Leaving for HMS Ganges. 62 years ago


Today 14th March 2017.  My journey to join the Royal Navy began on this day 62 years ago but it still feels like yesterday.

Chapter One    Lily & Me.

Tuesday morning the 14th of March 1955, the last day of my story and the beginning of a new life. I had risen early, unable to sleep with so many things running through my head. That day represented a very important step for me, and I was excited at the prospect of my chosen future. This was the last time I’d sleep in that small double bed, in the tiny back bedroom, a bed I had shared with my father and brother in the past, now shared only with my father.

I was sure he wouldn’t be too unhappy about my departure either; tossing and turning all night, I had probably kept him awake.  I quietly tiptoed downstairs; outside it was still dark, and the house was silent and cold.

I didn’t waste time lighting the fire, too many other things to do.  The previous evening I had laid out my best suit.  Anna had ironed and starched my good white shirt.  My shoes were polished to a high gloss. There were clean underwear, and socks, and my most colourful tie was hanging with my suit.  It was the same tie I had worn to those Saturday night dances.  I thought it made me look suave and attractive to the girls!

Quickly, I washed my hands and face under the cold-water tap in the scullery.  Shaving had not yet become necessary. I put a small dab of Brylcreem in my hair, rubbing it in well, I combed my hair carefully and parted it on the left, then using the flat of my hand I pushed my hair forward into a wave.

Without thinking, I stripped off my pyjamas and underwear, immediately feeling the chill on my exposed skin.  It was customary to wear pyjamas over underwear at night.  My father, in winter, kept his shirt on as well.

Standing naked in the middle of the kitchen, I suddenly realised I was in full view of anyone passing in the street.  The blind had not been pulled down the night before, and with the street dark and the kitchen light on, a passer-by would have an eyeful.  In panic and embarrassment I first considered dashing to the window and pulling down the blind.  Already naked, standing in the window would only have increased the risk of being seen.   I decided my safest course of action was to dress quickly.  I was into my clean underwear in a flash; trousers quickly followed, and my anxious moment was over.

Only then it occurred to me, I could have easily just turned off the light.

 

By the time the family started to come to life, I was fully dressed and ready to leave. It was a little after 6am. My instructions were to be at the Liverpool boat terminal at 7am sharp.  I wanted to leave quickly with no long, drawn out goodbyes.  Besides, it was just another working day for everyone else, they would be in a hurry to have breakfast and be on their way. 

The moment to leave was soon at hand. I buttoned my raincoat, looked around to make sure I had picked up my wallet and money for bus fare.  I shook hands with Jackie, and hugged Anna; Pop put his hand on my shoulder and, like everyone else, wished me luck.   This was probably the closest my father ever came to actually embracing me.  He told me to look after myself and let them know how I was getting along. 

I promised to write as soon as I arrived at H.M.S Ganges.  Hot tears began to well up in my eyes, and I fought them back, not wanting to cry.  Pop gave me a half crown saying I might want a bite to eat on the boat.  Then, very quickly, I said a final farewell to everyone, took a last quick look around the room and left.  Out on the street I realised what a nasty cold morning it was.  The sky was overcast, with a fine drizzle.  I turned up the collar of my raincoat, thrust my hands deep in my pockets, and headed for the bus stop.

It was ten minutes past six as I reached the top of the street.  Traffic was still light at this early hour, and just a few people were waiting for the bus.  We didn’t have to wait long for one to arrive. I boarded and went upstairs to a front seat.  I wanted to see as much of the old city as possible one last time.  It was as if I needed to save the sights and sounds to a place in my memory, which later I might recall when I was far from home and lonely.

As the bus travelled down the Falls Road, I kept looking at my watch.  I had plenty of time, but that didn’t stop me from worrying or feeling anxious.  The last thing I wanted was to be late on this particular day.  At the meeting ten days earlier in the recruiting office, we’d received strict instructions to be on time. 

We had been instructed that parents were not permitted at the boat terminal to see us off.   We were supposed to be men and must let go of our mother’s apron strings.  I remembered the stern warning: Should anyone not show up, they would be classified as deserters and the police called to arrest them.  All these things ran through my mind as I impatiently waited for the bus to reach the city centre.  I planned to hop off at the corner of High Street and Royal Avenue and walk the remaining distance to the docks.

