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AND SO ...

2. A GUZ STOKER - SECOND CLASS!  ..... in the Royal Navy, trained at Devonport

on to Chapter 3. "To Sea on a Battleship"


 "Guz"- the Navy's name for Devonport, one of its then three main manning ports. "Pompey" for Portsmouth men, "Chats" for Chatham men.

My girlfriend, Mabel, and I decided to become engaged. We had very little except hope and I took the plunge and joined the Royal Navy on 9th August 1937. I reasoned that the education I had received at school would stand me in good stead in the service. When the family learned of my decision there was concern. Gran Paul was quite put out; she had lost a son in the Navy and didn’t want to lose a grandson. Cousin Reg told me stories about conditions of life of stokers that he had witnessed when working in warships. Uncle Bill Harvey told me to reconsider and become a policeman; there was still time, he added. But no, I wanted to do my own thing.

So I became one of the lowest of the low in the Royal Navy, a Second Class Stoker, official number D/KX 91819 H. J. SIDDALL. Notice the number came before the name. I reported to the Recruiting Office on that Monday morning and, together with other new entries, walked to the Royal Naval Barracks, known as H.M.S. Drake. We were taken to the barracks block that would be our home, and there met the other new entries which made up 129 Class - our official title.

Our class instructor was a Welshman, Stoker Petty Officer, who put us into ranks of four to be marched to the sick-bay for a strict medical examination. Consternation broke out as soon as we set off. One of the lads could only march with same side leg and arm moving together, whereas you might realise that these limbs move alternately. Being new entries, we weren’t expected to march smartly, but at least we were expected to be coordinated. At the medical examination the specialists tried to discover why the lad could not keep in step, but to no avail, and he was promised to the Seaman Chief Petty Officer for extra marching drill. We found out later that he had previously joined a Guards Regiment. There, with all their expertise, they could do nothing about the lad’s defect and so he joined the Navy. As he had joined the Seaman’s branch, he was shunted off to other pastures, so we never knew if he broke the Chief’s heart or the other way around.

After the medical and providing a specimen in a test-tube ("From here?" was the standing joke), we marched to meet the dental officer. Now I am sure he was in danger of becoming unemployed because, with that horrible pointed piece of apparatus he found holes in my teeth where none existed before. This seemed to be general complaint, but our Instructor Petty Officer assured us that we would enjoy the treatment. "They are always careful with the new entries," he said. I wondered why he smiled when he said that - silly me! Formed into a squad again, we marched to another part of the sick-bay and were vaccinated. Against what, I don’t know, but our upper left arms were slightly scored by the blade of a sharp knife, on which the vaccine was impregnated. Having been vaccinated when a baby, the effects of the new vaccination were slight, but for those who had not been previously treated, they suffered somewhat with pain and swollen upper arms. Those "Ohs" and "Ahs" when they were putting on their uniform jumpers!

All this routine took up most of the forenoon. We were given dinner in Raleigh Block dining room - and a satisfying meal it was. Soup, main course and a sweet, plus being waited on by engine room ratings. The general concensus amongst the squad was "this will do us!" In the afternoon we were "kitted out". Two of everything, which went with the old saying: "One on and one in the wash." Black boots, two pairs; thick navy blue woollen socks, two pairs; white underpants and vests, two sets; one woollen navy blue jersey; two white shirts; two serge uniforms; two black caps and one white cap, sailors, for the use of; a cylindrical metal box in which two of the caps would be stored; two blue collars on which were the three white, narrow tapes, origin unknown; two large black silk squares, to be made into scarves as mourning for Nelson; one lanyard to be worn if ever allowed liberty; two boiler suits to be known as overalls; one navy belt with pouch pocket; one long black oilskin coat. Then followed the ancilliaries, one ditty box made of white wood which, under penalties of severe displeasure, had to always remain in that condition; a "hussif" - short for housewife - containing necessities for the repair of service clothing, needles, wool, a piece of beeswax, some essential buttons and a block of wooden type comprising carved wooden letters on a holder, making the name and initials of the owner. Two white cotton towels; brushes; boots, two, clothes, one: all sailors for the use of. Then last of all one was issued with a kit bag into which was stuffed the whole issue. How the Supply Assistant gauged the sizes was something of a miracle. I must add to the issue two black cap ribbons, emblazoned with the name H.M.S. Drake; these ribbons would be tied round two of the three caps. In the summer the white cap would be worn and the two black caps stowed in the metal hat box. Later each of us collected two brass name tallies, in strip form, one for the ditty box, the other for the hat box.

Kit bags were filled, tied, slung onto the left shoulder and, once more a squad, we marched to our New Entry Block, our home until we passed out from training. Here we left our kit and marched once again, this time to the main offices of the Naval Barracks where each one of us signed a service document, consigning or condemning our bodies to King and Royal Navy for a period of twelve years. The witnessing took place in front of officers with gold rings up to their elbows. Then we were given a fortnight’s pay, thirty five shillings, and once more marched, this time to the Naval Stores, where we could purchase bars of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and a half-pound tin of cigarette tobacco. We must have covered some ground that day!

Back to the New Entry Block where more kit was issued. This time it consisted of two hammocks, a set of hammock ropes and clews and two metal rings, plus two covers and a wool blanket. All had to be marked with our names, uniforms using the name tapes, boots stamped with metal letters which cut into the leather, hammocks, bed covers and blanket marked in large type stamped with black paint. Then we learned the art of slinging a hammock, the recognised bed for the duration of service life and, when correctly lashed, a life-support should one ever finish up in the sea. Each of the hammock ropes was tied to the hammock and the clews, made of codline, secured the ropes to the metal ring. When this drill was completed our hammocks were left in the slung position. Next came instruction on packing a kit bag, wherein the uniforms and kit would reside until we moved out of the Training Block.

