Royal Navy – Pre-war days

Most of our class joined HMS Birmingham, which was a brand new City Class Cruiser. We were all really excited when we were informed we would be going to China and the Far East. After sea trials we were allocated of our parts of the ship. Your duties were either the Forecastle, Quarter Deck, or Midships. We were also given our own mess deck and placed into Port and Starboard watch allocation. This is where we slept in our hammocks and where we took our meals. We were detailed in fours as “Cooks of the mess”. This consisted of preparing anything required for the mess, keeping the tables scrubbed (wood bar), and collecting all meals from the galley. The Leading Seaman in charge of the mess saw to it that you ALL did your turn and that every duty was carried out. Sometimes you could be detailed as galley party where you would peel your potato allocation for your mess. You would also be given your hammocks slinging position, and also shown where your hammock rack was situated. This is where you would stow your hammock. Once we settled into a routine and became accustomed to your duties it became apparent that we had a good mess! Finally the day came when we knew we were going to China as we were all issued with our tropical gear. Once again out came the needle and thread to sew our names in the gear.

After what seemed like endless drills for gunnery and seamanship we appeared to be settling into a ships routine. My duties on the seamanship’s side was navigation party under the navigation officer and we were responsible for all navigation aids. In addition to this, each day we would gather in the bridge to carry out all corrections for navigation maps. New reports of wrecks or other faults for correcting were issued by the Admiralty Department (all world maps) and also information from other countries surveillance ships.

Most of the exercises we took part in were in our training at HMS Ganges, but doing the actual job was entirely different. The one requiring the greatest skill was the fuelling at sea where you had two big ships steaming along side by side – cruiser and tanker – discharging tons of fuel oil by pipeline. This is a transfer, which in itself is a tricky job, getting two ships in line (referred to as station keeping). When we set sail for China we still did lots of drills until “the Captain of the Tops” – the forecastle, amidships, and the quarterdeck – was satisfied. After sailing from Portsmouth our first port of call was Gibraltar. Being of the first type of City Class Cruiser we had to be on top line for the Flag Officer. When we manned ship going in and out of harbour, all dressed in best working rig, each ship section stood by the guard rail from bow to stern – and it did look smart. It was our first full Bosons Piping (call pipes), which is what one ship does to another when passing with Junior pipes first as a salute to the Senior officer.

It was amazing to go ashore in my first foreign port, Gibraltar. As we were boys our first orders were to behave, and remember whom you represented. The bustle of people and the smells of a foreign port of Gibraltar were very interesting. We visited the famous Apes and also saw what other people do not – the garrison area of the Army. It was all very interesting and we were shown all around.

After we had stored ship (taken on food and fuel) we carried out our normal duties bringing the ship up to spick and span condition for our next port of call – Malta. We headed out to sea after 6 days in harbour, to proceed through the Mediterranean towards Malta. We carried on with our schoolwork. Part of our ships duties were learning more about gunnery and we were able to carry out our first turret firing of the 6” triple turrets. As I was one of the 4” anti-aircraft gun crews we also carried out practice firing at drogue targets being carried behind aircraft. At the end of each firing session we were taught how to “sponge out” (clean) the guns. Also on the way to Malta we were taught the art of painting ship where we carried out repairs to damaged paintwork.

On arriving at Malta, the usual respect was paid to the head of the Maltese people by a gun salute; also we piped the entrance to Valletta harbour as HMS Ricasoli was flying the Senior Flag Officer flag. As this was a Royal Naval Barracks (shore establishment) we listened to the old hands on ship who told us all about the runs ashore they had had here. We, as boys, were escorted ashore on our first day. We were taken around historical areas and were told the history of Malta and of the crusaders. We were then given our first taste of freedom of a run ashore on our own. It was eye popping to go down “the Gutt” where one saw the girls standing in the doors of the houses saying “come on Jack”. The warnings given on the ship put us off. Also being boys we had not got the money for it either! It was however educational to see all of these things… It was quite a long street. There were about 4 of us boys, so when we had had a look around we went on to the Barraca Fort which overlooked the harbour. We walked down Strata Real (Real Street) which was the main street where the opera house and the cathedral were situated. The Cathedral was fantastic inside. As we were restricted by time we made our way to the harbour, where the Liberty boats came into “the first and last steps” to pick up liberty men. We had to be aboard ship by 16:00 hours. We were not allowed to be ashore any later. While in Malta we had a mess cleaner whose job was to clear away all the leftovers. We found out this waste was all collected in a drum and taken ashore. A controller would place it all in one large container and sell it to the poor population for one penny (1D) per dip, using a scoop. It seemed to sell quite well!

