John Begent - The 2nd World War: A Personal Reminiscence

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John Begent 1925-1994
Photo taken in 1943

My father John Begent was born in 1925 and lived as a boy in Ewell, Surrey. He was educated at Kings College School, Wimbledon.

From 1943 - 47 he served in the Royal Navy on small ships in the Mediterranean clearing mines as the Allied forces liberated Greece and the Greek Islands.

In 1948 he joined the British Colonial Service and found himself posted to Bekwai in the Ashanti region on Ghana (then the Gold Coast) in West Africa.

The following about his experiences during the 2nd World War is an extract from his memoirs written for his grandchildren in 1992.




My home was, and still is, at Ewell, 14 miles south-west of London. From 1938 I attended Kings College School, Wimbledon, travelling daily six miles up the line towards London (Waterloo). I was 14 at the outbreak of war. On 3rd September 1939 I was at a Crusaders (Bible Class) Camp at Thurlestone in South Devon. That morning we were all gathered in the large marquee to listen to a broadcast by the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announcing that, following the invasion of Poland, Britain was now at war with Germany. The camp broke up the next day, and we returned home by what seemed a very slow train. The main stations in London were thronged with extra travellers, such as Army, Navy and Air Force Reservists returning to their units, and children being evacuated to country districts to avoid the expected bombing. That came, but not until the following year.

Ever since the Munich crisis of 1938 over German claims on Czechoslovakia the civilian population had been encouraged to prepare for air raids ¬"Air Raid Precautions" or A.R.P. for short. Everyone was issued with a Gas Mask; and one Saturday afternoon I wore it in a Gas Chamber in which a tear gas canister was set off, just to show that the mask was effective if fitted properly. My bedroom was adaptable as a gas proof room by fitting a plywood screen with felt round the edges over the window and hanging a heavy blanket inside the door. In the event Poison Gas was never used, but we still had to carry our masks with us whenever we went out of the house.

Air Raid shelters were prepared. For households in vulnerable areas individual "Anderson" shelters (named after the Home Secretary of the day, Sir John Anderson) were available. These consisted of a short tunnel of corrugated steel bolted together; the shelter was then partially sunk in the garden soil, the excavated earth being banked on top. The main problem was that, being below ground level, the rain tended to collect in them. The more affluent, like our neighbour, had a shelter built of bricks, with a solid concrete roof and floor. This still stands.

My father and mother, who had experienced German airship ("Zeppelin") and aircraft ("Gothas") raids during the 1914-18 war, both joined the "A.R.P." and underwent training as Wardens. Their job was to patrol their area at night and check that no lights were showing - every house and building had to be "blacked out" and all street lighting was extinguished to make it difficult for an enemy bomber pilot to determine exactly where he was. Traffic lights continued to operate, but each lamp was screened so that the light showed dimly as a "+". In the event of an air raid they were to see that people took cover in shelters. When bombs dropped they were expected to be the first on the scene, and summon help that might be needed from fire and ambulance services. My father made sure that at home we were equipped to deal with small incendiary bombs which could be dropped in their thousands to start fires. There was a "stirrup pump" and hose with which thin jet of water from a bucket could be directed at the fire, a galvanised bucket to hold sand with which to smother the blaze and a long handled scoop with which, in theory at least, the bomb could be picked up and carried where it could do no damage. I still have the stirrup pump and the scoop.

Rations books, designed to ensure a fair distribution of available food, much of which had to be imported, and to prevent "hoarding" were also issued. At first the quantities were quite generous, but as the war progressed the number of items "on the ration" increased and the quantity allowed per person decreased. By 1941 the allowance per person per week was 2 ozs. (1 ounce (oz.) = 28 gm) butter, 2 ozs. cheese, 4 ozs. margarine, 4 ozs. bacon, 4 ozs. cooking fats, and 8 ozs. sugar. A 4 oz. packet of tea had to last two weeks. I'm sure my mother went short herself so that I didn't go hungry. Fish, fruit and vegetables were never rationed, but their availability was sporadic. After a while white bread had vanished.

The food shortage, which was aggravated by the sinkings of ships by German submarines (U-Boat = Untersee Boot), led to the "Dig for Victory" campaign to encourage everyone to grow as much food as possible themselves. Not only was the whole of the end of our garden devoted to vegetables, but my father also took an allotment i.e. a patch of ground in an otherwise uncultivated area, so as to grow more food. He wasn't a very enthusiastic gardener, but he felt it to be his duty.
There were also "Clothing coupons" designed to restrict civilian demand so that the factories could concentrate on uniforms for the Forces. Petrol was strictly rationed, and for most of the war it was available for "essential services" only; private motoring virtually came to an end, and many cars spent the war jacked up on bricks with their engines filled with oil.

The "phoney war"
In fact, very little fighting occurred during the winter of 39-40, which became known as the "phoney war". So far as I was concerned, it was mainly noteworthy for a very cold Christmas with thick snow everywhere. The scuttling of the German pocket-battleship, the "Graf Spee" after an action with the cruisers Exeter, Ajax and Achilles off the River Plate caused much excitement. My Godfather, Peter Curram, who had maintained an unbroken connection with the Navy through the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve since he joined it in 1911 at the same time as my father, was appointed to the battleship, H.M.S Nelson, on the outbreak of war as a Signals specialist. Patrolling off the Norwegian coast, the Nelson was hit by a German bomb. Thanks to its thick armour plating only minimal damage was done, but Peter was blown down a hatchway by the blast and had an arm badly fractured. While he was recuperating back in England he joined my parents and I at a "Crazy Gang" show at the London Palladium. I felt very proud to be seen in the company of a be-ribboned Naval officer who had been "wounded in action" and had his arm in a sling. It was in this show that Bud Flanagan sang "Run Rabbit, Run", bringing the house down when he produced on stage a dead rabbit that had been the only casualty of a German hit-and-run raid on the fleet base at Scapa Flow.

But the "phoney war" soon came to an end. After occupying Denmark and Norway in April 1940, the Germans over-ran Holland and Belgium, and comprehensively defeated the French Army with their new Blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactics. The British Expeditionary Force was cut off and fell back on Dunkirk from where 300,000 British and French troops were evacuated to England. Many of the vessels used were small craft. I later got to know one of them, a 22ft motor cruiser, "Constant Nymph" owned by Dr.A.B.Smith, a delightful man who was very deaf. Made a temporary Petty Officer for the occasion, and given one seaman and a bren gun for crew and defensive armament, he spent days ferrying troops from the Dunkirk shore to waiting ships. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his work. He maintained that being so deaf was an asset because he couldn't hear the bombs and gunfire, and thus wasn't as worried as he might otherwise have been.

The summer of 1940
War suddenly became very real. My mother went to Folkestone to bring my 80 year old grandmother back to Ewell. The train was packed with soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk. At stations along the line they were given food and drink by local volunteers. At school we had a visit from the French General Leclerc who had escaped from France and later had a distinguished war record. He stood at attention with tears running down his cheeks while the whole school lustily sang "La Marseillaise" which we had been taught that morning at Assembly. I can still remember the words.

The Battle of France had been lost. Now it was the Battle of Britain. No one doubted that the Germans would invade. But first they had to gain command of the air. After attacks on shipping and coastal ports the Luftwaffe (German air force) turned its attention to the RAF fighter airfields, and I had my first, albeit remote, experience of war. Seaside holidays being out of the question in 1940, my father decreed that we should cycle for recreation. An Ordnance Survey map was very necessary because all signposts had been taken down so as to provide no help for invading forces.

One Sunday in August we rode up to Headley Heath on the Downs south of Ewell. Up there was an Observer Corps post; their job was to report all aircraft movements by telephone to a headquarters. Suddenly a voice said "Here they come". Looking up I saw a large formation of enemy bombers heading north. I can still see them in my mind's eye, the sun reflecting off the light coloured undersides of the aircraft. Then the sounds of gunfire were heard, distant at first. RAF fighters were attacking. Then someone from the Observer Post shouted "Get down !" Low along the road to the east came two aircraft, very fast. They were a German Me109 fighter and his pursuer, an RAF Hurricane, its guns firing. We dived for cover in a ditch as stray bullets bounced off the road. Despite injunctions from my mother to keep my head down, I couldn't resist watching as both aircraft disappeared from view behind some trees. Quite what happened I never found out, but little later the Hurricane returned alone. Everyone cheered. The Luftwaffe failed to gain control of the air over Southern England, and Hitler called off the invasion, although we didn't know that at the time.

Raising money for Spitfires became a national pre-occupation. If you could afford £5000, you could have one named after you. A lot of aluminium was used in their construction, and an appeal went out for households to donate their aluminium utensils. My mother was quick to respond. Our kitchen had a set of good quality aluminium saucepans. All these went for Spitfires, except one, which I still have. It had been used for boiling eggs (as it still is), and she didn't think it was clean enough to be used in a Spitfire !

The night "Blitz"
By the end of September the Luftwaffe's losses were such that the main effort was changed to night bombing. At the time there was very little the RAF could do to intercept at night, and matters only improved with the development of airborne radar fitted in Bristol Beaufighters (twin engine night fighter). From the beginning of October until May 1941 London was the main target. The approach of the German bombers was heralded by the undulating wail of the sirens. Ewell itself was never a target, but we were on the track of bombers taking off from airfields in the Cherbourg area, and we had our share of bombs dropped by German planes that were lost or anxious to get rid of their load before heading back to base.

My parents spent almost every night on duty at Post 25, a brick built shelter close to the local Primary School. Mother was the telephone operator, reporting to the local ARP headquarters; she did a great deal of knitting. My father patrolled Post 25's area with another warden. Meanwhile I slept in the cupboard under the stairs, this being regarded as the most secure place in the event of the house being hit. My cousin Joan Marchant, who had celebrated her 21st Birthday at Ewell in May 1940, continued to live at No.9 and travel up to the City every day until her branch of the Bank of England was evacuated to Whitchurch in Hampshire.

One night I was woken by explosions. A "stick" of three bombs had fallen across the village, bracketing Post 25. The first bomb hit a house at the corner of Lyncroft Gardens less than 100 yards from the post. My father and his colleague rushed to the spot to find a heap of rubble. But they heard voices calling for help, and started to dig through the wreckage. They found both the occupants alive. Hearing the whistle of the approaching bomb they had dived under their baby grand piano. This saved them. The second bomb hit cottages in the village High Street, even closer to the post; this is now the site of the local supermarket. The third bomb in the stick dropped on open ground near Ewell East station. Long afterwards a warden who was in Post 25 with my mother when the bombs fell told me that as the post shook and the lights flickered he heard her give an anguished cry. "Are you alright ?" he asked. "No" was the reply, "Those blasted Huns have made me drop a stitch".

Another night our road was liberally spattered with small incendiary bombs, but no house was hit. I looked out to see one burning at the bottom of our garden by the Lanes Prince Albert apple tree, and another just over the fence in No 11's garden. As I went out, our neighbour from No.5, Roy Richards, a schoolmaster, came vaulting over the chestnut paling fences dividing the gardens, and attacked the bombs with a spade. I kept the tail fin of "our" bomb as a souvenir, but I no longer have it; no doubt my mother threw it away. Later the Germans added an explosive charge to their incendiary bombs, and hitting them with a spade was NOT recommended.

