Chapter 11 (1942-1943)

I join The Navy

Joining the Royal Navy
The order to report for Naval service was a great disappointment for my mother who was now left alone just as we were settling down at Thornton Heath. However, Freda nobly offered to move to 46 Leander Road to take my place, for which I was immensely grateful. My own feelings at being called up were mixed. Many of the chaps at work were envious or professed to be so, but I had no burning desire to enter the Armed Forces myself since I was already doing a vital and demanding operational job in what was still a high-risk location. My school friends who were in the Army or Air Force ground staff did not seem to be wildly enthusiastic about it and exerted no peer pressure on me to come and join them. On the other hand, at the age of twenty, any change has an element of adventure in it and I entered upon it cheerfully enough.

On 29 December 1942 I bade a fond farewell to my mother and Freda and "went off to war". For centuries the Royal Navy had based its ships on one of three Home Ports - Chatham, Portsmouth and Devonport (a district of Plymouth). Each port had a Naval Base, a Barracks and a Dockyard, all within the same site or very close. Ships were manned from their Home Port (in the old days often by Press Gangs who scoured local inns to haul men off to sea without even a farewell to their families) and after a commission lasting two or three years would return there to pay off into Dockyard hands for refitting and repair, their crews being sent on leave. After their leave the men would return to Barracks and be allocated to another ship from the same port. In peacetime the arrangement worked tolerably well, and most recruits would in time settle down with wives and homes not too far from their Home Port. The huge wartime expansion of the Navy, however, meant that for many people none of the Home Ports were convenient. Chatham was the most popular port because of its easy access to London and the main line rail termini. For this reason, the Admiralty tried to give Scotsmen preference for a Chatham posting, which may be why I was sent all the way to Devonport.

The New Entry Mess
I left the train at Keyham station and was conveyed through the Dockyard gates to the Barracks, where I and several others were placed in the New Entry Mess. This was a dreary room under the charge of a "three-badge AB" - an Able Seaman with three red chevrons on his left arm denoting 12 years' good conduct, or undetected crime as he more accurately put it. He was an amiable chap but we were startled when he suddenly took exception to some fancied slight by the management and launched into a stream of invective. To be more exact, it was a long description of his officers and their parentage in which every second word was qualified by an adjective beginning with "f". Although, as you have seen, I had a fairly rugged childhood, in those days neither I nor my friends would have used that word and it would never, ever, have been heard in the home. At school we would have been whacked soundly had it passed our lips. The other recruits and I looked at each other sheepishly, wondering what vocabulary he would fall back upon if he were really upset. It was my first introduction to a life and people far removed from my middle-class upbringing in London. When I joined the Admiralty I met young men from many other parts of the country, but their backgrounds were mostly similar to mine. Now I would find I had to live close to, be dependent upon and take orders from people from every conceivable walk of life, with speech, talents, habits and attitudes quite foreign to me.

We slept that night in hammocks which, while not verminous, were decidedly grubby, with canvas-covered pillows and plain grimy blankets. The hammocks were already slung for us between strong bars fixed into the walls, but we had to get into them on our own and, more importantly, stay in them. Slinging, mounting and sleeping in a hammock is a skill which takes some time to acquire; the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship devoted nearly two pages to slinging, lashing up and cleaning hammocks.

Joining Routine
Next day, I was given a number, D/JX 356846, the "D" denoting Devonport. I was then a Naval Rating. No-one cared for the name "Rating", which has a distinctly inferior sound to it, but it derives from the fact that from the earliest days sailors had held "Rates" not "Ranks". I was issued with a uniform, a hammock and mattress, a kit-bag and numerous supplementary items including two large shoe brushes (wonderfully made and still in my possession) and a pouch containing needles and thread, called a "housewife" but pronounced "hussif", with which to mend my clothes. We then entered upon a tour of a dozen or more huts and rooms scattered over the Barracks and the Dockyard, all of them small, stuffy and thick with tobacco smoke, where we obtained various documents, had a medical examination, were given soap and tobacco coupons and collected a "Quarters" card showing our Watch and Part of Ship for leave, messing and Action Stations. This routine, we discovered, was followed whenever a sailor joined or left a ship or establishment anywhere in the world. A skilled malingerer could fill two days - sometimes more - at it before anyone could find him and give him a job.

