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Ships from: Chatham, NJ
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Army police patrols, red covers on their peaked caps, were on the station platform. Sailors in small knots of blue here and there, lounged about, sitting on their kit-bags. There were a few soldiers, some new recruits by the look of them; some older hands too, all with their .303 Mark II Lee-Enfield rifles beside them. Their faces and gestures, as they laughed and joked among themselves, or silently watched the young women who passed, seemed to belie what everyone knew--that only a hundred and fifty miles or so to the south of us, what we knew as Western European civilization was being hammered to the wall by the Panzer tanks and Luftwaffe planes of Hitler's war machine.
I must have looked something of a sunburned shrimp as I rolled along the platform. I'd been deckboy on board the coastal sailing barge Second Apprentice for two years since my fourteenth birthday, and, although I hardly realized it at the time, it had been pretty hard going for a young lad, what with hauling anchors and halyards, and hand-loading cargoes, from hand-skinning housebricks to great heavy boulders of coal. By sixteen I was about five feet six, very thin butwiry, and like practically all the sailor-lads from the Coastal Trade I must have had a certain air about me. Looking back it seems to me we mostly all had it--an indefinable cockiness. Not an arrogance, but more as if, in our attitude to others we could say, 'Right, we know what the bloody sea can do; now, what can you do?' Looking back, I realize that this attitude, combined with the air of innocence which all kids of sixteen exude, must have made me appear to much older people as either an incipient rebel or an indomitable little sod, a cross between Tom Brown and the Artful Dodger.
I was dressed in a too-big sea-jersey knitted by my mother back home in Wales, a too-small grey jacket which had certainly seen better days, a striped Welsh linen shirt, a cheese-cutter cap and shiny black moleskin trousers with black boots. I wore all my best clothes--my only shore-going rig. Over my shoulder was a salt-stained blue sea-bag, which contained my working rig; a pile of knitted woollens and linen shirts, holed socks and tatty underwear, all washed during the previous week on board in a bucket with salt-water soap, and my sea-boots, now a size too small. These I would send home, to be passed on to some smaller local lad in Llangareth. I was on my way to the Royal Naval Barracks in Chatham, Kent. There I knew I would be issued with, evidently, the value of a king's ransom in new uniform clothes.
The ticket collector when I passed him on the platform, while a steam engine hissed nearby, grinned down at me. He was a large florid man, who wore only a waistcoat over his shirt in this, for England, warm weather. I returned his grin.
'Off to join the army then, son?' he hailed me.
'No sir, navy.' I shoved my pigeon chest out another mite into the air of England.
A porter passed by on my other side, wheeling a barrow-load of officers' trunks and cases by the looks of them. The big ticket collector greeted him. 'Eh, Fred! How's this one then? Off to join the navy, he is!'
The porter, a little thin man with a huge moustache, stared at me for a moment, then turned his gaze from me and replied, 'Is he, by gum! Now we'll be all right, eh Bill? They won't get past that bugger!'
My grin dropped. There was an awkward silence for a second or two, then the ticket collector said, 'Portsmouth or Chatham, mate?'
It was 'mate' now.
'Chatham,' I replied as I glanced my own glare at the porter. Both men looked a bit embarrassed in the silence.
'Well ... train leaves in about fifteen minutes,' observed the collector meekly. 'Good luck, Taffy!'
'Give'em one for me, mate!' exhorted the porter as he trundled off with his barrow.
Not if I can help it, I thought. I felt a bit disappointed somehow. Despite my having been working out of England for two years, and having, as I had imagined, got rid of the more wild parts of my Welshness in gesture and speech, the collector had called me 'Taffy'--an English attempt at the Welsh pronunciation of 'David' ('Daffyd'). I was still marked, to East Anglian eyes and ears at least, as some sort of foreigner; even though I knew I was more British, by far, than any of the English. I came from the heartland of the old, old Brithonic tribes, Merioneth. No one, I knew, had ever subdued us. As my Dad had always said, that would have been 'flogging a dead horse'.
