The Magic Carpet by Les Harris, Air Mechanic (L) HMS. Vengeance
This extract is kindly reproduced from the book 'The Magic Carpet' by Les Harris, which is a true, first hand and historical account of his events from memory, aboard HMS. Vengeance (November 1944 - May 1946).
.................. I met Ernie Green a slim Welsh lad from Cardiff who was an aircraft armourer and Fred Day, an engine mechanic from the Midlands. They were to become my friends; we stayed together until demob. We have never met again.
Gear was once again loaded onto a three tonner; we were issued with our travel warrants to Wallsend-on-Tyne to join the aircraft carrier Vengeance. We were accompanied by a P/O. As we stowed our gear onto the train we heard the immortal words coming from the P/O, "Don't forget you Matelots! Don't tell anyone anyone which ship you are joining".
My daydream ended when someone shook me and said, "Come on Les we are approaching Wallsend: time to get our gear". It didn't take long. This train was a corridor train, with seats on each side. Our gear was stowed in the middle so everyone call fall over it. The train was an express and we staggered out of the platform into the main area of the station, with the usual blackout restrictions as all wartime stations had. The ticket-collector did a marvellous job getting our travel warrants from us as we wrestled with our gear. I again cursed that bloody hammock. I had hauled it up and down the country and never yet slept in it. We passed out of the dimly-lit station wondering what next, when we met a little tattily dressed boy: dressed in his rig of the day. Grimy hand-me-down-shorts hanging below his knees. Stockings that defied all the attempts of his elastic-garters to keep them up. Leather boots of the type that used to rub hell out of my ankles in my school days. Completing the ensemble was a pullover full of holes. What did the little sod say.....? "Which ship are you going on Mr! the Colossus or the Vengeance?" in a thick 'Geordie' accent.
So much for our P/O's careless-talk lecture. Surely this snotty-nosed little urchin couldn't be a spy?. We walked passed him and couldn't avoid laughing. It made a farce out of the posters plastered up all over the place...... 'Careless talk costs lives'. We looked around and saw the usual three-tonner nearly invisible in the blacked-out night. It was our taxi for the next part of our journey. I couldn't help wondering at the time, why we always travelled at night. Do the navy 'top brass' think we have bats in our ancestry?. The cloned Wren driver approached and we stowed our gear onto the lorry flat, but not before four pairs of teen-age eyes had stripped her down to her naval underwear.
She had probably had the same treatment from thousands of young hopefuls. The indifference she showed proved it. Why did we feel like naughty schoolboys when we followed our gear into the wagon?. We sat opposite each other as we were whisked through the unlit streets of Wallsend. If there had been a moon or stars that night they would have been unable to shine through the thick cloud of smoke hanging over the roof-tops. The hundreds of coal fires, in row after row of terraced houses, made very sure of that. We again unloaded at the dock gates. We didn't even get her top coat off with out attempted eye strip-tease. She froze us into oblivion.
We had a problem.... we had been dropped off at the entrance to the dockyard and our Wren had driven off..... what the hell do we do next?. On our right standing in a sentry-box style of hut was a dockyard copper. An old-style 'Bobby', comfortable and obliging. "Where's the Vengeance mate?" "It's just at the bottom lads". He pointed vaguely into the distance. We hoisted our gear onto our shoulders once again and staggered down the slope in the general direction pointed out by the 'Bobby'. Way down at the bottom a dim reflected from a block of flats. What the hell was a block of flats doing in a dockyard and where was the bloody Vengeance?. We staggered a little further down the slope and realisation smacked us between the eyes. It was the Vengeance and it continued to be the Vengeance as far as the eye could see. Large parts of steel sections hung above our heads (we found out later these were the Oerlikon gun-sponsons) as we walked along the side of this steel monster, looking for a place to go aboard. The length of the ship was painted a light-green. The light cast eerie shadows as we continued our search.
There was a certain amount of wonderment and awe as we continued our search. We were going to spend a part of our life on this massive hunk of steel and we didn't know how long that would be. Would we live to the end of this conflict?. Would we ever see home again?. I do not know whether the same kind of feelings are experienced with today's enlightened youth. I know that they were very strong during my time. Every part of this dockyard was in total darkness except for a very faint light way up ahead. On our right we could just make out the brick walls of what could only be warehouses of some kind. It seemed strange to see a great floating mass of steel, where aircraft would take off and land, being parked next to what looked suspiciously like a Lancashire cotton-mill. When this huge ship was parked twelve months later in Sydney, Australia in what looked like the centre of a housing estate: a similar thought crossed my mind.
