Veteran Stories:
Frank “P.O. Tel” Bowen

Navy

  • Royal Navy class of 269 wireless operators and signalmen, all boys aged 16, at HMS St. George on the Isle of Man, March 1944. Mr. Bowen is in the top row, ninth from left.

    Frank Bowen
  • Frank Bowen (on right) and a comrade in the fore ends of HMS Tactician, off Sasebo, Japan, 1952.

    Frank Bowen
  • HMS Nigeria in the South Atlantic, 1946. The gun turrets have been turned outward to try to stabilize the ship's rolling.

    Frank Bowen
  • HMS Nigeria entering the Grand Harbour at Valetta, Malta, 1946.

    Frank Bowen
  • HMS Nigeria en route to the Falkland Islands, 1946. Damage from heavy seas wrecked the whaler (shown) in its davits. The cutter that had been stored in the blocks was washed overboard.

    Frank Bowen
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"you were taught to march, hold a rifle, shoot it, all the things for learning to tow the line and look like someone who knew what he was doing"

Transcript

I was at a technical school and I got there through, they had exams at [grade] 11 in the UK and I passed the exam for technical school. So I was already in there and, you know, halfway through the war, I was getting not very good anyway. And I did join the army cadets and stuff like that; and we were running around doing things like that. So I decided in wanted to get in the navy. My dad, who was army from the First World War, he permitted me to go. My mother said no, she’d lost her first husband in the First World War; and they had a long history of tragedy, you might say. So, anyway, I convinced them that I wanted to go in and at the end of 1943, I volunteered and my birthday by the way is 1 March in 1928, so everything hinges from that date really. I went to the recruiting office and volunteered for service as a boy [seaman (a minor in the Royal Navy)] with my dad. And they wouldn’t let me go, you couldn’t go in until you were 16 unless you went in as a bugle boy and you could go at 15.5, and I didn’t want to do that. So anyway, I signed up and everything else and it was a case of waiting until my birthday and after my birthday, I was in the navy in the month of March, before the end of the month of March 1944. And I went in as a trainee wireless operator. And we called them telegraphists. We lived just outside of Liverpool, we’d moved there from North Wales when the war started and it was a trip to the Isle of Man and that was on a ferry, escorted by a destroyer in those days. And so, anyway, the Isle of Man, it was HMS St. George. Now, St. George had been moved. It was a new base; it was set up in 1941 when the old base on the east coast of England at Ipswich, that was bombed and that was called HMS Ganges [Boy’s Training Establishment] and that was the boy’s training depot. So they moved all the boys to the Isle of Man and that’s where we were trained. And I went into a class and there was wireless operators coming up type of thing. You did four weeks of what they called Nozzers [new Royal Navy entrant] training where you were taught to march, hold a rifle, shoot it, all the things for learning to tow the line and look like someone who knew what he was doing. So that was about it. After the basic month, you left what they called Nozzers and joined your class, and you started education. And we spent half of the day in classrooms and there, we used to march to a place called the Ballakermeen High School, which was converted to a military base. And then we spent four hours of the day there on schooling and then four hours of the day learning to be wireless operators and marching, seamanship, everything that was involved with the service. And that as really about it. The course, the seaman’s course, took six months to put a seaman boy to go to sea. And it took a year and a half on average for a wireless operator. And this was cut down in places. Mine was cut short because I did quite well in my educational side of it, so they sent me to a placed called [Robert] Gordon’s College in Aberdeen to train to be a radio mechanic. I spent five weeks there in the initial training and then it went on for another four months. And when I’d finished, I really didn’t want to do that. So I managed to convert back to my old trade. And I went back to where I would have normally gone in the first place; it was to my home depot, which was Davenport. And I joined the ship from there. I joined the cruiser, [HMS] Nigeria. She was a six inch cruiser of 10,000 tonnes and she was crewing up, getting ready to go to the south Atlantic for two and a half years. So we did and just before Christmas, we were commissioned as a ship and in January, we went to Malta to run up as they call it, where you do your sea trials and everything else. And my job onboard as a junior operator, I just sat on shift, on the radio. We did four hours on and four hours off. And you read Morse Code basically. We had several channels of signals, channels open to us and we did that. Our work included not just being wireless operators per se but we were, had to clean the decks, scrub our decks and all the wireless compartments, and you learned under a petty officer how to tune a transmitter and all those kind of things. The very first job I did on the Nigeria was to work in rigging the antennas. And in those days, you had a main mast and a foremast, and the rig antenna; we had six frames of wires with No. 12 wire, quite heavy stuff. And it was Foster bronze wire which was rigged between the masts. And they were called the main roof antennas and these were fed down to what they call a bear pit and this is where the high, all this connection was done. So they wanted to keep people from touching them obviously. And it was, from there, it went down to the transmitter rooms and that’s how we did them. So I worked on them, removing all the old ones that had been on there; and we put brand new antennas up. And that was into the dockyard alongside. But it meant climbing the masts and stuff like that, tying yourself off with the ropes' end and stuff. They didn’t have safety harnesses in those days. Everything you had, you built yourself. It was good. I mean, we were all young. I mean, I was 17 at that time and we were all fit and healthy, even though we were always hungry, you might say. But no, it was a good experience. I liked it.
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