In mid-1940 British Railways were still in the hands of private companies. The carriages of the train which left Harwich were still painted in the brown and gold livery of the London and North Eastern Railway Company. The brass-work on the puffing steam engine was still proudly polished and glinted in the sunshine. The train was by no means crowded, and I managed to find a compartment with only one other person in it. He was a tall spare man, from his clothes and demeanour obviously working class, 'one of the lads'. From the way he was busy cutting through one of the real leather straps with which the carriage windows were hoisted and lowered, he was either a thief or one of the still-unemployed. The leather in railway carriages then was apparently of finest Argentine importation--the British owned practically all the railways in Argentina in 1940. The man was about forty-five at a wild guess, clean shaven, with light ginger hair and pale blue eyes. He was dressed in a workman's cap, a collarless shirt and grey trousers which had seen better days. Around his neck he wore a red bandana--a neckerchief as we used to call it. He winked at me as I dumped my sea-bag on the overhead netting. Below the luggage rack were three deep sepia-coloured pictures of English East Coast seaside scenes: the pier at Yarmouth, the harbour at Whitby, that kind of thing. The ladies and gentlemen in the pictures were all dressed in the garb of the turn of the century, the gentlemen mostly in black suits and straw boaters, the ladies in long black voluminous skirts reaching down over their feet, and surprisingly gay and frilly white blouses puffed up at the sleeves. Some of the ladies wore boaters, too, atop their piled-up Edwardian hair-dos. At sixteen it seemed to me that those long, narrow pictures were from another world altogether; but I little realized, never dreamed, that I felt closer to that depicted world of 1900 then, in 1940--much closer--than I would feel to the world that I see around me forty-three years later. Like, I suppose, most youngsters, I had no idea of the appalling gulfs, the yawning chasms ahead of me. Neither had I any idea of the strange beauty that terror spawns. I was very much an after-product of the late Victorian age, when 'God's in his heaven, all's right with the world' was just about all the sense I could ever get from most 'respectable' people leading their lives of quiet, polite desperation.
'Fag, Cocker?' The man offered me a Woodbine cigarette. His fingertips were brown with nicotine stains.
'Thanks, mate,' I replied. No 'sirring' in Third Class.
'Where you off to, then?' He spoke in thick, fast Cockney. His teeth were mere stumps. There was no National Health Service in those days. It was normal enough.
'Chatham,' I replied. 'I'm joining up.' I tried to keep my voice low.
He threw his head back and huffed a short cough. 'You volunteering? Bit young, ain't you? What is it, navy?'
'Yeah. Joining as a Regular. Boy Seaman.'
'Oh, you'll be all right. By the way things are going in France, by the time you're through your training it'll be all over. I was in the last lot. Army, Royal Fusiliers. Got gassed on the Somme. Well, at least the buggers can't get me this time.'
The man turned to the window in a fit of deep coughing. Then, recovered, he stared out of the window at the green fields passing steadily by. After a while he turned towards me again and went on in a smaller voice. 'Main thing, matey, is never volunteer for anything once you're in and when you're doing squad drill always try to get in the middle of the mob. That way the other blokes can cover up for you, see? Try to get in a squad with a big instructor if you can. Those bloody little blokes are always the worst when they got a bit of power over you; all bleeding gate and gaiters, they are, see? Still, I don't know about the navy. Perhaps it's different. They seem to be a steadier lot than we was. You know, not so much bleeding discipline and frigging about over things that don't matter a fiddler's fart, see? The blokes seem to be a lot more cheerful. Still, in the last lot you can understand that, I suppose, because the navy wasn't in the fucking trenches, were they? Excuse my French, I mean most of them had a pretty cushy time, at least on the big ships, from what they told me, stuck up in the Fleet Bases--except for the two big battles where the battleships knocked shit out of each other and they was sinking like bloody ninepins ... Cor, look at that!' His head swiftly turned as the train pulled into a station. There were two young women sliding by as the train slowed down. 'Bit of all right, eh? Well, matey, at least you'll be all right where crumpet's concerned. They go for the navy blokes a lot more than the army, see? Can't go wrong in your little old navy-blue suit, can you? Bring'em back a parrot and a bloomin' bunch of bananas--they went on the rations yesterday--and you're in ... bit of the old quick-touch-me-collar-and-gimme-a-kiss! Good old Jolly Jack! Blimey, wish it was me!'
As this last wish was sent up to heaven more passengers entered the compartment. In the English fashion the rest of the journey to London was passed by everyone in absolute silence. I found myself thinking of my erstwhile shipmates on board Second Apprentice, which I had left only a few hours earlier that day. Both Tansy, the captain, and Bert, the mate, had spent years in the Royal Navy. Neither one of them had ever suggested to me that I should not volunteer for anything, nor that I ought to hide my defects behind the more proper actions of others, it seemed to me a shoddy suggestion, and somehow landlubberly. The skipper's and mate's advice had been, more or less, to 'take what's coming to you and do your best for your mates and for the ship'. In a sailing barge, with a crew of only four including the captain, it was the most natural thing in the world to give a hand wherever it was needed, and a reluctant skulker would scarcely have lasted for five minutes on board; in any case, on many an occasion lending a hand was a matter of helping to stay afloat and alive. Now I knew what Tansy and Bert meant when they described somebody who worked shoddily or slowly as 'a blinking soldier' or as 'coming the old soldier'. I found myself feeling lucky not to be joining the army. Besides, to Ted, the other deckhand, and me, an irksome, awkward or heavy job had been considered more of a challenge than a chore. We had vied with each other in performing the task quicker or more efficiently, if only to show the other how much better we could do it. We were not prudish young paragons; we were anything but that, and any other youngster who might have suggested that we were would have soon found himself in a stand-up and knock-down fist-fight which would have swiftly and bloodily relieved him of his misapprehensions. Ted and I had been generally known all along the British South and East Coasts, among the crews of the other coastal and narrow seas sailing barges as 'those two cocky bastards off Second Apprentice'. So if there was a touch of swagger in my walk, and a mite of pride in my demeanour Tansy and Bert, at least, would have understood it, because they, too, had shared some of the same experiences.