We arrived at the small light: it revealed a gangway running up the side of the ship. At the top was another small light. How the hell are we going to haul our gear to the top. "Hey! You lot!" That was the voice of welcome from the ships RPO, one of the ships coppers, doing what all RPO's do. Shout first and ask questions later. We dragged all our gear to the top.... I felt more knackered than when I was in Preston.... Who was waiting for us at the top?. The Master at Arms, 'Jaunty to us'. He was radiating with efficiency. He was also a sailor supreme: his medal ribbons, highly polished shoes and brass buttons proved it, to we three 'soon to be sailors' for the first time. He had a clip board in his left hand. "You! Harris! 120 mess. You! Day! 122 mess. You! Green! 120 mess". He seemed to know which was which, as he pointed to us, how the hell did he know this?. Because of the badges on your arms idiot. Yes I had forgotten those. "Where are they Jaunty?", "No idea lads. Find them and report back here and we will sort some grub out for you. Leave your gear here and pick it up later". The smell of fresh paint, new steel, fuel oil and rising mist for the moment blotted out the smell of the naval bullshit all ships of war drew from the Admiralty stores as a first priority over ammunition. We searched every corner of every corridor in a maze of corridors and decks. We even asked the bilge-rats and they couldn't help. They couldn't find the bilges. An hour later we returned to the area we had left the 'jaunty'. "Where the bleeding hell have you been?" was his opening remark. He knew that finding your way around an eighteen thousand tonner was slightly more difficult than the help given on a local council map.... an arrow pointing 'You are here'. "We can't find them Jaunty". I think my remark of "Maybe we are on the wrong ship" sounded funnier to me than him. "You will wish you were on another ship, if you don't find your mess in the next ten minutes". We all thought he was being a mite unreasonable by what he considered was a perfectly normal remark, delivered in a way it had taken twenty years to perfect. We decided to go in the opposite direction from the one we had previously taken. We walked about twenty yards down a corridor: passing what we learned later was the 'Jaunty's' office and facing us was.... 120.. 122.. 124.. 126..... Did that old bastard know these mess numbers were next door to his office and had sent us on a 'wild goose' chase on purpose?.
Down the left hand side of the bulkhead were wooden tables, with forms to seat eight. This table was the sum total of the mess. The table and forms on either side, were bolted down. On the opposite side were rows of lockers. At one end of the mess nearest to the 'Jaunty's' office was a space for daytime stowage of hammocks. Above and down the full length of the mess-deck were black painted rails for slinging our hammocks on.... Yes! I was about to use that damned thing I had been hauling around for ages. I had learned the time-honoured navy system of nicking the first locker, bed or hammock space.... so I applied it. We returned to the 'Jaunty' and true to his word, he organised some grub: He gave us the correct directions to the galley this time. We also thought the smirk on his face was a reflection of his thoughts. We sat around one of the mess tables drinking our 'Pussers Kai' and talked about nothing in general. The experience of being drafted to different camps was not new to any of us. The atmosphere of being aboard our first fighting-ship was different. We were getting into the war and wondered what was in store for us. Now was the time to sling that extra weight I had been cursing ever since I had joined the navy. That damned hammock. we slung them onto the over-head bars in the area we had all claimed as our own. We would later scrounge a wooden stick to hold the strings apart. Once the hammock is slung; the general idea is to swing on the bars at the side rather like a gymnast and swing the legs up and over on to the hammock. Easier said than done. Have you ever tried to wriggle into a cylinder whilst hanging from a bar?. No! Then try it sometime. At the beginning, more than one sailor said, "To hell with it" and slept on the table. The ones that did make it looked like a trussed up sausage. I made it and stared at the grey steel about three foot above me and thought.... 'Big ships at last'. When we had the wood to hold the hammock strings apart and with practice, it became easier.
