Electrical Artificer

Service Number: PMX 86407

Royal Navy

October 1945 To June 1949




Clifford  Reginald  Turner



Author’s note:


In the course of preparing this website I have enjoyed many surprises and unexpected insights as well as met some amazing and fascinating people.


The following contribution was received from Mr. Cliff Turner of Hamilton, New Zealand and I have had the pleasure of connecting him with Mr Frank Bee (also a former crew member of Birmingham) whose own contribution appears on the site. They have since been in contact with each other and have enjoyed a most satisfactory catch-up.


Cliff’s story covers the years 1925 until circa 1951. His record is a unique first-hand account and we have chosen to include it exactly as quoted to us and not to leave anything out.


For details of his time in the navy and on HMS Birmingham click here: The Navy




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December 2012


From Cliff Turner:


I have just seen your piece about the Birmingham. I joined her in Oct or Nov 1945 as an electrical artificer. At Christmas King Christian of Denmark arranged for a parcel of Danish cheese, butter and bacon to be delivered to the homes of all the ships crew. Although I had not been present when the ship went into Copenhagen at the end of the war my family received a very welcome parcel. I am now 87; there will not be many recipients still alive.


My main reason for contacting you was to tell you about the gift of food that all members of the crew had from King Christian X. Your Dad's family must have one.


I joined aged 15 yrs 11 months as an artificer apprentice in Feb 1941 but since the training took so long the only action I saw was being bombed during the blitz on Plymouth. So the war had been over for a few months when I joined Birmingham, my first ship.


Thanks to you I now know that the captain when I joined had not been in the ship very long as the captain in Copenhagen had a different name. Most of my messmates had been in the ship for some time, including the torpedo in the Med and the repairs in America. I had never heard any mention of Monty visiting when they were in Copenhagen.


I am doing a bit of a story for my family and mention the Artisans Mess winning the Carley float race at the Home Fleet regatta in Portland Harbour in early 1946. Now I can show them a picture of a Carley float.. The crew chose me to receive the prize, 10 shillings each, from the C-in-C Admiral Sir Neville Syfret.


Soon after that we did a 6 weeks cruise to Gibraltar, Trinidad, Jamaica, Bahamas and Bermuda. We went to Cardiff for the celebration that took place a year after the war ended and soon after that visited Hull, Scarborough, Hartlepools and North Berwick.


Then to Portsmouth for a major refit before going out to Trincomalee to join the East Indies station, getting there towards the end of 1947.


We went to Rangoon for its independence day in January 1947. We took the last British Governor back to Ceylon where he caught a ship for home.


In all I spent more than 3 years in Birmingham and was the "oldest inhabitant' when I left in early 1949. I had joined for 12 years from the age of 18 but managed by political agitation to get out of the navy in June 1949, as I hated the conditions under which we lived.






April 2013


Thanks a lot Russell for your work. I am really delighted with it and I know my family will treasure it. I also intend to forward it to a few other people.


Although I was unhappy in the navy I would not change anything in my life as what I learned led to a satisfying life with a wonderful wife two successful daughters and 6 lovely grandchildren.


Best wishes,






HMS Birmingham Light Cruiser at sea - June 1946



Brigg, where I was born on 21 March 1925, is a small market town in North Lincolnshire. It stands astride the River Ancholme about ten miles south of Ferriby Sluice where the river flows into the River Humber.


Brigg has few claims to fame. Music lovers may be aware of Delius' rhapsody Brigg Fair but find it difficult to find Brigg on a map, and some devotees of the theatre may know that actress Joan Plowright was born in a Brigg council house. She is a few years younger than me so it is possible that I saw the future Lady Olivier in her pram.



Cliff (left) with his brothers Ken and John and his mother.


