Myself, Ernie and the two Fred's decided to take a trip up the Rock to see the rock apes. Legend has it.... 'When the apes leave the rock, British rule will cease'. (Now I know why we saw Spaniards with rifles trying to knock them off).... Only joking!.
We again made a trip up the Med., my sea legs by this time, had learned how to keep me upright whilst the ship was doing a samba. We suddenly saw our escort destroyers scuttling around in circles and explosions sending great gushes of water skywards. I had seen my first depth-charges. Was I scared? Not really. We were too busy and we all carried the optimistic fail-safe mechanism.... it won't happen to me. We never did find out the reason for those depth-charges. I consider it strange, because we nearly always found out the important news one way or another. I think one of the most memorable collections I have of my war service was, when one evening in the Med., my friends and myself sat as far forward on the prow of the carrier, way in front of the rails: a barrier designed to keep sailors on the safe side. We were actually on the downward slope as near to falling in the oggin as is possible. The sea was calm and we watched the waves go by the gently swaying carrier. We saw the florescence on the waves and we basked in the warm breeze. Maybe this was as near to complete peace as death itself?.
The working up had slowed down a little and we had time on our hands. The PTI decided to organise a boxing match. He had a unique way of doing this. He walked onto our mess-deck and volunteered Fred Gould to fight me. A ring was built on the flight-deck with proper ringside seating arrangements. There weren't any ticket-touts, it was free. Anyone not on duty could claim one. The officers as usual, had the seats nearest to the ring. Our bout was down at number six. Fred was taller than me and around fourteen pounds heavier. Minor items like that were no concern of our PTI. He wasn't about to have his head knocked off now, was he?. Fred and the PTI didn't know my slight disadvantage. I had fought in the ATC championships before I joined the FAA. I hadn't done any serious boxing training for a long time.... so!. My experience might give me an edge against the weight advantage. In theory it means I shouldn't get hurt as much. I did not know whether Fred had any prior boxing experience. I was soon to find out. We climbed into the ring, sitting on a stool in opposite corners waiting to be announced. It had happened to me before and the only thought on my mind was.... let's get on with it. In my boxing days, bouts were judged from outside the ring. It wasn't considered necessary to have a person on hand to stop amateurs from head-butting, or ear biting. We were all supposed to be 'gentlemen'?. There was a slight problem with that theory at this particular time. The 'judge' was an officer.... did he know anything about boxing?. Would he care too much if two ratings were more than happy to knock 'shit' out of each other?.... The bell sounded and I circled Fred, wondering. He caught me once or twice with his wild swings. I guessed he didn't know much about the 'niceties' of boxing: that wasn't important!. What was important, was Fred who seemed to be getting in the 'swing' of things, those 'haymakers' hurt. The bell went for the end of the first round so I thought it was time to get serious. The Doc came to examine a cut over my left eye. I didn't even know I had one. He said it was perfectly OK for me to be punched some more. Fred told me later in the mess, the look I gave him across the ring made him worry a bit. One of the other lads said, "I thought you two were mates until you started to knock seven bells of shit out of each other". The bell went for the second round and I managed to dodge most of his.... 'best shots'. My ATC days helped me to overcome his height and weight advantage. It also proved to me how unfit I was in boxing terms. We both returned to our stools thanking God the second round was over. We were knackered. I had to get this next round over so I went into the centre of the ring and adopted my own particular fighting stance, I slowly circled Fred and looked him straight in the eye. I did what has since been called the 'Ali, Shuffle'.... absolute truth!. I did exactly that. The crowd who had cheered and booed just to prove they were enjoying themselves; burst out laughing. This was an amateur behaving like a Pro. That was all the encouragement I needed, so I moved in. I jabbed, I circled, I danced: Fred couldn't decide to fight me or waltz with me. The crowd cheered and laughed and I belted Fred, just for kicks. The bell signalled the end of the round and I was declared the winner. If I had had the energy I would have jumped over ropes.
That night heralded a long friendship with a London lad; Bert Hern. He came down to the mess afterwards and said, "Where did you learn that dance-routine?. Your mate looked like he was being hypnotised by a snake". "Aye! the bastard made me look like a right dick" said our Fred. He smiled as he said it. Bert was about my height, but probably the same weight as Fred. He had a battered nose which suggested he had forgotten to duck on a few occasions. I told him I had done a 'bit' in the ATC, so it was decided that night to get a boxing team together. The PTI was enthusiastic, so we managed to persuade him to erect the boxing ring in the hangar and leave it there permanently. The Squadrons weren't too happy shifting their planes around it, but we eventually won them over.
