It All Started With A Fish Box One day, in calm weather, the Petty Officers Messman appeared on deck and sat down to scrape a fish box. No one took any notice, but as the day progressed so did the fish box. He shaped the sides, added supports to the bottom, made a hinged towing bar with a cross handle and started to paint it. We dropped anchor at Sheerness, waiting to pick up another convoy and when we went ashore the Messman went also and came back on board with four wheels he had bought. Within a few days we were treated to the rumble of a little truck being trundled round the deck, complete with small seat, swivelling front wheels and painted like a gypsy’s caravan. It was a present for his daughter. Needless to say that was not the end of the matter – far from it.
On our ship there were two brothers in authority and competition. Both were Chief Petty Officers, one was the Bosun, responsible for the smooth running of the ship and the other was the Chief Gunner’s Mate, responsible for discipline and gunnery. Both were of a jealous disposition. The little trundling fish box had given the Gunner’s Mate an idea. The next time in harbour he disappeared over the side with a bottle of rum in his hip pocket, only to return from the dockyard with lengths of steel strip and some sheets of plywood. We were all intrigued, none more so than my friend the Gunnery Artificer, an associate, if not a friend of Guns, as the Gunner’s Mates were generally called.
Our curiosity was soon satisfied, we were dragged in to help. I have often found that people in authority get a bright idea but expect everyone else to carry it out. In this case it was the construction of a doll’s pram. The Artificers were expected to forge the springs and make the axles, the seamen made the body and my bloke, an artist in civilian life who was doing a roaring trade in rum painting water colour portraits of wives and girlfriends from photos, was hauled in to paint those gold lines all good Tansad prams carried.
We arrived in port at the end of yet another convoy and who should come down the jetty and be brought aboard but Mrs Gunner’s Mate complete with Miss Gunner’s Mate – Happy Families indeed. They disappeared into the caboosh of the Gunner’s Mate only to reappear with the pram, a doll lying there and the last we saw of them was the proud child and the self-satisfied grin of the Gunner’s Mate. The Customs men never did discover the butter, sugar, rum and cartons of cigarettes the little girl wheeled through the dockyard gate so grandly and so innocently.
You might think the matter stopped there. Indeed you might wish it did, but history demands that I record the next act. Act III. The Rivals. The Bosun, Guns brother, could not be outdone, his reputation and self esteem demanded bigger and better, and bigger and better was what we saw. The two-ring Lieutenant, Jimmy the One, The First lieutenant, the Captain’s right hand man, was nobody’s fool when it came to conning a ship, dealing out retribution for misdemeanours, but he was putty in the Bosun’s hands. The Bosun approached him and explained that there were parts of the ship which needed repair and that the next time we were in harbour he would arrange to put it in hand, all he needed was a signature on a chitty. Jimmy signed.
The next time we were in harbour a forest of timber and steel appeared at the gangway, carried by dockyard ‘Mateys’. It was brought aboard and men were detailed to stow it. Off we went again. The next time we docked, the timber disappeared along with the Bosun and a bottle of rum. The Bosun returned empty handed. On the next trip we dropped anchor at Sheerness at the mouth of the Thames; where the Bosun went to a second hand shop, bought a cheap inlaid box, with a receipt written in pencil. Back at Rosythe a beautiful bed complete with steel frame, springs, polished like new, was brought on board from the dockyard.. My bloke painted Mickey Mouse and Minny on the ends, the receipt for box now read ‘One large child’s bed.’ and all was ready for transport through the dockyard gate. ‘Great oak trees from little acorns grow’