Shipbuilding is probably the most complicated and detailed engineering exercise, outside aeroplane design. The size of a ship, various hull designs, its use, all give multitudes of options from the thickness of the plates, to the design of door handles. All the equipment has to be installed which involves designing the positioning, the fixings and the power. Multiply this throughout the ship and the complexity of design is mind boggling, and is transferred to construction on the day the contract is signed It is therefore no wonder that in 1943, Belfast shipyard, Harland and Wolf, among others in Britain was working flat out with an enormous workforce.
Drafted in, in ’43, I joined the Port Wireless Officer’s Staff. We had a small office, a shed, on the edge of the largest dry-dock in the shipyard, the Thompson Dock. From there we telephoned our headquarters, Belfast Castle, and reported to the Port Wireless Officer, (the PWO), everything was going well even if not, and enquired his pleasure. The Castle had been the property of Lord Shaftsbury, and prior to the war, used for public functions. The HQ of the navy in Belfast, was HMS Caroline, a concrete bottomed WW1 warship. The Castle had already been taken over, divided into small offices. Ours, in the old ballroom was one of the nicest, with a view over Belfast Lough. In a tower at the East end was a large signalling lamp, which Wrens used for asking ships coming up Belfast Lough to identify themselves. The shed on the dry-dock had a couch doubling as a bed, the usual office equipment, plus our tools and spares for the radio sets we fixed. Our job was to inspect all the radio wiring and installations, make sure the equipment was in order, sail on the first trial and approve the work, – ships as large as the cruiser The Black Prince, and as small as landing craft. Sometimes I would also have to go to places like Greencastle, County Down, to repair sets for the Coastguard.
A Stupid Ritual, A Near Disaster
It was just before the Italian landings that several Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) were brought into Belfast to be fitted out as Landing Craft Guns (LCG’S). They were in several of the dry-docks, and the work was so urgent all the trades were working together, so there was controlled chaos, which meant that I had to work at night when thing had quietened down. The modifications to the LCGs consisted of making living quarters in the centre of the ships which would house the gun crews of Royal Marines and would also act as the support for the 4 inch guns they proposed to use for shelling the shore before the landings. To enter the dry-dock one passed through huge wrought iron gates, at least twelve feet high, supported on Gargantuan pillars. The gates were most impressive and were opened every morning and closed and locked every night. When I had finished work at two one morning, I found the gates were closed. It was dark, and no street lights due to the blackout. With a torch I managed to see enough to tie all my tools, meters and equipment, together with a length of flex. Wrapping the flex round my wrist I climbed to the top of the gate, hauled the gear up one side and down the other, and finally clambered down the gate, safe and sound – just – it had been a hazardous experience. The jolt came later. As I was walking back to the hut I found the walls on either side of the gate had been blasted away in the Blitz – I could have walked round the pillars and out of the dry-dock. I was l told the unions insisted the gate keeper was an essential part of security and he was to be retained. to continue opening and locking the gates morning and night. Such are the rocks of precedent upon which our war effort was built.
When I arrived back at the hut I was too tired to put up the blackout, instead I put on the electric fire and crashed out on the couch. After a while I woke thinking I was taking the flu, coughed, turned over and went to sleep again. I awoke twice more, but on the third occasion I lifted mytorch to see the time only to find the beam of the torch was no longer than two feet, the room was filled with a white choking smoke. Immediately I went to the door, I was both sick and dizzy. It transpired that someone had leaned a coil of rubber-covered telcathene cable against the fire and it was burning. I am convinced if I had gone to sleep just once more I would never have awakened.