The days passed in idyllic fashion and now I was far from home, I settled down to the navy way of life. Bert and myself got down to some serious training in order to become 'boxing fit'. Night after night when our duties were over we tortured ourselves. One or two enthusiasts came into the hangar to train. I was the only one from my mess who was interested. Fred decided his first bout would be his last bout. Ernie and Fred Day decided playing cards was enough exercise. Bert and myself spent a lot of time in the ring together. He was a lot heavier than me; hit me hard enough for it to count, but never took advantage. I dug him back a few times. I always remember a Jewish lad called Harry Raffe. (he was built like a gorilla) He was round shouldered had black hair from his back and a chest that would made 'Bigfoot' jealous. He looked like Ernest Borgnine the American film star. He had one slight advantage.... he was about fifty ponds heavier than me. I could have sworn his fingers brushed the floor when he walked. He decided I was heavy enough for him and wanted me to spar with him. He then proceeded to batter shit out of me. I ducked and I dived and I jabbed. Have you ever tried to stop a charging Rhino?. Bert was timing the rounds and blew the whistle. Harry ambled back to his corner and I half expected him to beat his fists on his chest. Bert pointed out to Harry there was a slight weight disadvantage (the under statement of the year) and to take it easy. There was no doubt about it, Harry's relatives once had Tarzan for a friend. He didn't understand a word of English and proved it by continuing with his 'law of the jungle'.... "Bollocks! That's it!" I climbed out of the ring, "You must think I am a dick". Harry took the gloves off and shambled away, making grunting noises. We never saw him in the hangar again. I was beginning to think I looked a soft touch.... first the PTI at Gosling, now the gorilla.
The carriers and their escorts were making frequent trips in the Med. and the pilots and deck-crew were working up to an efficiency. We had never been told where we were going, but it was pretty obvious we were going to take on the Japs. My friend? the Bats officer was becoming adept at diving in the net, dodging incoming aircraft who hadn't got it quite right. Life in the Med. was pleasant and this routine would have been preferred by everyone until the end of the war. I had volunteered twice, against my 'better judgement'. Once with piano and the other in the boxing-ring. This time the Captain volunteered the whole of the ship's company for another of Britain's archaic bullshit parades. 'The ceremony of the keys'. The only people lucky enough not to have to go were the squadron's and essential personnel. We were marched from the dock-side along a pre-determined route around Gib. I think this culminated at the Governor's Palace. A hang-over from the palatial no-expense days of the British Empire. A set of keys were toted a velvet cushion: a smart salute: smart about turn. The keys were then handed over to some high-ranking bod. The reason for this ridiculous ceremony escaped me then and still escapes me now. Maybe it was designed to show the natives we still believed in the 'Great White Queen Across The Water' myth.
I have never been able to solve a puzzle, I have had ever since leaving the navy. Lads around eighteen, nineteen, would dodge every bullshit parade they could, because they hated them. Why then?, years after in their seventies, are they prepared to march with banners flying and salute a man, their taxes have been keeping in luxury all his life?. It doesn't make sense!.
We eventually left Gib. for the last time, never to return. Our destination?. Only the Captain knew and he wasn't about to broadcast it to the rest of us. Before we left we had received mail again from home, something we all looked forward to. It was always censored by the officers, in wartime, partly understandable. Yet it was the old class-system Britain thrived on. Sew gold rings on your sleeves and your country's secrets were safe. If you are a member of the 'lower deck' then we were all a bunch of babbling idiots, with a direct line to Hitler. That's a laugh. Post-war events have shot holes in that class theory. In later years I have discovered a side of Britain that is conveniently covered up in our historic past.
The further we moved away from Gib. the weather became increasingly hotter. To call our mess, air-conditioned would be a major over statement. It was very close to the air-lock door leading to the engine-room. Heat found it's way in, making it unbearable. There were many occasions when we would leave the mess, take portable camp beds and sleep under the aircraft on the flight-deck. These were always ranged ready for immediate take-off. One of my duties was to look after the aircraft batteries. I collected the distilled water from the engine-room. The moment I opened the first door to the air-lock, the heat increased to a stifling intensity. Open the second door and it was literally like entering a blast furnace. I would walk down the metal gangway into the depths to reach the evaporator, the heat became unbearable. Directly below me were the two main shafts which turned the two screws. The vibration felt on the upper-deck was nothing compared to the noise and movement of virtually sitting on top of those shafts. I then staggered past two air-ducts with my large glass container, they blasted hot air onto my scalp. It was supposed to be cool air. I felt like a tattooist playing the 'flight of the bumble-bee'. My hair bristled as I walked into the engine room. I eventually reached the evaporator, filled the two gallon bottle and went back as quickly as I could into the cooling 85 degrees atmosphere. It probably took me five minutes to complete and yet I was soaked in sweat and had to change all my clothes. I made that trip on a regular basis and it was always the same. How the engine-room crew withstood it is beyond me.
