Chapter 25 (1974-1978)

The Ministry of Defence

I discovered that my responsibilities for Naval pay required me to visit Hong Kong where there was a Division of Chinese sailors. I travelled in company with Army and RAF people who had similar local forces. I had never been East of Malta and this was an exciting prospect. At that time we still had a small naval repair yard in the Colony and maintained a frigate as guardship and a squadron of minesweepers. I was accompanied by Lieutenant Commander Gordon Leary, a cheery extrovert with a mind like quicksilver and a practical knowledge of the Navy and all its ways which enabled him to cut through problems at great speed. We had already worked together forover a year and knew each other well.


We flew by RAF VC10, touching down in Cyprus, then over Turkey and Iran to a tiny British island called Gan in Addu Attoll in the Indian Ocean, whence after a few hours' pause we made a last 9-hour leg, over Viet Nam then north to Hong Kong. This avoided commercial air lanes because we were in a military plane and kept to the air space of friendly countries, which then included Iran (Viet Namese air space was controlled by the Americans who were in the thick of the war in that country). 22 hours after leaving England we made a startling twist round mountains and sped low over the city to land on the then incredibly short runway at Hong Kong.


The Naval Headquarters was a fine building located right on the waterfront and I was given a splendid room looking across the busy harbour to Kowloon. Beneath me lay two US destroyers resting from action in Viet Nam waters. The harbour was constantly traversed by untiring "Star" ferries which were then the most popular communication between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the mainland; I once counted no less than thirteen of them on the water. Behind the town rose the Peak, a mountain adorned with large and attractive residences of Europeans and wealthy Chinese. The tortuously winding access road was supplemented by an efficient funicular railway which provided a regular service to the top, from where an incredible panorama lay below. At night the city, harbour and Kowloon were a fairyland of lights. Coloured neon signs in English and Chinese illuminated the main streets, making Piccadilly look feeble by comparison.


Hong Kong was an incredible place. Gordon Leary called it the ultimate capitalist city, where money would buy anyone anything, and this was a fair description. He had been the Supply Officer of a frigate on the China Station for some time and knew his way around well. The sumptuous hotels and shopping centres of a standard equalling or exceeding that of London's West End gave way to workers' apartments and poor houses; and everywhere was bustling frenetic activity day and night. We worked hard at our task and gave the sailors a fair pay rise. The Chinese Naval Cooks treated us to a delicious traditional British meal of beef olives with vegetables, exquisitely presented; yet they would never touch such food themselves, preferring their own quite different fare. In the naval workshops, soon to be closed, we saw repair work of a high order in hand. Gordon Leary thought that my education ought to include a visit to the market where he used to purchase his ship's provisions but I confess that I could not face the Chinese way with living things; he remarked that they did not need refrigerators because they kept animals carelessly alive until needed. Birds, snakes, dogs, frogs - all were there.


One enjoyable expedition was a picnic on a small island, to which we took the official 60-foot launch. I was allowed to steer this through Hong Kong harbour, one of the busiest stretches of water in the world, past the rusting remains of the ex-Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth which had been bought by an entrepreneur and moored in Hong Kong Harbour where it mysteriously caught fire and sank. On another occasion I went to sea in one of the minesweepers and was landed by boat at a far corner of Hong Kong while it continued its patrol. A pink-faced young midshipman accompanied me ashore and we had to cross several Chinese junks to get to dry land. The owners, whose sole dwellings these were, looked at us with that curious, frank but friendly air which I found common to the Chinese. They still regard us all as barbarians and even the poorest of them clearly feels himself superior to other races. The junks were all very clean and tidy. I bowed and thanked them as I strode unasked across their homes. They smiled and bowed back. Once ashore, we plunged into a real Chinatown, a huge labyrinth of shacks and small stalls, totally enclosed, swarming with Chinese people of all kinds, and no European anywhere. We were regarded with interest but not dislike as we wandered left and right through endless alleys, past purveyors of Lord-knows-what strange articles, until eventually emerging onto a road where by some miracle a taxi sent by the Navy was waiting for me. The midshipman smiled, saluted and strode back, alone, into the maze. I watched him go, momentarily imagining him with a knife in his back or lying drugged and senseless in the hold of some filthy ship chugging out to sea. But then I figured that this was what the Navy expected of its young officers and doubtless he would survive.


