Untitled by Charles Davidson, P.O. 812 Sqdn. HMS. Vengeance
Having been a boy Aircraftsman in the Air Training Corps at Ferryhill in Aberdeen, I rejoined the A T C for teenage boys and quietly, aged seventeen and a half, volunteered for the Royal Navy as a Pilot/Air Gunner in the Fleet Air Arm. The ATC meetings were at school at Folla Rule some 8-10 miles away to which we cycled after a 9 hour day of hard work. I did not know until some 50 years later that my Davidson ancestors had been loyal Episcopalian Kirk goers travelling far to this old Nest of Jacobites established, I learned , when the Government at the time of the 1745 troubles laid down that the Scots Kirk ministers had to swear an oath of Loyalty to the Hanoverian King and the Daviot minister refused to do so and set up his Congregation at Folla Rule.
I received word from the Navy just before my 18th. birthday that I should expect to be off in a few weeks and I told Mr Mackie the news and he was not very pleased for he had hoped to keep me as he was always short of workers . I had a letter in May to report to Skegness, a Naval Training Camp.
I travelled all night in the train from Aberdeen to Grantham then Skegness. I was rather solemn and subdued for I had never been in England since I was 4 years old . Before I changed trains at Grantham at about 4 in the morning the sleeping Chief Petty Officer sitting opposite me woke up. I had told him when asked that I was about to report for training in the Royal Navy. He gave me good advice Youll do all right in the Andrew [Navy] Remember, keep alert and your mouth shut. Do are you are told and avoid the know-all Bs He was right and I often thought of him in the difficult years to follow.
Skegness had been a pre-war Butlins Camp with rows of Chalets sleeping six I think. For the first day you were stripped, all your civilian clothes bagged and sent to your home. Your hair was cropped short and the Dentist pulled out two of my teeth that were damaged and squint after getting a hockey stick in the mouth at the age of 14. You were issued with a bewildering kit and sneeringly shown how to dress in sailors rig.
We were Sprogs, raw recruits , the lowest of the low. Then we were raggedly marched about 2-3 hundred of us and given tests which I later learned were standard I.Q. tests. Within an hour perhaps 50 ratings were marched away, then as the hours passed squad after squad were led out leaving , by late in the second day some twenty odd ratings including me. We were given a thorough Medical including eye and colour blindness tests and I found myself marching with perhaps a dozen bewildered boys led by an old Petty Officer called up out of retirement.
One public school type from his voice bravely asked Where are we going Chief and the answer was Youre being interviewed for a Commission. Stone the bleeding crows!
D for Davidson was the second in so I had no time to find out in whispers what to expect. I found myself marched in to stand at attention in front of several senior Naval Officers flanked by Wren Writers who looked at me in disapproving silence. I was an certainly not an impressive sight, cropped hair, gapped teeth, awkward new stiff sailors rig all with an air of bewilderment. The conversation between an old type Naval Captain pulled out of retirement and myself went as follows.
Q. Have you any relations Commissioned Officers in the Royal Navy ?
A. No Sir
Q. Have you any relations Commissioned Officers in His Majesties Services`?
A. "No Sir".
Q. What does your father do ?
A. He is dead Sir
Q. (impatiently) What did he do ?
A. Chief Engineer Merchant Navy, Sir
He stared at me supercilious and a bit puzzled. I knew what he was thinking. Father an officer but not a gentleman. Father not a gentleman but an officer. Grammar but nor Public School. IQ is OK and we are desperate for Combined Ops Landing Craft crews - but look at him. What is the Navy coming to !!
He stared in silence at me so long that the long row of officers and Wrens stopped writing etc and peered to see what they were missing. Eventually he said.
Q. What do you want to do ? To which I replied, "As you have not said what alternatives are open, Sir, I cannot answer you. SIR
He didnt like that. I should have said in a Boys Own magazine manner, and in a Public School accent something like My duty Sir as a Commissioned Officer in the Royal Navy. It has always been my ambition to do so" But Westerton and the Central Secondary School did not train me in those skills.
