Sussex Shipbuilding Company, Shoreham, Sussex 9/3/43
- TLt D C Hernaman RNVR TSLt HMS St Christopher for MLs 16/2/42 HMS Mosquito Alexandria for MTBs 7/42 Commanding Officer HDML 1223 14/6/43 TLt 8/8/43 Commanding Officer ML 839 25/5/44
- TLt W F Cannell RNVR TASLt HMS St Christopher for MLs 9/11/42 TSLt 7/2/43 Commanding Officer HDML 1223 6/44 TLt 7/2/45
Post War History
- 1945 French Navy = VP 3
- 1956 Cambodian Navy = VP 748
- 1972 Listed in Janes Fighting Ships as VP 212
Memoir of Tel Dennis Gilbert PJX 381719
The following is an extract from “A Young Matelot’s Tale” by Den Gilbert
“The small ships base in Alex, HMS Mosquito, was my next move, and I joined a Harbour Defence Motor Launch (HDML), No 1223. The next few weeks were to be the worst in my experience. I was very soon to find out that the duties of a general service telegraphist had practically no relationship with those of a telegraphist on a Motor Launch (ML). All the other crew members had been on a special training course on small ships before they left the UK. I had never seen the receiver and transmitter which I had on the boat, neither had I been in contact with anyone who could give me information regarding the radio frequencies I would be working with. I was able to sort that out by talking to a PO telegraphist at the base.
Communication by Wireless Telegraphy (W/T) was only used in an emergency. The main method of communication was visual, Morse code with an Aldis lamp. I had never seen an Aldis lamp. The ratings who use them, signalmen, train for months before they become proficient. The two officers had slight knowledge of signalling, but not enough for operational activity. They were very sceptical and scathing when they learned that I knew nothing either.
There were several MLs tied up alongside, and they took it in turns to do guard duty each night. On the day I jointed the ML it was our turn that night. I was given the 2 am till 4 am stint. I had never seen a rifle in training, so I had to be instructed in how to challenge. If anyone approached, you bellowed, “Halt, who goes there?” and the reply would be, “Friend” (I never heard of anyone replying foe). You would then bellow, “Advance friend and be recognised.” The ‘friend’ would then advance and you would confront him with your rifle and bayonet while you recognised him and let him pass. So, a dark night, nothing moving except a few Arabs in fishing boats, which had to be watched carefully as they were liable to nip aboard a boat and help themselves to anything that was moveable. They were also handy with knives. We were given ‘Watch coats’ to wear on guard duty. They were long, heavy garments which I had never worn before. It must have been about 3 am when someone approached along the jetty. I went through the routine OK but when the ‘friend’ advanced to be recognised my slung rifle had slipped across my back, my torch had become jammed in my pocket, and the ‘friend’ was the duty officer doing his rounds. He quite rightly gave me a not very friendly slagging off, and my Captain also felt the rough edge of his tongue the next day; also quite rightly for allowing someone to do guard duty before being properly trained and familiar with the duties. I had to spend quite a number of sessions getting familiar with guard duties.
When a naval ship is at sea it must carry recognition lights. This is how you challenge an unidentified craft and identify your own craft if challenged. They consist of two specified coloured lights, one above the other for the challenge, and different lights for the reply, suspended from the crosstrees of the mast and operated by the flick of a switch. They changed every four hours, so the lookouts had to be compliant with the sailing orders or risk being fired upon.
I had been on the boat for five days when we got underway for one of the desert towns, Tobruk. As soon as we cleared the harbour, I was told to put up the recognition signals. Once again, I knew nothing at all about them and was again subjected to derision and accused of incompetence. When sorting out the coloured glass shades of the recognition lights revealed my colour blindness, my sense of misery reached a new low.
The three-day trip to Tobruk was also extremely miserable and painful as I was very seasick all the way, and trying to bring something up when there was nothing there was hard on my stomach. Seasickness was to become a fact of life for me, for some weeks. Every time that we put to sea, I became seasick. When I was down below keeping a W/T (wireless telegraphy) watch, I used to have a bucket by my side. The symptoms gradually became less severe and after the initial clearout, I was right as rain, and I had a certain amount of pleasure from the rough seas.
There was one incident on the way up which says something about the situation on board. The Captain decided to test out the guns. The bridge armament was twin Vickers on each side of the bridge, and they were limited to movement to prevent them bearing on the ship. The starboard guns were manned by our stoker. His time had been spent on ‘big ships’, so he had not had much experience as a gunner. It is a mind-numbing experience firing twin machine guns, the noise is terrific. When the guns opened up, the stoker’s gun began to swivel forward. The guard had obviously not been adjusted correctly, nor had it been tested. The result was that a stream of bullets was approaching the first lieutenant who was in the line of fire. He was saved by the Cox’n knocking the stoker’s hand off the trigger. I have to admit that I was pleased that this was one incident for which I was blameless!