New Year’s Eve with Bob Mendoza
Every unit of the Navy is called a "ship" and carries the prefix HMS - His (or Her) Majesty's Ship - whether it is actually floating or is just a collection of buildings. The way of life is exactly the same ashore or afloat, even to the extent of lining up for the "liberty boat" to "go ashore” even if the camp is miles from the sea. The next day, New Year's Eve 1942, I was allowed ashore and, as it happened, I knew that Bob Mendoza, my classmate at Selhurst, was serving in Plymouth as an Army Dental Assistant. Fortunately, I also had his telephone number and was delighted when he said he could meet me that evening. We had a meal and went onto Plymouth Hoe, where Drake supposedly played bowls while awaiting the Spanish Armada nearly four hundred years earlier. There were many ships in the Sound, blacked out and invisible of course, but at the stroke of midnight they all sounded their sirens and there was the odd flash of light from seaward. We looked at each other, shook hands and wondered where we would be on the next New Year's Eve in 1943, or, tempting Fate, on the same day in ten years' time. We resolved to remember that night especially, and we always have. Fifty years later, in 1992, we visited Plymouth How and celebrated New Year's Eve together though at his home in Cheddar and not, as we once planned, on the Hoe itself, in deference to the comfort of our spouses.

I spent that night at "Aggie Weston's". The life of a sailor is always hard; ships are uncomfortable and overcrowded, and for merchant seamen it was common to find yourself with no ship and no home, at the mercy of grasping innkeepers or worse. Agnes Weston was a benevolent Victorian lady who founded hostels where sailors could get a meal and a bed cheaply and safely. I slept in a hard but clean bed, much different from my hammock in the New Entry Mess, and rose early to return to Barracks at 7am. Within a few days I was drafted to HMS Cabbala, a new establishment at Leigh, near Warrington in Lancashire, which specialised in training Coders for the Royal Navy. I had registered as a Coder at the Admiralty's suggestion, on the basis that since I was already trained in the art they could (wrongly as it turned out) keep me as a civilian in that capacity.

Journey to Leigh in Lancashire
The journey to Leigh was the forerunner of many epic wartime rail marathons for me. The train was crowded with servicemen of all kinds, with the odd sprinkling of civilians, often young women with children on their own. The guard's van was quickly filled with kitbags, hold-alls, hammocks and other goods, so that many of us had to lug our gear into the carriages, adding to the confusion and taking up valuable space. The seating was quite insufficient for us all and the corridors soon filled with men jealously guarding a square foot or two where they might sit uncomfortably with their belongings through the long journey. Luggage racks were appropriated for sleeping purposes by those nimble and determined enough to climb into them. Most of the journey was by night and I had a bleary recollection of halts at dimly-lit platforms bearing legendary names like Hereford, Gloucester and even Crewe, the famous railway junction immortalised in the Music Hall song* about the lady who took a ticket to Birmingham and found herself there instead. It was strange to find that these towns actually existed, whose names I knew so well from History lessons as the scenes of important battles or the sources of industries and artefacts with which Britain had created the modern world.

*"Oh Mr Porter(links to YouTube in a new window)

HMS Cabbala
HMS Cabbala itself was a new camp with brick-built blocks each accommodating about 20 people, a comfortable dining room, a cinema and, of course, a parade ground. We arrived exhausted but cheered by its air of cleanliness and efficiency after Devonport Barracks. The purpose of the place was not only to teach young men how to do their job as Coders in the Navy but, just as important, to convert a diverse and mixed group of people into a disciplined force. The marching, drilling and seemingly senseless rules are a standing joke in all the Services, but the Armed Forces are actually very skilled at moulding an individual into a soldier, sailor or airman who can be trained to do things he never thought possible. Slowly but surely we found ourselves absorbing the traditions and ethos of those generations of British sailors before us who had faced both their enemies and the elements to force their way across the farthest oceans of the world. The Royal Navy still regarded itself as being the best in the world, even if no longer the largest, and we were left in no doubt that we should carry on its traditions. In time, as we became immersed in our new and totally strange world, we would find that "civilians" were strangers who lived a different life and had different values from us; and that after the war we should have to re-learn what it was to be one of them. But that was to come later.

