having lunch on their balconies in hot sunshine, we were that close.

No locks to enter or leave canal, interesting to us, mostly desert either side with little wisps of wind kicking up the sand now and again. One feature opposite Ismalia stood First World War memorial to A.N.Z.A.C. forces of Dardenall fame. (Now pulled down by President Nasar).

Through the Bitter Lakes on to Fort Touflick and into the Red Sea, on entering the Red Sea our Canteen Manager on board concluded that the time was ripe to sell the grapefruit that he had purchased in Alex. As the ships company had by now consumed their fruit from the bum boats.

Canteen Managers were civilians employed by NAAFI (Naval Army Air Force Institution) were at liberty to sell an odd item for their own profit. His assumption proved wrong, the whole ship’s company boycotted the fruit, as we considered prices (three times of what we had paid before) as over priced. Subsequently whole consignment was ditched overboard.

The next port of call, Aden for oiling, didn’t’ look very interesting for run ashore. Very hot there and our first experience of heat, on the upper deck very pleasant with a breeze, down below very different with portholes shut and fans blowing hot air anyway. We were told that if we were to leave off our white fronts (shirts) or leave hats off we would be put on a charge. Still at war, a full ship’s company health must be maintained.

First to Colombo entered harbour to tie up to HMS Glasgow; heavy cruiser, a heavy swell at turn of tide meant Volage being crushed against cruiser with the ship’s company turning twice on deck and placing hands on larger ship’s side until problem passed. The second time in the middle of the night (groans).

The next day Volage entered dry dock for attention to asdic dome. Port watch ashore, us still on board watched local boys diving for money as water emptied from dock, afterwards catching fish when dock nearly empty.

Being on edge of town with sandy beaches, we requested a swim which was granted. Lofty Gates, Jock Caulwell, Ginger Oscroft and me set off along beach, fishermen were hauling their boats in, and so the four of us plunged in the sea lifting each outrigger onto the beach to the amazement of the local folks. After six boats the fishermen gave each one of us a green coconut to drink (liquid before kernel) first of many through years since.

The next afternoon starboard watch ashore; that’s us. Colombo was interesting with several colonial buildings, railway station always a gem, open fronted shops out east with keepers soliciting for jacks custom. Bananas and pineapples lovely, thinking of folks back home not so lucky.

A walk along the road back of the beach, just pass the Dutch Fort the Gala Beach Hotel. Commandeered for Naval Officers, but fifty years later myself on a tour of Sri Lanka and visiting Colombo, had a beer in the hotel one sunset evening to reminisce.

Now on to our final destination; Trincomalee, the flotilla arrived within a day. A large natural harbour and tropical green surround, we soon settled into a routine of ship cleaning duties etc and every afternoon at leisure, then some duties before dark at around 18.30 hours.

So most afternoons if not dobying; sleeping in the hottest part of the day, we were swimming or playing water polo over the side of the ship. A great life.

In the harbour a naval fleet of ships, battleships, escort carriers, cruisers, HMS Woolwich our depot ship, us destroyers and a hospital ship. Every morning the marine band of HMS SUSSEX heavy cruiser, after colours on the quarter deck, played SUSSEX BY THE SEA to my delight a Sussex man.

Ex AB Lofty John Mills
For the next chapter in John's story go to: A8889484

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