The day finally arrived when the tugs nudged us in the direction we wished to go and we left Alex. I for one wasn't sorry to leave. The place itself had a smell of it's own and an atmosphere that I found was untrustworthy. It is a feeling that is sinking just as deeply now, many years later in Britain and I am finding it increasingly difficult to shed the feeling.
We slipped away on the evening tide. The sunset as always: beautiful, as it sank below the horizon. In my post-war career in many eastern countries, I have watched the sun do exactly the same. There was no twilight, just the sun going down slowly, but yet was gone with the blink of an eye. We hadn't the faintest idea where we were bound for next, except we knew each turn of the screw was taking us ever nearer to the war in the far-east. It was a war that everyone in Britain seemed to have forgotten about. Today, so many years afterwards: the war in Europe still overshadows that part of the major conflict we were in.
The boxing lads were in the hangar every night training. It had remained the same group of lads. The PTI arranged bouts between us and when the opportunity arose, he arranged bouts for us when we reached port, inviting RAF and Army along to fight on board the Vengeance. It was a change from training and provided entertainment for the rest of the ship's company. I learned the hard way, not to try and knock your opponent out by hitting his glove with your nose. It doesn't work. What it does do, is to provide you with a broken-nose which is supposed to make the owner look tougher. If you look at it the other way it makes the owner look like he was a very easy target to hit. This logic is not debated amongst callow youths. These injuries create problems in later life, as they have done with me. (That was some more logic not debated).
We eventually approached the entrance to the Suez Canal, with Port Said on our left. We began the slow journey through this marvellous piece of man made waterway. I had learned about it as a schoolboy, but this was the real thing. It seemed so small for big ships to pass through and I couldn't help thinking what a pity this brilliant piece of man's ingenuity was now a convenient short cut to fight a war. I sat in the small spark-plug cleaning bay watching the sand go by, thinking how pleasant it was. A very short time afterwards I began to feel as if I had been on the binge the night before. I felt bloody lousy! I dragged myself to the sick-bay and I was informed I had: Sand fly Fever! I must have been the only sea-going sailor to be bitten by a sand fly. This one must have had knock out drops for teeth: I ended up on my back in the sick-bay for a couple of days. We reached the port of Aden and we saw a few falookas; Arab sailing boats with queer looking sails. They seemed to ply a never ending trade through the Suez Canal. We left Aden behind and carried on into the Red Sea. The Red Sea! It figured so many times in history and geography lessons in my school days. This was the first time I had been anywhere near it: I suspect the majority of the Vengeance crew were seeing it for the first time to. I don't remember any conversation on board which mentioned fear, or the thoughts of being torpedoed. 'It always happened to someone else, never to me'. It was only well after the war was over I discovered the areas we had sailed in, had subs operating in those areas. We were on our way to join the fleet operating around Burma. Air patrols, take off and landings, were run of the mill now without incident. I do remember one time when the air-handling crew pushed a very badly damaged Corsair over the side.
Tropical duty was now the order of the day. Duty starts 6am.... ends 12pm. The only crew members who didn't operate this routine were the ones who kept this floating airfield on course. Big ships had an advantage over our smaller partners when tropical routine was called. We had more room for leisure activities, so deck-games were the order of the day when aircraft weren't flying. We arrived at Trincomalee in Ceylon....(re-named Sri Lanka). We dropped anchor off shore and the vultures starting gathering again. On this occasion there were young Asian boys diving over the sides of their small craft for coins thrown over the side. They couldn't always understand why some of our English coins were smooth on both sides with a hole in the middle. We were paid in two weekly intervals, usually in the currency of the next country we would visit. We could exchange surplus leftovers to the currency of our choice. This simple routine of paying sailors, couldn't survive without the usual Naval bullshit. Hangar-deck! Table with paymaster sitting behind. On one side of him a Petty Officer. In front of the table another Petty Officer. You were marched up to the table and the command "Off Caps!". The last time I heard that command, said in that fashion, was when I was on my way to Preston Jail. You would then take your cap off in the usual uncomfortable, ridiculous way of removing a simple piece of head-gear. You would then place your cap on the table in front of you with the flat side uppermost. Name, Rank and Number was then given and checked in the paymaster's account book. I was then paid the princely sum of 50 shillings for two weeks.... (£2.50 of today's brass). I had made a previous request to the Commander of the Vengeance for my trade pay entitlement of 6 pence a day (approx. 3 new p.) it was an advancement due to my time spent in the FAA and I was then a first class Air-Mechanic. "You have not been a 'first class sailor'! Have you Harris?, (referring to my time spent in the chokey) See me again in three months time". Once again a regular navy bastard had robbed me of my rights. It was trade and service pay and in the jargon of today's judiciary.... 'I was no longer a danger to society'. I hadn't murdered anyone had I?. So I should have been paid for my length of service. I could have probably sued them for stress today!. It might make it easier for you to understand the constant reference to the unfair treatment the navy dished out to the lower-deck personnel and the archaic traditions that created this system. Sometimes the war-zones we operated in, warranted extra pay. I cannot remember whether we got any for our time spent in the Indian or Pacific fleet. If we did, it wouldn't have been much. Probably bought a box of matches today.
