Out to sea, far beyond the Garvellachs, remained a ghost. Below those ragged grey veils of rain hung frozen in the sky, the sun burst through to another place and another time. Those dazzling, speckled seas and below them, a random sonar contact in 1975; This sound-wave, propagated from a warship transducer, and electrical magic to the headphones encircling a human head, established HH226/351/01 “Commercial in Confidence”, the largest wreck recorded. The site was vast; enough to make a submarine avoid the area to avoid collision and although registered on the Admiralty’s Data Base, you will not find it on commercially available charts, because as illusions go. It was pretty big. This is a true account of experience. It is not chronological, we do not live like that in real life but we delude ourselves we do. Those structures are only things of our making representing just one way of looking at things. To see, is to believe? Maybe. I think we believe what we want to believe, and in my experience, that is the only thing to be certain of.
NOTICE TO MARINERS
“Pure Gold!” “Not quite,” answering my own statement in pure thought. Experiencing auditory hallucinations was not an option, so I did not fear being whisked off to the asylum but was taken aback by the intensity of the event and moved. The sun was blindingly low now, enhancing the effect of the stones sparkling, winking and glistening. It is true, all that glisten is not gold but it was like standing in a star filled galaxy at my feet. Each piece of rounded slate contained dozens of pea sized lumps of fool’s gold. Iron pyrite to be geologically precise and every pebble on the beach in the winter solar brilliance, enriched the effect for me. Pure Gold indeed!
…The slate islands, as the name suggests, are composed almost entirely of this sedimentary rock that has undergone geological change; being compressed, then heated into material that can be used to make a very useful roofing material. It was clearly visible where the heat had come from; every now and then you will come across protrusions of cooled lava, igneous rocks that pushed everything else out of the way and up at stupid angles to the surface, the result was now a sharp, jagged foreshore that would frighten any mariner were this to become a lee shore. At low tide, kelp and bladder wrack glistened where wet, and in between, dark places where limpets stuck in small clusters, holding contempt to the wild comers running in on the flood tide.
I was on an island. During the 19th century it had made billions of slate tiles and it was said they had roofed the world. Then one day in 1881, a storm surge inundated this tiny island, it devastated everything. Overnight all the quarries were flooded, 500 people were destitute but slate is still there, it is everywhere. I spent most of my time indoors, out of the wind and rain laying slate tiles that were made in India! Tiles that were shipped halfway around the world in a container, eventually via white van man, onto a pallet delivered to this tiny outpost, where slate still remains the most abundant material around. I did venture out occasionally for a break, when the weather eased to scramble along the shore while at the same time, many miles away, world leaders were congregated somewhere, to `influence` the future of mankind and `do something` to slow down the rising seas around this rock I was now sat on.
How I came to be there, restoring an old slate worker’s cottage, began with a car crash. It is strange how one event can influence a decision and then another. Can we really claim to be in control of our destiny? Maybe all we can do is have a strong influence on the outcome. The island population had dwindled to only 16 by the 1961. Then people started to move here, rebuilding and renovating the houses despite the lack of job opportunities and remoteness. It may have been destiny to be here, I cannot say, it has been two years now since the day we came to view the cottage.
Arriving on a night in February it was incredibly dark, not only because of the overcast Hebridean night sky, but the island did not have any street lighting. We had been lucky to get somewhere to stay on the island out of season and as the ferryman helped carry our bags up to the house, I already had a feeling I would like this place. It was common to leave the houses unlocked. On the side of a large, protruding porch we found a door, invisible in the winter night. I fumbled for the light switch, and on entering the living room, saw the bucket of coal promised by the owner in the fireplace. We spent two cosy nights there and viewed the cottage that first morning. My sons appeared to like the wild location, as we both did. My wife discovered there was no hot water, so on our return home, she thought it only right to telephone the owners to let them know. “Oh, hello Mr Mc Pearson, this is Mrs Farrell. We have just got back from Scotland and had a lovely stay but I thought you better know we wasn`t able to get any hot water. I`m not sure why?
” There was a brief pause… “Ah.” Another pause. “I think you have just cleared up the mystery.” He said with a decisive tone and went on,
“The cleaner telephoned me to say no one had stayed at the house, it was still as she left it!”
We had stayed in the wrong house next door!
Over the next two years there were many visits to the cottage, where the sea was only 100 steps away, unlike the drive there that was 500 miles! To break the tedium of this, one day, I took a diversion. I had already looked on Google maps of HMNB Faslane, so I knew it was impossible to see anything through the mass of small trees; strategic planting and surveillance cameras and razor wire, all designed to slay any mortal foolish enough to try and enter. I remember the first time I came across razor wire. That occasion, the boundary fence encircled ancient stones. Stonehenge had been infiltrated by later day, self-appointed druids and unconventional types. They were beaten by a media launched onslaught. The state stepped in, proclaiming ownership of `heritage; ` the hippies were now expected to pay to see them like everybody else. But despite the measures that were taken to defend the ultimate in Britain’s defences, some people did get through this most secret and secure base, not only through but on and inside as well. Maybe they had practiced at Stonehenge, and without knowing it, the state had provided a training ground for protesters, where they could practice the art of entry and gain access to the Pandora’s box behind the fence around HMNB Faslane!
However, I was not disappointed, when I drove North along the East road of the Gareloch; a Trident submarine, together with two tugs, a Rigid inflatable boat and larger patrol craft in attendance, were all heading South. There are four submarines, ensuring there is always one at sea somewhere. HMS? was going to sea without any fuss, to relieve another. It was hard to believe that benign looking craft, slowly making its way down the rough surface of the loch casting small plumes of spray aside could unleash Armagedon.
I had seen a news clip taken from inside the base. It featured a fuzzy, pixilated face of a sailor with an assault rifle. I remembered when I held a weapon, guarding another naval base of much less importance; Gibraltar, a British colony. I was to challenge any would be intruder in the following manner: Around my neck, attached to a piece of sailmakers twine, was a laminated card with boldly printed words that I would deliver to anonymous faces in the dark. They were there, presumably in case I was unable to remember the challenge in the face of god only knows what, I could read to them! “Halt! Who goes there, friend or foe?” This had to be repeated three times. If a suitable reply did not come forth, it was only then I could open fire with my weapon – except the nearest bullets were locked up on board ship, two hundred yards away! There was a reason for this mistrust; the delegated futile duty was best illustrated in our training, as it was very revealing. HMS Excellent, in Portsmouth the navy`s gunnery school, was where we were sent to practise the art of riot control; `internal security` as it was known. I remember going into the drill hall. Highly conspicuous on the facing wall, were letters two-foot-high, “Never trust a sailor with a rifle!” It seemed to me highly probable, in times of peace, a disgruntled sailor may well turn on his rulers given a motive. I believe those words were placed there when the Royal Navy ended the gratuitous issue of rum, which I have no doubt, the Lords of the Admiralty must have had apprehensions over. With recent attacks from `so called states`, it is only now evident, the Lords of the Admiralty consider it prudent a measure to hand out bullets. But in 2011, The Nuclear submarine HMS Astute, on a visit to Southampton, seemed to live up to the warning on that wall when an aggrieved sailor shot and murdered a senior officer with an assault rifle in the control room on board and also wounded another. If it was not for a brave intervention by a civilian visitor on board who disarmed him, the death count would have been a lot worse.
The drive to the island usually took me between 10 to 12 hours. It was always an ordeal, a drag, I cannot deny but today, it had been especially unbearable owing to an oil light flashing in my car after the first hundred miles. I had called the breakdown and recovery to be advised it would `probably` be alright to carry on. `Probably` wasn’t a word I liked to hear. It was uncertain and seemed to abdicate responsibility. Apparently, it was only indicating a need to change the engine oil but even so, I mistrusted the information source, driving on with an expectation it would fail big time before I got there. So, I drove on anyway, slower and careful not to over rev the engine, which resulted in a disproportionate level of stress as if waiting in a submarine to be depth charged by an enemy destroyer. This journey took me 13 hours but I made it without the engine blowing up on me with an hour to spare before the last ferry.
Ellenbeich does not have much of a harbour. Protecting It from the West, it has natural rocks of jagged slate and on the other side, a man-made mole that points South West curling slightly to the South. Within this hand built art work of vertically stacked rows of slate slabs, a ramp followed down, punctuated at 2 metre intervals with large rusty rings along the edge. Near the end, I found the perfect antidote to the effects I was experiencing from the long drive; the gentle caressing of the North Atlantic at the bottom of the ramp. A lazy surf that sneaked its way in through the sound between Ellenbeich and Easdale Island. I stood for a while, as I always do when I arrive here, letting the worries evaporate and leave me alone till the ferry arrives. I was in no hurry, I let my ears fill with the waters sound. Far in the distance, across the Firth of Lorne, I could now see the lonely, snow-capped peaks on the island of Mull. This stretch of water was well behaved this evening, I longed to be out there. I had purchased a chart of this coast; in red letters there was a; `NOTICE TO MARINERS Caution: submarines exercise in this area`. During WW2, it would have been quite common to have had British Submarines here, there were over a hundred of them then. My Father took part in many exercises here as logbook entries testify. Britain only has seven fleet submarines now. They are all nuclear powered and armed with torpedoes and tomahawk cruise missiles but on this very day I learn that they are not operational, unable to put to sea because they have either broken down, damaged or having essential maintenance being carried out! It seems we have a little chink in our defence. During the cold war, it has now been revealed, British Submarines were routinely depth charged if detected and on one occasion was involved in a near fatal collision with a Russian Hunter. These days you tend to hear more about the Russian navy’s submarines sneaking into home waters, no doubt keeping tabs on Britain’s strategic weapons `putting to sea` if they are able, it seems highly probable today there are more Russian submarines around our coasts than we have in our entire fleet. I was not the only pair of eyes on the Gareloch that day watching.
The ferry arrived and I passed my few belongings over to one of the ferrymen. The boat was small and it took only about 3 minutes to cross over to Easdale Island. Despite this fact, 2 ferrymen were now required, as there had been `an incident` in recent times that had been the cause of much disharmony for the island community. The day before, I telephoned a neighbour asking them to switch on the heating; it took at least 24 hours to warm the cottage. I entered my home from home to spend a few days doing some renovation work without having the family with me so I could really focus and get a lot done. When spending time alone on an island, it is easy to lose yourself. It is said you can be alone but you do not have to be lonely, as there are others living close by although on that occasion I did not see anyone, even when I did go out for a walk around the island, it seemed they were all staying in next to the fire. The day I was driving back was always a ritual of hoovering, bed stripping and cleaning. The stove had been allowed to burn down allowing me to clear out the ash and prepare a fire for next stay. It was always a time of mixed emotions…
Before leaving, I sat down in the attic. It was quiet and still. I had made a small number of model ships and made presentation glass cases for them. They had been a subject and object of conflict in our tiny home; my wife claimed there was not the room for them and so banished them to a remote Scottish Island which suited me fine as they could all live together in one place. One of them, HMS Amaranthus, my father’s second ship, also had a glass panel draw on the top that housed a collection of medals, service certificates, photographs and his diary. I sat there in one of those rare moments of contemplation thinking about him. I was looking at the collection and out of the window over towards the Garvellachs. Everything was quiet and still. It was then it happened; a slap was heard at the bottom of the ladder to the attic. There in plain view, in the entrance to the living room was the small black tobacco pouch that had originally contained his diary for many years. I had thrown it away when I put the collection together-at least I thought I had before I brought the collection to the island. I could not explain what had just occurred. It seemed so odd that it happened at all and even stranger that it seemed to materialise at that precise moment I was thinking about my father. Someone once said the people you loved, will always remain ghosts inside of you.
