Off for a Life on the Ocean Waves
Whooooosh! I was blown straight across the compartment, crashing into prostrate bodies as scalding liquid blinded me. A woman's scream was cut short as my knee connected with her jaw resulting in a sickening crack and her mouth snapped shut. The air was filled with a terrifying roar, punctuated with crashes and bangs.
'Uhm, sorry about that. Er, excuse me. Sorry, sorry.'
I had just learned one of life's important little lessons. Rolling down the window in the door of a high speed train and sitting on the edge is not a good idea. The train was crammed full of passengers, with not a seat to be found, so it had seemed to be a good idea at the time to sit with my bum perched precariously as I sipped strong black coffee to counter the lingering effects of the previous night's party. But when a train passed in the opposite direction, the effect on me and those unfortunate enough not to get out of my way was alarming. The effect on my trousers was catastrophic!
I was 16 and embarking on the greatest adventure of my life so far, joining the Royal Navy. Living in a small Scottish port, it had always been my dream to go to sea. My house overlooked the Forth Estuary and from an early age I had watched the ships pass. From mighty aircraft carriers to tramp steamers, all seemed to offer the promise of strange destinations and more exotic surroundings than dreary old Methil. Carbone Carbasque, or By Coal or Sea is the town's motto; but Prince Philip was probably closer to the mark when he called it 'That bloody awful place', after being briefly stationed there in WWII.
In 1982 I was a paper boy whilst the Falklands War was being fought. Throughout the conflict, my deliveries were perhaps a little tardy as I avidly devoured the news from the front. I wasn't as interested in what the army were doing as much as I was in spotting ships that I recognised as having steamed past my bedroom window. Whenever I saw a name I didn't know, I dug out my copy of 'Ships of the Royal Navy', which some kindly soul at the Admiralty had sent me when I first filled in a newspaper recruitment ad. I had been nine at the time. This all stood me in good stead when I found myself sat opposite a Chief Petty Officer in the Dundee recruiting office a year later.
'So son,' the CPO asked, 'Did you see anything about the Falklands on the television last year?'
'Er, yes. Yes I did.'
'Do you remember the names of any of the ships?'
'Well, there was Hermes, Invincible, Intrepid, Fearless, Bristol, Sheffield, Glasgow, Coventry, Exeter, Glamorgan, Antrim, Brilliant and Broadsword...'
'Aha! You were paying attention then?'
Slightly irritated at being stopped mid-flow, I said; 'And then there were the Type 21's, Avenger, Ambuscade, Arrow...'
'Okay son, okay. Well done. I doubt if I could have named so many.'
'But I'm not finished.' I said indignantly.
'There were the Leanders, the RFAs, the merchant ships...'
'Very good son, very good. Now if you could ask your dad to come in and we'll just sign some forms.'
My father was keen for me to join up, my mother less so. There had always been someone from each generation of my father's family in the armed forces. My mother didn't see that as a good omen given that my Great, Great Granddad had died of cholera in the Boer War. My Great Granddad had lost an arm in WWI. My Granddad died on HMS Hood in 1941 and my Uncle had been rendered partially deaf by an IRA mortar attack in Antrim in 1973. My teachers at school were particularly disappointed, as I had been marked as university material in the days when very few working class kids went to university. But I was determined I was going to sea.
In the weeks leading up to my September enlistment, there was so much to do. My long time girlfriend saved us both the anguish of letter writing by dumping me and going off with Fat Alex, the son of an Amusement Arcade owner. Obviously the appeal of a life of gambling and avarice, and the bright lights of Leven's Pleasure Palace outweighed the sailor's uniform.
I had my first trip to a barbers. My mum always cut my hair but it was decided that Naval standards may require a professional approach. That proved to be a total waste of £1.50, as events were later to prove.
I also had to have my medical and run an assault course at a Royal Marine base in Arbroath. This had been worrying me as, although I was pretty fit through playing rugby every week for my school and a County team, when I was 12 I had been diagnosed as having flat feet. The Doctor had advised me to practise picking up pencils with my toes but, seeing as how my feet didn't hurt, I hadn't practised at all. But for a month before my medical I was picking everything I could up with my toes at every opportunity. Pens, lighters, tv remotes, kittens; nothing escaped my prehensile grasp. I needn't have worried as I sailed through the physical without any problems. Next on the list was getting new clothes.
