The Vengeance was built in Belfast and, I was since told, should have been ready for sea some months early, which perhaps explains why 812 trained for the best part of a year before joining a Carrier. She was the first of a class of four, the others being HMS Venerable, Glory and the Colossus.
The Barracudas flew from Ballyhalbert to the ship and the rest of the squadron embarked on Liberty Boats, former trawlers and sailed out into the Irish Sea to rendezvous with Carrier which lay well out, still under way for submarine attack, in a heavy 8 or 10 feet swell. The boats pulled alongside the cliff like side of ship with Jacobs netting hanging down the 20 or 30 feet of the rivet studded metal plates. The sea surged up and down the end of the netting and the boats crew precariously kept the bulwarks of the Liberty ship clear of entanglement with the netting and near enough, averaging perhaps 2 feet clearance.
We were told to gauge the rise and fall of the sea and to spring up to 3 feet at the top of the swell, to clutch the netting and to climb up as quickly as possible for the following men to get a purchase. If you jumped when the sea was low the swell quickly rose to cover you. We were encumbered with kitbags and haversacks that you tied round your shoulders to free your hands for the netting. We were all wide eyed. Some had to be bullied into jumping, only ingrained obedience to shouted orders saved some young 18 year old lads. Others misjudged and were soaked to the waste-to the amusement of the waiting ships crew lining the decks above. Only the skill of the boats crew saved a few from being caught between the boat and the ships side. I don't think anyone went into the water.
I watched the drill and noted the dangers. I was scared but resigned, and managed to jump on the fall of the swell and scramble frantically up part of the net and clear of the boat and sea before clutching the netting and making my way more carefully up until I was pulled kitbag and all over the storm deck stanchions by a grinning but superior AB seaman.
The Mess for the Air Arm Leading Hands was a narrow triangular passageway connecting the forward starboard weather deck below the flight deck and leading to the chain lockers and the seamans fo'castle quarters. It was perhaps some 10 feet wide curving down after 12 feet or more to 6 feet with a long mess table just clear of the passage and two 6 inch wide benches on either side and we crowded 12 to 18 at a sitting. The outward swelling curve of the ships side along the passage was infilled with lockers perhaps 3 x 2 x 2 feet on for each man. The low ceiling or bulkhead had fixed cross metal bars in 6 foot parallel strips to which our hammocks were slung at night. During the day the hammocks were lashed up and stowed in a space forward.
When all the hammocks were slung if you moved you swayed all of your neighbours in that line. You slept on your back with your knees bent up for it is impossible to lie flat in a curved hanging hammock. Along parts of the bulkhead were air ducts and the hammocks slung at favoured points could be kept cool by adjusted nozzles. I had one spot but abandoned it after I woke up during the night and saw a rat sitting in th2 air opening 2 inches from my bare toes!.
Our first night was a wild stormy gale ridden voyage into driving rain and to the open Irish Sea. We were heading for flying next morning, but the flight deck was too heaving for landing or taking off and we had "No Flying" We lay anywhere and everywhere sick and miserable on the mess forms and floors, for at "Wakey-Wakey" bugle call we had to dress and lash up and stow our hammocks. Soon the ships Regulating Chief Petty Officer staff, Mature POs and seaman drove us mercilessly up to the gale and sea lashed flight deck - probably the best thing for us although we couldn't believe it.
I and most of the others missed the next two meals but managed dry bread as the ship ran for shelter off the Coast Next day we were out in the Irish Sea approaches to the Clyde flying off first Barracudas then, I think but can't recollect for sure, landing Corsair Avengers of I think, 826 Squadron who had sailed and trained in America with US aircraft. Some of their support personal such as Engine, Airframe Mechanics and Electrical Ratings were either aboard before us or joined ship the same day.
And so we formed up, lying often at Lamlash in Arran for the night, up anchoring at 4 in the morning then out to the Atlantic to pick up and escort convoys to Belfast or to Glasgow or fly over outgoing ships in the submarine infested approaches between Northern Ireland and the Hebrides. I believe we were lucky in that by the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945, the German submarine packs had lost their French Coast Bases and were operating out of Holland, North Germany and I suppose Norway. So it was much easier and less dangerous than earlier in the War.
