Life in the RFA
It was 1964; I was earning 12 guineas a week and paying out seven for my digs in London. Not a sustainable situation. Then I saw the ad for Radio Officers in the RFA Service.
It was 1964; I was earning 12 guineas a week and paying out seven for my digs in London. Not a sustainable situation. Then I saw the ad for Radio Officers in the RFA Service.
The interview at Empress State Building, Earls Court SW6, was not what I had expected at all. A bunch of nameless men across the table, and some aimless questions that I thought were merely to pass the time rather than to find out anything about me. But I must have accepted when an offer was made because the next thing I knew I was signing the Official Secrets Act of 1911 and 1920. They took my details and ticket number and I had joined the RFA. The date was 17 March 1964.
I didn’t ever meet the ‘boss’, I don’t even recall having ever having seeing his name; or have it mentioned. All I knew was that the RFA was run by the Director of Fuel Movement and Transport (DFMT) in the Ministry of Defence (Navy). It reminded me of ‘M’ – a la James Bond. We were Section 4A, and I think it became Section 3A a little later, or perhaps it was 3B, I am not sure. MoD (N) then was still referred to as the Admiralty, as it had only just been amalgamated into the MoD earlier that year; along with the Army and Royal Air Force.
My joining letter told me to report to the Brown Ranger at Portland Naval Base. Attached was a Second Class rail warrant. On 27 April 1964, the day before my birthday, I took a train to Weymouth, and then a taxi to the Naval Base. The sentry at the gate directed me to a tiny little ship, lying alongside, and quite close to the gate.
Portland Naval Base was the Flag Officer Sea Training’s (FOST) establishment. All warships after any period on inactivity need to be brought up to fighting fitness again. FOST provided a work-up schedule for each ship coming under his command. Along with navigation, gunnery, damage control and other functions, a warship needs to know how to replenish its’ fuel and supplies in the most efficient manner. An RFA tanker was provided for that training.
The Brown Ranger was a tanker of 3,400 tons. She could do 14 knots and had an loa of 350 feet and a beam of 47 feet. Her draft was 22 feet, but with a very small freeboard, about three feet from the water to the lowest open deck. With any sort of weather, that deck would be under water. My previous ships had mostly been about that size, but they were cargo ships, and certainly didn’t have water regularly sloshing about on deck. But that was only the first thing I had to get used to in the RFA.
The ship was so low in the water that the gangplank (I was later to learn it was termed the brow) was on the boat deck. There was no one there when I clambered on board, but I noticed someone staring at me. That stern face turned out to belong to Captain A. Telfer.
I introduced myself, and he sent me along to the Radio Room just a few feet away at the after end of the Boat Deck. There I met Eddie Agius, my No. 1. He was a Maltese with short, curly, ginger coloured haired, which I thought odd. He in turn introduced me to David Stubbings, our Signalman, more affectionately referred to as Bunts.
I suppose being sent to FOST Portland was very appropriate for me. I had no idea of what the RFA did, or what to expect. All I understood was that the RFA was the civilian arm of the Royal Navy, and that we were merchant seamen, not subject to normal naval discipline. On commercial ships, the radio room contained the standard transmitters and receiver, plus a few other things like the auto alarm and auto key. Everything was straightforward, and completely open. The Brown Ranger had that outfit, but a few other bits, like a voice radio that was completely new to me. In the Merchant Navy, we used Q Codes to communicate with stations of other nationalities. Not so in the Royal Navy, and the navies of the NATO nations. Naval communications were conducted using Z and well as Q Codes. There were other differences too, such as a question mark, which would come after the Q code as in normal punctuation, had been transfigured to the abbreviation INT and placed before the Q or Z code.
When working with naval ships, visual communication was commonly used rather than radio, which could be monitored by ‘enemy’ ships. I could read morse by light just as easily as over the airwaves, but I hadn’t a clue as to flags. I did get to learn them, but it was very comforting to have Bunts do the Bridge work, handling flags and the signalling lamp.
Another segment of the learning curve was becoming conversant with voice procedures. Not something normally employed on merchant ships, voice comms was vital when working with the Navy. What was a Type 691, or a CUH? What was the difference between one tactical channel and another? Either Eddie or I would be on the Bridge to work the voice radio, but Bunts always on hand if he wasn’t required to be hoisting flags.
Naval communications were classified in various categories, Unclassified, Restricted, Secret, Top Secret etc. Ordinary messages were Unclassified and sent in clear text, but anything else, even Routine messages, was coded up before sending. What a chore.