In fact, the only damage our house sustained during the Blitz besides broken tiles from falling fragments of anti-aircraft shells was when the nose cap of a shell came through the bathroom roof. But in 1944 part of the front dining room window was sucked out by blast from German V1 flying bomb which fell on our local brickfields, now a shopping centre/ industrial estate.
One night I was summoned by telephone to carry a message locally. What it was I can't remember, but it must have been thought important to call me out in the middle of a raid. As I ran across the local Recreation ground towards Ewell West station, I became aware of metallic fragments falling around me. I stopped to pick one up - and dropped it quickly because it was a very hot piece of an anti-aircraft shell. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but I now realise how lucky I was as I had no head protection. On a cloudy day early in 1941 I saw a German Bomber, a Heinkel 111 (like all boys, I was an expert in Aircraft Recognition in those days) pass very low right over our house. It dropped its bomb load on the railway line by Ewell East station, but missed.
I recall my father - he was then a Superintendent of Branches in the Midland Bank - arriving home from work very late one evening, his usually immaculate suit bespattered with dust and dirt. One of his branches in the East End of London had received a direct hit. He had taken a taxi from the City, and had spent the day helping to rescue the survivors from the wreckage before recovering what he could of the money and documents.

School continued as usual through the bombing. I didn't miss a day, although I was often late because of disruption to train services due to damaged tracks, signalling and stations. I quite enjoyed being able to walk into class in the middle of the morning and say "Sorry, Sir. Enemy action". It was the perfect excuse. The school, of course, had its own shelters, long tunnels of concrete partially sunk in the ground with the excavated earth banked on top. The floor was also concreted but, like the small Anderson shelter, rainwater tended to collect in them so that at times the wooden duckboards were afloat. When the sirens sounded we all trooped out to the shelters; mine was at the side of the playing fields by the Science block. Some masters tried to continue lessons, but they weren't very successful because the boys were far more interested in what was going on outside.

One day a boy brought a portable clockwork gramophone with him to the shelter. While the master was away he played a record of the Jazz drummer, Gene Krupa, making a "drum break" (an improvised solo). The master returned; "Stop that dreadful noise, boy !". The needle was lifted from the record. From outside came the sound of anti-aircraft fire and distant bombing. "That's even worse" said the master, "Carry on playing the record".

In 1941 I sat the School Certificate examination, roughly equivalent to today's GCSE. If the sirens sounded we were to go to our shelters, but we were put on our honour not to discuss the paper between ourselves, or refer to any books. In the event, none of my papers was interrupted by enemy action. I managed to get the required five credits (two of which had to be in English and Maths) to gain exemption from Matriculation, the basic entry standard for a university in those days. I got a "Very Good" in English and credits in Maths, Latin, French and Physics; but only a pass in German. My German teacher, Herr Doktor Wagner, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was very disappointed in me. But I was still allowed to take German and French as my sixth form subjects.

After the School Certificate exams I went off to a School "Harvest Camp" at King's Somborne near Winchester. The idea was that we should help with the grain harvest. We were even shown how to drive a tractor. It used petrol to start the engine and then ran on paraffin (kerosene). Only one of my class had any success with it, but his father was a garage owner. But we were too early for the harvest that year, so much of the time was at camp spent in rather boring weeding and clearing jobs.

I was never very keen on sports at School, but I played Rugby and Cricket. During the winter of 40/41 we had to scour the pitch before the game looking for pieces of shrapnel which might cause injury if someone fell on them. After getting my nose broken by contact with an opposing player's boot, I took the opportunity to change to Rowing, a new sport so far as King's was concerned, and an all-the-year-round one. We rowed from the Thames Rowing Club at Putney. I soon graduated to an Eight, and earned my Rowing Colours when we beat U.C.S.

Military Training
On entering Kings College School in 1938 I had joined the O.T.C. (Officers Training Corps), the present equivalent of which is the Army Cadets. Our khaki uniforms were 1914 vintage; peaked caps with a stiffened rim, jacket with black Rifle Brigade type buttons and a neck band fastened by metal clips, breeches fastening below the knee, and puttees (long bands of khaki cloth covering the lower leg from the ankle to just below the knee) and black hobnailed boots that had to shine. The puttees took an age to put on correctly if they were not to come adrift. Round the waist we wore a belt that had to be blancoed in a pale green colour. The buckles on it were of brass, and these had to shine, as did our cap badge. It was all very impracticable.

Our "bible" was "Infantry Section Leading 1938". An exercise during our 1938 Field Day (which took place on Headley Heath), when were issued with blank ammunition (only 5 rounds, mind you) showed how antiquated were the tactics we were taught. While marching along a road were halted to "repel an enemy aircraft attacking from behind the column". Far from scattering and taking over, we had to turn about, raise our rifles to our shoulders at an angle of 60 degrees, and wait for the order to "fire" which was given when the officer judged the plane would be likely to fly into the hail of bullets. How futile such tactics would be against military aircraft had already been proved in the Spanish Civil War.

As soon as I could I transferred to the Signals Platoon. Both my father and my godfather, Peter Curram, had been Yeomen of Signals at the end of the 14-18 war, and I was already familiar with the Morse Code and Semaphore. At first our only equipment besides flags was WW1 field telephones. These required a reel of wire to be laid along the ground, and many miles I covered on Wimbledon Common in this way. The "return" was through the earth via metal pegs, and we soon found that communication was easier when the ground was wet. Then in 1941 we got our first field radio, a heavy beast called the No.8 that required a lot of strength to lug around on one's back while the operator attempted, often vainly, to make contact with the other station.

Naval Training
But my heart was set on joining the Royal Navy. I even tried the Naval Special Entry examination, and did well enough to get to the Interview stage. But my total marks weren't enough for selection. I wasn't to disappointed because, having dropped Science, I could only have qualified for entry as a Paymaster cadet. And I wanted to be a seaman. So on my 17th birthday I was allowed out of school to go to the Navy Recruiting Centre at West Croydon to volunteer for the Royal Navy under the "Y" entry scheme, designed by the Admiralty to ensure a supply of future officers. I was accepted on condition that I undertook some approved pre-entry Naval training. This was no problem as I had recently joined the Sea Cadets at Kingston-on-Thames where my father was already an officer. After the 40-41 blitz, while continuing as an ARP warden, he looked round for some other war work. The Sea Cadets were expanding, and he was given a Temporary Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve commission. The Commanding Officer, Bill Muddock, who had joined the Royal Navy as a Boy in 1905 in the old Channel Fleet, and had served in the Battle Cruiser H.M.S Inflexible at the Battle of the Falkland Isles in 1914, was pleased to have him, and my father soon became the First Lieutenant. Needless to say, my relationship with my father once at the Unit was strictly formal; no favouritism would have tolerated. My new "bible" became the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship 1937. The Kingston "Steadfast" unit was a good one, with the advantage of having its headquarters by the river, so that there was plenty of opportunity for boat training. I even had instruction in 12 pdr. gun drill aboard the RNVR Headquarters ship, H.M.S.President, moored to the Embankment in London. On Sunday I dressed as a seaman; on Monday I went to school as a soldier.

Royal Inspection
In the summer of 1942 I was in the Naval contingent at an inspection of Cadet Forces by H.M.King George VI. Together with Army and Air Training Corps cadets we marched into the inner courtyard of Buckingham Palace; as representatives of the Senior Service the Naval Contingent led. The King, we were glad to see, was wearing the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet. As he passed along the ranks he stopped in front of me. "How long have you been a Sea Cadet ?" I told him. Pointing to the "Y" entry badge on my shoulder, he asked "What's that ?" "Y Entry badge, Sir" "What's that?" At this point the officer in command of the parade, a Lieutenant Commander, came to my rescue and explained that it ensured that I would get into the Royal Navy, the Service of my choice. "Very good" said the King, "Carry on", which was a Naval way of expressing approval of what I was doing. When speaking on radio or in public the King had a pronounced stammer, but face to face there was no trace of any speech impediment; he spoke like any senior Naval officer, with no wasted words. After the inspection we all marched to Leicester Square where we had seats in the Odeon cinema. The film was "Roxy Hart", starring Ginger Rogers; in the interval the cinema organ played the latest popular hit "Deep in the heart of Texas" for us to sing.

On another occasion the "Steadfast" unit formed the Guard of Honour outside the Mansion House in the City of London for King Haakon of Norway. My father commanded that guard, as well as one for King Peter of Yugoslavia on Derry & Toms Roof Garden in Kensington.

Later that same summer (1942) the Navy sent me on a short course for "Y" entry candidates held at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. By coincidence my father was there at the same time, attending a "refresher" course for Sea Cadet officers. I caught sight of him once or twice, but didn't speak to him until the last afternoon when we were allowed to sail boats up the river Dart to Dittisham. There he bought the R.N.Cadet who was my mentor for course, and two or three other "Y" entry candidates, a Cream Tea. To have cream, real Devon cream, was an unbelievable luxury.

At the time there was a flotilla of MGB's (Motor Gun Boats) based in Dartmouth under the command of Lieut.Commander Robert Hichens DSO DSC RNVR, a yachtsman who became one of the most successful of small ship commanders. Hichens and his officers were staying at the College. One evening I was in the town when a loud-speaker van went round recalling all MGB crews to their boats. From every pub sailors emerged, running to the waterside. Hichens and his officers, who had been having quite a party in the College wardroom, arrived in any vehicle they could find or commandeer. Rumour had it that German E-boats (motor torpedo boats) had been spotted in Lyme Bay. I watched, fascinated, as the gunboats' powerful engines roared into life, and boat after boat surged out of the harbour at a speed that left any vessel at a mooring rocking for long after under the influence of the powerful wash.

They were back early the next morning. My father met Hichens on the way in to breakfast; "How did it go?" he asked. "Missed them in Lyme Bay" said Hichens, "so we went across and sat outside Cherbourg with our engines off. Caught them with their pants down at first light. Sunk one and damaged a couple of others". Hichens had correctly guessed the E-boats home port, and had acted accordingly. His death in April 1943 from what was literally the last shot fired as an action was broken off was a sad loss.

Navigation School
The Navy decreed that I should put in two terms at Oxford University before I joined. During this time I would receive training in the University Naval Division. My enthusiasm for the sea was such that, with my father's blessing, I left school at the end of the Spring term in 1943, thereby missing the Higher School Certificate examinations (now A levels), and spent the summer at the Sir John Cass Nautical College in Old Jewry near the Tower of London. All the other students were Merchant seamen working for their 2nd.Mate's certificate; many already had experience of being torpedoed and spending days in open boats in mid-Atlantic. Most of my lunch hours were spent on Tower Hill listening to the soap-box orators, full of panaceas for all the world's ills. Lunch usually consisted of sausages and mash at a small cafe, price one shilling and sixpence (now seven and a half new pence). For a few pence extra one could have peas as well. At the end of the term I was giving a slip of paper saying that I had attained the standard required in Navigation theory for the Board of Trade Second Mate's certificate.

My own college, Brasenose (known as BNC), had been taken over by the Army. I lived in Christchurch College (called "The House" after its Latin name Aedes Christi). I shared rooms, 1.1. Meadow Buildings, with a friend from my own school who was reading Astronomy; I read Law. Our rooms were on the ground floor overlooking Christchurch Meadows which led down to the river. The University Naval Division occupied one of the Boat Houses. Thanks to my Sea Cadet instruction, I had no difficulty with the Naval side of the training. When the Admiral Commanding Reserves came to inspect the Division I was coxswain of the whaler that picked him up from Folly Bridge and rowed him down the river to the Boathouse. I enjoyed my law studies, especially Criminal Law; the lecturer made the subject most entertaining.

Just above us in Meadow Buildings were the rooms of Lord Cherwell (Professor Linderman) the Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister. On one occasion we were having a party in our rooms when his butler appeared. "Lord Cherwell's compliments, gentlemen, and will you kindly make less noise. He is trying to work". We offered our apologies, and shut up. The only cause for complaint was the awful food. One evening the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, dined at High Table. I remember hoping that he was getting something better than the greasy Welsh Rarebit that was our lot.