I found out somewhere on my travels, a very old school pal of mine was on a ship in these waters. I had noticed a few ships around the anchorage and wondered. The post-boat arrived and I asked him if a ship (the name long since forgotten) was in the harbour. I couldn't believe it when he said it was. During our time on the Vengeance our mess, close to his office, had become friendly with the Jaunty: we scrounged tea, sugar and milk from each other.... he knew as many dodges as we did in getting extras. It was a long time since my cousin had tried it with him and won, so I decided to try once again. I explained why I wanted to leave the ship before the skipper so he agreed. I begged a lift from the post-boat coxswain and he took me right to the ship I wanted. "Thanks mate!" "Your welcome" and I jumped onto the gangway. I think the ship was a destroyer. It didn't take long to run up the gangway and reach the deck. This was a sleek piece of equipment; not like the floating tin-can I had just left. The leading hand waiting at the top wore the usual white belt and gaiter rig along with a puzzled expression on his face. 'Lower-deck' matelots don't jump off mail-boats and come aboard unannounced. "Could I see the duty-officer please?". He called down and a Sub-Lieutenant emerged from the depths and walked towards me. I snapped him a reluctant salute and still feeling the effects of performing a function I hated, I had to say, "Sir! (a piece of grammar I have never been able to come to terms with) have you a writer aboard called Eric Marshall?" I explained my reason for the request and a check was made. The advantage of a small ship was apparent when the leading hand discovered in no time, there was!. I had guessed right: this was the right ship and Eric was called to the gangway. The surprise on his face was identical to my surprise when Cliff arrived on the Vengeance. We went down to his mess, shared a tot of rum and discussed the old days. we were nineteen: our 'old days' went back to the first school we attended: five years old: the first desk we shared: we should have both gone to Grammar school. We passed the exam at the same time. We both surprisingly refused, we had similar reasons. Our disgusted headmistress couldn't accept the facts of our refusal so sent us both to the same school. Her reason?. They taught the same subjects. Again we shared the same classes and shared the same desks. We occasionally met at a dance in our teen years. We lost all contact until this moment. We stuck a verbal two fingers up at all ranks above Writer and Air Mechanic first-class and hoped we would survive the war and get back to our homes. The time passed very quickly, so back on deck I managed to persuade the duty-officer to allow their own motor-cutter complete with crew to take me back to the Vengeance. Eric came up on deck to wave goodbye. I went on my merry way with my own personal boat and crew and never saw Eric again. I found out after the war he lived within a mile of where I lived. Back on Vengeance, I retrieved my station-card from the Jaunty's office, thanked him and came away with a better impression of one of the regular navy's policemen.
The next night I pulled the usual drunk patrol, looking for the same idiots who only need a couple of bottles of the local poison to become legless. I have seen many of them lying across a rubbish tip, where the grateful natives have relieved them of all their money, pay book, watches or other trinket lying about their person. Without their pay book we hadn't the slightest idea which ship they came off. We had to get them off the shore so we dumped them onto the nearest ship.... to wait the wrath of two skippers. One where we left them, and the one they belonged to. One of the perks of drunk patrol was the clearing all of our lads out of the brothels. It was like being in an Aladdin's cave for a young virgin like myself.... (hard to believe! But true). My forays into the world of the female, as I have previously mentioned, was severely restricted by my mother. We were supposed to meet Eastern-Beauties, according to popular folklore. An illusion shattered.... yes they were Eastern.... Beauties? No way!. The only mystique; was how much were they going to charge. They were flogging a well-used commodity to anyone who would pay for a dose of the clap. (Judging by the size of the queues outside the sick-bay a few days later, they sold quite a lot). The only conception of 'safe sex' in those days was no sex.