During this period of forming up we flew ashore to an airfield at Ayr. I don't think it was Prestwick for when I returned to Ayr after the war the airfield was empty and the town was beginning to build out towards it. We were there for a couple of weeks I think while the ship was getting some fitting done to it and we flew on to the ship in the Irish Sea , or rejoined the ship when back in Greenock. I cannot remember clearly.
Mostly we were at sea ready for flying each morning but two or three times we docked at the Tail of the Bank and were allowed a "Run Ashore" into Glasgow, a dreich empty miserable city in wartime, but inhabited by cheerful folk friendly to servicemen. We up anchored from Arran early one morning and the ships' word of mouth telegraph related a sad story. The previous night twins sailors on board, Admiralty instructions allowed them to serve together, had their 19th birthday when they were of age to start getting an daily issue of grog or watered rum which was issued to ratings. PO's CPO's got their rum neat. Officers received no such daily tot.
As they were twins all the ratings at the rum barrel left a generous "sippers" or splash back into the barrel and the inexperienced youngsters drank so much that, despite being taken to sick bay and having their stomachs pumped out, one died during the night. There was a strong warning went out from the Captain about 'dangerous practises'.
Although we were allowed ashore on one occasion from Mid day Saturday to mid day Sunday you were forbidden to leave Glasgow for it was not "Leave" and Naval Police would detain you at the railway station. We were aggrieved at this, for we had not been on leave for 7 months. As you will see we left the UK soon after and in the almost 4 years that I spent in the "Andrew" as the Navy was called by the ratings I was on leave in Aberdeen twice during training, once whilst in the UK and once 'Foreign Service Leave'. The night ashore I spent with over a hundred servicemen in a Salvation Army Services Hostel - a bit like a present day doss house with lines of beds - but there was nothing else, there being no underground tunnels or platforms in use as in London. I always bless the SA for their cups of tea and buns and shelter to men who would otherwise have to sleep out.
One afternoon I met Mrs Geddes, a widow and neighbour from Aberdeen who was the mother of the Geddes boys with whom I had been friendly before the Navy. She had been a WATS Territorial Sergeant at the outbreak of the war and had been called up and was stationed in Glasgow. She had an invitation to a wedding that evening and I was summarily invited, was made very welcome and had a whale of a time leaving the Hall and reception after midnight when all the trams had stopped in the blackout. I walked the three of four miles back to the railway station through 3 inches of snow to catch, eventually, the first morning train to Greenock, along with sailors and shipyard workers.
We would dance at Greens Playhouse, all the young men in uniform and I recall walking a young girl back to the Gorbals where, despite its bad name, I was quite safe for sailors, at least ratings, could go anywhere without comment except the most snobby hotels and restaurants catering for the "officer class only". Another afternoon I went to Rutherglen to visit one of my many maternal uncles. My mother was the youngest of 10 or 12. Uncle Alec was the "Black Sheep" of the family who were pretty conventional and right wing. He had left Aberdeen as a young man with his wife to work in Glasgow and to the hushed horror of the family, had joined the Communist party introducing Willie Gallacher, the only pre war Communist MP to the party. I was told that he was expelled from the Party "for extremism"!
My mind boggled and I knew that, as Aunt Polly, an arch Tory, had a soft word for him, I had to meet him. He was an old man retired and lived in a sitting room with books piled up every wall and looked after by an unmarried daughter of his large family. My sister and I counted that in 1951, before he died, he had exactly 101 living descendants. I was made very welcome by a gentle silver haired old man who was pleased to have a visiting nephew who argued with him on every point and belief he expounded.. He was no Red Clydeside Revolutionary but a misplaced Christian in his attitude to life and, in other circumstances would have been an eminent Professor. He was certainly a self educated Savant. He walked with me to get the bus back to Glasgow centre, arguing all the way and I promised to revisit him if we tied up at "The Tail of the Bank".
I did not see him again for we never did come back in the Vengeance.