We learned that we would not be allowed out of barracks until we had become efficient members of His Majesty’s Royal Navy and so conduct ourselves when ashore. Being in a Royal Naval Barracks, the term "ashore" seemed strange, but nevertheless once outside those gates we were "ashore". In the Mess Hall we were shown our mess table and hammock rack. The mess was provided with ‘mess traps’, which comprised a set of pots and pans. Two members of the squad were told off to be the cooks of the mess for twenty four hours. Their duties were to fetch food from the Trainees’ Galley, supervise the food being fairly apportioned, then, when the meal was over, wash the dishes and take the clean pots to the Galley, where they would be religiously inspected by the Chief Cook before being accepted. Clean they had to be or re-scrubbed.

I suppose by then, after the last meal of the day, realisation came to a number of the class that this style of living was not going to be quite like home from home. With aching arms from vaccinations, singing feet from unaccustomed boots and thick socks and no soft chairs on which to rest weary bones, life was certainly going to be different. We took our positions on the mess stools each side of the table and they became our recognised spaces. Our kit bags were stowed in the horizontal racks, the bottoms of the bags outwards, showing name, official number and home base; ours were stamped with a "D" showing that we were Devonport ratings. Kit bags were pulled from racks and possessions re-stowed for ease of access, ditty boxes placed on the mess table for those who wished to commence letter writing. The ditty box was sacred, to contain all private possessions (I still have mine), brass name tally polished and scrubbed clean.

On guard duty at the Royal Navy Barracks, HMS Drake, in Devonport 1937

The N.A.A.F.I. was doing a steady trade, selling stamps, writing materials and cigarette rolling machines, plus cigarette papers. I learned from some of the "old salts" who had been in the Navy for at least two weeks that during the Great War somebody named Tickler supplied much of the tinned food to the service, so anything coming from a tin was naturally named a ‘Tickler’. It followed that any cigarette made with a Rizla cigarette paper and tinned tobacco was called ‘a tickler’. Later the old sea dogs would dispense with machines and roll their own using fingers and thumbs.

Time came to sling the hammock and turn in and, unless one was careful, to turn out again! Once in and wrapped in the blanket, the occupant was literally cocooned. There was no pillow so one had to improvise with a jumper and towel, the clothing having been folded and placed on one’s space on the stool, socks in boots under the stool. The Duty Petty Officer came into the Mess Hall, shouted the time-honoured "Pipe Down", switched off the lights and so ended the first day of life in the Royal Navy.

Not many of us slept well; a strange bed plus the fear of falling out when one turned over. At six thirty next morning, Tuesday 10th August 1937, with only eleven years and three hundred and sixty four more days to go, we were awakened by the Duty Petty Officer coming into the mess hall and shouting at the top of his voice the time-honoured method of waking sleeping sailors: "Wakey, wakey; show a leg there," repeated as he passed each mess table. How to get out of a hammock was the next piece of drill. To roll over and fall out meant a five or six feet drop to the floor; the method was to grab the metal bar overhead and lift oneself out. First job was to lash the hammock after the last call from the P.O. to "lash up and stow". Blanket folded, edges of the hammock brought together and, using the very long rope called the hammock lashing bind the hammock tightly seven evenly-spaced turns of the rope. The tighter the hammock was lashed, the longer it would last as a bouyant support if ever the time came to abandon ship. At hammock inspection, before stowing them in the hammock netting, the P.O. was heard to mutter, "Abandon hope!"

The wash place was in the basement of the hall: concrete floors, galvanised wash bowls with hot and cold taps, mirrors which had seen better days. It was a case of don’t bother with the hot water tap at that time of the morning the boiler hadn’t had time to heat any water. Still, it was August and that wasn’t so bad. We dressed in the rig of the day, a serge blue uniform and collar, known as ‘number threes’. The two cooks of the mess brought the dishes of breakfast food from the galley, plates and eating irons were laid and the food apportioned, together with a mug of tea each. Rounds of bread were cut and so we ate. When breakfast was over, we all mucked in to "dish up"; the two cooks washed the plates, cups and dishes, the remainder of us dried and stacked them in the racks provided at the end of each table. The floor was wax polished, so after sweeping our area we were given old serge material, wrapped on large, wooden-handled blocks to polish it.

Then came inspection time. Were the kit bags in line in their racks? Lift out all hammocks from the racks. Were they lashed tightly enough, the seven imperial turns of the hammock lashing spaced evenly? Nothing seemed to be satisfactory in that first forenoon, but upon reflection this was always the case. We were not going to be shown that drill many times; in future any hammock not correctly lashed would cause the owner to be charged with having a "slack hammock". That meant extra work in the evenings, between four and eight o’clock, known as the "dog watches". Correction - I should have written sixteen hundred and twenty hundred hours.

After inspection 129 Class formed up into a squad and marched to the Armoury. To collect rifles and bayonets? Oh no, to collect webbing gaiters, Royal Naval pattern. The pattern number of the gaiters was entered into a log, which each recipient signed. Then back to the wash-place, where we scrubbed our gaiters and proceeded to khaki blanco them and clean the brass end of the straps, then leaving them to dry in the boiler house.

