Ralph Stobart Robson, signalman, life in the British Royal Navy World War Two, sinking of Prince of Wales and the Repulse, Singapore
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  1. Chatham to Gourock
  2. The Messman Discovered
  3. Life on Board
  4. Crossing the Line
  5. The Sinkings
  6. H.M.S. Sultan
  7. The Signal Office
  8. Left to Our Own Resources
  9. Colombo
  10. Drafted to Mombassa
  11. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
  12. Sharks, Lobsters and Going Dutch
  13. Askari Skirmishes and Tea Making
  14. Tramp Steamer
  15. Molo
  16. Deer Hunting
  17. Ralph the Italian and off to Bombay
  18. Arrival in Bombay
  19. Vultures and Buffalos
  20. Poona
  21. Swimming Motorcycles and Monsoon Storms
  22. The Royal Corps of Signals
  23. 'Trixie' Vaughan Lewis and Drowning Men
  24. On Leave in the Himalayas

    Ralph as a telegram boy before the war

2 - The Messman Discovered!

The train ran right beside the dock which was accessed by a few steps leading down. There was a drifter tied up at the dock with a skipper in charge and another crew member.

The skipper shouted out "Are you for the Prince of Wales?". There was some conference between him and the petty officer who returned and said that this was the ship we were going on to Hong Kong. The skipper had been waiting there for a few hours and he knew where the POW was going. Loaded kit then set out for POW.

We gaped about like a lot of yokels staring at the shipping on the Clyde, but our attention was attacted to the POW who was lying there in midstream like an iron islet. The ship was in total contrast to the beautiful mountains to the west and the general scenery. On approach she looked even bigger. You could see all the guns, the mast and the bridge.

We approached the port quarter. There was a companion way ending on a float. Struggled up companion way with kit to quarter deck. Saluted the flag. Carried on with kit into an entry way through a corridor and down some steps. Fell in two lines outside the regulating office. All details were taken and one by one everyone was taken away.

Just before my turn, there was a mess call and everyone disappeared. A petty officer appeared on the scene and I told him that I was waiting to be given a mess to report to. He went into the Regulating Police Office, fished around and handed me a piece of paper telling me where to go.

He called over a seaman boy who helped me to carry my gear into the belly of the ship. I was taken to the seamens messdeck forward on the starboard side, next (abaft) to C.D.A. mess (caught disease ashore) which held men with siph etc. There I was turned over to the leading hand of the mess. He said he'd never had a signalman on his mess deck before. He realised I'd presumed that passage on a ship meant what it said, i.e. I was a passenger! and seizing the opportunity he decided to use me on his mess deck.

He showed me a locker for my gear and where to stow my hammock but said there was no place to sling the hammock, so I would have to sleep on a mess stool ( where you sat to eat meals). He then said he would employ me as a mess man and my job would be to assist in collecting the meals and cleaning the dishes afterwards when the seaman had returned to their duties. Then I would generally keep the mess clean. He then said as an afterthought that he would get one of the men to take me to the galley to get something to eat for dinner.

I went to the galley and after much complaining the cook supplied me with a dinner and a sweet which I came back and ate. I washed the dishes and took the gash to the chute to throw it overboard. Later that day all the men came for tea and stayed in the mess deck for the rest of the evening. That was when I decided to sort my clothes out, because I wasn't going to use my "blues" on account of moving into the tropics.

I sat on the mess table nearest the side of the ship, but there was already one rating sitting at the end of it. When I started sorting he began to talk to me and I found out that he came from a country vicarage near Alnwick, a part of the world that I knew well. I did not think that he was very happy because he had recently joined the ship himself from training. We talked about Northumberland, Alnwick and Berwick-on-Tweed, Coldstream and Kelso - places which we both knew well. He then asked me where I had come from before being posted to the POW and I told him I'd been on two small ships in the Patrol Service. He then asked me what they were and I told him the Bouvet IV (minesweeper) and the Northern Wave (asdic trawler). He constantly asked questions about what I'd been doing when suddenly I noticed that the noise in the mess had been reduced considerably.

When I turned around it looked as though everybody had been earwigging. I was very embarrassed, but then the crew joined in the questioning. By the time we finished there was a considerable change in their attitude towards me.

Next morning when I got up and the hands had to turn to after getting their breakfast, they started to talk to me. The mess tables were rigged athwartships, that is across the width of the ship. In addition there were lockers on the inward side of the mess to hold the ratings clothing and personal belongings. In one corner was the hammock stowage where the hammocks were held during the day. At night they were slung over the messdeck covering almost all of the space available. Some of the ratings used to sleep on the mess tables because space was at such a premium. I was then told I could sleep in the hammock accommodation.