I had, with hindsight, a funny incident about this time when we were still sailing in and out of the sheltered and open waters of the West Coast. The aircraft had all landed after a morning exercises and were lined up and lashed down to rings in the deck, aft of the flight deck ready for later flying. "Hands to dinner" had just been piped and I climbed out of a Barracuda after checking a reported u/s [unfit for service] receiver, which turned out to be a 'duff' [bad] connection., and was walking across the almost deserted deck ducking under the wing of a plane which stuck out over the port side and the sullen surging winter sea. The ship reached the end of a sheltered run into the wind off an island and changed tack to starboard and across the strong prevailing wind when the securing rope from the wing, over the open sea and down to the edge of the deck suddenly ran loose and the wind caught the wing and the aircraft started to tip up with the danger of the other wing fouling the next plane and the deck. By reflex action I grabbed the rope to secure it back pulling down on the teetering wing, when the ship lurched and , as I hung on to the rope to keep the plane level the wind howled and I swung out over the sea, hanging on to the rope and keeping the aircraft from breaking loose.
I was terrified as I saw the rushing sea below when the voice of the Deck Engineering Officer shouted "I'll get you in a minute" as the ship heeled back over and I was swung back to the deck and he held on to my legs. The ship lurched back to port and the wing swung up and he too swung out over the sea with his eyes popping he shouted" For C*****'s sake man. Hang on " and the buttons of the braces of my naval trousers and the toggles of my duffel coat started to ping off. Then we were swinging back over the deck and pulled by many hands to safety and the rope and aircraft made secure. It was all over in a few minutes but it seemed to last a lifetime.
I wasn't too sure which Officer it was and later, I wondered if he was the man whose chest was badly crushed when a barrier broke when a plane crashed into it and the wires lifted him up like a cat on a whip. I needed my tot that day!
The Vengeance sailed about 4 am in a cold wintry morning from Lamlash Bay and by daybreak we were wallowing in a heavy sea, and we thought, ready to fly off again to cover incoming ships when the ships pipe announced. "Do you hear there. Do you hear there. Attention Ships Company. There's a smudge of land off the port bow - it's Londonderry. Take a good look at it. Its the last sight of the United Kingdom you will see for some time. Our next stop is Gibraltar".
And we steamed due west and out deep into the North Atlantic, zig-zaging to present a more difficult target to U Boats. No leave. No warning. The Press Gang Royal Navy. It was a year and a half before we docked home again in Portsmouth flying the decommissioning pennant.
We seemed to sail for many days, perhaps a week or more. The aircraft were shackled down, packed as close as sardines in the Hangar Deck. >From the Arctic weather and gales of the North Atlantic in winter we sailed through storms and high seas which swept up to the weather decks. Then the seas slowly moderated and we felt a warmer sun as we sailed south east back towards Gib and land. In exposing the first bare skin to the southern sun many were red, pealing and sunburnt - which if it interfered with duties was treated as "Self inflicted wounds" and punishment. We lay off Gib with a motley collection of Naval and merchantman for most of the day, no shore leave was allowed and up anchored and the ship sailed in the gathering darkness east away from land and town and into the Mediterranean Sea.
Rumours and Gossip, called 'Buzzes' were rife on board but were seldom very accurate, for I must honestly say that the ships crew seldom knew what we were doing why we were there and very very seldom were we publicly told on the ship's Tannoy system. Much of what the Vengeance did has been incompletely and probably inaccurately pierced together by from recollection and, very often, by publications unearthed by my son Calum in later years. Then Navymen were wordlessly expected to carry out orders and not think of what was ahead.
I am also struck by the amount of anecdotes that I clearly recall but cannot always place them in an exact time and place context. Having thought about this I now aware that during these war years I and other young men seldom thought of past, which could be upsetting, but lived in the immediate present. Thought of the future was unlikely to be good therefore it was avoided. We only knew where we were when we got there if it were recognisable.
I do recall one story which was accurate and circulated in the lower mess and happened before reaching Malta. There was an older married AB whose wife became seriously ill when we were in Greenock and, supported by the Padre, he applied for 2 days compassionate leave to go home to see her. This request could have gone ahead but his Chief Petty Officer refused to allow it to go forward and, before we sailed the AB got a telegram to say that she had died. There was strong feeling in the Lower Deck and suitable retribution was solemnly promised by many, for he was widely hated. After Gib we ran into smooth seas and lovely quiet nights as we cruised steadily east. One morning I heard that it had been announced in the seamans mess that a CPO was missing presumed lost overboard by mishap during the night, and that care should be taken leaning over deck retaining stanchions. These were removable and not fixed to the deck. It was said that the incident sobered many an overbearing officer.