There was another incident on this trip which was amusing, but nearly turned out tragically. One of the seamen was told to wash the deck with seawater. There is a technique for getting seawater when the boat is moving. The bucket has to be thrown forward so that the open end is partway in the water and then it needs to be snatched up before it starts to drag. Lefty, who a few short weeks ago had been a London barrow boy, put a clove hitch on the bucket handle and put the bucket in the water; he didn’t retrieve it quickly enough, and the line was snatched out of his hands by the drag of the bucket. The line had somehow taken a turn around Lefty’s leg, and he was dragged to the guard rail and jammed there. Danny, shortened to Jan, a farmer’s boy from Devon, whipped out a knife and cut the line. So, we lost a bucket, but we still had Lefty, who had a very sore leg. That might well have happened to me, because I was inexperienced in the bucket-filling technique.
Tobruk was a place that had been practically destroyed during the desert war. Apart from a naval signal station there was very little else. The harbour had lots of war damaged ships with just the upper works sticking up above the water. There was no water supply, so the PO motor mechanic had to keep an eye on the level in our tank, because our water had to be brought in by an army tanker. Diesel also had to be delivered to us and sometimes it came in gallon cans, which meant a long dirty session, followed by a bath in the bucket (no baths or showers available) to get rid of the smell, etc. Our ship’s complement was twelve: two officers (Sub Lieutenants); one Chief Petty Officer (Motor Mechanic); one Leading Seaman (Cox’n); one Stoker; two Able Seamen (Asdic ratings); two Able Seamen (Gunnery ratings); two Ordinary Seamen; and one Ordinary Telegraphist (me).
Ginger Ross, “Jan”, Sparks
Sparks, “Jimmy the One” (1st Lieut.), Coxn, Jan – In Haifa
Clockwise from left: Jan, Ginger, Coxn, Motor Mech, Barney, Sparks, “Stokes” Harbor
My duties were primarily communication but when at sea I became part of the seaman’s watch, alternatively on the wheel and lookout. I also had to keep single operator periods of a W/T watch. This meant keeping a listening watch on 1250K/CS every four hours, and if there was a signal for us, decoding it. If it was prefixed ‘urgent’, then I would pass it on to the officer on watch for decoding. These single operator periods were a bit of an anomaly. They were supposed to last only 30 minutes, but they sometimes went on for much longer, and if the W/T watch did not coincide with the seaman’s watch, my off-watch period was sometimes very short. I was often called back to the bridge if someone signalled us by Aldis lamp and the officers had difficulty. I was by now proficient in seaman’s duties as well as communications. I also stripped the Vickers guns, set the depth charge depths, stood in for the Asdic ratings, jumped the buoys, slung heaving lines, moored up, etc.
Barney and Joe with the Oerlicon
When in port my first job was to take any paperwork, official documents and censored mail, up to the base offices and collect any that was there for us and also pick up any stores that were available. At Tobruk, this meant about 15 minutes’ walk up the hill to what remained of the town. It was an absolutely desolate place; apart from the naval signals station there was nothing else, not even any Arabs. Because the army was in charge of this area, we were given a free ration of cigarettes. The snag was that they were produced in India and they were foul, so nobody was bothered if I collected them or not. On one of my trips there was a crowd of West African soldiers doing road repairs. Part of their rations was a sack of monkey nuts and they were delighted to exchange their nuts for our cigarettes. The nuts were well received on board as they were the only fresh food that we had obtained for weeks.
It was a large sack, and everyone was encouraged to eat them at any time, and any other boats that called in were free to help themselves, but the sack never seemed to empty. One day, our Cox’n got fed up with the constant mess from the monkey nut shells and emptied them over the side.
One of our crew had gone into an army hospital about 20 miles out in the desert. We weren’t due to go out on patrol for a couple of days, so a couple of us said we would take him a change of clothes and some letters that had arrived for him. We had nothing else to take him. To reach the hospital, we had to walk about a mile to the road across the desert and hitch a lift in anything going that way. The Egyptian sun was pretty hot, but we got there eventually. The lads in the ward were pleased to see us, as they didn’t see many visitors, and we spent some pleasant hours yarning. It was a change to be away from the boat and to sit in a chair! One of the patients, a soldier who had been stationed on the opposite side of the harbour to our boat, told us why he was in hospital. He had decided to go for a swim and had waded in (the sea was about waist high) when he was charged by a shark. He wasn’t bitten but a lot of his body was severely lacerated by the rough sharkskin. This shook us somewhat as we understood that there were no sharks in the Med, and we were used to swimming quite freely from the boat.