cabbala nov 1947

The buildings of HMS Cabbala in 1943 with a
cohort of trainee coders on parade

Our immediate reaction to HMS Cabbala was excitement. The food was superb after civilian rations which three years of war had reduced to utter dreariness. Now we had plenty of meat, sugar, butter and eggs; and the Navy excelled in producing the most heavenly plum duffs or spotted dick - steamed suet pudding with jam or sultanas respectively and smothered in custard. Not only that, but we shared the camp with a large contingent of Wrens - the Women's Royal Naval Service - who we were told were our shipmates and must be looked after. Not that we were encouraged to take this too literally, but there were weekly dances on camp and fraternising on our infrequent excursions ashore was smiled upon. We sensed a return to the carefree self-concern of our schooldays and relief from the obligations of adult civilian life. The Navy looked after our wellbeing in every respect and all we had to do was to learn and observe its curious ways, chief among which was complete obedience to a superior. Initially this seemed a small price, but we chafed at some of the quite trivial misdemeanours which brought down the wrath of the authorities. The Naval Discipline Act now contained only a shadow of its once appalling cruelties. Even so, life could be made miserable, with penalties ranging from stoppage of leave and pay, extra duties and hard physical exercise, to incarceration in the guardroom, cells or ultimately in the Navy's own quite frightful detention centres.

A history of the HMS Cabbala site, and what became of it after the war, appears on the Lowton Civic Halls website and has been reproduced here.(Use the link or the ‘Back’ button to return to this page)

We started quickly on our training. In my case there was little or nothing I did not know about codes except the Morse Code, but I had much to learn about the routines of a Wireless Room and the intricacies of Fleet signals procedures. Our class instructor was a regular-service Petty Officer - Yeoman of Signals was his proper title - whose normal job was to stand on the bridge sending and reading messages by flags, flashing Aldis Lamps or semaphore. When radio silence was imposed, as it usually was in order to conceal one's position, these were the only methods of communication among ships sailing in company or for that matter with friendly aircraft. The Signalman's job called for keen eyesight, quick wittedness and an ability to concentrate on distant objects with wind, rain or snow beating about him and a deck heaving violently in all directions underneath him.

Coding was a minor part of our Instructor's skill but he invested it with an interest and importance which gave us pride in the job. Coders were a very recent addition to the Navy but as far as he was concerned, we were members of the Communications Branch, wearing crossed flags on our arms, and it was unquestionably the best Branch in the Navy. These Regular Navy Chief and Petty Officers were quite remarkable men, with a combination of simplicity, integrity and professional skill which I later found characterised the Navy's non-commissioned officers and gave it such immense strength in adversity. My fellow recruits were quite a mixed bag. The call-up had been extended and tightened up, with the result that numbers of older men had been clawed from the bosoms of their families. Our class included several of these, worthy individuals often having held responsible positions in Industry, who had thought themselves secure. Not that they showed too much outward resentment at finding themselves in uniform; but they were less tolerant towards the strange practices and discipline of Naval life which we younger ones took in our stride.

The Sailor’s Uniform
In one respect, however, there was common ground - looking smart. One heard stories of the Army's devotion to shiny boots and the frantic efforts of Sergeant Majors to get unwilling men to look like soldiers. In the Navy it was different. Sailors have an obsession with clothing which puts many women in the shade. They called it "looking tiddley". The uniform was more complex than it appeared and the reader may like to know more about it. Chief and Petty Officers and some of the technical Branches wore jacket suits with peaked caps, called "fore-and aft" rig. But most of us had the familiar sailor's uniform which was called "square rig". In winter one wore a blue, tightly woven woollen jersey of considerable weight and proof against the elements, which in summer was replaced by a short-sleeved white tunic shirt with blue edging. (Summer started and ended on prescribed days regardless of the actual weather). Over this went a blue serge jacket with long sleeves and no buttons anywhere. It had a large square flap hanging down over the back of the shoulders, tapering over the breast to a wide "V" front. Between the jersey and the jacket went a separate sleeveless blue linen collar with a similar square back and "V" front, tied with tapes around the waist. The linen collar was then pulled outside the jacket and hung neatly over the latter's square flap and “V” front. This is the familiar visible sailor's collar which is supposed to bring luck to anyone touching it. When on leave I became accustomed to feeling a sudden light touch on my shoulder, but was rarely able to turn quickly enough to see who had done it.