One morning we woke up to find the ship lying off land. It was Malta and the aircraft flew off to land at Halfar Airstrips. It was called Hellfire by the ratings having been damaged a lot before and after the African campaign. Those Squadron personnel not flying ashore embarked into liberty boats and were landed, laden with store and kit, at a small jetty. The Ship sailed on to Valetta for some refitting.
All my life I had been an avid reader of Adventure and Historical novels and I was stunned to find myself standing on the stony shore of Malta, feeling the hot sun beating down on me and gazing at the clear limpid water, at the whitewashed box like houses and smelling the strange odours of a foreign land. You must remember that in those days few people travelled or holidayed far from their homes. Foreign travel was confined to only a very few rich people. I had spent months in Spartan camps and onboard ship, underfed as was everyone in a drab cold blackout Britain with little to look forward to except minor fleeting pleasures that today I would not even notice.
Not that, as we were to find out, would our rations improve. On the contrary we had small helping of ground peanut porridge in the morning. of tiny Maltese potatoes for dinner, watery potato soup and scrawny scraps of Gods knows what meat. However we always had our tea and sugar and tinned milk A run ashore into Valetta was marvellous when we could buy a small portion of chips and a small fried egg with tea and a slice of dry bread for the princely sum of 2/6d - a days pay for a seaman. We were always hungry but it was not too bad for our stomachs had long since shrunk and we were young and unsophisticated and in pre-war depression Scotland diet was limited in scope and quantity. We never thought of complaining for we were all literally 'in the same boat'.
Ambita was the dark red wine of the small island off Malta and, for 6d you could buy a lemonade bottle full. The seamen loved it. Unfortunately it was full of lees and when tea was drunk in the morning after a night ashore the sailors were re-inebriated. I know because I was marching a Squad to the Airfield after breakfast and half of them were shaking their heads in bewilderment as they felt themselves staggering and drunk after they thought that they had sobered up. They were all over the place and a passing Naval Officer gave me a dressing down for failing to keep discipline.
We tried bathing from the rocky cliffs and shore but I still could not swim. It was a naval belief that to be able to swim in the freezing North Seas was to prolong a painful death and I still had not conquered my fear of the sea having been swept into deep water as a small child in Aberdeen Beach, surviving by luck as my feet came down on a sandy bank and Granny Davidson had to wade out in the flowing tide to get me ashore. At school I determined to learn to swim but the method of instruction then was to throw you into the deep end and if you kept sinking you were hauled out by the lifeguard hooking you by means of a long pole with a wide metal end. Essex Tech had a swimming pool and I practised swimming motions there in the shallow end with one foot touching the bottom.
I explored the perimeters of the Airfield, taken aback after broad well watered Aberdeen shire farms, to see the shallow patches of made up soil in pockets of the prevailing limestone rock, at the tiny almost windowless hovels. I compared, rather unfairly with my then narrow Scots Presbyterian outlook, the drab poverty of the country Maltese farms and houses with the colour and apparent wealth of the Chapels and churches that I visited. I will never forget my first 'run ashore' to visit Valetta, of which I had read much in the context of the Knights Templars and stories of the Napoleonic Wars. Riddington, a tall blond good looking Leading hand [Engines] who hailed from the North of England and I got off the Naval lorry carrying us from Halfar to the town at he top of the Sailors Mecca, the Ria or Via Strata known as "The Gut" for its depravity and services to the Fleet.
Riddington had ditched in the sea a mile or so off the famous Lancashire holiday resort when we were flying to Burscough Bridge and were allowed the one weeks leave that we had in the UK. He was flying Observer in one of Barracudas which had engine failure as it approached the Coast and the pilot put the plane into a dive and flattened out as near to the beach and all the sparse wartime holiday makers in the Saturday afternoon. He lost one of his shoes in his frantic scramble out of the quickly sinking aircraft and as he inflated his Mae West. He was very bitter that he had to go home on leave, he lived a couple of hours away, with his No 1s , his best uniform soaked and with an odd old borrowed shoe.