Back in the United Kingdom the shops seemed dreary after Hong Kong. Much of Uxbridge had been rebuilt after the war in the manner favoured by institutional architects of the 1950s, that is to say of square, unadorned, grey concrete. The central shopping precinct had no roof and shop windows which faced the sun were screened by a revolting film of brown polythene. Nevertheless, nearly thirty years after the war had ended, the consumer society was becoming well established with washing machines, television sets and the luxuries of modern life appearing in most homes. Demand was expanding fast and industries had sprung up to meet it, creating full employment and attracting many immigrant peoples from the old Empire to fill the less desirable jobs.


But although we did not realise it, the nation was still living on the fat of its pre-war eminence and the reputation and industry of our forebears. Employees at all levels thought they had a God-given right to hold employers to ransom; "closed shop" agreements in major industries restricted jobs to members of named unions whose leaders thereby wielded immense power; and the law permitted people having no quarrel with their own bosses to strike with impunity merely to show support for their "brothers" who were involved in an industrial dispute. Orders regularly failed to be delivered on time and firms with world-famous names were forced into liquidation or allowed by lax managements to be overtaken by enterprising foreign companies. Quality control suffered and the legend "Made in England", which for well over a century had stood for excellence all over the world, like the hall-mark on silver, often became identified with shoddiness and unreliability.


In this atmosphere inflation rose, leading to yet more unrest. The Labour Government struggled on under great difficulties. An attempt at compulsory prices and income regulation which the previous government had introduced finally became unworkable and its machinery was abolished. Draconian Defence cuts were announced. In a dramatic upheaval in the Conservative Party, Edward Heath was rejected as their leader and in his place they chose a woman - Mrs Margaret Thatcher.


Freda meanwhile had applied for and got the post of Deputy Head of Glebe School after remarkably short service as a teacher. She was a good administrator, more mature and wordly-wise than most teachers of the time, and she took the weight of responsibility off the Head's shoulders. He, by name Barrington, was a determined man with refreshing ideas on education and he ran a happy, innovative team. However, to Freda's surprise, he shortly revealed that he was about to depart on a year's sabbatical leave and that she would become Acting Head. She found this challenging but leapt into the task with gusto. As luck would have it, within months the school was found to have been constructed using high-alumina cement which corroded the metal reinforcment of concrete. The tragic collapse of a block of flats in London had revealed the danger of this supposedly superior modern material. I found it strange that the Romans were able to make cement which would endure for two thousand years, but ours would not last for more than twenty! The consequence of this was that Freda's school was split among three sites while repair work was done. One of these sites was a small Youth Theatre called The Compass, with which we would both later be closely involved.


At work, the Military Salary was duly introduced and I was intensely busy. It is always assumed that the Government Service is grossly over-manned but in fact I never had more than a handful of people in any job, often handling complex issues of national or individual significance. The Naval Captain, Philip Cranefield, had been replaced by one Captain Mike O'Leary, a cheerful Irishman who had the unusual distinction of having held every rank from lowest sailor to full Captain RN. My own boss, James Anderson, was the son of a well-connected Scottish diplomat and had himself been awarded the Military Cross while serving in the Royal Artillery during the Normandy invasion. He was later relieved by a remarkable young man named John Bourn, a Doctor of Philosophy, with extraordinary powers of perception and amicable persuasion, who subsequently became Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, with responsibility to Parliament for the financial propriety of our public services. We formed an effective and cheerful team, doing battle with the Treasury and other Government Departments, and my spacious office in Admiralty Arch at the opposite end of The Mall from Buckingham Palace was frequently the scene of fierce bargaining. In due course Mike also finished his appointment and was replaced by Captain Bob Hitchen, an equally lively and amusing personality. My friendship with all these naval officers continued into retirement.


