By the time I was drafted I looked upon the destroyer almost as home and the prospect of Barracks made me even sorrier to leave. However, I had no choice and was sent back to Barracks. I suspect it was at the behest of a shore-based officer whose feathers I had ruffled. I had had an exasperating voyage, struggling with a silent set in which I knew the location and the result of the fault but not the cause, and short of totally stripping out every component I was unlikely to find the cause, so the odds were against success. Today there are rooms stacked with TV sets and computers under guarantee with similar irredeemable faults, it is a hazard of high-frequency technology.
In this instance, tiredness, cold, and being fed up, having spent hours fault-finding, only to be told it was something else, when the evidence I had put forward was transparent, forced me to tell the officer in words of one syllable exactly what I thought of his competence. – an act which probably saved my life, because shortly after I left my Hunt destroyer I heard it had been blown out of the water on the Malta convoy run in the Med.
For whatever reason, I found myself alone, on the wharf at Sheerness. I was the only one leaving the ship and so received ‘sippers’ in nearly every Mess on the ship and from nearly every rating in each Mess with the result that I was dumped on the jetty like a sack of potatoes, along with my hammock, my kit bag, suitcases and all – totally out for the count. I ultimately came to and when I put my hand in a jacket pocket I encountered it full of aspirin. Feeling in the other pocket, I was surprised to find it full of contraceptives, cynical farewell presents from the Sickbay Tiffy, a ‘friend’. There was a story which I believe was true and concerned sippers of Rum as celebration. On a larger ship than ours were twins and it was their 21st birthday. For twins to become 21 on the same ship would have gone round the lower deck like a whirlwind with the result everyone would be keen to wish them well, which meant sippers and the rest, from all over the ship – even, possibly, the wardroom. The following morning they were both found dead in their hammocks from alcohol poisoning. It doesn’t bear thinking what their parents felt, and there would have been a very subdued crew for a long time on the ship.
When I looked round Sheerness Docks I found the ship had gone. I pulled myself together and set off for the dockyard gates and the station to take me to London and then Portsmouth. Earlier I had filled my kit bag and hammock with cartons of cigarettes to stand me in good stead at the barracks but I had estimated without taking the Customs Officer into account. “Have you just come off that ship?” he asked, politely,. “Yes,” I whispered, hung over. “I take it your kit bag and hammock are filled with duty-frees?” He did not wait for a reply but just finished the statement. “Go back into the Yard and get rid of them and then come back here and be searched.”
I was staggered, but did as he said, it was experience speaking, not guesswork. I sold the cigarettes at cost and returned. He searched and then I left. Fortunately he did not do a body search. In the meantime I had put on a pair of sea-boot stocking and filled them with packets of cigarettes, I had some in my hatbox at the bottom of the kit bag and others here and there. When he searched the hammock and found none, that was it, honour had been satisfied, but I nonetheless did wonder if he had a few friends in the dockyard who were privy to his policies – even at nineteen I was cynical.