He was to receive a telegram in Sydney later to say that he was the father of a healthy Eurasian girl - but that is a other story. We were very ignorant about foreign ways and sat down in a tavern for a beer. We were greeted by two women, one in her forties and the other barely fourteen who asked us to buy them a drink as they suddenly fumbled with the buttons of our trousers. We were horrified, almost frightened and fled pushing them aside leaving our partly drunk beer and out to the safety of the street. We peered into other pubs until we came to one which was full of sailors all singing a chorus. The singer was a highly made up woman on a small stage in a the dark corner. We stood inside the thinking ."At last -its OK and safe- its full of matelots". Then the words of the Chorus dawned upon us, "Let's drop the pretences, Let's drop the farce. Lets drop our trousers. Let's have--"" and we saw that the woman was a man and we fled for the second time stopping only when we found a Seamans Mission with cups of tea.
Before flying the Pilots and Observers were briefed, but from conversation even they seemed to know little other than their course and range. I was told by some of the TAG still flying that we were exercising spotting for the Army in the Italian mainland, but the Italian front was, I would have thought, far too far north for our range. With the proliferation of Radio and now Radar equipment being fitted to the Barracudas the younger pilots, and some of the older ones, were increasingly relying on the new electronic aids and there was more pressure on the Radio Mechs - especially if and when intermittent faults developed when the planes were airborne but where the equipment worked on the deck. On occasion as we had less TAG replacements, I was under pressure to fly if there was any such defects and I had the added strain of keeping things going on top of the often nauseating manoeuvres of a bucking bronco of a plane.
There was a lot of night flying from Halfar and over a few nights we had several aircraft missing without any radio warning or knowledge of what had gone wrong. We were used to bad losses. Yet this was not the series of crashes and bad landing and take-offs. We had suffered numerous crashes and ditching in the early days in the Irish Sea. It became so bad that the aircrew were reluctant to fly. The Airframe POs spoke of cracks in the main wing internal construction and the crews conducted thorough "24 hour flying checks" virtually grounding the whole squadron.
It must be realised that each technical branch was required to sign clearance before any plane could take off' Without airworthiness not even the Captain of the Carrier could order the Squadron to fly. This was the difference between the Navy proper where obedience to any order was unquestioning and the Fleet Air Arm who were interdependent, the pilots on a man to man basis had to trust and to respect their technical ratings There were five sets of signatures required for each plane - Engines - Airframes - Electrics - Armourers - and Radio/Radar - all countersigned by the Squadron CPO [in our case an RAF Flight Sergeant].
As the number of airworthy aircraft on any day in a Squadron could vary from as much as a dozen down to even six, it was not difficult for highly trained technical ratings, worried that unknown losses might be down to their care, or lack of it, to hesitate to sign clearance. The pilots supported such interdependence.
Lieutenant Wallace, who was the Senior Observer of 812 Barracuda Squadron at that time, covers aspects of the situation in Malta in his book.
The squadron rejoined the ship cruising off Malta. I seem to remember that I flew directly aboard for some of my kit was long in coming with the stores and I was anxiously counting the days when I had served over 12 months as a Leading Hand and would be old enough to be promoted to Acting Petty Officer, Air Radio.
One afternoon in a sunny swell I was duty LRM the Barracudas were exercising being catapulted off by the Steam Hydraulic equipment over the bows on the flight deck. The bombs were in racks under each wing and I had cleared the aircraft for flying in so far as the radio equipment. It was warm and I was in shorts and sandals with my microphone and earpieces strung round my neck, lying propped against the light crane bolted directly forrard of the bridge and enjoying the heat of the sun. The Tannoy piped faintly in the background "Duty LRM 812, report to the catapult" and the rating next to me said.
"Hey Jock -Isn't that you?"
I raced to the revving Barracuda strutted up on the Hydraulics to be torn a strip off by Deck Flight Officer "Where the hell have you been. The TAG's gone sick. Do you realised that the whole ship is waiting for you?" He pointed to lines of planes props turning waiting to be catapulted off.
It was useless to say anything and I started to climb into the aft seat with its radio and machine gun [which I had been taught to use]. As I went to sit down I realised that I had no parachute to fit into the recessed plastic seat and I could not sit down. "I have no parachute" I shouted and I waited cowering under the glares of surrounding Officers and PO's while a Naval Airman raced out with one and the Deck Officer threw it up to me. As I caught it and stuffed it into the plane in a panic I pulled the release handle, the chute billowing out all around me in the confined fuselage.
I glance out feeling the shuddering plane under full throttle and saw the Deck Officers hand held bat about to signal take off. Frantically I shoved folds of chute aside so that I could get a hand purchase of the struts supporting the gun for the plane builds up to 6o knots, I was told in just over a second, and you were meant to be strapped in to prevent your face smashing into the Gun. As it was you felt your eyes popping and your cheeks pulling out in pain, which fortunately did not last long if you were airborne OK.