Within an hour of joining, Eddie had delegated the Coding Officer’s duties to me. As a small auxiliary vessel, we carried a limited set of confidential documents; sufficient only for the task we were to perform. First of all, I had to learn how to open the safe. I had certainly never come across a tumble home lock. Five right, six left, fifteen right, and twist. Or was it sixteen left? In the safe were the coding books and equipment.
What is crypto? I ask. Never mind. Just think of Danny Kaye, blow in here, and the music comes out there. There were One Time Pads for, as the name implies, a once only message. Eddie hardly gave me any time to glance at them before showing me the workhorse of the Radio Room. The KL-7 crypto machine coded and decoded messages. The code settings were changed everyday, and you had to be careful how you set them. It was a temperamental machine and needed constant cleaning.
In my last company, the China Navigation Co, we had Chinese stewards and silver service at mealtimes. I was in for a shock on the Brown Ranger. Firstly, dinner was at the uncivilised hour of five o’clock. That was because the stewards knocked off at six, and needed to clean up by then. That was bad enough. On the first night when I got to the table, I found I was the only one eating, and when I looked down, all I saw was a placemat with one knife and one fork. Nothing else. I was offered the choice of one dish, and when I tasted it, I realised why I was the only one at dinner. It was the worst meal I had ever had. I was out by ten past, and when I went along to the bar, I found most of the other Officers there. I mentioned dinner, and got shrugs in reply. I joined them for a few beers, and then followed them to town to have their usual fish and chips.
Sea training was mostly a day job for us. The first day we went out, I was on the Bridge and all agog. We set off and waited to replenish the first frigate. The warship gave us a course and speed, known as the Romeo Corpen, that we had to hold to rigidly. Then she came up behind us, and very carefully came up alongside, about 100 feet off. That scared the pants off me. That could be a very dangerous manoeuvre, especially in a rough sea, and the quartermasters of both vessels needed very steady hands.
When we were at our correct stations, we would fire a light rope attached to a heavy wire over to the receiving ship. When the heavy wire was secured to a high point on the frigate, we would attach our fuel hose and have that hauled over. The hose had a heavy metal coupling which was secured to the intake pipe. On American ships, they preferred to use ‘pigtails’, a hose without couplings, just pushing the hose end down the pipe. That was a much quicker operation, but also prone to many oil spills.
One week Brown Ranger played the role of a slow merchantman in a convoy exercise. We chugged along at a slow eight knots, and watched the frigates and destroyers darting about, pretending there were many other ships in the convoy, and snapping at us to keep station, just like a sheep dog would.
Radio transmissions were banned and all communications were by signalling lamp. Visuals were Bunt’s responsibility, but I relieved him from time to time. Using the Aldis lamp wasn’t difficult, as we used morse to pass the messages. However, at night, we switched to lamps with just a pencil light beam. My eyes were never good, and trying read a tiny blinking light was impossible for me.
On another exercise, this time with NATO ships, we went into the North Sea, and exercised off the Friesische Islands. At the end of the exercise, we went into Cuxhaven in Germany for a short break. That was my first European port. I went ashore with the Third Mate, Dave Purcell and tried the German beer. I didn’t think we had too many, but we were there a long time as it was already daylight when we left the bar. We weren’t late, but I believe we had to wait for the Captain and Chief before we could sail.
On 21 June 1964, we left Portland for Swansea for a dry-docking but what the navy term a refit. We changed articles there, and Captain J. Gullersarian took over command. The Chief Officer was Jim Gourley, Second Officer George Mortimore, and Third Officer was David Purcell. The Engineers were John Lindsay 2nd, Alex Redpath 3rd and John Thompson 4th. We were there for three weeks including some time actually in dry-dock. We lived on board all that time. Then we set sail for Malta.
Shipmates including John Thompson and Alex Redpath
Now let me paint a scenario. It is mid July 1964. There is tremendous anticipation in the air. I am standing in the wheelhouse, manning the radio, and watching the Captain and the Pilot. Around us were the Officer of the Watch, the Chief Officer, the Quartermaster, and an Ordinary Seaman.
The Signalman was also there. I could just about hear his heart pounding. The excitement of the crew was infectious. Ahead of us was the entrance to ‘Grand Harbour’, Malta. We can clearly see the breakwaters. There was Fort St Elmo to the right, and further down, Fort St Angelo. They were magnificent sights; standing there, high, prominent and proud. They were made of sandstone, as was just about every building.
As we slowly passed between the breakwaters, Bunts points out the various landmarks to me. ‘That’s Fort St Elmo sir’ he said. ‘We will be going over there often’. Then he would look the other way, and pointing, would say ‘that’s Senglea where the Azzopardis live, and just above the big house in the next bay is Cospicua’.