It was a time we still had a sizable navy, before that `so called state` as it is constantly referred to with awkward regularity threatened us. It was a time when HM Dockyards would throw open their doors to the public and proudly show off the fleet because they still could. You could step aboard a `man o` war` and talk with real sailors while watching the many displays that would thrill little boys like myself. Events like these seem to be relegated to my distant memory, to a time when the nation state was something uncontroversial and flag waving was still OK, at least it was where I came from.
Chatham dockyard had a long history with the Royal Navy and built ships like HMS Victory. My father had stood by a submarine that was built there during the war as was the custom before commissioning. My Mum, Dad, both my sisters and me, were on a rare day out. We stepped from the train and made our way along the platform and out of the crowded station onto a street, swarming with yet more people and all of them headed in the same direction; not having a car at that time, we would now have to catch the bus. Extra busses were provided for thousands who poured into what has now become prime real estate. We funnelled our way in through the impressively adorned dockyard gates from a bygone age, past workshops and cranes, avoiding tripping over the cobbled ways and tramlines, to join the many queues alongside the ships. It was a very hot sunny day, ice-cream was everywhere. We had joined the longest of the queues, a fact that did not go unnoticed by my Mother and Sisters, who complained but this did not trouble me. It would be a day I would never forget. The navy knew this. Recruitment worked at many levels and exiting young impressionable boys was just one. They needed a fighting force that would be unquestioning in the execution of their duty, as had always been the case. Most of the work, the training, the conditioning had already been done at school. Once in the Navy, they would reinforce this obedience by a gratuitous use of punishments for the smallest misdemeanours. Although I would freely contract and volunteer for service, my predecessors, over a century earlier were often tricked. They would `accept` the contract of service by clandestine acts; accepting the Kings shilling in a tankard of beer by the press gang, was tacitly accepting the kings service. In more recent times, conformity to the rules and being fully aware of the consequences was considered the best way to `motivate` men. It was very difficult sometimes to stay out of trouble, even if you tried! But that was a long way off. Navy Days were fun! My father had probably wanted to take the family here for some time. Now here we were queuing up to go aboard a real submarine. It had been many years since my father had stepped on a boat. He must have looked critically at this all smooth black leviathan, it was HMS Onslaught and was taking a break from the cold war.
I remember very little about the very brief time spent aboard but do remember the antics of some of the submariners `assisting` my sisters down the ladders. I gather there were no shortage of volunteers for that task.
Around this time, we moved to the other side of town. It was the same week president Kennedy was assassinated and the time I practiced my first illusion. The subterfuge was simple. My mother had a job working in a corner shop and I was allowed to stay behind the counter. In the primitive crèche, I would sit on a high stool that made me appear much taller than I actually was. Enter the new boy on the block. With my new-found confidence and apparent strategic advantage, I held my eye contact, establishing dominance and detected a certain unease in the rival. The same day the illusion was shattered when we bumped into each other on the block, but before my tea was on the table we were playing together. The Cornish Family were from Bermondsey in London. They were a large family and their mother terrified me. They had moved from London because the area they lived in had changed overnight due to a large influx of immigrants. It was now the Londoners that were the immigrants to the little market town of Faversham as many others fled the East End to escape the changes to their neighbourhood. We had moved from the block and our first floor flat, it was a large, detached town house with an enormous garden and was shared with the Hart family downstairs. Number 2 Roman Road was a tied house and was made available only to employees working at the CO-OP in Faversham. From there we moved to a Victorian two storey terrace house with a concrete back yard. The move was prompted by my parents now in a position to purchase their first house. For me, I had lost the garden, but at least there was a park nearby and my friends were only a 5 minutes’ walk; in those days, it was perceived to be a safer for children to wander about more freely.
At the bottom of the alleyway, there was a crooked, weather-beaten gate. Hanging on the one remaining hinge and swinging readily open, it revealed piles of rusty corrugated steel, partially blocking our way. The remains of a shed and Anderson shelter, introduced us to our exploration to an area infested with dandelion, dock and stinging nettles. “Go on! You go first!” said one of my followers. I had for this occasion only, been promoted to the bravest in the gang. The house loomed and looked back at us; the broken panes in the sash windows were reminiscent of a local eccentric who wore broken spectacles held together with sellotape. We approached the three steps and the entrance to the hallway. The door was fully open and I turned around to beckon my friends to follow me. Half of them had already fled to the safe world on the other side of the wall. I was not frightened, unlike everybody else, by now they had also retreated. I did not spend much time inside the house only recalling a broken harmonium that still made a noise and everything was brown. There were no resident ghosts, they had left a while ago. We met up again on a piece of waste land that was secured by a wire fence. It contained an unexploded bomb! My comrades seemed less afraid of a World War 2 bomb than a house reputed to have been haunted. An argument ensued prompted by my disgust being left alone to wander that house, albeit fearless but I would not let them know that.
“My Dad can beat your Dad”, came the taunt from one of them; dressed in grey woollen socks pulled up to the knees. His shorts were held in place by an elasticated snake belt, every boy under eight years old seemed to wear in the early 1960`s. “No, he can`t.” came my automatic response. These silly confrontations, usually starting with some minor infringement towards the other party, would then escalate into what would become the last weapon in a small boy’s arsenal – your Dad! Dads were normally still a part of a nuclear family then, at least in my experience and were never used in battle, but the mere threat as a strategic defence weapon usually placated matters till tea-time.
I was starting to miss him. There were so many unanswered questions and nobody left alive who could answer them. Eleven years had now passed. Getting over his death quickly was easy when having a young family to distract you and to look after. As it turns out, I consider myself lucky having had a father, who never let me down if I asked that question that boys would ask back then – “What did you do in the war Dad?”
Like my father, I have always believed when you leave this life behind, that is the end of it and would really like to believe otherwise for the comfort it must bring, but have to admit to some unexplained events leaving me thinking…is that really the end? The person closest to me now, my wife, does it seems, on rare occasions transcend the standard equipment we are supplied with to make sense of this world. Beyond her 5 senses, there may well be another, at least I am unable to prove the contrary. I have sometimes witnessed unexplained phenomena but I usually revert to reason and logic. My mother had died less than a year before my father, we had brought her home from the undertakers, placing the coffin in the kitchen on top of the breakfast bar. Meanwhile, friends and family arrived in the lounge room next to the kitchen and exchanging condolences over small glasses of sherry! During this visitation of close family, my wife wandered alone into the small kitchen and heard a voice! It was my Mums! Now I don’t wish to alienate the sceptical here but let us just say she believed she heard my mother say, “I`m oven ready!” If my mother could have spoken from `the other side`, it is the kind of joke she would have made for this occasion; referring to being placed so close to the oven or her bodily remains being `processed` at the crematorium later God only knows – if there is one. On our way into the crematorium, I carried the coffin along with other family members; my half-brother was amongst them, only having found out about him when I was around eleven years old. We had grown up on opposite sides of the country and, like a lot of families, some things were never spoken about and some sensitive matters were submerged. – for a time, anyway.
My family and I decided to take a detour, to stay just one night in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute as we were going to Easdale. I was curious. My Dad had spent time there at the end of the war until 1946. I remembered him speaking about the Cyclops that being the ship bearing the name, a submarine depot ship, one of a few he encountered during and after the war, she had become permanently moored there. The submarine crews would live a more comfortable life aboard her when in port; sleeping and enjoying better food, movies etc. and for some reason that name stuck in my head –CYCLOPS. In Greek mythology, Cyclops was blinded by Odysseus, and my father made up scary tales about this Cyclops chap, and a one-eyed giant made for an interesting bed-time story when I was a very young boy!
I found myself splitting off from the family in search of the local museum, I felt certain I would find some information there but I found it was closed! Wandering about the streets, realising that all traces of the Royal Navy’s influence on this place had now gone, did give me the chance to imagine what a bleak and distant outpost this must have been for submariners back then. My Dad had married at the end of the war and during this period was soon to father a daughter; my big sister. There would be little to do for a sailor here in winter. Apart from the movies, pubs, writing home, there was the weather; the rain, the endless rain.
Just then my wife and boys appeared. She had visited an antique shop and entered into conversation with the proprietor who was a local historian. The reason for our brief visit was conveyed and that I was in possession of a collection consisting of that diary, medals, photographs and various documents from that period. We were taking it to the cottage on Easdale Island. He said he would like to have a chat and see them. We spoke candidly for a while about all sorts, and he gave me an image of what life may well have been like for a sailor in Rothesay. We wandered about the old shop, he even showed us around the back into a large room that turned out had been a photographic studio since the late 1800`s.
Having a selfie is taken for granted these days but back then if you wanted to send a photo of yourself to your nearest and dearest you would have to go to a photographer; Rothesay only had one! I looked at the photo of my Dad again with an investigative eye. He was in his mid-twenties and wearing a sea jersey (black front). That meant he was back in the UK because the last two years of the war he was in the Far East dressed in tropical whites or drill khaki. I asked the proprietor what the shop had been called. “J T Tannock”, he replied. Turning over the photo I scrutinised the back. In faded blue ink I made out the photographer’s stamp revealing the letters, …NNOCK and underneath …GUL STREET and …ESAY. hairs on the back of my neck stood up and yep, I felt something. Just a coincidence of course.
We departed the next day and while driving North for our next ferry, I imaged the old hull of HMS Cyclops moored there in the bay belching smoke. In 1946 she would have loomed out of her grey surroundings being an iconic landmark and a temporary home to my Father. Now gone – forever.
