After three months in Newcastle we left for the Isle of man where we were billeted in boarding houses on the front at Douglas. Further along the front, similarly housed but behind barbed wire, were the Italian internees, mostly harmless waiters and restaurateurs who would probably have been a greater asset to the war effort than some of us.
Unsurprisingly, none of us realised the welcoming officer, the Entertainments Officer was John Pertwee, the actor, later to be of Dr Who and of Worsel Gummage fame. It was his job to inveigle us into contributing to the overall entertainment on the island. With a pleasant, innocent smile he enquired if we played rugby and those foolish enough to admit to it were promptly enrolled in the team and issued with navy blue kit. Later he was back recruiting volunteers for an amateur show to be put on at the local theater.
The rooms in the boarding houses had been modified to be small ‘cabins’, the naval euphemism for a hat-box. We slept on two-tiered steel bunk beds. The ground floor was given over to a dining room and a lounge in which we were supposed to study, but in which we mostly played a gambling bastardisation of Ludo called Uckers. Each morning we were marshalled on the promenade and marched up to Douglas Head. The building there, once a hotel, was converted into a radar signal school. Radar in those days was incorrectly called RDF, or radio direction finding, as a cover for what it really did, as the Germans were understood not to have it. The originally designs were for use in aircraft and consequently small and of limited range. We were being trained on more substantial versions for use in ships as well. The theory was difficult to master in such a short time, and the distractions of being on the Isle of Man, where the war seemed so far away, didn’t help. There was a dance hall where we tried to keep up with the local girls’ terpsichorean expertise, there was poker, Uckers, and the local services canteens. Finally, of course there was Lieutenant Pertwee and his bloody rugby, and I use the term advisedly.
He had omitted to tell us the RAF personnel stationed on the IOM had been especially selected for their rugby expertise, if they had a ‘blue’ or better still an international cap, all the better. It seemed that to retain a posting to the IOM as a member of the RAF required only one perquisite – to be an established, seventeen stone member of the rugby elite. Anything less and you could be on your way PDQ. We, the newly arrived Navy, eager to get off study, no matter the excuse, uninitiated into the mores of our sister service, – we thought of them as sissies – ran out onto the field of carnage with a light heart. I remember very little of the game except as it applied to me. I was not, I fear, seventeen stone, I was barely ten and a half, and this was a vital statistic. I don’t think we, as a team, were doing too well. There was one bloke on the other side whom I’m sure was referred to in terms unfit to be repeated. He was an oft capped international, was easily heavier than three of us put together, and belligerent with it. At one point in the game he picked up the ball, practically on his own line and started lumbering straight down the field. He had managed to evade a number of those late tackles the coaches take exception to, the ones where the tackler hits the ground gently, but only after the runner is well past. Mistakenly I thought that I was made of sterner stuff. I knew how the job should be done, and proceeded to demonstrate – silly me! I tackled him around the knees, head on – literally. About three minutes later, when I was brought round, I heard that I had not even caused him to stutter in his lope for the posts and a score, I had made no impact in any way, I was as a mere gnat, I was also unconscious. My first and only brush with first class rugby had been ignominious and salutary. It reinforced the laws of the lower deck, ‘never volunteer and always plead ignorance’, and to think how gentlemanly and simple the game was then, fifty years ago, today I would be dead