Then came my first job of work in the Royal Navy. Working in a warship? Working in the boiler room or engine room of a warship? No. We marched to the Officers’ cricket pitch and, in a long, regular line, we walked with backs bent weeding out daisies and dandelions. For our first week as sailors of the King, we would be roustabouts, doing any job that came along. This week was known as "Nelson Week" - don’t ask me why. One wag reckoned it would be to let the effects of the vaccinations wear off and give the dentist plenty of time to have a fair shot at us.

While doing this weeding 129 Class already got into trouble. Along came the Gunnery Officer, resplendant in blue uniform, two gold rings on each sleeve, wearing the regulation black leather gaiters, back as stiff as a ramrod, red of face and wearing a bright steel chain, to which was affixed a whistle. We were halted, stood to attention and the Petty Officer called to reckoning. Why were we on that hallowed ground? The P.O. gave a satisfactory answer but we were still in the wrong: we should have been wearing gaiters. "But their gaiters are drying after being scrubbed and blancoed, Sir," offered the P.O. Not good enough, seemingly; rig of the day meant wearing gaiters, so instead we should have been wearing boiler suits. By now the welcome piping of a boatswain’s whistle could be heard, followed by a bugle call, which in Naval jargon meant "Stand Easy". This was a respite from work, when smoking was allowed in authorised places and those nearest the NAAFI could rush in to buy a cup of canteen tea. Not so for us. We had to march back to the New Entry Block, change out of serge suits and don boiler suits, something, I hasten to add, we would live in for most of our service lives. Still another hitch occured; until a white and blue propeller badge was sewn on the arm of the overall, it would not be the official rig of the day. Next lesson: how to prepare a linen badge for sewing on the overall. Turn in the edges of the material after liberally scoring the back of the badge with soap, pin it to the overall arm and sew it on, using medium-sized stitches of white thread. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? With left arms screaming in agony from vaccination and doing sewing using fine stitches, it’s a wonder any of the badges ever reached the appointed places!

We were the first awkward and new entry squad our Petty Officer had met; he must have thought we had been specially picked for him. He began to pray for noon-time to come so he could go for his tot of rum before dinner. (‘Nelson’s Blood’ always worked wonders; so we discovered when our training was completed after four long months.) The sewing episode took us up to dinner-time, which was at eight bells, or twelve noon. "Cooks to the Galley" was sounded and in our mess hall and whilst the two duty members of the squad went to fetch the three courses of food from the galley the remainder of us went to wash and brush up, then roll out the white oil cloth and lay the table. The Petty Officer came to supervise the dishing out of the meal and, like the remainder of the class, I was ready for mine. The meal consisted of soup, main course and sweet and generally the food was the sort to satisfy any appetite. The sweet was more often than enough a lump of suet pudding with either a jam sauce or custard, sometimes a ‘Spotted Dick’, a suet pudding liberally spotted with raisins. At first I was puzzled by the letters ‘R B G’ printed on the dinner menus, but quickly learned that this was the Naval abbreviation for Rich Brown Gravy, which accompanied the meals regularly. Our Petty Officer returned at the end of our meal to supervise the washing-up routine. From then on the two duty cooks had to do everything to leave the mess spic and span. This meant washing the dishes and drying them, washing the pots and pans and returning them to the galley, sweeping out the mess floor and stacking the mess gear as required. After supper two other lads would be nominated as mess cooks for the next day.

At one o’ clock - or, I must write, thirteen hundred hours - the training classes resumed their various stages of drill on the parade ground; we were sent to the periphery with brooms to observe the drilling classes and have ‘a good sweep-up’, as our Petty Officer remarked. Here we fell foul of the parade ground Chief P.O. - a martinet in gaiters, complete with chain and whistle, together with red face which must accompany all those who can bellow to be heard on the other side of the parade ground. We had to spread out, keep moving and working; there were plenty more brooms in store when we had worn out ours! That was a long afternoon, pushing a broom up and down the approach roads to the square, covering one another’s ground over and over. I was told to sweep the approach path to the Barracks’ Church and finished up weeding the lawns surrounding the church, which was a change from pushing a broom. Eventually time came to return stores, which comprised wheelbarrow, brooms and shovels. In my later, senior times in the Navy I often recollected being a temporary Barracks sweeper!

Because of the passage of years I have forgotten to mention two other items of uniform kit which had been issued. These were uniform ‘duck suits’, made of heavy-duty twill material - the trousers almost stood up on their own. The other item was known as the "torture kit": the P.E. kit, consisting of shorts, singlet and plimsolls, all white.

The remainder of "Nelson Week" we spent at the beck and call of anybody in authority who wanted bodies. The coveted job was to work in one of the barracks’ galleys, digging the eyes out of potatoes, washing and drying the tiled walls and floors - in fact anything which was considered too menial a task for the recognised trained cooks, or ‘chefs’, as they liked to be called. Call one of them chef and he became putty in your hands. Why were these menial tasks so sought after? Because at ‘stand easy’ we would be given a cup of tea and a bun. The buns were made for the tea-time meal and to have this all warm, straight from the oven, was highly relished.

Several of 129 Class had been put into the barracks hospital or ‘Sick Bay’, which was tended by Sick Berth Attendants, commonly known as ‘Poultice Wallopers’. The effects of the vaccinations were causing severe swellings and painful arms; this was expected from a fair percentage of new entry classes. Upon reflection this could have been the reason for ‘Nelson Week’. I remember how on one of the days we survivors marched into the Drill Shed and for a whole forenoon were drilled by the Parade Ground Chief P.O., old ‘gas and gaiters’ himself! It had come to his ears that we menials - and Engine Room ratings at that - were not saluting officers correctly. By the time he had finished with us we were proficient at standing to attention, sitting to attention, saluting to the left, saluting to the right, saluting on the march, saluting at the still, in fact in how to acknowledge anybody in authority. No wonder there has always been a rivalry between Engine Room and Seaman branches.

