Chapter 12 (1943)

HNMS “Flores” 

Leaving HMS Cabbala
After three months of intense and novel experience we had our final examinations, where I obtained 98%, and we took our instructor and his wife to dinner before departing from HMS Cabbala for leave and reallocation.

I spent eight glorious days' leave at home, during which I visited the Admiralty and said hello to friends and colleagues. Already the office seemed distanced from me and no longer part of my life. A particular friend, one Ray Allen, who came from Swansea, was most envious at my having escaped from the drudgery of watchkeeping in perpetual fluorescent lighting. No doubt my then obvious good health and ruddy cheeks contrasted with the pallor of many of the ‘troglodytes’ that surrounded him. Ray himself was a handsome, bronzed young man whose Gower seashore upbringing had given him a tarzan-like physique and an Olympics swimming proficiency. He had achieved notoriety in War Registry on two counts. First, he had misread a line in a code book as a result of which a ship was instructed to proceed to Port Said, in Egypt, instead of Portsmouth, in England. For this, he was banished to a miserable job among store cupboards and old files far from the bustle and excitement of the main concourse. And second, he went home to his bed-sit room at 9am after a night watch, ate a hearty breakfast and fell into a deep sleep, to be wakened in due course by his alarm clock. He got up refreshed, dressed and ate a substantial lunch, then went to meet his girl friend. When she failed to appear after half an hour, he checked the time and found it was exactly 11am - his alarm was faulty. Such is the power of mind over matter that within about an hour he had eaten two large meals and believed himself to have had several hours' sleep.

Chatham Barracks
At the end of my all-too-short leave I had to report not to Devonport but to Chatham Barracks, because Coders were based at an attached Camp at Cookham, near Rochester. I even found that my official number had been changed to a "C" prefix. Chatham seemed much more pleasant than Devonport for me. For one thing, it was possible to get home overnight. Getting back next morning was rather more difficult. I had to rise at 4am and catch the first tram at 4.30 to Streatham Station, about three miles away. The cost was two old pence, or less than 1p in today’s money. The upper deck was always full of people coughing and spluttering in the thick, billowing cigarette smoke which was quite normal then, before anyone knew about possible links with cancer, heart disease or any of the other ills of tobacco. On the contrary, the first "fag" of the day was a comfort and stilled the pangs of hunger of those who had had no time for breakfast.

Gunners and Others
I spent a few days in Chatham Barracks doing the joining routine described earlier. The parade ground had to be crossed at the double and a duty Chief Gunner's Mate was there to report anyone considered to be sauntering across it. He was a Chief Petty Officer with crossed cannons on the collar of his jacket.

WhitingCadetsChatham

The Gunners, who were part of the Seaman Branch, had centuries of proud service in the British Navy and were famed for their discipline. Generations of them were moulded by the fearsome Gunnery School on Whale Island in Portsmouth Harbour, now sadly closed. The rules for marching and drilling with rifles were prescribed by them and no ceremony was complete without the Gunners' stamp on it. Perhaps I should explain here that a Chief Petty Officer was then the highest Rate on the Lower Deck, which expression covers everyone who is not an officer. Below the CPO came a Petty Officer and under him a Leading Hand, who wore a single anchor on his left arm. The Naval anchor is a foul or killick anchor; hence Leading Hands were always known as Killicks.

The highest ranking person on the Lower Deck in those days was the Master-at-Arms, a Chief Petty Officer of the Regulating Branch and universally known as the "Jaunty". His stern Regulating Petty Officers were known as "Crushers". It was possible for a Chief Petty Officer to be promoted to Warrant Officer, upon which he assumed an officer's uniform with a thin gold stripe on his arm and left the Lower Deck. Warrant Officers did not have the full status of Commissioned Officers and used to have their own mess in a ship in earlier times. Midshipmen, who were young men from Dartmouth Naval College preparing to become officers, also had a separate mess called the Gunroom, as followers of the "Hornblower" novels will know. These ancient distinctions began to disappear in wartime and in fact the old-style Warrant Officer was abolished in the 1960s, to be reintroduced as a Lower Deck rate above CPO to correspond with the Sergeant Major and Flight Sergeant of the other Services. The Warrant Officer of my day was nevertheless a powerful and much feared figure.