Aircraft flew off all three carriers on increased patrols and the atmosphere seemed to be more intense. We wondered; but were never told. I was on regular duty with the 'bats' and during a lull I saw two aircraft take off from the 'Venerable', I believe they were Fairey Fulmars. They went through the normal routine of leaving the carrier-deck and banking away. They took off in quick succession, one banked to the right and one banked to the left. I could see what was about to happen. They banked in unison and hit head on. The cockpits of both planes were open, which was normal practice on take-off. Both planes nose-dived into the sea very close to our own ship. The sea began to bubble as the two planes locked together, sunk below the surface. The pilots never stood a chance of getting out. They were strapped in. It was over so quickly and the only sign of two young men losing their lives in such a useless fashion was the ever widening circle of water, light green in colour and the air bubbles coming to the surface. There wasn't anything anyone could do as our ship passed by. I looked backwards and saw the green circle of water had returned to normal and the bubbling had ceased. The sea had claimed two more victims. The term 'War is Hell' was made by an enlightened person. Yes! It is. But never for the power-mad individuals who start these wars and sit them out along with heads of state in complete safety. They don't really mind building memorials and doing the yearly facade of remembering: that's the only 'war' effort they ever make.
That tragic accident reminds me of a similar loss of life of two individuals on board the Vengeance. It was destined to alter the KR's and AI's (Kings Regulations and Admiralty Instructions). They still stand to this day. I was reminded of it in the late 50's when I was invited onto a naval minesweeper in the Philippines, by a couple of PO's I met in a bar. The 'Tot' was still going strong then. I was handed a 'neaters' which nearly choked me: I had forgotten how strong they were. In my time in the navy, dating back from the Nelson's days, or maybe before, each crew member was given a rum ration, depending whether you were old enough. This was dished out by the 'rum-bosun', at 11am. on each day: usually an old sea-dog who was adept at sticking his thumb in his own measuring can, to dish out the ration to each individual 'cook of the mess'. The officer overseeing the ration told the bosun which mess and how much each mess was entitled to. For ranks below Petty Officer the ration consisted of two and one (watered down rum), all ranks above, had undiluted rum. The rum of that period would have made cyanide seem like a mild sedative. The rum came in barrels and the Bosun had a metal can that had tot measurements on. Depending on the number in the mess, depended on the number he dished out. The bosun was always happy when the number of tots reached the top of his can. His thumb meant that each mess was a thumbful short. If you count the number of mess decks on large ships: it was clear that the bosun's thumb became more of an asset than the 'Mona Lisa' ever was to the artist. The surplus rum was supposedly dumped overboard.... Nelson again?.... it depended how conscientious or alert the duty-officer was.
Giving 'sippers' was the illegal tradition of giving someone a sip of your ration for doing you a favour, or on a birthday. We were anchored in Greenock, before we left for destinations unknown. Twin torpedo men were celebrating their twenty first birthday. The amount of 'sippers' given on this occasion filled a large jug. This was a challenge no sailor could refuse. From 11am. onwards they drank the lot. This is one of the rare occasions when the navy top-brass turned a Nelson's eye.... the blind one. They then settled down to sleep it off, one on the table and the other on the bench at the side of the table. They still slept when the 'cooks to the galley' was called. Six pm. arrived and they hadn't stirred: their mates began to realise something was wrong. The surgeon was called and frantic efforts were made to bring them round. It didn't work and they died. Whether their lives would have been saved today, who knows?. Shock waves went through the entire ship. Rumours were rife. Alcoholic poisoning?, Choked on their own vomit?. I never did find out the reason. This was a death that had an effect on everyone. The giving of 'sippers' was over, at least on the Vengeance. Another navy tradition was resurrected, one we didn't mind. The kit of the dead sailors were auctioned off and the proceeds given to the next of kin. If you hadn't enough cash, you could have it deducted from your next pay-day. A fiver was given for a handkerchief and then thrown back on the pile. £5 was a fortune in those days. My pay was four shillings and three pence per day. Approximately twenty five pence in today's currency.
