Bob’s Story   -   part one


I have long thought; as I am sure most of us have – what happened to friends we knew many years ago, I wonder what they did with their life! So, having read ‘Alan’s Story’, which I found very interesting and noting his comments about putting pen to paper, I am persuaded by my wife and my brother Alan to do just that, so here we go. I hope you find it of some interest.


I came into the world in St. James’s Hospital, Balham in January 1940. At the time my family; that is my Mum, Dad and two brothers, Joe and Alan lived in Bickersteth Road, Tooting.


I won’t mention the war! We’ll skip that bit.


When I was about 9 years old I met a girl who lived nearby, Daphne, who was later to become my wife. We married in December 1958 and almost exactly one year later we were blessed with a son Robert; sadly Robert died in a road accident in 2004. We went on to have three other children, Jill, Simon and Phillip. We also have 9 Grandchildren and 5 Great grandchildren.


I joined the Lifeboys when I was 9 years and later progressed to the BB but more on that later.


I attended Brixton School of Building with a view to becoming an architect and went on to work for a firm of architect’s in Central London. Whilst I enjoyed the work it was; as far as I was concerned, mundane, so on an impulse I joined The Fleet Air Branch of The Royal Navy. I enlisted for the shortest period - just to get a taste of life at sea; was it for me? Well I had 9 years to find out!


The first stop was Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire; the main base; at the time, for The Fleet Air Arm – a large air base known as H.M.S. Daedalus where recruits from all over the UK were brought together. After signing on the dotted line and swearing allegiance to The Queen we were, en mass transported to Nuneaton and H.M.S. Gamecock where we were kitted out with an enormous number of things – the height of fashion – well for matelots. This base is where I was to get my basic training. It was also where I had my first trip in an airplane, it was an old biplane; and as far as I remember, it took about 12 passengers – it bumped along the grass runway slowly gathering speed, clawing its way into the air. The trip didn’t last long but it was great. At this base we learned the principals of flight, about boats, ships and a whole host of other important stuff. When we finished this phase of our training it was back to H.M.S. Daedalus where the group were divided into the trades to be followed. I went to a satellite of Daedalus, Seafield Park, at Hillhead. This was an old ivy covered manor house in the middle of nowhere with a lot of out buildings where I was going to learn the intricacies of safety equipment, which included aircraft ejector seats, parachutes, dinghies and an insight into survival if downed in unfriendly territory. I passed the course with flying colours. and was then told; as were others, that we were being transferred to the deck handling division because they were short of staff. The deck handlers were responsible for all aircraft movements on board ships plus aircraft fire and rescue afloat and on naval air-stations. So it was back to H.M.S. Daedalus where there was a concrete mock-up of a flight deck and the school of aircraft fire fighting.


Early in January 1959 I went to Devonport to join my first ship; H.M.S. Eagle, a 43,000 ton aircraft carrier. It had 16 4.5inch guns on twin mountings and numerous 40mm bofours guns on multiple mountings and there was a crew of 2,500. This was the first time I had ever been near a ship of any size – this was something else, a leviathan in every sense of the word.


It took me an age to find my living quarters known as a mess, this was home to 120 men of the flight deck division. I was issued with a hammock. When not in use this was secured with 5 half-hitches and stowed up-right in a rack. I had to start learning a whole new language, such as deck (floor), bulkhead (walls) deckhead (ceiling) and I learned that sailors went on rabbit runs (going ashore to buy gifts to take home). A lot of orders were given by boson’s pipe or bugle calls. The crew were split into watches (shifts). When the rum was issued at mid-day anyone under age (20 years) had to vacate the mess, not a thing that was up for discussion.


A day or so after I joined the ship it sailed, when land was just smudge on the horizon the ship turned into wind and aircraft, Sea Hawks, Sea Venons, Wyvens, Gannets; with contra-rotating props on the nose and Skyraiders joined the ship from Naval airbases in the South of England. The next stop – Gibraltar.


When the ship was at sea, aircraft; usually 10 or 12, and an hour later another sortie was launched and the aircraft launched an hour earlier were recovered. This routine went on every hour day and night, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. The ship was normally at sea for 10 to 14 days at a stretch. For the crew the work pattern was 4 hours on, 4 hours off except for the dog watches which were 2 hours long. Flying stopped just before entering harbour and started again just after putting to sea again. Tiredness took on a new meaning – like the other members of the flight deck crew I could literally sleep standing up.


