Created | Updated Nov 26, 2003
I suppose it's because I have so much time on my hands these days, that all these memories come flooding back to me.
It was a bitterly cold November morning in 1970 in Portland harbour, the wind could cut right through you. The decks of our frigate were white with frost, which reflected the faint rays of the early morning sun, as it tried to break through. However it was not long before the clouds came over and darkened any hope of daylight. Some of the ratings had already arrived on the upper decks to have a smoke before falling in for the Church parade only to be sent down below by the quarter master for not being correctly dressed in 'the rig of the day1' as per standing daily orders. They had obviously assumed with the cold weather that it would sea jerseys and full coats, but they were wrong. Our skipper, being forever the humanitarian that he was, had made it white fronts without coats. And just to finish off the mood he had cancelled the transport which had been arranged to drive us up to the war memorial on top of the cliff, and told the officer of the day to march us up there!
The memorial itself was not in the actual town of Portland, it was perched way up on top of one of the surrounding hills, about three miles away! We now knew the reason for the early morning muster time on Armistice Sunday; we were going to be marching up the hill. There was a bit of confusion as some of the late comers were sent down below to change by the Quarter master, and we could hear the dulcet tones of our Chief GI2 as he bellowed out his abuse to them with regards to their parentage! The rest of us, meanwhile, huddled together in a bid to shelter from the biting wind, and we all shivered in our summer uniforms, with out coats. We tried desperately to have a last minute smoke, but the wind just blew every hint of a flame out.
'Out pipes3...' came the scream from the Chief GI... 'and get fell in - three ranks - at the double!'
The Chief GI was in his element, as he marched up and down the ranks of frozen sailors and gleefully promised us that we would all soon be warm as we doubled4 up the road. There were a few murmurs of discontent from the ranks, but this was soon put down as it always was in the RN by punishing everyone. 'Double March!' came the order and all you could hear was the sound of pounding feet in unison, and the sound of eighty men trying desperately to breathe in the frozen air. We must have looked like a steam train coming to some of the surprised locals as we doubled past. Not that they were surprised to seeing sailors doing daft things - after all, this was Portland, the place where they make and break crews and ships. It was probably that they saw us all wearing summer clothing on such a winters day.
After what seemed like an eternity, he slowed us down to a march, all be it on the only piece of level ground between the dockyard and the memorial, but at least it was a break. The steam from our sweating bodies along with our exhaled breaths looked like a steam engine as we marched the last mile to the memorial. Upon our early arrival, the order was given to fall out and have a five minute burn5 which some of us just about did before the others arrived. As soon as he heard the trucks coming, the Chief GI bellowed out the order to 'out pipes and fall in'. There we were all stood to attention as we watched the Army and RAF boys all climb out of their trucks wearing winter coats and jerseys.
Then we were stood to attention all through the service, which seemed to last forever. Some of my mates started to sway in the wind, to which a whispered voice would say 'For Gods sake fall forward' as the drop from the cliff edge, where the memorial was, to the sea was around eight hundred feet! 'Pinch your toes, keep standing'; all these whispers were spreading round us as more and more began to sway. Apart from the shame of actually fainting on parade, which was bad enough, the thought of dealing with a disgruntled Chief GI was a lot worse! So they somehow managed to stay upright, all be it with help from those on either side of them.
The fact that it was such an early parade call and that a lot of us had been ashore the night before, as that had been our first night shore leave in eight weeks due to the 'work up6' meant that a lot of us had not eaten, and were indeed hung-over. This fact was ignored by our Chief GI, as he carried on with his parade duties, and kept us all at attention until the trucks with the other services had pulled away.
The order to 'right turn' came as soon as the last truck was out of sight - but at least this time we were going down hill. It actually took a lot of effort to move, as we were frozen to the spot, as the saying goes. Then out-of-the-blue, just as we were marching through the town of Portland, the order came to 'halt, right turn and fall out!' We were all totally surprised and, just as we were trying to figure out his motives, we saw the British Legion Club straight in front of us. We all, of course, headed straight for it and, indeed, were made more than welcome by the locals. This was due to the fact that nearly everyone who lives there has Navy connections.
What followed was the best Remembrance Day of my life; the feeling of belonging and brotherhood just smothered me. A lot of comments were made as to our uniform. This was highlighted by an old pensioner who said that he was proud to see that the RN still held the same strict, tough rules that they had even when he was in. After all, today was the day when we remember all the sacrifices made by him and thousands others like him who gave their lives for our freedom. Who were we to complain about feeling a bit cold. To this day, I can't remember how I got back on board. But I'm sure it was the warmth of their friendship, along with the brandy, that sent me back on board with a warm glow inside - I never even noticed the cold weather.