We finally arrived in Malta and the S.S. Ohio was there on the bottom exactly as it had ended it's voyage: the legend of the way that ship and many others had run the gauntlet of the U-boats will last forever. Evidence of the constant bombing was all around us. The bomb scarred buildings were proof once again of the unbelievable folly of the human race. We slowly moved into position and dropped anchor. The first boat leaving the ship was usually the mail-boat. There was always an excited air about the mess when it returned. Our mail was the only link we had with home. Each new port had a similar effect on us. It was an adventure for young men of my time. Blackpool and Rhyl were as far as we ever ventured, unlike the young people of today where a trip across to the continent is the norm. There was nearly always an air of disappointment when we went ashore. Probably because we had been fed on a diet of Hollywood films and these exotic places seemed to have a distinctive smell. This was hardly surprising considering the number of unwashed characters we met. Many tales were spun by sailors and to say they were slightly exaggerated would be a reasonable assumption.
One of the stories that was a major part of naval folklore was the legendary 'Gut' of Malta. The tales we had heard about the debauchery in that narrow corridor of clubs and so-called erotica, compared with the versions the enlightened youth of today accept as the norm: would make them think they were on a school trip. In our enlightened years, the anything goes attitude on national TV makes me wonder how far down we are gone and how much further are we going?, until someone says ENOUGH!. Fred, Ernie and myself were not the youth of today, so! we were anxious to see for ourselves, to discover whether all the tales were true. Port Watch this time, was first ashore. This gave us the opportunity to be the first back on board and 'shoot the line' to our starboard mates for a change. We had on white tidly suits.... can't remember where we had them made. The coxswain of the liberty-boat who had deposited us and the rest of the liberty-men ashore, told us the time, the last boat would return us back to the ship.... "Don't be late". Depending on how many went ashore depended whether we got it right.... First liberty-boat ashore.... Last liberty-boat back.... It was the first time we had been ashore in a middle-eastern country. It looked very dry and sandy and all the buildings were of identical structure, sandstone blocks!. We wandered around this unfamiliar place until we found the 'Gut': the real name was Strait Street. It would have been called a 'Ginnel' in my mother's days. A very narrow alley with 'man traps' at convenient intervals. All these buildings required were outside toilets in the backyard and they wouldn't have been very different to the average homes of the British working-class. Everyone of the clubs had the usual bait.... Women!. There were a few of the lads from other ships in the 'gut', so we followed into one that seemed to be attracting most of them. The bar was very dimly lit, with terrazzo-tiled floors and a round table. There was something missing to make it perfect.... Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet and Bogart. Where had they stashed the Maltese Falcon?. The bar-man with black moustache, black hair and penetrating eyes would have been a natural for 'Casablanca', all he needed was a fez. You could see him licking his lips thinking, 'here we have more lambs heading for the slaughter'. He was out of luck, the navy made sure of that, they had already 'fleeced' us. "Three beers please". If he couldn't speak English he was going to lose a sale. Two girls appeared from nowhere. They didn't have the 'special effects' in the forties, they didn't need them: Maybe they liked the smell of sterling, they just appeared from nowhere. We sat down at the table and they sat down at the table. If that was their idea of allure, they should change their tactics or maybe the time-scale. The gear they wore was fashionable in Victoria's days. Their faces first met the light of day around the same time. For young innocent? lads of our time: the first Eastern women we had encountered: it was mysterious. Two drinks were shared between us for the two 'ugly sisters'. We counted the change and wished we hadn't succumbed to their 'allure'?. The 'gut' knew about inflation long before Britain.