Gibraltar was the first foreign port that I had ever been in. In the harbour and bay were several British aircraft carriers, most of the US 6th. fleet, French and Canadian aircraft carriers and all had escort ships, oilers and supply ships. At the time Gibraltar had just two bars; both in the main street. The bar I picked was heaving with matelots, the only locals were those working there. At the back of the bar was a long wooden counter behind which was a very large mirror. There was a small stage to one side of the bar. On this stage was a female dancer doing a pseudo Spanish dance, wearing a typical Spanish voluminous dress, castanets clicking away ten to the dozen. A drunken British matelot in front of the stage threw a drink at the dancer, she, side-stepped, he then threw a chair at her. The chair missed but now he had her full, undivided attention. She picked the chair up by the back, stepped down off of the stage and with a single swing of the chair hit the drunk round the head with it.


A fight broke out. With a terrific crash the mirror behind the bar disintegrated into a million pieces. The bar staff either got out and those who couldn’t hid behind the bar. The only thing I can liken it to is a fight in a cowboy film; only this was for real. British and American shore patrols arrived on the scene and in their own special way sorted it out with the clubs they carried. Order was restored! The bar looked like a war zone. The ships crews; between them, later paid for the damage.


After Gibraltar the ship went on exercise into the North Atlantic, just above the Arctic Circle, the cold was intense. The next port of call was a warm Naples after which there was a lot more flying and then into Malta. Before joining the Navy the nearest I had to going to a foreign country was the Isle of Wight this was all very different. More flying and then back to Gibraltar before returning to Devonport where members of the crew’s direct families were taken to sea for the day. Then it was off to Breast, France for the 10th anniversary of NATO after which we returned to Weymouth for a visit by The Queen and Prince Charles, after which the ship returned to Devonport and was paid off. For me it was a posting to the helicopter base at Portland where I joined the fire crew. One of the duties of the fire crew was cliff rescue, so I spent time learning abseiling and cliff climbing with a Royal Marine instructor.


Five months on and it was back to sea, this time as a member of the flight deck crew on-board HMS Albion, an aircraft carrier of some 24,000 tons. This time it was off to the Far East, a trip lasting 17 months, ‘showing the flag’. Calling at Gibraltar, Sicily, Malta, Athens (Greece), through the Suez Canal to Aden and on to Singapore, then to Subic Bay in the Philippines, then Hong Kong, South Korea, and then to Yokohama and Yokosuka in Japan. Then it was back to Hong Kong and Singapore. Followed by a 2 week visit to Pulau Tioman an uninhabited island off the East coast of Malaysia, where I operated with the fleet diving team, living in a tent on the beach and planting dummy limpet mines on warships at night. The next port of call was Ceylon (as it was then) followed by Karachi in Pakistan and then on to Mombasa in Kenya where I spent some time at a game reserve at a place called Voi. Then it was back to Portsmouth via the Suez Canal. It has to be added that all the time we were at sea we were flying 24/7.


An incident worth mentioning… In the early hours of the morning; The ship is at night flying stations. The flight has been cleared ready for aircraft launched earlier to be recovered. I am ‘hook number’, which entails making sure that as aircraft land their arrester hook disengages from the arrester wire. The weather is clear and for several miles behind the ship is an extended line of twinkling aircraft navigation lights as the planes closed on the ship’s stern. They land at about one minute intervals. As they cross the flight deck they are travelling at about 130mph and on catching the wire they come to a stop in less than 100 yards. Two aircraft have landed safely, the third is on the way in. As it got closer it became clear that something is wrong, the aircraft was heading for the ship’s island. I hear over my headset that flying control can’t make contact with the plane; it is thought that the two man crew may have gone to sleep. Everyone; apart from essential personnel, are ordered off of the flight deck. Fire teams and medics are closed up and ready. The aircraft crosses the end of the deck hook up. It then banked very steeply to port in an attempt to make a circuit and try again but it’s port wing tip hit the deck and the aircraft somersaulted and as it went over the port side of the ship, it blew-up. The spot was marked by a marker-buoy dropped into the sea. Together with our escort ships we search the area for two days, all that was found were small pieces of wreckage. Thank goodness this didn’t happen very often.


The ship paid off, for me it was back to fire crew at Portland. This posting was the only time my wife joined me in married quarters and where our daughter was born.


In March 1962 it was back to HMS Albion. The ship had been refitted for combined operations. The catapults had been removed. We would now be operating helicopters and landing craft. Again we were heading for the Far East. We didn’t know it then but, we would be away from home for nearly 1½ years. In November 1962 the ship left Portsmouth, en route we called at Gibraltar and on through the Suez Canal and into Aden after which we paid a visit to Mombasa.