Sited at Shotley opposite Harwich, before the war this had been the Boys training establishment. Now it was used for new recruits. From being gentlemen Commoners at Oxford it was a bit of a culture shock to find ourselves as Ordinary Seamen. We were allocated to Mess 40, an old wooden building, with a parquet floor that had to be polished every day so that it shone. Our Instructor, Chief Petty Officer Fairbrass, was quite a character. A tiny man, with lungs of leather and a voice of thunder, the high point of his life had been when his 6" guns won the secondary armament shoot in the Mediterranean Fleet in 1928. But he was a good Instructor. And he knew when to turn a blind eye. The mast on the parade ground had come from one of the old sailing ships, and was 140ft high. A regular feature of pre-war passingmout parades was the manning of the mast by boys; one, known as the "Button Boy", stood on the truck at the very top, with arms outstretched. Although now forbidden, I was one of those who accepted the challenge and, after passing the tops by hanging outwards over the futtock shrouds (to use the easier route via the "lubbers hole" was considered effete), shinned up the royal pole to stand on the truck. There was a lightning conductor that could be held between the knees while the arms were, very momentarily, outstretched. After I got down I met C.P.O. Fairbrass. In a conversational tone he remarked "My sight's not so good these days. I didn't see a thing". Then sotto voce,"Good lad - BUT DON'T DO IT AGAIN".

Thanks to my earlier training with the Kingston Sea Cadets, after a test by Ganges Instructors, I was allowed to take charge of a 32 ft. cutter under sail, with a crew of up to 20, most of whom were no more than ballast. Sailing in a stiff breeze in the estuaries of the Stour and Orwell could certainly be invigorating.

Because of our previous training, we spent only six weeks at H.M.S. Ganges. Then it was north by train to Rosyth, where we were split up between three ships in the Training Squadron which consisted of two old D class light cruisers, H.M.S Dauntless and H.M.S. Diomede, and the armed merchant cruiser, H.M.S.Corinthian to which I was drafted. Our patrol area was between May Island and Bass Rock off the Firth of Forth. Corinthian's main armament was one 6" gun mounted on a platform aft of the funnel. It was a very old gun, with no hydraulic loading mechanism. The 100 lb. shell therefore had to be lifted from the deck and shoved into the breech by hand, which could be difficult in a seaway when the ship was rolling and pitching. I know, because I was No.3 in the gun's crew, the loader. Having manhandled the brute into the breech, I turned and assisted No.4 to ram the shell home with the rammer, so that the cotton bag containing the explosive charge (cordite) could be placed behind the shell before the breech was closed. A small cartridge, known as the "tube" was then inserted into the lock of the breech. Its purpose was to ignite the cordite charge.

We did lots of practice, but the gun was only fired "in anger" once. I was sleeping in my hammock slung between stanchions on the messdeck when "Action Stations" sounded. An unidentified ship had been sighted. The "galley wireless", that source of all rumour aboard a ship, reckoned that it was the big German Cruiser "Hipper". Having cleared the gun for action we were ordered to load with star shell, the object being for the shell to explode in the air beyond the target, so silhouetting it. "Bearing Red 130"; the trainer (No.2) turned the gun on to that bearing. "Range 030 (=3000 yards)". "Sights moving" said the layer (No.1), "Sights set". We covered our ears. "Fire" was the order, and No.1 punched the trigger. This was the first time we had used a full charge, and the shock of the recoil was very marked. The shell burst in the air as scheduled. Alas, the range was too short, and it revealed nothing. However, it did produce some frantic signalling from the target; it was one of our ships. It's just as well it wasn't the Hipper......... But the Battle of May Island, as it was facetiously known, did produce some casualties. Beneath the gun platform were the "heads" (toilets). The shock of the full charge shattered most of the toilet bowls, and buckets were much in demand.

I was only once on a charge. While the ship was at anchor in. I think, Methil Bay, another chap and I were ordered over the side on staging to scrub some paintwork. The staging consisted of a plank, with two cross pieces to fend it off from the ship's side when the vessel rolled, and supported by ropes at each end with which it could be raised or lowered. While we were at work, invisible from the deck, someone managed to get the ropes confused, and cast off that supporting my end of the staging, which dropped until it was hanging vertically, with me clinging to the lower cross piece. We were hauled aboard. A Petty Officer looked at me. "Where's your scrubbing brush"? I said that I must have dropped it when my end of the staging dropped, and I needed both hands to hang on. "Right, you're on a charge".

Next morning I appeared as a "Defaulter" before the Commander. The Master-at-Arms called my name. "Off Cap" (Defaulters had to remove their
caps; Requestmen kept them on). "Ordinary Seaman Begent C/JX 330678. Charged with being guilty of an act to the prejudice of good order and Naval discipline in that he did lose over the side Admiralty property, to wit one scrubbing brush, value one shilling and sixpence (= seven and a half new pence)". The Petty Officer gave evidence that I had a scrubbing brush when I went over the side, and I didn't have it when I returned to the deck. "Anything to say ?" I was asked. In a few words I explained what had happened. The Commander's decision was concise. "Proved accidental. Half cost". The Master at Arms repeated the sentence. "On Cap. About turn. Double march". And away I went, poorer by 9d. (about 4 p), which would be stopped from my pay of two shillings (= 10 p) a day. The logic of this sentence was quite simple. The old Navy had a saying that in an emergency it was a case of "One hand for the ship and the other for yourself". I had used both hands to save myself; hence I must pay half the cost of the lost property.

H.M.S King Alfred
Our stint in the Training Squadron being over, we returned south. While waiting at the far end of the platform on Waterloo station for a train to take us to Portsmouth we heard the unmistakable guttural sound of a V1 (Flying bomb). Then the engine stopped, which meant that the bomb would fall to earth. We dived for cover under a pile of mail bags while the bomb fell just outside the station, and broke what few pieces of glass still remained in the station roof. From Portsmouth we were sent to H.M.S.King Alfred at Hove as C/W (Commission/Warrant) candidates. I was in digs for the first two weeks at Mowden, a preparatory school that had been taken over. Then four weeks at Lancing College, and another four at what had been the Brighton Swimming baths (now known as the King Alfred baths). Here we slept in the underground car park, our hammocks slung between the supporting pillars. It was hard work, but the day came when I was no longer an Ordinary Seaman, but a Midshipman R.N.V.R., distinguished by red patches on the lapels of my jacket of my uniform which had been made in readiness for the occasion by a temporary branch of Austin Reed of Regent street, set up in a small semi-detached house near the baths; Gieves (THE Naval tailors) had one in the next road ! I was automatically promoted to Sub-Lieutenant R.N.V.R not long afterwards on attaining the age of nineteen years and six months.

Training as an officer
After a one week navigation course at Brighton I was sent to the Royal Naval College, Greenwich for what was known as the "knife and fork" course, the object being to ensure that we lost any undesirable lower deck habits we might have picked up, and knew how to behave in a wardroom. We dined every day in the Painted Hall of the College, being served by Wrens (Women's Royal Naval Service) wearing white gloves. After dinner we played skittles in a centuries old wooden alley. It was all very pleasant. It was here I learned that I was to become a minesweeping specialist.
Then it was back to Scotland again, this time to the minesweeping school at Granton, H.M.S.Lochinvar. The old Paddle Steamer "Medway Queen" was used as a floating classroom, where we learned the mysteries of "streaming" and "hauling" sweeps. Then I sent to a minesweeping trawler, H.M.T. Foyle, for practical experience in the Firth of Forth. She was steam powered (full speed was 60 r.p.m.) and coal burning; I tried my hand at stoking the boiler under the amused eye of the Leading Stoker, and decided it was much more difficult than it looked.

Posted to the Mediterranean
By now the weather in the Firth was becoming distinctly chilly, so I wasn't sorry to learn that I was being sent to the Mediterranean. At the end of few days leave at home, I said goodbye to my Grandmother, Nana Marchant. Her last words to me were "Mind those wicked women, my boy"! In her book, moral danger was more serious than physical peril. She died while I was abroad.
I sailed from Liverpool in the old White Star liner "Georgic" which had been converted to a troop ship after being burned out earlier in the war in Egypt, and was now loaded with reinforcements for the Army in Italy. We formed part of a large "fast" convoy, with a powerful escort. Our course took us in a wide arc out into the Atlantic. One day there was a submarine attack on the convoy, and we were all sent to boat stations. Quite how much danger there was I wouldn't know, but the escort seemed to have matters under control, and there was much dashing about at full speed, dropping depth charges and firing "hedgehogs", small underwater bombs discharged ahead of the vessel at a submarine targeted by sonar equipment. On board the Georgic was a Welsh Choir, being sent to the Mediterranean to entertain the troops. Their boat station was on the after well deck. Doubtless feeling that their end might be near, they began to sing some gloomy Welsh hymns with great feeling. This went on until some humourist on the upper deck asked in a loud voice "If I pay them, do you think they'll go away ?" and threw down a penny; his action was quickly copied and the poor choir's performance came to an undignified end as coins showered down on them.

I landed at Naples and spent about a week there awaiting posting. On the way out I had got to know two 8th Army men, a Major and a Captain, who had been captured in the Western Desert, imprisoned in Italy, and escaped through the German lines. I was with them one night in the Officers Club in Naples when we were entertained by an attractive girl singer. The Captain called her over to the table, bought her a drink, and then asked if she would sing a song for him. "Anything you like" she answered. "Then", said the Captain, "please sing "Lili Marlene" (This was a song which had been broadcast from Radio Belgrade to the German troops in the Western Desert, and had been very popular with the British as well). She got up to go across to the small orchestra, but he caught her hand. "You will sing it in German, won't you". "But I don't know German" she protested. "Oh yes you do" was the reply, "I've heard you sing it in this very room, only the audience was German". During his escape the Captain had worked as a washer-up in the kitchens, when the singer had been entertaining German officers. She said nothing, but sang Lili Marlene to a very appreciative audience, in German.

When officer of the watch in the Naval Headquarters in Naples, H.M.S.Byrsa, I had my first introduction to the problems caused by drunkeness. I was called down to the vestibule to remand to the cells a sailor who was, quite literally, fighting drunk, and had been picked up by a shore patrol. He was disinclined to participate in the short formal proceedings and made a dive at me. I side-stepped, and his escorts grabbed him and wrestled him to the floor. His arms were handcuffed behind him, and he was then hauled to his feet, swearing loudly and incoherently. The Petty Officer read the charges, at the end of which I remanded the drunken sailor to the cells. As he was dragged away, the Petty Officer remarked "I wouldn't like to have his head in the morning".

While in Naples I paid a visit to Pompeii, which impressed me tremendously. It wasn't just the magnificence of the city and its houses but little things like the ruts made in the streets by the passage of chariots and carts up to that day in AD 79 when Pompeii was destroyed by molten lava from Vesuvius.

I was appointed to a British Yard Minesweeper (or BYMS for short), No.2075, as First Lieutenant. She was in Piraeus (the port of Athens), so I made a very dusty all day journey in the back a 3 ton truck across the war torn roads of southern Italy from Naples to Taranto. However, it could have been worse, as I had some WRNS officers for company. At Taranto I was hastened aboard a Greek destroyer that was just sailing; it was the first time the crew had been back to their home country since Greece had been invaded in 1941. I slept under the wardroom table. We made a quick passage, and the next day I saw the unforgettable sight of the distant Acropolis dominating the city. I went straight aboard my ship, and introduced myself to the skipper, Lieut. Bob Davidson, and the man I was taking over from, John Wheat, a banker in civilian life. He was being transferred because of his sea sickness, which was threatening his general health. He left a couple of days after as I arrived.

BYMS 2075
This class of ship had many virtues, but with their shallow draught (only 8ft. forward and 9 ft. aft) and lively motion, they were not the most comfortable in a heavy sea. As the saying is, they would "roll on wet grass". With a crew of up to 30 and 136 ft. in length, they had been built in the USA to a broad design provided by the Admiralty when the American Navy, which had no recent experience of minesweeping, entered the war at the end of '41. BYMS 2075 was a good example, having been built in a Long Island Yacht yard. The main feature was that the hull and superstructure were all wood, the purpose being to reduce the ship's magnetic field and enabling it to tackle magnetic mines. To understand the ship's equipment it is necessary to know something about the mines they were designed to tackle.