"Wakey! Wakey! Rise and shine; hands off cocks pull on socks". That was the alarm-clock we heard every day we spent on the carrier.... bawled at us by the duty P/O. Do you know? getting out of that hammock was nearly as hard as getting in to it. Never get your feet caught in any part of the hammock. If you do; it means big trouble and one hell of a laugh for your mates who have no intention of helping you out of it. The hammock has to be lashed into the same shape I had been toting on my shoulder for months: with the correct number of turns decided in Nelson's days?. I could be wrong! They all slept on the deck didn't they?. Next sequence in the daily ritual was to stow them in the area provided at the end of the mess. The heads were the next priority. Using the portholes was a little more difficult than the convenient windows we all used in an emergency on shore-stations. I hadn't a clue where they were and I am sure asking the 'Jaunty' (whose bed-chamber and office were just down the corridor from our mess) wouldn't have been a good idea after the previous night's performance. I discovered it was only one deck down. Use soap, toothbrush and razor and a quick dash back to the mess. Dress in full uniform with blue jersey, a jersey in winter which always made me wonder why it was cut so low at the front. The winter breezes always found the parts I found were difficult to reach. I think the quote is.... 'Balls off a brass monkey'. We collected our breakfast from the galley (done on a rota system when organised). It wasn't too bad and then awaited for what lay in front of us.... we hadn't long to wait.... "O.K.! You dicks! Into the hangar deck; we'll sort some work out for you that shouldn't tax your brains too much". The normal diction from a big-headed Killick. We knew where the hangar deck was. We had wandered through it on our 'seek and thou shall not find' journey of last night. It was as big as our local dance floor and as well lit. There were two lifts, fore and aft for transporting aircraft to the carrier deck. "You! You! and You! up on deck, down the gangway and bring all the cases stacked on the dockside into the hangar deck". Our lovable Killick again. Ernie, Fred, myself and another new mess-mate, called Fred Gould found our way to the gangway and started to haul the cases back on board. The conversation went something like...."We have done six months technical training and ended up as bloody labourers". We hauled gear aboard for the whole of that first day, only interrupted by meal times. "O.K. lads! That's enough for today". Who said that?. Who cares?. We were to knackered. Probably the same Killick. We all laughed when Ernie in his Welsh accent said, "I am bleeding glad that's over; I feel like a bloody hod-carrier. I thought we joined the navy to see the world not feed it". He was right. The cases we had spent all day moving, were full of provisions. The next day followed the same pattern and I managed to scrounge some wood for our hammocks. Our regular navy Air Repair CPO electrical officer whom we had met briefly before we became hod-carriers, came to the mess to inform us that the air-repair division were to meet their officer. Our CPO gained our respect because he treated us with respect. That was a rare commodity in those days. "O.K. lads! Into the hangar deck and line up in three's". I was in my usual place when lining up, providing it hadn't been taken: on the back row. "Squad! Shun! Stand easy". The return of salutes and then I saw him. What was it Bogart said in Casablanca? 'Of all the gin-joints in all the world; you had to come into mine'. This was no gin-joint but 'of all the ships in all the navies' he had come to mine. He had now got himself a single wavy navy gold ring on his sleeve.... the little snotty bastard of Burscough along with his compadres had tried to prove I was lying. And I wasn't was I?. I learned he was an ex-student chemist in 'civvy street'. Those were the days when everyone was brainwashed into believing that a university degree were special. They were.... because only people with plenty of money could go to university. The number of people I know today who have shown they are just as good as the 'privileged-class'.... (my own son has a Cambridge degree) when given the opportunity of gaining those qualifications: proves undeniable fact. It was done to keep the class-riddled society we live in, on top of the tree. I watched him going down the rows in the accepted tradition of 'inspecting the troops', until he arrived on my doorstep.... his eyes did an Irish jig.... "I know you Harris! I don't want any nonsense on my ship!". His ship?. Who the hell does he think he is?. The only ship he had, was the one 'Mater' allowed him to play with in his bath.