Slowly the sick and infirm returned in dribs and drabs, until finally 129 Class was back to normal. Towards the end of that first week, with class numbers complete, we had a badge-sewing session on duck suit, jumpers and second boiler suits, followed by a kit inspection. The kit had to be laid out in a set manner, each item folded or rolled according to the dimensions in our Engine Room text book, the "Stokers’ Manual". The manual contained the primary essentials of Naval Engineering and I well remember one of the priceless snippets of information, which read: "When the pump kicks up a ruction, there’s likely air within the suction." Another life-saver was that to work in a coal bunker one needed a Duck Lamp, illuminated by a flame generated from rapeseed oil.

That afternoon came the dhobeying - washing clothes - lesson. I have mentioned the double issues: one on and one in the wash. The wash place was reserved for our class that afternoon; we had to take a clean towel and underclothes, white shirt, socks and boiler suit. We had previously slung our clean hammocks and changed bedcovers, so the articles each of us was going to dhobey consisted of a uniform collar, underwear, socks, white uniform shirt, boiler suit, bedcover and hammock. With the wash-house doors locked, we had to strip naked and begin with washing our vest and pants in the wooden troughs. There was an ocean of hot water and our instructor, still clothed I must add, emphasised that, when serving in a ship, one stripped off in the bathroom and dhobeyed in this manner. There was an art to washing the uniform collar to ensure that the blue in the material did not run into the three white decorative tapes. The same applied to the strip of blue material around the neck of the white uniform shirt. Then came the job of washing the boiler suit. This large article seemed to take forever and the P.O. was here and there with instructions. Next came the bed cover and hammock, which were first soaked in the trough of soapy water, then laid out on the wash-house floor and scrubbed with a brush. Out plugs to drain wash troughs, fill again with warm water and rinse the soapy dhobeying. Each wash place had a hand-operated centrifugal water extractor, which we packed with the clothing and took turns in rotating the drum as fast as possible until there seemed to be a danger of the whole caboodle leaving its mountings. The drum was emptied and refilled until all the clothing had been dealt with. Then came the turn of the boiler suits, the bed covers and hammocks. The whole lot of dhobeying was then hung on drying racks which were trolleyed into a hot room adjacent to the boiler house. Remember, we were still without a stitch of clothing, so the next order was to fill the wash troughs with hot water, douse and soap ourselves from head to toe, deluge ourselves with hot water, then dry off and dress in the clean clothing. This was a naval dhobeying session when serving in a ship. The word ‘dhobeying was purloined from India and simply meant "washing of clothes".

On Saturday forenoon, before becoming ‘odds and sods’ again, we marched to the Parade Ground and, being the most junior class in training, were taken to where we would be placed on the following Monday forenoon, when all of the classes would be assembled, ready for instructions. At noon we were free of all duties, ready and waiting to commence training. Our ‘Nelson Week’ was over and some of us were already learning to roll as we walked! That evening I went to the Barracks’ cinema, entry fee threepence. On Sunday forenoon the class was mustered in the rig of the day and marched to St. Nicholas Church, in the Barracks. After the service came "Pipe Down", which meant we were left to our own devices. We borrowed an old football from the Physical Training office and spent most of the day, masses of us, on the soccer pitch.

And so came Monday forenoon; 129 Class fell in, four deep in the rig of the day which was Number Threes and wearing, at last, those gaiters. Pre-war gaiters were somewhat longer than those of modern day, and our Class Petty Officer, being on the short side, was wearing gaiters which seemed to reach to his knees. There we were on a fine August Monday, on our appointed spot on the Parade Ground, at attention waiting for "Colours", when our day would officially begin. Over the air came the sound of a bugle, the White Ensign was hoisted up the Barracks’ flagpole and the bellowing voice of the Training Commander ordered the Training Classes to march off. The Royal Marine Band struck up a marching tune and so, stepping off with a left foot, each of us moved. A loud drum beat kept us in step and it was often said that the powers that be, stationed on the dias, used to say sotto voce, "Seamen will march off in columns of four, Stokers will follow in a bloody great heap." Evidently, members of the Engine Room Branch were not credited with much in the way of Parade Ground skills. Somehow or other 129 Class marched past the saluting dias, accomplished an "Eyes Left" and an "Eyes Front", proceeded to march to the end of the Parade Ground and halted. Here began the rudiments of drill. Stand at Ease, Attention, Stand at Ease, Attention, Stand Still, Right Turn, Left Turn, About Turn and Stand at Ease. After this chaos, the Instructor P.O. began to demonstrate these movements and we followed. Having broken the back of these movements we then learned to step off, left foot first on the order "Quick March". Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But we each had a different length of pace, so this had to be coordinated; apparently the marching pace in the Royal Navy is the longest of the three services. The P.O. had to brainwash us with a monotonous "Left, left" as we marched. He stood to attention and barked his orders. "Quick March" was eventually accomplished then came the "About Turn" on the march and of course, shambles set in. No wonder we were at the far end of the Parade Ground! We got around somehow and were promptly told that John Brown’s cows could have made a better job of it than we had. So the forenoon went on its weary way.