Most of my father's ancestors came from North Lincolnshire. My Great-Granddad Charles Turner, who died long before I was born, came from Barnetby. In the 1871 census he was living at Broughton in the house of a farmer, George Marshall, and was described as a servant. Two other young men were living in the house so it would seem likely that Charles was employed on the land. In 1881 he was living at 9 West Terrace in Brigg, married to Harriet (nee Maddison). They had a daughter, Annie, aged two. He was listed as a brewer's drayman. I do not know how my Great-Grandma regarded this employment as I remember she used to wear a little enamel brooch in the shape of a white ribbon. It was only after I came to New Zealand that I became aware that the badge was the emblem of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.


The 1891 census show Charles was still a brewer’s drayman but living at 34 Grammar School Road, Brigg.


This house was known as Oakleigh House and not the kind of house that a brewers drayman could have aspired to. At the time of his death from tuberculosis at the age of 42, in July 1895, he was a pork butcher. Family legend is that the pork butchers business, which persisted for four generation of Turners, was started by Harriet, so it seems likely that Great-Granddad carried on working as a drayman for a while and then joined his wife in the butchers business.


After she was widowed, Great-Grandma married Francis Richardson in 1898, so my brothers and I knew her as Grandma Richardson. I have a picture of Brigg market place early in the 20th century which shows a stall carrying the words "F. Richardson, Pork Butcher, Grammar School Road, Brigg". Francis died in 1912. At the 1911 census my Grandfather, also Charles, was still a cabinet maker.




1939 – 1945




Towards the end of August 1939 we had the only family holiday we ever had apart from short stays with my Hills grandparents and, for Ken and me, a few days with our Uncle Harry and Auntie Alice at Whaplode near Spalding. The holiday was on the Lincolnshire coast at Mablethorpe; we rented a caravan and a tent from a Brigg cobbler called Melton. Mum, Dad and John slept in the caravan and Ken and I had camp beds in the tent.  Mr Melton took us all in his car on a Sunday and brought us back the following Sunday, which was almost the last peacetime Sunday before the war. I think we had not seen a newspaper for the whole week and when we got home again we realised that war was a distinct possibility.


It was while I was swimming at Castlethorpe Bridge that my mother came along the towpath to fetch me home because the Germans had invaded Poland. Perhaps she thought Brigg would be singled out for immediate aerial attack. We knew of course that war was imminent. I think it was in March 1939 (but it may have been September 1938) that every man, woman and child in Britain were given a gas mask and I remember going to Glebe Rd School to get mine. When school broke up for the summer holidays in July 1939 Headmaster Daughton told the assembled boys that he believed in "the power of prayer" and asked us all to pray for peace. On Sunday September 3rd at 11.00 a.m. we gathered round the radio to hear Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tell us that we were at war with Germany. Our neighbours Horace West and his sister Mary came to listen as their radio needed a new battery and the sight of their anxious faces is one of my most enduring memories.


In the early hours of Monday 4 September the air raid warning siren sounded; we got out of bed and dressed and went downstairs. Mother's reaction was to make a cup of tea. I cannot recall how long it was before the "All clear” siren sounded and we all went back to bed.  It was this warning that caused Great-Grandma Richardson to go downstairs and die in her chair. It later transpired that the warning was a false alarm. In fact it was several months before bombing started in earnest although a few bombs were dropped near the Forth bridge in Scotland and at the naval base, Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.


Similarly not much fighting occurred in France where the British Expeditionary Force was sent soon after the war started. Conscription of young men had started in about March 1939 and so there were few trained conscripts and the men that went to France were mainly regular soldiers and reservists. Reservists were men who had served as regulars in the armed forces and had then accepted a retaining fee to stay on as a reserve. Reservists were mobilised a day or two before the war broke out.


The air force carried out raids over Germany early in the war but instead of dropping bombs they dropped leaflets urging the German populace to turn against their Nazi masters. The period from September 1929 to 1940 became known as the "phoney war" because so little happened in Britain, Germany or France.


By contrast the war at sea started almost from Day One. The Athenia, a ship carrying lots of children to what their well-to-do parents thought would be safety in America, was torpedoed with considerable loss of life.  A German submarine managed to get through the defences at Scapa Flow and sink the battleship Resolution and in November came the cheering news that the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee had been destroyed off Montevideo in Uruguay by the cruisers Exeter, Ajax and Achilles. The Achilles was a ship of the New Zealand navy. The Graf Spee had already sunk many merchant ships and the crews taken prisoner were put into a ship called the Altmark. I cannot recall how this ship came to be in a Norwegian fiord, but while it was there it was boarded by men from HMS Cossack and the prisoners were taken back to England.


