National Service in the Royal Navy, 1949-1950: On the job
The journey to Londonderry
My work as a trained signalman was to be on a posting to Londonderry in Northern Ireland.
From Chatham to Londonderry was about as long a trip that I had ever undertaken when I was 19.
Imagine what it was like with all my cumbersome baggage to lug from train to train, and no taking taxies either! The plan was that I would travel from Heysham to Belfast on the cross channel ferry and go from Belfast to Londonderry by train.
Upon arrival at Belfast I was directed by the Railway Traffic Office to a sort of Salvation Army place where I could exchange my meal vouchers for breakfast. This I did and had a good meal, but when it came to paying with my vouchers the person in charge accepted them but said that the total value of them far exceeded the cost of the meal. I said that this didn't bother me and he could keep the balance. This he said was not possible and he then loaded me down with a huge bag of cakes and buns for my onward journey. His generous gesture only added to the number of items I had to carry and I took the first opportunity to dump the bag of goodies in the nearest bin.
Accommodation - a bad start
At Londonderry I was taken to HMS Loch Arkaig which was laying in the dockyard.
Layouts and accommodation on HM Ships Afloat
HM Ships Afloat differ somewhat according to the size of the vessel.
On aircraft carriers and ships larger than destroyers there are vast areas for crew sleeping and food halls that would be able to feed thousands of crewmembers at a time, etc.
On ships of the frigate variety things were quite different. The ship would be divided into separate areas largely dependant upon the responsibilities of the crewmembers occupying the space. Each area (approximately fourteen feet by ten) would have a long table, lockers up against the sides of the vessel, overhead rails on which to sling hammocks, a bench or two on which to sit while eating meals or writing home and a locker containing among other things, cutlery, condiments and the like.
A mess is a part of the ship where the crew, divided into groups according to their functions, are fed, sleep and generally 'live'. There would be Seamen's Messes, usually two or three, Stokers Messes, a Communications Mess and so on. Sometimes, separate messes were provided for 'Watch Keepers', that is crewmembers who were required to work by watches while at sea as opposed to those which were not.
HMS Loch Arkaig was a frigate.
There I found that the ship was overcrowded to the extent that there was nowhere for me to sling my hammock and that I would have to sleep on the hard 'iron' deck - actually armoured steel - underneath the mess table. The mess was three decks down. The only comfort was that I would be sleeping on my hammock so the 'bed' was not totally rock hard.
Nevertheless, when I heard stories of National Servicemen having their own rooms in the RAF and comfortable purpose-built barracks in the army I envied them. I had never expected to have to sleep on the floor at any time in my life and I was not happy with the situation.
Neither was there a spare locker. So I lived out of my large kitbag and small attaché case. Not a good start.
The routine while in harbour
In harbour the routine was simple:
All mess members were awakened at 0600 and had a breakfast of bread, butter, jam and tea.
Soon afterwards they were required to carry out duties dictated by the appropriate Leading Hand or Yeoman and as far as we were concerned this amounted to one man manning the telephone in a large cupboard which went by the grandiose name of The Main Signals Office or MSO on the bridge of the ship while keeping an eye open for any signals that might come from other ships via other means. The remainder of the small v/s contingent was set to work washing flags and pennants, generally tidying up and keeping the various signal books etc., updated.
Keeping the mess itself clean and tidy was another job and each day two Cooks of the Day were appointed in a strict rota basis. They were responsible for preparing the main meal of the day - lunch - and clearing up afterwards. I quickly learned how to provide the makings of a good substantial meal for twelve or so hungry men.
The pace and depth of work in harbour was not great but at sea it was to change drastically.
The routine at sea
On my first Monday with HMS Loch Arkaig we 'Proceeded to sea' down the River Foyle.
At sea the mess was divided into 'watches'. As far as the visual signalmen were concerned everyone was required - after mess duties, cooking and the like had been satisfied - to be on the bridge of the ship. This usually meant a Leading Hand and two or three Ordinary Signalmen from 0800 to 1600 each and every day.
After 1600 the watch system was such that one of us Ordinary Signalmen would be on watch for four hours, then one another would take over, then the third, each for four hours. It was hardly worth sleeping before the watch in the middle of the night, and at 0400 in the morning dawn was only a short time away. So and it felt as if you had no sleep at all although a couple might be grabbed after your duty.
The ship was able to ride fairly heavy seas well but now and then we encountered a really heavy swell and the bows dipped and water came over the bridge, soaking everyone to the skin literally, and making for a rather miserable four hours.
I was getting better and better at my job as the time went on and was fairly happy with the situation.
Quite soon I had found a better place for sleeping just outside the Petty Officers' lavatory. As their nocturnal visits occurred fairly regularly my sleep was disturbed to say the least but it was better than sleeping on the iron deck. Fairly soon after having found this billet, one became vacant actually in the mess and this was comfort in the extreme. So I had my own billet, was an accepted member of the mess and the ship and was as content as I could expect to be.
A hammock as a comfortable place to sleep
I slept in a hammock during my complete time with HMS Loch Arkaig with just the exception of the first few days. Sleeping in a hammock is very comfortable once you get used to it and tailor it to your personal requirements.
Hammocks are customised for personal requirements by adjusting 'stretchers' at either end to spread the canvas of the hammock. A stretcher is a piece of wood approximately 18" by 2" by 1" with a V cut into each end. This piece of wood is lodged between the ratlines on a hammock at each end. Some people prefer a longer stretcher at the top and a shorter one at the bottom, others prefer a wide stretcher at both ends; some prefer just one stretcher and others no stretcher at all. To obtain personal preferences the length of the stretcher has to be cut.
All I had to do was to behave myself for the next few months and I would be back in Civvy Street.