Kippers for Breakfast
Wednesday, the fifteenth of March 1955. I was on board the Belfast to Liverpool steamer, one of six new Royal Navy recruits en-route to HMS Ganges. Crossing the Irish Sea from Belfast had been unusually calm. Perhaps it had something to do with the misty overcast weather.
Still, I was grateful for a flat sea. It would have been hugely embarrassing to be seasick on my very first day as a sailor. Not that the other passengers would have noticed anyway. To them I must have appeared as just another silly young boy.
During the last hour of the crossing I stood alone at the ship’s guardrail, quietly daydreaming. I imagined myself on the bridge of a warship, a stalwart seaman, feet firmly planted on a pitching deck and binoculars at the ready, searching for an enemy fleet.
The ship’s foghorn suddenly sounded overhead, breaking my salty reverie. The ship was slowing down as it approached the wharf at the Albert Docks. My five companions joined me on deck and we watched the Liverpool skyline gradually materializing through the fog.
Twenty minutes later the gangway was in place and the passengers began to disembark, and six young Jolly Jacks finally set foot on a Liverpool jetty, thus ending the first part of our epic journey.
Our next task was to find the Seaman’s Mission, where we were to spend the night before travelling on to London the following morning. The address was clearly listed on the sheet of instructions given to us by the recruiting officer in Belfast.
After asking a dockyard worker for directions, we set out on foot to find it. Having no luggage to carry, we decided to walk and save on bus fares. I almost regretted this decision because, as we left the docks area, I spotted a line of trams. They were parked in front of a huge building. At the time I assumed it was the City Hall but I later discovered that it was the Mersey Port Authority Building.
The sight of the trams rekindled some fond memories of the old Belfast trams that were taken out of service in 1952. They had for years been my favourite mode of travel around the city. The Liverpool trams were the same familiar Chamberlain models, but in their drab green paint they didn’t look nearly as grand as my Belfast ones.
But now wasn’t the time to reminisce about the past. I had far greater priorities on this important day.
We continued down the main street, taking in the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar city. Ten minutes later, on the opposite side of the street, we spotted the Mission sign on a two-storey red brick building.
One of the boys noticed a cinema a couple of doors down from the Mission which was showing George Orwell’s ‘1984’, and he suggested we should go there after supper.
At the Mission we were assigned our beds and issued with pillows, blankets, towels and soap. The menu for supper was bangers and mash, tea and rice pudding, but we were notified that it wasn’t available until 6 pm. So, having an hour or so to kill, we decide to test our bunks and rested up before eating. We smoked cigarettes, talked about nothing in particular, and laughed at silly jokes.
We were nervous and anxious, but also impatient to move on to the next stage of our adventure.
After supper we agreed that we should go to the cinema as it would help pass the time, but it was a strange film about an imagined world some thirty years in the future, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I had little interest or comprehension in such a futuristic world. 1984 was just too far in the distance to bother thinking about.
The sleeping quarters in the Mission was just one large dormitory containing approximately thirty beds. We cautioned each other to sleep with our wallets under our pillows. Liverpool was a busy seaport and the Mission was filled with a variety of merchant seamen from many different countries. In fact our sleep was disturbed several times during the night by the noisy arrival of a drunken sailor or two.
This was my first introduction to a sleeping environment that consisted of loud and various sounds that involved snoring, farting and belching. However, sharing a small space with so many bodies was something that I would soon become quiet accustomed to in my chosen career.
I arose around six the next morning and headed to the communal bathrooms to wash and brush my teeth. There was very little movement at that early hour because most of my neighbours were still sleeping soundly.
Trevor Weir, a wee lad from Ballymena, appeared shortly after me and we finished our ablutions together. We got dressed and then returned our bedding to the used-linen hampers provided. With twenty minutes still to go before breakfast, Trevor suggested we take a walk around the block and have a smoke.
Outside, the morning air was crisp and clear, and there were few people about as we sauntered down the street puffing on our Woodbines. Trevor, who was just as nervous as me, started a conversation about how he imagined life would be at HMS Ganges, but neither of us came close to picturing what lay in store for us once we passed through those barrack gates.
As we returned to the Mission a clock was chiming the hour from somewhere across the city. I was hungry now and my thoughts turned to a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast and a large mug of tea. When we entered the dinning area the four other recruits were already standing in line waiting to be served so Trevor and I collected our cups, plates and cutlery from a table at the side of the counter and lined up behind them.
When my turn came I held out my plate and the cook dumped something on it that I didn’t recognize. He was a big burly man who didn’t look particularly happy with his lot in life so I decided not to ask him what it was and I joined my friends at the table.
We had all been served the same thing, and I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what it was. One lad did, however, and he gleefully informed us that we each had a pair of smoked kippers.
I was none the wiser, but I was equally sure that it was something I wouldn’t normally eat for breakfast. Or at any other meal, for that matter! So I had to content myself with bread, margarine, marmalade and a cup of tea.
I soon learnt that kippers were a popular item on the Royal Navy’s breakfast menu, and they were better known in Naval terms as ‘Spithead Pheasant.’
