The Royal Navy’s Boy Seamen of World War II
Throughout Britain’s history, the size and reach of the Royal Navy levied heavy demands for secure and easy access to legions of healthy young men. The infamous press gangs of sailing ship days that roamed the streets of England’s ports or preyed upon poorly defended ships at sea helped fill the ranks to some extent. Reluctant men or boys, however, were not always willing or able to perform to the standards of service called for aboard His Majesty’s ships.
The Marine Society, founded in 1756, was one of the very the first organizations that sought to support the Royal Navy’s manpower needs with sailors who were not coerced into service, but who had freely undergone training to become professional seamen. The Society recruited youngsters whom it felt could benefit from learning skills that could help them to escape unemployment, poverty, homelessness, or other less than desirable circumstances so often found ashore. Many of the day’s disadvantaged youth, teenagers and even pre-teens, could be found in the seedier areas of town where they often fell into a culture of thievery, cheating, drunkenness, depravity, and lawlessness. The Society combed such districts for candidates to whom it could offer training for work aboard the nation’s merchant or naval ships and the opportunity for a better life. 1.
In the early decades of the twentieth century a boy became eligible to enter naval service as a trainee at the age of 15 years and three months. The typical volunteer of that era would go to a recruiter and present signed parental consent for him to join the Navy. The youngster would then sit for an initial interview that was to be followed by a general written exam and a physical exam. If deemed qualified, he would be accepted and sent home to await further instructions. Shortly afterwards he would be mailed a rail ticket along with specific instructions on where to report for the commencement of his naval career. In the years leading up to World War II Navy maintained two shore establishments for the training of boys: HMS Ganges located near Shotley on the Suffolk coast, and HMS St, Vincent in Gosport. During the war itself the boys were all relocated to the Isle of Man for their training as a measure of safety from Nazi air raids. 2.
Every trainee was expected to yield to strict discipline and to master sailing, navigation, small boat handling, knots and splices, rowing, rifle drill, signals, gunnery, nautical rules of the road, sewing and mending, and any other skill deemed appropriate for life in the Navy. The youngsters trained for about a year as second class boy seamen. At the end of their training they were assigned to the fleet as first class boy seamen. Upon continued satisfactory their obligatory 12 year term of enlistment would begin. Any time served prior to reaching 18 did not count towards the 12 year enlistment, nor did it count towards any future pension.
“You’re In the Navy Now”- The First Weeks
During the wartime era many boy volunteers such as Trevor Tipping found themselves under-employed if employed at all, bored, and eager for adventure. Back when the school leaving age was 14 Tipping, went straight to work after his elementary schooling. His father had suffered a work-related disability and Tipping wanted to help provide for his family. He started as an apprentice to a painter and decorator. Living in a mining area he saw that most of his friends had gone to the mines where they were making more than double what his own wages were. He applied to a mine where he worked for a year. During a period of heavy layoffs Tipping persuaded his parents to consent to his joining up. He was 16.
Tipping recalled that his initial interview was not particularly demanding. The recruiters simply wanted to know about his background, why he was interested in the Navy, and if there was any particular branch in which he was interested. Since he had been a boy scout and had learned a little about signaling, he indicated that he would like to be in signals.The teenager recalled that the written exam which included arithmetic, reading, and spelling was not difficult. His basic schooling had more than adequately prepared him to pass it. He thought that it might have been just the Navy’s way of ensuring that “you weren’t stupid before putting you any further.” 3.
Tipping did not go to Ganges or St Vincent, but was enlisted as a special service boy in a seven and five program. After training and turning 18, he would be obliged to seven years of active service followed by five years in reserve status. A month after passing his exams, Tipping was sent by rail to Sheerness where he would train at one of the smaller and lesser known establishments, HMS Wildfire.4. His first meal was a plentiful serving of sheep’s heart which he enjoyed. He thought of it as a good omen for the days ahead.
On 09 January 1939 began for fifteen year old Bill Cotton at home when he was shaken awake at 5:00 AM. It would be just the first of many an early wakeup call to come. Cotton recalled his route to Shotley and HMS Ganges.