Ceylon reminded me.... during my spell in cells, waiting for sentence, a draft arrived for me to go to Candy, Ceylon. If the navy hadn't wanted to extract their pound of flesh, by dumping me in Preston, I would have been drafted there. This time the navy did me a favour. The Japs were Kamikazeing the Indefatigable and the Indomitable operating in the area. I would have been on one of them. We didn't stay long in Ceylon and we were on our way to the next port.... Madras, India.... just around the corner. We docked, we had the usual vultures, they were mostly ignored. The area was hot and dusty. A few of the lads came back with tattoo's on various parts of their anatomy. They had just a little more sense than today's generation. They kept well clear of certain parts of their anatomy which may damage any future performance. There was always an irresistible urge to have a girls name punched into their skin in blue ink. Never to be removed until the advent of laser-surgery many years later. Would all these Norma's, Gladys's etc. be still waiting when they returned home?. Would they spend the rest of their youth looking for a girl to match the name?. My odd trip ashore was spent in buying curios and knocking the Asian salesman down to a fair price. Nothing has changed! They still do it today. Maybe the benefits counter should try the same system! Just a thought!....
We left Madras and started wandering around the Indian ocean, our escorts tagging a long. We eventually reached the equator and the time-honoured 'Crossing the Line' ceremony. We met 'Neptune'! He was our Jaunty with a crown and what looked suspiciously like seaweed hanging from his head. The trident he had in his hand looked bloody dangerous. Thought! Which idiots decided to call our post-war killing missiles after the legendary Neptune? What similarity existed between the two?. We tried to dodge the torture of being lathered and dumped fully clothed into a canvas filled with water. Some of the lads that were caught said, "It bloody hurt". Not surprising when the brush they used was normally used for sweeping the deck. I took refuge up the crane-gantry stationed behind the operating area of the carrier on the starboard part of the deck. This crane hauled virtually everything aboard the carrier. I fell off. That little incident halted my boxing activities but not my training. Life at sea can be very boring when not at action stations. We seemed to be wandering around the ocean with no set purpose. The PTI decided to organise a relay race to relieve the boredom. This was run across the flight-deck from one end; brake like hell and dash back to the other end, handing your baton to the next runner. I managed to distinguish myself by throwing the bloody baton over the side. I can still hear the boo's and laughter today. We passed the time away by playing cards and listening to music over the ship's tannoy. This was interrupted occasionally by piping various crews to perform certain tasks. We watched films in the lift-well, we wrote letters home, we went up on deck to watch nature: holiday makers today, pay a fortune for it....the glorious sunsets.... we got it free.... with one snag.... there was no guarantee we would return home to tell about it.
During this part of our voyage we had a tragedy, not unlike the twins we lost in Greenock, but for an entirely different reason. An engineer officer died as a direct result of the super-heat conditions endured down in the engine room. He gave the impression of being a pale-faced weedy character, but no way to lose your life in wartime. Dying for 'King and Country' has never been on my list of priorities. Why not all of us live for our mothers, wives, children. If we reversed the system; I would be willing to lay a wreath on the cenotaph, in their honour. The officer's body was sewn up in the traditional sail maker's canvas. (a sail maker on a ship driven by turbo's?) Weights were placed inside the canvas and in front of members of the crew who were not on duty, his body was committed to the sea. The usual prayers were said by the Padre. That was the first and last burial at sea I ever saw. Because of the unbearable heat in the engine room, watches had been reduced to two hour shifts. Even this necessary act did not prevent a Petty Officer who was so overcome by the heat, being put ashore in Ceylon to recuperate. Maybe a stay in hospital.