The ship had to be kept really smart as lots of other ships were in harbour – battleships, cruisers, and destroyers of the Mediterranean Fleet. As a result everything had to be polished and scrubbed (the decks were holystoned). The sun had bleached the woodwork making it look quite white. Having fuelled and stored the ship again, we put to sea once more for more drills and exercises on our way to Alexandria (Egypt). The more eastward we travelled the warmer the weather got so we were told to change into our tropical gear (all white shorts). We were also issued with white helmets but we had to keep them in our hat boxes until they were required on our arrival in Alexandria. We got our first smell of the East – which is mainly spices. Having only been told what to expect by our schoolmaster it was amazing to see it all in real life. So much was going on all around you – what with the local dress and the Fez it looked exactly as we had been told. Normally when visiting foreign ports we had a lot of visitors, and lots to do. We had the usual challenges of football, rugby and cricket made by the other ships and local clubs. We accepted the many offers and as usual we were well entertained. It was here that I played my first game of cricket against ex-pats (English people living and working abroad). There was a naval canteen where you could buy meals and drinks that were affordable to our boys pay. Our education continued and as part of our time ashore we were shown some of the main sights of Alexandria by coach – this consisted of plenty of Mosques and Minaret’s. When we did get a few hours ashore alone, the main streets were good. If you ventured into some of the streets behind they stank with open sewers and you often thought – “how can they live like this?”

Once again we had taken on stores and fuel and we headed out to sea. This time we headed for the Suez Canal (Port Said). This was a man-made canal linking the Mediterranean to the Aden, from the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea. It was as we had been told a marvellous feat of engineering. As you passed through Egypt on the Suez Canal you felt that you could reach out and touch either bank quite easily, and the true smell of the east was in the air (all the different spices).

We gave a display of gymnastics, whilst passing through Saudi Arabia, to one of the Sultans. It is a tradition of all Naval ships to give courtesy calls to different countries. This is called “Showing the Flag”.

On arrival at Aden we carried out Rest and Relaxation (R&R). A section of the sea was netted off to prevent sharks from entering and we were allowed to swim freely in that part of the sea. We saw local fishermen bringing in their catch of Manta Rays – a large flat fish. They we so big that they looked like extra sails for their boats! The area of Aden was really a very barren sight, but that did not stop us having a good swimming party.

On proceeding to our next port of call we were all mustered on the quarterdeck and told we were going fishing. A large hook from the ships butcher lay on the canvas provided to keep the quarterdeck clean. It was attached to a wire and with the ship nearly stopped we lowered it over the stern through a block on a small davit. The wire was taken up to the capstain. In a few minutes the line went taught and we were told to heave in on the capstain. On clearing the water we saw we had caught a very large shark which was landed onto the canvas tarpaulin on the quarterdeck. After it had been killed the Chief Petty Office (CPO), who had been to the Far East before, gave us the reason for catching it. Apparently the sharks’ skin was the best thing for cleaning wood, of which all the covers on the bollards and capstain were made of. Also all of our decks were wooden. He then proceeded to show us how to skin it. All of the body, except the skin, was thrown back overboard. The skin was nailed onto wooden strips about 10” by 6” to dry out. Eventually when they had dried out they were tacked onto blocks of wood and used to clean the wooden covers and in time they dried out and became totally white – blanched by the sun and salt water.

Our next port was Columbo . This was the first port in full tropical rig – white shorts, white shoes, white stockings. We, as the boys of the ship, had different outings arranged for us and plenty of sports with the local community ex-pats. Our R&R day was spent at the beach where we saw for the fist time how natives collected coconuts by climbing up the very tall palms with a small bit of rope around the trunk of the palm tree. They would throw them down onto the beach where we were offered a drink of fresh coconut milk. Before leaving the ship we were told to not eat any soft fruits like strawberries, and that any fruit skin should be washed and skinned to prevent tropical disease. We saw real live animals, different from at the zoo, with elephants actually being put to work. We saw plenty of exotic animals including tigers, leopards, snakes, and the more usual monkeys and apes. On all of our outings we had to write a small composition.

I played my first ships company cricket match here and heard a new word, “tiffin”, which meant lunch. After these matches we had a good tea, which usually meant we got to taste the local fruits.

