There is nothing more stimulating than sitting on a button on a warship when it is gathering speed. Button is the term used for the round pancake of wood set on top of the mast to protect the end from the weather. Radar relies on signals received through a special cable which connects the set in the ship to the aerial array at the top of the mast and in rough seas water might get in through damage to the copper casing of the cable making the aerial useless. Discovering this condition is simple, locating the damage is tedious and, in this case, hazardous. Normally this sort of testing is a routine carried out in harbour when the ship is still and everything is switched off, doing it at sea is only carried out in extremis, as on this occasion.
On top of the mast and at various points down it are gathered the aerials of a number of electronic devices, including the aerials of the large wireless transmitter If the latter was operating on full power, the current could blow a person off the mast. To avoid this there were safety switches, small metal connectors which were removed from all the various transmitters and handed to the Captain in person, before the ascent was attempted and retrieved only on reaching the deck once more. It is therefore reasonable to assume the Captain is aware that one of his charges is up there sitting on the button fiddling with an Avometer. We were quietly steaming along at the rear of the convoy, at the speed of the slowest ship, about six knots. I had my legs firmly crossed round the mast, my arms wrapped round the aerial support and was busy testing away in the sunshine. The ship’s proportions were about 250 feet long by 26 wide, a midget greyhound of the sea, such, that even in the calm sea on that day, she still rolled and pitched. The crew used to say she would pitch and roll on a wet flannel. One minute I was looking down at the deck to starboard, the next to port, but it was a gentle rhythm easy to become used to.
I was nearly finished when I heard a shout followed by the clang of the engine-room telegraph, and a face from the bridge was looking up at me and gesticulating. He had no need, the shudder of the mast, the rise of the bow and then the wicked sway of the mast told me we had an emergency and I was dispensable. Now I could not only see the deck I could see the sea below me on alternate rolls and I estimated we had doubled our speed and still rising. I just hung on and waited. In the end I think the emergency was solved because the cause was never made clear to me and within minutes we had slowed and were quietly regaining station. I finished my check and then slowly climbed down and retrieved the special key from the Captain. He said nothing and who was I to comment? For an instant, up there, I thought I was in trouble, but as time went on and I seemed secure enough, strange to say I enjoyed the experience.
Stimulation has a number of meanings not all pleasant. When we were on convoy on the East Coast we would pass Whitely Bay. On one trip we saw a light in the sky which told us Newcastle was being bombed and this, understandably, always made the Geordies we had on board furious and worried. There was an instruction to the RAF to avoid convoys as the latter had a propensity for opening up first and asking questions later, because it was not unheard of for German bombers returning from an unsuccessful raid to jettison their bombs on ships. Apparently the wake of ships in a cluster is clearly visible from the air on the darkest nights.
One night, we were closed up at action stations when the crews on the guns and the people on the bridge heard a plane. There was a system where we could use a recognition signal through the radar to identify friend from foe and when the Navigator asked we were able to tell him if it was a friendly aircraft, probably a stray limping back from a raid, but unfortunately, in this case and by this time, the itchy trigger fingers of the merchant men had opened up and scored a direct hit. Down below we felt the ship gather speed and turn quickly and we guessed we were going to the rescue. We heard later from the men on the upper deck that they had seen the orange light which pilots had attached to their May West life jackets, which were energised when in contact with the sea, but when we arrived where he had last been seen, there was no sign of him nor the light. We were all subdued and there was even an element of guilt, although none of us had anything to feel guilty about, we had not been the ones to open fire.