We wandered around again until we saw a group of matelots entering another building.... so-o! we followed. The room was 'heaving'. As we walked in we saw the equivalent of 'Boy George'. Make-up on a man in our days always gained them the description of 'Arse Bandit'. This man was heavily made up, but he had the five o'clock shadow which would have made 'Desperate Dan' jealous. His name?.... 'Sugar'!. He wore a frilly-blouse, goucho style trousers and high-heels. He had a partner who was togged out in the same manner. His name.... Frankie. These two dears were supposed to be local A/B's.... I repeat.... A/B's. Britain and the world have made the description easier to follow.... they call them.... 'Gays'.... I have never been able to understand what is merry, happy and 'Gay' in the performance carried out by two men. Maybe my education has been lacking. There was a major problem for the A/B's (Arse Bandits) of our days. Very few sailors could stand them. We had a certain amount of sympathy for males who were born with this unnatural condition. To be propositioned by one was considered the biggest insult you could inflict on a matelot. Sugar and Frankie hung around selling and signing photographs. (I had one but lost it) They were about as 'queer' as Giant Haystacks. They were there for one reason only, to bring in the mugs whose curiosity had been aroused by the 'lines' shot by previous visitors. They were very successful. Me and my mates were there, were we not?. Rumour had it, that Sugar was an ex-boxer. Judging by the size of him, I could believe it. We sat in the bar feeling like Redskins who burnt green leaves in their tepee's. The smoke was like a London fog. The jungle telegraph (every port has one).... 'Sailors ready to be shorn like sheep'.... had been sending signals down the 'Gut'. You could practically hear the drums when the back door opened and a little ferret sidled in. Double-breasted suit, a shirt and tie, a Humphrey Bogart style hat, wide brim pulled over his eyes and two toned shoes, so popular in the private-eye movies. He must have a built-in air conditioner, he hadn't one single drop of sweat on his face. The rest of us thought we were in 'Dante's Inferno'. If this character had had A/B tattooed on his forehead he couldn't have been more blatant as he advertised his wares.... I think that is what you might call them. (Even Sugar snubbed him) A matelot asked him for a dance and during the cameo of two men dancing together, negotiations were taking place. It was so obvious it made the hairs in our scalps tingle with disgust. The negotiations ended, agreement was reached and they both made for the back door. The ferret went through first. The sailor turned with a wolfish grin and a knowing wink on his face. realisation dawned. The ferret didn't know what he had let himself in for.... He was about to find out. Within ten minutes the matelot was back again with a Glaswegian accent and a grin like a Cheshire cat, he said, "That little bastard won't be bending over again for a very long time". We never did find out what he meant, but shuddered at what we thought he meant. After we exhausted our curiosity of the 'Gut', we strolled round to the liberty-boat pick-up place. (The place was called Beegi Beegi: phonetic pronunciation) We were a little early and retraced our steps nearer to the town centre. We arrived at the corner of a building and the place became alive with matelots. Cries of Vengeance! Vengeance! from all directions. Maltese civvies and Vengeance matelots were battling with each other. We were on the fringe, so we fought of the stragglers. A row had started because someone had thrown a brick through the window of a single-decker bus. An RAF corporal had accused a matelot who was completely innocent. A matelot who had already survived a torpedo attack on his previous ship. So he belted the corporal in the mouth. Assorted Maltese decided to get in the act, so he flattened them also. He was beginning to enjoy himself so he looked around for more, he invited the Vengeance port watch t join in the fun so they streamed out of the various dens of.... what is the word?.... Inequity and answered the rallying call. We made our way back through the narrow streets to pick up the liberty-boat. The Vengeance gladiators began to roll up, in assorted conditions, some with blood all over their white suits, tidly suits torn, one happy individual arrived with what looked like a perfectly acceptable sports-coat. He had captured it from a defeated foe and seemed very pleased with himself. Suddenly around the corner of the building where we were all discussing and agreeing a happy time had been had by all, a vision appeared. It was Harry Metcalfe. He had left his youthful days behind and was quite a bit older than the rest of us. He was about nine stone, wet through and the last person you would expect to be in a brawl. He was sporting the worst black-eye I have ever seen. We asked him how he managed to get involved in the fight. "I haven't been in the fight. I was walking past this building and a little bastard stepped out and thumped me, then disappeared". It would have been unsporting to laugh, but the sight of Metcalfe holding his eye and looking bloody miserable is a sight I don't think anyone of us has ever forgotten. The liberty-boat came, we all boarded and arrived back at the carrier. We climbed the gangway and the duty officer and duty hand standing there, didn't miss the condition of the returning watch, but for some reason decided, for this one time, discretion was the better part of valour. Looking at the state of some of the lads, maybe a little more discretion on their part would have done their valour a good turn. Maybe the fact this officer was an 'hostilities only officer', instead of a time served one, had something to do with it. We climbed into our hammocks and slept the sleep of the righteous!.
