Food was in short supply throughout the war, we were not starving in the true sense, but our diets were insufficient to maintain that layer of fat which we might have carried just before the war and by 1944 I weighed only ten and a half stone with a ribcage like a washboard. I now weigh over 15 stone. I had never experienced hunger before this. Being evacuated there was a prevalent barter system in country districts, which cushioned us against the rigours of food rationing and I suspect my parents had made sure I was well fed. When working in Westminster lunch out was probably a useful supplement, but naval life was a different thing altogether.
My hunger started immediately I joined, and as we were badly paid, ten shillings a fortnight to start with, I had to find other sources of food. The obvious place at the Butlins camp was the kitchens, supervised by Wrens. One or two of us therefore cultivated the acquaintance of some of the Wrens with the result we all benefited. There was also a scheme there, operated by the more deft and more unscrupulous, which enabled them to improve their share to the detriment of their mates and that was the multi-fork system. It was not for tall people, short people were better at it. It was pure theft, and not worth a mere couple of sausages, especially as one could not gauge from whom one was stealing as seating was random. The system was quite logical.. We were fed in the old Butlins dining hall, on food already laid out, on trestle tables in rows, even before we were allowed into the building,. The vultures armed themselves with several forks, moved along between table and bench-seats to find a seat, and in passing, pierced a sausage from a plate with one of the forks and immediately secreted sausage and fork. This was repeated and then when the vulture sat down at his own plate he jabbed the forks, sausage and all into the underside of the table and then withdrew them one at a time to eat. It was a lot more difficult to do than describe. The injured parties would proclaim their loss and depending upon the whim of either the cooks or the supervising authority, the deficiency might be made good from the left-overs otherwise the unfortunate went without.
In Portsmouth Barracks, the rations there were so slight that they had actually to be guarded. Each class occupied a table in the dining hall and was supplied in the evening with a day’s rations of margarine, bread, jam and sugar which was all kept in what were referred to in those days as a ‘safe’ – a cupboard, with punched, zinc grills set in wooden frames for the sides and door. The cupboards were intended to be kept somewhere cool and ‘safe’ – that is, safe from vermin as they were often kept outside the house, particularly in summer. In this case the vermin walked upright. We were so hungry, one member of the class had to sleep on the Mess table with his pillow against the door of the safe, so no one else could steal the contents; although they could disappear through the day.. I still believe that one of the reasons for the lack of food was because a highly organised Mafia spirited some of the rations out through the gate, even assuming they ever came in.
Any barracks was set up for graft in a number of areas, and where long serving people in authority lived ‘ashore’, in the outside community, it was a racing certainty there would be shenanigans. There was the classic story of the officer in the twenties who stole the Admiral’s pinnace, a steam launch costing about half a million pounds by today’s standards. He had it loaded on a horse drawn cart and took it out through the gates, unchallenged because it had passed that way on other occasions on its way for repairs. The reason he was caught was because he had taken it up a hill which was too steep for the horses to pull.
At the Festival of Britain in the 50’s, one of the men building the Festival Hall was stopped at the gate each night wheeling a wheelbarrow full of straw, which he claimed was bedding for his rabbits. The security man discussed the keeping of rabbits at length to relieve his boredom, and let him go. This went on for a week and then stopped. A year later the security man was in a pub when he passed the man with the rabbits and enquired after them. The latter, smiled, put down his pint and said “God Bless you mate! I wasn’t tak’n’ straw out, I was tak’n’ weelbarrers.”