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15 October 2014
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The Small Vessels Pool

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Cyril Leslie Arnold Brown
Location of story: 
Caledonian Canal and Scotland
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4681587
Contributed on: 
03 August 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by a volunteer at Dorking Library and has been added to the website on behalf of Natasha Claridge with her permission and she fully understands the terms and conditions.

My father’s garage at Beare Green Surrey was requisitioned at the beginning of the Second World War. To earn a living he had to go across the road to the council yard to service steam rollers and the Civil Defence vehicles being sent up to London during the blitz.

During The Great War he had volunteered under age and had become a dispatch rider. He was soon invalided out as he was thought to have rheumatic fever but this was actually the result of being a haemophilic which he had concealed. Most would have stayed out of the conflict but he taught himself to drive and joined the Friends Ambulance Brigade. He had vivid memories of driving in France with an ambulance load of ‘stiffs’ — victims of the post war ‘flu’ epidemic.

By the outbreak of WW2 he was very crippled with arthritis and the effects of haemophilia but this did not stop him from taking his turn in the Royal Observer Corps in a sandbagged hut on Holmwood Common spotting enemy aircraft. One day he heard a radio appeal for volunteer cooks on small vessels and decided to offer his services even though mother always said he couldn’t even boil an egg. The Admiralty were desperate for crews to relieve the full time sailors. Most of the volunteers were like dad, disabled or retired and were given the job of bringing new vessels down from Scotland to the southern ports. Much use was made of the Caledonian Canal to avoid the dangerous passage around the north of Scotland. The section was called the Small Vessels Pool and were part of the Merchant Navy. Dad was very proud to have served under Commander Shipham of Shipham’s Paste fame. On one voyage the cook was Robert Newton the actor, and other names he mentioned were Scudamore and Anstruther. I don’t remember how long he served but he always said these were the best days of his life. He was an expert in dealing with diesel engines so he became Chief Engineer. He was so crippled that he had to be lowered down into the engine room, but he was always determined to do his bit.

At the end of the voyage he would limp home from Holmwood Railway Station with his kitbag over his shoulder. From his bag he would produce long pieces of leaf tobacco which had to be cut into slices with a penknife. He also had solid blocks of bitter chocolate with glistening sugar which had to be grated and was used as drinking chocolate. On one occasion there was a mixture of tea leaves and soapflakes at the bottom of the bag, and we debated whether to drink or wash with it!

For many years after the war dad would go to the annual reunion of the Admiralty Ferry Crew Association at the Connaught Rooms, and we have a photo of him talking to Admiral Mountbatten. We also have a collection of ensigns which travelled back in his kit bag.

He was a most gallant man, and it was appropriate that at his funeral his coffin was covered with a Union Jack.

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