He replied somewhat testily Sub-Lieutenant in Combined Ops after 6 months as an AB at sea and Dartmouth -or - (unbelievingly) -University in this modern Electronics and Radar --stuff !!!when you can be considered again
A. The second. Sir He looked relieved and dismissive and I was marched out.
This was my first exposure to what I would later recognise and slowly comprehend as the behavioristic patterns of English and Anglo Scottish establishment. Like most non conditioned individuals from outside backgrounds, I initially resented it, then hated it, and later when I learned better, laughed at it. The difficulty in life is that with that understanding and conditioning, which I see now in some of my grandsons and not in others, I know that , all things being equal, it gives a better start in life BUT, real ability gets to the top regardless and in some circles such an accent and perhaps limited background is becoming a disadvantage. Overall it is still more plus than minus.
The basic training continued notwithstanding the future allocation of the various ratings - drill, marching, seamanship, survival in abandoning ship[ in tanks of water] armoury, PT - and - cleaning ship, for the Navy was , and I suppose still is, pathological about cleanliness, tidiness and order and that training has stood me in good stead all my life.
After the physically hard life on the farms I had unlike many others, no difficulty with the Training except one morning in stiff boots, puttees and oilskins we marched out of the main gate and one chirpy Cockney asked the P.O. where were we going , with the reply a walk. It was 10 miles and few were other than limping or almost staggering when we got back. My feet were blistered and I was almost fainting and there were few in better shape.
I shared a chalet and became friends with Murray Dickie, a Perth opera singer who later worked his ticket i.e. got discharged on medical grounds and after the war was a baritone in Vienna, and Miers, a Leeds Jew who tried to buy from us and sell anything at every chance. Yet when I went down with a bad flu it was Miers he got food for me in bed, took over my duties, and helped me in every way selflessly until I was better, then he tried to sell me a dud watch as normal.
The food was more varied than on the farm but rationed in really minute amounts. Unlike the farms we were hungry all of the time and they said that the tea was doctored with Bromide to nullify our normal sex drives. I cant say I noticed anything. We sometimes had a small rasher of bacon with fried bread for the evening meal and at our mess table was a huge smiling ginger haired Welshman who would help himself to his neighbours food with a You dont want that do you? despite ineffectual protests from his not so big neighbour. He reached over for my plate with a smile and I pulled it back and said if he touched my grub he would get my fork in his hand. He tried again and I did and he screamed out bringing the P.O. to the table to ask what was going on. We all said nothing but the P.O. knew and nodded his head. He changed Mess tables.
Basic Training finished I was rated as an Ordinary Wireless/Telegraphist and, with other, went by train to London where we were billeted ashore with a elderly Wiltshire widow, Mrs Webber, three to a room as students at Essex Technical College, Walthamstow, a wartime dispersal of London University studying mainly Maths and Electronics.
We ate at the College Canteens with other training servicemen, RAF Pilots, Army Airborne Pilots and Radiomen and a few civilians and mystery men, who were said to be Special Services. On reaching Walthamstow we were vaccinated and inoculated for several illnesses and dressed afterwards in our tight sailors tunics. By night in our billets our arms had swollen so much that we could not undress and for three nights we all slept in our uniforms. After breakfast at the Canteen, having left Mrs Webbers house about 7am, our classes started at 8am until 6 in the evening, with an hour off for lunch, six days a week.
Our studies varied from Physics relating to Electronics; Maths and Algebra applications in Physics and Electrical theory right through to the theory and practical application of tool and instrument making. We were told that we had to pass the equivalent of Inter B. Sc. in Electronics. Later in active service, when we flew ashore, or landed on some island or foreign base, we could soon be self sufficient even making our own tools from wire etc or electric meters from salvaged aircraft fittings.
We were told that we had three months to complete a condensed three year course at London University leading to a B.Sc. If anyone failed one exam, which took place every week or so, he was automatically drafted to sea as a stoker. We started with twenty-one in the class and soon dropped down to sixteen finishing at the end with fourteen ratings. I was friendly with a talkative Home Counties Englishman called Cole who was drafted to sea half way through and returned to see us at the end of our London Training having spent a couple of months as a stoker on the Atlantic convoys.