The "Stand Easy" bugle did not affect 129 Class; like Pickfords, we just kept moving. To make matters worse, our portion of the Parade Ground was adjacent to the Naval Dockyard and there was soon a group of workers watching our performance from the other side of the high boundary railings. Came Eight Bells - noon - and we marched off to our Mess Hall and were dismissed for dinner. Our Petty Officer’s tot of rum must have been most welcome to him that day. That afternoon we fell in once more outside our Mess Hall, marched back to our patch on the Parade Ground and the drill continued until mid-afternoon. By then we seemed to be marching on our knees. And so the first day of drill ended. After the cup of tea and a bun came another dhobeying session - very light this time - consisting of underwear and socks, followed by the usual wash-down. By now the next class of trainees had moved into the Mess Hall and we ‘old salts’ could see ourselves mirrored in them. Bewildered, strange feet and arms beginning to ache, their Petty Officer shepherding them to do this and that: a week ago they had been us.

Just about to finish his training was a school-chum of mine, Reggie Head, who took me to the carpenter’s shop and purloined a length of wood, about twenty four inches long, and one of the ‘chippies’ cut a v-groove at each end of it. This became a hammock stretcher which held open the end of the hammock in which the head rested. Reggie had already been drafted to China to serve in one of the gunboats which patrolled the rivers. After saying thanks and cheerio, I never saw him again and don’t know whether he survived the war. But production of the hammock stretcher that night caused a run on the chippies’ shop in the ensuing days, until eventually any suitable piece of wood was quickly adopted.

Next morning we were given appoinment cards for visiting the dentist, which. caused some adverse exclamations. My turn came and I dreaded it. Check the name and official number and sit in THAT chair. Abandon hope all ye who sit here! The Dental Officer was clothed in a long white coat so it was not possible to determine his rank. He checked the dental card and then I heard the whine of the drill and the next sensation was the feel of the drill. It went down and down until I felt he must be determined to completely penetrate my jaw. Oh, the pain! But he couldn’t feel anything; and I could only moan and squirm to no avail. Eventually he created what seemed to be the entrance to a coal mine; then I had to rinse my mouth out and he proceeded with the filling. "That’s all for today," said Sir. "See the S.B.A. on the way out for your next appointment." So there was to be another session, and from the S.B.A. I learned that there would be several more agonising sessions. The last one would have gone down well in a music hall. The Dental Officer’s jacket was hanging behind the door and the three gold rings on each sleeve indicated that he was a Commander, who also wore scrambled egg on the peak of his cap. Perhaps business was brisk, or he was having his annual refresher course, because he certainly set to work on the last tooth to be treated. Down, down, down went that drill and the pain was so intense that I just had to hold his forearm to stop the treatment. The Commander seemed to explode. "Take your hand from my arm or you will be charged with striking a superior officer!" he screamed. I removed my hand promptly, but the drilling was complete. Again I discovered with my tongue what seemed to be an enormous cavity and he told me to take the glass of water and rinse out my mouth. Having used all of the water, I still had bits of tooth in my mouth, so I began to spit the pieces out. The officer must have been still on the boil because he shouted: "You filthy article! Do you spit all over the carpet at home?" "Please, Sir," I answered, "we don’t have a carpet at home." Which of course was true. I was motioned to return to the chair and he proceeded to complete the filling of the last tooth. "Take care of those teeth," he said, "I don’t want to see you here again." I mentally endorsed those sentiments and it was with joy that I rejoined the squad on the parade ground. There is no doubt that those Dental Officers knew their onions; here I am at seventy six years of age and still possess twenty six of my own teeth, with most of those fillings of August 1937 still intact. But it did hurt!

One forenoon, instead of marching to the parade ground we were ordered to parade with towels and duck suits and we marched to the Barracks’ indoor swimming pool. Here we were greeted by the ‘Muscle Bosuns’ - Physical Training Instructors - well-developed specimens of manhood, dressed in white, short-sleeved vests and navy blue, rather tight-fitting trousers and white plimsolls. Those of us who declared we could swim had to change into our duck suits. The P.T.I.’s stood around the sides of the pool, each holding a long wooden pole. At least the water was warmish and into the deep end we swimmers had to jump and swim to the shallow end. Swimming when wearing a duck suit became an effort; coming to the surface was the first obstacle but I managed that and swam to the shallow end. A particular P.T.I. became my mentor and after a short stand at the shallow end I was told to swim to the deep end, return to the centre of the pool and tread water until told to leave the pool. I managed this without much difficulty; he followed my progress, holding the end of the pole over my head in case of difficulty, in which case I would be allowed to grasp the end of the pole and be pulled to the side of the pool. Treading water, wearing that duck suit, seemed to go on for a long time, but eventually he told me to leave the pool and so I was classed as a swimmer. Off duck suit, dry oneself and change back into uniform. My identity card was stamped and I did not need any swimming lessons. Several of us passed that test and then came the turn of those who professed not to be able to swim. They were given swimming briefs and told to enter the shallow end. One could see the fear on the faces of those fellows, and so began their swimming lesson. A P.T.I. gave them a rudimentary lesson and then they had to face the deep end of the pool and swim. Some tried, but the feet of the remainder were literally frozen to the bottom. Those P.T.I.’s showed little sympathy and the lesson continued for the remainder of the forenoon. We who could swim were lucky. At "Stand Easy" we were allowed to go to the NAAFI canteen and buy a cup of tea and a wedge of apple pie, just like real sailors. It only happened that once, but it was a treat. Before we entered the canteen we had to show our cards to a duty P.O. Seemingly the swimmers’ stamp was an ‘open sesame’!