Time and place are such elusive partners. Today we could not walk where we did yesterday; but these companions can still be found in our memory. We ventured on our walk; a cliff-top path that ran along the edge of a scrub field in full view of the lighthouse. It turned out the path had been taken away by a recent storm surge and the perennial action upon this coastline, everchanging. An artificial line delineating our island home, drwn onto maps continues to be altered but at least no one can walk in that dog poo someone neglected to pick-up. I looked out to sea from the safety of our camp-site. Far away, a line of ships moved at a snail’s pace along the horizon. Mostly container shipping these days. I could wax lyrical about the sea for an eternity. The romantic in me still harbours the days when Britannia Ruled the waves, when the red and white ensign fluttered over nearly every port, in every bay, inlet and estuary on this blue planet of ours. But Google `shipping` today and you are likely to get DHL or TNT. as if to reinforce the notion, that out of sight is out of mind; shipping today is more important than it ever was. Shipping has grown four times from when I entered the Royal Navy in 1971 and is still expanding. In order to feed ourselves, fuel, build, and go about our daily lives, there are 100,000 ships at sea carrying `stuff`. Of these, about 6,000 are container ships. They have revolutionised the way we live our lives. Without them, we would starve, be forced to walk, freeze and be forced to speak to each other again face to face or fight. Without them we would be back to the dark ages. The ships out there are only just visible to the naked eye but have always been there, trade has been with us since the earliest footprints were left in the mud on the outer edge of this alluvial plane but it has changed. We now interdepend on one another more than we have ever done. Few countries can claim to be self-sufficient. Russia could qualify as the most self-sufficient country. It produces sizable quantities of Natural gas, Oil, Metals, Coal, Wheat, Corn, and livestock. It imports cars, technology, medicines and fruits. Except for medicines, none of the others are too critical to stall an economy to bring it to its knees. Foreign trade only accounts for 4% of its GDP.
The North Sea, was calm and peaceful and Britain also is at peace now with those on the closest shores beyond that horizon. In the time it takes to lay down or remove a couple of inches of sand and silt, Britain has enjoyed peace but she still aspires to punch above her own weight.
The remains of a concrete fortification lay in the middle of the sand half buried and broken; red bricks just visible in places where the sea and shingle have scoured the reinforced concrete away. It once stood with many others, set back from the cliffs, guarding this island home from invasion. Down below the crumbling cliffs, I had walked a year earlier and noticed a multitude of small water filled indentations in hardened silt. They had become exposed. My son said they resembled foot-prints. Then, I discovered almost a year later, long after they had been washed away, they were indeed foot-prints nearly 100,000 years old! The river Thames had once flowed a different course, back then it looked for the sea elsewhere. The coast back then was much further away and it was possible to make your way east beyond. The place where I now stood lay on the edge of a vast estuary where two adults and two children paddled in and out of the foreshore. It was now my turn! In genealogical time, those people were probably Neanderthals who had lived hereabouts but were soon to have their world changed forever. Long before the Cornish Family migrated to Kent, a slow migration of people was moving out of Africa headed towards the Neanderthals world. They did not know this of course but change was inevitable. Homo Sapiens probably arrived on these shores about 1,200 generations ago. One can only speculate what happened; there is evidence of interbreeding but whether this was a factor in the Neanderthals extinction we may never know. I find it hard to believe they got along in harmony, after all they were now in the company of Homo Sapiens. It is in our genes to flex our muscles, to migrate, invade to conquer. There may well have been times, moments when one primitive eye looked at another and winked; Could see they may have more in common with one another than differences. I do imagine a good-natured Neanderthal speaking to his peers, convincing them that the migrants were good for their way of life, and to ignore those that spoke ill of them. I would go further to speculate, even then, if the good-natured individual could, he would have encouraged people among his tribe embrace Homo Sapiens into the fold and no doubt ban them from pointing to `racial` differences between themselves. The good-natured individual will always see the best in people after all but be quick to crush any dissent from this view among his tribe. But of course, the age of enlightenment was still far away, it was like the ships out there, distant and beyond reach. I moved closer to the cliff edge now, those ships had moved a little more. Through my binoculars, I could see them much clearer now. It was the Russian Navy and they were headed South to pass through the English Channel. The aircraft carrier was plainly visible with a plume of black smoke in a perverted anointing of the sky with unburnt fuel oil. The `Russian bear` was not conferring any sacred or respectful passage through our waters as it was Trafalgar Day. I knew it. They knew it. The Royal Navy knew it. Russia was flexing her muscles on this day of all days but this correlation appeared to go unnoticed in the press.
There once sailed a ship out there. Her captain was highly respected by the crew and they trusted him completely; they never questioned his judgement and for years he had sailed ships all over the world. He was admired by the Admiral, had won medals and battle honours and never did stormy seas or enemies get the better of him. Every morning he went through a strange ritual locking himself in his cabin and opening a small safe. In the safe was an envelope with a piece of paper inside. He would study the paper, stare at it for several minutes, and then lock it back up. After, he would go about his daily duties.
This went on for many years, and his crew became very curious. Was it a treasure map? Was it a letter from a long-lost love? Everyone speculated about the contents of the strange envelope.
One day the captain died at sea and after laying the captain’s body to rest, the first mate led the entire crew into the captains’ quarters. He opened the safe and removed the envelope, opened it and… The first mate turned pale before showing the paper to the others. Just four words were on the paper:
Port – Left!
Starboard – Righ!t
We seem to adopt many strategies in life, especially in war, to build in certainty in the outcomes we aim for. Our anxieties are harnessed towards success or we anesthetise, self-medicate with all manner of concoctions but in war, to win, to conquer the enemy we must in times of peace prepare for war, so the saying goes. Without practice, there can be no perfect outcome. So, we must become conditioned to do things that we would otherwise not do, It is with a heavy heart I take this view, because I am sure in my gene history there still exists one that would cause me to wink at that Neanderthal were I to step onto his shore. The conditioning we are all subject to is mostly invisible. It seems to me, the more enlightened people believe they are, the more blind they probably are. With a growing majority of people now only speaking what they really think in the secrecy of the voting booth for fear of being hurled insults or labelled because any other way of looking at the world has become unacceptable. When we have become conditioned that any other opinion expressed becomes a thought crime, must we accept the cultural war has been won by the left pundits and the media machine? When we are unable to say what we really think. We have become conditioned.
Picking up warm dog poo on a path may seem revolting and goes against our basic instincts but in this country at least, most dog walkers are now conditioned into doing so, albeit with a covered hand. To pick-up survivors adrift in the sea even if they are the enemy who will face certain death if left there would seem the right thing to do as long as you did not put yourself in danger. But why had they refused the helping hand? What State shapes a people into behaving so and what state of mind must a man have to act against his basic survival instincts? Looking into the eyes of desperate human beings in the water, about to die, to reach out and pick-up is a natural one.
I was at home in Norfolk. The children had gone to school and my wife had gone out. I picked up my Dads 1945 diary, except I was not so much handling it but viewing it as a facsimile on my laptop as the original now lived on the Island; it had been scanned a month or two after his death and placed onto a compact disc. My father’s house had been cold despite the warm spring day outside and on entering it with my sister, I made straight for the front room and my father’s draw. I was looking for two small diaries that he knew I would like to have when he cast off from this world. For me they meant everything, even though I had only seen them once many years ago. We found the black tobacco pouch immediately. He must have known I would look there but it only had one diary inside. My sister and I spent a couple of days going over everything, as you do when your nearest and dearest passes away. I would walk about the house in hope that my atheism was wrong, that there was an afterlife and I would receive something from beyond the grave but I never found the other diary, I think he must have destroyed it. I would not want my children knowing every single detail about my life but I felt disappointed anyway. Studying my father’s service certificate, listing most of the ships and submarines he served on in 1944, I cross referenced them with the ships logbook entries from the internet. He had told me things but I was uncertain which submarine he was on at that time in the war. One such submarine he was on in 1944 was HMS Tradewind, so I started reading the logbook entry for the period, believing him to be aboard her at that time. She was on her 4th war patrol and 18 nautical miles south of Mukomuko, Sumatra, Netherlands East Indies.
At 1516 hours Faint HE was detected bearing 170 Degrees. The Officer of the Watch then sighted and confirmed a small plume of smoke through the periscope. This smoke was sighted at a range of over 13500 yards. The smoke was first sighted bearing 173°. Course was altered to attack. The target was later seen to be an old-fashioned merchant vessel, 4000 to 5000 tons, of the Three-island type; two masts, single tall thin funnel and counter-stern. She was about two-thirds loaded and escorted by two motor launches, one on her Starboard beam the other on her Port quarter.
1551 hours – In position 02°52’N, 101°12’E. Tradewind fired four torpedoes. The targets speed was estimated at 8 knots. After firing Tradewind went deep.
My father counted the seconds. He adjusted his earphones to only half cover his ears as he watched the second-hand judder round. I was not there, I could not have been there but know what he would be doing. After 1min 30seconds, the first of the explosions; the target was hit. The effects of that explosion hit me. I was stunned even though it was 70 years later. I concluded it may well have been my own father finding the target. It could have been him pointing the finger. Tradewind fired four torpedoes at the target. `Target` had become a sterile, unaffected noun, a cleaner label to attach to something that would otherwise make a man think twice before he pressed the button dealing out death. Language is the cloak that often sanitises the reality of what we do but it is also chameleon like; when words are altered with an ever-changing frequency to fit political fashions. Pious beings can scorn at their elders for taking part in such horrors or the ill-educated for not using the `appropriate` language of the day to speak about something `correctly`, the result is self-censorship; the language itself alters, and like a dripping tap that will eventually fill a water butt, a new language evolves confirming an Orwellian prophecy.
How did we end up here? In another world, a million light years from WW2. a world that emerged where boys no longer climbed trees or kicked a ball in the street outside. In a world where `correctness` in our language had become a substituted Orwellian Newspeak; It did not remove an individual’s ability to think, but it had the effect of introducing the individual to self-censor what they said, whether it was an unconscious act or not. Anyone who dared to think differently from the emerging agenda, the political course set, and express an opinion would be a heretic in this world where safety and data protection could hide and sanction anything the super-state wished. This is where we find ourselves, as if waking from a pleasant dream. Should we judge an act of violence from another time, whether it be a sinking of a ship in war or routine physical beatings from the school teachers I survived, most of whom had fought in WW2?
…She was waiting at the back door with one of those post institutional uniforms; a minimalist renaissance item, identifying a person belonging to a certain superior class, it had replaced the conspicuous clothing historically worn by officialdom. The `lanyard`, had been introduced to hang an Identity Card, a totem to demonstrate authorisation. It was worn by those people when at work, on duty and was also worn all so often when elsewhere, presumably an act of vanity. On this occasion, she was wearing it in our garden; she was on duty.
The Social Worker would not disclose to me what she was there for, except to say she wanted to see my partner (now my wife) concerning her daughter. It transpired, an overzealous youth volunteer, who had recently been on a `safeguarding` course, had observed bruises on the legs of my wife’s daughter. She had used the words “covered in bruises”, in a report, thus triggering the instrument of state intervention. They had visited the school and spoken to her. As a Tom-boy, she had attended an outdoor, activity week-end, undergoing much `rough and tumble` under the supervision of youth volunteers and although the truth did come out, we were still put onto an official list we were informed. This would be retained for two years…
1613 hours –The Asdic detected no more H.E. except my father would have heard the loud crackling noises that would have been the target breaking up.