After the Military Salary had been introduced, the pay of the Services was reviewed annually by an independent Pay Review Body and we would spend frantic days translating their broad decisions into daily rates for the hugely complex pattern of branches and ranks in the Navy, so that sailors, aviators, Wrens, nurses, Marines etc at all levels got their fair share. This called for great care. On one occasion when rounding up a percentage to a whole number we gave Chief Petty Officers just one penny a day more than Lieutenants of four years' seniority. The two pay rates had previously been the same, and, such is the sensitivity of human nature where money is concerned, this was interpreted as signifying that the former were now regarded as superior to the latter and much correspondence was needed to clarify matters. After one such review, Bob Hitchen and I were instructed to visit the four main Naval Bases in Britain to explain the new pay deal and we had an exciting few days, flying by Naval helicopter from Portsmouth to Plymouth, thence by four-engined Heron to Edinburgh and back and finally from Portsmouth to Chatham by helicopter.


Reg Prentice was now a Cabinet Minister in the Labour Government, serving as Minister of Overseas Development. At one time he had been tipped as a possible Leader of the Party, but the nature of the Labour Party organisation was changing. For years the elders of the Party had kept a list of proscribed factions whose aims and methods were inimical to the principles on which the Labour Party was founded. First of these factions were the Communists, who sought to cash in on the goodwill and organisation of the Party; but there were others such as the Socialist Workers Party and various other shades of left-wing opinion, whose methods were undemocratic to say the least and who operated by forming cabals to pre-determine their policy and then endeavoured to pack local Labour meetings to secure the appointment of their cronies to key positions. During the 1960s these were all kept at bay, but under Harold Wilson a laissez-faire attitude was allowed to prevail under the slogan of "a broad kirk", coupled with a new rule that all MPs should be subject to annual approval by their constituency parties. A group called the Militant Tendency began to use this rule and their strength in local constituencies to "de-select" sitting MPs. Some very able people were told they would not be able to stand as official Labour candidates at future elections but would be replaced by a hack chosen by the militants. Reg found himself under this threat, and Freda and I occasionally went to Newham in East London to help him campaign against the saboteurs.


My days on Naval Pay came to an end in 1975 and I found myself appointed to somewhere called DS5, short for Defence Secretariat Division 5, in the main Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall Gardens. This edifice was grossly overcrowded and I was squeezed into a tiny room on the fifth floor overlooking the Thames, in company with a young graduate administrative trainee, whose mentor I was. With an inevitability which will now be familiar, the job into which I was thrust was quite different from any I had done before and for a few weeks I reeled as topic after new topic was revealed as my responsibility. Of course, as the years went by, my understanding of the immensely complicated workings of this huge organisation became progressively greater and new aspects were easier to grasp; but even so, the range of subjects was bewildering and the added complexities of inter-Service coordination took time to learn.


First of my duties concerned safety rules affecting nuclear submarines, of which we had the four Polaris missile boats and a number of nuclear "hunter-killer" vessels. A detailed code had been worked out by the Americans under the guidance of an elderly retired officer known as Admiral Rickover. Because of their stake in Britain's Polaris system, the Americans required us to adhere to this code of practice and to clear with them any orders we might issue on how to classify and deal with possible nuclear accidents. I worked closely with Defence scientists in framing these orders. The Rickover regime was instrumental in ensuring that no remotely serious event involving leakage of radiation from a nuclear submarine ever occurred. In my dealings with them the Americans were extremely professional and helpful, but the procedure for exchanging views was somewhat lengthy. Part of my task also was to try to get the agreement of local Councils in Britain for non-Polaris nuclear submarines to visit UK ports and seaside towns. While most towns were happy to see the sleek grey shape of a surface warship full of jolly sailors lying off-shore, the "nukes" had a sinister, evil connotation in people's minds. Nevertheless, we had some successes.