Our next port was Singapore and on our passage there we passed a large volcano called Krakatoa, which was quiet then. Our school teacher explained that this part of Sumatra had been swamped by massive waves which had been felt many hundreds of miles away when the volcano had last erupted. At that time the area was known as the Dutch East Indies and a lot of destruction had been caused. On this part of our journey we passed over the equator where a ritual of “crossing the line” is carried out by the Royal Navy or any other ship crossing this imaginary line. It is a ritual celebrating your welcome to “The Realm of the Court of Neptune”. All ships company that had not crossed the equator before would be mustered on the Aircraft hanger deck where you would be put through an initiation of being welcomed into Neptunes Court. All personell that had not been introduced to Neptunes Court would then be introduced to a member of Neptunes realm. The process involved being questioned by Neptune on his throne and you would be presented as a newcomer to his domain - you would be dipped in large bath of sea water. All the people attending the Court would be dressed in some type of fancy dress to give the occasion some colour. You would then be presented with your Certificate of Welcome to Neptune’s Domain which displayed the time and date you were introduced to Neptunes Realm.


After the crossing of the line, ships routine was quickly restored with the usual ships exercises becoming the norm again. On our approach to Singapore we could see and smell the far east with all of the sampans scouting around. We soon settled into the usual routine whilst in harbour . We were taken on educational trips, and played sports. We were now allowed to go ashore for a few hours on our own – or longer if we were being entertained by any local Brits. This is where we were all shown the famous Raffles Hotel of Singapore.

The sports facilities were really very good for the services – beautiful cricket pitches, a swimming pool, lovely football and hockey pitches, and a rest and recreational beach. Singapore was where we all took our first School and Ordinary Seaman’s exams. The school exam consisted of subjects from the following – Naval History, Menseration (volume), arithmetic, algebra, English and navigation. I passed this exam and received a certificate. The Ordinary Seaman’s exam consisted of topics from the following subjects – Parts of the ship, splicing, knots, anchors, and navigation (as I was part of the navigation party). I also passed this test.

Our next destination port was Hong Kong (China Station) and having completed our stay in Singapore we sailed out of port towards Hong Kong. As the weather was now truly tropical we were issued with our helmets for protection from the sun. Our course was set to pass by Indonesia into the South China Sea. As we were in the tropics we were put on a tropical routine which involved working from 07:00 to 13:00. When we finished any ship work it was too hot to work on deck (classified as make and mend) so you attended to your own personal needs unless you were required for any ship routines. During this time at sea we still carried on with our school work, as there were other certificates to be earned.

On our arrival at Hong Kong it was a big surprise to see so many Royal Navy ships - destroyers the Duchess, Duncan, Delight and Diana (D Squadron) and the cruiser Norfolk. The sampans and junks appeared to be everywhere! On our way into port we also passed the local ferry from Hong Kong to Kowloon on the mainland. The usual respects were paid to the senior officer with Boson’s Pipes, and standing to attention facing in his direction (either port or starboard). On securing the ship in port, plenty of movement took place and everyone looked forward to the mail call. Like a village, the ship had its own postman, and mail was issued to every mess and collected by whoever was detailed for duties on that day. The next day after fuelling and storing the ship we were given our berth in the harbour. Once again you had that distinct smell of that part of the world. On taking our berth the Captain of the Tops, forecastle, midships and Quarterdeck, negotiated with the Senior (Harma) for the side party (Chinese) who would keep the ships side clean in harbour while we were on China Station. They would also supply one person who would collect ANY unwanted food from the crews mess decks. This certainly worked as the same Chinese were always there. One of the big things was that as your working rig (blue suit) got dirty you could have it cleaned, turned inside out and returned to you looking like a new suit for $3HK (1/3 shillings to the $). When a week had passed we were inspected by the Senior Flag Officer and welcomed to the China Fleet.

As usual there was plenty of sport – cricket, football, rugby and swimming (water polo). Our first run ashore was taken up with a good look around. We had been told that we (the Navy) had with the other services a big canteen down by the ferry at Wanchi. I later found out our sports area was located nearby in an area which was known as “Happy Valley”. It was known as this because each side of the valley that the sports area was located in was occupied by Chinese graves! It was here that I played my first representative game for the Royal Navy. There were only ever 2 lower deck players at one time in any representative games. The games were usually played at Club De Recrio (Karloon) or at the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank pitch just at the bottom of The Peak. The Peak was a tram lift that took you to the top of The Peak – a well-known area of Hong Kong. I seem to recall there may have been a hospital unit at the top.

We had our first Christmas onboard HMS Birmingham whilst on China Station in Hong Kong. On Christmas day the youngest 4 boys were dressed as the 4 senior officers on the ship – the Captain, Commander, 1
st Lieutenant and Divisional Officer. Normally the inspection of the ship would be carried out by the senior officers but on Christmas day we 4 boys carried out the inspection in their place. On finishing the inspection we were piped by Bosons Call to muster on the mess deck for Christmas dinner. On arrival we found all the mess deck prepared for dinner and all of the senior officers were there to serve us our dinner. We thought it was great!