The Dockyard
However, to return to Chatham, for two nights I was given firewatching duties in the Dockyard itself. Here were warships and submarines in profusion, some in dry dock, others tied up alongside, undergoing repairs of all kinds. HMS Victory of Trafalgar fame was built here and the skills of building fine warships still continued, submarines being Chatham's speciality. The confusion surrounding a warship under repair has to be seen to be believed, with chunks of it missing, bits of steel plate and machinery strewn along the dock-side and mile upon mile of cables and compressed air pipes leading into its bowels, defying belief that it would ever again become the powerful and dashing creature it once was.

chatham22a-kl

Luftwaffe photograph of Chatham Dockyard taken in 1939

Today Chatham Dockyard has closed, a victim of Defence economies, but here in 1943 in the Dockyard canteen I found a scene reminiscent of a pirate harbour in the Caribbean, with a cross-section of burly submariners in thick white jerseys to grimy stokers and nimble seamen, milling and jostling round a Crown and Anchor board. Actually it was not a board but a piece of canvas made out as one. Crown and Anchor was a form of gambling and strictly forbidden but someone could always produce the necessary material when circumstances allowed. The noise and smoke were such that an air raid, let alone a fire, would not have been noticed.

Cookham Camp
After a few days I was sent to the Coders' camp at Cookham, consisting mainly of Nissen huts, each accommodating about a dozen men. The Nissen hut was the universal symbol of the wartime camp and there can be hardly any serviceman who did not live in one at some time. It was constructed of curved pieces of corrugated steel bolted together like a large pipe cut in half. Its ends were usually of brick, with windows and a door. Furniture consisted of bare trestle tables and iron bedsteads plus a simple round stove, usually in the centre of the room. This device was remarkably effective provided one could acquire enough fuel, when it could be stoked up until it glowed bright red. The huts at Cookham were set in woodland and the atmosphere of the camp was relaxed and comfortable compared with the rigours of barrack life. During the day we had lessons to keep our knowledge up to scratch but they generally degenerated into lurid accounts by the instructor of daring exploits in his Naval career. These, it transpired, exclusively concerned the opposite sex, with little or nothing said about action against the enemy. 

nissen huts

Typical Nissen huts. Many continued in use for decades after  the war ended. 

Rum
Now that we had finished training we were entitled to the sailor's rum ration, officially known as "grog". It was so called after a certain Admiral Vernon who a century or so previously had reduced his men's rum ration. He customarily wore a cloak made from material known as grogram and hence was himself called "Old Grog". Such were the traditions of the Royal Navy and the deep and almost mystical significance of the rum ration that the name stuck and was later incorporated into official language. For our part, however, we called it our "tot". It was the only form of alcohol of any kind allowed on the Lower Deck. Chief and Petty Officers were entitled to neat rum but other sailors had it mixed with water. The tot nearly filled a large cup and though diluted was pretty lethal. Each day the ration was carefully measured into a beautiful wooden cask from which it was ladled out to the sailors at 12 noon under the watchful eye of an officer. Any left in the cask was poured down the drain or, on board ship, through the scuppers into the sea in full view. The stories associated with rum, both amusing and tragic, are limitless and sometimes beyond belief. It was common for a man to be given "sippers" on his birthday, that is to say a part of his messmates' rations, with the result that he often passed clean out. Regularly the Admiralty sadly advised the Fleet of the folly of this practice and the demise of some individual who could not be revived, his mates having helpfully hidden him away to avoid detection until he sobered up.

Those who chose not to take their rum received the huge sum of threepence a day in lieu, worth just over one of today's pence. The rum ration was abolished after the war because the great complexity of modern weapons and machinery made it essential for men to have their wits about them at all times. Sailors can now buy canned beer which, unlike traditional draught beer, remains drinkable when stored on board and more sensibly reflects the tastes of today's young men. But with the rum ration went a colourful part of British Naval History.

Drafted
After a couple of weeks at Cookham, I and another Coder called Frank Darwell were told to report to the Drafting Office, where we were given a posting to the Dutch Ship "Flores". Frank was one of the older men, winkled out of a pleasant civilian life in the Accounts Department of Westons' Biscuit Makers. He was a small and amiable, unmarried, highly intelligent Lancastrian who, like several others of the Cabbala intake, adopted the sailor's life with some difficulty. In later years I came to realise how lonely they must have been in the company of inexperienced, lusty youngsters on the messdeck of a warship. In spite of my own brashness and intolerance, we got on well together and became fairly close friends, though our paths later separated.