 

 

*****

 

 

Stepping off the bus, I turned onto High Street at a brisk pace, still anxiously checking my watch more than necessary.  I continued at a fast pace, taking a short cut through an unfamiliar back street.  I was surprised when I came upon the infamous Du Barry’s Pub. Until this moment I had not known its exact whereabouts, only its notoriety.  The pub was a hangout for sailors and prostitutes.  As I was passing, it occurred to me that one day I might have a pint in there myself.  After all, I would soon be a sailor. 

That idea quickly faded, I couldn’t imagine associating with prostitutes.  I switched to more inviting thoughts of girls falling for me once in my uniform.  I silently hummed the tune ‘All the nice girls love a sailor’.  With this romantic and appealing notion dancing in my head, I crossed the road to the docks.  It was just 6.45 am when I arrived at the terminal. The five other boys travelling with me were already there.  The three from the country had stayed in the city overnight in order to be on time. We gathered under the terminal colonnade sheltering from the rain.  The air around us filled with excited chatter as we nervously waited for the recruiting officer. The wait wasn’t long. Moments after my arrival he appeared carrying our warrants and travel itineraries.

We gathered around him and listened intently as he gave us our final instruction and times.  We each received the promised ten shillings for expenses en-route. We were warned not to waste it on cigarettes or chocolate.  It was for paying bus fares between railway stations and to buy lunch tomorrow in London.  We had been told to travel light, bring no luggage, just a toothbrush in our pocket.  Along the journey, everything we might need would be provided. 

On arrival in Liverpool, we were booked overnight at a seamen’s mission.   Soap, towels, supper and breakfast would be provided.  On arrival at the Ganges training base, we’d be issued with everything we would ever need. Our civilian clothes would then be sent home.  The less we brought, the less to pack.  I wondered what Anna would think when my clothes arrived in the mail. It might seem like I had cease to exist!

 

 

*****

 

 

The clock chimed the half hour as the recruiter wished us luck one final time and departed.  With his job finished for the day, he was heading home for a hot breakfast.  For a few minutes we remained on the dock, hesitant to take the next step. We clutched travel warrants and instructions tightly fearing we might lose them.  Collectively we decided to go aboard the ship and headed down to the warmth of the lounge.  A boy from Ballymena, Trevor Weir, produced a 10-pack of Woodbine.  Passing them around, we each accepted one and lighted up.  I was sure a couple a boys were smoking for the first time, but no one wanted to appear different that morning. 

For the next fifteen minutes we made small talk, asking about each other, our homes, whether we had girlfriends, what we did before joining the Navy.  I suspected there was more than a little exaggeration in our stories we were all trying to impress each other.

At eight o’clock sharp, I felt the first vibrations of the ship’s engines as it started to move.  I heard a foghorn sounding from somewhere above.  Snuffing out the butt of my cigarette, I went up on deck.  I stood at the guardrail watching the deckhands letting go of the shorelines and the gap between the ship and the wharf quickly widening. 

Soon we were in the centre of the channel, gathering speed and heading for Belfast Lough and the open sea.  I watched as we sailed passed the old cruiser H.M.S. Caroline, where for a brief time I’d been a Sea Cadet.  We passed a forlorn and unfinished aircraft carrier moored at a buoy, its once fresh grey paint now streaked with soot and rust. It had been under construction when the war ended, and was never completed.  I looked up at the tall gantries and cranes of the shipyards.  Off to the west, in the mist, I could just make out the hills of Bellevue and Napoleon’s Nose.  I could see the morning rush hour traffic moving on the road along the coast, busy people heading to work.

I felt a strange sadness to be leaving this beautiful place.  Slowly the Black Mountains and surrounding green hills began to fade into the mist and drizzle. I wondered when I would see them again.  Watching the cold green water racing along the hull, my mind drifted back to the time I crossed the Irish Sea with Lily and the trepidation caused by that decision.  I remembered my tin soldier dropping into the sea and watching it disappear beneath the waves.

 

 

*****

 

 

I thought of the events in my life that brought me to this moment.  I was excited to be venturing into a new life, but at the same time afraid of what lay ahead.  I remembered the hurt and turmoil of my sixteen years, and wondered how different things might have been if only.  I quickly stopped this train of thought. It was a waste of time, and nothing could be changed.

I thought back to the dreadful tragedy that befell our family on Boxing Day, 1939, and how it altered the course of my life forever.  I thought about my father, he, too, filled with trepidation and standing on the deck of another ship some forty years earlier as a newly enrolled soldier travelling to France and the Great War.