‘Come on Bill, time to wake up. Uncle Fred will be here soon.’ Uncle Fred was taking me to the station to catch the 6:00 AM to Derby. It was there that we had to muster en route to Shotley in Suffolk. Train to London, trains to Harwich, ferry to Shotley. HMS Ganges was … a harsh place to be when you’re only 15 and have never been away from home before. It seemed to be alive with RPOs (Crushers, as Regulating Petty Officers were called). Everyone seemed to be shouting at once. ‘You’re in the Navy now, and don’t forget it. And don’t ever let me catch any of you smoking.’ 5.
Roland Clark, who would serve aboard small combatant craft during the war, remembered being delivered to the Navy by a train that stopped at every station along the route. The December night was a cold one. As he and the boys who had travelled with him stepped off the train at Shotley, young Clark realized by the shouts hurled his way that things had forever changed.
‘You’re late. The bus has been waiting here an hour,’ was the welcome from the Draft Petty Officer. ‘Fall in outside the station in some semblance of order with your baggage, and in the future, don’t forget … The Royal Navy always keeps to time … (now) Get a move on, it’s the 28th December … our duty people have had to forego their Christmas leave to pull you lot in!’ 6.
The new arrivals were loaded aboard Royal Navy trucks and driven through empty nighttime streets and then along darkened country roads. They sat on wooden slats and used arms and legs to brace themselves against the jostle and bump as they wound their way towards Ganges. Once the trucks passed through the gates and stopped, the boys were ordered off and hustled, “chop chop,” into a barracks room. “Chop chop,” the demand to hurry, would be the only way in which they were expected to get things done in the Navy. Or else. The barracks room into which they were half marched and half herded was unfurnished except for two rows of iron beds. Each bed bore a thin canvas covered mattress, a pillow, and three folded blankets. Once they had dropped the possessions with which they had arrived onto a bunk, they were shouted at to, ‘Get fell in outside! Chop chop!’ 7.
The next order of business would be the issue of their kit as described by David Phillopson, a post-war trainee at HMS Ganges. The trainees were taken to the Clothing Store by a man who had introduced himself as, “Mr. Barnes, Gunner, Royal Navy.”
‘Come along, you lucky lads,’ he cajoled us, ‘don’t hang back, it’s all free! Right. When I sing out an item of kit, make sure you get it. One kitbag …’
Lined up along a narrow wooden counter that ran the length of the room, the boys began to receive their kit. Following Gunner Barnes’ call for “one kitbag,” each boy had a large tube of heavy white canvas dumped before him. This was rapidly followed by the contents destined for the bag:
‘Handkerchiefs, blue bundle, two … Square, black silk, two … Collars, blue jean, two … Hatbox, black japanned, one … Jumper, blue serge, number three, men dressed as seamen, one … Trousers, ditto, pair, one.’ 8
Once issued with all they were to receive, the boys were marched back to the dormitory where they were instructed to dump their kit by their beds and to turn in.They seemingly had only just shut their eyes before lights glared and a harsh, loud voice bellowed, “Now, wakey, wakey; up you get! Ten minutes to wash and fall in outside!” 9.
So it would go for the next five weeks as the boys were oriented and indoctrinated to the ways of the Royal Navy. After these five weeks, they would be promoted to the instructional class in which they would train for another eight months in preparation for their ultimate destiny of sea duty with the fleet.
One of the earliest lessons and chores assigned to the new trainees, or “nozzers,” involved the issue of a “housewife.” The word was roughly pronounced as “ussiff” and it was a sewing kit. Every piece of gear and clothing issued was to be sewn with the owner’s name. The boys would be shown just once how to care for, stow, and dress in each of the items of clothing contained in their kit. They would get the standard close-shaven haircut, be deloused, and have all their personal belongings boxed up and sent home. They would then be examined by the dentist and the doctor, take the swimming test, and begin to master the arts of marching and drill. Non-swimmers, which included anyone who could not manage four lengths of the pool and five minutes of treading water all while clothed, would receive extra instruction early each morning and sometimes in lieu of leave until they could properly swim.