Officially you were meant to be strapped in. The flap up clear plastic and aluminium coping through which you climbed down into the TAG/Radio operator's seat was meant to be clipped down. However the odd plane did not become airborne and went nose first into the sea, sinking in less than a minute as the Carrier sliced past it and the safety cutter, which was swung out on its davits with its crew of seaman with oars at the ready and hanging poised to be dropped into the sea. In an emergency it would strike the water and head to pick up survivors. But I cannot recall them being successful and to this day I can remember, as I gazed to the port of the ship, the sight of a TAG friend of mine, a small dark South Englishman whose name has gone, frantically trying to open the coming hatch against the force of the sea as the Barracuda quickly submerged.
So the hatch was kept slightly open until airborne so that the pressure of the sea would not trap the hatch if the plane did not become airborne.
But back to the successfully catapulted Barracuda. Thank goodness, for the open chute might have entangled me. As it was it took me some minutes to stuff enough fabric under and behind me, enough to plug my headset socket into the radio and the plane's intercom to hear the pilot, a sub-lieutenant with whom I had flown before cursing me for inattention and delay and inability to get the interplane radio link going. I explained about the open chute and he and the Observer killed themselves laughing, quite without any sympathy at my difficulties and I got our Radio link operational.
After the exercise we headed back to land on the Carrier which naturally had steamed away from the point of takeoff. To locate the "moving airfield" another piece of radio equipment called a Homing Device was now in use. A transmitter on board the Carrier sent out four signals ABC and D. as the directional aerial travelled through a complete circle. If you picked up the signal A in an aircraft then if as you flew on it changed to B then you knew you were in a line off the starboard side of the ship and you changed direction in a zig zag course always keeping A to B back to A in your receiver. If the signal weakened you were flying away from the ship and you turned and flew back the way you had come until, in theory , the signal got stronger until you sighted the Carrier.
We couldn't find the ship nor pick up either ABC or D, Then we received a signal from the Vengeance instructing us to proceed to Halfar which was within range as the ship had been ordered to steam to North Africa. I was told rightly or otherwise it was to pursue pirates! So I found myself back in Halfar with another TAG and I think an electrical rating who had taken over an Observers place because of new electrical equipment malfunctioning. We reported to the Maltese Regulating CPO asking for accommodation. The Pilots and the Observers went to Officers or PO's Messes. The CPO was a decent fellow but we were not "on the ships compliment" so he told us we couldn't draw a rum ration and would have to sleep in a mothballed store hut.
"The new Captain's a nut from submarines waiting to go to a Mental Hospital in Blighty -so keep out of sight - you don't exist" He warned us.
I had shorts and sandals no shirt or razor or even soap, and the others werent much better but we knew the ropes and begged borrowed or otherwise "won" a shirt cups, 'eating irons' cups until we were quite organised for the few days we were stranded ashore. We were snug and comfortable hidden behind piled beds and mattresses in an otherwise boarded up Nissen Hut, careful to leave no trace of occupation when we sunbathed by the Aircraft during daylight hours.
The impossible happened. One morning the mad Captain decide to inspect the mothballed huts and, as I was the senior Leading Hand, I was piped to report to the CPO and found myself on a Charge. The Electrician had left a dirty tea stained cup by the apparently vacant beds that we used. I was very depressed as I was marched in under escort wearing a borrowed shirt hat shoes and stockings [from the unclaimed gear held by the Chief - No Name, No Claim! was his property], I was sure that this would spoil my imminent promotion to Acting PO.
The captain glared at me, picked up the dirty cup in front of him, waved it in my face and shouted " Do you know what this means. Do you" It was a question and I could only say crisply " No Sir".
"Death" He screamed "Death through filth and Germs" I stared stiffly ahead while the Chief explained I was due to fly to the Vengeance that afternoon and could not be held in custody on shore. "Case referred to his Squadron CO, Dismiss" I was marched out and after dinner we flew back to the ship which was heading east to Alexandria. The days passed as I waited in trepidation; but I heard nothing more about it and received notice of Acting PO rank and moved to the Petty Officers mess where I lived in better conditions with our own galley and Messmen. I carefully made inquiries and it appeared that the Maltese CPO had failed to pass the charge to the ship or it had been lost!
