Today my Dad remembers Grand Harbour in Malta and the moving Sunset ceremony.

sunset

These few visits described and the couple of sporting events were the only relief from the time spent at sea in nearly a year that I served in HMS Ocean. It was a hard working ship but typical of all the ships of the fleet.

We did on three or four occasions put into Marsasclox and go through the exercise of getting the squadron ashore for a couple of days before re-embarking but even those two days were flying days and we were kept just as busy ashore as we were aboard.

On three or four other occasions we also put into Grand Harbour in Valetta. Grand Harbour is huge and a most impressive sight from a ship moored in harbour with battlements and fortifications all around on a large scale. There were invariably other ships in, notably cruisers and as the Admiral of Fleet’s office was in Fort St Angelo overlooking he harbour, spit and polish was the order of the day.

Ocean always tied to the same buoy right beneath St Angelo and as we came between the two outer arms of the harbour the entire outer edge of the flight was lined with sailors shoulder to shoulder, at attention, wearing the smart dress of the day. The ship was saluted by all the other cruisers tied to buoys round the harbour with their crews also manning ship like us.

Men off watch were allowed ashore and those that chose to go were taken off by motor boat (the Liberty boat) and brought back the same way later.

The pinnacle of the day was at 6pm. This was when the pomp and circumstance, the pride, the bullshit of the Royal Navy, call it what you like shows us at our best. 6pm was Sunset. Wherever the portion of the sun was Sunset was the time when spit and polish eased, when the day’s work changed to evening.

The entire fleet fell silent as one long note o the bugle from the flagship HMS Liverpool in this case sounded to alert all the other ships. Crews of all the ships were going about their normal duties but on the sound of the alert every man and every officer on deck snapped to attention, turned towards where his ship’s flag was being lowered and saluted.

Whilst the flag of every ship was being lowered three Royal Marine buglers stood on top of the forward gun turret of the Liverpool and sounded Sunset. Every note was in perfect unison and reverberated around Grand Harbour in the otherwise complete silence.

It was a most moving moment and I, like I think most men, felt proud to be part of it. The whole ceremony took less than five minutes when every man at attention sprang back to life. This ritual, albeit in a less spectacular form would be taking part in every shore establishment and every moored ship in the Royal Navy wherever they may be at 6pm.

  • HMS Dragon in Grand Harbour

    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.

    hal-far1940-1945

    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,

    Tropical uniform and setting off to Malta

    Today Dad remembers getting kitted out with tropical uniform ready to set sail for HMS Falcon in Malta.

    I passed out if HMS Raven as an SEII. This was the highest grade in this particular trade that could be achieved. Because the first (and lowest) grade was an SEIII and the next grade an SE11 it would be logical that there was a further grade an SE1 i.e. a Safety Equipmnt Assistant Class 1 to give a full title but not so. I never heard of anyone in Safety Equipment Branch being an SE1. In fact the instructors at HMS Raven were SE11s. Likewise it was not a branch where there was scope for promotion. If an instructor reached Leading Seaman, that was as far as it went. Once again, this was a branch that was in the early stages of development. Until nearly the end of the war in 1945 all parachute and dinghy maintenance was carried out by RAF personnel even aboard carriers. Thus there was no structure for promotion for Navy men doing this work.

    Thus after leave at Christmas 1946 I left Raven and back to Daedalus on 10th January 1947 and just as quickly to the Drafting Officer. My luck was in. Within a few days, I was told I was to go to HMS Falcon which I knew was the Navel Air Station at Malta. I was sent off on 14 days embarkation leave and then back to Daedalus for vaccinations, innoculations and a medical examination before being kitted out with tropical uniforms. These consisted of white shorts, extra white shirts and blue knee length stockings. In addition I was issued with one pair of white (or should I say off-white) trousers, bell bottomed and a matching jumper as we called it but better described as an over-the-head tunic. To go with this full dress uniform (called a Duck Suit or White Ducks) which would be required to be worn on certain ceremonial occasions was a white hat and a air of white calf skin shoes.
    The white shorts were of good quality cotton, easily washed and comfortable to wear. However, the long trousered dress uniform was of a kind of stiff twill being most uncomfortable to wear and not easy to wash. Bear in mind that laundry facilities in the Navy were non-existent. All you had was a bar of hard soap, the loan of a bucket and hot water if you were lucky. In the few days I had left in Daedalus I was able to buy for a few shillings from a rating who had just returned from abroad a full dress suit in pure white cotton which looked more professional, felt comfortable and washed and ironed well. Thus armed, I was ready for the off. Along with motley squad from Daedalus we were were lorried across to Portsmouth and held in the Barracks there for two days. These barracks would have come way behind Dartmoor in any prize-giving for comfort. They were old, cold, damp and dark and certainly discouraged any sailor from staying there. Fortunately, we were moved out in a couple of days by which time there must have been several hundred sailors all of whom were entrained at Portmouth and transported to Tidbury on the Thames. We immediately embarked on a ship.