With our less than scrumptious meal finished we collected our coats and departed the Mission. Lime Street Station wasn’t far away, so again we decided to walk and conserve our dwindling funds. We had ample time. The London train didn’t leave until 8.30am.
The next leg of our journey began with a five-hour train ride to Euston Street Station in London. The six of us clambered into an eight-seat compartment just behind the engine.
In the nineteen fifties, British Rail still used the old style carriages. There was no corridor, so the passengers were confined to their own compartment until they arrived at the next station. So it was incumbent on everyone to use the public lavatory before they embarked on the train because the next stop could be hours away. And there was no way of knowing how long the train would stop for then. The duration of the stop could be anything from two to five minute, which was often way too short to make it to the toilet and back again.
Of course, in desperation, one could always use the window.
This, however, was only an option if the compartment contained only your shipmates. And it was also very risky, requiring careful aim and timing. The wind rushing past the window could cause an embarrassing spray, which you could say was getting your own back.
It was also a big risk going to the station cafeteria for a cuppa and bun because it usually meant you had to compete with a dozen other passengers all doing the same thing, and it always seemed that, just as I was being served, the whistle would blow, signalling that the train was about to leave. With a surge of panic, and trying not to spill several mugs of tea, there would be the mad dash back to the carriage. With the train juddering and gathering speed, I’d frantically pass the mugs to outstretched hands as I ran alongside, finally managing to scramble on board just as the end of the platform loomed large.
This scenario would be repeated many, many times during my Naval career, though in later years it would be with pints of beer rather than mugs of tea. I became quiet competent in platform racing, and though I had some close calls I never actually missed a train.
Apart from that the journey to London was uneventful, and we arrived safely at 1.30 pm on Wednesday afternoon. The next part of our schedule was rather tight. The train to Ipswich departed at 15.45, and we needed to navigate our way through the London Underground System to Liverpool Street Station.
The London Underground is indeed an amazingly simple system, and even fools like us found our way around it without any mishap. At Liverpool Street Station we sought out platform fourteen to begin the final leg of our journey.
At the gate we saw dozens of boys milling around, and we knew instantly that we’d arrived at the right place. There were close to a hundred boys of all shapes and sizes. The platform was alive with their noisy chatter and laughter.
On the train I sat beside a boy who looked closer to twelve than fifteen. His name was Jameson and he was joining from the Royal Hospital School at Holbrook, the same place where I had almost ended up in1952. He was known as Jamie, and though we couldn’t know it then, we would be shipmates for the next three years.
During the journey to Ipswich everyone in the compartment talked excitedly and constantly. On arrival, the carriage doors flew open to discharge their eager cargo. We had arrived.
Several Petty Officer Instructors from Ganges were there to meet us, and it quickly became evident that it was not to roll out the welcome mat!
Suddenly we were being yelled at, told to shut up and sort ourselves into three neat lines. This was my first taste of Naval discipline.
Over the next twelve months, forming three neat lines would become a way of life. We marched smartly out of the station. Well, we thought we were smart. Several dark blue lorries with canvas covers were lined up in the parking area. Emblazoned on the cab doors in large white letters was RN.
In an orderly fashion we were loaded into the vehicles, and the convoy set out for the base at Shotley village. The cold and uncomfortable drive took about twenty minutes.
Sitting in the back of a covered lorry, you can only see where you’d been, not where you were going, so when the lorry made a sharp right turn, I was surprised to see a huge ship’s mast with a white ensign flying from it. Below the mast was what looked like the main entrance to HMS Ganges.
Then I got a bit confused. It appeared we going in the wrong direction, away from the main camp. Suddenly we were in a much smaller camp, and the lorries swung in a wide circle and came to a stop.
The next instant our world exploded to the shrill of numerous whistles, people yelling and shouting. Bewildered and frightened, we flew out of the trucks and landed on a parade square where Petty Officers attempted to organize us into a division of three neat rows. I noticed that several of the boys in uniformed were wearing white gaiters and, like the POs, appeared to have some authority over us. In fact they were the ones doing most of the shouting and shoving.
“Three rows, you idiots!” they screamed. “Tallest on the ends, shortest in the centre. Move, move, move!”
Once we were finally formed into three somewhat ragged lines, a silence descended as a Chief Petty Officer and several Petty Officers stood in front of us with clipboards in their hands.
“Listen carefully,” the Chief Petty Officer said. “When your name is called, fall out and go to the Instructor Boy on your left.”
So that’s who these guys in the white gaiters were, Instructor Boys.
When all the names had been called I realised that we had now been segregated into three separate groups, and only one of the six lads from Belfast was in my group. Being separated from my travelling companions initially caused me an anxious moment, but it didn’t last long, though. Things were moving too rapidly.
The camp, I later learned, was known as The Annex. All the buildings were spread evenly around the parade square. At the top end were the Instructor’s quarters, along with an area known as the quarterdeck. I would soon learn that the quarterdeck was perceived to be a very sacred part of the ship. When entering this area, we were required to salute and then march at the double across it. The mast, a ship’s bell and two ancient cannons identified the sacred area.