Another subject was the problem of safeguarding Naval exercise areas, and particularly submarine transit lanes, in the contracts for oil exploration which at that time were being awarded. North Sea oil started to flow on 3rd November 1975 and military needs were difficult to press against an enthusiastic public and a Government anxious for the influence and revenues which oil would bring; but we managed to reach a mutually satisfactory accommodation in most cases. On one occasion, a meeting with the Scottish Office and oil companies having failed to reach agreement, I invited all the parties to the Civil Service Club where some drinks and a more congenial atmosphere led to a compromise. Reports of mishaps which resulted in oil pollution by warships and Naval Auxiliaries also landed in my In-tray and had to be investigated. Some were quite harrowing in their effects on wild life and local communities, and trying to take the steam out of the ensuing barrage of complaint was a taxing exercise.


One of the most bizarre inquiries which came to me concerned the liner Lusitania which had been sunk by a U-boat in the Irish Sea in 1915, in full view from the Irish coast, while en route from New York to Liverpool. The ship sank within minutes. Hundreds drowned, including Americans, and the incident undoubtedly turned US opinion against Germany, so encouraging America's entry into World War I. The Germans claimed that the ship had been carrying munitions and was a legitimate target which the British had wilfully allowed innocent Americans to board. They cited the U-Boat Captain's observation that a second powerful explosion had followed that of his torpedo, causing the ship to sink rapidly. The British denied it, of course, and argued that if there had really been two explosions they must both have been from German torpedoes. The wreck had lain undiscovered for nearly sixty years until a US television company hired a team to locate it. Into my office oneday strode a commanding figure named John King, who turned out to be an ex-diver for the US Navy who had actually found the ship in St George's Channel. He had become so captivated by the story that he had turned Historian and had unearthed more of the details surrounding the tragedy than any of the many writers who had hitherto published the "facts". It suited many people in later years to believe that Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, was the evil genius behind the incident and the BBC showed a documentary which pointed to this conclusion.


John King would have none of this: he had researched the ship's manifest in minutest detail, studied US Customs documents and the secret exchanges of US, British and German intelligence agencies; and he had, uniquely, actually examined the hull of the ship himself. There certainly was evidence of a very large explosion, probably more than a torpedo would have created, and confirming the accounts of survivors. What John King wanted from me was the transcript of a coded wireless message from the U-20 reporting the sinking, which he somehow discovered had been intercepted and broken by British Naval Intelligence during the First World War. The records had been lost since before the Second World War, but by chance they now came to light in an unexpected place and were duly delivered to my office. I pored with awe over a thick book of pencilled sheets containing hundreds of German U-Boat messages from those far, desperate years before I was born. And there it was. From U-20 - "I have sunk the Lusitania with a torpedo". The mystery of a second, fatal, explosion remained unsolved for three quarters of a Century, when the American underwater explorer Ballard in 1992, using a submersible observation chamber, examined both the wreck and the surrounding sea-bed. He concluded that there had indeed been a second explosion, caused not by illicit munitions but by the ignition of clouds of coal-dust in the ship's near-empty bunkers, disturbed when the initial torpedo struck. This ripped the bottom out of the huge ship and led to its unexplained sinking in the brief span of 15 minutes, leaving no time for boats to be launched or even for many people to reach the deck.