My memories of the trip across London, from Liverpool Street station to Victoria, are vague. This is probably because in later years I was to make the trip so many, many times, that they all seem to melt into one (except for the journeys across the City during the Blitz). There was a naval party of police on Liverpool Street station, especially to meet travelling recruits, and we were soon gathered into a motley crowd of male civilians of all ages from sixteen to mid-thirties, and were each handed a pork pie and a cup of tea by a joking old (that meant over thirty) Able Seaman: 'Here you are then, Wings, cup of the old Rosy Lee, and get this here oggie under your blooming belt, my son.' He handed me a pie.
The Able Seaman was a chubby fellow. His uniform was immaculate, with three gold chevrons on the left sleeve of his blue jumper, and crossed torpedoes on the right. On his chest he wore three rows of medal ribbons. I eyed him with wonder. Here was a sailor who had really been around the globe and back. I didn't know how to address him, so to be safe I called him 'sir' when I thanked him.
'Don't you call me "sir", mate,' he frowned at me, but his eyes grinned. 'You only calls officers that. My tally's Nobby, but you can call me "Stripey" if you wants to, Sprog; everyone else does!'
We were piled into a grey-painted double-decker bus and driven across London. There were stacked up sandbags about the doorways to the government buildings around Whitehall, and paper taped over the windows in case of bomb-blasts. Gas masks were carried by almost everyone, besides the police and servicemen. They were slung over civilian clothes in small cardbox boxes. I also remember--who could forget?--the dozens of funny-looking air-raid barrage balloons, looking like so many fat cartoon animals nodding away up in the blue sky on the end of their cables all above the city, and the anti-aircraft guns on the Thames Embankment all manned, all pointing up at an otherwise empty sky. Then there were the eager, motherly ladies of the Women's Voluntary Service in tweed suits and thick stockings on Victoria station, with their tea wagons, and the crowds of soldiers, sailors and airmen through whom we were marched (we were marching by now) by a naval Petty Officer who looked at least sixty, and who wore a whole panorama of medal ribbons which must have been awarded for every British war from the Ashanti onwards. On the main concourse at Victoria station our crew, all still dressed in civilian clothes, all toting suitcases of varying degrees of shabbiness, or parcels, or pillowcases, or sea-bags, were sorted out into three separate squads, and dispatched by train to Chatham or, via Waterloo or Paddington, to Portsmouth or Plymouth respectively. I felt more sheepish than glorious, marching off to war.
Once our Chatham squad was separated from the others, our smaller crowd seemed immediately to take on its own group identity. Then the others didn't seem to matter very much at all. They were strangers now--no longer fellow-strays. The chances were we would never see them again, at least in ships. We were 'the Chatham lads'. We might wind up serving with each other. I recall very well that sense of separateness from all the other servicemen on the station concourse, yet still I remember very little about my fellows in the same draft (we were navy, so it was not a squad now, but a 'draft'). I recall a couple of Scotsmen, one a shepherd from the Highlands, one a hard nut from the mean streets of Glasgow. There were a couple of Geordie coalminers from Newcastle way, and a few East Anglian farmhands, as well as men from the factories of Birmingham and Manchester, and one or two country boys from Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds. And of course some Londoners, freshly turned up to join on to us from the local recruiting office.
Probably the only unusual thing about our little knot of men, young and early middle aged, was me. By tradition a Welsh lad would have been drafted into the Plymouth division of the Royal Navy, but I had volunteered at Harwich so I was counted as an East Anglian, notwithstanding that I hailed from the opposite side of Britain. In any case, as a Boy Entrant I would normally have gone to London first, then to Shotley, where HMS Ganges, the boys' training ship, was located, but more about that anon.
The distance from London to Chatham is about thirty miles or so, but the journey seemed to take hours. At each stop on the line seeming hordes of men in navy-blue and khaki uniforms mounted the train. Every few miles the train was side-tracked on to a siding to allow crammed troop-trains to pass by on their way to the South Coast and the battle now raging in Belgium and France. Nobody seemed to have very much idea of what was going on across the Channel. The British and French armies had entered Belgium to join the forces of that country in fighting the Nazis. Someone, an older recruit, said it looked as if the idea was to set up a static battle-line, as in the First World War, along the banks of the River Meuse--wherever that was. As far as the majority of the men in my carriage were concerned, it might as well have been in China.
