Within a very short time of being in Barracks I was given my draft to Belfast, some place in Ireland I had never heard of, in a country I knew nothing about. My mental image when I received the news was of being sent to a windswept, featureless bog with small white houses dotted about. I was not well pleased. The trip from Portsmouth to Belfast was long, unpleasant and unmemorable. We were met at the railway station in Belfast and taken to the Caroline, an old grey has-been of a ship, allegedly with a concrete bottom, which was used, and still is, as the titular Base of the Navy for Belfast. It was here we were assembled to be taken to find lodging in the grey Admiralty bus. To say we were miserable as the few of us got into that empty, dull bus and were trundled through the narrow, dark, wet streets in late December, would certainly be no over-statement . Why the powers, that were in charge, thought dumping me and my mate Bunny in Belfast on Christmas Eve, was likely to further the war effort, was beyond our understanding.
The bus had hardly stopped in a street before women rushed out with cries of “I’ll take two”, or one or three – whatever. We were dished out like food parcels to the starving, with no idea of what we were being let in for. Bunny and I were allocated to a Mrs Plump, a sharp lady of ample proportions, hair pulled back in a bun, arms akimbo, a toughie all right, but fair – well at first anyway. What subsequently followed was of our joint making. That first weekend was an eye opener. Strangers in a strange town rarely see the best. Unlike tourists, who generally have a foreknowledge, we had no such guide, it was dark, blacked-out and raining. Having dumped our kit, had a cup of tea, we left to reconnoitre the City. Naturally we went into the first pub we found. When that got a bit hairy we crossed the road to a dance hall where Yanks were being bloodied – literally. Unpromising and depressing.! The lot of us had been fed up when we arrived and what we saw as we peered out the partially steamed-up windows of the bus made our future look bleak and in those first few days our first impressions seemed to be confirmed.
The following day, Christmas Day, the town was empty, public transport was practically non-existent, and we were to be welcomed at the HMS Caroline for Christmas dinner, an equally dismal affair, as most of the Navy in Belfast were living ‘ashore’ and had their corporate feet firmly planted under civilian tables about the City. There was only one way we could go and that was up, nothing could conceivably have been worse. From the depths of despondency we started to reassess the real Belfast and more to the point, the real Belfast people. We had a small office, really 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), that everything was going well, even if it was not and enquired what his pleasure was at the same time. The Castle had been the property of Lord Shaftsbury and had been used for public functions prior to the war. When I joined the crew of HMS Caroline, the Castle had already been taken over, divided into small offices and ours was one of the nicest, with a view over Belfast Lough and was part of what had previously been the old ballroom. There is a tower at the North end and in that tower 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 which doubled as a bed, the usual office equipment, together with our tools and spares for many of the radio sets we were intended to fix. I was not the best riser in the mornings, and as I often had to work through the night, as the shipyard was on a round-the-clock shift system and there were only two of us. It could also be said that my extra curricular activities sometimes kept me out late also. Anyway, I considered that provided I was efficient and diligent, I should be able to run my life as I liked, rather than on the preconceived tramlines of the Navy’s way. Once I was in the routine I had little compunction in bending the rules. One of the slants I employed was to get up, throw on enough clothing to appear in public, walk down the road to the corner shop and use their telephone to inform the PWO that everything was all right and make the standard enquiry. It was only years later that the daughter of the person he was billeted with, the daughter I later married, informed me that he knew of my deception. He was a close one, he never said anything to me, perhaps his views on the Naval straight-jacket coincided with mine. Apparently he said to her, “Riggs telephones me from the shop at the bottom of his road and he thinks I assume he’s at the shipyard,” – sneaky I call it – on both sides.