"We came out in the morning, we would play cards until the last half crown was gone, and we came out in the morning, the city was desolate, devastated around us. "
My experiences before I entered the military, I left school at 14 and was apprenticed in a marine engineering company in Hull [England]. And it was my intention to be a marine engineer and sail to China in a white uniform. Chief engineering officer of course, on a fine liner.
One of the experiences that we had was, a most harrowing experiences was fire watching. I noticed as I came in here there was a bucket of sand on the doorstep and I thought, whatever is that doing here because we used to have buckets of sand for fire watching. What happened was that everybody was the first to do a turn at this and the men would rather go home and sleep with their wives. And the lads since the pay was half a crown a night. And our pay for the week was not more than three half crowns, that’s, what, it would translate into 50 cents then.
The kids that used to like to do the fire watching, we would sit in a house in the middle of the industrial area, an old house and play cards with our half crowns. And we’d play pontoon, which I think is blackjack. And I can remember in 1941, a tremendous raid on the town and you’d hear a crash, thump and the kids would say, that was a near one, nine of hearts. Boom, that was close, ten of diamonds, you know. Paying absolutely no attention to it, no attention at all. We had a bucket of water and a stirrup pump which was rather like a bicycle pump with a hose. And it would go about as far as a good pee if you pressed on it, if you worked at it. And the buckets were sand and that was our equipment. And on this particular occasion, we came out in the morning, we would play cards until the last half crown was gone, and we came out in the morning, the city was desolate, devastated around us. We were just sitting there like a sore thumb.
Well, I was in what was called a reserved occupation and so I wasn’t prompted to join the military. I tried several times to join the Air Force but I wasn’t accepted because what I was doing was thought to be important for the war effort. When I was 20, I was called up and I had I think three weeks between receiving my notice and reporting to the depot in Chatham. I was first just into the minesweeping base on the Tyne [river]. I was an ordinance artificer, that is I had to see that the guns pointed in the right direction and they went off when they were supposed to go off, they did what they were supposed to do. Unfortunately, I was assisted by two young fellows who had not had any training in anyway and they were trained as ordinance mechanics. And they were very keen to show their skills in dealing with equipment, which left me with nothing much to do.
But I used to go to sea with the sweepers just for the experience, for the fun of it really because it was very boring hanging around the base doing nothing. And the ships were ex-trawlers, coal-burners for the most part, with names like Mary Jonette and the Morgan Jones and then there were wooden sweepers of acoustic mines that had drums fastened to their bows and they created a big clatter that would set off acoustic mines. The trawlers were sweeping the moored contact mines.
I’m not sure when I left the Tyne and went to the Mediterranean but it was after VE Day [May 8, 1945] and before VJ Day [August 15, 1945] because I remember celebrating VJ Day in the Mediterranean. And I joined the minesweeping flotilla, Algerine class minesweepers, and of course, I was the ordinance artificer for the flotilla and hence was on the fleet leader, the flotilla leader. Again, it was, if ever you’ve been somewhere where you have nothing to do but everybody else is as busy as they could be, it’s a very strange experience. You can only whistle so long, you can only smile for so long.