Another lad was off a merchant ship that had called in Tobruk for one night. He was only a youngster and had gone ashore to look around the ruins. In his own words he said: “I saw this red thing, like a cricket ball. I gave it a kick; it went bang and my foot had gone.” It sounds as if it was a grenade used by the Italians, known by our troops as ‘red devils’. These little first-hand accounts made us think a bit. We were able to catch a lift in the back of a lorry driven by a large Sikh soldier. In the back were supplies which were obviously bound for an officers’ mess somewhere. Among them was a quantity of fruit, oranges, grapes, etc, which we hadn’t seen for months. Although I was brought up quite strictly in the belief that stealing was bad, I must admit that there were fewer grapes when we left than when we had climbed aboard!
Fresh vegetables were non-existent in Tobruk, so when our skipper was promised a sack of potatoes he lost no time in detailing two of us to fetch them. I imagine that a few pink gins had changed hands for this. The spuds were right round the end of the harbour. It would have been an exhausting walk in the Egyptian heat, so we decided to take our pulling dinghy. All went well until we were back at the boat. I was attempting to pass the sack of spuds to someone on deck, while my mate kept the dinghy alongside. He didn’t make much of a job of it, as the dinghy veered away, the spuds went into the oggin, so did I, hanging on to the spuds! I dare not let go or else I would have been ostracised and would have had to pay for the spuds, and spent a long time on jankers. We did land them eventually, but the salt water had ruined my nice new watch which cost me a fortnight’s pay in Durban. Still, to quote a mess deck saying: “If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined.”
There was a constant threat of enemy frogmen coming over and doing a lot of damage, so one of our jobs was to lie off the harbour entrance at night and let off miniature depth charges every so often. What I didn’t like was the fact that naval stores didn’t stock them, so we had to do a bit of DIY-ing, and make them up ourselves. We were supplied with sticks of explosive which we had to bind together to make up five pounds weight, then fix a detonator to a length of fuse, and fix it to the charge. Then all we had to do was put them in a bag and carry them onto the boat, and hope that the buggers didn’t go off before they were intended to. We had been put ashore, in case we were careless; we might have damaged the boat! I didn’t like that job, I always had severe headache after.
After we had let go the anchor, it was usually a peaceful night. We kept a loudspeaker wireless watch as the reception from the signal station was good. This left me free to keep an Asdic watch, as any frogmen would probably be brought by submarine. At certain intervals two hands would push off in the dinghy and drop the charges. The technique for this was quite interesting; the detonator had to be given a sharp knock with a hammer to light the fuse before being slung as far as possible from the boat. This job had its moments with the boat rocking in wind and rain. With just a small torch if the charge slipped out of a hand and rolled about in the bottom of the boat, there was a wild scramble to get it overboard. The language was pretty colourful when that happened. I was not allowed to do that job as there were several seamen, but I was the only sparker, so, as the lads told me, I had an easy number.
On one of these ‘frogmen’ nights things didn’t go according to plan. The procedure was for the Jimmy (1st Lieutenant) to stand on the fo’c’sle and monitor the anchor chain as the anchor was lowered over the bow. There was a rating standing by the brake as the chain ran out of the hawsehole in the deck. It so happened that the Jimmy had developed a cold and had almost lost his voice, so when he yelled to the rating to apply the break, his croak wasn’t heard above the rattling of the chain. The result was that the chain came out like a bat out of hell with such force that it tore itself from the mounting. The end came flying through the air and missed the Jimmy by about three inches. If it had hit him there would have been one dead officer on the fo’c’sle. We had another anchor on board and a length of thick rope which was made fast to the anchor which we lowered by hand over the bow. The rest of the night passed peacefully, but we hit another snag in the morning. When dawn broke we began to lift the anchor. This had to be done manually as the winch which we usually used had been broken in the anchor chain mishap. I should have said tried to lift the anchor, because as soon as we had taken up the slack we couldn’t budge it another inch. We worked very hard that forenoon, all the crew including the Motor Mech and the stoker were on the end of that rope. By dinner time we were all exhausted, and when we tried freeing it with the engine running, the rope either broke or the knot slipped, and we were free to crawl back into harbour minus two anchors and an anchor chain. A naval diving team were brought in, and they located an anchor and chain on another ML that had been sunk by tanks on the same mooring that we were occupying. So after much scrubbing and scraping we were operational again. The diving team also located our lost anchors, one was recovered, but the other one was jammed under an underwater cable on the sea bed and couldn’t be moved. It was hardly creditable that a couple of isolated incidents would lead to an almost farcical situation. Still, if you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined!