This story seems to be degenerating into a History of World War II. Winston Churchill covered that in about 5 volumes so I will not compete against him but get back to the original purpose of this magnum opus.



Cliff in the backyard at 5 Princes St.


Mention of the Wests reminds me that I have not chronicled our move from 5 Princes St to 4 Redcombe Lane. This took place, I think in 1938. I know we were still in Princes St when the Glebe Rd headmaster came round in about mid 1937 to tell us brother Ken had passed the scholarship exam for the Grammar School and that we had been there quite a time when the war came. I do not know why we moved but perhaps the new house was marginally better than the old. It had a separate kitchen and there were three bedrooms on the first floor. At Princes St. we kids had to climb two flights of stairs to our attic bedroom. The front door did not open directly on to the street; there was a fenced area about the size of two tabletops between the house and the pavement. One advantage was that it was much nearer to school. An old man had lived there alone for several years and the house was filthy. The owner, Mr Clark, gave my parents two rent-free weeks in recognition of the amount of work they put in to clean the place up.


Unlike Princes St, which did not have a square centimetre of soil, we had a back garden and a pigsty. The copper for washing clothes was not in the back yard but in the kitchen, which meant that on washdays, the house was filled with steam. Toilet facilities were as primitive as those in Princes St. The house was very dark. The window in the living room faced north and that in the kitchen looked to the west. Any Southern Hemisphere readers are reminded that in England it is the north side of a house which never gets any sun. The house was at the west end of a block of four which was why we had no windows facing east to the morning sun.


I ran twice, in 1939 and 1940, in the school cross race over about 7 km coming about 30th out of about 120 runners on my second attempt. As I was only 15 and there were 16 and 17 year old boys running, I thought that was not a bad result. I recall that as I approached the finish one teacher called out “Well done, Turner".


School Certificate came in June 1940. The Germans had just overrun Belgium, Holland and France so things were looking a bit grim for Britain but nevertheless the exams took place. When the summer holidays started my brother and I went working with several other boys, mornings only, in woods near Scawby sawing pine tree trunks for use as pit props in coal mines. I think we were paid 5 old pence per hour. The summer holiday was shortened so that another two weeks off school could be given in the autumn for youngsters to work in agriculture.


Looking back to 1940 I realise that children at that time had little or no idea of the peril we were in. If the Germans had not attacked Russia but had concentrated their efforts solely against Britain the war might have had a very different outcome.


Soon after school restarted the School Certificate results arrived. I had credits in English, English Literature, French, Latin, Physics, Chemistry, Maths and History and a miserable pass in Geography. Of the boys staying at school after School Cert those who had done well enough progressed to the sixth form while others went into a form called Remove to have another attempt the following year. In the sixth form pupils had to make a choice, between Maths and Science or Modern Studies.  Modern Studies meant languages, literature and English.  I chose Maths and Science.


When the autumn holiday came my brother and I went to a farm at Wrawby to pull and bag carrots. We were paid five shillings a day - riches to us but most of it went to mother.



The Navy


I was not very happy in the few months I spent in the sixth form; probably because I knew I was likely to go into the navy. When the results of the navy exam came I was high enough up the list to be able to choose to go into the electrical branch. The other choices were engine room or ordnance.  I also lost time at school because when I had my medical for the navy at Derby I was told that I had to be circumcised before I could be accepted. The job was done at Scunthorpe hospital. I did not know then that it was normal surgical practice to shave areas adjacent to the part of the anatomy to be operated on so you can imagine what I thought was going to happen when a screen was put round my bed and a man came in carrying an open cut-throat razor.


