Shipbuilding is probably the most complicated and detailed engineering exercise, outside aeroplane design. The size of a ship, various hull designs, its use, all give multitudes of options from the thickness of the plates, to the design of door handles. All the equipment has to be installed which involves designing the positioning, the fixings and the power. Multiply this throughout the ship and the complexity of design is mind boggling, and is transferred to construction on the day the contract is signed It is therefore no wonder that in 1943, Belfast shipyard, Harland and Wolf, among others in Britain was working flat out with an enormous workforce.
The shed on the dry-dock had a couch doubling as a bed, the usual office equipment, plus our tools and spares for the radio sets we fixed. Our job was to inspect all the radio wiring and installations, make sure the equipment was in order, sail on the first trial and approve the work, – ships as large as the cruiser The Black Prince, and as small as landing craft. Sometimes I would also have to go to places like Greencastle, County Down, to repair sets for the Coastguard.
Belfast Shipyard Part 3There were other rackets, the pokers with the multi-coloured handles were in nearly every house in the city and most workmen carried a cigarette lighter, which had been made either in the ‘yard or the Aircraft Factory.
Sailors were not averse to rackets either. There was a ferry, which ran from Pollock Dock to the shipyard. Naval vessels, which came in for minor repairs sometimes went to Pollock Dock, where the Customs officials were a dour strict lot. The sailors would then take the ferry to the shipyard, still ostensibly being within the precincts of the Harbour, and then take a tram out of the shipyard gate with their cigarettes and rum intact,
When in barracks, and at sea, we lived on tinned milk to such an extent that I have never been able to drink it since, I hated it so much. There was a saying that the ships at Scapa Flow could run aground on the milk tins, which had been thrown over board over the years. This meant that crates of milk tins were forever being brought aboard or transferred from naval vessels.
There was a story going the rounds in Pollock Dock which while seeming far fetched, was sufficiently technical and detailed to be true. With plenty of time at sea it was a simple matter to collect carefully opened and emptied tins of milk, solder the lids back on, another one inside about and inch from the top, and after filling the small compartment at the top with milk, finally sealing it with a lid taken from another tin. The perpetrator had therefore created a tin with two hidden compartments, one shallow and one comprising the rest of the tin, with the smaller one containing milk. All that was required then was for the larger compartment to be filled with rum and this was allegedly done through holes in the tin beneath the label and sealed with some form of glue as soldering would have caused an explosion. Once made the tins could be used repeatedly.
It only remained for the crate of rum to be carried through the gate in a Naval vehicle. If the Custom’s men were suspicious, the tins would seem to be the real thing in all respects and if pierced would spill milk. The excuse for the transfer would be that the milk was thought to be off and was being replaced. Whether it was actually true I never discovered, but as I heard it from a number of quarters I am inclined to believe it. Rum, after all was fetching a good price, with shortages in every pub.