While I was waiting I was again forward of the island when the aircraft were landing and there were two bad incidents. To explain deck-landing technique at that time, as a plane came in to land it was guided down by the Deck Landing Officer with his bats in either hand, indicating to the approaching pilot to fly 'up' or 'down.' When the DLO crossed the bats [like ping pong bats] across his body it was to signify "cut engines". If all went well then the Arrester Hook under the tail of the plane would catch on one of two Arrester Wires strung across the rear of the Flight Deck. They stretched like elastic although they were of hydraulic construction.
During this time the two parallel Barriers, which were like strong steel cable fences across the Flight Deck from the Island to mid port side, would have been raised to catch the aircraft if the hooks failed to engage or even if they snapped. As soon as the hook engaged, the Barriers were dropped flat onto the deck and the plane stopped short of or over the Barriers. The Naval Airmen unhooked the plane from the Arrester Wire and the plane taxied forrard to be stacked in the bows often with wings folded back alongside any other landed craft. The Barriers shot up again to catch the next plane if not stopped by the hook.
This time the co-ordination between hook, hydraulic pull back of the Arrester Wire and the dropping of the Barrier was probably right but, at the last moment the hook either broke or slipped just as the two Barriers dropped --- and the aircraft lurched forrard. The 2nd Barrier tried to come back up but too late, for it seemed to catch a little at the plane which swung forward and to the left. I was by the crane guard along with others and I ducked down watching the tail spin towards us. The chap on the other side of the guard just gaped and the edge of the tail caught him above the eye and the top of his skull seemed to lift up. His death was instantaneous.
Another time an aircraft jumped the second Barrier and skidded towards the parked planes in the port Bow. I was climbing out of a Barracuda and saw the plane coming towards me and it looked as it would take the Barracuda over the side. So I leapt 6 feet down off the Barra rolled feet dangling over the side of the bows of the Carrier ready to drop into, as we had worked out what to do in an emergency. the safety nets tucked under the overhang of the Bows. As it happened the plane stopped in time and so did I, but I got a fright.
All through my life when I board a strange ship, I explore and memorise the exits from below decks so that, if required, I can make my way without panic if emergency stations were to sound. Such is the ingrained training that we received in our youth. It was warm when we sailed into Alexandria, after quite heavy seas in the Eastern Med. We were allowed 24 hours run ashore confined to the city.
The sights of the dirt and smells of the harbour as the Liberty Boat put us ashore, filled us all , I suppose, with wonderment. As I said earlier we were a far less sophisticated generation than today with our little knowledge of foreign parts restricted to word of mouth by a few sailors or soldiers, or from often rather inaccurate books, and from the ideas from Hollywood Films made about places the producers had never seen. It was a long walk from the docks to the centre of the town. We were plagued by beggars and greeted with hostile looks. I can't recall who my companion from the ship was when the rather dreary street opened up to a square with stalls and crowds of locals most in flowing robes and turbans. We stooped to examine then haggle for a well made pair of leather sandals.
"A shilling" the vendor said.
"Too much" we said as we had been so advised by oldhands. Eventually he stuck at sixpence which we accepted. As we paid we realise that, where we had been virtually alone at that stall, we were now surrounded two or three deep with pushing pawing begging natives who refuse to let us through. We started to be alarmed. There was two cracks or retorts which, with horror, we realised were shots, and everyone scattered, leaving us alone with the body of one unmoving native at our feet, and a second writhing nearby.
A Black Sudanese soldier walked up to the figures, replacing the spent cartridges from his carbide,. looked at the still twitching body and kicked twice at the side of the head and the figure stilled. He beckoned to us and we followed him dumbly back on to the main street where he pointed to a second distant Sudanese. We walked on realising that the route from the harbour to the centre of the city was patrolled by spaced out Sudanese soldiers or Police. It was brought home to us starkly the value of human life in the Near East!
One PO in the ships Mess decide to board a crowded tram. He was surrounded and felt hands in his pockets. He struggled and fought to the exit went down on the floor and was stripped of clothes. He finally got off the tram and was picked up by the Police left with only torn trousers. Most sailors thought it was very funny!