There was plenty to do in Hong Kong. At the time of our arrival all the talk was of the “Yakaomma Bowl”. Apparently this was a trophy that the Fleet competed for in boat race consisting of sailing and pulling (Dingys, Whalers and Cutters) over a period of 2 days. Also there was a tote-betting scheme just like horse racing. We entered our boy’s cutter crew in one race and ships company sailing cutter and whaler in another. If I remember correctly we came second place for the Yakaomma Bowl, but we won the Cutter race and received a silver oar as our prize.

While in Hong Kong we were taken and shown a small island known as “stone cutters” where each ship got a rest and relaxation period whilst in the dockyard for any repairs.

Life soon settled down to routines and it was like another world when we were permitted shore leave. We had our own United Service Club Canteen which was cheap. A meal was only 2 shillings (3 HK Dollars). You could see all of the oriental goods in the shops. Beautiful silks, objects made of ivory and boxes made of Sandalwood – all carved with beautiful Chinese dogs and dragons. One could go over to Kowloon for about 10cents (1p). I had a good look with the others when we visited Junk Bay – where all the Sampans were so solidly packed into the bay you could literally walk over them from one side of the bay to the other.

As a new cruiser, we were detailed for our first cruise to go to the Naval summer northern rest and relaxation port of Wei-hai-wei, near to the Shantung province. This was a small inlet with a canteen. There weresmall football pitches for inter-ship games and competitions. In addition to this there was also a very good beach. On passage back to Hong Kong we passed through the Passage of Formoso, which is an island close to the Chinese mainland. At this time Japan was contesting the sovereignty of this island with China. There was also fighting between Japanese and Chinese forces – the Sino-Japanese War. To give us distinction we had a large Union Jack painted onto the top of our “A” turret (guns). Whilst at Wei-hai-wei the ship would be made spick and span and other exercises would be carried out. One of our main exercises was the landing of our “field gun”. This was in case our landing parties had to land where any British compound was put in danger. This involved getting the gun assembled onto the cutter and rowing to the chosen place of landing.

After our rest we proceeded to Cheefoo where we “showed the flag”. We went ashore to see how they lived in that area and entertained the local British (ex-pats) onboard ship.

The next port was Shanghai – the port that all of the old hands on ship had told us to save our Hong Kong dollars for as it is very cheap with $5 (Shanghai Dollars)for $1HK. As we proceeded up the Yangtze River you could see all the cultivation of the fields. As we turned into the next bend of the river, “The Bund” their busiest area came into view and our allocation for securing the ship to two buoys was given. The river ran very fast so the bows had to be secured very quickly by our Buoy jumpers. As usual it was very well done as we were being observed by a US Cruiser. Once we were secured, one of our River Patrol gun boats came alongside and a voice shouted out “Ferguson, what are you doing here?” It was one of our instructors from the Ganges (CPO Walker) – what a place to meet his old class! The area of Shanghai was sectioned into Colonies – British, Russian, French, German etc. It was very hot in Shanghai and the Captain of the Forecastle took all of us boys up to the Capstain and said “Boys, you have been told that it is hot enough to fry an egg on the capstain” and with that he took an egg from his pocket and cracked it open on top of the Capstain – it cooked in no time at all!

Whilst on the China Station we visited Tsing Tao, Amoy, Manilla, Foo Chow, Kulangsu, Dutch East Indies, Sumatra, Padang, Yocoamma, Kobe and all of the other main ports of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore.

We visited islands close to the South Pole, The Falkland Isles and also had the great experience of being able to be really close to the Penguins and other wild life, for they had no fear of man. We met our survey ship while proceeding down into the ice packs. We were shown the area of the ice pack where the huts still stood that were used by previous explorers to the South Pole and the Antarctic. The colours in the ice were amazing – Blues, greens and purples – and we were also told that two thirds of the iceberg was hidden below the waterline. The colours we saw would form the colours of the Aurora Borealis that appeared in the sky (reflection). Some of the icebergs were as big as the ship. When leaving the area we ran into bad weather in the China Sea with waves coming over the top of the bridge of HMS Birmingham we lost both our whaler boats as they were smashed in by the heavy seas. It was later found that we had lost a man overboard from the pompom gun deck. After the storm we had to return to Hong Kong dockyard to get our bow area repaired as it had been parted from the main structure of the bow by the force of the waves.

At one stage of 1938 we took the “Seaforth Islanders” Scottish Army regiment from Shanghai to Hong Kong in a record time as they thought war was imminent but these rumors died out… When one hears of pirates you tend to envision cutlasses and the Jolly Roger but we did partake in the capture of Bandits at Sea. We received an assistance message from a ship called “St. Vincent de Paul” and as it was close to us we went to its assistance. We boarded the ship at sea and took the Pirates prisoners.