Mines and minesweeping
There were two main types of mines used during the war. The first were moored mines, floating just below the surface, and detonating when struck by a ship; these were brought to the surface when their mooring lines were cut by a wire sweep, usually towed on the minesweeper's quarter, and destroyed by gunfire. The second type, the magnetic and the acoustic mines (or a combination of the two), lay on the bottom in shallow water, and were detonated either by the magnetic field of the ship passing over them or by the sound of the ship's propellers.

To tackle the magnetic mine a LL sweep was used. This consisted of a long floating double electric cable towed astern, one of the cables being longer than the other. At the end of each part of the cable there was a copper electrode. Down the cable was passed a strong electrical pulse, creating a powerful magnetic field to detonate the mine which, hopefully, had been not been disturbed by the weak field of the wooden hull of the minesweeper passing over it. For the acoustic mine a water-tight steel casing containing a diaphragm and an electric hammer was lowered over the side, projecting its sound ahead of the minesweeper with the aim of detonating the mine before the ship reached it. To make them more difficult to detect, the Germans fitted their magnetic and acoustic mines with 80 day clocks and delay timing mechanisms which could (a) delay the time between the mine being laid and it becoming live and (b) allow it to be activated by up to 14 ships before exploding as the 15th passed over it. This meant that we could never be sure that an area of sea was free of magnetic and/or acoustic mines until we had swept the area 15 times which could be tedious. A point to note is that it was only after the cessation of hostilities that the minesweepers did their most intensive work. During the war their main job was to keep open swept channels. It was only after the fighting stopped that they began to clear minefields.

The ship's equipment
Aft on the sweep deck there were the winches for the wire sweeps for moored mines, and short cranes for the Oropesa floats which supported a set of steel vanes, known as the otter, which kept the sweep out on the ship's quarter. To maintain the sweep at an even depth, it was held down by another set of vanes, known as the kite, towed directly astern. Just ahead of the winches was the large drum on which the LL cable was housed. Further forward on the starboard side was a derrick used for hoisting the acoustic hammer in and out.

The ship had twin screws driven by two 500 hp General Motors diesels. Another 500 h.p. diesel was used to provide power for the LL sweep. There were also two 250 h.p. diesels to provide electric power for the ship's services; cooking was by an electric stove. The main armament was a 3" gun (roughly equivalent to the British 12 pdr.) on the foc'sle. Either side of the bridge superstructure were 20 mm. Oerlikon cannons. There were mountings for Lewis guns either side on the main deck just aft of the superstructure. Immediately below the bridge was the wheelhouse, with the chart and radio rooms. Below them again was a small wardroom and the officers cabins; a single cabin for the skipper on the starboard side, and one with two berths on the port side. The officers' needs were looked after by a Steward; in the later stages of my service aboard 2075 we were the envy of the rest of the flotilla because our steward had formerly been the personal valet to the Duke of Alva. He really had style......... The galley was immediately for'ard of the wardroom, with the mess deck beyond that.

Bob Davidson
At first sight Bob didn't look the traditional naval officer. His ears stuck out prominently, and he always wore his cap dead square on his head, eschewing the jaunty angle favoured by most junior officers. He was neat in dress and methodical in his ways. Everything he did was "according to the book". I don't think the crew ever really liked him, but they respected and trusted him. He never took needless risks, but didn't hesitate to accept danger if there was no valid alternative. While I was aboard he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his earlier work in the Gulf of Salonika in very difficult conditions. He had commissioned 2075 in America, and had sailed it across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. There wasn't much he didn't know about the practice of minesweeping, and he was a good mentor for me.

South to Crete
We sailed for Crete the same evening John Wheat left. As we headed south the weather deteriorated, and by 2300 there was a full gale blowing from dead astern; this was the Bora, originating in the mountains. As the seas built up there was an increasing danger of the vessel being pooped i.e. swamped by seas breaking over the stern. Bob decided that we had to turn head to sea, and seek for shelter. It was my first introduction to qualities. A messenger was sent round the ship warning everyone to secure anything loose, and hold on tight themselves. Waiting until a wave lifted the stern, Bob ordered "Hard aport" and "Full speed". It was vital that the ship was heading into the sea before the next wave struck. If that hit us abeam we could be rolled right over. Bob timed it perfectly, and the next sea broke over the foc'sle. An hour or so later we gained the shelter of the island of Poros, and anchored. I woke the next morning to find that the wind had ceased. The sun was shining, and some of the local boys were offering to dive for sponges in the clear waters.

Although much of Crete had been liberated, the Germans still held the western end of the Island round Suda Bay. We were based at Heraklion on the north coast, a port that had suffered in the fighting. There were shell holes and bomb craters along the quay, and these, filled with water, were breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Although we took a daily dose of the anti-malarial drug, Mepacrine, I had my first, albeit minor, attack of malaria while there. We were glad of the fly netting on the doors and ports. There was an airstrip close to the harbour on which Wellington bombers could be seen landing and taking off.

We joined a flotilla made up of two British and six Greek YMS. The Senior Naval Officer was a Commander R.N.R., who had a flotilla of Isles class trawlers, which had been designed so that they could revert to fishing work after the war. They were steam driven and, unlike our diesels which could be started at the push of a button, needed time to raise sufficient head of steam in their boilers before getting under way. The SNO forgot we were different. One day, as we were sitting round in the wardroom of the other British YMS over drinks, a signal was brought to the skipper who commanded the mixed British/Greek flotilla. "Raise steam for 10 knots" it ordered. The skipper grinned, and called for a signal pad. "Your signal acknowledged. Request boiler and thirty tons of coal". There was no reply.

We spent more than a month sweeping the waters off Heraklion, with only limited success. That there were mines around was clear from the Greek caiques who occasionally snagged one in their nets. They hated to waste the explosives contained in the mine, but it was a dangerous business to dismantle it; one mistake and the caique became indistinguishable from drift wood. One night there was a report that German R boats (gun boats) had left Suda Bay heading for Heraklion. Fast asleep in my bunk I dreamed that Bob came into the cabin and left me a .45 revolver, saying "R boats are out and may attack the harbour". I woke up in the morning to find that I was lying on a .45 revolver. The report of how I had turned over and gone to sleep again when told that R boats were out gained me a quite unwarranted reputation for coolness.

On 8th May 1945 Germany surrendered. The Admiralty sent the traditional Naval signal "Splice the Mainbrace" (i.e. issue an extra tot of rum to every man). Our signalman not being around at the time, I received the signal by semaphore from the Commander M/S ship. My early training came in useful........ The same signal was sent out a few months later, when Japan surrendered. These were the only occasions on which I experienced for myself the warmth of a full tot swallowed in one.

That same night our flotilla was ordered to Rhodes to sweep a channel into the port before British troops landed. Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands. Italian since 1912, these islands had been occupied by the British in 1943 when the Italians surrendered. This didn't suit Hitler, and he withdrew paratroops from the Russian front to retake them ¬which they did. The German troops there had not been defeated, and their morale was therefore high, despite being cut off from home by Allied advances in Italy and Greece.

We were only there a short while, but during this time I met a young Army officer. I was with him when he carried out a search of the office of the German General commanding. In the desk were some unissued Iron Crosses 2nd Class; I was solemnly awarded one ! The officer had another assignment, which was to check bridges and culverts on the island. I accompanied him in a military VW, a sort of jeep on the basic VW chassis. We had a German soldier as chauffeur. Somewhere in the archives of the old War Office there are photos of me standing under bridges and by culverts, simply for scale purposes. The German driver (wearing Afrika Corps uniform) was very formal, and when we left him he clicked his heels and gave a smart salute.

Leaving Rhodes we called at the island of Symi after an abortive attempt to carry out some naval manoeuvres. We were in two columns, each British ship leading three Greek ships. At the flag signal "White 9" the leading ships were supposed to turn together to starboard, the remainder in succession, thus forming one single line. The leading ships turned together, but the Greeks got into a lovely tangle, some even turning the wrong way. Our flotilla commander gave up, and we went into the small harbour. Here we found some very welcome flour and fresh fruit in a store guarded by an Indian soldier from the newly arrived garrison. He wasn't at all sure he ought to let us have the food, but the lads so confused him that he must have decided that resistance was useless. Our need for fresh fruit was, however, quite genuine. Our Chief Engineer actually got scurvy, which excited the doctors no end. They wanted to keep him as a prize exhibit, but he wasn't having it.

Then on to Kos, which we were told had already been occupied by the Army. We were the first ship in and, following our usual practice in these small ports, we anchored and then backed stern on to the quay. I was aft supervising the mooring operation. Looking out across the square I became aware that the military was dressed not in khaki but in field grey. Something had gone wrong and the Germans were still running the place.

As soon as the gang plank was down a German marched aboard, apparently seeking orders. So far as we were concerned the sensible thing was for them to carry on with what they were obviously doing, policing the place. Saluting smartly, he marched off again. Indeed, the local Greeks regarded their real enemy as the Italians. Fed up with their erstwhile allies, the Germans had already interned them. Somewhat later the Army, in the shape of an Indian regiment from the State of Alwa, arrived, having been landed at the wrong place. When they marched the Italians (now technically our allies) to waiting Landing Ships for evacuation, they had to protect them from the local population. Being the first British ship to arrive, we were hailed as liberators. Small children were led forward to present us with large bouquets of multi-coloured flowers, and a choir of girls in national costume sang to us from the quayside.

The flour we had hi-jacked in Symi made us very popular in Kos. They had a first class baker, but no flour. A deal was soon negotiated. They got the flour and we got free fresh baked bread. The baker spoke English, albeit with a strong American accent, having worked for some years in Chicago. Many willing hands hauled the flour sacks out of our sweeping store, and carried them in a triumphal procession across the square to the bakery.

There was only one incident to mar our short stay at Kos. In the clear water of the harbour our anchor chain could be seen lying across what appeared to be a large packing case. Having heard some rumours about home made German magnetic mines consisting of explosives in a block of concrete that was disguised with a wooden exterior we consulted a Naval explosives expert who happened along. He took one look over the bow, and said "Oh dear". He got his diving gear and went down to have a look. "You're lucky" he said "it isn't armed". My Army friend turned up again, and took me for a ride round the Island on the back of a motor-cycle. In the course of this I saw the tree under which the great physician Hippocrates was said to have taught. I only just got back to the ship in time, an unexpected order to sail at once having been received.

Opposite Kos on the mainland of Asia Minor is the small port of Bodrum. Turkey had been neutral throughout the war. With Germany in the ascendant it had agreed to extinguish navigation lights along this part of the coast so as not assist allied ships. But when it became obvious who was winning the war, the Turks, while adhering to their agreement with the Germans to keep lighthouses etc closed, allowed their XXVth Army based in the south west corner of the country to light bonfires on headlands at the request of Allies, thereby assisting the passage of our ships. It was now considered expedient that the flotilla should pay a visit as a mark of appreciation for services rendered. So over to Bodrum we went, and anchored under the walls of the ancient castle.

We were visited by a British Army officer who was the Liaison Officer to the Turkish XXVth Army. All the officers of the flotilla, British and Greek, were bidden to a party that evening to be given by the General commanding. Our Liaison Officer gave us some very good advice. "Before you go ashore" said he, "drink a tin of condensed milk each. It'll provide a lining to the stomach." The party was given that evening in the open air not far from the town. We all sat at a long, low table, Turks, Greeks and British intermingled. The Liaison Officer, who could speak Turkish, sat on the right of the General. There was only one drink, raki, which is an aniseed flavoured spirit akin to the Greek ouzo or the French pernod. There was a long succession of toasts, at each of which we were expected to down in one a small glass of neat raki. Water was provided to extinguish the internal fires. We ate a variety of sweetmeats.