The sounds of the ship breaking up, were audible because two similar high frequencies on the sonar were mixed, the resulting phenomena is an audible beat frequency of 1000htz that we can hear. `Heterodyning`, harnesses soundwaves in seawater to hear distant objects, the effect in this case was a mighty steel ship imploding but the asdic could not hear the screams from the surface or from inside the `target`. The Janyo Maru was carrying 6000 people. It was an own goal, friendly fire, sort-of. About 5,620 Dutch, British, American and Australian and Javanese slave labourers were killed. It was total war and mistakes happen. He had never mentioned this. You don’t go around shouting from the roof tops you took part in mass murderer.
Three depth charges were dropped by the escort but these did no damage.
I scanned the internet for film footage of British submarines from World War 2, it turned out to be a task as difficult as finding a submarine running deep somewhere out on the ocean. At least they would have to surface eventually. Not so for archive film, there was very little, unlike the Americans who celebrated their veterans and view miles of the stuff at the click of a mouse. I returned to the diary at random. I clicked onto the diary pages. The cover had gone missing a long time ago. Earlier in the day I had been looking for footage of HMS Maidstone, another depot ship he stayed on in 1945. I found it difficult to find any film of S class submarines he served on but then chanced upon some rare colour film of Maidstone filmed in Subic Bay at that time. I remembered him speaking about Subic Bay. There was no sound, so I looked through the pages to find when the ship was there.
SUBIC BAY, PHILLAPINES
21st June 1945.
The sun bore down over `Super heated Scapa,` as it had been nicknamed, scorching the decks of HMS Maidstone, it became impossible to walk barefoot. Above the masts of hundreds of allied ships that were gathered and anchored together, a Catalina flying boat circled, before touching down. She sent plumes of spray into the blue as she taxied down the harbour. From the deck of Maidstone, mini rainbows could be seen around the aircraft before turning past the `Clan Chattan`, a new merchant ship anchored close by whose anchor fleets stood out bright red with rust. Several days earlier, Clarrie (my Fathers name, short for Clarence) had been aboard her to repair the echo sounder and then collect stores. The dark blue painted fuselage of the aircraft sparkled in the hot sun. The United States owned this place now, the American stars on the Catalina and on the flags throughout the anchored fleet shouted the fact from heavenly rafters. The hustle and bustle ashore by the American sea bee engineers, was replicated afloat; two vessels headed towards the Maidstone. The first had just three sailors aboard who made straight for the Catalina, now only just 300 yards away and came to rest and opened its rear door to allow the Admiral to alight. The other boat, a large powered cutter, brimming full of American sailors made for Maidstone’s accommodation ladder but stood off to allow the admiral to board first. The usual ceremonial took place. He was `piped` aboard Maidstone and greeted by the Ship’s Captain and other senior officers. Other junior officers stood in line against the superstructure. The quartermaster and bosuns mate stood to attention, fixating their gaze out across the harbour to the other ships. Then the other cutter came alongside. The American sailors disembarked carrying an assortment of musical instruments and were greeted by the Officer of The Day who led the band onto the boat deck.
To say Glen Miller was popular would be an understatement. During the war, everyone loved his music. Compared to the British big bands of the day they really rocked! I was watching my father. He was somewhere in that crowd of sailors. They were dressed in sandals and shorts. Most of the men, including my father were sporting golden tanned torsos from spending time in the Far East. Some wore caps and many leaned heavily upon the guardrails, despite naval convention to refrain from such. The Band from the USS Gilmore, another submarine tender or depot ship accompanied Admiral Fife US Navy who was the task force commander. Wearing tropical whites that contrasted sharply with the casually dressed British sailors aboard Maidstone who almost without exception, perceived the Americans as film stars, who may well have been plucked from any one of the many movies they regularly enjoyed aboard the depot ship. Dad was clearly impressed, enjoying the concert; it was always better hearing and seeing Glen Millers Music played live with a big band. Up until then he had only heard this music on the gramophone or on the radio he had built while on patrol. Back in England, Babs would be so jealous he thought? At least I`m sure that’s what I think he would have thought. Reading the fragmented notes in the diary entry was one thing but now at last, stumbling across some rare colour film footage of the actual event and seeing a crowd of men watching – he was standing there amongst them!
Admiral Fife was visiting the Maidstone to award the US Legion of Merit to the commander of HM Submarine Trenchant. She had recently sunk a large Japanese Cruiser, the Ashigara, and also sunk a German U Boat as well as numerous other smaller vessels. The Trenchant was called to Subic Bay for this occasion, even though she was not part of the eighth submarine flotilla. She arrived in silence; no flag waving or cheers, despite the heroic achievements by Lieutenant Commander Arthur Hazlet. Perhaps being part of a rival flotilla had something to do with this?
The band had played before aboard the Maidstone a week or so after they had dropped anchor. As spare crew aboard HMS Maidstone now based in Subic Bay, Clarrie had escaped going on war-time patrol for the time being and life aboard the submarine mothership, was in his own words, `a bit of a vacation. ` At least the chances of being bombed, strafed or depth charged were much less likely. The day had been typical for such a large ship, except for one thing, on a Saturday, things were easier; the navy had a name for this time, `make and mend`. It was one of those traditional, Nelsonian touches the navy was reluctant to let go of. Its origins were literally an afternoon set aside to make or mend clothes, today, it simply meant an afternoon of rest and relaxation. The day cooled, and a light breeze began to play across the Bay, instead of tinkering with a soldering iron on his latest project below decks in the mess deck, Clarrie sought permission to go sailing in the ships cutter. The experience of breaking free of the ship and hoisting a sail would sow a seed, germinating one day and eventually bearing fruit that I would also share; Only a few weeks earlier and facing the possibility of his own death beneath these waves, he was now sailing and cutting through them, healing over with every gust and with the wind in his face….one day he thought, If I survive this war, I will have my own boat.
But the years rolled by and post war Britain for many proved challenging. When I was born at least rationing had ended. Clarrie still dreamed of owning his own boat. I recall his struggles as the bills fell upon the door mat; never getting enough money together to buy a boat, let alone build one, but like a squirrel, he was adding to his hoard of lumber with pieces of mahogany and plywood, they were stashed away in the hope one day, life would be kind, and give him back some time to realise the project in his head. I took after him in that struggle to get afloat with limited means. Even as a six-year-old boy. I was going to sea albeit in a wooden pallet box that had occupied the corner of our back-yard. Long before donning bellbottoms I had plans to navigate around the British Isles, how hard could it be! All I would have to do is keep the land on my left! After talking to a friend however he said I would need a map. So, with my school atlas and a compass in my shoe was there anything stopping me? YES! Unfortunately, there was and it was not my Mum! I realised she would never allow my adventure anyway but as long as I was back for tea, she would never know where I was going would she? No, the problem, as any vessel owner appreciates, especially a wooden one, is watertight integrity…stopping the leaks and staying afloat!
“Dad…DAD! How can you make a wooden box float?” Long before the internet and single parent family`s became the norm, Dads were the source of all knowledge….
“Pitch!” came the single word response from behind the crossword puzzle in the newspaper and cigarette fog. But my heart sank together with all my plans when the man in the corner shop said they did not sell the stuff! “What you want it for son?” I could not believe he told my Mum my plan! I never liked him after that. So, I never did get afloat in that wooden box. I believe that wooden box was my first adventure afloat, even though it never kissed a wave. So, while I was inhaling paint fumes amid piles of wood shavings underground, in my Dads cellar workshop next to that unfinished boat, dreams were born.
It was not until 1972, when Dad eventually surfaced into the solvent sea; that place we all hope to steer our course to our preferred destination, he had obtained a bank loan for a boat. He delighted in telling me he had purchased `Jeannie`, she was a traditional wooden boat. Just 22 feet long with a lifting keel enabling her to sail on the morning dew. She had been designed to sail up the many shallow creeks on the East Coast of England. It was an early start; the weather forecast very promising and just before the sun popped up we motored her out of Ramsgate Harbour. In those days, crossing the English Channel, we rarely wore life jackets; Considering Dad had abandoned ship once at the beginning of the war only crawling back aboard to help save it from sinking, you would think he would know better! The day had been Friday the 13th! Five years later he was to mark this date in the diary; it is clearly marked with a circle; not surprising really!
On those early crossings, we did not carry a radio! Navigation was by dead reckoning, something we were both pretty good at and rarely missed our mark. GPS was not yet available but Dads home-made radio direction finder made us feel safe; In the event of a sea fog we were confident of finding harbour. The boat was in good order and both of us having the experience of larger shipping, were mindful of the dangers posed crossing the shipping lanes. A radar reflector and good lookout was kept and as we passed the North Goodwin light ship, we stopped the engine and set our sails.
The day was very long and one of the best ever channel crossings. My relationship with my father that day began. I guess we had not been that close since he played with me as a toddler. We had grown apart but now, like the heat haze on the distant horizon, where the sea and sky became indistinct from one and other, we were one again. Sailing together in that little boat, taught me something about enjoying the simple things in life that are often free; like sitting on a beach, or by a fire outdoors, there was something so primitive, so elemental and real in that experience of sailing on the sea. Somewhere, between England and France, we could just be and share in the moment together. Neither of us were competitive sailors, we came out of the cruising mould and now Dads years of work were over, he could now do what he had always dreamed. I was young, but I too would remember this day like no other. The sea was azure and seemed clearer than any other sea I had sailed. I had already circumnavigated our world in the navy but now my father and I, on this sea, in this magical moment we sailed a certain course. Although he did not show any emotion, I knew he must have been savouring the moment as he had done sailing across Subic Bay 30 years earlier.
We barely made 4 knots which meant the tidal effect on our course was significant. Despite this, we sighted buoy after buoy with certainty. Jeannie was a very modest vessel by any standard but that day she sailed into our lives changing them forever. We took turns at steering, making the tea and watched the sea sparkle in our wash. As the coast drew closer now on our beam we could just make out the beaches of Dunkirk. My father had been there before. The name itself had become synonymous with the great evacuation of retreating allied troops in the war. As the youngest sailor aboard his first ship, the old destroyer saved no less than three and a half thousand troops making 10 trips. He had already given me graphic and dramatic accounts of his experiences there. As he rowed ashore to rescue the soldiers who were chest high in the surf, they found them standing in long lines reaching out from the beaches they were all to come under heavy fire from aircraft. With the soldiers now rowing he crouched in the bows of the whaler and pulled his tin hat over his ears in a futile bid to avoid being hit by bullets.