The next day was the usual casual day for us when not at sea, checking aircraft batteries brought by the squadron lads, checking and cleaning sparkplugs, but very little else. Before the tannoy blasted, "Liberty men fall in" there came a surprise announcement from the Captain. "I believe the port watch had some trouble last night: let us hope the starboard watch can do better". Nothing else.... The old bastard!. Had he suddenly become human? Was he encouraging the lads to have a go? Or was he threatening retribution if they did?. We never did find out. We realised the war was coming to an end. The frequent tannoy messages told us. It also left a feeling of emptiness inside. We were on our way to tackle those fanatical little Japs. A few days later the announcement over the tannoy told us the war in Europe was definitely over.... One problem! Our war wasn't over. All our aircraft were on the airfield made famous by the three aircraft Faith, Hope and Charity. The type of biplane which had been the mainstay of the fleet, in the pre-war days our politicians had believed were going to remain pre-war. The same politicians who never fought the wars their stupidity quite often caused. The celebrations for VE day were under way and all blackout restrictions had been lifted. The ships in the harbour were draped with lights. That night was beautiful, with millions of stars that seemed to want to join in the celebrations. Three quarters of the ship's crew were given leave to go ashore and join in those celebrations. Guess who had to stay on board? Yes: Me! I spent VE night listening to the celebrations ashore and wishing more than ever that I could be home with my family and girlfriend.
After VE day we up anchored and made our way out of Valetta harbour and out to sea. Everyone was speculating as to where we were going. The Captain didn't tell us. The carrier began to turn into the wind so we knew the squadrons would soon be returning. Out attendant destroyer was still nursing us. They were probably hoping as we were, that a stray sub wasn't interested in us. I again joined the 'mime artist' the 'Bats officer' who never spoke. I handed him the bats and kept my spare pair in readiness for an emergency. I sometimes wished a plane would clobber the snobbish bastard. The aircraft appeared in the distance. The sky was a beautiful blue and cloudless. The sun beat down on the flight-deck which was hot enough to fry eggs on. Neither myself or 'Bats' had any protection from this relentless heat. The forward motion of the ship created a gentle breeze - we were very grateful. We heard the sound of the engines and the first plane peeled off to make it's approach. The Barracudas were to land first. When all the aircraft landed they were stowed forward beyond the crash-barrier. Designed from steel cable and wire mesh, strong enough to stop an aircraft at speed. It did, more than once. The Corsairs were next to land. One maniac pilot missed all eight arrestor wires and slammed into the barrier. The pilot scrambled out of his open cockpit and the handling party did a great job. They freed the aircraft, a quick check on the barrier and a hurried stowage forward of the badly damaged Corsair. The barrier was immediately raised in readiness for the next aircraft already on it's final approach. I discovered later that one of the air-handling party had damaged an eye. He had been hit by a piece of the shattered prop. I would imagine the pilot would by now have two emotions. Disgust for his clanger and the impending rocket he would receive from 'Commander Flying'. The second would be of relief for being around to receive that rocket. Our Commander Flying was regular navy. All the pilots I met were hostilities only, or from university squadrons. He was the usual member of the officer and gentleman class. We never fought the war as a team. It was always a 'Themanus' society I sometimes thought the lads hated the officers more than the enemy we had never met personally.
We were back in the mess when the Captain broke his silence and announced over the tannoy, "We are going to Alexandria, Egypt". We couldn't understand why: the eighth army had clobbered the Germans ages ago. There didn't seem any purpose to our wandering from country to country. Our accompanying destroyers started to dash around like mother hens. A number of Barracudas were launched. The emergency-party had been piped ready for just an event. This had to be a submarine scare. Depth-charges from the destroyers were sending fountains of water skywards. There was a general feeling of: What the hell is going on?. The end of the war in Europe was officially over, they had celebrated that piece of news in Malta. 'Yours truly' was not one of them. So-o was there a submarine wandering around who didn't know what we knew? If there was! Was there a way we could pass the information on to him?. I recall I had these thoughts on my first trip to Gib. We were a big damned ship: We had destroyers to protect us, so why the hell do we feel so vulnerable?. Simple! If you can see an attacker there is always a slight chance something can be done about it. U-boats cannot be seen.... that's why we felt so vulnerable. The aircraft began to return, so what ever the flap was about we again, never found out. Me and 'Bats' resumed our state of incommunicado.