As the party progressed, and tongues were loosened by the alcohol, a quarrel broke out further down the table. In 1922 the Turks had massacred thousands of Greeks at Smyrna (renamed Izmir by the victors). Someone, whether Greek or Turk I wouldn't know, was tactless enough to bring up the subject, and tempers were rising. The British Liaison Officer came to the rescue with a Verys pistol (a device for firing a coloured signal flare). How it came about he had one with him is a mystery ; perhaps he foresaw the need for creating a diversion. Pointing the pistol over the sea, he fired a flare, and then another one. The General decided to fire the pistol himself. Careless of where he was pointing it, he fired a flare inland. This landed on a thatched house in a nearby village, the roof of which promptly burst into flames. Not one wit discomposed the General clapped his hands and gave an order. Shortly afterwards a platoon of Turkish troops doubled down the road to the village. They had no fire-fighting equipment, but they promptly set about pulling down the house. Pleased with himself for saving the village, the General continued with the party. Nobody seemed to care about the unfortunates who had lost their house. But at least the quarrel between the Greeks and the Turks was forgotten.

This is a barren and inhospitable looking island north of Cos. It has one important feature, a large natural harbour surrounded by high hills and with a very narrow and easily defended entrance. The Italians found that it made an excellent naval base. Needless to say, the approaches were heavily mined, and we were given the job of clearing them. It was an axiom of minesweeping that you must never turn in a minefield because during the turn you could not be protected by the overlapping sweep of the ship ahead. But the geography of the place and the presence of mines right outside the entrance of the harbour left us no alternative. Using wire sweeps (for the mines were of the old fashioned moored type) we swept more mines than I had ever seen. An ML (motor launch) detailed for mine destruction ran out of ammunition, and a South Africa whaler that was picking up and laying dan buoys to mark the area swept found itself uncomfortably threading its way through the fruits of this deadly harvest.
On one turn in the field 2075 brought four mines to the surface simultaneously. I remember the Chief, who had come up from the engine room for some air, leaning on the rail looking over the side as we turned, and pointing with horror at a mine under the surface we had just missed during the turn. I also recall moving my position on the bridge so that I would be clear of the awning supports in case we hit a mine and I became airborne. Bob certainly showed his qualities during that operation. The truth was that nearly all the mines swept - our biggest tally was 50 in one day - were brought to the surface by the two British ships in the lead. The Greeks seemed more concerned with their own safety, staying in almost line astern so that they had the maximum protection from the ships ahead.
"Plague ship"

Anyway, we survived the operation without any casualties. One of our seamen, however, went sick with a fever and a very sore throat. One thing the Americans had provided with the ship was a very good Medical Manual. Bob and I studied it and came to the conclusion that he could well have diptheria. The only doctor available was a German Naval Surgeon who came aboard and confirmed the diagnosis. He spoke very little English, and the German I had learned at school came in useful, even if my vocabulary tended to be rather too literary for the circumstances. Shortly afterwards our seaman was taken ashore and driven to hospital in a German ambulance. He recovered, and we picked him up on our way to Alexandria some weeks later.

But 2075 was placed in isolation, and we spent a week moored to a large buoy in Porto Largo harbour, forbidden to have contact with anyone else. We ran out of rum - in those days the Navy still issued every seaman with a daily tot of rum at noon, diluted with two parts of water, thus making it "grog", so named after Admiral Vernon, famous for the taking of Portobello in 1739, who introduced it in 1740 to combat the drunkeness that was rife in the Navy of those days, and who was known as "Old Grog" because he habitually wore a Grogram sea cloak, a material made of silk and mohair. A British destroyer duly sent a jar, but its boat wouldn't come alongside. Instead the jar was placed on the large buoy to which our stern was moored by a boats crew all wearing medical face masks. This caused much hilarity among our lads, who gave the unfortunates in the destroyer's boat crew a very rough time. However, our leisure wasn't wasted because in a hut on an isolated shore we found a large supply of Italian hand grenades. These were used for fishing, which made a welcome variation from our normal diet of tinned food.

Just across from us was a sad reminder of the war, the burned out wreck of a British Yard Minesweeper, almost identical to our own 2075. This had been caught in Leros harbour when the German paratroops landed in 1943, and set on fire before it could escape through the narrow entrance.

Kalimnos and Khios
After Leros we worked from Kalimnos, where we didn't find very much. Then we were ordered to Smyrna, stopping at the island of Khios en route. We spent one night there at anchor. Bum-boats (traders) swarmed round the ship, and we had Greeks trying to climb aboard. Our requests that they should desist producing no effect, I ordered a hose with 50lbs psi pressure of sea water to be directed at the next man climbing aboard.This had the desired result.

On our way north we passed between several rocky islands with high cliffs, rather like those in the film "Guns of Navarone". In clear weather one afternoon Bob gave me permission to leave the Coxswain on the bridge and come down to tea in the wardroom. After a while there was a call from the Coxswain asking me to return to the bridge. We were heading straight for a sheer cliff face, yet the gyro compass was showing the course I had given him. I took one look and gave the order to steer by the magnetic compass. We came back on to a safe course again. What had happened was that the gyro compass had suddenly slipped 60 degs, and the helmsman had simply followed it round. Thank goodness it hadn't happened at night.

Izmir (Smyrna)
Quite why we were sent to Izmir, the largest port on the west coast of Asia Minor, I've forgotten, but it was a useful opportunity to replenish our provisions, particularly fresh food. We were visited by a Ship's Chandler, half Greek, half Turk. Having completed his business with us (doubtless to his great profit) over almost half a bottle of whiskey, he took us for a tour of the town which ended in a night club. I recall watching a pretty hostess in a white evening dress make determined passes at Bob, much to the amusement of the rest of us. She didn't get anywhere, needless to say, but I remember feeling sorry for her as she was obviously pretty desperate to interest someone. Maybe she owed the owner money. One thing we did enjoy while in Smyrna was the food at local restaurants, where rationing was unknown.

But the Turkish authorities kept a close eye on us. Ashore one day , Bob and I were followed everywhere by a member of their Secret Police. Bob had already experienced this in Istanbul. After a while he walked up to the man, smiled, and asked him "Is the Secret Police very busy these days ?". Somewhat embarrassed, the man, who understood English, made a non-committal reply, and retired. But he still kept us in sight. A meal ashore attended by all the British officers on the last night we were there ended in a memorable fashion with us driving back to the ship in two open horse drawn carriages, the drivers of which were encouraged by financial incentives to race. I've forgotten who won, but we were pursued by the sound of Turkish police whistles.

Our next minesweeping job was off Samos, which flourished as long ago as the third century BC. Among other things it was famed in classical times for its wine and, following Byron's exhortation in his poem "Don Juan" to "Fill the cup with Samian wine", we did just that with our empty rum jars. It still tasted pretty good. Unlike the barren Leros, the well cultivated Samos seemed untouched by war. The inhabitants looked happy and healthy, and smiled at us as Bob and I sat over our wine outside a cafe in the cool of the evening. And there was some lovely off duty swimming to be had in the clear waters of the harbour.

2075's engines now needed a major overhaul. For this we were sent to Alexandria in Egypt where there was a Naval dockyard. I had nearly £70 back pay due to me (a fortune it seemed then), and I was due for leave. I decided to travel by train to Palestine where there was a Forces Rest Camp among the orange groves at Nathanya. Somewhere between the dockyard and the main station my pocket was picked. So I didn't go to Nathanya. Instead I spent my leave in the Union Club at Alexandria (a splendid relic of Imperial days) reading bound volumes of Punch. I learned more history of the past 100 years that way than I ever did at school. It was the Moslem feast of Ramadan when day time fasting was the rule. From the Club I could see wealthy Egyptians sitting outside restaurants opposite with the their tables piled high with food, waiting for the hour of sunset to be signalled from the Mosque.

Our engines were stripped down and reassembled, and we went out for engine trials. Coming back into the dock we had to turn short round to get to our berth. Immediately behind us was a troopship full of men who had been years in the Middle East, waiting to sail to England. Bob ordered "stop port, hard a port". 2075 swung to port pointing directly at the troopship. "Slow astern port" said Bob. But when the engineers attempted to put the port engine astern it promptly stalled. Bob did exactly the right thing; "Midships. Half astern starboard". The starboard engine promptly emulated its companion. We were helpless, heading slowly but remorselessly straight at the side of the troopship. Everyone was paralysed, except Seaman Burgess, a farm labourer from Cheshire, not famed for his quickness of thought. "Us is a-going to hit 'er" he said and, picking up a coir fender he shambled forward and hung it hopefully over the bow; others followed his example. Seeing what was happening, the troops who had been looking out of portholes and over the rail scattered. With a rending crunch 2075's stem hit the side of the troopship, pushing in several plates, fortunately well above the larger vessel's waterline. Save for some scraped paintwork, our only damage was the total destruction of the fender Seamen Burgess had interposed between the two ships; rising to his feet he looked really comical as he ruefully held up the rope lanyard that was all that remained. Bob later went aboard the troopship to apologise to the Captain, who was very understanding. His passengers weren't so pleased as their departure for England had to be delayed while the buckled side plates were replaced. Our Chief called the dockyard engineers some very rude names, and the problem was soon rectified.

2075 had a small boat. After being used only occasionally and being exposed for some years to the Mediterranean sun while it sat on its cradle, it could hardly regarded as seaworthy any longer. I indented on the Dockyard stores for a new one, having already seen there a lovely varnished 14ft sailing dinghy. My request was rejected out of hand. I returned to 2075 and reported failure. It was suggested that I try bribery. The Stores official was invited on board for drinks, and when he left he was carrying a bottle of duty free gin. We got our lovely varnished sailing dinghy the next day.
Had we not got what we wanted by bribery, there were certain members of the crew who were quite willing to have "acquired" the new boat by stealth. We had aboard a seaman rejoicing in the name of Jeremy Bentham, who freely admitted to being a burglar and housebreaker in civilian life. With help from other members of the crew he was sure he could organise the extraction of the dinghy from the stores ! I have no doubt he would have done it, too. Thief though he was, he never touched anything on board. He was also a good shot, and useful when mines had to be destroyed by gun fire. But our best shot was Able Seaman Mitchell, known as "Yorkie" because he came from that town. Small and taciturn, he hated Germans, and with good reason, his family having been killed in an air raid on York.

On our way north, inspired by a brilliant moon one night, I tried for the first and only time a moon sight with the sextant. I had been told on my navigation course at HMS King Alfred that this was the most difficult of all. How right my mentors were. My position, when plotted, put us somewhere near Cairo, whereas we were actually west of Cyprus. Bob, of course, knew Salonika well having worked there the previous year. But I was fascinated to see Mount Athos and its monastery as we entered the Gulf of Salonika. This time our job was to clear the mines that had been left after the earlier operation, mainly involving magnetic mines, which had earned Bob his DSC. Also working in the Gulf were a flotilla of Fleet Minesweepers, larger ships built of steel (and therefore no use where magnetic mines were concerned) capable of towing the heavier Mark 1 Oropesa sweep; ours was the lighter Mark 3* - I never found out the significance of the star.

One of our Motor Launches, ML1226, that had worked with us in the Dodecanese, was lost. She hit a mine and was reduced to matchwood. There were few survivors. These vessels were very useful for mine destruction duties i.e. destroying by gunfire mines that had been cut to the surface. But on one occasion we got called out to assist the Fleet Sweepers with mine destruction, they having cut so many to the surface that they couldn't cope themselves. We spent seven hours firing at mines that day, with everyone taking their turn. The rifles got so hot that gloves were worn ! The Fleet Sweepers proved "chummy" ships. I remember one night when we took out their mail to them, and anchored near them. We were invited on board one ship to see a film, shown on the sweep-deck in the open air. Afterwards we had drinks in the wardroom before being taken back to 2075 in their "skimming dish", a small but fast motor boat.