Alex had the biggest Naval run "Housy Housy" [Bingo} that have ever seen. I went out of interest and soon realised that, to participate, you had to know the jargon for the numbers. I saw one sailor from a destroyer win a huge sum and my companion pointed out the set procedure where the winner hired a squad of sailors to get him back unrobbed to the ship. There was a line of tough Naval Shore Patrol on duty at the door. They were armed with polished pick handles and led by Whale Island trained Gunner PO. Whale Island was a legendary savage training camp for all Gunners, Officers and Ratings.
Alex was a busy tram clanging city. We window shopped and gaped at the strange sights, again we were bothered with beggars and we met up with another shipmate 'Taffy' Harris, another Petty Officer who told a screaming insistent boy trying to sell us something or other that 'we were not interested. The Egyptian child, perhaps seven years old, turned to pester me and I walked on in silence ignoring him. But he carried on plucking at my sleeve and screaming for me to buy until I told him crisply "Beat it"
He fell back into the middle of the street and howled " Jock -you mean Aberdeeny bastard" My companions, English and Welsh killed themselves laughing and the story was recounted with amusement in the PO's mess for everyone was puzzled as to how my nationality could be known even from the two words I spoke. It was agreed that anyone who refused to buy was so termed. That night we spent in a Hotel catering for service NCO's and we were very comfortable being woken by a turbaned and gowned native with tiny cups of syrupy sweet but strong local coffee which, despite the hot morning, jolted us awake.
We had left Europe behind.
Next day we sailed at very slow speed to avoid eroding the banks through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea, where for the first time it was stifling hot. The piped 'Rig of the day' was tropical shirt and shorts and we were soon adapted to Tropical Routine which started at 6 in the morning until midday, with one break for a cup of tea in mid morning then back to work with Out Pipes.
At midday the Rum Bosuns pipe called us to our messes where each Petty Officer took his coveted turn to be Rum Bosun ensconced behind a small open barrel of powerful aromatic and undiluted spirit, not like the watered grog that the other ratings had. Each PO approached the duty Bosun who handed him a tin pannikin with a long handle brimming over with strong spirit. As was customary each recipient tipped a small slop back into the open barrel Sippers for the Bosun and tossed what I think was about a third of half a pint down the throat like drinking beer, bringing tears to the eyes of even the hardened old hands. To begin with, as I had only been used to grog, I left big sippers but as the voyage progressed and the food became even more sparse unpalatable and unappetising, the tot acted as an appetiser so that you could eat the watery mixtures dished out by our seaman Messmen and sleep for an hour or so when there was no flying.
After a snooze we all washed and shaved, dhobeyed the shorts and any shirt that we were wearing. I also had a shower in salt water which I believed kept me healthy and minimised the painful and weakening Sweat rash which laid quite a few low and was so bad with our long serving writer Dicky Bird, a London Solicitors Clerk, that he was shipped home from India.
The Air POs mess 249 was deep in the bowels of the ship and a bit roomier than the Killicks Passageway and, although many still slung their hammocks, it was so stifling hot that I, and others preferred to roll out a piece of canvas on the metal Hangar or flight deck with a blanket and a rolled half inflated issue life belt as a pillow. I liked to go to sleep staring up at the clear skies and the bright tropical stars until I was wakened one night sodden with a sudden rainstorm. After that I slept in a weather deck or under a lashed and cabled Barracuda in the Hangar Deck. Much later I won bit by bit parts of a metal framed canvas bed which lasted me until demob and I think I still have it at Coldbackie over 50 years later.
I had long got my sea legs having had many a sick stomach when we went from sheltered into stormy waters in the Irish sea and the Atlantic. I recall in the Indian Ocean where the swell was long and at times above the level of the flight deck, that I found myself supping the thin potato soup from a dish which I held balanced on the tips of my 5 left hand fingers adjusting by reflex action to avoid spillage. Later I found I could sleep stretched out on my back on a 6 inch wide mess bench which was bolted down to the deck and would in my sleep adjust my body muscles to avoid being tipped on to the deck. Again I found that I could walk along narrow corridors in the pitching craft with perfect adjusting balance and that , when I did step once again ashore had, initially, a wide stepping rolling gate that I had read about and thought was an exaggerated tale. But always if I had a few weeks ashore and sailed straight into bad stormy weather I could be sick for a couple of days, and there were many old sailors who always suffered so.