From one port! I can't remember which. Maybe Trincomalee: I remember we picked up a Pride of nurses? Bevy of nurses? Shoal of nurses?. I also remember very clearly, they were a group of untouchable nurses as far as the lower-deck were concerned. They were designated the rear end of the ship. Was it a coincidence? that is where the officer's quarters were. The general synopsis was, because they were Quote- 'Officers and Gentlemen', they had no sexual desires, or would retire to the heads to do their 'own thing'. In one word; Bollocks!. Years after the war, an ex-naval officer confided in me, 'Nurses carried on his ship were fair game: he made the most of this officer and gentlemen crap'. He had numerous sorties in life-boats, heads and anywhere he considered safe to practice what today would be called sexual equality. We were not allowed to be in the rear end of the carrier at any time except when on duty. This class-distinction, which Britain's society is built on, was then and still is today, a direct insult to every serviceman. We were classed as Morons with the morals of an alley-cat.
We were well on our way to the Pacific ocean, getting even nearer to our war. We passed Sumatra on our port side and eventually arrived in Leyte Gulf.... an area of the Philippines. I didn't know then , that post-war I would spend two years supervising major engineering installations in the Philippines. The atmosphere was unreal. we were a potentially destructive force, carrying aircraft, bombs, torpedo's all designed to kill or maim. We also had nurses whose function in life is exactly the opposite. They were not living in the 'Killing Fields' the name of the Hollywood film. They were living on a 'killing ship' as though they were on a work's outing. I think we unloaded these nurses when we arrived in Australia. The Philippines had been overrun by the Japs and the Yanks could do nothing about it. The Philippino's weren't to happy about it either. The area we entered now seemed so calm and peaceful. The impression I had then and have never been able to explain why; was if we were entering a tree lined avenue.... so green and as though there was mist in the branches. We dropped anchor off Leyte Gulf, shore leave was not allowed. We never found out about our wanderings around the Indian ocean and we didn't know why we were in the gulf; unless we were seeking out Jap subs in the area.
One of my greatest memories of the Philippines was the War Memorial and vast cemetery, with crosses as far as they eye could see. Americans, Philippino's and British names amongst the dead. War is not glorious. It is the folly of men who nearly always survive the conflicts they start. I have preached for many years that if the Kings and Queens etc. had to fight for 'their' country, the term 'war' would be removed from the English language and the language of many other countries for ever. The War Memorial was a circular building with a corridor running the entire length down the centre. On each side were stone-slabs angular to each other. These held the names of every allied combatant who had lost his or her life. On separate slabs were depicted all the sea-battles fought around the area. A beautiful memorial to the dead. Post-war events between the warring (now peaceful) factions tarnishes all the names there.
We finally anchored-up after provisioning by ship-to-shore boats and once again put out into the Pacific for 'destination unknown'. The sea was calm, weather perfect and I was as fit as the proverbial 'butcher's dog' after all that training. All my mates including myself couldn't help thinking, the only difference between a civilian world cruise and our cruise, was a bloody great torpedo. We eventually arrived at a dot in the ocean. The tannoy told us it was 'Christmas Island' and there would be a few hours shore-leave on alternate days for port and starboard watch. We went ashore and the only part of the island we saw was a sandy beach, so fine it could have gone straight into an egg-timer. The depth of the sea as it lapped lazily against our thighs continued for a considerable distance until it suddenly fell away to a depth that would require scuba-gear. It suddenly became a lot colder. We spent a few hours swimming, paddling and drinking beautifully cold beer (from a beer tent and a portable petrol driven refrigerator). The first time the navy had got it right. The sun was fierce but had no effect on us, we were already brown enough to audition for the 'Black and White Minstrels'. If this was the idyllic life we were fighting for it seemed worthwhile, until I remembered the terraced two up and two down houses with flagged yards and tippler-toilets at the end of the yard. If we were lucky enough to survive: they were waiting for us. It also occurred to me at the same time: the landed gentry's estates that were out of bounds to we 'lower order', before the war: would still be out of bounds when the war was over. We must be bloody mad!. Whilst we were anchored off Christmas Island, swimming from the ship was allowed, with a cutter in attendance. I decided to try my luck diving from the bottom step of the gangway. I dived and when I surfaced I looked up at the daunting steel side of the carrier, it seemed to go upwards for ever. The thought that the sea bed was a long way from the soles of my feet didn't help any. One of the Vengeance crew thought it was great fun to dive from the deck into the freezing cold water
I wonder what the sailor's from the carrier Glorious and her two escort-vessels thought when they were left to drown by the Captain of the Devonshire. Why?. Because they were carrying members of the Norwegian Royal family to England: safety! and live out the rest of the war in comfort. Recent claims by a survivor of the Glorious and a telegraphist on the Devonshire were.... "I am sorry it is too long ago to recall clearly". A statement by an historian when confronted with the truth by the two men.