This was the undeniable power-structure of the day. money bought education. Education gained the top jobs. Top jobs gave the power of life and death in so many ways. Proven in the first world war, in my war and so many times since. I have never objected to discipline used in the correct way (I use discipline in my music). I strongly object to archaic bullshit; bullshit which killed Canadian soldiers after the first world war was over and resulted in the death of many sailors on the carrier Glorious and her two escorts. It would seem the lives of the Norwegian Royal family secretly aboard the cruiser Devonshire were more important. That is why the Devonshire denied receiving a distress-signal. Later proven to be lies but never widely publicised. The whole ships company were gradually coming aboard and the provisioning of the ship went on daily. It was becoming like a floating city. I kept out of the way of the electrical-officer and went about the tasks we were given wondering when we would be going to sea. We learned; probably before the captain, that we were going up the coast to ammunition ship. We were looking forward to the first sea-journey the majority of us had ever made. The day arrived and the engines turned and the ship began to vibrate as the twin propellers began their task of moving this great chunk of steel away from the dockside. The dockyard 'maties' were casting off fore and aft. I was a dry-land sailor picking up the jargon. We finally got under way and moved out to sea. I am finally going to get salt in my collar. Any girl who feels lucky.... Well do you punk? (Sorry, I just couldn't help it) can touch it any time she feels like it. The English weather as usual was bloody cold. I realised I was a sailor at last, but a freezing cold one. We had little to do on this trip; it was strictly for seamen. Our duties would start when the aircraft came aboard. My thoughts centred on whether I would be sea-sick; as we moved further into the swell of the North sea, the movement of this hollow tin can reminded me of the big swing-boats of our local 'wakes' holiday fair. It was always the high-point of any child who visited the fair during my childhood. I did not become sea-sick then and have never been the victim of any form of travel sickness since: except one.... that comes later. I leaned over the handrail and watched the illusion of speed as the waves sped along the side of the ship, from prow to stern. The North sea was not a pleasant sight, we could see the coastline through the haze; the low cloud made the prospect of falling over the side very unpleasant; so we tried to keep it out of our minds.
That was my first war-time sea journey and I made myself a promise I would do my damndest to keep my feet dry for the duration. A stupid Lieutenant Commander later on in my career nearly reversed that promise. I also believe we had a destroyer escort, which was standard practice for all carriers. We had one or two arguments with destroyer crews when they objected to 'baby-sitting' us. The journey was relatively short as we turned towards the coastline. A couple of tugs came to meet us, it was obvious they were female, the way they nagged this big symbol of male superiority into place. The dockyard staff were waiting to place the cables over the bollards and once again we became a docile warehouse. Our 'wares' were not for sale.... we gave them to the enemy free of charge. I don't know whether we were ever told what port of call this was?, probably not. The ship's Captain wasn't very free with his information wherever we went. I think our little group were given a few hours ashore that evening. We probably found the nearest pub, although boozing as a young lad was never my strong point.
The ship was loading with all kinds of ammunition. Oerlikon anti-aircraft ammo, machine gun ammo for aircraft shortly to come aboard and torpedo's for the torpedo-bombers who were soon due to arrive. We sprog-sailors were getting in to the navy way as the bosun's pipes were constantly blaring down the tannoy system. "Hands to quarters clean guns". "Focsle party close up". "Emergency party close up". "Special sea duty men close up". The one we didn't mind getting used to was "Liberty men fall in". On the third day of our stay there, Ernie my Welsh pal came down to the mess and informed us, "Tomorrow we are going to Greenock in Scotland to start our 'working up' routine". He had scrounged this information from one of the seamen. They always seemed to know as much as the skipper what our next move would be.
The next day immediately after breakfast, we heard "Special sea duty men close up". This was no longer a practice; this was for real. This was our second sea-trip but now we had a feeling we were about to become a part of the real thing. It was a strange feeling. One of elation mixed with apprehension. The flag signals raised on the carrier, warning all and sundry we were storing ammunition, were lowered and stowed away. This bloody war is getting serious. The training and fun days were over. We were now a part of the Fleet Air Arm and we could get into trouble by sticking our noses into dangerous waters. The night before we left, the current members of the air repair division on board sat around and after kicking around various subjects the inevitable rose to the surface. Which bird and did she?. The two main ones were the conquests ashore by a lad who wasn't particular who he caught a dose from, the other one was, we wondered what the rest of our division would be like when they arrived. The other member of my electrical team was a lad from Mirfield, Yorkshire, Tom Heeley. We worked together but were not what you could call mates. We had very little in common. We didn't even share the same mess. We had got into the habit of folding our trousers in the regulation way: seven pleats on each leg, put them under the sea bed in the hammock and hope the pleats stayed in. The travelling iron my mother bought me on one of my home visits was priceless for this type of work. The correct way was to turn the trousers inside out before pressing them. Another throw back from Nelson's days.