I stayed for the remainder of that forenoon by the pool, mentally blessing the big boys at North Corner, who taught me to swim in deep water. Those long days of swimming during the school summer holidays certainly paid off. Of course we had also had swimming lessons whilst at school. They commenced in the first week of May at Mount Wise Pool, an open air pool with changing facilities on the side. Boy, that seawater was cold and we scrawny rabbits used to shiver when trying to dry and dress. We used to run part of the way back to school in order to bring some warmth back into our bodies. Still, we could swim!

We who had passed the swimming test marched to the wash place to put our duck suits in the spinner, then into the drying racks. Strangely enough, I don’t remember ever having to wear them again; they finished up on the bottom of the Mediterranean, somewhere off Crete. There was a very subdued crowd at the mess table that dinner-time; the swimming lesson had changed the outlook of a number of the class and frightened them into the bargain. There was no question of not wanting to learn to swim; it was a must and training would not be complete without that stamp on the identity card.

That afternoon saw each of us on the parade ground, under the instruction of our P.O., taking a turn at drilling the remainder of the class, learning to give orders at a distance from the squad. And so that day ended; there were some letters written home that evening, many unhappy ones, judging from the conversation. Next morning we had to parade in P.E. kit - vest, shorts, black socks and plimsolls, knobbly knees and all. When in P.E. kit all movements in the Barracks were carried out at the double. I hasten to add that the class P.O. wasn’t so attired; he gave the order to move off at the double and he marched in the ordinary manner. When we were a distance ahead of him he simply bellowed, "About turn." Of course by now we were proficient at that movement and so we doubled away and then returned to the P.O., just like a dog retrieving a stick. By the time we reached the gymnasium door we were on our knees, and we hadn’t even commenced P.E. yet! Once inside we were handed over to the tender mercies of the Muscle Bosuns, the same team who had dealt with us the day before. Well do I remember that order: "Top of the wall bars, go!" Whilst hanging from the highest bars we were reminded that all movements would be carried out at the double, that the word "Still" meant that we froze and that in the gymnasium the shouted orders certainly would not be misunderstood. So began the first of our twice-weekly P.E. sessions, each beginning with what was termed a ‘loosener-upper’; we were then split into groups, to be handled by one of the P.T.I.’s. Movement was their theme, and we moved! During those lessons we learned to climb ropes; until we learned to use the feet and legs, we didn’t ascend very far. The continual drill of P.E. lessons soon smartened us and we became an efficient class.

One forenoon, I was marched into the drill shed and there our Divisional Officer, Lieutenant Rampling, rated us Leading Hands of our respective training classes. Each of us was given a badge in the shape of a naval crown, to be sewn on the arm of the Number Three serge jumper. And so I became Class Leader of 129 Class. This involved being responsible for the class in the Mess Hall, the tidiness of the mess at all times and each forenoon and afternoon marching the squad to our appointed patch on the parade ground. This responsibility brought priviledges; I was no longer included in the Cook’s duties, became an overseer when mess jobs cropped up and was allowed to go ‘ashore’ after supper each evening. On occasions one had to have the judgement of Solomon; of course the P.O. was always available if necessary, but that had to be avoided if one was to stay in control.

Some Saturday forenoons became a headache when, instead of parade ground drill, there would be a Saturday rounds of the Mess Hall. At a set time the Training Commander and his entourage would inspect each mess and all of the area apertaining thereto. Table and stools outside to be scrubbed, mess traps to be polished, floor to be waxed and polished, lights and shades removed and cleaned, hammocks stacked extra firmly in the hammock rack, kit bags placed correctly in their racks: everything by six bells (eleven o’clock) in the forenoon to be "shipshape and Bristol fashion". In would swarm the Commander and the rest, consisting of Divisional Officers, the Training Chief P.O., the Class P.O.s and literally Old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. The sole idea was for somebody to find something not as it should be. We class leaders had to report our respective messes as being ready for inspection and await the "Ah’s", as something was discovered, whereupon one was called to see the Training Commander and given a reprimand, the severity depending on the fault. Each Sunday after Rounds the best mess was given a whopping great fruit cake for tea, instead of the proverbial currant bun. When we passed out of training we discovered that during those weeks each mess was awarded a cake, regardless. But those inspections kept us on our toes and aboard ship those Saturday Rounds were still part of life till I left the Service. (But I don’t remember any cakes being awarded!)

Mentioning the Drill Shed, we drilled there on rainy days, and this was never welcome. Being much more confined than outdoors, the close proximity of other instructors shouting orders often became confusing and inattention caused mayhem when wrong movements occurred. The Training Chief, old Gas and Gaiters, would come storming along like a galleon in full sail, firing broadsides.

And so life went on. Each fortnight, on a Friday, we paraded in the Drill Shed for pay. Paymaster Officers sat behind tables displaying initial letters; the money for each individual was contained in an envelope. Each of us had been given a pay number and fell in according to our pay number in front of the table displaying the relevant letter. Even the manner of being paid was carried out to a drill. Next up to the table placed his right hand across his forehead to grasp the left side of the brim of the cap. Whip off the cap, come to attention, call out the pay number, Sir, and hold the cap, top uppermost, in front of the Paymaster. A Chief P.O. called out the amount of money to be given and the Paymaster would empty the contents of the envelope on the top of the cap; the recipient’s left hand had to cover the money and hold it in place. A smart right turn and march away from the table, only to be apprehended by somebody in authority, who could be heard to shout, "Get your hair cut!" On cap after counting and pocketing the cash and back to the mess.