I could see David looking along the waterfront where there were a multitude of very colourful boats used for ferrying passengers and cargo to the ships anchored in that deep, safe haven. After each scan of the quay, he would look up to the Upper Barracca Gardens. That was a small area with nice shady trees and was a great vantage point for watching ships. Connecting the wharf area to the gardens was a very old, rickety looking outdoor lift. It didn’t look all that safe, but people were using it with no regard. David lived at Msida, a short distance from the capital, Valetta where we were now passing. He knew his family would be watching for him, and he didn’t want to miss seeing them.
Well we finally got to our berth, right at the top end of the harbour. We tied up in double quick time; and before we could say ‘stand down’ the ship was deserted. There were a few desolate ones who had to stay behind, but the rest were away in the blink of an eye, Bunts included.
Those first days in Malta were very different from Portland. We hardly saw any of the crew. Ever faithful Bunts arrived promptly every morning and did his chores. After breakfast, he would go across to Naval Headquarters at Fort St Elmo to pick up the mail and any other items the ship needed. With all our classified papers, I was responsible for ensuring they were destroyed as they became superseded. With Bunts as my escort, we would go along to the Base incinerator where I would feed the furnace, so hot I could still feel the heat on my face for some time afterwards. Back on board, I would then mark them off as destroyed. Sometimes I accompanied Bunts on his daily routine, to familiarise myself with the mail run should Bunts need a day off.
Dave Purcell and George Mortimore
In the evenings, when Dave was not on duty, we would wonder into Valletta. We would the mile or so down the Marsa Road, passing tens of pubs, with names like ‘Friend to All’ bar. Just before arriving at the bus terminus, we would walk past several large slabs in the pavement. They were the covers for the underground silos that stored the precious grain that fed the starving population during the war. On past the battlements of the Cavaliers St James and St John, we would then saunter down Kingsway, and if it was at the appropriate time, watch the girls stroll up and down hoping to catch the eye of the boys that congregated there as well. Most times, we sat at the upstairs bar of the pub opposite St John’s Co-Cathedral. Dave would always order a Cisk, while I vacillated between the lager and a Farsons Pale Ale. Very occasionally, we would treat ourselves to a drink at the Hotel Phoenicia close to the bus station.
We were attached to the Commander in Chief, Mediterranean (C-in-C Med). Every summer there would be a ‘show the flag’ cruise. This year it was around the French and western Italian coastline. There were only three RN ships, including HMS Cassandra. We went along to provide the fuel. Our first call was at Port Vendres in France, almost at the Spanish border. It was a very small, mainly fishing, port. Some of the Officers had their wives meet them, and we went off visiting the beautiful countryside. Then off to Villefranche near Monte Carlo. At Civitavecchia some of us thought we would go into Rome. We didn’t realise how far it was, such that when we got to there, realised we did not have the time to see anything, so we caught the next train back.
Next excursion was a NATO exercise in the eastern Med. As well as the British and Americans, there were Italian and Greek ships. I drank my first ouzo at Patras. When the bartender brought us four little glasses, we looked at each other, and downed them in one gulp. When the barman came back with glasses of water, he took one look at the empty glasses and shuddered. He told us what we should have done – then brought us another round.
We were making our way up the Dardanelles to Istanbul when we saw a Russian helicopter following us. It was watching us conduct a RAS. The next day there were chuckles all over, when the Americans told us they had spotted two Russians ships undergoing a ‘replenishment at sea’. While the Americans were watching, the Russian ships collided.
The wind chill factor must have brought the temperature below zero at Istanbul. We were anchored in the stream, and the ride ashore was very bumpy indeed. In a little café, I had a vile coffee and needed something to eat. I don’t know what I had, but soon after I became violently sick. I threw up all the way back to the landing I do not have happy memories of Istanbul.
On the social front, the boys used to talk of Whitehall Mansions, the women’s barracks at Silema. They talked of inviting the Wrens down, but didn’t. But we used to invite the teachers from the school for children of service personnel. We would have parties on board, or sometimes go out for a meal. We must have visited just about all the restaurants in Malta, drinking farmer’s red wine at one shilling a bottle. We spent Christmas in Malta, and I remember being invited to dinner. After the lovely meal, we stood out on the veranda listening to carols being sung by a group of locals.
John Aspel, Capt Gullersarian, unknown, Dave Purcell
Early in 1965, our rotation in the Med was completed. We arrived back in Plymouth on 27 January to a bitterly cold winter. The Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve units around the coast each had a minesweeper to train on. This year four of them were to embark on a ‘show the flag’ exercise to the Caribbean. There was Warsash (Capt J. B. Leworthy), St. David (Capt I. C. Davenport), Mersey (Lt. Cmdr. L. T. A. Foinette) and Northumbria (Lt. R. S. Clarke).
