Today Dad shares memories of the Navy and rum.


Every morning at 11am came the long awaited pipe over the tannoy of “Up Spirits” when as far as possible every member of the mess contrived to be present when one man was detailed to take over the ubiquitous galvanised bucket and dash along the part of the ship where an officer was supervising the rum issue.

The exact number of tots to equate with the number of men in the mess who were entitled i.e. over 20 years of age was measured into the bucket and the collector “the rum bosun) hurried back.

Back at the mess the rum tots were carefully measured out under the supervision of the Leading Hand of the mess to each man entitled.  The process was watched with a keen eye by every recipient to make sure that it was measured meticulously.

It was illegal to store your rum and it was supposed to be drunk on receipt which mostly it was but it was sometimes stored for a special occasion.  Woe betide a sailor who was caught storing his rum supply.  Neither could it be traded although if a man had a birthday his tot would be augmented by a small drop out of each of his mates’ rum.  (known as “slippers”)

During that year there was an incident on HMS Ajax where twin sailors had a 21st birthday and consumed so much rum that both died.  This resulted in a signal from the Admiral reinforcing the rule of no sharing and not storage of rum which was obeyed for a short while.

There was no other form of alcohol available to the lower deck as all crew who were not officers were known.  Navy ships were dry ships but as ever there was an exception to this rule.  Alcohol was available to officers.  There was no limit to how much alcohol an officer consumed.  This disparity between officers and men on the lower deck was accepted as part of life  I did not come across any resentment about this.

Inevitably after a run ashore, some members of the lower deck tried to bring alcohol back on board.  It was not easy to get away with because for the most part returning on board involved a motor boat journey to the ship to the only boarding point which was by way of a Jacob’s ladder thus any bottle of booze stood in danger of falling out of a jumper into the sea.

On reaching the boarding deck, one had to stand and salute in the presence of an Officer of the Watch, a Duty Petty Officer, a Master-at-Arms and sundry others who recorded each man’s name and handed him his Watch Card which was in effect his identity card.  This system ensured that the ship knew when everyone was aboard and would also identify who, if any, were missing.

With all this scrutiny (and there was a light to search) it would be near impossible to smuggle any booze on board.  If caught the culprit was put straight in cells and subsequently punished.   So much for alcohol or the absence thereof.  The same applied to tobacco.

Incidentally there is a sequel to the returning aboard system.  Sometimes you bought things maybe a souvenir but if you could not carry it up the Jacob’s ladder you lost it to the motor boat’s crew.

Drastically, if you were too drunk to climb the Jacob’s ladder (there were always two or three) you remained in the motor boat until all others had climbed and then the ship’s crew would be called into play and would lower a wire net into which the incapable seaman would be bundled, raised to the flight deck and conveyed straight to cells.

Officers came aboard by the much more genteel fashion of climbing a gangway to the quarterdeck (at the rear of the ship).  There was a strict separation between officers and men.  Officers were quartered at the rear of the ship.  The lower deck was forward.  There was no access by a lower deck man to the quarterdeck.

Today my Dad describes life aboard HMS Ocean Royal Navy including cooking duties, lack of privacy and leisure activities.


The highest rank in a ratings mess was Leading SeamanPetty Officers and Officers were berthed in a different part of the ship.  A Leading Seaman was in charge of each mess and it was his responsibility to maintain discipline and see that the mess ran smoothly.  The Leading Seaman of our mess was a dour Scot with about 12 years service called Tom Baird.

There was a large cook house further to the rear of the ship and a deck down.  The Leading Seaman of the mess would allocate two men each day to be responsible for fetching the meal.  The mess had two galvanised buckets and these were taken to the cookhouse and the men were allocated the correct amount of food for the number of men in each mess.  The food would be carried up one deck through several compartments to the starving men at the table.  Each man has his own knife and fork, plate and cup ad the two men on duty that day would apportion the food.  Woe betide them if any man got less than his neighbour, therefore the cooks of the day would be very careful to avoid any favouritism as another two men would have that duty the next dy.  The job was done on rotation.