After leaving Mombasa and on the way to Singapore we were ordered to make good speed because trouble had broken out in Borneo. Indonesian forces had invaded.


We docked in Singapore at about 4pm where fuel lines etc .were waiting for us. Also waiting for us were artillery pieces and row upon row of lorry’s loaded with all the paraphernalia needed for the defence of Borneo. A few short hours later at about 8pm we were back at sea and heading for the coast of Borneo. We were to stay at sea for three and half months over the Christmas period without a break.


We ploughed up and down the coast of Borneo supporting the army with our helicopters and landing craft. Troops were airlifted from the jungle onto the ship for a rest and to reequip. Christmas was just another working day with flying from dawn to dusk.


In early March 1963 the ship returned to Singapore for rest and recuperation, but that did not mean we were going to be sitting around doing nothing, far from it. I had been trained by the Marines as a canoeist. Whilst the ship was in dock I and three others were going on exercise. The four of us; two canoes and other equipment, were dropped off at a small village on a river about 100 miles North of Singapore where we were surrounded by jungle. We were to paddle down to the sea, round the coast, up the Eastern side of Singapore and back to the ship. It was to take a week plus a spare day. Breaks were taken in the boat as the jungle came right down into the river. Day three took us to a huge rubber plantation which was run by two Englishman. A tour of the plantation was so interesting we decided to spend our spare day there. The four of us slept in two tents on a lawn by the river. In the early hours of the morning I was woken by a noisy commotion and very bright lights. My Irish buddy was gone, as I left the tent I blinded by the intense light, ‘Paddy’ was threatening to kill anyone who came close with a machete in one hand and a knife in the other. I managed to calm Paddy down; the perceived threat was from a team of Royal Marines who had been sent to find us – the ship had been ordered back to Borneo on the hurry up.


The ship then spent it’s time plying the coast of Borneo supporting the ground troops with the occasional breaks in either Singapore or Hong Kong until late 1963 when we headed West. Rumour control went into overdrive; we were going home – no, we were going to Mombassa, no it was Aden. We went through the Suez Canal, yes we were going home. It transpired that all the rumours were wrong, now we got the official version. We went to Tripoli in Libya to collect some heavy lift helicopters; Belvederes. Then it was back through the Canal and on to the coast of Borneo.


The ship returned to Portsmouth in mid May 1964. As families came on board and into the hanger deck; which had been cleared, and a buffet laid out on tables, they were announced. It was an awkward situation where both sides of the family were uncertain – ‘is it him/her’, children had grown; they were 1½ years older. It was then off on leave. You do not realise just how much things change – striped toothpaste, the Beatles!


After leave I joined the Navy test squadron at Boscombe Down on the A303 near Stonehenge. After some months I was sent to Yeovilton where I was Leading Hand in charge of the fire station and where my brother Alan joined The Navy - just for the day...


So here we go with the tale of the reluctant matelot:


It was ‘Air Day’ at Yeovilton, my wife and children together with Alan’s wife travelled up from Devon. Alan travelled to the Air base from London arriving long before the proceeding began. He wanted to know where he could get something to eat, I suggested that he eat with my crew on the base, which entailed him wearing overalls etc. to fit in with the rest of the duty fire crew. We all travelled together on a six wheeled all terrain dual purpose fire engine, to the dining hall. At one end of the dining hall near the door the duty fire crew had their own reserved table with a red emergency telephone thereon. We had just sat down to breakfast when - guess what – you’ve got it; we were called out to a fire. Alan - ” what do I do? ” Bob - “come with us and hang on tight”. With that we all ran hell for leather from the dining hall. Now it would be true to say that any emergency call gets the adrenalin flowing but I would take a small wager that Alan’s adrenalin was a lot higher than ours. We were called off en route to the call. Later in the day when Alan’s wife saw him, overall’d, with the fire crew she must have thought that the days of the press gang had returned.


The Navy had taken me to 17 different countries and I had learned fire fighting, cliff rescue, I was a heavy duty driver, I had also become a shallow water diver, I was trained on survival, I knew how to operate small motor boats and canoes.


I was discharged from The Royal Navy on 9th. December 1966 on a month’s leave. I had a job to go to; The Metropolitan Police, and a family waiting for me but as I walked out of the gate at Portsmouth Barracks I felt totally lost!


Now for a new adventure; The Police… another story…