After that short break, the screws started to turn slowly once again to take us on our way to Australia and the inevitable destruction of Japan. We were all seasoned sailors by this time and not too concerned by what may lay ahead. We were more concerned whether there was any mail waiting for us in Ozzy. It would be nice to hit an English speaking port again without the leeches hanging around in boats. We were introduced to 'Tokyo Rose' the English speaking Japanese lady we had heard so much about but never heard before. Her voice with a clipped Japanese accent was attractive in a way. Her messages were supposed to scare us. The messages shouted back to her would have proved to her there was a rich vein of English language never taught in a Japanese university.
We saw Fremantle loom out of the morning haze. We had a stroke of luck by docking alongside the jetty. It left out the scramble for the liberty-boat and hoping not to be late when it returned. The skipper excelled himself by having liberty men piped at 12pm. More surprising: the port watch were the first ashore for a change. The four of us....(two Fred's, Ernie and me) decided to hitch-hike to Perth, the biggest city nearest to Fremantle. It was an uneventful trip except we learned that pubs only opened in Ozzy between 4pm and 6pm due to beer shortage. We hitch-hiked back and decided to catch up on a chore I haven't previously mentioned. Dobying! Washing clothes to you. There was a laundry on board manned by ordinary seamen who had to be paid for their services. Whether they kept it or had to give it to the paymaster I never did find out. Most of us washed in a bucket with soap powder bought from the ship's NAAFI. We washed our blankets and canvas hammocks by hanging them over the side on a rope. The speed of the ship was like using a washing machine. We then laid them out in the gun-sponsons. The hot sun dried them out in no time. If the weather was feeling awkward we would hang them anywhere we could find room in the mess.
We were soon on the move again, this time to Sydney around the bottom end of Australia and into the South-eastern area and the notorious rough 'Great Australian Bight', it lived up to it's reputation. The carrier pitched and rolled and was lost in the truly mountainous seas. It was impossible to keep plates and mugs on the tables. How they managed to cook in the galley will always remain a mystery. The skies began to darken, twilight in the tropics is virtually non-existent: we didn't see the sun fall below the horizon. Angry clouds obscured it. We decided to sling our hammocks: rather like trying to rope an angry steer: try it, I dare you! When the side of the ship takes the place of the deck and the deck objecting to this intrusion fights back to put the side firmly in it's place. We managed it by judging the upswings and downswings. Then we had to get in the hammock by the same method, hoping we wouldn't be slammed into the side as it rolled. I must have been rocked to sleep because I was suddenly awakened by the tannoy blasting...."Emergency Party Fall In" I had been dreaming of 'Beau Geste' and through the haze of the desert sands a sudden thought came to me....There must be summat up. Glad I am not in the emergency party tonight. The ship was still rocking and rolling: we didn't need a lullaby, the hammock rocked me back to sleep again. The cause of the trouble was echoed around the ship the next day. The anchor had been hanging loose and not tight in it's berth. The vicious rolling had caused it to bang a hole in the side of the ship. The emergency-party had been shoring up the hole with spare mattresses to keep the sea out. The storm eventually blew itself out and the ship resumed it's gentle motion that made sailing on a carrier a very pleasing experience.
We arrived in Sydney harbour and the famous Sydney bridge loomed on our starboard side. It was a marvellous piece of engineering, but no better or worse than some of our bridges back home. We lined up in the usual navy bullshit way of entering harbour, white suits on starboard and port side of the carrier-deck. The muttering of disgruntled sailors who objected to 'Nelson' still running the bloody fleet. We passed between lines of other ships with their hooters honking. We felt as though we were Billy Smarts circus entering town. The Vengeance slowly came to a halt and the 'jumper-men' tied us up to a buoy. The post boat dashed ashore and we all waited eagerly for mail from home. They were a few weeks old but it didn't matter. A lot of the lads' backgrounds were sealed in those envelopes. Open the flap and the smell of your mother's home-cooking leapt out at you. I had a couple of letters from my mam and one from my girlfriend, who not too long ago had arranged a special marriage-licence. My Dear Les, I am writing to tell you, that I have met someone else and I am breaking off our engagement....... The rest of the letter faded into the despair, anger and emptiness which surrounded me. I had heard of other people getting 'Dear John' letters, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get one. "The rotten bleeder has ditched me" I said to no one in particular. Why me? I had lived my life like a Monk and suddenly it had all been wasted. I don't know whether that part angered me more than the actual letter did. My problem with the 'dirty tricks' brigade, is not the trick they played. It was the fact I would never do it to them. When all the lads in the four combined messes had finished reading their letters, I told them about my wonderful letter. Everyone on the mess-deck banded together. When a mate was in trouble advise came thick and fast....it condensed into simple terms....'Balls to her! Go out now and enjoy yourself' This was easier said than done. It took an older and far wiser head than a young twenty year old, to shed one skin and grow another over night.