Breakfast, for example, was a bucket of porridge and the other bacon contained eggs, bacon, sausage and whatever else.  Bread was drawn from a storeroom beneath our mess deck, distribution supervised by a Stores Officer.  Tea was provided loose and could be mashed at a tap in the bulkhead with provided boiling water.

When breakfast was finished the two cooks of the mess for the day would wash up, plates, cup, utensils and buckets with boiling water from the tap.  Then they would scrub down the table and benches and then the floor using the same buckets until they sparkled (and so did the buckets) until it passed the Leading Seaman’s scrutiny.

The next thing the cooks would do was collect a bucket full of potatoes from a potato store sufficient for one meal for 12 men.  They would scrape and wash the potatoes and have them at the ship’s galley in time for them to be boiled or roasted/mashed along with potatoes from every mess in the ship ready for dinner to be served in the same way as breakfast.

At 4pm the store on the deck below would be opened and each mess could draw a loaf of bread and a soup plate full of either treacle, jam or honey for tea but this could only be eaten as far as one’s duties would allow.  Either one slipped down to the mess for a quick bit or you waited until such time as your work schedule was completed.

On squadron duties a man’s work time was governed by the flying schedule and sometimes this went on long into the evening or even involved night flying.  During all flying times either Sam or I had to be available at take-off and landing so we had to take it in turns to go below to our mess for a meal.  The same applied to all squadron ratings.

Supper was another hot meal dealt with on the same basis as lunch and was had at 6.30pm.

Thereafter subject to flying times and subject to other duties, was devoted to leisure.  There was no activity beyond the mess deck apart from walking along the exposed boat deck or on to the flight deck if there was no flying.

Clothes could be washed in the shower room just beyond the after bulk head.  There were no drying facilities as such clothes could be hung on the boat deck when at sea.

Toilets known as Heads were located in the 816 Squadron area.  A row of urinals and some wash basins formed one side and a row of about 10 toilet cubicles opposite.  Cubicles is a misnomer in that the dividing partitions and doors were only 3 feet high thus when you wanted to use the toilet you could see which ones were occupied by the row of heads along the line.  In ship board life privacy did not exist.

Cards was a popular pastime but it was illegal to play for money or to gamble in any way.  We tended to play for matches as cigarettes the recognised trading currency were looked upon as money.  The result was that you played for matches so that if anyone in authority came through the mess it would appear innocuous. As the end of a card sessions, matches would be exchanged for cigarettes.

Crown and Anchor was a Navy game and was strictly forbidden.  One or two men had a Crown and Anchor sheet (rather than a board) and there was always a lookout to give warning of approaching authority when the sheet and dice and money could be swiftly swept up and hidden until danger passed.  Crown and Anchor was not a game that interested me or for that matter any of the members of our particular mess.

hmsoceanmpl806Today Dad finally joins HMS Ocean aircraft carrier fulfilling his wish to serve at sea.

I joined ship in Marsaclok via a Jacob’s ladder from the ship’s boat.  Like everyone else my gear was hoisted aboard in a wire net by the ship’s crew.  First of all I had to find out where I was meant to live whilst aboard.  I followed the others along the decks and down ladders until we reached the 805 Squadron mess deck.  This located, I had to go back to the flight deck to collect my gear which consisted of my large kitbag, hammock, tool box and quite unofficially a suitcase containing all that I had bought to eventually take home with me.  This mainly consisted of tinned food which could be bought in Malta at that time whilst people in England were that on wartime rations.

Sam Turner was already aboard and I joined him on the mess deck for a pot of tea, a fag and a natter.  The mess deck was right in the fore part of the ship, two decks below the flight deck.  It occupied the full width of the ship about 40 feet wide at that point and was roughly square except that it occupied three sides of a structure that housed the ammunition conveyor mechanism to the deck above where the ship’s anti-aircraft guns were located.

A rough drawing shows the layout.

