“Life on Board for a Boy Was Pretty Hard”- Growing Up on a Battleship
Bert Ward finished training as a boy seaman in December 1939. He joined his first ship, HMS Revenge, after his Christmas leave. The battleship was assigned to convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic.
U-boats in those early days did not get far out into the Atlantic. The danger was (from) surface raiders as the sinking of the (British) armed merchant cruisers Rawalpindi and Jervis Bay illustrate. Those ships were armed with six-inch guns and stood no chance against the 11-inch and 8-inch guns of German warships. The routine (for Revenge) was to escort a convoy from Halifax (headed east) which was met by destroyers off Northern Ireland escorting an outward bound (headed west) convoy. Revenge then turned round and escorted that convoy to Halifax, tied alongside the jetty, and took on provisions and oiled. We would be in harbour 48 hours, maybe a bit longer, then off again. Usually two to three weeks at sea.
Revenge was one of the ships carrying Britain’s gold reserves to Halifax from Greenock. Security was tight. The boxes either contained four gold bars or bags of coins. Guess how (we) found that out! The gold arrived in Greenock harbour in railway box wagons. Marines were the guards. One officer checked the boxes, which were numbered, out of the wagon. An officer checked them going into a boat. An officer checked them going on board Revenge, another checked them being lowered into the bomb room, and another checked them arriving in the bomb room. The procedure was reversed in Halifax. 25.
The British gold shipment aboard Revenge was part of a £40 million payment to the United States for armaments, materials, and resources. Revenge took on 148 boxes that each held 130 pounds of gold. The trans-Atlantic voyage took about a week and the ship and gold arrived safely in mid-October 1939. Revenge repeated the process in January 1940 when she carried £10 million worth of gold from Plymouth to Halifax. In May, as the war continued to go badly for Britain and as fears of a German invasion mounted, another £40 million in gold was sent with the ship to Montreal, Canada for safe keeping. 26.
My cruising station and defence station as a boy was lookout on the ADP (Air Defence Position). The R Class had tripod foremasts on which, as in the case of Revenge, there was an open bridge. Above and abaft that was the ADP which was an open platform … If my memory serves me right there were eight lookouts on the ADP, port and starboard, sweeping all sectors with glasses. An officer and a petty officer were in charge. The view from the ADP was quite dramatic, especially in bad weather. With seas running high it was like mountains and valleys. For a boy, just turned 17, first ship, to be up there when Revenge seemed to hang on a mountain top, then start to run down the side of the mountain heading for the bottom of the Atlantic, and looking down at the skipper in his captain’s cap and duffel coat and other officers, not a bit concerned, and then the ship digging her bows into the wall of water on the other side of the valley, picking up and throwing it up over the bridge, was truly inspiring. When we were in the valley there were no other ships in sight. Then back on the top of the mountain with the convoy, or some of it in sight, we would hang for a moment, then hell for leather down the other side.
Dhobeying (laundry) and bathing on Revenge was in buckets or hand basins. Access to the bathrooms, which consisted of a row of hand basins, was down through watertight hatches which were only open for certain times of day. Sometimes the valves, whether through somebody’s carelessness or not I don’t know, allowed the sea into the bathrooms and flooded them … (in that case) you raised the hatch … and what you saw was the Atlantic. So it was move on to the next bathroom. The flooded bathroom would then be pumped out.
Another of Revenge’s idiosyncrasies was the lower deck’s heads which were right for’ard. The lavatories were two steps up from the deck, in cubicles with half doors so it was possible to see if they were occupied. They were flushed by pushing a large brass button. Unfortunately, sometimes the valve which allowed the contents of the pan to be sent out into the ocean failed and the Atlantic came in. We could tell by the water surrounding such rogues which ones to avoid. But if a valve had not previously failed there was no way of knowing. In that case the Atlantic came in and the matelot who was sitting there got a right slap in the face, so to speak.
The (boys’) mess decks were open … not the small compartmentalized messes of modern ships such as the KGV (King George V and 25 years newer) class. When I became an OD (ordinary seaman, next rank up from boy, first class), I moved into the top messdeck. Revenge was general messing which meant that we peeled the spuds but apart from that everything was done in the galley. We carried all meals from the galley to the mess. Everybody took a turn at cook of the day which meant collecting the food, dishing it out, and washing up after the meal. The washing up water and gash (food scraps) were carried out to the upper deck and sent down the gash chute. If a piece of cutlery had been left in the water it could be heard hitting the sides of the chute as it went down. That was where I learned the ditty: ‘Tinkle, tinkle little spoon; knife and fork will follow soon.’
Leading Seaman Telford, a decent man in one of the foc’sle messes had a weakness for rum … (which when issued) was poured into cups. Telford was known for always scrutinizing the cups to see which one he thought had the most in. So one day his mess mates filled one cup with vinegar, and they all waited for Telford to arrive. His eyes flickered over the cups and then he bit. There was an uproar, with everybody laughing their heads off and Telford fuming and threatening all sorts of mayhem. But he was a decent sort and nothing came of it. 27.
After France surrendered to Germany in June 1940, the Germans and a German controlled French government began to take control in that country and in its overseas colonies. The French Navy became divided as some ships stayed in French ports while others weighed anchor and steamed to British ports. Still others, already being at anchor in England at the time of their country’s surrender, stayed put. The British feared that the French ships at Devonport might side with the Axis so, in July, boarding parties from Revenge were sent to take them over. Ward remembered the incident.
I forget whether we were at Pompey (Portsmouth) or Devonport … but the old (French) battleship Paris was tied up astern of Revenge and the submarine Surcouf was tied up alongside her. In the early hours of one morning we went to action stations and sent boarding parties to take both ships. The sentries on Paris were taken by surprise. The first man down the ladder on the Surcouf was Leading Seaman Webb. He was shot and killed by a French officer. The British officer following Webb then killed the Frenchman.28.