To say that the accommodation on ML1223 was adequate would be gilding the lily somewhat. The wardroom occupied the stern and was reached by a near vertical stairway to the wardroom flat. The cabin for the Chief Motor Mech and the coxswain led off the flat, as did the W/T cabin (my kingdom). That was a rather posh name for what was actually a cupboard, not even a walk-in cupboard, as the deckhead was too low to allow standing room. Access was by a sliding door. You put your bum in first, lowering yourself onto the seat and twisting your upper half around carefully, with your chest in contact with the table, and with two inches of headroom below the deckhead. There was room on the table for a transmitter, a receiving set, a Morse key, logbook, message pad, and on the bulkhead was a little locker for stationary, codebooks, etc. Under the table there was just room for my legs, and enough space for the bucket, which in the first few weeks was indispensable. A first-aid box which arrived one day was also squeezed in. The engine room hatch cover was just forrard of the wardroom hatch, and the bridge was forrard and above the engine room. From the bridge a couple of steps down and a small door led to the wheel house. There was a chart table, a seat/bunk, the Asdic screen and gear, and the steering wheel and compass. Also a weighted safe containing the confidential code books, etc, which I had to chuck over the side if we were taken. The ‘other ranks’ mess was in the forepart of the boat and was reached from the wheelhouse by a shaft and a vertical ladder. To access the mess, you went down the ladder backwards until your feet reached the landing, you then crouched down and turned to face the mess deck, ducked your head and dropped your feet onto the deck of the mess; another wriggle and you had made it. There was a table in the centre of the mess, bolted to the deck. Seats were along each side, the backs of which swung up and were attached to the deckhead to form bunks. The flaps on the table could then be swung up to complete the table. There was just room to squeeze in from the ends with your belly touching the table. Very cosy. The other way in was directly from the upper deck, from the hatch on the fo’c’sle and via a vertical ladder. We didn’t use this way if we were at sea as the hatch cover had to be securely fastened because the sea was usually coming over the bows.
Our galley was in the mess deck. It had a sink with a cold water tap and a hand pump to obtain sea water. Our stove had an oven and two burners. It was a Primus, fuelled by paraffin. Primuses are usually initially vaporised by meths, but we never had any, so we went straight onto paraffin which was quite interesting if it hadn’t fully vaporised. It was also fun and games if the vapour hole needed pricking. The pricker was a piece of tin about six inches by half an inch with a very minute bit of wire at right angles to the end which had to be inserted in the vapour hole to remove any speck of dirt to allow the vapour through. It was difficult at any time, but at night, in the light of a small torch, with the boat rocking and dipping its nose in, and wearing wet oilskins, it almost made us swear!
There wasn’t much in the way of entertainment at Tobruk, so when we knew that George Formby was coming to do a show it gave us something to look forward to. He had always been my favourite comedian (he still is), so along with two others I was given permission to go to the show. A stage of sorts had been put up in the square and some of the debris cleared away to make way for benches. Soldiers from the desert camps made up most of the audience, and despite the heat it was a festive occasion. The concert party was very late in arriving, and George came on the stage to apologise. He explained that they had just travelled from Sicily, and then a long journey on desert roads in an army lorry. He was covered in dust and he said, “Give me half an hour to clean up and have a cup of tea and I’ll be with you,” and he was. He gave us all the songs that we asked for. He was a great bloke! There was one snag, however. We were going out that night, and one of the lads came dashing up from the harbour to say that the skipper was ‘shaving off’ (navy talk for hopping mad) as we should have been on patrol by then, so we missed a bit of the show. We had a few days pay docked, but we didn’t lose any shore leave because there wasn’t any as there was nowhere to go!
An unusual job came our way which involved a visit to Bardia, one of the desert ports along the coast from Tobruk. We had anchored out in the bay and some of us were just about to go for a swim. They must have been watching us from the signal station because there was frantic Aldis flashing to say that a shark had been spotted in the bay earlier on; so that was one swim we didn’t have! The reason for us being there was because a ‘big’ ship, probably a cruiser, was going to be passing in the vicinity, and as there was a suspicion of mines in the area, a minesweeper had been detailed to sweep a channel for the ‘big’ ship. Our job was to provide an Asdic (anti-sub) screen for the minesweeper while they swept the channel. The thought did cross my mind that the sweeper was looking after the big ship, we were looking after the ‘sweeper, but who was looking after us?
We were very rarely in one place for longer than a few weeks, and hardly ever in a base, so we received letters from home spasmodically. The mail aroused mixed feelings when it arrived. Those who had mail were happy, and those who didn’t were not. There was always a prevailing thought that there might be a ‘Dear John’ among them. This was the name for the letter which started off, “Dear ——-, I am very sorry but I have met someone else,” which signified that the long wait at home alone had become intolerable. Our Chief Motor Mech., the only married man in the crew, used to get very down in the dumps until he had read all of his letters.