It must be borne in mind that wherever there was access through compartments or between decks via ladders there was a sealable hatch which meant that the door or hatch cover when closed was capable of being fastened by a series of handles around the edge which could be operated from either side.  Ship safety meant that some hatches were closed all the time so that to pass from one compartment to another one had to unfasten the door handles and refasten them after you.

A warship consists of a number of watertight compartments so that when at sea all hatches between decks and between one compartment and the next were left closed in this manner.  A bulkhead is an integral metal wall across the ship’s hull extending from floor to ceiling (deck to deck head in naval parlance) and the watertight doors provide the only way to pass from compartment to compartment.

Within our Squadron’s compartment (mess deck) were two rows of tables and benches, three on each side i.e. one port and one starboard.  Each table with a bench on either side was about 12 feet long and 3 feet wide.  Each table had a mess number and accommodated 10-12 men.  Here one lived; mealtimes you sat 5 or 6 on each side of the table.  Here you wrote letters, kept your clothes clean and pressed, smoked, talked or read.  When it came time to sleep hammocks had to be strung from rails across the deck head above.  A bank of small lockers was where you kept your belongings such as they were.

Today Dad describes his time at Hal Far Malta and joining 805 squadron.  He also describes a break and the purchase of a green suit which was very much against Navy rules.

About a couple of weeks late and I am one of my colleagues in the section Neville Booth were required to attend the Admin Office to see Lieutenant Holland.  We saw him separately and he gave each of us a draft chit.

Back in the section I looked at mine.  I had to report to the store ship Fort Colville some three days hence.  Fort Colville a store ship went to sea occasionally but spent most of it’s time alongside the jetty in Grand Harbour.   I conferred with Neville.  Where was he going?  HMS Ocean!

Now Neville was a conscript into the Navy and whilst he was content to serve his time he had no ambitions other than to become a Methodist Minister when discharged.  I pointed out that For Colville  was just the cushy number he needed and so he agreed if we could arrange a swap drafts he would let me go to Ocean.  Back we went to Dutchy Holland who as I said before was quite easy-going.  He said that he would see what he could do and he must have spoken to the Drafting Officer up at Hal Far for within a day or two Neville was away to Fort Colville and I was packing not to go there and then to Ocean but to transfer up to Hal Far and to join 805 squadron of Seafire Fighters who had been flown off Ocean to locate at Hal Far.

This was something that happened if Ocean had to go to the dockyard for some maintenance or for replenishment of stores  The Squadron were flown off to Hal Far so that flying could continue and then they would fly back on board when the ship was ready for a major exercise as I later found out and will describe later.

At Hal Far I joined the squadron personnel and was billeted in Nissan huts a semi-circular,  a semi-circular corrugated iron structure both ends of which were finished off with concrete or timber.  In England they were like ice boxes in winter and greenhouses in Summer.  In Malta they were like greenhouses all the time but that didn’t bother us much because when we were free in the evenings we spent time until “light’s out”  sitting outside smoking and yarning.


A couple of times per week  young Maltese girl would come round and she would take any laundry one had and her family would wash and iron it and return it next day for a charge of only a few coppers.  This, to me, was novel because like most Navy men in my previous 2 years’ service I had always had to wash, dry and iron my own clothes.  There was an acute shortage of water in Malta and therefore it was rationed simply by turning it off.  Thus the water was turned on at 7am until 8.30am.  Then back on at 12 noon until 1pm.  On again at 5pm until 7pm then off until 7am the next morning.  It was a system you got used to.  This was continuous at Hal Far Winter and Summer and was the same in all military establishments on the island.

Meals were god at Hal Far.  In fact, throughout my service in the Navy food was always good.  There was also a decent NAAFI canteen.

I had hardly got settled in when I was told that I was entitled to four days in a rest camp.  I didn’t know that I needed a rest but wasn’t going to pass up the chance of something different.  The first thing I did on my next visit to Valetta was to buy a civilian suit, a green silk suit, for a few shillings.  The readers will not understand what an adventure this was.  Naval personnel were forbidden to have any clothing other than what could be obtained through the Naval stores.    Certainly it was a crime to own much less wear any item of civilian clothing.