We worked hard for several weeks, with some success. A photographer's shop in the town had in its window a picture of 2075 at work, silhouetted by the sun, with a magnetic mine exploding just astern of it. I got a copy and sent it home, but it never reached Ewell. Between times I managed to get in some sailing in our brand new dinghy. One Saturday afternoon while we were berthed alongside the quay with several trots of Greek caiques (wooden fishing and general purpose boats) moored astern of us we received a signal that one of the Fleet Sweepers was coming in with a badly injured man whose arm had been caught in a winch. I called together some of our crew and set about clearing a berth for the Fleet Sweeper. The occupants of the caiques either couldn't, or didn't want to hear, my plea for them to move. The Fleet Sweeper was now approaching and there was an ambulance waiting. So I told my lads to cast off the caiques' mooring lines so that the wind would push them away from the quay. Some very unhappy Greeks emerged from below to find they were drifting across the harbour. We took the Fleet Sweeper's lines, and the casualty was landed. The Captain lent over the bridge and asked my name and ship. Later he sent a formal message of thanks for my initiative in clearing the caiques from the berth. But it was too late to save his crew member's arm.

We had our excitements. One night the Chief was knifed by a sailor from an American Liberty ship as he left a bar and had to spent some time in hospital before rejoining the ship. Then our operations in the Gulf came to a sudden end. A mine exploded too close for comfort, started a leak in the hull and, as we subsequently discovered, shifted the port engine on its mountings, with disastrous effects on the bearings. With pumps going we limped back to Salonika. It was clear that a major overhaul was needed and we were ordered to Piraeus. Thanks to being a wooden ship the planking in the hull "took up", and after a while the pumps were no longer needed. But we only had one engine.

Our departure from Salonika was not without incident. On the morning we were due to sail Seaman Jeremy Bentham was missing. I asked the crew if they knew where he was. They were naturally reluctant to "split" on him, but I pointed out that if he didn't sail with us he would find himself in a military prison, as he had already broken ship once. They told me where they had last seen him the previous night, at a bar in the town with a girl who worked there. Collecting a Military Policeman and a jeep, I went to the bar. The owner knew the MP and didn't want trouble. He told us where the girl lived, which was some five miles outside the town. We picked up an Interpreter and, when we got to the area, a Greek policeman as we were going to a civilian house. When they heard the address neither of the Greeks was at all keen on the idea, and the policeman armed himself with a rifle. It seemed that the place was a hotbed of ELAS (Communist guerrilla) supporters. We certainly didn't get any help from the local population, who were distinctly hostile. We were about to give up the search when I spotted a sailor's blue jean collar hanging on a washing line.

The MP wanted to know if he should formally arrest Bentham. I didn't want that, as it meant we should have to leave him behind in Salonika, so I asked the MP to stay in the jeep. I knocked at the door of the small single storey house. There was no reply, so I pushed the door open with my foot. Inside was an old woman who started to scream at me. I slipped my hand into my pocket and brought out a small revolver, an Italian Biretta 7.65mm, which I had acquired during our week in isolation at Leros. I didn't point it at her, only held it in my open hand so that she could see it. Mumbling to herself, she stepped back, and I pushed past her. Sure enough, there was Seaman Bentham with the girl. Grinning sheepishly, he got dressed. The woman and the girl set up a great wailing. It seems they thought I was going to shoot Bentham. By now a hostile crowd, consisting mainly of women, had gathered, so we got out of the area as quickly as we could, followed by a shower of stones and abuse.

To Piraeus
After leaving Salonika I had the First watch (2000 to midnight). The end of the watch came, but there was no sign of Bob. This was odd, because he was absolutely meticulous where timekeeping was concerned. Calling the Coxswain to take over, I went down to Bob's cabin. He was on his bunk with a high fever (103degs.F), and rambling incoherently. Telling the Steward to watch him, I returned to the bridge, and reported to our escort, which happened to be the ship of the flotilla's senior officer, Lieut. Commander George Stern, a novelist in private life. He asked if I could carry on, and I said I could. It was a long night, and our speed was restricted by only being able to use one engine. I stayed on the bridge throughout, drinking gallons of Navy cocoa. Next day we entered the Gulf of Aegina and headed north towards Piraeus. There was a swept channel approaching the port, and I didn't think George was in it. He signalled "Follow me". I stayed where I was and, and after checking by taking a bearing on the Acropolis, replied "I am in the swept channel". George gave up. When we berthed he came aboard and said "Obstinate bugger, aren't you ?" But he steered me to my bunk, and I sank into oblivion. I had been on the bridge for 20 hours.

Bob was taken to hospital, and sandfly fever was diagnosed. On George's recommendation, the Commander M/S awarded me a Naval Small Ships Watchkeeping Certificate, considerably earlier than I could have expected in the normal course. There was an Officers Club in Athens, a superb edifice built on the side of a hill. It had a marble staircase leading down from the entrance, with a landing half way. Somehow I got involved one night in a rugger scrum on the landing between New Zealanders and South Africans. I've forgotten whose side I was on, but I distinctly remember being heeled out and rolling down the lower flight of stairs to the cheers of the assembled company.

For the voyage to Malta another officer was posted to 2075. Although technically in command because he was senior to me, he left me to run the ship, being content to stand his watch, turn and turn about. But that meant that neither of us got more than four hours sleep at a time. The voyage was slow but uneventful. One Morning watch (0400-0800) as the sun came up astern not long after we had passed Cape Matapan, it suddenly occurred to me that we must be following much the same course as St.Paul on his way to Rome, with the big difference that his ship was being driven by a storm to be wrecked on Malta, whereas the sea round me was very calm. Like many, I had lost touch with the Church and, if I thought of it at all, I suppose I would have described myself as a half-hearted agnostic. In retrospect I think that my slow return to Christian faith began at that moment, when I was able to associate with the reality of the report of Paul's voyages. In 2075 I had visited Rhodes, Cos, Samos, Athens and Thessalonika, all of which were on Paul's itinerary as recorded in Acts.

In Malta we moored to a buoy in Sliema Creek, which is just off Grand Harbour. The other officer left to return to his ship, and I took over command of 2075. After a few hectic days in Malta we were ordered to Messina in Sicily. A large ocean-going tug, the "Patroculus", was detailed to escort us. Outside Grand Harbour the tug signalled to ask what speed I could make. I told her 8 knots. "I'll pass you a tow" said she, "It'll be quicker". It was too; we set off at 13 knots, the fastest speed 2075 had ever achieved !

Once in Messina, I was sent for by the Captain R.N. in charge of the port. But being in command, the request was phrased somewhat differently from the way a Captain R.N. normally addresses a Sub.Lieutenant RNVR. The message read "Captain......... presents his compliments and requests that the Commanding Officer of BYMS 2075 will call on him at his convenience". Mind you, I wasn't deceived by the wording. I went at once ! Then the dockyard took over the ship, and my lovely clean decks were soon absolutely filthy. But they did say that the force of the explosion needed to shift the engine on its bearings was such that it was incredible we wer still afloat. Full marks, I thought, to the craftsmen in that Long Island yacht yard who built her.

When Bob Davidson finally got back to the ship, having hitched lifts from Piraeus and then from Malta, I was allowed some leave. Not far away was Taormina, where the San Domenico hotel had become a rest centre for officers. It was situated on a steep hillside south of Messina, with fabulous views over both sea and mountains. It's guest book was full of the names of the great and the good, including European royalty and film stars. But the signature that the Hotel seemed to value most was that of Henry Ford. One part of the hotel was out of use, it having been hit by a bomb or shell during the fighting in 1943. Looking through the ruins one day I saw something black through the rubble. Clearing away the debris I came across a boot. Above it was a black uniform of a German SS officer, and in the uniform a grinning skeleton. I told the hotel staff, but they weren't very interested. Evidently it wasn't the first.

Also staying at the San Domenico was another Oxford friend of mine, Jimmy Bristow, who had been at Winchester. One day we went for a long walk, starting inland and heading towards Mount Etna from which a thin plume of smoke was rising. We met no-one for hours save an occasional goatherd. About mid-afternoon we came to a village, whose name was, I think,Granite. It was the hour of the "sonnellino" (=siesta), but as we walked down the main street curious faces peered out at us. We indicated that we would like to buy some oranges. Once our request was understood, we were conducted to a shed. When the door was opened, the place was piled from floor to ceiling with oranges, and we were told to help ourselves. Filling our shirts and pockets with fruit, we went on our way. We ended up on the coast again and took a train back to Taormina. It was one of those days that abides in the memory; we were young, fit and free, and life seemed very good.

In Messina the engine repairs were proceeding apace. I did once go to a local dance to which British officers were invited. For a partner I was allocated a very pretty girl with, most unusually for that part of the world, red hair - perhaps a forbear was one of those Normans who ruled in Sicily in the 11th century. The only snag was that Mama had come too. While I danced with daughter, Mama scooped up as much of the food provided as she could into paper bags which she secreted about her ample person.

Malta again
Back in Malta for stores, we moored up again in Sliema Creek. Close by was the destroyer "Javelin", and among its officers was a Sub.Lieut. Archie Cameron who had been with me at Oxford. I was invited aboard for a drink. It didn't seem a very happy ship, a feeling confirmed only a few days later when there was a mutiny on board. No violence, but a concerted refusal, led by Petty Officers, to continue to take orders from an unpopular Captain, a Commander R.N. The mutiny was soon over, but the rapid removal of the Captain and the light sentences at the subsequent court martial showed that the authorities were not without sympathy for the mutineers.

Ashore in Sliema there was a "Wrennery", and there I looked up a Wren named Joyce who I had first met at Taormina, and with whom I had explored the famous "Blue Grotto", a cave that could only be approached from the sea. She showed me the sights of Malta, including a visit to St.Paul's Bay, the traditional site of St.Paul's ship-wreck. She was fun, but somewhat empty-headed. I had her to tea on board one afternoon, and made the mistake of detailing two members of the crew to row the dinghy. The only way to board 2075 from the dinghy was by a rope ladder slung over the side. As she clambered up I realised that the two seaman were able to see up her skirt, doubtless getting a fascinating glimpse of bare flesh above the stocking top, for there were no tights in those days. It was common enough in the old Navy for boat's crews to be ordered to keep their eyes IN the boat. I reversed this and told them "Keep your eyes OUT of the boat". Grinning broadly they obeyed. But it was all round the ship in a few minutes. After tea I rowed Joyce back to the shore myself.

While we were in Malta we had to say goodbye to Seaman Jeremy Bentham. After the escapade at Salonika his leave had been stopped. Left virtually alone on board one day he decided that he needed a drink. So he used a saucepan in the galley to boil some boot polish, afterwards straining out the raw industrial alcohol thereby released. Not surprisingly, he became fighting drunk, and it took about half a dozen members of the crew to subdue him. Bob had enough, and Jeremy Bentham departed, taking his outsize hangover with him. But the Cook was NOT pleased at the state in which his saucepan and strainer had been left.

Just before Xmas 1945 Bob Davidson left the ship, heading for England and demobilisation. Back home he visited Ewell, where he met my cousin Joan Marchant. A few years later they were married. My new skipper was another Bob, Lieut. Bob Powell. He was a very different character from his predecessor, being a thorough-going extrovert. But he was a good seaman, and had a lot of experience. The first peacetime Christmas for six years was well celebrated aboard 2075, and we held a short service on the mess deck at which I read the lesson. The main item on the menu was Roast Pork, which came from a pig named Percy that 2075 had acquired in Salonika. It had been well looked after by Seaman Burgess (the farm labourer from Cheshire), and he had supervised the slaughter and hanging.