Either the fifth or sixth Barracuda settled into it's approach path. (I can't be sure which). They look rather like a giant dragon-fly, with the pilot sitting high up in the front cockpit, another crew-member in the middle blister and the last one in the rear cockpit. The three men, sitting confidently aboard, having performed this operation so many times, were confident that they wouldn't have any problems with this one.... how wrong they were. The 'Bats' officer stood in his usual position: lining them up with both arms wide apart, luminous bats extended beyond. They were on normal course and 'Bats' crossed his arms down in front of him indicating the speed could be reduced for final landing. They hit a snag.... maybe the pilot had been celebrating VE day to vigorously: maybe he hadn't had a good nights sleep: maybe his girl-friend had forgotten to write. Add all the maybe's together and what had you got?. You had a expensive high-wing-three-seater-torpedo-bomber dumping it's three passengers in the sea, 20yds. behind the carrier. It wasn't a surprise to the pilot, the look on his face proved that. It was one hell of a surprise to the other two who didn't know what was coming. The term 'rats deserting a sinking ship' has been used so often! Well! Those rats had nothing on the speed those three deserted their sinking ship. The first one to get out was the one in the middle blister. Considering it was the most difficult he should have been the last. The other two were probably thinking 'the last one in the water buys the beers' they were out almost as quick. The inflatable dinghy burst out of the wing and the three of them were in it before they had got their socks wet.
I watched as the aircraft sank slowly beneath the waves with the destroyer hovering around ready to pick the crew up. I thought at the time what a hell of a dangerous game the whole thing was. When all the aircraft were safely aboard, my duties for the time being were over. I left my gantry position on the port side and through the network of corridors until I reached my own mess. If my memory serves me correctly it was two decks below the flight-deck. Depending on what part of the day my duty finished, depended whether I joined the rest of the regular boxing lads in the hangar, for our training and friendly sparring sessions. We sometimes had volunteers who fancied rearranging our features in the ring. After the Harry Raffe episode I tended to judge the weight of my opponent before stepping in the ring with him. After training, a shower was next. If we trained in the evening (more often than not) afterwards, we would go to join other members of the crew in the rear lift-well. There was a 16mm. projector and a large portable screen. The only thing missing was the girl with a short skirt and a tray full of goodies. That small disappointment apart, films were top priority and the lift well was always full. Glen Miller's immortal 'Moonlight Serenade' was a big favourite and a regular feature of the ship's own radio system. The leisure facilities were always better on a big ship and were the envy of the small-ship crews. One draw-back to this advantage.... we were a bigger target for any lurking U-boat.
We eventually made our final approach to Alex and the special sea-duty men were already at their stations. Once again the 'Double-glazing' men of the east were hovering around in their boats, like vultures waiting for us to drop anchor. This time we hooked up to a buoy anchored to the harbour bed. This is where the special sea-duty men, sometimes called buoy jumpers earned their pay. They leaped onto the steel orb bobbing and weaving with the movement of the waves, like sure footed cats. They then had to man handle the steel hawser into place, and this massive steel potential killer of men, was stationary: as docile as a pet dog tethered outside your local shop. I find it difficult to remember what Alexandria's wartime harbour looked like. My only recollection was, it was crammed with ships all waiting to go to some unknown destination, at least as far as the crew were concerned. As we moved into harbour we had received the usual welcome from the other ships, blowing their different horns. The Vengeance had crew lined up on the flight deck, port and starboard: the ancient tradition of naval ships entering harbour. Everyone not on duty lined up at every vantage point to watch the mad scramble of the Muslims in their unseaworthy craft: with the intention of conning us out of our navy pay. The procedure was; the craft would hover below us and show their wares. Prospective buyers from above would lower ropes down and their fancied choice would be sent back. Haggling over price then began. That haggling from my days as a young sailor has never changed. The Muslims in Britain today haggle in exactly the same way. On more than one occasion the sailor on the receiving end of the rope has grabbed the goods and scarpered. Sort of, musling the Muslims. Down below the boat man has been jumping up and down rather like a Walt Disney cartoon character. The Arabic oaths he has screamed have certainly not come out of the Koran. There was never any sympathy from the lads. So many of them had been conned by these sleight of hand Merchants, including me, it was a form of 'getting your own back'. I watched a large craft approaching from the shore and thought Christ! this Arab must have a bigger load of crap to sell than all the rest put together. I had had enough of watching these wolves? in 'sales' clothing and returned to the mess. The jaunty, whose office was on our deck level, strolled in and said, "Harris, you have a visitor". I looked up and saw standing behind him with a wide grin on his face, Cliff my cousin, who lived a few doors away from me. I hadn't seen him since 1942.