And so I went a few miles up the road to the village of Sezzuwi where about 20 matelots all complete strangers to one another were billeted in a Nissan hut (!) and left to their own devices for a few days.

It was a change rather than a rest.  There were no officers or Petty Officers on our tails.  We could do as we liked which meant we patronised the couple of bars in the village but generally just lazed about.  The evenings were the best because when it dropped dark we could don our civilian suits and daringly go into the village and pretend we weren’t sailors but obviously all the village knew we were.  One night there was fiesta with a procession through the village accompanied by a band and with the letting off of fireworks.

Returned to Hal Far on the fourth day the same man as when I left, put my green suit in the bottom of my kitbag and never wore it again till I left the Navy,

Today my Dad remembers life at Kalafrana and how he wanted to join HMS Ocean.

oceanrp_IMG_1483-e1404054219292-225x300.jpgLife went on at Kalafrana.  We repaired and packed a few parachutes and dinghies, we swam and we sailed.  By now we had coaxed Bill Cant to let us take out a Navy whaler a rowing/cum sailing boat that we could on a free afternoon take sailing miles off Malta.

We had some chores to do but even these did not prove irksome.  We seaman of the SE branch had done a fire fighting course at Portsmouth.  I did mine in 1945.   Eight of us were required to exercise once a week with the only piece of fire fighting equipment Kalafrana had, a two wheeled trailer onto the square and practised fighting an imaginary fire in various buildings.

Another duty allocated to us seamen was a nightly guard duty along the slipway and the jetties.  Two of us would be joined by two Maltese sailors for the night on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary.  At that time there was a bit of a Nationalist movement in Malta and there was just the cautionary thought that they might vandalise the Kalafrana base.  I don’t think we in Kalafrana took it too seriously but we had to do the guard bit.

We also did a 4 hour guard during the day time on the only gate leading out of Kalafrana which meant donning white belt and gaiters and presenting arms with rifle and bayonet when any officer passed which was rare because hardly any officer bothered visiting us.

Evenings were left to our own devices.  Perhaps a game of cards or Ping-Pong in the NAAFI.  Even a pint or two if cash resources ran to it.  Otherwise time would be spent smoking, yarning or reading in the dormitory.  Lights out was at 10pm when you got into your bed under the compulsory mosquito net.

Reveille next morning over the tannoy would be at 7am.  The first thing I did then was turn my boots upside down because it was not unknown for scorpions to get into them.  Scorpions (and lizards) were quite prevalent.  Because of the heat we left the dormitory door open at night and from time to time the odd scorpion came in. I could put up with most livestock but I hated scorpions.

During this period at Hal Far I was issued with further items of kit.  Coming out from England I was already formally issued:- one working blue serge suit with red badges, two pairs of white shorts and white shirts , one Duck suit with blue badges and one non-issue Duck suit in white cotton.  Whilst up to now a blue serge suit with red badges had been a sailors everyday working rig it had now been decided that whilst this suit would be retained we would use a more practical outfit for work wear and so we were now issued with two pair of a navy blue gabardine trousers and two lighter blue cotton shirts with open neck collars.

A few weeks later probably with the thought in mind of the forthcoming very hot weather of the Summer we were issued with two pairs of khaki shorts and two khaki shirts.

I now had a variety of 10 different suits; I will not say at my disposal because I could not dispose of any of them (apart from the non-issue Duck suit) because the dress to be worn for the day was announced over the tannoy at Reveille and that was the outfit to be worn.

Thus wherever you went in the Navy, shore establishment or ship reveille would be followed by the announcement “Dress of the Day No ….”  Each suit would have a number and you wore the suit applicable to that number when instructed.

One day in March I was working in the section building packing a parachute.  The window was open and the shutters back for coolness and looking out of the window I saw anchored in the middle of the bay the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean.  How I wished that I was on that ship instead of where I was. Little did I know my wish was to be fulfilled.