The tugs' nudged us away from the dock as we slowly made our way out to sea again. We were going into the unknown. We all remembered the U-boat that had slipped into Scapa-Flow at the beginning of the war. Were there any out there waiting for us?. The journey around the Northern part of Scotland passed without incident. It was a part of Britain that wasn't a favourite of the of the majority of navy men. It was too bleak and forbidding. A draft to 'Scapa' was always greeted with groans by anyone who was unfortunate to be sent there. We finally sailed up the 'Firth of Clyde' and docked at Greenock. Whilst we were there the rest of the ship's compliment, seamen, writers, officers; including personnel of 812 and 1850 squadrons. One: an American Corsair fighter was reputed to be the fastest carrier-based aircraft of the time. The bulbous cockpit, gull-shaped wings and dark-blue livery made them very distinctive. In many ways a similar outline to the German Stuka dive-bombers. The other squadron was made up of Barracudas. A high wing monoplane with a crew of three. The intricate system of retracting the under carriage must have given the designer nightmares. We had a few trips ashore during our stay in Greenock. The impression that has stayed with me ever since, was; the grimy looking stone tenements. I have never been able to understand why so many of what is widely considered as the 'lower class' are content to endure that type of life-style.
We left Greenock and went to sea again. The Corsairs and Barracudas were due to land on the carrier.... they would be with us until the end of the war. I had been volunteered by our CPO to be the 'bats' officers assistant during the deck-landings of the aircraft. He was a Sub-Lieutenant wavy navy who was a total snob. Maybe he had spent too many nights in the ward-room with regular navy officers and learned their way of life. Every deck- landing on the Vengeance was directed by him and assisted by me. During all that time he never spoke one word to me. His name is gladly forgotten. His description?.... I am too much of a gentleman to put my true thoughts on paper.
Simulated deck-landings on the airfield at Burscough were a 'piece of cake' in comparison to landing an aircraft on the flight-deck of a carrier, rocking and rolling in the seas around the world. The carrier turned into the wind and the first aircraft could be seen in the distance. The weather wasn't bad but it wasn't like the proverbial 'mill pond'. These pilots must be bloody crazy. It circled the carrier to approach from the rear. The 'Bats' officer with illuminated bats climbed up onto the deck to face him. I was at the side of the officer on a slightly lower level, in a special platform at the side of the flight-deck. It had three, waist high walls and I had a spare set of bats connected to a battery in case of emergency. Above was a safety-net for the officer to dive in if any of the pilots had a grudge against him. The first plane arrived with it's hook extended from the rear ready to hook in one of the eight arrestor-wires slung across the deck at varying intervals. The first wire was reasonably resilient. The last very close to the crash barrier, always facing the aircraft, was designed to stop the aircraft almost immediately: very nearly tearing the hook from the back in the process. The air-handling crew were new to the game and had to learn very quickly, because when a number of planes wanted to land, the interval between, did not allow for any errors. The pilot would taxi his plane to the designated lift-well and the Corsair with wings folded would be lowered into the hangar. It would then be stowed in it's rightful position in the hangar. The lift would have already been returned to the deck ready for the next plane to land. This procedure continued until all the planes were safely aboard. Some of the landings made my hair stand on end and I wasn't in the line of fire. Maybe it was the very first time these pilots had ever landed on a carrier. As we returned to Greenock all the lads in the mess agreed.... we were now in this war for real. What next?.
A number of weeks were spent whipping the ship's crew into an efficient force. The air-repair division hadn't a great deal to do during this period, so we enjoyed the warmth of the mess. I did an occasional between flight inspection on visiting aircraft, I never found out the purpose of these visits. The Scottish climate at sea was vicious, so they issued us with duffle-coats. I was very glad of my duffle-coat when I was instructed to do a pre-flight inspection on a Seafire lashed down to the rings, to make damn sure it stayed put. It was blowing a gale and the rain was lashing down. I hadn't had breakfast and I wasn't looking forward to climbing up onto that flight-deck. I took a short cut through one of the gun-sponsons and climbed the ladder onto the heaving deck. The ship was rocking and rolling and the 'boom-boat' was slowly moving the anti-submarine nets at the mouth of the Firth to allow us to pass through. Once through, they closed them as quickly as possible. They didn't want a repeat of Scapa. I struggled into the narrow Seafire cockpit and carried out all the checks I had had bored into my brain during training at Burscough. Once complete, my signature and the pilot's, were necessary to prove I had completed my tests and he was prepared to accept the aircraft. I was leaving the cockpit when I thought I heard.... "Man Overboard". I paused and listened again. The howling gale and driving rain made it difficult to hear. I dismissed the thought, climbed down the gun-sponson and made my way to the mess. I walked passed the 'Jaunty's' office taking off my drenched duffle-coat and thinking I am glad that's over. I sat down at the table ready to eat my first meal of the day. The time was 06.00hrs. The 'cook of the mess' (each one on the mess had to take turns to go down to the galley and bring the rations for the rest of the mess) had laid the grub out and the tea-fanny (a big stainless steel bucket, which reminded me of the slopping-out bucket I had in Preston) was at the side waiting for us to dip our mugs in. The accepted practice of pouring tea into cups, was not for we lower deck fraternity. We usually spilt half of it over the mess table.
