Royal Navy 1941 to ’46 in order, The big bang and a view of Edunburgh

The Big Bang I relate this because afterwards I found the incident in a way, rather funny, and contrary to all I had been led to believe about the imperturbability of the Navy in a crisis. We were sitting at lunch in the Chiefs’ and POs’ Mess. The table ran fore and aft of the ship which meant that the senior men sat farthest from the draught coming down the ladder leading to the upper deck while I, the despised cuckoo in the nest, the interloper, was seated immediately beside the ladder. I suspect we were either eating roast beef and potatoes or corned beef hash, depending on which end of the trip it was, when we were surprised by a bang which caused the side of the ship literally to move, in and out, like a biscuit tin which has received a thump. These Hunt destroyers were designed for speed rather than to resist the onslaught of attack so we had no real armour plate except in vital areas like the bridge and the gun turrets. Indeed the running joke was that the designers had purposely made the hull thin so that a shell would go in one side and out the other without exploding – an impossible suggestion but intended to amuse.

“We’ve been hit” several voices shouted and as some of the Mess had been in the drink already during the war, they were a little apprehensive, not to put too fine a point on it. Like the rest I jumped up and started to grab the handrail of the ladder intending to get out as soon as possible, but a big hand grabbed the back of my jersey and I was pulled out of the way and a number of the men were up the ladder like monkeys. Again I got my hand on the ladder and the same thing happened. In the end, although I was first to the ladder I was last out. I would not suggest for one minute there was panic, just determination not to be left behind.

When we reached the upper deck all was made clear. Near the horizon, yes, all that distance away, a sister ship was dropping depth charges and what had shattered the lunch was the tremendous pressure-wave which had travelled miles through the water undiminished to almost deafen us in the Mess.

Edinburgh For some reason I have never fathomed, the sailors called Edinburgh ‘The New’ – pronounced noo; we would ‘go up the Noo’. To me it was a cold city, closed to strangers and especially sailors. I remember the chap in our Mess who was a one-time lecturer, I’ll call him Reg, invited his wife up there during boiler cleans. He had arranged a completely irregular code with her which could have put him in jug if he’d been caught. She was able, from his letters, to know when we expected to dock and would meet him when he was on leave for the four days. She would book a room and he would join her. I believe it was the hotel at Prince’s Street Station, which annoyed him. When he received the bill at the end of his stay it was made out to Mrs XX (his name) and Friend. In 1942 that was just not on, the implications were implicit. He took the place apart including the manager.

On my first visit I initially went to the Salvation Army to book a bed for the night and was told that there were only beds in the Annexe. Annexes were quite a common feature of the ad hoc bunk bed doss, so I took no notice and went about my evening’s enjoyment with my bed ticket in my pocket. Come midnight I went in search of the Annexe and the bed. I found the former, but when I was dispatched to a pile of used blankets set in a rectangle scratched in chalk on the floor of a church hall, I jibbed, left and went to find accommodation elsewhere.

I met a policeman on Prince’s Street who directed me to the Station where he said they were putting Servicemen up for the night. They were, in the left luggage office, in the racks usually used for suitcases. There I was pigeonholed, cramped, and, by morning, indented like a waffle because no palliasse or support whatever had been provided to cover the slats of the racks and they had bitten into me. This experience reinforced my conception of the attitude of the locals to Servicemen. They still seemed to be in the era of the ‘No Dogs, No Sailors Admitted’, a sign, which I was told by embittered Regulars was prevalent in Southsea before the war, Southsea being the posh part of Portsmouth. I suppose there was error on both sides – they were certainly cold, and we could be a bit rough at times.

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