As with most ships the peacetime complement was increased considerably by the increase of new weapons, radar, etc. and by the increase of guns such as anti-aircraft. Later on I will show that men were required to sleep in conditions which were totally unsuitable. When the ratings had gone to their various duties he showed me where the utensils were to wash the mess dishes and also those to clean the mess. After all the washing up was done I then took the slop bucket and affetr many struggles I found the chute When and said he would contact the Regulating Officer to find out.

Then my ignorance of the real navy took over. When we were told that we were to take passage on the POW I thought in civilian terms. After all, hadn't I taken passage from Newcastle to London on a ship of the Tyne Tees Shipping Company? To take passage meant travelling as a non-working passenger. I said I had no duties. Afterwards I found out that I had never heard the directive that I should report to my "part of the ship".

The leading hand over all promptly told me that I could take over the duties of messman. This meant keeping the mess tidy, fetching the meals and washing up. I didn't mind as any duty was something new. I soon found that I had lots of spare time and started to wander over the ship, especially on deck.

I was specially careful to give any officer I met a smart salute. On the third or fourth day I was going to throw the gash (messdeck waste) overboard via the gash shute (this was never done on convoys as it might attract subs to the passing of ships - we were passing too fast and on a solitary journey). As I approached the chute I noticed a solitary rating standing looking out to sea. He was dressed in blues and as I approached he turned and looked at me with increasing curiosity. I then noticed that he had a pair of signal flags on a badge on his arm.

He said "Aren't you a signalman?". I agreed. He then said "Is your name Robson?". Again I agreed. "Where have you been? the Warrant Bosun and the Chief have had people looking for you. You have been reported as missing the draft. You'd better get up to the bridge at once".

I threw the gash down the chute and said "O.K.". Down to the messdeck which was full of off duty hands. I told the killick what I had heard. Immediately the messdeck was full of laughter and noise. The noise died down then the killick said I had better report to the signal bridge. Following the killick's directions I made my way to the signal bridge, after changing into signalman's uniform (I'd been working in overalls). This was a part of the ship I'd never been to before. Dressed in my blues I eventually arrived on the sugnal bridge. It seemed to be full of signalmen. I asked the nearest one where the Chief was.

The Chief as a species was known to me. Greeted with curious looks he showed me to a door which led into the bridge communications office. Here sat what looked to me like an old gentleman who was busy with a sewing machine and a pair of tropical white trousers. I found out later that he mended, altered and made uniforms as a sort of paying hobby. He acted as a "Jewing Firm" and made a fair amount of money as he could manufacture a suit from scratch and was actually a dab hand at it. He glanced at me first with a casual look and then with greater attention. "Who are you?". "Robson, Chief". "Robson?". He paused. "Where the devil have you been?". "On a seaman's messdeck". "Just stand there lad, I'm going to have the Bosun in on this".

The bosun (lowest grade officer) was also an unknown species to me. He then went outside and asked one of the signal boys to ask the Bosun if he could attend the bridge on a matter of some urgency. Coming inside he said "We'll get this over at one go". I stood there in a state of some trepidation. Eventually the door opened and Signal Bosun Fisher entered. Signal Bosun was a commissioned rank to which he had been promoted from Chief Yeoman. Usually these officers never rose any higher. Later on I found out he was a native of North Shields and was very proud of the fact that he had totally eradicated his Geordie accent.

From the very first and from the explanations I gave, I gather that I was a little below par mentally. He asked me where I had been and what I had been doing since I had set foot aboard ship. He then asked me what I had been on. I told him the Bouvet IV minesweeper and the Northern Wave asdic trawler. He then asked me how long I'd been on these vessels and what I'd done on them. When he found out that I'd been the sole signalman and really hadn't any idea of shipboard life in the Patrol Service he visibly changed.

He then told me that he and his department had been caused much trouble. From subsequent conversation between him and the Chief I found out that I was the only one amongst the draft (except the P.O. and 2 leading rates) who had been to sea, telling me that I would be put on watchkeeping duties. The rest of the draft were daymen. I found out later that the shore authorities had been told that I had jumped ship and had asked the police to visit my home to see if I was there. Although I got off to a bad start with Fisher I realised months later that he had treated me very leniently. I wasn't given any sort of jankers (punishment), my misdemeanours apparently being written off.

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