The ships were under the Command of the RNVR Commodore, Sir John Clerk, 10th Baronet of Penicuik, assisted by Commander Vallings, a full time RN officer. They were berthed with us, but I don’t know where, as I didn’t think we had any spare accommodation. I only saw the Commodore when he visited the Radio Room to use the AC socket. His shaver didn’t work on DC, which was the standard power of the ship.
We set off in February, and it was soon evident that the Wireless Reservists were in desperate need of practical experience. Perhaps I was being a little harsh in expecting them to handle their own communications. Our main transmitter was a Marconi 100 watt Oceanspan, while I believe sweepers only had a 40 watt Naval Type 618. Therefore, I could accept that we would undertake to send any messages on their behalf.
However, each ship was supposed to maintain their own watches, but they couldn’t even maintain a listening watch on Portishead Radio. I had presumed that they would have received sufficient instruction and practice in the warm comfort of a classroom, but was dismayed to find they could not monitor the ‘live’ broadcasts. Perhaps they had only been trained to operate tactical circuits, and when told of their ‘cruise did not have the time to learn about long distance communications.
It took us five days to get to Terceira in the Azores, then off on a ten knot, eight day, voyage to Bermuda. That was a lovely place, with all those beautiful pastel shaded houses lining the shore. We tied up at the Naval Dockyard where the Senior Naval Officer, West Indies, flew his flag.
As we headed south, we began experiencing difficulty in contacting Portishead with our 100 watt transmitter. The nearest Naval station was Halifax in Nova Scotia. Being used to the Commonwealth Area system, I tried using CFH to relay our messages, but the Canadians were a disappointment. Their level of reading morse only seemed slightly better than the Reservists we had with us. Nowhere near as efficient as Hong Kong, Singapore, the Australian or South African stations.
Though we were scheduled to call at Grenada, Antigua and Barbados, I can only recall visiting Kingstown in St Vincent, then Chaguaramas in Trinidad. Prior to our arrival in Georgetown, British Guiana, we had to make contact with the British Army garrison. The Army worked on different frequencies to that of the Navy. It would have been no trouble if we were equipped with regulation naval communications equipment, but we only had a commercial installation, with a few add-ons.
One was a Variable Frequency Oscillator, but without an operation manual. Eddie didn’t even bother to try, but I fiddled about, and eventually managed to make contact with Force BG. Our VFO was not stable, and would drift as it warmed up. That made it almost impossible to maintain frequency, as there was no calibrator, and I had to rely on my Marconi Electra HF receiver to show me where I was on the band. However, as I neared the frequency it would cause a blind spot on the receiver. That meant I was close, but how close I had no real idea.
The other problem was that the Army used different procedures and different codes. I had to improvise in order to convince the Army boys that we were dinkum. I don’t think I would have accepted the transmissions, if I was on the other side. But they did, and we eventually passed our respective messages. Anyone monitoring us would have had a field day.
Georgetown was only 36 hours away from Trinidad. When we got to the muddy Demerara River, I saw a silver painted hull loading brown dirt. It was bauxite, the raw material for making alumina, and that the ship was one of the large Alcan fleet, the Aluminium Company of Canada.
Then it was the long haul home. As we got closer to Plymouth, the RNVR boys suddenly became able to monitor the broadcasts. One message to Brown Ranger advised that I would be paying off on arrival. When we eventually tied up, the sparkies came over and wished me a happy leave. ‘You see, we can receive messages too, you know’ they said cheekily. In hindsight, I think I should have made an effort to help them. It was never suggested, and it certainly didn’t cross my mind that perhaps I could have at least shown them what to do. I know I made no attempt to visit the ships or to meet any of them for a little chat.
I paid off on 5 April for a spot of leave in London.
I joined my next ship in Portsmouth on 26 June 1965. The Plumleaf was a freighting tanker taking fuel oil from source ports, usually Kuwait and Trinidad, to Admiralty oil storage installations around the world. I immediately felt very much at home on her. A huge Radio Room with Marconi equipment that needed studying up on how to get going. The minimalist Naval outfit was similar to that on the Brown Ranger.
By my standards, the Plumleaf was a big ship. She was built in 1960; with deadweight of 18,500 tons. She had a draft of 30 feet, and loa of 560 feet and beam of 72 feet. Her 6 cylinder Doxford gave a speed of 15 knots. While she had catwalks both forward and aft, she had a respectable freeboard, which meant you needn’t get wet going to the after accommodation.