The tannoy suddenly blasted; "Man Overboard: Man the Lifeboat!" I was right: I had heard those same two words up on deck. I suddenly heard them a bloody sight closer.... in fact right behind me. "You! Man the Lifeboat!". Standing behind me was a two and a half ringer regular navy officer.... 'Jimmy the One'. I half turned and realised he was pointing his finger directly at me and my mates. We weren't very pleased. He walked past other mess-tables and came direct to us. Maybe it was because we were the nearest mess to the lifeboat. He had slight problem. We weren't seaman as such. The only rowing we had ever done was on our local park lake. We had been kept too busy learning how to keep aircraft flying: we had never learned the niceties of hauling a bloody great rowing boat about. We reluctantly got up from the bench seat and ran down the corridor passed the 'Jaunty's' office. This wonderful officer of the Royal Navy had forgotten one essential thing necessary in these type of rescue operations.... whilst he had been ordering us to 'Man the lifeboat'.... he had forgotten to order us to put on our lifebelts. Myself, Ernie, Fred and Fred Gould and two others from the mess climbed out into the storm and sat down on the wet seats of the pulling-cutter. Six very frightened young men without the slightest idea of what to do next. The wind and rain were tearing into us and we sat there huddled. We only had on our trousers and blue navy sweaters and it was bloody cold out there. We suddenly heard the subdued tones of the tannoy again. "Belay the last pipe: lifeboat crew stand down." Those were the nicest words I was ever to hear, until around eight years later a nurse told me, "You have a baby son".
We got out of that lifeboat a damned sight quicker than we got into it: drenched to the skin, we walked back to the mess, cursing the idiot officer who would have had the lot of us drowned, if that cutter had been lowered into the a sea as rough as that and from a ship that was travelling like hell to get through the booms. I wonder what the telegrams would have said?, 'Lost in action or Drowned at sea by an incompetent officer'?. I will leave you to work that one out. That officer had punched the personal panic-button. I wonder how many other servicemen have lost their lives whilst being forced to obey the commands of an officer?. I went to my locker to search for dry clothes and found the deflated lifebelt sitting on the bottom shelf.... mocking me. We finished our cold breakfast and later when the skies cleared, we looked at the cutter still slung outboard. We all realised we had been facing the wrong way. There was a sad ending. The man who had gone overboard was eventually picked up by the 'boom-boat' but died from exposure. Sailors lifebelts had a small battery-operated red light. It must have been a near miracle for anyone to have seen that small light in such rough seas. Rumours began to fly around the ship; we were all going on leave and then leaving these shores for some unknown destination. We did have leave. The Scots stayed aboard over Christmas and they would have their traditional Hogmanay during the New Year period. This was to be our last trip home for a very long time. Christmas home leave is always the best time to be with family. My mother did what she did every year at Christmas until she died at the age of 72, she held a party. I believe during that time wedding bells were discussed. My goodbyes to my family and girlfriend were tinged with more than sadness. I returned from leave with conflicting feelings. We are at last getting into the war, but when would I ever see them again? Or would I never return?. There was very little to do whilst we waited for the return of the Scots. We had the odd run ashore and passed time listening to the ship's bulletins on the progress of the war. There seemed to be a general air of 'limbo'.