My remit extended to Air-Sea Rescue operations, in which the Royal Navy's helicopters from Culdrose in Cornwall played a vital part, and I attended regular conferences with the Coastguards and Lifeboat Service. The latter invited me to go to sea in the Brixham Lifeboat, a new "unsinkable" design, which was most interesting. I also often chaired meetings to settle differences between the Navy and other authorities on a variety of subjects. One of these concerned the disruption of leisure activities in the Solent by super-tankers going to and from the huge refinery at Fawley - they were called VLCCs, short for Very Large Crude (Oil) Carriers. The Army also had a small firing range which bought up part of the water and caused the tankers to keep to mid-stream, while Trinity House and the Royal Yacht Club were concerned with the restriction of yachting and other activities from Cowes and the Isle of Wight. The Captainof Portsmouth Dockyard was also Queen's Harbourmaster, in which capacity he had jurisdiction over navigation in the Solent, and I was asked to chair a meeting of these disparate bodies to solve the problem. I invariably found that getting people together in a comfortable room and allowing them to put their points of view freely but without the discussion getting out of hand would lead to a sensible solution, as it did in this case by re-arrangement of the navigation buoys and delineating an anchorage for the VLCCs.


A similar impasse concerned the French Concorde which left Charles de Gaulle airport twice a week and cruised down the Channel gaining height, to the chagrin of the Fleet Work-up Base at Portland whose ships had to cease vital anti-aircraft exercises for anything up to an hour while the air-space was kept clear. With the aid of the National Air Traffic Control Service this, too, was sorted out. Another Concord problem arose over Civil Aviation Authority approval for one of the two prototype aircraft to fly from its test site at Boscombe Down to the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton for permanent display - the other prototype is at the Imperial War Museum airfield at Duxford in Cambridgeshire. I had a call from the Chief of Staff to the Flag Officer Naval Air Command saying that the Admiral wanted the issue settled quickly and would send his "barge" to RAF Northolt to collect me and representatives of other Ministries concerned. The "barge" turned out to be a Heron aircraft, which conveyed us in style across the Southern Counties to Yeovilton on a beautiful Autumn day. Approval was obtained and the majestic aircraft took to the sky for the last time to fly to its final resting place.


Fleet Air Arm matters being my concern, I was surprised one day when a file landed on my desk seeking approval for a Naval squadron of fixed-wing aircraft to be formed. With the remarkable British invention of the "jump-jet" Harrier aircraft, the Navy had perceived a means of re-introducing its air striking power whose loss, with the demise of the old carriers, had seriously weakened Britain's defence capability. With this in mind they had already secured approval for a "through-deck cruiser", so called because it would be politically awkward to get approval for building anything described as an aircraft carrier. But that is what it was, and three ships of the Invincible class were ordered, smaller than a conventional carrier but with a swept-up deck from which Harriers could be launched. The Navy and the RAF had quietly reached agreement that it was in the national interest for both Services to have a hand in fixed-wing sea-borne aviation and that the Harriers should be flown by both Naval and RAF aircrew.


A few years later these priceless ships were nearly lost again. With a regard for short-term economy rather than long-term national interest which seemed to possess the Conservative Government of the day, the ships were scarcely ready than they were offered for sale to other nations. The Invincible was actually being prepared for handing over to the Australians when with equally baffling reasoning the Government withdrew the only British warship, the survey vessel HMS Endurance, from the South Atlantic, thus precipitating a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The sale was abruptly cancelled and the carriers saved for the Navy.


Many more esoteric subjects fell to my lot, including the new Health and Safety Act laying down working conditions which, if fully enforced for the Navy, would effectively have confined the Fleet to harbour. And there was a national water shortage in July 1976 of such severity that the Armed Forces were called in to help. For good measure, I also had to read and give clearance for books and articles by all and sundry touching on Defence matters which might have Naval security implications. My life was so intensely busy with innumerable meetings and my in-tray so full that I had little time for other activities. Fortunately, Freda was also so immersed in her job that we happily worked side by side at home into the small hours. A new Head was appointed to Glebe School and she reverted to Deputy Head, but soon found that she needed the challenge of leadership. She applied for a Headship, was successful and was appointed to Coteford School at Eastcote.


Sadly, my sister Vera died while still in her sixties, victim to the occupational hazard of inn-keepers, cirrhosis of the liver, thus fulfilling my mother's dire prophesy. The world was poorer without her cheerful, vigorous and affectionate personality.

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