The large craft I had seen approaching, was a personal landing-craft piloted by Cliff, no one else on board. I knew Cliff of old, he had less respect for authority than I had and it was a racing certainty he was here without permission. He was flaunting the Nelson code by the same script supplied to Clark Gable in 'Gone with the Wind'.... Cliff, 'didn't give a damn either'. Cliff looked at the jaunty and said, "Can he come ashore Jaunty?". Cliff was pushing it beyond all possibilities. A crew-member never leaves the ship before the top-brass and never without permission of the officer-of-the-day. That was Cliff.... 'in for a penny! In for a pound!'. Cliff was four months younger than I was and volunteered before I did. He lied about his age. The jaunty looked at me in disgust; and looked at Cliff in disbelief and said, "You cheeky bastard", he looked at the bulkhead as he said, "They'll be coming alongside in a destroyer next. Go on then; seeing as he is your cousin: Give us your station-card and piss off". I didn't even bother to change. I grabbed my cap and we both scampered down the gangway. Thanks to the jaunty; who couldn't conceal the grin of disbelief on his face: I had left one of HM ships before the post-boat had arrived. We jumped into the landing craft moored alongside; I cast off the ropes and Cliff started the engine. We began to thread our way through the Arab craft surrounding the Vengeance. They were swarming like flies on a carcass. I bet the Chief Engineer was keeping his eyes on the screws. They would nick them if they had half the chance. We arrived at the jetty and tied Cliff's personal chariot alongside. Why wasn't I surprised when he told me he was on 'jankers'?. Cliff had always been a 'Jack the lad' yet hadn't a vicious bone in his body. I thought no matter the reason for Cliff doing 'jankers'. Surely his CO would allow him out for one night at least. The possibility of never seeing each other on this planet again would be a sound argument. How bloody wrong I was. I went to see his CO, a regular navy Lieutenant and.... "Certainly not! Under no circumstances will I allow him ashore". This was the robotic attitudes of every naval officer I ever met during my time in the navy. Discipline in all walks of life is necessary. Without adding a little common-sense judgement, it then becomes dictatorial. Unfortunately that seemed to be the legacy left by Horatio Nelson. So-o! What do sailors do who are confined to camp? We went to the NAAFI and drank the weak beer, chatted about our homes and family. I don't know whether Cliff thought I had 'one up' on him, when I told him of my holiday in Preston jail. I slept on a narrow bunk and the next morning I nicked a breakfast from his galley and he took me back to the carrier in style, in my own personal landing-craft. The next time I saw Cliff was when the war was over. He died of cancer in his early fifties, just as his father did.
That night I was on duty-watch, on the drunk-patrol, members of the ship's boxing team always pulled. We toured all the dives and shady establishments where all the kids who couldn't hold their booze thought it was macho to be beaten up and robbed. More than one semi-conscious sailor has been dumped on the nearest ship for his own safety. He faced an additional charge the next day.... he was on the wrong ship....
Ernie and myself, on shore leave the next day, decided to ignore all the warnings of keeping away from certain areas and find out for ourselves.... Dockyard Six: attracted the worst thieves and rogues I have ever encountered in any country I have ever visited then, or in my post-war engineering career since. The moment we entered the area we were badgered by beggars of all ages who wouldn't take no for an answer. The more we refused them the more threatening they became. Ten years later, working in Alex with a colleague of mine; a colleague who wanted to sample the are for himself, resulted in the same treatment. Probably the same beggars who thought 'we missed you the last time but we will get you this time'. President Nasser who attempted to change post-war Egypt, only managed to alter the front facade. The areas behind don't seem to have changed since the Pharaohs.
On one of our many trips ashore we met one of the local 'Arthur Daly's'. We learned the hard way how Muslims; who spend many hours each week with their noses on the ground and their arses up in the air, interpret the teaching of Allah.... rather like a saying, of the old Hollywood comic W C Fields, 'never give a sucker an even break'. Maybe their leader and our leader never got their heads together when we were told as children.... 'Do unto others as thou wouldst have done unto thine self'.
One Worthy Oriental Gentleman cornered us with a tray of diamond rings, he demonstrated how easy they cut the glass he had on his tray. We were wet behind the ears: We didn't think so, but we were, after haggling for twenty minutes we agreed on a price for the brass and glass rings that finally arrived in our homes. They had collected their own green fur-coat on the way.
It was in Alex where I read a very badly printed version of the banned novel 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'. By today's standards it could be read in a primary school assembly. A Muslim once flogged it to me and Ernie. (When these Arab lads were making themselves 'feloose' (I think) (money) their religion didn't seem to important). It was so bad and basic, it looked like it had been printed on a children's exercise book. That didn't matter to we lads who thought the American magazine, 'Silk Stocking Stories' was risqué. That book went around a few mess-decks.