The nozzers were issued with a list of rules titled, “Rules for the Guidance of Boys.” Several examples of the many rules were:
Rule 7: Should a boy receive any Money, Stamps or a Money Order from his friends or wish to save his Pocket Money, he is at once to take it to the Regulating Office. He is never to retain more than Two Shillings and Sixpence in his possession.
Rule 15: Fighting, Quarrelling, Gambling, Tattooing, and the use of Bad Language are strictly forbidden; and as nearly all the punishments in a Man-of-War arise from Drinking, Boys are strongly advised to avoid the use of Intoxicating Liquors.10.
Smoking, against which the boys were well warned from the very beginning, was severely punished, but practiced nonetheless. Those who could not resist were liable to pay a stiff price in more ways than one. According to former nozzer Bill Cotton, a boy who did not smoke could purchase a packet of cigarettes for 11-1/2 pence and then turn around and sell them singly to his fellow trainees for 2 pence each. The toilets were among the favorite places for the boys to sneak a smoke. Lookouts posted at the windows would sing out, “Lobs a jock” whenever a sentry came near. 11. There were other favored places in which to smoke. Ernest Kerridge, who trained at Ganges from 1933 – 1934 and would go on to serve in battlecruiser Renown and aircraft carriers Glorious and Ark Royal, remembered a few of them,
The only recreation you had, on a Sunday afternoon, you were allowed out of the camp just to go for a long walk around the country lanes. I think that’s when these lads who needed a smoke were able to get their tobacco … probably from some friend outside … and anyone caught them, of course, they were in trouble … and I think during the cinema shows … and it was (in) a terrific great gymnasium … it could hold 2,000 (people) … and while the film was on you could look around and see children, or kids, puffing away for a quiet smoke; but if they were caught, they were really in for it. 12.
Frederick Jewett who was at Ganges from 1939 – 1940 remembered the penalties for being caught smoking,
Smoking in the Navy, as a boy, was ABSOLUTELY taboo. The first time you were caught you got seven day’s jankers, which meant running around the parade ground and all the rest of it. Second time you were caught, you got 14 days. And the third time, you got six cuts over your buttocks with the cane; and it was done very formally. You’ve got a duck suit (light canvas uniform trousers) on and you go down to the gym and you’re stretched over the vaulting horse and there’s this great big ‘crusher,’ he’s got the stick, and the doctor’s standing there and he whacks it down there. Now six doesn’t sound much, but when they’re in the same place, oh, boy! 13.
Jewett claimed that any boy caught smoking a fourth time would be dishonorably discharged. Ernest Kerridge, who trained at HMS Ganges some five years before Jewett, remembered things slightly differently. Kerridge stated that the first offense, even if it were being caught with just a grain of tobacco anywhere on his person, earned a boy lashes, or cuts, with a cane. A boy got six cuts for the first offense, the second offense resulted in 12 cuts, and the third would mean 24 cuts and immediate discharge. Both veterans stated that they witnessed canings as well as dismissals.
“It Would Have Been Unthinkable to Complain to Your Parents”– Drill and Discipline
On the grounds of Ganges, and easily within sight from within or outside the establishment, was the towering ship’s mast. The boys, introduced to it during their first five weeks at Ganges, were initially allowed to acclimate themselves by just gradually climbing to increasingly higher levels. Before finishing their training, however, all were required to climb it to the height of the top gallant mast some 130 feet above ground. Some of the more intrepid boys would climb to the button, a wooden disc 18 inches in diameter at the very top, and sit or stand on it. There were some who would boldly invert themselves to stand on their heads. Frederick Jewett described going over the mast,
There’s six ratlines; places to go up the mast and you line up in front of the mast in sixes … and they would have six of you standing there and the (instructors) there (would) say, ‘close up to the rigging! … man the rigging!’ and you would man the rigging and go (up) four or five ratlines, the things – the bits of rope — that go across, and you stayed there … and you’d wait for the order, ‘way aloft!’ … and when you got the order ‘way aloft’ it was a race to get up there … and you couldn’t go through (the ‘lubber’s hole;’ a safer way to the top yard which was the second of the three yards of the mast) to the devil’s elbow where the platform goes out about six or seven feet at least – probably more – so you’ve got to use your arms and hang mid-air and go hand over hand with your arms to get to the next set of rigging and then you go right over the mast. You didn’t, at that time, have to go over the button – the top of the mast proper – you had to go right to the top gallant mast (just below the highest of the three yards), go over and down the other side. Now, what they always used to do, which was a bit rough, the last man used to get a whack – it didn’t hurt very much – with what they called a stonnachie … it was a piece of a rope’s end and they used to belt you across the backside with it 14. It didn’t worry you very much … you didn’t (send) any letters home (about it) … it would have been (unthinkable) to complain to your parents, good God! 15.