The first night ashore in Sydney felt very strange to me. I was more or less free of my obligation to what was now my ex-girlfriend. I had a similar problem as I had when I went on my first forays as a tender sixteen year old.... I wasn't sure how I would react. Hyde Park in Sydney had a specially brick-built 'British Centre' (fixed over the entrance) in the park grounds. The friendly Australians had built it for British servicemen arriving in their country. Meals and sleeping accommodation were available, but most important, were the hundreds of cards filed in the entrance-hall with invitations to parties, dances, silver-weddings, horse-riding etc and the lads much appreciated it. The women involved in running the centre were all volunteers and they did us proud. We decided to book a bed for the night, mattresses, on the floor in a straight line. Why did it remind me of our CPO Rabbits from Gosling?. Maybe because he always insisted we marched in a straight line. Fred Gould and myself decided to have a stroll around Sydney. We eventually landed in King's Cross. We didn't know at the time that it was a seedy area of the city, like it's London namesake. It's amazing how sailor's always seem to drift into these areas like homing pigeons. A brightly lit entrance attracted us. After years of the black-out, we were like moths attracted to a flame. We looked inside and the usual lines of pin-table and slot machines, not as sophisticated as the present day, but with the same function. They were designed to relieve us of our naval-pay, or as much as possible, depending on how gullible we were. We were young and fancy-free so walked into the trap. This trap was baited with a couple of 'dreadnoughts' (my mother's description of any female who wasn't virginal before marriage and used too much make-up). The sailor mating-ritual began. It wasn't very complicated really. The idea was to get to the top knicker elastic below the hem of her dress as quickly as possible. This was well before the mini-skirt days and presented quite a challenge. It was made a lot more difficult by these 'dreadnoughts' because they usually had them made to fit under their armpits with braces to hold them in place. If you ever got that far, that is the kind of fail-safe mechanism which seemed to face you. The strategy of the female was to see how much money they could siphon out of a sailor's money-belt in order to buy stronger braces for their knickers. The merry-go-round of the young in wartime. Some you won.... Some you lost. Fred took the initiative in this game of chess, played by the four of us and managed to prise them away from their hitching post, between the two pinball machines. The general idea being to take them home. We wandered down the street back towards the city-centre and I felt like a minor player. I just couldn't get the hang of the 'chatting-up' routine. An Ozzy matelot coming in the opposite direction passed close by and said, "How's it going kipper?". I asked my girl companion "What did he say to me?". It occurred to me, I didn't even know her name. "Take no notice! Come on keep walking". Her manner aroused my curiosity "What did he mean by 'Kipper'?". She knew I wasn't going to be put off so she reluctantly said, "It means a two-faced bastard with no guts". I immediately went into reverse looking for this 1945 yobbo, because I intended altering his face for him: having had a little practice in that direction during my boxing bouts. The girls and Fred were left on the pavement as I ran back intending to teach this Ozzy to heed his mother's advice.... 'Not to speak to strangers'. Maybe he thought he should have listened to his mother because he had disappeared. I joined up with the rest but the night fizzled out. The girls had decided to catch a bus home. We wandered back to the centre, had a quick bite to eat and got our heads down. Who knows? That Ozzy may have saved us from a fate worse than death.