For years, new clothes had meant a visit to the Wonder Store, something of an institution in Methil. It was a huge, sprawling department store that spread over half a dozen sites throughout the town, selling everything from paint to perfume and socks to sinks. They also sold school uniforms, and every August saw the ritual of young boys being dragged around the aisles, forced to stand sulkily in ill fitting blazers and squeeze their feet into 'Scuff Proof' shoes. Ha! There was a challenge!
But this time it was decided I was being taken to Burtons, in the big town of Kirkcaldy seven miles away. My father led me in and with all the largesse of someone with a £100 limit on his new store card said: 'Choose whatever you want son'. That was a mistake. I am what may be called aesthetically challenged. Whatever possessed me to choose lime green trousers and a pale lemon shirt I'll never know! Maybe I was giddy with the excitement of actually being able to choose clothes that were neither black or white.
Two weeks later, squashed against the door of a lavatory on a crowded British Rail train, I realised my folly. The coffee had made surprisingly large and amazingly brown stains all over my trousers. I used the sleeve of my shirt to try and spread out the stain, but it ended up looking like some kind of effeminate camouflage for a gay nightclub.
Eight hours later, I stepped off the train in Plymouth to be greeted by an exceedingly shouty Petty Officer, who marshalled all the new recruits into order. We were hustled onto mini buses and taken to the Torpoint Ferry – an unlikely contraption that drags itself between Plymouth and Torpoint by chains. I joined two other bizarrely dressed boys, whom I rightly assumed were recruits, near the bows and we looked out at the Navy ships berthed in the harbour.
'Snot bad,' said one, a cocky Glaswegian from Barrhead, 'Two minutes in the Navy and we're at sea already!'
By the end of the fifteen minute crossing, we had all sworn to be lifetime chums and to help each other through the training... I never saw them again. One got homesick, and went home a few weeks later. The other failed an exam two days into training and was transferred to the Seaman branch, or 'Spunkies' as I learned they were called.
We had joined as Artificer Apprentices, or technicians. This meant a different uniform, more academic training and, my heart sank when they told us, at least four years before a sea-going draft. There were two hundred and twenty boys loosely lined up in a quadrangle in HMS Raleigh.
'20,000 applications and they let you shower of mummy's boys in!'
The angry looking guy with the stick didn't seem too impressed. I learned he was a Fleet Chief, the highest non-commissioned rating in the Navy, similar to a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Army. He was responsible primarily for discipline and the maintenance of standards. He and I got to know each other well over the next three months. We were split up into Divisions of twenty two and a Petty Officer allocated to each took us up to our new quarters.
'My name is Pommy Thomas.' said the rather short, but friendly rating as he delivered his welcome aboard speech.
'I am the youngest Petty Officer Mechanic in the Royal Navy and for my sins I've been given you lot to look after.'
Over the next three months PO Thomas was to be our agony aunt, confidant, disciplinarian and mate.
First stop was the Medical Section where, despite the fact we wouldn't be leaving Britain for four years, we were inoculated for what seemed to be an endless list of horrible sounding afflictions like Typhoid and Yellow Fever. Waiting in line outside the Nurse's station to be injected, Tommy, the boy in front of me, was the picture of nonchalance. He turned to regale us of his prowess in the boxing ring and how he was a UK champion. Whilst he was talking, the nurse appeared over his shoulder holding up the biggest syringe and needle I had ever seen!
Tommy kept talking, describing in gruesome detail his last fight.
'NEXT!' the nurse demanded.
Tommy turned round, caught sight of the needle and promptly fainted.
After we'd been made to feel like teabags, we were taken for our haircuts. Two barbers stood holding clippers evilly. I tried to explain to PO Thomas that I'd had my haircut only recently.
'At a barbers.' I said, as if this made it even more important.
PO Thomas cast a jaundiced eye at my hair and said; 'Get it bloody cut, lad!'
I dolefully took my place half way down the line. Two by two, we filed into the barber shop where, in less than a minute the barbers shaved our skulls to the bone. We trooped out, stunned by the speed and savagery of the attack and waited for the rest to be done. Geordie was the last one in. We'd marked him out as a bit of a style icon. He was a couple of years older than us and had been an apprentice in a Newcastle Shipyard. He'd taken voluntary redundancy which gave him a nice lump sum. Being that bit older and used to money, he'd bought really stylish clothes and wore his hair in a sort of bouffant version of Phil Oakey's style from the Human League. We grinned at each other as he was led in, looking forward to his being cut down to the same size as the rest of us.