In general, a day began with the call of, “heave ho, heave ho; lash up and stow,” at a quarter past six (45 minutes later on Sundays).The call referred to hammocks, which the boys would not use until they were assigned to a ship in the fleet. The trainees would wash up, have a quick snack of biscuit and cocoa, turn to and “clean ship” (their quarters), and dress in the rig (uniform) of the day after breakfast. They would then stand inspection and march to morning assembly that was called Divisions. Any faults found during inspection would be punished with extra duty. The faults needed to be fully corrected by stand easy, the morning break. Once Divisions, which included prayer and hymns was complete, the boys would march off to the Marine Band playing “Heart of Oak,” the official march of the Royal Navy. Classwork followed. Dinner came at about noon. Afternoon sports were next. A tiny meal of bread and jam was provided at four o’clock for tea. The actual tea was served in a tiny metal cup. The boys changed into night clothing a half hour later. They then proceeded to Evening Quarters which was a muster similar to the earlier Divisions. Evening Quarters was followed by a march to the mast for the daily lowering of the colors. Next was an hour and a half of classes, supper, free time, and the call of “Boys clean teeth and turn in” at a quarter past nine. The day would end with the call of “Pipe down, Lights out” 15 minutes afterwards. 16.
Tommy Cockram, whose father died when he was 12, left school at 14. He went to work to help support his mother and siblings. Influenced by an uncle’s seemingly adventuresome and colorful life as a seaman with the Cunard Line, he joined the Navy. Cockram would serve aboard the battlecruiser Renown in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. He would also serve in the Pacific aboard a light cruiser. He spoke about some of the instruction he received as a boy second class trainee at Ganges in 1939.
I took to foot drill alright, (but) the first thing that got me on the parade ground was fixing bayonets. It took me a session or two before I got the hang of that. All the other drill was alright… at first you don’t see the point but you do it because (it) gives you discipline.
Seamanship classes (included) bends and hitches; knots and splices … being a seaman … that’s a part of your job … you learned to splice the wire and the rope … with the wire splicing, the main thing about it was, the preparation. Before you start a splice, you put a whipping around each end of the wire to keep it from fraying … Nowadays you don’t have to splice wire; I’ve seen it on these modern ships. Once you got the hang of it … at first it was tricky … your hands as a boy; you’re not as strong as later on in life.
You learned the compass and how to steer the ship; the telegraph (for communication to and from the engine room), and all. Also the rules of the road … it was like poetry they taught you:
‘When both lights you see ahead, starboard wheel and show your red.’
What that means is, if there’s two ships coming together towards each other and you’re on the wheel, if you turn your wheel to starboard, which is right, and he does the same on the other ship. You’ll both miss each other.
‘If in danger, no room to turn, ease her; stop her; go astern.’
What that means is you ease the ship down, then you stop her, and to bring her to a stop properly go astern with both engines; that brings a ship to a stop.
‘If in danger or in doubt; always keep a good look out.’ 17.
The boys generally enjoyed gunnery as it usually involved a good amount of hands on learning. At the time of the war and immediately after it, they would train on a four-inch gun mount of the type that was ubiquitous aboard Royal Navy ships. Each student would take a turn at practicing as gun captain, layer, trainer, and ammunition handlers. When manually operated, as it often was, the gun and its ammunition – even when it consisted only of practice rounds – were quite heavy and cumbersome for boys of 15 and 16. The instructors, apparently ever eager to test the boys’ mettle, would complicate matters by kicking and tossing shells and shell casings all around while screaming and yelling at their charges to hurry and to not make any mistakes. 18.