Peter Guinness
Just before we left Malta Sub.Lieut. Peter Guinness joined us, and took the second berth in my cabin. He was to be the flotilla's navigation officer, whose main responsibility was to ensure that the areas swept were accurately charted. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he proved to be first class at his job. We got on very well, even if, being scion of the Guinness Mahon banking family, he thought in terms of money that was way outside my experience. I visited him in his City office (where he was known as "Mr.Peter") after the war, and he took me to lunch at the Norwegian Club. But we lost touch when I went to West Africa.

Up the Adriatic
We headed north up the Adriatic to Trieste to join our new flotilla, the 156th It was not an easy voyage because the Bora was blowing, this time off the Alps. This is where I came in, I thought. I had the middle watch (0000-0400) as we pounded into the short but mountainous seas. Andy Hearn, former valet to the Duke of Alva, had joined 2075 in Messina as Steward, replacing a chap whose only claim to fame seemed to be that his brother had once played for Tottenham Hotspur. Andy appeared on the bridge bearing a silver tray (the US Navy had equipped us properly) that he carried up the ladder on one hand at shoulder level, containing hot buttered toast which I received thankfully. I bit into a slice, and swallowed it. At that moment 2075 plunged into the trough of a wave. It must have descended faster than my piece of toast, for I became aware that the toast was back in my mouth, totally undigested. YMS were lively boats.

Our job was to clear mines in the Gulf of Trieste, an important transit port for Central Europe. No sooner had we reached there than a British merchant ship struck a mine near the entrance to the swept channel, and the sloop H.M.S.Mermaid was sent to her rescue. The next day 10 local fisherman lost their lives when they tried to salvage a net that contained not only fish but also a mine. Bob Powell being the most senior (and experienced) of the skippers, 2075 was the Senior Officer's ship, and we therefore took the lead when sweeping.

The political situation at Trieste was not a happy one. The year before Tito's forces had got into the town before the British. This didn't suit the Allies, who were determined that Italy (our allies since their surrender in 1943) should control the port, and not a Communist state. After a confrontation in which the British Commander made it clear to Tito that he would take the town by superior force if need be, the area around Trieste was divided into two zones, Zone A (Italian), which included the town, was occupied by British forces, while the less populous Zone B was allocated to the Yugoslavs.

From our berth on what was the fourth side of the Gran Piazza we witnessed a large demonstration by Communist supporters of Tito designed to take over the town. Forewarned, the authorities had fenced our quayside off with barbed wire, and had one platoon of every company of British troops standing by in case riots broke out. We issued the crew with small arms, which were to be kept out of sight, and only used in the event that the demonstrators broke through the wire and attacked the ships. It was an ugly situation, but saved but what I can only describe as an old fashioned cavalry charge by mounted Italian Carabineri. They had formed up in a side street, and at a word of command, they tore into the crowd at the gallop with batons waving. The mob evaporated.

On another occasion I accompanied our flotilla commander, Lieut.Commander Bob Viner, to the port of Pola to meet the British Naval Liaison Officer there. This involved passing through Zone B occupied by Tito's Serbs.We had no trouble on the outward journey, but on our way back we turned off the main road for what appeared to be a short cut. When we came to the border between the two zones we got a distinctly unfriendly reception at the Yugoslav post. After an argument in Italian (one of our party spoke it fluently) with what appeared to be a very junior private, we demanded to see his officer "Dove il vostro ufficiale ?". Indignantly he replied "Io" (= that's me). That did it. He turned out the guard, some of whom were armed with sub-machine guns, and drew his own revolver. Even though we could see the British sentry a few yards down the road, we had to turn round and go all the way back to the main road. And then we were questioned again at the crossing point as to why we had turned off on to the side road.

All in all, our relations with the Yugoslavs at that time were not of the friendliest. When we were working close inshore off Zone B we came under fire. A formal protest to the Yugoslav authorities brought the explanation that they were only indulging in target practice and we must have got in the way. We had our own back, however. The next time we swept some mines to the surface off that part of the coast, we made sure that they were between us and the shore. We opened fire on the mines enthusiastically. A subsequent protest from the Yugoslavs enabled us to say, with absolute truth, that we were firing to destroy mines, an action which could only be in their interests. After that a truce broke out.

German measles
Not long after we reached Trieste I came out in a rash all over my body. German Measles was diagnosed, and I was taken to the nearest CCS (Casualty Clearing Station) in an ambulance. On arrival I was put in what had been a prison cell complete with bars on the window, a door with a sliding grill, and the light switch outside. Having a parquet floor, I deduced that when the place had been an Italian barracks it must have been "officers for the use of". The worst part was the sanitation; no toilet bowl, only a hole in the floor with two foot rests, of the type I had already met in Greece and Turkey. I wasn't allowed to send letters in case they were infected ! The exasperating thing was that, once the rash had appeared, I felt quite well. But I was kept in solitary confinement for seven days, at the end of which I "escaped" and hitched a lift back to the ship in the back of a 15 cwt.truck. As it happened, I hadn't missed any sweeping because bad weather had prevented it. The north wind brought with it snow, and we had ice on the deck fittings thick enough to require chipping away.

Minesweeping off Trieste
The Gulf of Trieste had been very heavily mined during the war, initially with Italian moored mines, and latterly with German magnetic mines. Some of the latter had become inoperative through the passage of time, but there were still enough that required destroying, even if 2075's own tally was only one. The main problem we experienced arose from the number of obstructors that had been laid with the moored mines to make sweeping difficult. These usually took the form of using chains, either supported by their own floats, or forming part of the mine mooring. These proved very destructive of our sweep wires.

One day, after we had parted sweeps three times on obstructors, we got a mine caught round the otter, the steel vanes supported by the Oropesa float that kept the wire towing out on the ship's quarter. Bob Powell headed for shallow water in the hope that the mine would then break surface. It didn't, so after the sweep wire had been cut, I went out in the dinghy with two seamen at the oars. Using a bucket with its bottom knocked out I tried to see if the mine was still caught round the otter under the float. At that moment another of our ships that had got a similar problem managed to detonate her mine, and the water was promptly so muddied that I couldn't see a thing. Bob then showed what an experienced officer he was, doing something that never appeared in any instruction manual. He passed me a line which I secured to the float. Leaving the dinghy to fend for itself, he then set off at high speed, causing the otter to surface eventually and release its ugly looking passenger. While 2075 was engaged in destroying the mine, we drifted in the dinghy until we were picked up and taken in tow by a Motor Launch, the skipper of which flatly refused my admittedly frivolous request for the three of us to be issued with a tot of rum as "survivors".

Another day something got caught in the sweep, causing the Oropesa float over the otter to behave in a peculiar manner. It was clear from the tension on the wire that whatever was in the sweep was heavy. If this went on, there was the risk that the sweep wire would break. If that happened on deck, it could cut a man in half. To ease the strain on the wire I asked for "dead slow". The sweep
was hauled in. The cutting jaws by the otter were blocked with a chain. Just above the end of the chain was a conical float, much encrusted with barnacles and other marine life. I cut the wire by which it was attached to the chain and brought it aboard. Then we were able to free the chain from the cutters and dump it. It was a simple, but effective device to make the sweeping of the mines it protected difficult since our sweeps couldn't cut chain. There is a photo of me with that conical float and the axe I used to sever the wire, looking pleased with myself. A second photograph shows me looking less pleased. The then Senior Officer had met this device before. He signalled to say that the float could contain an explosive charge........ I dumped it rapidly over the side and had it sunk by gunfire.

Various solutions were proposed to the problem of chain moorings. One was to incorporate a section of the Mark 1 wire the Fleet Sweepers used to cut the obstruction before it destroyed our sweep. But the device we adopted was to fit explosive cutters at intervals on our sweep wire. On the first occasion we used them we cut two mines with chain moorings without losing any spread or affecting the sweep in any way. But they could cause difficulties. That same afternoon, while running at slow speed through swept waters, we were surprised to see the float go under and drop right astern. We dropped out of line, and hauled the sweep. As usual on such occasions I cleared the sweepdeck (except for the winchman) and called everyone up from below - just in case anything untoward happened. The sweep was hauled in slowly. I was looking over the stern watching for the otter to appear when I saw a large brown mass coming up on the sweep. Looking closely at it I decided that it couldn't be a mine, so I ordered it to be hauled close up. It proved to be a mine-sinker, complete with wire and all its fittings. This was obviously a desirable acquisition because it would establish how the mines had been moored.

But when it was clear of the water we discovered to our horror that the wire was resting in the jaws of an explosive cutter. If the cutter went off we would loose the whole issue. Bob came aft and took charge. I was lowered over the stern and managed to render the cutter harmless by interposing a piece of metal between the striker and the detonator. Then a chain sling was passed down to me and I was able to shackle this on to pair of lifting eyes. The weight was taken off the sweep by another pennant, and we went back into to Trieste with the mine sinker hanging over our stern. A crane was subsequently sent to remove it. The Commander M/S was delighted to have it, and ordered "2075" to be painted on it. He recommended me for accelerated promotion to Lieutenant, but that assumed I was still in the Navy at the earliest possible age, twenty-one and a half.

"Big Ships"
Because of the tense international situation over Trieste, it was deemed prudent for the Royal Navy to "show the flag", and the port had several visits from "big ships". The professionals couldn't wait to get back to peacetime habits, and the amount of ceremony involved was a source of amusement to Patrol Service manned ships like ourselves, who were still very much "operational".

The cruiser HMS Liverpool was one such visitor. To make room for her, I shifted 2075 and the other ship in the trot out of the way with hardly anyone on deck. Moving two vessels secured to each other was a common enough practice in our flotilla, and I though nothing of it. As the Liverpool, its decks awash with crew most of whom had nothing to do, slid by I noticed an officer on the wing of the bridge staring at me. It was Lieut.Commander Henry De Vere Barnes R.N., who had been my Divisional Officer at HMS King Alfred, and who was now First Lieutenant of the cruiser. I think he recognised me, but I don't think he approved of the very casual attitude adopted in small ships.

Another time we had the cruisers H.M.S.Orion and H.M.S. Superb. The former berthed in the port, and the latter anchored outside. It was no coincidence that their visit co-incided with May Day, the big Communist Festival, when trouble was expected. We were invited aboard the Orion for drinks in the wardroom.

Rear Admiral Killahan, flying his flag in Orion, expressed an interest in seeing minesweeepers at work, so he and some of his officers were invited to join us for a day's "hunting". Knowing that some R.N. officers had a low opinion of minesweeping, our Flotilla commander made sure that they would be impressed by choosing an area in which we knew from a wartime Italian chart that there was a field of moored mines. Sure enough, they were there, and we soon had 15 mines bobbing on the surface. After we had hauled sweeps we returned to dispose of them by gun fire. That day 2075 used 2000 Oerlikon cannon shells, 4000 rounds of .303 ammunition, and 300 rounds of .5 anti-tank bullets. There were some spectacular explosions when a horn containing a detonator was hit. Some mines wouldn't explode although the casing was peppered with holes. Our practice with these was to run past them at full speed so that our wash filled the casing, causing the mine to sink to the bottom. The R.N. officers thoroughly enjoyed their day out with us, and freely admitted to having revised their opinion of our trade.

An incompetent skipper
Bob Powell left us for a well earned demobilisation, and the post of Senior Officer was taken over by George Watson, another first class RNVR officer, who took Peter Guinness with him. Bob was replaced in 2075 by a Lieut.Robin Austin who came from a white Barbadian family that owned large sugar estates on the island. "Boy Blue", as he became known, proved to be a disaster as a skipper. He was certainly handsome, and after only one visit to Venice his cabin sported a photo of a beautiful girl, inscribed "A Robbie con tutto il mio amore". But there must have been doubts about him, as he was initially appointed "for training". His ship handling was poor, and we suffered damage several times when he came alongside.