We sailed from Portsmouth to Mina al Ahmadi in Kuwait via the Suez Canal. The Canal was completed in 1869. The 100 nautical mile passage could be done in about 10 hours. Classed as a warship, we headed the convoy as it headed south through the Canal. Once through, I sent a very long message to the Mina Quarantine Officer. It took me the better part of a morning to get through. Almost like on my first ship when I had to send long passenger lists – in numerically coded Chinese.
On arrival at Mina, we went directly alongside and queued up to receive our cholera jabs. We found she was the smallest of the tankers that were berthed there. The big ones took their oil from buoy moorings over the horizon. I thought that was fine, as it meant we could have a run ashore. No such luck. All you do was wander down the jetty to a little hut which sold Coco Cola, and a few snacks.
Fire is one of the biggest fears at an oil port. While alongside, the authorities noticed sparks coming out of our funnel. The Engineers tried, but could not stop the sparks completely. The authorities were on the verge of ordering us off the berth when the sparking stopped. We continued to load for Singapore.
When I joined the Brown Ranger, I found that the College of the Sea provided the books for our library. I also discovered that they could offer tuition to the GCE level. I enrolled right away. By then I wanted to study Economics as I fancied a London School of Economics degree. I was no good at science, but was determined to get something in that line. Studying at sea precluded subjects that required practical exams. That cut out Chemistry, but I found that I could do Physics without conducting experiments. I also took History and Economics. I already had English and Geography, and so would be able to qualify to go on to ‘A’ levels.
Immediately on joining Plumleaf I asked the Captain for permission to sit the GCE exams on board. He agreed and I applied to have my exams conducted under the supervision of Captain Dan de Vere Moulds. On the exam dates, the Captain locked me in the Radio Room while I kept my watch and answered the exam questions at the same time. I passed in all the three subjects. My confidence was sky high. I had even passed Physics! But they were only ‘O’ levels. I still needed two ‘A’ levels.
After two more roundtrips to Singapore, we loaded for Plymouth. Then on completion of that discharge, we went round the coast up to Newcastle where we commenced a refit on 19 November. We stayed in digs ashore, and found our own meals. Ten days later, we signed on again.
After our docking, we stayed in the Atlantic, using Pointe a Pierre, half way down the west coast from Port of Spain, Trinidad, as our load port. We took our first cargo to Bermuda, then one to Malta and one to Gibraltar. While sitting at a bar in Gibraltar someone came up to me and asked if I was from the Plumleaf. He was on a ship in Newcastle when he heard me asking for a radio check. He thought my voice was so distinctive he that remembered it from more than a month back.
On the next trip, to Portsmouth, we made a rendezvous with one of the few remaining cruisers left in the Royal Navy. HMS Tiger was in the vicinity of Bermuda, and we were given the task of replenishing her. We did have a set of derricks to transfer abeam, but that was only for emergencies. We did not have enough crew. All RFAs had facilities for streaming a hose astern, to be picked up by the warship sailing behind us. We conducted a stern RAS with Tiger that day.
We also had another mid Atlantic rendezvous; this time with an US Navy Weather Ship. Those were the days before satellites, and predicting weather was very haphazard without regular reports. To overcome this problem, the United States positioned ships on several fixed co-ordinates in the North Atlantic.
The more northerly ones were there mainly to warn of icebergs, but the one we were going to meet was their most southerly with a pinnacle sticking up from the ocean floor as their allocated position. They had been on station for 20 days and were very glad to see us. We had some spare time so we invited them over for a break. A whole boatload of them came over. US ships are dry, that is they are not allowed to have alcohol on board. When we opened up the bar, they went crazy, drinking as though there was no end. When it was time to go back, we literally poured some of them into their boat. They could not stand; never mind climb down the ladder. In return, they invited us over for breakfast the next morning.
By the time we did Bermuda and Gibraltar, I had done nine months and had sailed over 76,000 miles on Plumleaf. I paid off in Gibraltar on 30 March 1966.
I had done one contract and agreed to stay on for another two years. With that, DFMT sent me on what was called a ‘long course’ to prepare me for working on the bigger and newer RFAs with their more advanced equipment. I don’t know how long these courses had been running, but I later learned that I was on the 5th Course in the series. The first half of the course was at RN Electrical Engineering School, HMS Collingwood at Fareham, Hampshire, just outside Portsmouth.
We were to wear uniform, but had to find our own accommodation. I got to Fareham the day and wandered about wondering where I was going to stay, when I came across a bobby who pointed out several houses that took in boarders. I went to 5 Holbrook Road where Dave and Judy Cox agreed to put me up, provide breakfast, and dinner.
Next morning I made my way to Newgate Lane to meet up with my fellow ROs and get to know a little about the Royal Navy. Feeling very conspicuous wearing my uniform on land, I was even more embarrassed to find matelots saluting me as we walked about the grounds. But we were also members of the Officers’ Mess, and could seek refuge there.