January 2nd arrived and all the ship's crew were aboard: a general air of expectancy took over. Normal shore leave was cancelled. I took my turn as 'cook of the mess', on the whole the navy grub was generally first class; except when we had a week's supply of bread baked with sour flour. If you haven't tasted that you aint tasted nuttin' brother. We were tucking in to our meal when the tannoy grabbed all our attention.... "In rotation, mess deck by mess deck, will attend the Pussers stores and draw tropical gear. Details will be passed on to you by your Divisional officer". My turn came to draw gear and whilst standing behind a group of matelots I thought I had arrived at the heads by mistake. This part of the carrier had been designed by the makers of tobacco-kiosks. The fellow in front of me had great difficulty in turning round with his gear and squeezing past the rest of us, to go up the gangway. When my turn came the P/O behind the wire didn't give me time to put my elbows on the metal surface where the gear was deposited. His rhythm wasn't 'reggae', it wasn't 'rock', it wasn't jazz, it was just a monotonous "Two shorts, white Two shirts, white Two shorts, khaki One jumper, One pair of pants, white What size hat?". "Six and seven eighths". "One white hat six and seven eighths, sign here. Next". I returned to my mess and tried them on. I had a problem. Either my knees were too near my feet, or these shorts were a mite too long. I dare not take them back. Upset his rhythm? no way!. Time to bring my 'housewife' into action. This I would do later.
I and my mates stood next to the cutter that may have ended my navy career and we watched the shores of Scotland recede into the distance. We had two sister ships, one on each side. The Venerable and the ship the little Geordie urchin asked about.... The Colossus. The Venerable was to have another name in another war. Our own Vengeance was to become a test-ship for Artic gear. Our two destroyer escorts looked busy and their duty watch was probably cursing once again, their tasks of nursing these bloody big ships. We sailed through the English Channel and according to previous voyagers, the very rough Bay of Biscay. They were right, it was rough. I wasn't thinking too much about rough weather. I was more interested in the odd U-boat that was lurking around. I imagined the Captain looking through the periscope with his hat on back to front and shouting 'Loas' or something in German that sounded like that. We had been led to believe that U-boat activity had been reasonably quiet in the area. Maybe every U-boat except one had been told to leave Les alone. That was the one I was worried about. Later on in my post-war studies I realised that many of the areas the Vengeance sailed, wasn't as safe as at first we thought. The Captain decided to tell us, as we sailed through the Bay, that we were on our way to Gibraltar. During that part of the voyage I saw my first porpoise. A shoal of them were leading the ship and diving under it's bows. I suppose if I said, 'they were having a 'whale' of a time' I would be selecting the wrong word. I watched them in their own environment and even as young as I was then, I couldn't help thinking what a balls-up the human race has made in it's environment. We finally reached Gib, the weather was bright and sunny and we were once again nagged into our berth by a foreign pair of tugs, much more excitable. All off-duty men including myself were at every vantage-point. My first glimpse of a foreign shore. A new country, a new adventure. An official boat came alongside, but not before we had been surrounded with the usual hotchpotch of craft as we made our way into port. A routine we encountered in every foreign port we entered.
I looked around and the first impression I had, was how orange the faces of the boatmen looked. These were the first foreigners I had seen with one exception: the turbaned Indian selling wares from an open suitcase on my mother's doorstep. Their faces weren't orange; yet it is an impression that has stayed with me ever since I first saw them. We had already been told to change into tropical gear. (Thought! this navy issue has to be replaced with one that didn't feel so bloody stiff) We amused ourselves by telling the boat inhabitants, trying to sell us their dubious wares to "Piss Off". They took no notice and still tried to sell us their dubious wares. It always puzzled me how they had the remotest possibility of flogging gear up to us from 30 or 40 feet below. The double-glazing leeches have had the same success as the boatmen had, when trying to flog it at my door. Zero....
We returned to the mess and it was a lot hotter than on deck. The mail had arrived and the usual questions of "Any for me?" came from all directions. I received a letter from my mother informing me, they had managed to get a special licence for me to marry Joan. We were engaged and that was the thing to do in those days. I don't honestly believe I ever asked her about marriage. It was obvious they didn't know I had left Britain, never to see them again for nearly two years. I read this letter a number of times. I was just 19 years old with split loyalties. And strangely relieved. Was I too young to get married? What was in the future if I did get married? Would I survive the war? These questions went unanswered for many servicemen during the last war.
