On this day 15th March 1955, Sixty Five years ago, my first day in the Royal Navy!
On arrival in Ipswitch carriage doors flew open to discharge their eager cargo. We had arrived. Several Petty Officer Instructors from Ganges were there to meet us. It quickly became evident it was not to roll out a 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. 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. The cold and uncomfortable drive took about twenty minutes. Sitting in the back of a covered lorry you only see where you’ve been, not where you’re going. So when the lorry made a 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. I was confused. It appeared we going in the wrong direction away from the camp. Suddenly we entered a smaller camp, the lorries circled wide and stopped. The next instant our world exploded with yelling, shouting and blowing whistles. In confusion and fear we rapidly evacuated the trucks to land on a parade square. Petty Officers attempted to organize us into a division of three neat rows. I noticed several uniformed boys wearing white gaiters and, like the PO’s; appeared to have authority over us. In fact they were doing most of the shouting and shoving. Three rows you idiots, tallest on the ends shortest in the centre, move, move, move. Once we were formed into three ragged lines silence descended.
A Chief Petty Officer and several Petty Officers stood in front with clipboards. The chief said; “listen carefully! When your name is called, fall out and go to the Instructor Boy on your left”. By the time everyone’s name was called we’d formed three separate groups. Only one of the six lads from Belfast was in my group. Things were moving rapidly. The camp, I later learned, was known as the Annex. The buildings were formed evenly around the parade square. At the top end was the instructor’s quarters along with an area known as the quarterdeck. I would soon learn the quarterdeck was a very sacred part of ship. When entering this area we had to salute and double smartly across. It was identified by the mast, a ships bell and two ancient cannon. To the left was the guardhouse, plus two accommodation blocks. Facing the mast were the mess hall, showers and laundry rooms. On the right was the last accommodation block. It was to become my home for the next six weeks.
Our group was ordered to turn left and single file into our mess block. Inside we were told to stand at attention by a bed, no talking, no moving. The PO who had called out our names entered the block and told us to stand at ease. “My name is Petty Officer Birmingham. For the next six weeks I shall be the most important person in your life. At all times, address me as sir, and 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”.The PO gave us a brief outline of what lay ahead and what was expected of us in the coming weeks. When he’d finished there wasn’t a boy not scared, perhaps a few even terrified
Instructor Boy Moss told the boys on the left to turn right and follow him in single file. Those remaining were told to sit at the long bench in the middle of the mess. We were handed pencil, paper and envelope then ordered to write brief letters letting parents know we’d arrived safely. By the time our letters were completed the other group were returning. They carried bedding and clothing piled so high it was difficult to see where they were going. Then it was our turn to single file out behind Instructor Boy Mathers. We marched into a supply room where clerks giving us a quick once over decide what size we needed. In rapid order we moved along the supply line. The issue of blankets pillow and clothing growing ever larger. We single filed back to join the rest of our group as they finished their letters. The next order took everyone by surprise and caused us considerable embarrassment.
Strip! Everything off, underwear, socks, the lot, put everything on your mattress, and stand by you beds again.
Twenty-seven red face boys stood stark naked trying not to look at each other. The senior Instructor Boy held up a pair of newly issued white underpants. He told us to find ours and put them on. Next he held up a vest. Embarrassment receded as we dressed by number. Within two minutes we were clothed in work uniforms known as number 8’s. We looked a sorry sight; every item of clothing was stiff and ill fitting. I’d always imagined myself a dashing figure in my smart new uniform. What I was wearing now was not smart or dashing.
On that first day we were told to gather our civilian clothes, pack, parcel and address. We packed every item, socks, underwear, hankies the lot.
A pile of brown paper packages and a stack of one page letters were ready. Four boys were detailed to collect the mail and follow Instructor Boy Moss. Those remaining were told to single file to the washrooms. Wash hands then fall in three deep outside the mess. It was almost 1900 hrs when we marched into the mess hall for supper. No cooks were on duty. The Annex wasn’t officially operational until the following morning. We were issued mugs of kye, (cocoa) bread, margarine, cheese and jam. The meal over it was three lines marching back to our accommodation block. We were told to strip again! It was shower time. Very cold shower time. I was learning there was neither modesty nor privacy in the navy. The shower room had eight or ten showerheads, twenty-seven boys were told to get under the freezing water and wash. Included in our newly issued kit was a large bar of soap. It was called ‘pusser hard’ and was used for washing everything including me. In the shower a few boys barely got wet before dashing for the exit. Dodging a cold shower was not possible. PO Birmingham stood at the entrance waiting to inspect each of us. If he decided a boy wasn’t clean, it was back under the showers. Shivering, we quickly dried ourselves with our newly issue waterproof towels. We singled filed back to the mess with towels around waists and stood by our beds. The next order; “You have thirty seconds to get into your pyjamas”. Quietly and quickly we complied. We were freezing. A bed was brought to the centre of the mess deck. Instructor Boy Moss demonstrated the navy’s method of making a bed. The owner of the demonstration bed was greatly disappointed when it was pulled apart again. We were learning that nothing would be done for us. It took ages to conclude the exercise that would finally allow us into bed. Instructor Boys marched up and down pulling beds apart that didn’t meet standards. Finally everyone achieved the requirements and twenty-seven exhausted boys turned in. It was 2100 hours, time for lights out. We were given a final stern warning not to talk. Just one sound and everyone would be on the parade square for an hour of doubling. Utter silence fell on the place. I lay quietly in my bed gazing at the rafters, tired and happy. I had arrived. Thus ended the first day of my naval career. My goodness 65 years ago yet I remember it like it was yesterday. God Bless and keep reading.