The instructors were very patient men, they had to be, teaching seemingly uncomprehending adults how to strip a teleprinter, and then rebuilding it to as new condition. I certainly struggled over those first three weeks. The following three weeks were a little better, at least for me. We were introduced to the new Marconi NT204, the next phase in the evolution of Marconi marine transmitters.
RFA Marconi College Course, 1966
Back row: Dave Lee, Bob Leonard, Chris Evans, Bob Pugh, John Asome
Front row: Noel Drummy, Ron Parker, Mike Ford, Garth Haslam, Peter Rogerson.
After six weeks at Collingwood, we had two weeks off and then went to the Marconi College in Chelmsford in Essex. This time it was full board, and single room accommodation, with showers and toilets at the end of the block. And we didn’t have to wear uniform.
The new NT204s had transistors. The problem was that none of us had even heard of transistors before. Why even my small battery operated portable radio used valves. We had to learn about such things as the structure of atoms, and ‘pee holes in the snow’. Not all managed to pick up the theory easily, but I would like to think that I coped a little better than most. The main instructors were Marconi old timers, but we also had a new one who had just been recruited from the Navy. He was D. E. Barnicoot, and his favourite song then seemed to be Monday, Monday, by the Mamas and the Papas.
After dinner, we would go down to the local. At first, the publican was very happy to have our custom, but after a few weeks remarked that we, with our six pints each evening were transients; and were upsetting his half-pint locals. We didn’t appreciate that. On returning to the College each evening, most of us would raid the pantry for the cold cuts and other goodies were left in the fridges. I loved the hard boiled eggs and pork pies that were always there.
But, it had been a long summer, and we were ready to go back to sea after such a long spell ashore.
On completion of the long course, I was promoted to RO (A). South East Asia at that time was tense. Confrontation between Indonesia and Malaya, which started in 1962, officially ended on 13 August 1966, but the delicate peace still had to be maintained.
My next orders were for the Tidereach at Singapore. From the airport at Paya Lebar, not Changi, it was only a short drive to the Singapore Naval Base. The Naval Base boasted the biggest dry dock in the East.
I joined Tidereach on 25 October 1966, up alongside the main wall. She was launched in 1955 with a deadweight of 18,800 tons and draft of 32 feet. She had a loa of 583 feet and a beam of 71 feet. She was a steamer and could do 17 knots.
Radio duties on this Fleet Replenishment Vessel was different again from my previous two ships. Tidereach was a front line ship and had a communications capacity suitable for such a role. Her main communication method was by using RATT, the teleprinters of which I so recently learned how to maintain. And along with this came a new crypto system. No more one finger typing into an old KL-7, it was all automatic now. As on every ship, a daily time signal was relayed to the Bridge for their chronometer check. On the Tidereach it was also most important for us the Radio Room. Our new crypto machines had to be on the air continuously to keep in synch with the shore stations. That meant accurate clocks all round.
We had two separate radio rooms on the Tidereach, an outer, commercial station, and the inner, Naval Room, which had no portholes. In the Radio Department, there were four Radio Officers, one Yeoman of Signals, and a Signalman. I was the 2nd RO; John Salisbury was the SRO, my boss. When in company, we always had either the Yeoman or the Signalman up on the Bridge. The Radio Officer on standby maintained the short range tactical voice circuits as required. Another RO would be on watch in the Naval Radio Room. Commercial watch on 500 kc/s was either by loudspeaker or auto alarm, with no formal Log kept.
No sooner had I joined when we were off into the Malacca Straits. In exercises with the RAN, I seem to recall one of their destroyers finding an uncharted rock. I think it was HMAS Parramatta. In between trips to sea, we were tied up at SNB, enjoying a very colonial way of life. After work, I would wander up to the Officers Club, with Bob Miles, the Third Officer. We could play tennis, or go for a swim, play snooker, or just sit and indulge in a Tiger top, a Tiger beer with a squeeze of lime. And the egg foo yong hai always went down well with the beer.
Sembawang village just outside the main gate had everything you would want. The bars thrived, even though the shops gave away free drinks. If you were peckish, you could munch on a foot long hot dog on your way back to the ship. Then there was Toothy Wong, the tailor, who made uniforms for everyone at the Base.
