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
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.