We sailed gently by with my father saying nothing as I recall. We had beaten the night by about an hour when we arrived at Blankenburg in Belgium at 9PM. I remember going alongside a large modern and well equipped cruising yacht. She flew a French flag. The skipper remarked on the size of our vessel, that he thought it small for a channel crossing. He gestured, using his own life-jacket, that we were not wearing any! I remember thinking at the time, quite naively, what could go wrong during a day-time sail on such a fine weekend! The sun rose early on another glorious day and we both set off together out into the channel where we waved goodbye. I set a course north along the coast for Holland and the Frenchman, sailing alone, sailed south. We seemed to fly along the coast. With the wind on our quarter, the tide under us and with a shallow draft, it felt as if we were planning. In no time at all the Dutch port of Vlissingen appeared. Father and son had made it and I remember Dads face as we lined up to enter the lock. It was a proud look for he had realised his dream at last. We started the engine on our approach but it stalled after only minutes. A looked over the stern confirmed our prop was fouled by something. I was a young man so leapt over board with a knife. In only minutes I had removed the offending piece of jetsam. He helped me back on board and with a smile he said, “Well done Son.”
“Joe, just stay here while I get your life-jacket!” I had parked just yards away from the river at Cantley on the River Yare and twenty yards from the pub where we were moored. My son Joe was nearly five years old and we were going to sleep aboard our boat for the night, something we were both looking forward to. Usually I would have the life jackets in the truck but on this occasion, had slipped up, leaving them aboard our boat. I needed to remove the boat cover to get at them. No sooner was I aboard and underneath the cover I heard the horn sounding repeatedly from the truck; Joe had the devil in him! As there were people sitting outside the pub nearby, I thought they would be none too pleased, so I fetched him over, telling him to sit on the bank opposite while I got his life-jacket. As soon as I was back under the cover and unlacing it, I could not see but sensed he had moved position. I shouted at him to return to his place, I would only be a few more seconds…SPLASH!
Within a second I had leapt onto the river-bank. Joe was gone! The tide was flooding about two knots and there was not a ripple to indicate where he had entered the river. I reckoned it was just astern of the boat. A voice in my head came before any sickening panic, “WAIT!…..WAIT!” In those few seconds, time stretched as indeed it still does to this day in remembering the horror. He had disappeared but something in me knew he would show himself again if only for a second, giving me a chance. On the quay and looking down, I was in a better position to see him…DO NOT GO IN YET…WAIT!…In that second, I flashed to the day I first encountered death….
The first of many seas broke over us as we cleared the ship; the whaler labouring through huge waves blasting my face with salt spray. I was an able seaman in the Royal Navy, barely 18 years old. Although I did not know it, the next few years I would witness death and become desensitised to it but this was my first; I had never seen a dead person before. After returning from leave after my channel crossing with my father two weeks earlier we were sent to search for the missing yacht `Morning Cloud`. The smell hit me first as we were down wind. As we approached, I recognised the life jacket immediately, it had the Frenchman’s name on it drawn with black marker pen but was partially obscured by the seaweed that had become attached. I was fortunate that I was now up wind, not so for my crew mates. Up until then, the man’s face had been covered with his life jacket that had been forced up by a white and bloated belly, but now, at my feet and lying in the bottom of the whaler…that face!
That same face appeared in the water right in front of me. But it wasn’t the same, it was not the Frenchman, it was my Joe, just visible in the murk, his eyes looked up at me still submerged and about to break surface but never did. It was then I reached for him but couldn’t. He was too far down and away from me. I went in grabbing the scruff of his collar, my other hand held the slimy rope that ran along the quay. He clambered almost on top of me. He was safe! We hung on till I began to realise no one knew we were there and began to shout. I cried out with the knowledge there was no hope of hauling ourselves clear of the water, Joe was shivering. We were there for about five minutes before someone upriver heard our plight.
Being lost at sea, is a phrase usually denoting a death. Being lost, loosing something. The word hints at many things. To defuse the critical attacks from my wife, if it appears I have stupidly lost something, I alter the language to `misplacing` the item concerned. It seems, in my head anyway, to be a more acceptable manoeuvre to allay the fears of losing one’s capacity to think, to remember stuff. Misplacing something means there is an expectation that something will return again, being lost there is a resignation of not being found a real possibility.
There were a number of times I wanted to look, to study the diary. I was not entirely sure what my fascination with it was. My father was a young man in a period of human history before I was born. He grew up, the eldest of seven sisters and a brother in Ramsgate in Kent; a small seaside town with big ambitions. It had a neat little harbour and had spent some of his childhood playing there, `borrowing boats`, and doing the many other things a child usually does by the sea. His father had been wounded in the First World War on two occasions but was a fit and able man. He worked for `the corporation`, a title then used to refer to the council. He was a labourer and lived in a home for heroes – a council house. All things being relative, he must have felt life was good, even if by today’s standards, they were poor and life must have been a struggle. My Dad was a quiet natured man but would express his stress in his voice occasionally as most of us do; the voice tone would be raised half a tone and certain phases adopted from obscured times long since passed. “Oh, my giddy Aunt!” “Stone the crows.” “Crikey!” and “Blimey!” were phrases often used in the day. These were his swear words and I have to say, they seem more palatable. When he was a boy, for a treat on a Sunday, he would run off down to the harbour and buy a couple of pints of winkles; a very small sea snail. In the rank order of sea food, it has to be close to the bottom but he would run back and spent an eternity removing miniscule portions of the fishy meat for his Mum with a pin and placing this into the stale bread, purchased for a premium price and make a pile of sandwiches.
Stoning the crows was one way of putting how I felt. I looked for the diary again and again. It was lost. I started believing I had thrown it away by mistake. Then there was hope. I telephoned my sister, believing I had returned it to her but a number of requests and attempts at this search proved to fail. Then I started to search for the CD that had the facsimile of the diary on it. This would be better than nothing. Alas, it was not to be. I had `misplaced` it. So, as you do when looking for something else, you often find the misplaced item, in this case it had got mixed in with other collections by mistake. Without wasting any time, I loaded the CD onto my laptop, then placed the CD somewhere safe!
I put down the phone. It was heart-warming speaking to my big sister and so good to hear that her troubles appeared to be resolving themselves at long last. The call was prompted by the other diary, that is, another diary that was also found belonging to my Mother and found when she died. It threw a light on a brief period in our family’s history and an era of radical change, it was very revealing, it was 1961.
She started writing on the cusp of spreading her wings. As I had started going to school, she was now able to think about earning some money herself. Not that she had much spare time. It was clear everyday was spent preparing meals and cooking. This would be `real` cooking from scratch included making pastry and where fast food would mean a fry-up. Then there was the washing. She wrote about wanting a washing machine, presumably she still washed everything by hand in the bath using a wringer or mangle; it is no wonder she suffered later in life with a bad back! I came across many references to myself growing up amusing my Mum. To my Mother, I was her second chance; the second son, as the first had been taken from her ten years ago, becoming another ghost that entered the living world behind the daily theatre of our lives. My sisters were often a great help to her, shopping, `running around`, cleaning, tidying and even ironing. Our family also had a lodger, my Auntie Rose, as she became known to me. Rose was not really my auntie but a cousin of my Mothers Mum, but to me she was just a very `old` lady. She had been a midwife, working with nuns and was a staunch practicing Catholic. Later in life, when she eventually moved out into `elderly` accommodation, I was asked to visit her by my Mother; A `task` I did not relish and hated being there. Her world was alien to me and backward, I`m convinced she became a discordant influence between my parents during the time she stayed with us. Despite this lack of affection for her, when she died, I attended the funeral; it was my first and I cried. The diary mentioned my father in less detail; usually just his comings and goings but it is clear there was resentment, the ghost in a relation-ship. It may not have wrecked the ship, but the relation to each would always be tainted.
Within those pages, I felt her speaking. It was not so much from beyond the grave, her ghost was present and comforting. She was living again, just like a star shining. The stars truly do exist only inside your head. I had come home from school and was amusing my Mother with my antics of the day. Mrs Tyrell, my first teacher `told me off! ` I had sat by my Mother in hospital, in a six-bedded bay on the ward. She was delirious but no longer in pain, her angels were not far away now. Looking over to the other side of the bay, there was an old lady. She smiled at me with a glint in her eye. She was alone and above her, at the head of the bed was her name, `Mrs Tyrell`. I walked over to her and asked. Another ghost emerged from the pages so I closed the diary and felt the need to speak to my big sister.
While she was in hospital, before she died, we had a brief walk and stepped outside of the building. Captured forever in one of those experiential snapshots that we sometime take in our lives, was our whole family, including my half-brother. I looked up; standing, looking completely lost was my Dad. Contained within the snapshot were the actions taken by others (on his behalf?) back in the autumn of 1945, they had finally collapsed. Her other son was there at her side.
She had been ‘persuaded` to give up the child! She could not speak about her pain. I had some idea how she felt. On the many occasions, there would have been moments when she would cuddle me and feel a sense of guilt getting in the way of that love for me…I also felt this all too often. Those suppressed memories of the lost one taken from you….it never leaves but the passage of time does ease that loss or it kills you…who would benefit then? The ghosts never leave: In 1961, my Mum had also reached that stage.
As an estranged father, my words also fell onto the empty pages of a note book. Speaking to my absent children in desperate times but I would fulfil my duties if I could, if I was able or permitted. There were dark times when the pain could not be taken away. It persisted, ever-present. You are left wondering what they are doing. …I awoke early to deliver something personally as I have done so on that date every year. It was still dark when I left the house, but the tell-tale signs of a sun rising in the East were present but a black winter cloud smothered where it would rise. The drive was only a short one; the roads soaked and glistened like wet coal. As I approached and drove past the house I glanced at those windows, still dark and shielding those I have missed for so many years. I parked and walked back through the muddy puddles before striking that gravel drive on my pilgrimage to a single letter box – all was quiet. And then I left, disappearing into the cold gloom of an emerging dawn. It was not much to give. I have never been able to give very much, but as relative as any life could be, I gave my last penny.
January 1st 1945
After sailing the previous day from Fremantle and following a brief spell of leave, Clarrie was now heading North along the Western coast of Australia aboard HM Submarine Spirit. As a rating, he did not know exactly where the submarine was heading but had a good idea. Spirit stopped to take on more fuel at Exmouth Gulf allowing the crew to take advantage of a cool swim in the sea. Looking at the picture again…faded sepia and folded. All that remained of that time. He was standing below the casing, with his feet awash, naked but modestly posed about to enter the water. I had searched the internet for anything and was surprised to find a sister boat, HMS Solent that had stopped in the water somewhere and the crew were swimming, just like the sepia picture but it was filmed in colour. It strangely made the event seem more recent. The young crew appeared closer in time, not faded but alive. He felt closer.
They were soon back under-way. It is clear life aboard was mostly monotonous but one day he would come to know this could be a friend; my father’s hobby and lifelong career was messing about with electronics, he was born into that age when his own father produced a radio from the simplest of components, a `cat’s whisker` as it was commonly known then. He had entered the Royal Navy with an above average education as a seaman. It was while standing by his badly damaged ship in drydock, following the near sinking, he saw strange equipment being installed to the old destroyer. It was called Asdic and it aroused his curiosity. He volunteered to become a submarine detector which meant studying electrical magic; In Britain, electric lighting for most people had only been a recent development and just like the young today who wish to embrace todays new technological developments, so too did he. While cruising on the surface and off watch he had time on his hands and could lose himself in his latest project. Monotony and boredom for the rest of his life he would survive by stealing that time to work on his own projects, often under the very nose of his boss.