Being away from a base for long periods meant that I didn’t get the opportunity to take the exam for me to become a telegraphist instead of an ordinary telegraphist, for which I would be paid an extra threepence a day. I did get it eventually, although the large amount of back pay which I had anticipated was minimised, because our skipper had trawled through the regulations and found that there was a maximum amount which would be claimed.
After some weeks based in Tobruk, we were pleasantly surprised to be told that we had been given a ‘Friday while’. This meant a short leave from Friday afternoon to Monday forenoon. The reason for this was because we had spent a fair period ‘up the blue’, desert ports, etc, with cramped conditions, poor food, always on duty and we had become what we called sand happy. I can’t remember what the official name was for it, but thinking back, I imagine it was stress related, although stress wasn’t in our vocabulary in those days. Anyway, it was an opportunity for us to let off steam away from officialdom. We were picked up on Saturday afternoon by a light army truck for an uncomfortable few hours trip across the desert to an Eighth Army rest camp at a place called Derna.
Our accommodation was in a small house just outside the town. The windows were unglazed so there was a sandy atmosphere. The facilities were somewhat basic, a bed, a toilet and a tap. We had our meals in the dining rooms with the squaddies (soldiers), so it was an improvement on our normal lifestyle. Best of all though, there were no duties, no bull. Soon after our arrival we were visited by lots of Arab youngsters on horses, and it turned out that they wanted to hire the horses to us. It seemed like a good idea at the time, so after negotiating the price (four packets of V cigarettes, army issue for each hour) it was arranged that they came next morning, which they did about 6 am and were told more or less politely to return after 9 am.
Lefty, Scouse, Sparks and Jan
After the trauma of getting mounted we decided to look around the town. The horses seemed pretty docile, but when the little boys were behind them they became very spirited. It soon became apparent that our steeds had minds of their own, and our progress around town was not in an orderly and seamanlike manner, so we headed for the open spaces, on what passed for the main road. We began to get the hang of this riding skylark, but the sun became hot and we became thirsty so when we spotted a bar we made for it. The bar had a wide staircase with a few steps leading up to a veranda with a double doorway into the bar. We realised that once we got off the horses we would be unable to get on them again, so we rode up the steps and into the bar (well John Wayne does it). The customers murmured “macnoon”, Arabic for mad and the owner got very agitated, but he caught on that the sooner we were served then the sooner we would go; so he served us and we went. We had only been back on the road for a few minutes when a jeep containing red caps (military police) roared up. The noise upset our horses and they were milling around and hooves were sliding on the road surface. It was a bit hectic for a time and we were quite irate. The sergeant in charge was pulling his rank and blustering that we had got to get off the horses and lead them off the road, even though we emphasised that we would be unable to mount them again. However, sweet reason prevailed when we told him that if we had to get off the horses, we would just walk away and would he agree that it would be better to have horses on the road with matelots on them than horses on the road with no one on them? I think that he saw the point because he got back in the jeep and drove off, and we never saw any of them again. I enjoyed the spell at the rest camp, but if rest and recuperation was the object of the break, I can’t recollect that we had much of that.
There is one occasion which always makes me smile when I think about it. We had been having some repairs done to the boat in HMS Mosquito, the small ships base in Alex. The day before we were due to go ‘up the blue’ again the Captain of the base decided to give us a formal inspection. We spent all the forenoon scrubbing, clearing, polishing brass, etc. Someone had found a bosun’s pipe and Lefty who had been detailed to pipe the Captain aboard, had been undergoing extensive instruction on how to blow and operate the thing. Anyway, the Captain and his master at arms appeared and climbed aboard in deathly silence; we learned later that Lefty had been stood at the gangway with his fingers on the appropriate holes so long that his fingers had cramped up and he couldn’t move them. The wheelhouse was duly inspected and the brass decided he was going to enter the mess deck via the vertical narrow opening. He was a quite short man and fairly plump with it and he really shouldn’t have done it. He disappeared down the ladder, and it was a tight fit, and then he stopped. The lad cleaning the galley had burst our large bag of dried peas and had put them in a large metal bowl and placed it nicely out of sight on the landing at the bottom of the ladder, so, the Captain had to have his feet extracted from the bowl and dangled into the mess deck, whilst still perched on the bowl, and then him and the bowl were levered into the mess deck surrounded by our peas. He was quite short, so he only bumped his head on the deckhead about twice. He chose not to go up to the deck that way, the forward hatch and the vertical ladder was more convenient, just! The rest of us were fell in on deck, waiting to be inspected. It all went pretty well, the usual few words and polite answers until he came to our Chief Motor Mech. The Captain said, “How long have you been out here chief?” The chief said, “Two, sir.” The Captain said “Two years?” “No, sir,” said the chief, “too bloody long.”