Besides serving its designed practical purpose small arms training was geared to instill a martial spirit in the boys. If nothing else it provided them with an outlet for some of their excess energy. Cockram described his time with hand held weapons,
(There was also) rifle shooting, bayonets, etcetera. We used to do bayonet fighting … that was very good, that. You’d have dummies and you’d have trenches and you’d jump down in the trench and they used to teach you to put your foot on it (the dummy, or the bayonet victim) to pull it (the bayonet) out … (then) when you done revolver firing it’s different than you see now, you see them holding the revolver with two hands … the way we were taught, you’d have the revolver in (one) hand and you’d bring it down … (and) the reason we brought it down was that when you fired it, it used to jump up … and we also done hand grenades. You’d have the pin in and they used to tell you ‘bring it to the back of your head and throw it overhand,’ just like bowling with a cricket ball. 19.
The still growing and hard-working trainees were a perpetually ravenous lot, and the character of some of the food at Ganges is described by Frederick Jewett,
For breakfast (it was) usually an egg – a hard-boiled egg and bread (and) porridge; always porridge … sometimes (we would get) a fried egg; it usually depended on who the cook was. Sometimes there was a bit of bacon – I say “bacon” – but you ate it because you were so damned hungry … (for dinner) sometimes you’d get soup … a soup of the day sort of thing … and there was an awful lot of mince; we got a tremendous amount of mince … apples … potatoes … greens … things like that. It was pretty healthy stuff … The best thing they ever made – I’ve never experienced anything to beat it since I’ve left Shotley – was their steamed pudding; it was absolutely fantastic! You used to get figgy duff; it was plum duff and custard; it was out of this world! 20.
“It Was Agony on Your Feet”- Getting Ready for Sea Duty
Being yelled at, marching or running, hard work, strict rules, and harsh discipline were relieved, if just briefly, on Wednesdays. Frederick Jewett remembered Wednesday as payday during his time at Shotley. The boys received a shilling each and had the remainder of the afternoon off for “make and mend” which generally meant free time.
To collect your wages in the Navy you go in front of a table and the officers there and you ‘off cap’ and you put your cap (on the table) and they put a shilling on your cap and you turned right, you’d take the money and ‘on cap’ … (and) if you hadn’t had a haircut, which you had to pay for yourself, by the way … there’s the Master-at-Arms waiting there (and he’d point you out), ‘haircut! … haircut! … haircut!’ and anybody who hadn’t had a haircut … would be just about shaved … you know.
Now what do you do? We got a shilling. Postage home was three ha’pence … and you had to write home to Mum and Dad, so you had to (spend that). A bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk was tuppence, one of these two ounce bars, you know … a ‘Charlie’ which you could get at the canteen … a sort of a duff between two pieces of pastry … in a square, they used to cost a penny. The other thing that cost a penny … was a toffee bar that (came) in eight slabs … as soon as you got anything, you’d put it in your jumper and the kids used to go up on the mast and sit up there to eat their stuff so nobody would bother them … you had a lovely view. 21.
At the end of slightly less than a full year at their training establishments, all the boys who scored well enough on their examinations, and most did, would pass on. They would then go on to a ship aboard which they would finish their training. Charles Embury, who saw wartime service aboard the cruiser HMS Despatch, recalled some of his shipboard experiences when he trained as a boy seaman first class aboard the aged World War I era cruiser HMS Dunedin in 1938.
Boys were not permitted to wear their boots between 6.30 am and 9.00 am in the morning. After lashing and stowing your hammock, a hot cup of Kye, very strong greasy cocoa, then to the Upper Deck to scrub decks. Seamen wearing sea boots hosed down the decks with sea water, then scattered sand, then we boys scrubbed the deck with ‘Holy Stone.’ This was followed by drying down by the use of squeegees. During the winter months it was sure agony on your feet.