The food in the Canteen was very limited and confined mainly to potatoes and, even although our stomachs had shrunk, we were in poor condition in the London of the night bombing and food shortages, and long hours of study. In the second half of the course I had a badly poisoned arm with an ulcer the size of a penny and was kept in the college Hospital for a week or so, suffering from serious Malnutrition and Blood poisoning. This was before the days of antibiotics and I was treated with I think Thiosulphate but the little food I got in Hospital was not much better for there was just no fresh fruits or meats only the Carbohydrate diet of the general population. As I did not want to fail the frequent exams one of my friends brought me a list of his notes for each days lectures and when I was discharged from the Sick Bay rather shaky, I managed to sit and scrape through the tests that I had missed.
We were free to do anything from 6pm on the Saturday to the first lecture of the week at 8am on Monday and after the Saturday evening meal I would set off for 24 hours exploring and sampling the City of London, buying a one way ticket to the centre and hoping for a free servicemans ticket for a concert or show. These could be got at the Club for tea and newspapers run by volunteers near Piccadilly, to some event on the Sunday. I would set off with a dry facecloth, soap and toothbrush in my coat pocket, sleeping in the Underground tubes with those sheltering from the raids or in a tunnel run by some church or charity for servicemen on leave.
Soon I learnt to survive for the weekend on two and sixpence [12 1/2 p] which was a days pay but from which there were many deductions including war (?) tax - no one could ever work out what was taken off, you just took what was counted out on the top of your hat which was laid on the table at Pay Parade. From the balance you had to pay for your kit, buy replacements and eke out from the NAAFI in the shore camps cups of tea and buns to supplement your meagre rations.
It is no wonder, especially as later sea and foreign conditions were usually worse, that, since then, I cannot easily leave any food on a plate and get upset if food is wasted. There were Saturday Dances at the College attended by plenty of local girls many of whom made good money working at the nearby Rubber Balloon Factory as it was called. It was a new experience for most Servicemen to be often in the minority and to be asked after a dance out to the Pub where it was clearly understood that the lady paid!
I can still remember my confusion at the end of a dance to be told OK Tuesday, Jock, - meet me at the Four Fevvers- Ill buy you a pint Sadly most week nights were needed to swot up the current lectures. However London was an education and an experience and a glimpse of a hitherto unknown life. You must understand that pre-war, people did not holiday much and if so, it was restricted to a few hours at the most travel away by bus or train.
The night bombing was unsettling but it was either a direct hit or a clear miss and I recall making my way back one Sunday night after 24 hours in town, to the billet at Mrs Webber. It was dark with complete blackout during an air raid. My worry was getting hit with falling shrapnel from the anti- aircraft defence barrage. I knew that I was in the right street and was feeling my way along from the end counting the houses to Mrs Webbers gate - then suddenly the brick wall stopped as I felt for the familiar gate. I felt in the opening and fell on a pile of rubble and in the brief flash of a searchlight saw a gap in the continuous row of houses and realised to my horror that, when I was in London on the Saturday night, a bomb had demolished the house and everything in it. The searchlights lit the sky again and I could just make out that the next house was Mrs Webbers neighbour and I had miscounted in the dark. She made me a cup of unsweetened cocoa while she told me of the bombing.
We had about five months of intensive cramming where the Lecturers allowed no time for questions, saying as I recall one Lecturer Mr Peacock did when I queried a point That is advanced Calculus which we cannot cover. Either accept what I say or see me after the lecture and I give you the background text books. I accepted; for after 10 hours of study, six days a week I had no stomach for extra learning.
The weary fourteen survivors of the course passed out and we were posted to Culcheth in Lancashire to the Naval Radio and Radar School.
HMS. Aerial was a typical wartime camp of Nissen huts, concrete block and asbestos sheet roofed dormitories, tarmac roads with white painted verges and strips of poor grass, bare trestle table and forms in the mess halls The buildings were roofed with open angle iron strutted rafters lined inside with plasterboard.
There were Wrens as well as ratings under training so we had dances, Cinema and some social life and, as we had completed the theory of Physics and Electronics etc and were concentrating on the practical circuits operation, repair and installation of the dozen or so British and American Radio Transmitters and Receivers currently in Allied use, and the first few Radar sets that were being fitted to certain Aircraft. Although I never had any need for it, we had to pass thirty words a minute in Morse Key sending and receiving, as well as Semaphore. Such equipment as IFFY [Identification of Friend or Foe] beacons and Automatic Homing Device and other which came later into use during active service, we studied any accompanying information and circuit traced and worked out how it worked as and when we had to.