Looking back it seems silly that I should have stayed at school until two days before going into the navy. It might have been more sense to have taken a job, however menial, for a few weeks. Eventually I was told that I had to be at Torpoint, Cornwall, on 24 February 1941.

That was a Monday and I went to school on the Saturday morning. It was mid-term so no-one else was leaving and I had to take my text books to the book room where headmaster Daughton said goodbye to me with tears in his eyes. I thought the tears were for me but as I grew older I realised that he was grieving for a whole generation. I wrote to him once or twice and I think he was pleased to learn that unlike many of my new acquaintances I had not started smoking. I still regard smoking as the eighth wonder of the world and cannot understand how anyone can take up such a foolish habit.


On 24 February 1941 I said good-bye to my tearful mother who gave me a ten-shilling note. Dad and I set out for the station, calling on Nana and Granddad Turner on the way. Nana also gave me ten shillings. At the station, also waiting for the 8.13 am train was George Hewson who had been recalled to the navy at the beginning of the war as he had gone on the "reserve" after completing 12 years service as a stoker. Mr Hewson came to Brigg on a painting contract, married a Brigg girl, and then had a fish and chip shop in Glebe Rd. His house at the end of Colton St. bordered on land which was in the mid 1930's used to build a large number of houses for people displaced by the slum clearance programme. Seizing the opportunity, he turned the front room of his house into a little grocer's shop and he was prospering when war came. I bet he regretted going on to the naval reserve.


He sold the fish and chip business but his wife kept the grocery business going and they continued to prosper after the war and Mr Hewson became quite a big fish in the small pond of local politics. Mr. Hewson was bound for Chatham in Kent but told Dad that he would see that I got the right underground train to Paddington Station when we reached King's Cross Station in London. On arrival Mr Hewson gave me the right instructions and I found myself in the Underground which I thought was an astounding feat of civil engineering. And so I reached Paddington and caught the train for Plymouth. First stop was Newbury - the place I would go to in December 1961 to work for the Southern Electricity Board for six years.


It was still daylight when the train reached the South Devon coast and I saw for the first time the red sandstone rocks so typical of the area. It was dark by the time the train reached Plymouth but somehow I found my way from North Road station to the Torpoint Ferry, which crossed the Hamoaze, the name of the estuary of the River Tamar that separates Devon from Cornwall. The ferry carried vehicles; the fare for pedestrians was one old penny. Then it was a bus ride of about a mile to the Royal Navy Artificers Training Establishment. (RNATE) It was about 13 hours since I had left home. I presented myself at the Regulating Office just inside the gate where I met Engineer Lieutenant Commander Pillage. He was an elderly reservist who had been recalled for the war and I soon found that he was known as Boiler Bill. Soon afterwards he was released back to civilian life. He took me to Hut Watt 4 which was to be home for the next two years.


Prior to the war the RNATE was at Chatham in Kent so it was decided to move it further from the possibility of being bombed. At first temporary arrangements were made in Devonport while new facilities were built at Torpoint. The new place was obviously built as a rush job and the living arrangements for us were basic. In Watt 4 there were about 16 double-decker bedsteads, two rickety steel tables and four wooden forms for us to sit on. Heating was provided by an iron stove in the middle of the hut. We did not have sheets on the beds. About 90 boys joined with me; we occupied three huts identical to Watt 4. There were four blocks of accommodation each having six huts and the blocks were named for pioneers of the steam engine - Watt (1736-1839); Trevithick (1771 - 1833); Newcomen (1663 - 1729) and Parsons (1854-1931).  


I had barely had time to take in my surroundings when it was ''Lights out" and I got into bed feeling a long way from home. But not to sleep for long; we had an air raid warning. Before we could get to the shelters I was terrified by the sound of explosions but soon learned that these came from a battery of 4.7 inch anti-aircraft guns in an adjoining field. I cannot recall how long the warning lasted or even if bombs were dropped anywhere near us.


Reveille was sounded by bugle at 6.15 am and breakfast was soon after. The mess hall was a large building as was required to seat more that 800 apprentices and the food was quite good. After breakfast came assembly of all the apprentices on the parade ground for prayers. Compulsory religious observance persisted until about 1947.