Our chief had been aboard much longer than he should have been, and he really was cheesed off. The whole operation had been a shambles, and the Captain made his feelings known when referring to our two-pounder gun. He said, “Does this ridiculous gun fire?” and about our next trip, “Can you find your way there?”
We didn’t have baths or showers on board, so it was quite a performance to keep clean. If the weather was warm we used to take a bucket of water up on the upper deck and wash bit by bit, and if it was cold and a good wash down was needed, the Motor Mech would allow us to remove a couple of bilge boards in the engine room and balance on the cross beams. I was doing one of these bath in a bucket jobs when we were at Tripoli, in Lebanon. We were tied up to a buoy about a hundred yards off shore from a signal station. When I started my bath I was on the blind side of the shore, but I didn’t notice that the boat had swung, and I was in full view of the wrens in the signal station. They seemed to enjoy it, and I couldn’t care less, so everyone was happy.
Another incident that took place at Tripoli was lucky not to have had a nasty ending. Tankers used to arrive there empty and while they were being filled with oil at the terminus we were doing an Asdic patrol, because they would be sitting ducks for a U-boat. This involved steaming to and fro across the mouth of the bay. We had been doing that for about six hours and it had just gone dark. There was an Indian army artillery battery stationed on the hills above the terminus, and they suddenly opened fire. We thought at first that they were firing at something out at sea, but as the shells got closer we realised it was us who was their target. We very quickly called up the signal station, who contacted the army and peace and quiet reigned once more. We think that when the new Indian sentries relieved those on guard they were not briefed as to what was going on, and one of them must have spotted us and reacted very promptly. They call that sort of incident ‘friendly fire’ these days, but we didn’t think it was very friendly! We had quite a friendly relationship with some of the local Lebanese fishermen. A couple of the crew took the dinghy out to do a spot of fishing, which they did by dropping one of our home made depth charges. It was amazing the amount of fish that floated up. The Lebanese were very grateful for the surplus, and acted as guides for further expeditions.
Tripoli was a very interesting place, the people from the hills used to come to the market, dressed in their posh leather thigh length boots, with daggers in their belts, and elaborate head gear. There were orange groves around the outskirts, and everywhere was much greener than Egypt, but it did get very cold at times. Although we were swinging around the buoy at Tripoli, I still had to do single operator watch-keeping periods. On one of these I received a signal directing us to a position where a merchant vessel had radioed that it was being attacked by a U-boat. This was rather ironical, as only a few hours earlier we had listened to a broadcast by Churchill stating that “The Med was now clear of enemy ships.” We went to the specified positions but couldn’t find a trace of anything. However, when we went to Port Said some weeks later, we saw the merchant ship. It had a large hole right in the centre of the superstructure. It must have been very lucky: and so were we, as we were no match for a sub if it was on the surface.
There is another incident relating to a U-boat that comes to mind. Our Asdic dome had been damaged so we were on the way to Beirut to have it repaired. The damaged dome meant that our Asdics were not working so we had extra lookouts on duty. I was watch-keeping on the usual single operator periods when I received a signal for our boat marked “urgent”, so I handed it to out first lieutenant for decoding. The code was a four letter code called NYKO. It so happened that he wasn’t familiar with this code, so as soon as my watch had finished I went to give him a hand. It was quite a tense situation writing the signal in plain language as word by word it was decoded. The message was: IT IS BELIEVED THAT A U-BOAT IS OPERATING IN YOUR VICINITY.
If a destroyer or frigate had received that signal, they would have been very pleased, but in a twelve-man ML with no Asdics, joy was somewhat muted. I had to get signals ready to transmit stating that we were being attacked at position so and so, the coordinates being altered every half hour. It was a long few hours; I had to be manning the transmitter down below, and I hadn’t a clue what was going on. As it happened, nothing was going on. We think that the U-boat picked up our engine noise but didn’t come up to see who we were. There was a prayer used in naval church services which seemed to identify with some of the situations that we found ourselves in. It was known as the minesweeper prayer and went something like this: “Save us from heebies and jeebies and all things bad, and things that go bump in the night.” I think that things that go bump in the night was always in a matelot’s mind, not particularly prominent, but tucked away in the subconscious mind.
The small ships of Coastal Forces were never thought of as comfortable ships to serve in. Even the Navy paid us threepence per day above our usual pay. By necessity, the food was always out of a tin: canned bacon, sausages, spuds, all vegetables, condensed milk. When we had been at sea constantly for a certain number of hours we were allowed tins of fruit as compensation. They were eagerly looked forward to, but as storage was in the bilges, which were always damp, the labels were not always on the tins, and an anticipated tin of peaches sometimes became carrots or sausages. The extra pay was known as ‘hard layers money’.