How difficult had life been for my mother as a young girl? How did she meet my father? What chain of events led from my father’s birth to this exact moment?  Standing at the guardrail, I reached back to the time and place where all these events began.  How they finally culminated here with me.  I wondered what chain of events I would follow into my new future on that cold and wet March morning as I moved ever closer to my destiny, these thoughts ran through my mind.

With a stiffening breeze off the Irish Sea stinging my face, I realised it was time to go below.  Walking toward the lounge door, I vaguely recalled something my English teacher had once said: ‘They change their sky but not their soul, who cross the ocean.’

It seemed, at this moment, somehow appropriate. She had explained it as a good maxim for exiles, of which Ireland had many. She had first given us the Latin version, which I had promptly forgotten: ‘Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare current?’

 

  

With his job finished for the day, he was heading home for a hot breakfast.  For a few minutes we remained on the dock, hesitant to take the next step. We clutched travel warrants and instructions tightly fearing we might lose them.  Collectively we decided to go aboard the ship and headed down to the warmth of the lounge.  A boy from Ballymena, Trevor Weir, produced a 10-pack of Woodbine.  Passing them around, we each accepted one and lighted up.  I was sure a couple a boys were smoking for the first time, but no one wanted to appear different that morning. 

For the next fifteen minutes we made small talk, asking about each other, our homes, whether we had girlfriends, what we did before joining the Navy.  I suspected there was more than a little exaggeration in our stories we were all trying to impress each other.

At eight o’clock sharp, I felt the first vibrations of the ship’s engines as it started to move.  I heard a foghorn sounding from somewhere above.  Snuffing out the butt of my cigarette, I went up on deck.  I stood at the guardrail watching the deckhands letting go of the shorelines and the gap between the ship and the wharf quickly widening. 

Soon we were in the centre of the channel, gathering speed and heading for Belfast Lough and the open sea.  I watched as we sailed passed the old cruiser H.M.S. Caroline, where for a brief time I’d been a Sea Cadet.  We passed a forlorn and unfinished aircraft carrier moored at a buoy, its once fresh grey paint now streaked with soot and rust. It had been under construction when the war ended, and was never completed.  I looked up at the tall gantries and cranes of the shipyards.  Off to the west, in the mist, I could just make out the hills of Bellevue and Napoleon’s Nose.  I could see the morning rush hour traffic moving on the road along the coast, busy people heading to work.

I felt a strange sadness to be leaving this beautiful place.  Slowly the Black Mountains and surrounding green hills began to fade into the mist and drizzle. I wondered when I would see them again.  Watching the cold green water racing along the hull, my mind drifted back to the time I crossed the Irish Sea with Lily and the trepidation caused by that decision.  I remembered my tin soldier dropping into the sea and watching it disappear beneath the waves.

 

 

*****

 

 

I thought of the events in my life that brought me to this moment.  I was excited to be venturing into a new life, but at the same time afraid of what lay ahead.  I remembered the hurt and turmoil of my sixteen years, and wondered how different things might have been if only.  I quickly stopped this train of thought. It was a waste of time, and nothing could be changed.

I thought back to the dreadful tragedy that befell our family on Boxing Day, 1939, and how it altered the course of my life forever.  I thought about my father, he, too, filled with trepidation and standing on the deck of another ship some forty years earlier as a newly enrolled soldier travelling to France and the Great War.

How difficult had life been for my mother as a young girl? How did she meet my father? What chain of events led from my father’s birth to this exact moment?  Standing at the guardrail, I reached back to the time and place where all these events began.  How they finally culminated here with me.  I wondered what chain of events I would follow into my new future on that cold and wet March morning as I moved ever closer to my destiny, these thoughts ran through my mind.

With a stiffening breeze off the Irish Sea stinging my face, I realised it was time to go below.  Walking toward the lounge door, I vaguely recalled something my English teacher had once said: ‘They change their sky but not their soul, who cross the ocean.’

It seemed, at this moment, somehow appropriate. She had explained it as a good maxim for exiles, of which Ireland had many. She had first given us the Latin version, which I had promptly forgotten: ‘Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare current?’

Lily & Me is available at Amazon and as an Ebook at smashwords.com.

 

 

  

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About irishroverpei

Author of "Lily & Me", "The Royal Navy & Me" and Chapter XXl Armageddon. Writer, blogger and RN Submariner, antique automobile enthusiast.
This entry was posted in family, HM Submarines, HMS Cockade, hms ganges, veterans. Bookmark the permalink.

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