Together we set off for Newcastle with our kitbags, hammocks and the small fibre attache case which was issued to every sailor and in which he kept his soap, razor, toothbrush, writing materials and other personal items of everyday use. This load was extremely cumbersome and very heavy after the first few yards. Possessing only two arms, either the hammock or the kitbag must be slung over one's shoulder, from which precarious position it would frequently fall off until one became accustomed to a curious bent posture where it balanced. Sometimes transport would be provided, to our great relief, but we often had to carry these impedimenta quite a distance. After travelling all night in the corridor of a packed train, we emerged at Newcastle Station and made our way to the docks at South Shields. There by dint of frequent questioning we eventually found the Flores. It is surprisingly difficult to find a small ship in a crowded port, since they have a habit of moving about from one berth to another or alongside an oiler or even into open water to obtain services of various kinds, and we would often return from a trip ashore to find a vacant space where we had left our ship.


The “Flores”

She looked very smart, if a little old-fashioned, with a stubby upright funnel and three enormous guns, two for'ard and one aft. She turned out to be quite remarkable for her mere 1300 tons, having been built as a guard ship for rivers and coastal waters in the Dutch East Indies, the large and rich islands of Sumatra and Java, now known as Indonesia. The three big guns fired six-inch diameter (155mm) shells - a size normally found on large cruisers - and the ship also had a twin 40mm Bofors gun, four 20mm Oerlikons and two 12mm heavy machine guns. In the East Indies she had sported a seaplane and a motor boat but these had been removed when she and her sister ship, the Soemba (pronounced "Soomba"), escaped from the invading Japanese.

HNMS Soemba mod


There were penalties for this massive firepower: her maximum speed was 16 knots and she needed nearly 200 men to run her. To put it mildly, she was crowded. The crew were all Dutch except for one British Lieutenant and three ratings, to whom were now added Frank and myself. The Dutch, to our surprise, had advanced considerably along the road to racial integration and the ship's company included dusky East Indians, pure black West Indians, white and half-caste South Africans as well as Europeans. Race was no barrier to rank and in fact the most senior crew member, a cultured and highly professional non-commissioned officer whom they called the Skipper (not to be confused with the Captain of the ship), was completely black.

Our arrival was greeted with mystification. The ship was still being repaired and most of the crew were on leave, so why didn't we do the same? We needed no second bidding and, armed with a warrant for my rail ticket, I returned joyfully to a bemused Freda from whom I had just departed. The Flores had spent most of the war escorting convoys in the Channel and had several German aircraft to her credit. This stretch of water was no longer as dangerous as it had once been and I looked forward to an interesting life. However, meeting Ray Allen at the Admiralty one day, I was intrigued when he whispered to me in confidence that the ship was bound for the Mediterranean. This put a different complexion on things and my leave now assumed a more urgent nature. This time, when I said goodbye to Freda we would not know when, if ever, we would meet again.

To Sea for the First Time
I returned to Newcastle where the ship now had a much more businesslike air, with people swarming about all over her, including Dockyard "mateys" finishing their work. It takes time to get a ship back to reasonable habitability and efficiency after being in dockyard hands and Frank and I were banished to a tiny office in the bowels of the ship where we set to work amending code books. Our normal station, we were glad to learn, would be in the Wireless Room which was located on the upper deck and from which we could see the scenery and enjoy fresh air, or so we thought. After a few days it was announced that we would proceed to sea to test the machinery. The trip lasted just a few hours and the sea was calm. I felt that my life as a real sailor had begun and I went ashore that evening feeling no end of a hero. The people of Newcastle were incredibly kind and I was invited to their homes on several occasions during our short stay there. Civilians who gave hospitality to sailors were known as "grippos", though I've no idea why. The Dutch crew knew and loved Newcastle and some had married local girls; many hoped to open fish-and-chip shops in Holland after the war in the belief that this marvellous British institution would take Europe by storm.

The Dutch uniform was very similar to that of a German sailor, a fact which led us into alarming difficulty on one occasion, as I shall recount. It had the same attractive beret with long, flowing ribbons down the back of the neck, and was adorned with the legend "Koninglijke Marine", which was Dutch for "Royal Navy" - referring, of course, to the Dutch Royal Family. The words were originally in Gothic script but the Dutch were so frequently mistaken for Germans during the invasion scares of the 1940s that it was replaced by conventional British letters. Frank and I soon acquired similar ribbons which we affixed, without "tails", to our round British caps and henceforward were treated with varying degrees of curiosity, respect or suspicion by the rest of the British Navy, enabling us to take some liberties when ashore.