We once gave passage to a crewman from a destroyer. He hadn’t been aboard a small ship before, and when he left he said: “I will never forget you blokes on small ships.“ That was praise indeed. He had spent a long time as Quartermaster on destroyers, so he knew all about rough passages. Despite the drawbacks, most of the men I knew preferred small ships to big ships.
One of the less appealing aspects of life on board was the ever-present cockroaches and rats. The rats had a comfortable existence in the space between the ship’s sides and the false bulkheads, similar to cavity walls, and just as impossible to get at. We used to store unwanted clothing in some parts of the spaces, but it was usually damp, and if the damp didn’t trash your clothes, the rats did. When the rats got too numerous, the boat had to be fumigated. This involved moving ashore, and taking all your gear with you, as the substance used was poisonous. A special party would descend upon the boat and seal off any opening that enabled air to enter, or rats to exit. They would then set off poison gas burners in various parts of the boat, and after making everything secure, the boat was left for a couple of days till the party came and opened it up and checked that it was ok for us to go back aboard. The dead rats were usually all together in a spot where the last pocket of clear air had been, and the cockroaches were all over the deck, waiting to be swept up. It was amazing how soon we became infested again.
My first Christmas abroad in 1943 was spent in Beirut, a place that I liked. It seemed to be generally cleaner than Egypt, and the heat was less intense, and there appeared to be less flies. The daily routine of Lebanese life I found interesting. There was a lot of very varied road traffic, camels, donkeys, lorries, and taxi drivers who all seemed to have a death wish.
The clothing of the people hinted at a large mixed culture. Apart from the usual long robe of the Arabs there was the highly decorative outfits of the mountain Syrians, ornate leather trappings, etc, and the strangely shaped pantaloons indicated a Turkish influence. The fezzes (hats) would have put Ascot to shame. There also seemed to be a lot of French soldiers milling about, including their Foreign Legionnaires. I think that they were on our side. I feel that the earlier destruction of the Vichy French Navy was a bone of contention that was always likely to result in a flare up.
The boat was having repairs done during Christmas which entailed being about ten feet up in the air, with a quite definite slope down from stem to stern. We were still living aboard, so apart from having to climb up or down a ladder whenever we stepped ashore, life was much as usual. Christmas day dawned nice and bright, and everyone was in a good mood. It had been arranged that our turkey was cooked in the base, but we were all mighty glad when the cook and turkey made it to the top of the ladder. As was the naval custom, the officers joined us on the mess deck for the meal. Home and family seemed a long way distant at times, and I don’t think that any one of them would have their Christmas dinner ten feet up in the air, on a sloping table!
The backcloth to this scenario was formed by another ML about fifty feet away, also on the slips, but this one was a burnt-out fire blackened hulk. Someone had been careless with their matches!
On one occasion I had a quite hectic run ashore in Alex, which had a rather unusual ending. We had been ‘up the blue’ for a few weeks, which enabled me to have back pay to my credit. I had enough to buy material for a dress length to send home, so I decided to get it while I had the opportunity and the money, as we never knew how long we would be in a base. Well, I obtained the dress material, and while in the shop I got talking to a couple of Rhodesian squaddies on leave from Italy. We went for a drink and ended up on a tour of the bars. I finished up at a SAWSAS. (South African Women’s Services Association) hostel. On my way back to the boat next morning, still clutching my dress material, I was picked up by a naval patrol. Being as all naval shore leave expired at 8 am and it was now about 8.30 am, I stood out like a sore thumb. I was taken into the police office and interrogated, and then driven back to the small ships’ base and marched along the quay, past all the boats, by two large patrolmen, to our boat. After it was confirmed that I wasn’t a deserter, just a sand-happy matelot, the patrolmen gave me the choice of punishment: the authorities ashore or our skipper’s defaulters, and they left me to make my excuses. So, a few days extra duties, a few days pay docked, and no shore leave, and apart from a hangover, things were back to normal. I was very surprised to find that as a result of this innocent episode, my ‘street cred’ had skyrocketed. No one believed that I had only overstayed shore leave, and I couldn’t convince them that I hadn’t done anything desperate.
I had quite a few invitations to “come round at tot time for sippers.” That meant when the daily rum ration was being given you were given a sip, as a goodwill gesture.