Fifteen minutes later, he came out and our jaws dropped. His hair was virtually the same as it had been when he went in!
'How did you get away with that?' one boy asked.
'Well, ah just says to him to take a bit off the back and round my ears like.'
We were stunned.
'Wye aye. They'll just do anything you ask them ye naa. Why, did yoos lot ask to be shaved?'
Over his shoulder the two barbers were convulsed with laughter.
'Right, follow me,' said PO Thomas.
'Time to get kitted out and get your photographs taken for your mammies. Nice haircut, Geordie.'
We were marched to stores where a line of clerks stood ready to issue our uniforms. The head clerk stood at the front of the line and deduced our sizes at a glance. There were two sizes. As we shuffled forward to have our kit dumped in our outstretched arms he would bellow 'SMALL' or 'LARGE'. Once the pile reached the level of our eyes, we stumbled blindly up the stairs to our mess.
'Strip down to your shreddies, and put on your white shirts, tie, tunic and cap...NOW!' roared PO Thomas.
Hurriedly we sorted through our kit and struggled with the ties. As soon as someone was ready, he was pushed through the door and up to another room where the photographer waited. Most parents cherish the first photograph of their child in military uniform. They're also the ones usually released to the Press when someone is killed. It's strange to see the youthful, confident faces staring out from the tv screen, knowing that the smart young soldier/sailor/airman was naked from the waist down when it was taken.
Finally, we were taken to have our first Navy meal and left to our own devices in the mess, with the rejminder that reveille was at 0645. The room was a hubbub of introductions and people choosing beds. Uniforms were tried on and then swapped around until most fitted approximately well. As the lights were switched off at 2200, we were all still buzzing with excitement and continued to chatter away.
Someone suggested we start by the bed at the door and each say something about ourselves. There were boys from every corner of the British Isles: Shetland, Inverness, Fife, Glasgow, the Borders, Newcastle, Derby, Manchester, Birmingham, London, Norwich, Cardiff, Swansea, Bristol, Portsmouth and Newquay. One by one the accents changed and we struggled to get used to the differences. Last to speak was Paddy, a Belfast boy. When he spoke, the mess drew silent.
'So what's it like?' Someone asked.
'What's what like?' answered Paddy
'The bombings and that. Did you know anyone who was killed? Do you know any terrorists?'
It was 1983, the Troubles were in full swing. All of us had seen the TV news reports, but this was the first time we'd actually met a real, flesh and blood Irishman from Belfast!
'Aw, hell aye,' said Paddy. There was a collective intake of breath.
'One time, me and my brother were collecting stuff for the big bonfires. We were scavenging around this old scrapyard trying to pull out tyres. I was trying to pull out this big tractor tyre and I shouted for my brother to help me. We managed to pull it out and then we saw there was like a tunnel behind it so we went in to have a look. Well, we crawled along this tunnel for what seemed like ages until we came to a bit that was blocked off with a sheet of plasterboard. The tunnel was that tight, we couldn't turn around, so we took a couple of sticks and battered a hole in the plasterboard. When we poked our heads through... there they were.'
There was a hush until someone said, 'Who? Who was it Paddy?'
'The feckin' RA. There were half a dozen of them, all holding rifles and pistols pointed straight at our heads.'
'Oh, my God!'
'What happened?” said Paddy.
'Well, we looked at them, and they looked at us and I shouted GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!'
'What happened, what happened next Paddy?'
Paddy waited, twenty one boys strained their ears in the darkness, hanging on his every word. He paused, savouring the moment.
'They bloody shot us to death! That's what happened, ye bloody eejits!'
For a second no one spoke... then the room erupted.
'You cheeky git!'
'Somebody belt him!'
'Smart ass, bloody Mick!
Paddy soon established himself as the joker in our Division. Over the next three months, his impish grin and tall stories helped us through the rigours of basic training.
In the end, just ten of us from the original twenty two passed out. Paddy himself died in a motorbike accident a year later. We were just boys and some got homesick, some got injured, some couldn't handle the academic side and some just weren't cut out for military life. Twenty five years on, some of us still keep in touch. We have families now, we've all led varied and interesting lives but we all have that one day in common...
... The day we joined the Royal Navy.