The crew were split into red, white and blue watches. Everyone aboard had a job to do, a specialist role, in his case it was the asdic operator, one of three. As a higher submarine detector, he was the senior man. He was responsible for listening out for shipping on the primitive Type 129 and 138 asdic (sonar) fitted in submarines at that time. Submarines relied on passive Hydrophone Effect to detect anything and rarely transmit because any sound waves would instantly give away the submarines position. As Spirit headed North on the surface, three lookouts were stationed on the bridge; the name given to the conning tower, although one lay aloft on a platform on the periscope standards looking out for surface ships. The other two kept a sharp eye just above the horizon for aircraft. The radar, also would also detect aircraft if they were flying high up to a range of about 15 miles. If aircraft were low however it would only be about five. Lookouts were changed every half an hour. While on watch, lookouts had to keep their binoculars in use all the time. A ships mast could be seen and even an aircraft in good time to dive and remain unseen. To make great distances in the far east as was often necessary, running on the surface by day as well as night was considered safe from Fremantle. A submarine could cover nearly 300 miles on the surface but only 150 submerged. One of the regular shouts heard on the bridge from below would be, “Permission to use the pigs ear Sir?” This odd request was simply someone wishing to have a pee in the urinal that was fitted there in order avoid using the heads below that were by nature awkward to operate.
In the torpedo reload compartment otherwise known as the fore ends, an assortment of fresh fruit and vegetables hung about and in every available spare corner, boxes of fresh bread and other food stuffs for their patrol. As spare crew, this was where Clarrie would have to sling his hammock when enough room became available. British S class Submarines, compared to their American submarines, were unsurprisingly smaller but this was a slight advantage when operating in shallow waters around the Java Sea. The Lombok straights between the island of Bali and Lombok became the gateway and passage to the Java sea, He had already had some close calls there on previous patrols. Heading North there was a strong current to push against. All the submarines based at Fremantle had to run this gauntlet and the Japanese knew this only too well and lay in wait. Submarines at this time had two electric motors and to charge their batteries they had two diesel engines, however these could only be used running when on the surface. The routine generally was to stay on the surface during the night, charging the batteries and remain under the cover of darkness and diving before it got light. The Spirit would remain submerged until dusk and then surface again running just one diesel engine to charge batteries, while the other, kept the submarine underway. This was the general method of operating. The Lombok straight posed a hazard because if seen immediately after surfacing they would need to dive prematurely, the consequence would mean the batteries would not have enough power in them, also the air quality in the boat would be stale because running on the surface was the only opportunity they had refreshing the finite air supply. Going North required the sub to stay down longer, so necessary progress could be made to the patrol station (billet).
On the 8th January 1945, at 1500Hrs. HM Submarine Spirit dived in order for her to arrive unannounced. She was about 50 miles from the Lombok Straight. At 2000Hrs she surfaced and raced through. My dad described this passage as being quiet but `shaky! ` I know he had passed this way before.
30 Years later I found myself in the same part of the world. We had left in the early hours while it was still dark. How different it was for me as we steamed past the lights of the large Island of Lombok on our starboard side with the lights of Bali to port. The brilliance of the phosphorescent display that night was the most awe-inspiring I have ever seen. It consisted of circles or rings of blue green light, two to four in number exploding and rotating around us that lasted for two hours or more. I rated it a life changing event but my shipmate, Spud, could not see what all the fuss was about and irritated me. For Spud, the highlight was urinating into the bioluminescent display making it fizz while breaking wind. This brashness and forceful character spoiled that moment for me for I was thinking about those patrols 30 years earlier, while lolling under the stars, I wanted to push the bastard overboard. The following day we anchored in a bay off Bali and went ashore to be greeted by local children on the beach.
At 0700, the next day, Spirit sighted an American Submarine, probably homeward bound to Freemantle, then they picked up an aircraft on radar; she dived immediately for 20 minutes. After running on the surface all night, Spirit arrived on the billet and dived as it was getting light. There were plenty of fishing boats, and one or two `schooners`; a name they gave to the local three masted trading boats, pinisis. No action was taken and the crew including my father `worked fish` all day. Working fish was an arduous task of manoeuvring heavy, long torpedoes in a confined space and preparing them for reload if the opportunity should arise. On the 10th January, my father also comments, “couldn`t move, to do anything-not even eat.” In the early hours before light they had two alarms and crash dived. Afterwards, when it became day-light they spotted a coaster but, “left him alone.” The skipper was clearly hoping for some bigger targets but for the next three days, monotony ruled below the waves. They patrolled along the Java coast in anticipation. My father spent the time reading and writing home to my Mum. On the 14th there was a new moon, he writes, “something might happen”, but it never did. They continued patrolling off Billiton for the next week and apart from diving having sighted the occasional aircraft it was the `usual routine. ` Then on the Sunday the 21st, they went to diving stations, having sighted a destroyer and tanker but the destroyer, “vanishes on her,” he writes, “1125, surfaced. Gun action. Fired 58 rounds. No hits. Dived 1205. And we`re trying to win this war. What a hope! Out of range 4000 yards’ Shallow water.
The next day at 0630?, “Things are certainly looking up! Surfaced at 0950. Gun action! Sunk two ships. 180 rounds! One carrying rifles and arms, the other was a petrol carrier. Boarded the remains of the first to place demolition charges! The `Nips` were in a lovely mess. No survivors! Dived at 1115, halfway between Cheribon and Surabaya. It is uncomfortable to read the Japanese referred to as Nips, this was common practice then even if it may offend todays ears. My father reports no survivors but the log book entry suggests otherwise, at least, there were survivors but it seems they chose to go down with the ship!
0952 hours – Surfaced in position 06°20’S, 110°41’E and opened fire from 4000 yards. Hits were soon obtained. The enemy had opened fire with a machine gun but this stopped after the first hit. In 10 minutes the target was a shamble but refused to sink. Proceeded alongside and placed a demolition charge. It was now seen that the canvas screen concealed a Bofors gun. There was a machine gun on the forecastle, two depth charges aft and the ship was fitted with W/T. It appeared this vessel was a ‘Q-ship’. The crew were Japanese and refused to be rescued.
The following day nothing exiting happened, except the milk was rationed! Then on Wednesday 24th January, “The European News sounds good! If the Red Army carries on at this rate they`ll be in Berlin before we get in.” There is a reference to `started bottling`, this would be illegally saving up the daily rum ration for later!
Thursday 25th, “Dived 0600. Usual routine. Surfaced at 1820. Seems like we`re on our way back.”
Friday 26th, “Yes we`re going back alright, we are on the surface all day! Started on radar! The grub getting worse nowadays too all essatz” (this must be naval submariners slang that I do not have a translation but can guess!)
Saturday 27th, “Still plodding along, will be going through the Lombok Straights tonight. Whew! Fingers crossed. Dived at 1630 till 1850. All quiet in straights.”
Sunday 28th. “Will be on the surface all the time now! Had a shave for the first time as sea, tough going.”
Monday 29th, “Still going South for Exmouth Gulf on the surface. Have eaten so much for supper – can’t move, even if it is essatz (jelly!)”
Tuesday 30th, “Miserable weather, same routine!”
Wednesday 31st, “Arrived Exmouth Gulf 0800 for fuel – procured fresh meat, veg and fruit! Sunbathing and swimming! Revolver practice! Just a nice break after 30 days at sea. The bottles looking rosy now – am almost tempted!”
Thursday 1st February, “Stand Off all day – did nothing but lay down and think! Roll on the week-end and let’s get in! Wrote to Babs.”
It was not until Saturday that they finally arrived in Freemantle, although there was now fresh milk there was no mail. Dad was paid and went ashore. “No beer!” The following day he went ashore again, “No Beer – chocker (feeling down )Should have gone on leave.” I believe my dad had the option to have first leave i.e. he did not have to report back every night. 327?
I woke up on another dark black winter morning on the island. The sun was still somewhere else; being this far North, the night sky was free of light pollution. Fitting Velux windows had the wonderful effect of sleeping in a bed directly under the stars and when suddenly opening your eyes from sleep to behold! An intense stella detonation on the visual senses. But witnessing the slow rotation of the earth, gazing at the cosmos through a square window is compromised. I did see something. It is far easier to view a wheelie-bin sized object, travelling at over 17,000 miles an hour, 300 miles away with your naked eye, than it is to find a submarine below the surface of an ocean. The satellite appeared as a lighted cigarette a mile away; almost undetectable. I thought it was just the smallest of orbiting pieces of junk. The orbit intersected another circle. The other was the edge of that vast shadow we call the night. It was a glancing of visual blows but it resulted in an iridescent burst of light. It was sudden. It was personal and I had never seen this effect before. It lasted no more than five seconds then resumed the cigarette glow until vanishing. The International Space Station is one of the brightest objects in the night sky but half the time it is quietly understated. Depending on your perspective, we will always see things differently.
SONAR TYPE 170B
When I was a lad, I spent a significant part of adolescence in front of a screen effectively zapping a pretend enemy. No body criticised me or my colleagues for playing war games. It was what we did. But this was before the emergence of the play station or x box. The graphics were not let’s say…very graphic. If I was in contact with a submarine, 10,000 yards away, I could fire a torpedo carrying missile from another ship for real and actually did on one occasion. I had to be content with a long white plume of fire and smoke, drawn across the sky in my imagination as I stood in the dark, deep within the bowls of a sub hunting frigate.
My son Joe is now 14 years old. I find it hard to believe he is only a year away from the age when I left home to begin a life at sea. He is focussed in killing an enemy that inhabits a virtual world, a world where he talks to his friends who are miles away who also engage in this pseudo warfare from their `bunkers` beyond. In bedrooms, all over the world teenage boys fire upon an enemy that often masquerades as the one my father and his grandfather fought. Like my father, I became a sonar operator. Like my son, I played war games only using big boy’s toys, but unlike my father, instead of hunting surface ships, I would focus on attacking submarines.