Later crouched in a Barracuda trying to get the equipment going before we could fly, I calculated roughly that there was probably over a thousand wires in all the interconnected Radio cables which just might be faulty. The training and subsequent duty was a pitiless lesson in pure applied logic where, because for example a certain light or radio cycle was noted to be working, then certain sections of the circuits could be mentally dismissed as in order, narrowing the likelihood that the fault could be found in the remaining circuits. If you were wrong the aircraft was endangered in flight - and we were just eighteen or so years old!
But back to HMS Ariel and such limited Social life as was open to those under training. Shore leave was allowed on Saturday and Sunday from 12 and 12.30 p.m. for the Wrens and 12.30 and 1.00 p.m. for the rating. The midday meal in the mess was from midday and the ratings cleaned ship until then. For those of us who had arranged to partner a Wren to Manchester to the Cinema and coffee at the Kardoma Cafe [the only place that good fresh coffee could be readily bought then], it meant that the 12.30 Liberty boat parade was the only time you could go ashore at the same time as the Wrens. Unfortunately that left less than half an hour to get back to your mess, clean up and change into your No. 1rig and no time to eat at the mess. The Wrens ate earlier.
Food was something you did not miss and I worked out that if I volunteered for the unpopular job of cleaning the Heads [WCs] and the Wash places which adjoined our sleeping quarters, the I had time to do the cleaning, wash and change for going ashore, pull over everything my overalls before 11.30 am when Mr Symmonds, the Warrant Officer Lieutenant in charge carried out his inspection - which I made sure was faultless. So at midday when the Bugle sounded I stripped off the overalls, picked up my coat and hat, had a quick lunch and was lined up at the gates at 12.30 to join the wrens issuing from the other gate and Hi Ho a clear run ashore without keeping anyone waiting.
On the third week running at inspection of the Washrooms, Mr Symmonds said Good, Good and then Whats your name ? Youve done this before !My heart sank. I had been found out and recognised. I would miss the 12.30 Liberty Parade. Davidson Sir and I waited for the worst. Very Good said the W/O Youre a keen type Davidson volunteering to do the Heads. Ill recommend you for promotion.
Later on board the Vengeance, I learned from Dicky Bird , the Squadron Writer that my papers were marked Suitable for Consideration for Commission.
Towards the end of the training we were given the first decent leave 7 days, starting after noon where I could go back to Aberdeen which was the best of a days journey from Lancashire and 2 or 3 of us decided not to go back to Manchester to the main Rail line but to try and hitch a lift north to Preston and save perhaps half a day. We eventually did get a lift in the enclosed back of a furniture lorry, but when we got out at the station in Preston the jolting, bumping van had been so dirty and dusty that we emerged like black faced minstrels with our spotless No. 1 uniforms foul and even half an hours cleaning in the G.N.W. toilets, which of course had no soap during the war, did little to revive our pride in being smartly turned out servicemen.
My sister Charlotte was getting married at the end of my leave to Charlie Morrison who was a Flight Engineer in Bomber Command of the RAF, a very hazardous job with a low probability of survival. I had to report back by midnight on the Sunday night and the marriage was to take place on the Monday afternoon. I applied for an extension of leave of 24-36 hours to attend. Refused.
Then we were off to Sealand in North Wales for what was called a Commando Course which was training in Firearms, Machine Guns, Tactics the usual route marches, obstacle courses. As I had taught myself to fire with an air gun when a boy with Arthur Milne my pal on his fathers farm I was in continual trouble with the Whale Island Trained Gunnery Chief Petty Officer for crouching and not lying Y shaped when firing the old Lee Enfield. However as we lined up at the end of the Course on Parade for the issue of Marksman arm badges and Prize money to any rating who had made the seldom attained grades, I was sleeping on my feet in the back row for we had been on manoeuvres until morning and I only half heard the Officer saying that he was delighted in that there were unusually two rating who had gained the coveted Marksman badge and Prize money and he called out two names to step forward. My mate next to me nudged me sharply and another pushed me forward to the scowl of the CPO who was not pleased to see the object of his daily ridicule winning. I had 83% having lost marks in failure to control the heavy First World War machine guns and received nearly a weeks extra pay!
I was rated as a Leading Radio Mechanic having completed all training and posted to Rosyth to wait for a ship.