That Friday afternoon every second week would see us marching to the Naval Stores, where we could purchase a half pound of cigarette or pipe tobacco and bars of Pusser’s Soap. These bars of yellow soap weighed about a pound and cost threepence each. Cut into portions and used for dhobeying and personal washing, they were exceptional value for money and nobody had any excuse for being dirty - in fact nobody dared. You will remember the tobacco issue when I just write ‘ticklers’.

‘Twas a usual routine when New Entries marched down the road to the New Entry Mess Hall for the ‘old salts’, who had been in the Navy for ten minutes, to be in the roadway to shout, "Go home, go back; you’ll be sorry. You shouldn’t have joined!" and so on. This was an accepted routine and generally a looked-forward-to event. Came our turn to stand in the roadway and ‘advise’ the New Entries, which we did in the time-honoured way. Unbeknown to us the Training Commander had been informed of these receptions and, together with a group of P.O.s of the Regulating Branch - ships’ policemen - he appeared on the scene. There was no use our trying to disappear; we were caught red-handed. When the Training Commander and P.O.s shouted "Still!" in unison we had nothing to do but stand still. My class was lined up in fours and our Station Cards cum Identity Cards were confiscated. Being a Class Leader, I was treated to a first class bottle, and the whole class was put in the Training Commander’s Report as defaulters: commonly known as ‘being in the rattle’. This meant that the next morning we paraded in the rig of the day, immaculately dressed, outside the Training Commander’s office after Colours. I had to inspect the class before reporting them to the Class P.O., who in turn reported them to the Divisional Officer. He then inspected us and informed us that "Gawd help us if the Commander found a hair out of place!" In his opinion we were skates, had let the side down and poor old Nelson must have turned over in his barrel of rum. After his minute inspection I had to march the class to the T.C.’s office and parade the felons outside, the D.O. and P.O. walking behind as though to disassociate themselves from us. I was detailed to bring the class into the building and line the lads in single file in the corridor. Here our names were checked by a Regulating P.O. - a ship’s policeman, known as the ‘Crusher’. All being present and correct, we were initiated into the drill required to be carried out by a defaulter. When his name was called by an R.P.O., the defaulter would enter the T.C.’s office, come to attention smartly in front of the table, behind which was the T.C. and our D.O. At one end of the table stood a very imposing figure in the uniform of a Chief P.O., wearing on each lapel a badge in the pattern of a laurel wreath. He was the Master At Arms, the Chief Constable when aboard a ship, hereinafter known as the Jaunty or Joss Man, the senior lower deck man. Now came the drill. First Joss would bellow, "Off Cap!" and the defaulter had to whip off his cap in a manner similar to that of the payment drill, but instead of holding it out in front, hold it firmly down by his side. Joss read out his number, rate and name. In my case it went like this: "D/KX 91819, Stoker Second Class, H. J. Siddall, charged with causing a disturbance yesterday during the dog watches." Came the time-honoured question to a defaulter from the Commander: "What have you to say for yourself?" There is a lower deck repartee attached to this question, said mentally of course: "And he, calling nobody on his behalf - and all the same if he had done - was found Guilty." Which, when translated, means that no matter what excuse could be thought of, it mattered not. My reply to the Commander’s question was simply that I was continuing a custom which had apparently been going on since time immemorial. But it was not acceptable; I was guilty of the charge and the Commander ordered me to do two days of extra drill in the dog watches. Joss shouted, "On Cap," which I did in another drill movement, "Right Turn" and "Quick March" out of the office.

Being the Class Leader I was the first to be heard and "weighed off" - lower deck jargon for being awarded punishment. The remainder of the class was dealt with in turn, each being given the same award. Our Station Cards were confiscated and we were told to listen for the order: "Defaulters to muster in the Drill Shed", which would sound off in the dog watches.

Once outside the office and mustered, it was back to the Parade Ground and more drill. By this time we were into intricate movements like "At the halt on the right form squad." Chaotic at first, but it improved and so at the end of the day we waited for the dog watch order. After the cup of tea and a bun, the mess all squared away, came the pipe: "Men under punishment to muster in the Drill Shed." I mustered all my criminals and in a squad marched them to the Drill Shed and reported to the Duty P.O., who happened to be a Seaman P.O. Now he had two causes for grudges: one, if there had been no defaulters he would not be needed to supervise the drill; two, this bunch of miscreants were from the Engine Room Branch. Literally oil and water. He checked names and read to us the form of punishment, which consisted of an hour’s drill each evening and frequent mustering. He knew his stuff when it came to drilling. Besides our class there were several miscreants from other branches and for a solid hour we were drilled on the Parade Ground. His speciality seemed to be having everything carried out at the double - and we had two evenings of this! Still, it finally came to an end and never again did we seek to harangue the newcomers.