The next day we returned to the ship and the bright sunlight was making us feel on top of the world. We hadn't much to do except listen to the rumours about us invading Japan. There were a hell of a lot of ships in Sydney harbour, which was very reassuring. Weekend arrived and a London friend Harry Tyler joined the three of us on our trip ashore. Harry was an amiable cockney, around five feet eight tall, average build, but a wicked straight left. I can vouch for that because I banged my nose into it regularly during our sparring sessions. We wandered around Sydney from midday to 4pm. The time the drinking started. We found a servicemen's centre and bought two beer-tickets each at the bar. (An accepted ration due to the beer-shortage) We were invited to join a group of sailors from the cruiser Bermuda, part of the invasion force. We didn't need a second invitation, so we sat down at the long trestle table.... comfort wasn't the top priority in these type of servicemen's drinking-dens. The Bermuda lads had stacks of tickets (trust a matelot to beat the system). They shared them with us, although boozing has never been my strong point. We had a great time chin-wagging, whilst the barman kept his eye on us. The clock over the door reminded us that closing time had arrived. The barman had served our ale at the trestle-table, so why the hell was he wiping a perfectly clean bar-top?. We all wandered outside and Harry and me went out first. The word 'Kipper' came floating across from a group of Ozzy matelots. "What's that he said?" asked Harry, "He has just said we are two-faced bastards with no guts" I replied. Here was an Ozzy who didn't know we knew what he knew. Harry strolled casually across and belted him in the mouth. A nose bleed really makes a mess of a white suit. That left three others. I hadn't time to take stock because it all happened without warning. The hard training in the gym paid dividends. I needed two punches to flatten one of them. By the time Fred and Ernie appeared, the two that were left discovered these 'Kippers' had sharp teeth. Harry collected a black eye and I aggravated the right hand I broke earlier. We returned to the ship fully satisfied with our day's work, not before a street-photographer with a warped sense of humour, had taken our photographs.
Two nights later Ernie and myself were back at the British Centre deciding to peruse the invites at the entrance desk. We opted for a private dance and obtained directions from the resident girl: we once again headed into the night looking for prey. We found the hall the directions had led us to and a very friendly lady met us at the door. After checking our invitation cards she introduced us to a number of people and said, "All refreshments are free!". We felt like fish out of water.... but not kippers! We ambled around looking for? No! Not 'dreadnoughts' the battleships of a few nights ago: maybe something easier to handle like 'rowing-boats'. We eventually attracted the eyes of two girls. I danced with one with the flair of Ginger Rogers and another with the grace of Groucho Marx. We seemed to get along with them, I tried to use the usual chat-up lines long since forgotten. We managed to manoeuvre them into quiet waters by taking them home. They maybe thought the waters would get rougher, so they out-manoeuvred us by saying goodnight at the door: but only after inviting us to their homes the following Sunday. We duly arrived and knocked on the door of a 'semi style' house. We both had misgivings about what would come next. The door was opened by one of the girls and we sauntered into the house. I felt very awkward, this was all new to me and I wasn't sure how to handle it. We exchanged small-talk with the girls.... names long forgotten.... the girl's father came down the stairs and threw a rough greeting in our general direction. He was in shirt and pants with one of his braces hanging near his left knee. He made straight for a cupboard, reached inside and came out with a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. He filled the glass three-quarters full of an amber liquid. Me and Ernie exchanged looks wondering if we were correct in what we thought. The dangling braces returned upstairs and our question was answered in a whisper. "Yes! It is whisky". If I had drunk that amount of neat poison at any time, let alone the moment I had climbed out of bed, it would have blown my head off. Ah well! A short life and a merry one for him.... I wonder how much suffering he caused his family?. The day passed pleasantly: we never did get to meet the mother. We eventually left and the girls remained unsullied by these two British sailors. We tried one of the beaches we had heard about and returned to the ship. An unexpected surprise greeted us. Nelson wouldn't have agreed to it. All the ships company were granted seven days leave and hundreds of invites were waiting for us. The Ozzy hospitality in those days were second to one.