Underneath both collars was wound the "silk", a piece of shiny black material about 4 feet long by 10 inches wide (130cm x 25cm). This was variously said to be in commemoration of Nelson's death or, more practically, for old-time sailors to bind round their hair in battle. It was folded neatly into four and secured at the bottom of the "V" neck by blue tapes fastened to the jacket, its ends tucked inside the jacket. Only a few inches of the silk were visible as it emerged from underneath the collar but it considerably smartened the appearance of the uniform. Below all this were the bell-bottomed trousers, so shaped to give freedom of movement in leaping about the ship and to be rolled up above the knee for ease in scrubbing decks. These did not have a conventional fly-front but instead had a large flap, buttoned at each side above the hips. They had one small internal pocket and the jacket fitted snugly over them, giving the sailor the slim outline which distinguishes him from the other Services. The final touch was a white cord lanyard, also wound under the collar and appearing as a loop above the silk and the tapes at the bottom of the "V".

One might think that this was enough for anyone to have to worry about on the crowded messdecks of a warship on active service, but not so. The jacket, which was designed to stay on in all conditions, had to be pulled over the head and was not the most convenient of garments; yet all sailors coveted an even closer-fitting jacket for shore-going and would obtain a purpose-made "Number One" suit from the flourishing Naval tailors who could be found at ports all over the world from Chatham to China. The regulation red badges would be replaced by handsome replicas in gold wire thread, and the blue tapes at the midriff would be long and flowing. The official trousers were equally considered to be too loose round the hips and too narrow at the bottom, both of which would be corrected by the tailor. The result was an extremely smart outfit which clung to the figure like a lady's sheath dress but was well nigh impossible to get into or out of without the assistance of a shipmate or "Oppo" to pull the jacket over one's shoulders.

The only incongruity in an otherwise striking uniform was the colour of the blue linen collar, which when issued was of deep navy blue with thin blue and white stripes at its edges. This instantly identified the wearer as a newcomer since the more the article was washed, the paler it became. An old hand would have reduced his collar to a pale sky-blue and was suitably respected. All new entrants therefore spent many hours washing and re-washing their collars to remove the dye. Fortunately it came out easily. Less fortunately, the blue then went into the white striped edging, entailing intensive scrubbing with nail- or toothbrush and fingers to remove it.

Finally came the sailor's traditional round hat. This simple ornament was capable of considerable distortion to bend its rim upwards fore and aft and downwards at the sides. It also had a ribbon around it, embroidered in gold with the ship's name in peacetime but simply "HMS" in war, for security reasons. The ribbon was tied round the hat with the letters at the centre of the forehead and a bow over the left ear. That is to say, it was supposed to be. In practice, the sailor would make the ribbon into a loop to fit the hat, a large artificial bow would be created with the spare ribbon, and this sewn onto the ribbon as near to the left eyebrow as the owner dared. From time to time an exasperated Captain would have a blitz on irregular modifications and we would be forced to undo some, but never all, of our work. I suspect that the modern sailor has a more practical outfit with zip fasteners and other conveniences but as far as I know the basic uniform remains the same. The hammock, however, has largely disappeared because modern ships are fitted with bunks.

Our training included a certain amount of marching and drilling which all servicemen profess to dislike. In practice, it can be a satisfying activity, instilling a feeling of unity and comradeship among members of a unit by forcing them to think of each other and to act as a single entity. Of course, one could have rather too much of it, especially when ceremonial drills demanded long periods of waiting in cold or wet weather. For special occasions or when on guard duty, the sailor wears white gaiters round his ankles, and his hat is held on by a ribbon chinstrap. A marching column of well-drilled sailors can match the best Guards regiments for smartness. We also learned the drill for ordering, sloping and presenting arms, i.e. rifles, including fixing bayonets, a manoeuvre which was both hilarious and dangerous until we learned to make sure they really were fixed. I recall a bayonet flashing past my ear on one occasion when the sailor in front of me responded to the order "Slope arms" with such vigour that his weapon became detached from his rifle.

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You can read the full story of HMS Cabbala, from farmland through to its various new uses since the war ended, here.

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