I missed the first night ashore, because once again Port watch were on duty watch. We always waited for the comments of the Starboard watch when they returned, with the usual tales of the 'birds' they had pulled.... mostly bloody lies. These 'big-ship' sailors with their 'jack me hearty' spiel never mentioned they had been spewing their 'rings' up on the way there. "Liberty men fall in". That's us: we all had managed some way or other to have a tidly suit made (we wouldn't be seen dead ashore with pusser's issue). Our blue collars were now the sea-going sailor pale blue. Most of it from a bleach bottle. We had on blue suits, but the rig of the day at that time was white hat, with the ribbon bow, which should have been over the left side of your hat, neatly over your left eye. We made a swift trip down the gangway, onto the dockside and through the dock gates. Ernie and myself paired off and met with the problem of being in a strange place for the first time.... 'Where the hell do we go?' We were big boys now. We were still under twenty years old but the navy, in it's wisdom allowed us out until midnight. That was another puzzler for me. I wasn't old enough to stay out all night, but Nelson and his mob had no objection to me being killed at that age. Maybe being killed was all right providing I had had a good nights sleep beforehand.
We had a short walk up into town.... what town? One main street at the bottom of a very large rock and most places closed. Under the archway which is part of the route for the 'ceremony of the keys' (another traditional British bullshit parade). I have always thought, if we could bottle British bullshit and sell it to the rest of the world, we could all retire in comfort.
Eventually we found a bar. We wandered inside and because it was our first trip from the shores of Britain we expected all kinds of Eastern erotica. A regular diet of Hollywood films was all that was needed to fuel young lads illusions. The only erotic illusion was a well worn carpet on the floor and a plant standing in the corner, it nearly touched the ceiling. The interior was dark and dismal with a few tables scattered around. 'Veiled dancing girls', there were not. I looked at the plant and it looked the the 'Biggest Aspidistra in the World' as Gracie Fields mentioned so often in her song. A barmaid came out of the dimness and another illusion was shattered. The starboard watch had neglected to tell us the barmaid had more lines on her face than Clapham Junction. We had the biggest illusion still waiting for us. It came when she said, "What would you like to drink boys?". Ernie looked at me. I looked at Ernie. She spoke in broad bloody Yorkshire. We had a couple of beers, what brand? Who knows! We left the bar nursing the rest of our three shillings and nine pence in our pockets. We really appreciated the generosity of a nation who managed to pay us the equivalent of 20p. a day in today's currency. If you add the midnight curfew and if we were killed the next day, it would be a well rested alcohol-free corpse they buried at sea.
Gibraltar was a strangely deserted place with very little to do. The next day and the following week was full of activity with regular sea-trips in the Med, destroyers always in attendance: pilots and deck crew were beginning to reach operational standards. My operational stint with the 'bats officer' gave me a front row seat, as I watched the the pilots' ever increasing efficiency, with their attempts to hook up to the first cable as they landed on the carrier-deck. Occasionally a pilot would get it wrong and nearly decapitate the 'Bats Officer'. The safety net above my head was there just for that purpose. He would throw the bats down and dive into the net. There was a mad scramble to get back again with a fresh pair of 'Bats' shoved into his hands. The aircraft were working up to around a minute between landings and the whole point of the exercise depended on a complete understanding from everybody.
When the plane hooked up, the crash barrier was lowered and the air-handling party, made up of the ship's crew chosen for the task, would take the plane down the lift or stow it to one side, depending on the decisions made by 'Commander Flying'. The crash barrier would be raised again ready for the next aircraft which by that time should be on it's landing approach. Me?. I had to collect the bats thrown down earlier and hopefully not fall over the 'Bats Officer' in the process. I and the rest of the lads had a certain pride in being in the team, but the officer/low deck atmosphere was always there. 'Bats' never spoke a word to me all the time I worked with him.
I had a keen interest in all sports and was a member of the ships football and boxing team. A football match was arranged by our PTI with an RAF team based on Gib. We played on their local stadium. The pitch? Concrete? Hardened dirt? Who knows? It certainly wasn't grass. Acrobatic skills were needed even to trap the ball. It seemed very strange after playing football on the green fields of England and in the miserable climate, to be playing on a rock-hard pitch, with a bloody great rock on one side and ocean on the other. Immediately above, the sun was trying to burn a hole in my scalp. Our team ambled onto the 'limb-breaking' pitch to meet our 'Brylcream Boys'. I had a pleasant surprise when I saw a 'Townie' of mine. A lad called Graham Elliott who I had played alongside, in a Sunday school team, a number of years before.