Four of us opted to spend a non-organised leave and chose Sydney cricket-ground. We actually slept in the dressing rooms and awoke each morning to beautiful sunshine and looked out upon luscious green grass. Garden of Eden was never like this. Volunteer women prepared meals for us: we were as free as the birds and the war was a million miles away. We decided to visit Manley Beach. Harry, myself, Ernie and Fred Gould.... (Fred on one of his solo-trips ashore met a girl whom he eventually married. He was de-mobbed there and settled in Australia) found ourselves frolicking in the water, trying to impress the girls, but keeping a weather eye on the net a few hundred yards away. The warning notice on the beach and this net, convinced us there were things out there we would rather not meet. The warning bell sounded right in the middle of our posing campaign. The sound made our skin crawl. Impressing the girls suddenly went to the bottom of our priorities as we scampered back up the beach. Was it the yellow streaks down our backs reflecting the sunlight?. The signal to say the emergency had ended sounded, and we returned to the water. We found it harder to impress the girls whilst swimming with one leg on the bottom and one eye on the net. We had swam from the side of the ship on a number of occasions, yet that shark net scared us far more than any deep water did. We spent a leisurely week enjoying the Australian sun and freedom from routine. Looking back it was probably the best holiday I ever had. We knew it couldn't last forever and wondered when we would be off to invade Japan. We reluctantly returned to the ship which by this time had been moved into a dock in Woolloomooloo, nearer to Sydney harbour bridge. I have photographs taken on the carrier-deck that would make anyone swear that we were in the middle of a housing estate.
Everyone on board wondered.... When are we leaving to invade Japan?. The suspense came to an end when the tannoy announced that Atom-Bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our thoughts were now mixed with, how nearer are we to going home and would we still be invading Japan?. Would the war be ending soon?. V.E. Day seemed light-years away and all we wanted to do was return home to our families. One thought was brought to an end by a further announcement, "The Japanese have unconditionally surrendered". We raised the roof with our cheers.... we were going home.... or were we?.
During this spell in Australia a Marine joined the ship and took over the training of the boxing team. We were amateurs and he went way over the top with his training: so we dumped him. We discovered later that he had trained a British professional boxer who had become a champion. The tannoy brought us down to earth very quickly when it was announced 'All shore-leave cancelled until further notice' we knew something was on the cards: but what?. We didn't have to wait too long when the ship prepared to leave harbour with the tannoy blasting.... 'Special sea-duty-men close up. Hands to positions for leaving harbour'. A fleet of ships left the harbour; the cruiser Bermuda was one of them. Names of other ships long forgotten. We had another problem.... Where the hell were we going to?. The thought of returning home immediately proved how naive we all were. (It was twelve months afterwards when I knocked on the front door of my home) The tannoy once again announced. (I am damn sure there was malice in the mechanical voice) When it told us we were going to Hong Kong to take over from the Japanese. The squadron aircraft began to arrive back on board: whilst me and 'Bats' resumed ignoring each other. The pilots were now experts and the bad landings of the old days were very rare. The sea was calm and the voyage was pleasant, but an air of expectancy ran through the whole ship. A coastline which seemed to appear from nowhere suddenly became clearer. The approach to Hong Kong harbour with Kowloon on mainland China became ever nearer. We were all ordered on to the flight-deck for the bullshit routine of entering harbour. We had a slight problem with that arrangement. We were once again lined up on each side of the carrier; making easy targets for any fanatical Jap who decided he didn't fancy surrendering and shoot hell out of us from the high ground on either side. A ripple of excitement went through the ranks when we were informed that a Kamikaze-boat had attempted to blow up a ship further down the line. Naval gunners had blown it out of the water. Royal Marines eventually had to deal with suicide-troops ashore.
The surrender of Hong Kong was not officially signed until two days after we entered harbour. That information proved that our disgust at the navy top-brass who would rather follow the lead of a long dead Admiral, instead of protecting the lives of ordinary sailors was 100% correct.
The progress was slow and our thoughts were as dark as the threatening clouds. Clouds that gleefully waited until they saw the whites of our eyes, opened the trap-doors and drowned the bloody lot of us. We all stood there pissed through, cursing Bruce Fraser C-in-C of the fleet, sitting high and dry in the Venerable. His idea of impressing the Japs with the all-conquering British navy, ended up with us all looking like a line full of wet washing. We dropped anchor in Hong Kong harbour and returned to the mess soaked to the skin. We of the lower-deck had no idea of what part we were going to play. We had heard the Japanese had been ordered off Hong Kong Island and had to go to the Kowloon side of the mainland, to await further instructions. We hadn't been at anchor long before the usual gaggle of boats surrounded us. There was a slight difference in attitude. These people were not trying to flog us some dodgy wares. They were begging for anything we would give them.