It was late afternoon when our train finally pulled in to Chatham station. The platforms were seas of blue. Gimlet-eyed naval police were everywhere. We were soon herded into some semblance of formation by a harassed leading seaman and marched out of the station, down the town High Street and down the long dreary hill road, brick walled in on both sides, to the Royal Naval Barracks. There, at last, we entered through the red-bricked gateway and lugged our way on to the parade ground. It was all strange and overwhelming. Power, male and menacing, was everywhere. All around us squads and battalions of blue-uniformed men drilled and doubled to the loud, harsh shouts and bawls of drill instructors. Above the parade ground, fronting the parade-reviewing platform, set into a rose red brick wall, surrounded by lamp standards decorated with humped dolphins, was the huge legend in gold letters: FEAR GOD--HONOUR THE KING.
After standing in formation but 'at ease', wordlessly watching the fierce action all around us, a Chief Petty Officer and a short Petty Officer showed up carrying a list of our names. One by one, the names were read out: 'Right, when I calls your names out you fall in and double over to the drill-shed wall as fast as Christ will let you and fall in under the name of your respective divisions and God help anyone who gets in the wrong formation! I'll have your guts for garters! Right ...'
One by one the recruits' names were shouted by Shorty with the Chief silently standing by, and one by one the recruits, looking somewhat clownish in their civilian attire compared to the uniformed men all about us, ran over to the drill-shed wall and stood, stiffer now, under one of the signs:
'Raleigh Div.','Drake Div.', 'Nelson Div.', 'Collingwood Div.' Finally, there was no one left of our original group but me. I stood there, in the now gently falling light drizzle, feeling small, foolish and unwanted. I felt forgotten. I little guessed how soon I would come to welcome that feeling. The Chief Petty Officer, a big man with a face like the Rock of Gibraltar, and a complexion which indicated that he'd sunk enough rum to float the Home Fleet, ambled over to me in his boots and gaiters. He turned round and grimaced at the men now sorted out into their divisional squads by the wall. Then he beamed at me. I smiled back.
The CPO put both hands on his belt and bawled, 'Steady, lad! Get that grin off your mug! Where do you think you are, the bloody Empire Theatre?'
My face straightened rigid.
'What have we here?' yelled the CPO. 'What ... what would Nelson say? One eye, one hand and one arsehole, eh my son?'
'Er ... I came down from Harwich, sir,' I managed to mumble.
'Speak up, lad! I had my eardrums busted at Jutland!' His jowls were clean shaven and pink and very close to my face. His eyes were the colour of a pistol. His collar, sparkling white, bit deeply into his thick neck.
I repeated my explanation.
The CPO's voice dropped to an almost tender tone. 'Looks like we got ourselves a little Miss Terry here. We must sort this one out. We don't want to lose the bloody war, do we? We don't want the Jerries dancing for joy because we shuttled you into the wrong place, do we, son? Show me your railway warrant.' He reached out for the green paper which I gave him. It was an Admiralty warrant to allow me to travel from Harwich to Chatham. It had been handed to me at the Harwich naval recruiting office.
The CPO inspected the warrant cursorily. 'Mmm,' he said in a fatherly tone now. 'Looks like there was a bit of a fuck-up. This time I won't hold it against you. You were supposed to go directly to Shotley, but I'll let you off this time. You get yourself over to the Chief Crusher's Office [Police Office] as fast as you bloody can and they can put you up for the night, then you get the first train up to Harwich in the morning, and they can sort you out again there.'
The CPO's face darkened. 'You don't call me that on the parade ground, lad. Here I'm "sir".'
'We don't say "yes" in the Andrew. We say "aye aye".'
'Aye aye, sir.'
'Right. Now, off you go along with this Leading Hand'--a man in his early twenties, wearing a chevron and an anchor on his arm, stared at me. The CPO went on, 'Off you go, like a bleeding bullet, my son, and get yourself a berth and some grub organized.'
'Aye aye, sir.'
'Good. And don't worry about it, but don't do it again. You're lucky it's me. I'm fairly certain the Andrew can manage to bumble along somehow while you get yourself properly organized and you move so fast now, my lad, that your bleeding feet don't touch the deck!'
So I spent my first night in the Andrew in a cell, and entered the stream of the Royal Navy. In it and not. Organized and not. Part of it and not.
The 'crushers' in the Regulating Office were stern but not unfriendly and provided me with a comfortable if hard bed and a thin blanket in one of their overnight cells, whitewashed and stark, and woke me the next morning to a good hefty breakfast, after I had scrubbed out their office, and drove me in one of their vans back to Chatham station.
When I thanked the driver, a Leading Crusher, he replied, 'Bullshit. When you get where you're off to, you'll hate my guts for helping you to get there.'
Posted January 4, 2011
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