I had noticed that there seemed to be a lot of resentment against authority in general, particularly on the fortnightly fleet paydays, in the Fleet Club Beer Garden in Alex, which was a very large place. At closing time, when the National Anthem had been played, no one would move until the Red Flag had been played, and everyone joined in singing the choruses. This resentment also showed itself in a more individual form. One of our seamen, Danny, had been given extra cleaning duties as punishment for some infringement of Daily Orders. He was a farm boy from Devon, very good natured and easy going. It was on a Sunday, and Danny had just one more day to finish his jankers. To everyone’s surprise Danny refused to work, saying that men under punishment did not have to work on Sundays. Nobody had ever heard of this before, but Danny was adamant, so the officers had to trawl through masses of regulations, but it finally turned out that Danny was right, and there was a regulation confirming that, but how Danny had heard of it remained a mystery. It was so out of character that it must have been building up for some time.
It was also discovered that when our crew joined the boat, the commissioning ceremony of reading out the Articles of War had not been carried out, so we all enjoyed a session of listening to the horrible things that could be done to us if we didn’t behave ourselves.
One uncomfortable job that came our way was when we had to go and secure a small fleet of dummy infantry landing craft that had come loose from their moorings. They were made of canvas and were very unstable. They were moved about to various places on the coast, and the object was to fool the Germans on Rhodes into thinking that they were about to be invaded. It had to be done at night, and they were so unwieldy and heavy as they were half full of sea water. So a tiring, wet and cold night was had by all!
While our boat was in Alex tied up alongside, a somewhat disturbing situation materialised. There was a Greek manned obsolete Greek battleship in the harbour which had been converted into a base for very many anti-aircraft guns. For some unknown reason the crew mutinied and killed the captain. There was a possibility that they might open fire on the allied ships in the harbour. As a precaution several cruisers took up positions in the area of the battleship, possibly as a warning and possibly to be ready to open fire if necessary. There was a stalemate for a day or so while the diplomats sorted things out. None of us were very bothered about the situation until it dawned on us that any stray shells from the cruisers would land very close to us. I think we were all a bit nervous about that. Anyway, the situation was settled peacefully. It seemed that the Greek government was in a state of flux, with several political factions challenging for supremacy, and the disputes had reached mess deck level. They shouldn’t have joined if they couldn’t take a joke!
One of the things that I found really interesting was the dexterity with which the local boatmen handled their Feluccas in Alex harbour. Their Feluccas were about 16 foot long and carried one large mainsail called a lateen, with a mast sloping backwards. They were used extensively in the harbour for carrying passengers and cargo. We used to hire them to fetch stores from the various warehouses. The boatmen steered the boat with his feet leaving his hands free to cope with the mainsheet. I was full of admiration at the way they could judge the strength and direction of the wind.
The fares were regulated by a set tariff, like a taxi, so when we were fetching stores our officer knew how much to give us to pay the boatmen. It didn’t prevent them from trying it on though, one of their tricks was to take us near to our destination and then demand an inflated price before they would land us. Our reply to this tactic was “Anna meskeen, mafeesh felush,” which meant, “I am very poor, I have no money,” and then we would laze about in the boat as though we didn’t give a damn, which we didn’t anyway, and if one of the local policemen happened to come in sight we would yell “Askari, clefty wahlid,” meaning police officers here is a thief, and that would usually do the trick, as the boatmen feared the policemen; they could confiscate their license.
We also were not above trying to make a dishonest bob, by negotiating a reduced fare with the help of a few duty free fags. They were marvellous boatmen but would have no scruples about using a knife on you; and it was well understood that they passed information on boat movements, etc to the enemy.
When I was in the Middle East I found that the whiskers on my face were growing faster and thicker than they used to, perhaps it was the warmer climate, or maybe I was maturing. Anyway, I disliked shaving with cold water and squinting into a minute mirror, so I decided to grow a beard. To do that I had to put a request in to the Skipper to “Cease Shaving.” This was granted for a certain number of days (I forget how many). If it was flourishing I was allowed to carry on not shaving: my beard and moustache passed with flying colours! It was probably coincidence but our ‘Jimmy’ (navalese for First Lieutenant) decided to do so as well, at much the same time. It aroused a lot interest in the crew as to whose whiskers were doing best. Much to the officer’s chagrin, his beard made very little progress, he just had a few sandy, straggly hairs on each side of his chin, so when his trial period was up he had to commence shaving again. Mine went from strength to strength and I found it a convenient spot to park my pencil when I came off radio watch. All ratings with beards were addressed as ‘skers’ so now I was known as ‘sparks’, ‘gillo’ or ‘skers’. When we were ‘up the blue’ it became quite thick and long, and I made a point of touching it when the ‘Jimmy’ was in the vicinity, but when we were back at base I had to have it trimmed.
Most of us were a little bit sad when we were told that the 1223 was ‘paying off’. This meant that the ships complement was being discharged into barracks and that a new ship’s complement takes over. It seems that the 1223 was on the patrol service books, and should have had a patrol service crew, and as you can’t run a war if the books aren’t right, so things had to change.
I quite enjoyed my time on ML1223 despite the usual ups and downs,”