The Fleet was to visit Hong Kong for Christmas that year. When John Salisbury learnt I was from Hong Kong, he gave me unlimited time-off. I reciprocated by showing some of the lads around Hong Kong. While we were in Hong Kong, the Fleet remaining in Singapore had a regatta of some sort. The winning ship was named ‘Cock of the Fleet’ and hoisted a wooden cockerel on a stick, up their main mast. One evening our restless lads decided to ‘borrow’ the trophy and duly raided the ship. It was not long before we had to standby to repel borders. We had to return the prize, but we then became known as Barker’s Buccaneers. Captain George Barker was our Captain.
Britain was in the process of giving up her Empire in Africa, but not Southern Rhodesia. The frustrated Prime Minister, Ian Smith proclaimed Unilateral Declaration of Independence on 11 November 1965. This caused Great Britain to impose an embargo on all goods entering the country. Rhodesia was a land locked country, and depended on South Africa for most of its goods. It also had a rail line direct to the Mozambique port of Beira, primarily for the movement of that precious commodity, oil.
From March 1966, Britain blockaded that port with the carrier HMS Ark Royal and her supporting fleet. On her way out to the Far East in June, Tidereach took her turn on the Beira Patrol. Now, in January 1967 she is again to take a turn on the Patrol on her way home.
I carry this picture in my mind. Someone in the Persian Gulf gets wind of a tanker loading for Beira. He passes this on to SNOPG – Senior Naval Officer Persian Gulf, who immediately passes it on to Whitehall. There I see a heavy booted matelot clutching the message and running down the corridor to the Admiralty Radio Room, from where we are told to look out for the vessel. We calculate her ETA, and at the appropriate time, start peering out for the blockade runner. When we finally see her, I send the sighting message. Again, I see the heavy footed matelot racing about. But we don’t do anything about it.
It was during this spell that I decided to visit Canada. Expo 1967 was to be held at Montreal that summer. I sent a telegram to a travel agent I used to work with when in BEA and asked him to produce an itinerary for me. This he did, but it cost me a packet. He replied by full rate telegram, at three times the cost of my SLTs, (Ships Letter Telegram). One of the Engineers, Peter Maddison, asked to join me, and so I booked for the two of us. Peter’s father was on HMS Amethyst when she was caught in the Yangtze in the war between the Nationalists and Communists.
We were on patrol for many weeks, running out of milk first, and then sugar. That was when I started drinking my coffee straight black. We then went to the Naval Base at Simonstown just outside Capetown, to stock up. We did not sail around the Cape of Good Hope, but passed around the southernmost tip of Africa – Cape Agulhas.
After our Beira Patrol, we called at Mombasa on our way to Suez. I counted the mile posts marked out in Arabic script; not the Arabic numerals we use. I could read them then, but not now. Little did I know that within a month, the Canal would be closed because of the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt. We arrived back in Plymouth on 19 May 1967. Captain Barker had his wife meet him in his Aston Martin.
My next ship was the Wave Ruler. I was to be Chief Radio Officer with the grading of RO (A). The Royal Air Force transport flew me from RAF Lyneham out to Malta on 5 September 1967. The seats all faced backwards, on the theory that passengers were safer facing aft. I don’t think that was ever proven.
RFA Wave Ruler was one of the older Fleet Replenishment tankers, built in 1946 with deadweight of nearly 12,000 tons. A steamer capable of 15 knots with a loa of 473 feet, beam of 64 feet and a draft of 35 feet.
Going back to Malta was like going home. We were at the same berth at the end of the harbour; close by the dockyard. And the crew were Maltese, with ever faithful David Stubbings newly promoted to Yeoman. We entered the same routine as when I was there on the Brown Ranger.
We entered Malta Dry Docks for a long refit on 30 September. We were to live off the ship. That suited the crew, and some of the officers had their wives with them, so it suited them too. But I was in a quandary. I didn’t know anyone long enough to want to share a flat, and I was considering putting up in a hotel when David offered me the use of a flat belonging to his brother-in-law. It was a huge one, and very convenient to Sliema, and Valetta. I took it without realising that I was expected to provide my own linen etc. Just as well, it had a bed, table and chairs.
I borrowed some linen from David, and bought a few cooking essentials, but I didn’t use them much. It was weird living in a big flat all on my own. I didn’t know how to cook, and spent most mealtimes around the restaurants of Sliema, or buying lampuki pie from the street vendors.
One Sunday I had the biggest asthma attack I can remember. Not sure of what to do, I decided to go to the Naval Hospital. As I did not have any Naval ID, the Hospital Attendant didn’t know whether to believe me or not. He finally called the doctor who was not happy at being called away from what was no doubt a lovely lunch. It took three hours before she condescended to come. By that time, my attack had passed and she did not think I needed any medication; and sent me away. I must say that was not the norm with Navy doctors.
On completion of our refit, we signed on again on 20 November. We had a work-up to get us back into operational mode, and then we went out on exercises. We spent Christmas in Malta before setting off for West Africa.