He claimed minesweeping experience but quickly showed his lack of it. One day the ship ahead of us brought to the surface the mast and part of the hull of a wrecked fishing boat. Then we got a mine caught round the otter, and proceeded to drag it through the wreckage. There was a good chance the mine would explode, so I got everyone upon from below, just in case. It didn't, nor did the mine appear when we got into shallow water. So had we lost the mine in the wreckage, and picked up something else ? The only way to find out was to haul the sweep in while going slow ahead, and look. So I cleared the sweep deck except for the winchman, and hauled in gently until the otter was visible. At first I could see nothing. Then looking down, I saw the mine only a few feet from the stern. At that moment "Boy Blue" called down from the bridge suggesting he should stop engines. This would have had the effect of allowing the mine to catch up with the ship. My response was not couched in terms in which a superior officer ought to be addressed. I had the sweep veered very gently, and cut when the mine was at a safe distance. It wasn't until the Commander M/S explained to him what would have happened if the engines had been stopped that "Boy Blue" ceased threatening to log me for calling him a "b..... fool". The affair ended with apologies, but it didn't enhance his reputation, particularly with 2075's crew.

Our flotilla commander, Lieut. Commander Bob Viner, was a wine merchant in civilian life and his knowledge was very useful to us. One weekend two other officers and I went to Venice in a jeep driven by Bob; Lord knows how he had acquired it. We stayed at the Danielli Hotel, THE Venice hotel (it still is). I had a room with its own bathroom, all in marble. The luxury of being able to soak in such a bath, with gold plated taps, was indescribable.

After a while, if we had been pleased the Commander Minesweeping, we were allowed to take our ships over to Venice for the weekend, mooring up in the Grand Canal just by the Danielli Hotel. It was a blissful time, but not without its problems because the crew did tend to get drunk. One of our seamen, a Liverpudlian named Stevie Allen, came aboard so drunk that I had to charge him. It wasn't easy because Stevie was in a very happy state, and kept trying to put his arms around me, saying that I was a fine fellow, and wasn't the skipper a so-and-so. Finally he fell flat on his face and got carried below.

My application to join the Colonial Service
My father, mindful of the fact that sooner or later I would have to earn my living, sent me an application form for the Colonial Administrative Service. I filled it in, and returned it. Out of the blue, 2075 received a signal ordering me to report to Cairo for interview. That didn't appeal to me in the least, and I cabled my father asking him to try to get the interview transferred to London. He managed it, and I was given a date by which I was to be in London.

Arrangements were made for me to fly, but these broke down because some very unseasonal rain reduced the airfields in Northern Italy to quagmires. There was nothing for it but to cross over into Austria and go by train. I hitched a lift in the back of a 15 cwt truck. At the Italian/Austrian border the post was manned by a Guards Regiment. The astonishment of the Lance-Corporal who drew aside the canvas covering the back of the truck on finding that it contained a Naval Officer had to be seen to be believed. Collecting himself he saluted smartly and said "Sorry, Sah". The driver remarked to his mate "We should carry a sailor every time. Don't half make the border crossing easier".

Crossing Europe by train
There was a big transit camp at Villach in Austria where troops due for demobilisation were assembled to be transported to England. A train was leaving next day, but the only vacant place was in a coach reserved for the women's services, nurses etc. Their senior officer was a very powerful lady named Penelope Dudley Ward. She didn't like the idea of having a man, particularly a sailor, in the women's coach, but agreed as I was an officer. However, when I reported to her she said "Young man, I want no nonsense from you". Because of the ravages of war and the need to stop periodically for meals, the journey took a good 48 hours. The route was via Salzburg, Traunsheim, Rosenheim, Munich, Ulm, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Nancy to Calais. I spent a very uncomfortable first night next to a girl who snored. The second night I moved down the train and joined a poker game.

At Dover, being the only representative of the senior service, I was first off the cross channel steamer. I got a taxi to Priory station and found a London train just about to depart. I walked into my father's office in the Midland Bank Head Office just in time to cadge lunch off him in the Managers' dining room. While I was home my 21st birthday was celebrated. I was in Trieste on the actual day, but I said nothing about it because I would have been expected to throw a party. And I knew what that could involve......

Back to Trieste
Having had my Preliminary Interview for the Colonial Administrative Service, I had to return to Trieste. So it was over to Calais to make the same journey in reverse. But this time the train was relatively empty, and it was a much more comfortable trip. While waiting at Villach for the Army to find me some transport back to Trieste, I spent a pleasant few days at a luxury hotel, the Schloss Velden by a lovely lake, in company with an Army Officer and two girls from the Allied Commission in Austria. But he went off to Rome and the girls to Vienna. Despairing of getting any official transport, in pouring rain I hitched a lift across the border into Italy, and then ran across a Nursing Sister who had been on night duty when I was in hospital with German Measles. She fixed a ride for me with a Major who had a Dodge truck. And so I got back to Trieste. We went out sweeping almost at once.

Home again
We got back a few days later to find a signal instructing me to return to London immediately for a Colonial Service Appointments Board. There being no possibility of flying because the airfields in Northern Italy were still bogged down by the rain, I had to go back by road to Villach, and take the train again. This time I didn't have to travel in the Women's coach.

Having attended the Appointments Board, held at Burlington House, I went to the Admiralty and suggested that I should be posted somewhere nearer at hand than Trieste. This proved no problem as experienced minesweeping officers were in short supply. I was sent to Holland where I joined BYMS 2230 as First Lieutenant at Ijmuiden, a small port at the mouth of the Amsterdam ship canal, as soon as the ship came in from sweeping off Terschelling, one of the Friesian Islands. There were only two British YMS in the 167th flotilla; all the rest were Dutch, and we were under Dutch operational control.
"Red" Ricketts

My skipper was Lieut. Ricketts, who was commonly called "Red", because of a flaming mop of hair of that colour. Although fairly new to minesweeping, he was a good seaman. But having served most of the time with professional Royal Navy officers, he adopted their approach, and left all the ship's work to me as his First Lieutenant. The advantage was that he didn't interfere with me; the disadvantage was that he didn't help with any of the administrative work. 2230 had a very complicated system of victualling accounts that was quite new to me. My plight would have been even worse had not the Jewish "Bunts" (Signalman) been an accountant in civilian life. I think he must have been the inventor of what is now known as "creative accounting". Red's one failing was a colossal appetite for alcohol, his favourite drink being Guinness and Champagne, known as "Black Velvet". We once tried Dutch Advocaat and champagne, naming it "Yellow Peril", but it didn't catch on ¬perhaps just as well !

Red didn't drink at sea, but out came the bottles as soon as we berthed. He had been a submariner in the Mediterranean. His skipper was Ben Bryant V.C. to whom the whole crew was devoted. Just before setting out on an operation from Malta in 1943 they had a party aboard an American Navy ship. The American Navy was, and is, "dry", so the British provided Rum and the Americans the Coca-Cola. One of the problems about "rum and coke" is that the sugary soft drink tends to conceal the amount of rum consumed. On his way back to the submarine Red fell down a ladder and broke his arm. He was landed, and the sub. sailed without him. It never came back, being lost with all hands. "Red" had never recovered from the tragedy, and started drinking heavily.

Sweeping off the Friesian Islands
Our sweeping was exclusively LL i.e. against magnetic mines, which meant that every stretch of water had to be covered fifteen times before it could be said to be safe. Requiring Red and I to concentrate on station keeping for up to 14 hours a day, it could also be very tiring. The area to be swept was between the Dutch island of Terschelling and the German Island of Borkum which lies off the mouth of the River Ems. We use the spent the night at either Terschelling or Borkum. After the virtually tideless waters of the Mediterranean, I had to adjust to fast running tides with a big rise and fall, and a flat, sandy, and featureless coast line. But navigation itself was little more than a matter of buoy-hopping.

Thanks to its powerful engines and twin screws, 2230 had little difficulty in manoeuvring to moor in the confined waters of the harbour at Terschelling, even with a strong tide running. But we had some single screw Motor Minesweepers working with us. The reversing gear for their engine was operated by compressed air stored in cylinders, known as "bottles". It was worth watching them come in to moor. An inexperienced skipper could go from ahead to astern so many times that the compressed air became exhausted, and the engine was stuck in whatever gear it had last been shifted into. All he could do was to anchor (if he hadn't already run aground or rammed the quay), and wait for the bottles to be recharged.

But we weren't working all the time. The day after I joined 2230 we took her up the Ship Canal to Amsterdam and moored in the extensive docks. I liked Amsterdam as a city, and we had many enjoyable outings there. While 2230 was back in Ijmuiden having a defective generator repaired, Red and I visited Alkmaar, where I restocked the ship's library with thrillers published by American Pocket books; one afternoon we sat on the beach at Bergen-am-Zee eating cherries. It was in Ijmuiden that I received a letter telling me that I had been selected for the Colonial Administrative Service, and earmarked for the Gold Coast.

Operational again, we returned to work between Terschelling and Borkum. Our routine was interrupted once by a request from Trinity House to check that an area in which they wished to re-lay an important buoy was clear of mines. Having done the job, we anchored, but then had to take shelter in Borkum when a westerly gale blew. From Borkum we went to Delfzijl, a delightful town on the Dutch side of the river. One evening we drove into Gronigen, the provincial capital, which is about 30 km from Delfzijl. I was interested to see the place, because I knew that it was where my father had been interned after the 1914 Antwerp debacle until his escape the next year. We had a splendid dinner there and went on to a dance. My partner was a very pretty girl, but communication was difficult as she couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak Dutch.

It was while we were heading out to sea that a signal came through confirming my "Class B" release at the request of the Colonial Office i.e. I was to be demobilised as soon as I could be replaced because I was wanted for other work. This happened to coincide with an Admiralty decision that 2230 and the other British YMS could no longer be spared for operations under Dutch control, so we were to head back to England. After sheltering in Terschelling from a full gale, we had a rough passage back to Ijmuiden where we had several memorable farewell parties with our Dutch friends.

Night Passage
On 20th August 1946 we left Ijmuiden for a night passage to Sheerness. I had the first watch. Midnight came and went without any sign of Red to relieve me. I sent the steward to see if he was still asleep. The steward returned to say that he couldn't wake him. I went down myself. One look was enough; but whatever the cause, Red wasn't fit to stand his watch. So I carried on. I found the Sunk Light Vessel, and headed down the Barrow Deep. Now that the war was over all the buoys were lit, and it was like threading one's way through Piccadilly Circus at night. In the Barrow Deep I suddenly realised that another vessel and I were about to collide head on. Sounding our sirens we each turned sharply to starboard, and a London County Council sludge ship, used for carrying solid matter from the London sewers for dumping in the sea, slid by on the port side. Had we collided, I thought, what an ignominious way it would have been to end one's service in the Royal Navy! Off Sheerness next morning we were ordered to proceed a little further up the River Medway to Queenboro'. Just as we were approaching the quay, a very apologetic Red appeared on the bridge. He left me to berth at 2230. My last watch at sea in the Navy had been of 12 hours duration.

A few days later I was demobilised at Chatham, and issued with a complete outfit of civilian clothes. The three piece suit was brown with a herring bone pattern, and there was a pork-pie hat to go with it; brown shoes, a striped shirt and a perfectly horrid tie. One last travel warrant to get me back to Ewell; and so I became a civilian again. While I was in West Africa I received a letter from the Admiralty addressing me as Lieutenant Begent RNVR. So perhaps I did get that promotion after all.......

War sees man at his worst - and at his best. Far more fortunate than many, my abiding memory is of a time when, just for a while, people thought less of their rights and more of their duty.

October 1992

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