It was a hot summer day in Portsmouth sitting outside the ASUAT drinking tea. The acronym stood for Anti- Submarine Universal Attack Teacher, if I Recall correctly. It was the closest I will ever get to contemporary computer games. Surrounding the Helipad at HMS Vernon in Portsmouth was a collection of large, dark blue painted, windowless trailers that were interconnected. They all had painted on them the white letters, ROYAL NAVY, if ever they were likely to get misplaced! After our `stand easy`, we filed back into the control room, through the darkened operations room and back into the Sonar Control Room (SCR). It would have been state of the art for WW2 but sonar Type 170B (attacker) was already showing its age. There were three consuls and each had an operator. This bit is a little technical! On the left was the bearing recorder; A small paper roll was automatically wound out so that an electrical stylus could print a mark onto the paper. This would create a trace that a light cursor would be aligned to and was controlled using two hand wheels. The centre display unit (CRT), had a small cathode ray tube that `painted` two vertical lines. The one on the left was for bearing, the right was for depth. The operator, using similar hand wheels would control the transducer that would send out a `ping` to locate a submarine. It was principally his job to gain and hold contact. Surrounding the CDU was a bearing repeater, marking both the relative bearing and compass bearing of any contacts. The Range recorder was the furthest right and also consisted of a paper roll and stylus that marked out the range with every sonar `ping`. It would draw a brown trace onto the paper as the submarine contact moved towards or away. Again, this would have a light cursor controlled by two hand wheels.
The whole set up was used to control the weapon system. In this case, it was a mortar Mk10, that fired three 250-pound depth charges a range of 1000 yards. Sometimes there would be two mountings that could launch 1,500 pounds of TNT high explosive. Each operator’s movements would affect the others movements. They would hold contact by working together, very subtly all linked to an electro mechanical computer that would be setting the depth of the submarine onto the projectiles. They would be fired when within range by the sonar controller (SC). This type of warfare was already becoming a little outdated by the time I left the Navy, it was close attack WW2 stuff.
We `closed up` for another run. The sound of sonar pinging has become a stereotypical underwater sound but in reality, today, it is no longer around. Once an echo has been received, everything happens very fast. The echo must be classified as either a non-sub, possible sub or classified as submarine.
“ATTACKER, CONTACT BEARING GREEN THREE ZERO, CENTRE BEARING 2,4, ZERO. Bearing moving slowly left, echo pitch slight high, range eight thousand yards. As the Sonar Controller, I was standing behind three operators watching for any slight changes in movement or depth. The pungent smell of BO went unnoticed now; it had made me feel sick earlier, we all knew who the culprit was and I remember his name to this day. Even though this was just another exercise, the adrenalin kicked in. On a submarine, they would know if they were being hunted, like my Dad would have known if he were unlucky enough to be hunted by one of the more modern destroyers the Japanese had operating in the Pacific. The range was closing again, we had briefly lost contact only to pick her up at 4000 yards. I reached for a small pistol-like handle projecting from the deck head, removed the safety pin and squeezed the trigger. “FIRED FROM SCR”!
When I was a sea cadet, we went to sea for the day on an anti-submarine frigate. The ship sped along at lightning speed, conducting tight, zig-zag turns and healing at acute angles. We had a spectator view, of depth charges being fired. Thor`s hammer hit us several times, it was the shock waves from 1000 yards away. Immediately followed by a white fuzzy patch on the cobalt sea, then an eruption of brilliant white spray cascading into the heavens. After these simulated attacks, the sea turned silver where we steamed over the target site; We had ruined the day for a million fishes who now lay stunned taking in the sun’s rays. This kind of action even if witnessed by the pacifists I know would excite them. My sons would certainly enjoy a similar day at sea were they to have the opportunity. We live today in a very safe environment. The domestic world in many ways has tried to eliminate danger. I am probably considered a reckless or negligent parent for allowing my son to cycle without a helmet on a quiet country road. They tried to `train` my sons at school in the earliest of days to sit still in class when all boys of that age naturally want to do is to run, jump, chase and climb. The day my youngest showed me his climbing rig for the tallest tree in our garden I will never forget. It probably is unusual for a 8 year old to want rope and climbing gadgets and safety equipment for Christmas! I studied the gear with a critical but impressed eye. Right at the top at some considerable height was a strop that had been secured there in the first instance. How did that get there?
It is no surprise to me, there exists in the internet world that my sons frequently visit, a place where young men do the most dangerous and high risk pursuits. They inhabit a world where risk has been extracted at every opportunity, so they crave for it. Placing themselves in the most frightening scenarios, frequently getting hurt, while millions can watch at a safe distance.
Bland and mindless maxims of “HEALTH AND SAFETY” spew forth whenever a synapse makes a primitive connection from an unthinking brain. This commonly occurs if a perceived event may (or may not) possess the remotest chance of injury.
It is for that reason, I warned the public in advance they may die or be seriously injured when they enter my time machine! Yes, a time machine!
A famous stage illusionist was concluding his act, when a man shouted from the audience, “How did you do that?” “I could tell you, sir”, the magician answered, “But then I’d have to kill you.” After a short pause, the man yelled back, “Ok, then… just tell my wife!”…
Without going into any great detail, and divulging any secrets, those `time travellers` who entered my eccentric creation experienced a Tardis effect. Contained within an extremely low tech but interactive world, there were illusionary devices playing with the senses. Playing with the unknown, induces fear. It furnishes the craving for excitement, danger and risk but in our day to day experience it has all but been removed. An illusion challenges perception. You may be certain what is presented as fact only to be `tricked` by the outcome; “How did he do that?” The facts were based on assumptions about the facts. That is how `we are taken in`. The stage illusionist uses this together with showmanship, misdirection, stooges, psychology and no doubt a host of other stuff. He is certain of the outcome in advance, even if we are steered in a direction we believe is of our random choosing. Think of a number between 1 and 10. Double it then add 6. Half that number. Take away the original number. You get 3!
So, when confronted with the unknown, should we feel fear? An event that cannot be explained, something occurring outside of your human frame of reference that you witness. Do you deny the experience if it cannot be explained? To arrive at the number 3, is not a mind reading act, it is a mathematical certainty. Mathematics, was not one of my strengths at school, unlike my Dad who excelled in the subject. Algebra for me, lay at the bottom of one vast cerebral ocean; it was there but I could not see it. But 1m becoming 2m then 2m+6. This being reduced to 1m+3 to emerge back to a certainty; the number 3! I now understand this! It is just a language, a way of communicating. Algebra at school was like a submarine talking to a surface ship on an underwater telephone, except listening in without the proper equipment; I could hear a noise, but I seemed unable to interpret anything or make any sense of it. It was nonsense and a nonsense that cost me a packet of polo mints every week for over 3 years; the payment to a friend who would allow me to copy his working out and homework!
The Time Machine was not so much the culmination of, but rather the retrogressive inevitability of an illusion created in 1988. HH226/351/01 “Commercial in Confidence” was not planned. Its life began at sea with a scientific experiment…I lowered a weighted bottle over the side of the ships boat to recreate a phenomenon that an old fisherman reported took place during the war. I forget what was supposed to happen now but that is the thing with a lie; You have to have a good memory. While I was in the Royal Navy, we were apparently sent to sea in dramatic fashion to conduct a scientific experiment. The television programme was screened while on leave and I witnessed myself lowering the bottle and bringing it back from the depths. The thing was, what was seen to take place did not take place and I proved to be an innocent participant to an event that fooled the public albeit in an entertaining way but all in the name of science. It was the first time in my life I realised there was trickery out there. The thing is, most people on the planet believe the very first thing they are told and stick with it for the rest of their life without recourse to examine the basis for it, but if it is challenged, it is taken as an attack, a grievous insult. We nail our colours to the mast before we even know there is a ship attached to it. Whether it is politics, religion or science, we all start off in life as a very sensitive and malleable piece of clay; ideas are planted and stay there. Where has the ability to just wonder, to speculate to have fun gone?
It is with this in mind we join the global audience witnessing a paradigm shift in the political world. It could now be a time where up is down and down is up. The rules of the game may be changing.
One of the rules in the war games that I played, were drinks were not permitted while playing. It was a minor rule but an important one. A spillage could wreck a complete weapon system in seconds. Despite this, we did break the rules during the many hours, waiting, sitting, farting, watching, listening for `something`, as the cold war `raged` around us. The Russians had 400 submarines that would have brought a smile to Admiral Doenitz face had he had a fleet of that strength ranged against Britain in WW2. NATO standard was coffee with evaporated milk and two sugars. It helped me to stay awake through relentless defence watches. Two weeks at sea, where the days were nights, the nights were days for all we knew. In a ship without windows it could well have been the inside of a submarine albeit for the extra space we enjoyed. It was a steel coffin. Something that crossed your mind on occasions. Despite specialising in sonar, my `action station`, would sometimes change from the Sonar control room. Once it was the emergency steering position or tiller flat, in naval parlance. But it was as the port sea cat missile loader, up on deck, I decided was the place to be were we to go to war. I believed personal survival would be best there. I held that belief even after leaving the service. But one day in 1982, it was towards the end of the Falklands war, I was filling up with petrol somewhere and glancing at the newspaper stand. HMS Glamorgan, the ship I spent four and a half years on was hit with an Exocet missile killing 14 of the crew. The missile had hit the deck, only a couple of feet from the Seacat Missile launcher!
HH226/351/01 was not yet established. The sonar control room hummed monotonously from the equipment and the cooling fans. The atmosphere was dark and humid and illuminating it here and there were the read outs and the orange glow of sonar screens of a depersonalised enemy. We no longer saw him, he was after all, fifty fathoms beneath us. He was under that orange light source on a cathode ray tube reminiscent of cities at night shrouded in the fog. Somewhere in those cities, babies were being born; “we used to keep in touch with the baby’s heart, its trepidation or distress, by putting our ears close. Now we turn away from the baby. We look at a foetal monitor. The practice estranges us, even when we realise theoretically that it does.” Every ten and a half seconds a powerful 17.5 Khz, pulse of sound pounded the depths. Sound in sea water travels faster than in the air. You cannot see a submarine with your eyes or a whale or a dolphin, only sense something is there. Depending on certain characteristics, algorithms, it is possible to distinguish what it may be. But this alienated sense, this method of interpreting data via sensory equipment, we have adjusted to with a false consciousness.
It was first detected on the Doppler display. A good, firm contact that was slowly moving at first. It moved faster touching 20 knots, the abstract orange paintings on a cathode ray tube mystified the leviathan 8 thousand yards from us, then it suddenly increased speed to 25 knots, then 30; it had to be a nuclear submarine. But then it touched 40, above that, it started to go off the scale. There are oceanographic conditions that effect sound in seawater: Temperature at different depths, water pressure and salinity will bend it so much so, it can completely bend away from the direction intended. It can give a false echo. A false echo? That was probably what it was, but how was I to know that then? We spent hours and hours, `pinging` the seas, half asleep, kept awake with NATO standard. A disembodied voice spoke to you in the early hours; garbled and ghost-like, uncannily not of this world, half dream states interrupted by `seatalk`. A psychotic experience as close as you could ever get but this was an underwater telephone, `Gertrude`, sonar type 185. Once heard, someone would report this to the Operations room where it could be heard properly on the other, dedicated telephone. The sound from this equipment, in the ears of someone in a dream-like state, starved of sleep and a vivid imagination is not recommended.
LAST RUN ASHORE
16th April 1945
“Duty. Got job in the `scranbag`. Had my photos of Babs, submarine and mouth-organ stolen.”