At the end of two months of drill, on a Monday forenoon, we marched to the Armoury and each of us was issued with a rifle, bayonet and webbing equipment essential for the carrying of arms. Each rifle and bayonet had to be preserved in grease, so after having been allocated a rifle and its number recorded, the squad marched to block’s basements and, after donning overalls, we set about cleaning the greasy things. I know that I removed most of the grease using rags, but cannot remember what was used to render the rifle finally clean. Then came the cleaning of the bore of the rifle, the blade of the bayonet and an inspection. Cleaning the bore was the most important and we had to repeat this process several times. Then into the colonnade for the first lesson of drill with a rifle, so that when we marched onto the Parade Ground we would not present too much of a shambles. Demonstrations and drills, demonstrations and drills, until the P.O. roared, "You’re supposed to be drilling with that rifle, not climbing around it!" Then off overalls, leave them in the Armoury, and once more fall in, ready to march to the Parade Ground. Having learned how to carry our rifles, it was time for the rudiments of rifle drill: at the halt, shoulder arms, port arms, trail arms, ground arms, butt salute, general salute with arms and, as our P.O. said, we tended to climb around our rifles. "That was simple, just wait until you have to fix bayonets", we were informed. We didn’t mind waiting. That evening we appropriated as many brooms as we could find and practised the movements. We had to return the rifles to the Armoury and collect overalls, and memorise the number of our rifle. We were told always to check the number of the rifle when collected; and another oft-repeated pearl of wisdom: "Check the number and you will never clean someone else’s rifle."

The number of non-swimmers was not diminishing very rapidly so it was arranged that one afternoon each week, when they were at the swimming pool, we swimmers would muster at the basement and scrub and blanco the webbing gear of the squad’s rifles. Overalls on for this job and the seaman in charge of the Armoury collected a penny from each of us for a mug of tea when ‘Stand Easy’ sounded off. Naval jargon again, his part was known as ‘running a tea boat’, and most welcome it was. We learned to stop climbing around the rifles and instead have the rifles climb around us. A special piece of metal was fitted to the rifle: its purpose was to fit it together with two other rifles to stack them in the form of a tripod. There were some frozen moments when we ‘piled arms’, stacking them in the threes, and marched off to hear a clatter as one or more stacks collapsed because of insufficient care or being too hastily piled. The next of drill with the rifle was to learn to fix bayonets The drill order was carried out upon hearing the two words "Fix Bayonets" and with it came the old salts’ rendering of that order. It goes something like this in its Westcountry rendering: "When I says Fix doan ee move, but when I says Bayonets, you whips ‘em out, one, one two. An’ mind ee don’t lop yer oppo’s yers off." (The word ‘oppo’ comes from watchkeeping duties, when upon completion of a four hour period with machinery, one was relieved by one’s opposite number.)

"Official" portrait in 1937

When marching with bayonets fixed, sailors have the chinstays, normally stored in the caps, down and fitted under the chin. The blue band of material was made of coarse tape and, when under the chin, produced an irritation. So one patronised a Naval Tailor. The ‘reps’ of numerous Naval Tailors were allowed to enter the Barracks in the evenings to collect orders, so one of the first items purchased was a cap, made in the tailor’s shop. They cost a half-a-crown and the chinstay was made of a softer material, the inside of the cap was lined with red and green coloured material, so of course the caps were known as ‘Port and Starboard’ caps.

After learning the drill with a rifle and bayonet came the day to visit the rifle range, for the purpose of learning to shoot. Now the rifles with which we drilled were not suitable for taking to the range, because of age and the mishandling over the years. So one afternoon it was on overalls again, return drill rifles to the Armoury and collect a serviceable one, once more packed in grease. Another de-greasing session followed, each preparing his rifle for the next day’s lesson. Because we would be out of the Barracks for the whole day, early next morning, this time wearing our oilskin coats, we mustered outside the dry provisions store to collect victuals for meals whilst on the range. Next visit the Armoury to collect a rifle, check the new number and memorise it. Then down to the Pier and embark in a cutter, and cross the River Tamar to Trevol.

For that day we had been handsomely provided with beef, potatoes and cabbages, plus loaves of bread and a large block of butter. There was a supply of tea, tins of evaporated milk and a large bag of sugar. On entering the range we were welcomed with open arms. We learned that this was because of the provisions, not for the shooting drill. The cooks of the range party promised us ‘big eats’ - in which they would of course join us. And so we had our day of shooting. The oilskin was to lie on when in prone position. Admonitions were given by the Gunnery Instructors: "Don’t do this; don’t do that," all to be observed when handling those lethal weapons. If someone forgot the instructions, look out! Any deviation saw the culprit running around the range for several circuits. We fired from several distances; all of the ammunition expended had to match the number of empty cartridge cases collected and handed back to the Gunnery Instructor. This was in early December and the cold weather made us ready for the dinner served up by the range party. A cup of tea in the middle of the afternoon finished off our day on the range. After the ceremonial cleaning of the rifle bore and subsequent inspection, each member was given his day’s score. To my surprise I had enough points to be chosen to join the New Entries Rifle Team. In subsequent competitions I won a bronze medal (which is somewhere with the life-saving medal won by my Dad).

The next part of training saw us visiting warships and being taken to the engine and boiler rooms. On the battleships we seemed to go down and down and couldn’t help but feel that we were lost. Finally, in mid-December we prepared for our Passing Out parade. There were kit inspections, mess inspections, drill inspections, and on the appointed day there was Full Divisions, which meant being included in the Barracks’ personnel, marching past the Commander-in-Chief of the port, who took the salute. 129 Class, the class passing out, marched past with rifles and fixed bayonets, then to our patch on the Parade Ground to be inspected by the C-in-C. With that completed we marched to the Armoury and returned weapons and webbing. We had completed our training, we were Engine Room ratings - albeit Second Class Stokers - and joined Raleigh Block, which in those days was our Mess Hall. We transferred our kit out of the New Entry block and then reported to the Engine Room Regulating Office, where I learned that in January I was to join H.M.S. Revenge, a training battleship.


on to Chapter 3. "To Sea on a Battleship"
back to Contents Page

revised 27/9/11