A Nomadic Life
Eventually we left Newcastle for good, an experience we would soon become accustomed to. A sailor is a nomad, especially in wartime. He is always on the move and often has little or no notice of where he is bound for. His world consists of endless ocean, never still, always the same yet always different, out of which one day he sees distant land shapes, then towns, then houses and eventually people moving about. He goes ashore for a short time, a stranger in the community even in his own country, then returns to the iron box which is his only home. On this first voyage, however, it was the ship which was strange. Finding one's way about even a small ship has to be learnt; even knowing automatically which is front and which is back takes time to imprint itself on the brain. We were bound for Tobermory on the West Coast of Scotland and our route lay via the Pentland Firth, one of the most turbulent stretches of water in the world. Though we hugged the coast, getting a clear view of the northernmost point of John O'Groats, at one stage the ship could make no headway at all against a raging storm.

With her rather flat bottom, built for shallow waters, the Flores always performed a sort of gyrating dance in heavy weather and sea would come pouring over her decks from all angles, sometimes descending on one's head from an unexpected quarter. It was essential to hang on to anything you could find when walking along the upper deck and life-jackets were compulsory at all times. I was allocated a space for my hammock in the sharpest point of the foremost messdeck, where the bows cleaved through the sea, and beside a large pipe through which the anchor chain ran from the cable locker below me. I slept fitfully, conscious of the sea sloshing and banging on the other side of the iron plates a few inches from my head. I hoped we wouldn't hit a mine, or anything else for that matter. I dreamt that a bell was tolling mournfully with a louder and louder clang, and woke to discover that it was the anchor chain banging from side to side in its pipe with the motion of the ship.

A Refuge
I was dreadfully seasick and when not on duty looked for a space in the overcrowded ship where I could lie down and quietly die. I found one in a tiny compartment in the very bowels of the ship where the master compass gyro was housed. This was a large cylindrical object about four feet high containing a gyroscope which rotated at an enormous speed, emitting a high-pitched whine as it did so. It took about three hours to attain its working speed before sailing. There was just enough room to lie on the oily steel deck beside this monster but it became a haven for me. Later, when I got my sea legs, I would retire there simply to sleep after a night watch or, in harbour, to play the guitar which I had brought with me. Other would-be musicians would often accompany me and sometimes three of us would cram into the space around the gyro when it was quiet. The only access to the compartment was down a long steel tube fitted with rungs but, appallingly claustrophobic though it was, it gave a rare measure of privacy.

On entering Tobermory Bay, the motion of the ship eased abruptly and with it my seasickness vanished, leaving me weak but human again. However, we had no sooner dropped anchor and were admiring the wild and beautiful hillsides than orders came for us to sail for Scapa Flow. Back through the Pentland Firth we went, though this time I had become more accustomed not only to the motion but also to the oily, stuffy smells of a warship and was never again so badly distressed by seasickness. I also found that, in those days before medication for travel sickness was available, a piece of dry toast would settle the stomach.

Scapa Flow
At Scapa Flow we were met by the sight of the great battleships, King George V, Warspite, Rodney, Nelson and the battlecruiser Renown, massive and menacing with their batteries of huge 16-inch (400mm) diameter guns, each able to hurl an armour-piercing shell weighing over a ton for more than twenty miles. 

To illustrate the power of these guns, in the last days of 1943, the German pocket-battleship Scharnhorst was unlucky enough to be struck by such a projectile from HMS Duke of York at extreme range when within an ace of escaping to safety, and was disabled. Her relentless enemies caught up with her and she blew up and disappeared under a rain of these frightful missiles. 

We looked around at cruisers, destroyers, minelayers and a host of other dark marauders which dotted the wide stretch of icy waters around them. Beyond lay the low, inhospitable hills of the islands, home only to sheep and a few hardy crofters. It was a sight never to be forgotten. We and the Soemba must have seemed incongruous against these sleek greyhounds - but at gunnery practice in the days which followed impressed everyone with the concentration and accuracy of our fire-power.

After a week or so we set sail for Greenock, at the mouth of the Clyde, where we were to await the formation of a convoy to the Mediterranean. My part in Hitler's downfall was about to begin.

Next page . . . Inspection at Greenock

Previous page . . . Chapter 11 - I join the navy

The full history of HNMS Flores, from laying down her keel in 1925 to eventual scrapping in 1968, can be read here.


Google advertisement:

Website © Brian Smith 2015