“Last run ashore in W.A. Gave Mrs Keyser an electric jug as a parting gift and said cheerio – Met Mrs Cover, she thinks that I shall be seeing her again (some hopes).”
Waking up freezing cold on a train in a siding, on the other side of the world is something me and my father have in common. His experiences ashore in Western Australia are briefly noted in his diary. It is clear that he had made some great friendships with the natives of Perth and stayed with them on leave whenever possible. A girl friend or two is implied but not expressly mentioned Going to the cinema, skating, the zoo and swimming were some of the activities he enjoyed there. He looked forward in eager anticipation for mail, especially from my Mum and was disappointed when mail had not been received. How different today with instant communications! I tried to look up some old names and addresses but to no avail. Most of those people he knew were no longer alive probably. I kept wishing I could ask those questions that were unanswered. He could easily have returned to Oz after the war and I`m sure part of him wanted to, the other half was my mother and she would not leave these shores. At that time, she was a young girl, five years younger than my Dad, in a world with outdated values, that were being turned on their head. Dancing, Cinema, the main activities. Living in the coastal town of Ramsgate, she received her own share of action, from air raids, shelling and on one occasion even being strafed by a German fighter in the street while returning home from a dance. It could well have been that dance where she met him, the father of my half-brother.
Western Australia was a great place to go ashore. Not only did the natives speak a quasi-English, but `Strine`, can be mastered quickly; Dad went to say his goodbyes to Max;
“Gooday Mate”. “Gooday cobber. So, where’s it gonna be? The buzz is your sailing for Steak and Kidney, I bet your chocker but she`ll be apples. You`ll be out of that comfy clobber for a while and back to navy bib and tucker when you shove off. Say Gooday to the coat hanger in the big smoke for me”
In reality, Dad did not know where they were headed this time and neither did his friend Max. He had been looking forward to returning to the UK on HM Submarine Spirit, but it was not his lucky day:
Friday 13th April 1945
“Drafted to Maidstone in the afternoon. Am I `chocker`…
Sunday 15th April 1945
“Wrote to Babs. I slept in the afternoon. Waved goodbye to the Spirit! It certainly got me…
Saturday 29th October 1945.
Left Port Said for Alexandria: went to pick-up survivors of a Greek refugee ship, “Empire Patrol”. Picked up 1 little boy and transferred him to Aircraft Carrier. Arrived Alex 1330.
SOWING PATCH ON FLAG
HMS Spark had spent just one day in Port Said and at 7 o’clock, she was now on her way home from the war in the Pacific. She received the order ‘full ahead’, and they were now off to offer assistance to the ‘Empire Patrol’ who had sent an S.O.S. and passengers were taking to the lifeboats. Rescue vessels were on their way and would reach the scene of the disaster. The Skipper of Spark wanted to help but had received no orders and was steaming in the opposite direction to the unfortunate vessel. Spark had been ‘nursing’ the engines all the way back from the Pacific Islands; they badly needed an overhaul but hey were now making good speed despite the rough sea condition. The ship had passed them in Port Said, which is not far from Alexandria, only about 16 hours steaming. They intended leaving at 2 p.m. arriving at Alexandria at about 8 o’clock in the morning. Sailing out of the harbour, scores of women lined the ship’s side and were waving, some of the lads thought they were WRENS homeward bound. After the ship passed out of sight no one gave it a second thought. That morning was spent preparing for sea; two smaller boats were sailing with them. As they were at ‘harbour stations’, one of the ‘sparkers’ came out of the W.T. office and told them the ship they had seen earlier that morning was on fire and was full of Greek refugees bound for Greece, ships were steaming to her assistance but they apparently had the fire under control. Spark steamed steadily for about 4 hours when a faint glow was seen on the horizon.
The following is an extract from a letter dated 4th Oct. 1945, written by E.R.A. William (Bill) Hay then a member of the crew of H.M./SM. ‘Spark’,
…we started to get all kinds of gear ready. Geordie and I went on deck to rig an airline up so that we could blow up the rubber dinghy. It was a make shift affair as normally these dinghies are inflated with C.Ga gas or Freon, I’m afraid we didn’t have much luck with it. The night was terribly dark and we were rolling a great deal, waves were breaking right over the casing and we were travelling at high speed, we were both soaked to the skin. We were now much closer to the accident scene and slowed down, we started to use our 6-inch signalling lamp which is like a baby searchlight. The people had by now been in the lifeboats over 4 hours, so were probably scattered all over the ocean. I could see the lights of several ships in the distance and several were using searchlights one of them was an escort Carrier and had planes up dropping flares into the sea. I went below to see if I could rig up another gadget for the dinghy and hadn’t been below 5 minutes when the lads told me they had spotted someone in the water, it was a little boy on a small raft he was face down and paddling with both hands. The gun layer went over the side with a line and brought the raft alongside. Geordie lifted the poor little lad onto the casing, he couldn’t talk and was unable to stand, just fancy a child of 8 or 9 years of age, all those hours in the water alone. He was taken into the boat and undressed. Several burns were found on his body, he received first aid and wrapped up in blankets and looked a lot better in no time at all. While all this was going on the Skipper received a severe reprimand for leaving the other two submarines and acting without orders, we were ordered to continue our passage to Alexandria. As it was of little use keeping our survivor on board, we went alongside the Carrier and transferred him. I believe the majority of the survivors were aboard the Carrier, just think how relieved some poor woman would be when she found her son was safe. After we had transferred the child we continued on our way. Our trip had not been in vain, and I think it was a fitting end to the Commission, saving life instead of taking it. A few hours later a wireless message came through that the young boy’s mother was on board the Carrier so they were reunited, giving us all even greater joy and satisfaction, that our efforts had been so rewarding.
On arrival in Alexandria, the pirate patrol flag clearly reflects this more positive action. The lifebuoy patch is the new addition to the flag seen clearly in the photograph.
1944 – THE MISSING DIARY
TANTIVY, TANTIVY, TANTIVY!
A HUNTING WE WILL GO!
My father had various encounters with the enemy during the war; there was one in particular but I could find no trace in the 1945 diary, concluding it occurred in 1944. The first tale was soon after surfacing at night in the Lombok Straights; as procedure dictated, he had listened on the asdic for any hydrophone effects emanating from surface ships confirming to the skipper it was all clear to surface. The captain did the customary all round look and seeing nothing surfaced. Unfortunately, this turned out to be very close to two Japanese sub chasers that had not been visible against the silhouette of the land. The Japanese immediately began to attack and depth charged them after they dived. He also mentioned another occasion, while patrolling the Malacca Straights, where they were attacked and chased by two destroyers and bombed by aircraft; they were not able to dive owing to the shallow water. Instead of a quick return to base in Australia, they had to remain submerged for a very long time until it was safe to surface. It was during this extended period submerged, he laid on his bunk observing a fellow shipmate asleep. He noticed his breathing was incredibly fast; he was hyper ventilating to give the correct medical term. Only then did he notice he also was reacting in the same way; the effects were due to high levels of carbon dioxide in the foul and stale air. After checking out the probable Submarine he was on at this period, I discovered the logbook account that matched. I was also relieved to find he could not have been party to the deaths of nearly 6000 men, as he must have been aboard HM Submarine Tantivy at that time. Everything seemed to fit as he had become spare crew at the later part of the war, the service records were not such a reliable account of which submarine he was serving on but taken together with the stories I remember him telling me, that he spoke about the Tantivy more, I think I can be certain now having read the logbook accounts.
5th WAR PATROL
On the 16th August, 1944, HM Submarine Tantivy returned from her 5th wartime patrol and entered Trincomalee harbour together with the armed motor yacht, Maid Marion. The submarine, now painted grey and green in dazzle style, would berth alongside HMS Adamant, the 4th Submarine flotillas depot ship. `Tantivy`, being a traditional hunting cry, lived up to her name. One of her officers, no doubt with experience and enthusiasm in the country pursuit, sounded a hunting horn whenever she put to sea or returned from patrol. It certainly marked her identity, together with her skull and crossbones flag above the conning tower. This time there were no additions to her flag. Additions were sewn on to denote various actions on patrol: a star placed next to the crossed cannons denoted sinking a vessel with gunfire. A white bar, sinking a merchant ship with a torpedo and a warship, a red bar. Although the patrol had not earned any new patches, it was still eventful; Tantivy had been depth charged a number of times being hunted herself. The T class submarine, in a nutshell resembled a predator more eloquently than any submarine seen, before or since. With an open pair of upper torpedo tube-doors they starkly evoked the visage of an owl, or similar raptor. With diving planes rigged-in (i.e., folded-up) against the back of the `head`. The teeth-like rows of limber-holes under the `eyes`, only accentuated the look. This of course could not be seen under normal circumstances but when rapidly breaking surface within range of any prey they would evoke primeval fear to any sea-goer.
It might be useful to have a tour of a British WW2 submarine. There is scant information surviving compared to American and German records.
The T class were bigger than the S boats and like them were built in three batches.
Tantivy was a T class submarine. All of them named with a T as the first letter in the name, and one of 53 built before and during the war. She was one of the 3rd batch built in 1942. Wartime austerity meant that they lacked many refinements such as jackstaff and guardrails, and had only one anchor. Much of the internal pipework was steel rather than copper. Welding gradually replaced riveting and some boats were completely welded, which gave them an improved maximum diving depth of 350 ft.
Launched in 1942, Tantivy was 273 feet long and over 26 feet beam. Unlike modern submarines she had a `casing`, that is the most visible part of the submarine; a streamlined but free flooding structure providing a platform but this also had space to store the ropes and wires, fenders, gangplank etc. that any boat requires. The casing had additional torpedo tubes that were streamlined and slightly raised towards the bow. The casing covered the main pressure hull that contained everything inside. On the sides of this were the ballast tanks that ran along the sides that were of the saddle tank design. Tantivy was 1570 tons when fully submerged and 1417 tons on the surface. The pressure hull was divided into 6 compartments, all divided by watertight bulkheads and doors.
The tube space at the forward end contained the breech ends of the 6 torpedo tubes. These all had to be connected to the rimming tank, and main ballast tank to the sea where the outer end were closed by hydraulically operated bow caps. The tubes also needed to be charged with water around the torpedoes and be compensated for the weight redistribution after firing. To the sides were compressed air cylinders that would eject the torpedoes (known as fish) so they could `run` towards their target under their own power. Each torpedo was 25 feet long with a diameter of 21 inches. Under the floor was the hull outfit that contained the Type 129 asdic transducer and motors that made it rotate. Water tight doors were large enough to allow the fish to be reloaded into the tubes.
Walking aft into the next compartment, was the fore-ends. This space housed the spare torpedoes for reload. There were 4 above the deck level in racks and 2 below in `trenches`. Below the decks were compensating tanks, fuel tanks high pressure air bottles and a store. This space was also used by some of the crew as their `billet`, it is where they would sling their hammocks or if they preferred would sleep on the deck itself.