To the left of the quarterdeck was the guardhouse and two accommodation blocks. Facing the mast at the other end was the mess hall, the shower block and the laundry rooms. On the right was the last of the accommodation blocks, and this was to become my home for the next six weeks.
Our group was ordered to turn left and march in single file into our mess block. To achieve this single file, two Instructor Boys shoved and pushed us, calling us stupid in a variety of colourful Naval terminology. Once inside, we were told to stand at attention beside a bed, no talking, no moving. The Petty Officer who had called out our names entered the block and told us to stand at ease.
“My name is Petty Officer Birmingham,” he informed us. “For the next six weeks I shall be the most important person in your life. At all times you will address me as Sir, and you will only address me when I say you can. Instructor Boys Mathers and Moss will be in charge when I’m not here. They too, will be addressed as Sir.”
I was beginning to wonder why they bothered to tell us their names. Obviously we’d never be allowed to use them.
The Petty Officer gave us a brief outline of what lay ahead, and what was expected of us in the coming weeks, and by the time he’d finished there wasn’t a boy who was not scared. Perhaps a few were even terrified
Instructor Boy Moss told all the boys on his left to turn right and follow him in single file.
Those of us remaining were told to sit on the long bench in the middle of the mess. We were handed a pencil, some paper and an envelope, then ordered to write a brief letter letting our parents know that we’d arrived safely.
By the time our letters were completed the other group was returning. They carried bedding and clothing that were piled so high it was difficult for them to see where they were going.
Then it was our turn to march out in single file behind Instructor Boy Mathers. We followed him into a supply room where the clerks, giving us a quick once-over, decide what size clothing we needed. In rapid order we moved along the supply line, and the pile of blankets, pillow and clothing we were given grew ever larger. We then marched in single filed back into the mess to join the rest of our group as they finished their letters.
The next order took us totally by surprise, and it caused us considerable embarrassment.
“Right,” came the command. “Strip! Everything off, underwear, socks, the lot! Put everything on your mattress, and stand by you beds again.”
Twenty-seven red face boys were now standing stark naked in front of a room full of total strangers, trying desperately not to look at each other. Then the senior Instructor Boy held up a pair of newly issued white underpants. To our immense relief he told us to find ours and put them on.
Next he held up a vest and again told us to find ours and put it on, and our acute embarrassment receded as we quickly dressed by numbers.
Within two minutes we were fully clothed in our new working uniforms, which are known as Number 8’s. We looked a sorry sight; though, with every item of clothing stiff and ill fitting. I’d always imagined myself as a dashing figure in my smart new uniform, but what I looked like right then was neither smart nor dashing. In the following weeks, of course, after washing our kit over and over again, the new unworn look would soon disappeared, and as my skill with an electric iron improved too, I soon began to look a little smarter as well.
On that first day we were told to gather all our civilian clothes for packing. We wrapped every single item, socks, underwear, and hankies – the lot! And when the pile of brown paper packages and the stack of one page letters were addressed and ready, four boys were detailed to collect them all and follow Instructor Boy Moss.
Those remaining were told to march in single file to the washrooms, wash our hands then fall in three deep outside the mess hall. It was now almost 1900 hrs, and as we were marched into the mess hall for supper we quickly realised that there were no cooks on duty. The Annex wasn’t officially operational until the following morning, so we were issued with mugs of kye (cocoa), bread, margarine, cheese and jam.
When the meal was over it was back into three lines to march back to the accommodation block where we were told to strip again! It was time to have a shower. A very cold shower!
I was learning fast that there was neither modesty nor privacy in the Royal Navy. The shower room had about eight or ten showerheads, and twenty-seven boys were all told to get under the freezing water together and wash. Our newly issued kit included was a large bar of soap known as Pusser Hard, and this was used for washing everything, including yourself.
In the showers, a few boys barely got wet before dashing for the exit. But dodging a cold shower was not possible. Petty Officer Birmingham stood at the exit, waiting to inspect each one of us. If he decided a boy wasn’t clean, it was back under the showers for him.
Shivering badly, we tried desperately to dry ourselves with our newly issue, almost totally waterproof, towels. Then, with our towels around waists, we marched in single file back to the mess and stood by our beds.
“You have thirty seconds to get into your pyjamas,” was the next order.
Quietly and quickly, we complied. We were freezing.
A bed was dragged to the centre of the mess and Instructor Boy Moss demonstrated the Navy’s method of making up a proper bed.
The owner of the bed was then severely disappointed when it was pulled apart again. We were learning that nothing was ever going to be done for us.
It took ages to conclude the exercise. Instructor Boys marched up and down, pulling beds apart that didn’t meet their exact standards. Then at long last, when everyone finally achieved the requirements, twenty-seven totally exhausted boys climbed between the sheets and sighed with relief.
It was now 2100 hours, time for lights out.
We were given one final, stern warning not to talk. Just one sound and everyone would be back out on the parade square to practice their marching skills for an hour.
Utter silence fell on the place. I lay quietly in my bed, gazing at the rafters. I was tired, but I was very happy. I had arrived.
Thus ended the first day of my Naval career.
This is the first chapter from my book “The Royal Navy & Me” it is available at amazon and as a Ebook at http://www.smashwords.com