Pay day, six shillings per fortnight. The balance of your pay was kept for you until you reached the age of 18. Any requirement for clothes from the ‘Slop Chest’ was deducted from this money … With all the exercise and fresh air, boys were always hungry. Payday for me was a tin of pineapple chunks, 4-1/2d (pence), and (a) tin of cream (for) 1-1/2d. You still had so many hours of schooling (there was a … school master) … (that) I actually passed for a school certificate on the Dunedin and was confirmed by the Bishop of Portsmouth. Schooling continued until you became an ordinary seaman.
Vendors were permitted on the mess decks during the dog watches 22. (and) two (that) I remember were (the) one selling boot laces and the other selling Paragolic Lozenges, flat (and) gray in color, sold in paper twists, for coughs and colds.
Once a fortnight boys of the Duty Watch were marched through Portsmouth to ‘Aggie Weston’s’, a Temperance Society (Royal Sailors’ Rests). 23. On arrival you were given a cup of cocoa and rock cakes, then to the cinema to watch a film; usually a Western. This was followed by a rather long lecture on the sins of ‘Drinking Alcohol,’ given by men in suits, wearing three or four medals, all for abstinence. At the end of the lecture you were asked to sign a pledge (a small price to pay for the cakes and film!).
(One) responsibility of the boys was to recover the torpedoes fired in practice by the Fleet Air Arm Swordfish (torpedo planes) at HMS Dunedin. (We had) to man the whaler; a 27 foot clinker (of a) five-oared sea boat. The torpedo floated upright at the end of its run, a calcium flare showed its presence, we hooked it to the whaler and towed it back to the ship under the ship’s Torpedo Hoist (which) hoisted it aboard.
Once in a while we were taught gun drill, the four-inch anti-aircraft gun … we boys had to stand and watch as the seamen gunners manned the gun and fired it for real, no anti-flash gear in those days, or even cotton wool for your ears. I still remember the Gunner’s Mate warning us when we heard the fire bell ring … (because) this is when the Captain of the Gun actually fired … to open your mouth wide to absorb the shock. This four-inch gun was one of the loudest in the Royal Navy (and) quite a shock to us novices. 24.
With their training done, the boys were soon drafted to a ship, usually larger than a destroyer, and sent to sea.They would be quartered in a mess deck separate from those of the general crew and would be assigned a senior petty officer to watch over them. The main responsibilities of the seasoned sailors, or ‘sea daddies,’ were to counsel and advise their young charges as well as to protect boys from any undue bad influence of the older crewmen. In order to provide them with the broadest spectrum of experience and skills, boys would be moved around from department to department and duty to duty aboard their ships.
As the years passed, some boys would be killed and others would leave the service. A good many would stay on to become senior petty officers and chiefs – the very type of men that make a navy a navy. Some would even go on to careers with commissions. A few would rise to admiral’s rank. Through the years, some former boy seamen would swear that their days at Ganges, St. Vincent, or other training establishments were times of unnecessary harshness, abuse, or barbarism. Some who believed this would remain forever bitter towards the Navy and the types of men who ran it or served in it. There were, however, those who blessed the day, although they would never have thought to do so as ‘nozzers’, on which they elected to take the King’s shilling. Being punched in the face for missing a stitch while sewing one’s name on a piece of kit, or being given hours of extra duty while being denied a week’s worth of suppers for leaving a fingerprint on an otherwise immaculately polished piece of equipment seemed unjust or cruel at the time. Those who bore through such treatment, however, would later testify that it ultimately helped them become better men. In more than a few cases they claimed that it helped save their lives during the war. Learning how to tolerate and overcome screaming instructors viciously lashing out with stonnachies was what got a boy to overcome fire, flood, pain, and gore aboard fighting ships at war as a man.
“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. A memorial plaque was installed in the Portsmouth Cathedral and was unveiled in March, 2012. The plaque reads as follows: 33.
1939 – 1945 534 Royal Navy Boy Seamen Aged 16 & 17 Years Old Killed by Enemy Action in World War II Serving Their King and Country in 80 Warships “We Will Remember Them”