As Britain withdrew from the Far East, even little units were being recalled. They could not use the Suez Canal, so were returning via South Africa. Our first assignment was to rendezvous with two minesweepers off Walvis Bay in Namibia. I seem to recall a HMS Woolaston, but I would be able to say it was at that time. Our rendezvous was 700 miles out from Simonstown.
Here is another scenario. It is about three o’clock in the morning. I am in a darkened Radio Room, twiddling my dials. I am trying my best to contact the little lost ships. I knew they only had tiny 25 watt radios, and so not much of a range. To encourage them, I sent out a signal every ten minutes. This went on for quite a few hours, and I was beginning to get tired, when all of a sudden I heard the faintest of faint signals. I don’t know who was the more jubilant, them or us. As we got closer I remember the sparky telling me how relieved he was to make contact. He had picked up my call much earlier. We replenished them, and sent them on their way. Two little blobs in the sea.
After that first RAS we seemed to spend most of our time just cruising up and down the West African coast, then calling at St Helena. St Helena is the British colony in the South Atlantic where Emperor Napoleon was exiled. There is a big grave site for him in a prominent place on the hillside, but he doesn’t lie there. His body was returned to France many years later. If you were keen, you could climb the 100 or so steps up to his monument.
The capital of St Helena is Jamestown. The community is a very small one. The only crop I understand is flax, from which hemp rope is made. I recall just one main street lined with houses on both sides and leading up the mountain. On a drive around the mist shrouded peaks, ‘Lot and Lot’s wife’ were pointed out. I did not realise then that they were biblical people.
From St Helena, we went north to another British possession – Ascension. There were lots of wireless installations on Ascension. Cable and Wireless had their first earth satellite station built there, and I there were many technicians there. The Diplomatic Wireless Service also had a major presence there. We did not have any formal contact with them, but I understand they were fully engaged in monitoring the worsening situation up the bight in Nigeria.
That is where we headed next, into the Gulf of Guinea. The Biafran peoples of eastern Nigeria were not happy at being included in the new independent country of Nigeria. They had been lumped together with the other tribes by the British when Africa was being carved up by the European colonial powers. Now they were prepared to fight for their own land. There was oil in their area, and they didn’t want to share it with their neighbours.
We commenced patrols in the Gulf but did not go anyway near Nigeria. That was too sensitive. Between spells at sea, we went into Freetown in Sierra Leone. It is the poorest place I have ever been to. One evening a group of us went ashore and went to a bar with some coloured lights and a band. I remember seeing Africans dancing the watusi, completely bombed out. On Sundays, I would go to Mass, but never lingered. On a trip to the beach about a mile out of town. The taxi put two shillings worth of petrol in the tank – just enough for the trip. That was show poor the country was.
On one of our visits, a mini revolution took place. One evening, we heard gunshots. The High Commissioner’s staff was well prepared, and we were put on standby to evacuate them. We had a portable army wireless pack placed on board, and I manned it from the monkey island. However, things calmed down, and we were not required to do anything dramatic. Years later, when I read Frederick Forsyth’s Dogs of War it seemed he was describing Freetown.
I was relieved in Freetown on 13 April 1968. Captain Alan W. Stanley paid me off my last ship. I checked into a hotel and had a lovely dinner that night before heading to the airport early the next day. I checked my bags in and then went on to Immigration. I stood there with my passport, and looked at the officials looking at me. They didn’t say anything, and neither did I. I just stood there wondering what the delay was. There was no other person in the queue. In time, one of them made signals indicating he was expecting a bit of a tip. I looked blankly at him – just like I noticed blacks looking in England when they pretended not to understand. They must have understood the look, and duly stamped my passport as having left Lungi Airport on a KLM flight to Amsterdam via Tenerife.
While on leave, I began pondering my future. I loved the sea, but I knew it would only be a matter of time before I tried to swallow the anchor again. It was a question as to whether it was then or after the next contract. Brand new ships were joining the Fleet and they looked like very exciting ships to be on. But I knew they were equipped with automatic equipment, which left very little to be done by morse, my main love. Also, the new ships were so much bigger that they would not be able to call at little ports like those the Brown Ranger used to visit. Then Malta had gained independence, so Malta station would soon be no more; and again it was only a question of time before Singapore also ceased to be a Naval Base. So what was the Navy, and hence the RFA, going to be doing? Stay confined to home bases or some long deployment in far away places. Beira and Biafra were not exactly riveting assignments. I asked DFMT what the future held. They said would try to maximise my pay packet but could not promise anything beyond that. That helped me decide; and I regretfully declined signing for another two years.