By summer 1941 Revenge and a sister ship, Royal Sovereign, were sent to the Indian Ocean to serve as convoy escorts. Ward described his action station and some of his ponderings about what might become of him in the war.
My action station was in the B shell room (under B turret) just below the magazine. Every morning as dusk approached, the ship went to action stations. There we practiced until the order came down the voice pipe (for) second degree of readiness. Then watches would be set, I think we did an hour each in pairs, while the others slept. As dawn approached it was back to action stations and practicing … then cruising stations, breakfast, clean ship and quarters, (and) clean guns. Practice in a fifteen-inch turret meant practicing loading the guns. We could load a … gun in one minute … (which) meant getting a one ton shell and four quarter charges from the shell room and magazine up to the gun house to be rammed into the breech … In the shell room we slept on the shells with our caps or lifebelts for pillows. It was bloody cold … The captain of B shell room was Petty Officer Bing Bingham … the trunk was towards the after end of the shell room and the lights on the bulkheads were in that area. The result was that the farthest end of the shell room was in perpetual gloom.
After reverting to second degree, Bing would get his harmonica out and we would have a sing song. As sound carries under water we probably frightened (the Germans) off. The down side of that was when the escorts were dropping depth charges, it sounded like somebody hitting the hull with a giant hammer. We got used to it. Sometimes as I lay on the shells trying to get to sleep I used to wonder what would happen if we were torpedoed. Escape was impossible. Main hatches were clipped down and only escape hatches letting one man at a time through was open. I imagined the ship going down with lights on, and we would be trapped. One night I dreamed we were torpedoed. As the ship sank, she turned over an all the shells came tumbling out of the bins. So that was that problem solved.29.
George Aucott was another former boy seaman who remembered many details about his time as a battleship sailor. Aucott was born in 1923 in Birmingham, finished elementary school at 14, and had plans to go on with his education. When his family moved, he went to work instead. He became a grocer’s assistant. He was paid 8 shillings and 3 pence a week for a 65 to 70 hour week delivering groceries. His pocket money was one of the shillings which he would stretch out and do nicely with. The cinema cost two pence (tuppence) for the cheaper seats and four for the balcony. He once bought a camera at Woolworth’s for six pence and a roll of film for tuppence. A large bag of chips sold for one penny in the late 1930s. He and two of his friends from school eventually decided that they wanted to see the world and have something exciting to do. They joined the navy in 1939. They were sent to the boy’s establishment at HMS Ganges for training. Aucott’s two friends would not survive the war.
When his training was done Aucott was drafted to King George V (called KGV and pronounced ‘kay-gee-5’) just as she commissioned in October of that year. Aucott was put in the boy’s mess with some 200 other boys variously designated as boy seaman, boy signalman, or boy telegraphist. Two leading seamen, or ‘sea daddies’, were assigned as instructors and guardians to the boys of the mess. Aucott recalled,
Life on board for a boy was pretty hard. The ship itself, when we were at sea, was what we called a ‘wet ship’ … The boy’s mess was the most forward mess on the ship and the vents on the upper deck were not completely watertight and in a rough sea the water would shower down these vents and we’d … get showered though the ventilation system and … at night when you got out of your hammock you could be standing in several inches of water … My first job on board I was a mess man to the petty officers’ mess and you were responsible for keeping the mess clean and you would fetch their meals from the galley, serve them, wash up, and so forth. This carried on for about three months and then I asked for a transfer to somewhere else. I was (put) in the boy’s division of the foc’sle in the forward part of the ship … and there you were under the supervision of a petty officer or a chief petty officer for keeping the foc’sle part of the ship clean (which included) painting ship over the side … all the boys were given that job; it was a dirty job … and it wasn’t a very good job particularly in the winter time.30.
Aucott’s action station was in one of the 15-in shell rooms. His job was to attach a shell grab onto a shell so it could be lifted from storage to one of the loading trays before it was sent up the hoist to the turret. When he turned 18, Aucott earned his promotion to ordinary seaman and was moved out of the boy’s mess to a regular crew’s mess. After about 6 months, he passed his able seaman exam and went up to that rank from which he applied to be a torpedoman. In addition to tending to torpedoes, of which there were none on KGV, a torpedoman was responsible for shipboard electrical work. Aucott’s pay went from six shillings weekly as a boy seaman to 14 shillings as an ordinary seaman, 18 shillings as an able seaman, and 18 shillings and thruppence as a torpedoman. 31.
Among Torpedoman Aucott’s several duties was that of topside lookout. There were three lookouts per side of the ship. Each man had a designated zone to scan with his binoculars. They were not fully exposed to the elements on watch, but sat on stools within a tiny 10 foot by 3 foot shelter equipped with a porthole. They were to look for surface ships, aircraft, telltale signs of submarines, and even mines. In the Arctic waters where KGV had been sent in late 1941, wind and spray came through so heavily that the lookouts were constantly wiping their binoculars which they could never really get clean. Spotting anything as small as a floating mine or a periscope poking out of the water was virtually impossible. The bitter cold prevented any of the lookouts from falling asleep, but a chief petty officer of the watch would circulate around to check, anyway. Aucott was once reported for having fallen asleep on watch and, despite his vehement denial of it, he was punished with 14 days of defaulters. Whenever he was otherwise off duty during those 14 days, he would be assigned to any of the abundant dirty jobs that constantly needed to be done throughout the ship. Aucott’s word, as a mere torpedoman, could never have stood against that of a chief. 32.
During World War II, 534 boy seamen were killed in action, and a further 24 died of other causes.