Only hazy impressions remain of my first day in the Navy. I am almost certain that on that day we were kitted out with our uniforms, steel helmets and service gas-masks which were much bigger and heavier than those issued to civilians and had to be carried at all times. We had photographs taken for our Sailors' Pay and Identity Books. After these were issued we had to carry them whenever we left the RNATE and to lose the book was a serious matter. 


During the next day or two we had lots of instruction about the hierarchy at the RNATE; how to recognise the ranks of officers by the amount of gold braid on their sleeves, how to tackle an incendiary bomb with a stirrup pump and hours of drill on the parade ground under the instruction of Chief Petty Officer Smith and Petty Officer Tom Coffey. Both were gunnery specialists. For some reason matters of drill and ceremonial were regarded as the province of the gunnery branch.


Two other Chief Petty Officers, Moore and Anderson, shepherded us from one thing to another. Both were quite elderly to our young eyes and had been recalled from the reserve after completing 22 years service. People who left after 12 years service had the option of going on to the reserve but those who stayed on for a further ten years and qualified for a pension for life had to stay on the reserve until the age of 55.


I am almost certain that on the first Saturday we were allowed "ashore" and that I went by myself over the Torpoint ferry to Devonport and from there found my way to Plymouth Hoe and had the pleasure of seeing Drake's Island that features in the poem Drake's Drum. The next day the Commander in Chief, Plymouth, Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Naismith V.C. visited the ATE for the Sunday church parade. When I wrote home about it Dad was able to tell me the admiral had won the VC in a submarine during the Dardanelles campaign in the first war.


For our first year we were only allowed “ashore” on Saturdays and Sundays and had to be back "aboard" at 10.00 pm. For the second year we had leave on Friday evenings as well and for the remaining two years had an additional evening's leave during the week. Some-time after I joined it was decided we could go out in the summer months every evening after supper at 7.30 pm but only to stay nearby for a walk in the country. This allowed us to get as far as a hamlet called St John’s which had a tiny old-fashioned pub, and when finances permitted have a glass of cider.


A creek from the Hamoaze ran up to St John's and at low tide it was possible to take a short cut there over stepping-stones. I loved this because for the first time in my life I was able to see wading birds like curlew and dunlin.


On our first trip from New Zealand back to England in 1983 Nancy, Mary and I went to the St John's pub and I was a little saddened to find that at some time during the 39 years since I last saw it the old uneven floor of stone flags had been replaced and a general tarting-up had taken place. On the same day I went to have another look at the ATE but the person on the gate said we could not go in for a look around. On a subsequent trip, I think in 1993, we found the ATE was closed down.


After two weeks of induction and hours of drill on the parade ground it was time to go to the workshops to really start our training. We were split into groups under Chief Engine Room Artificers who had been recalled from the reserve. We were given a cylindrical block of steel about 10 cm in diameter and with hammer and chisel and file had to reduce the cylinder to a hexagonal shape. The noise was deafening and many a thumb was hit by hammers.


At the time I thought it a bit pointless and I suspect we were set to do this because that was the way things had been done for generations. We were then set to making callipers. Two years were passed in making things by hand. Every six months we had a test job; I did not distinguish myself but did well enough to avoid "extra factory" on Saturday afternoons which was the fate of those who did not meet the required standard.


One full morning a week was spent in the classroom on maths and science. Once again I avoided the extra study on Friday evenings, which boys who failed the six-monthly exams had to do. It was this tuition which enabled me as a civilian in 1951 to gain exemption from the first two years of part-time study for the Higher National Certificate in electrical engineering.


It was during my early weeks in the navy, on a Good Friday, that I first bought myself beer in a pub. One boy in my hut had got chicken pox or mumps and the rest of us were put into isolation, which meant we were kept away from other boys as much as possible. We had meals at a different time and were not allowed out. But the chaplain arranged for us to walk to Whitesands Bay for a picnic on the beach. On the way we passed through the village of Millbrook just as the Heart and Hand pub was opening. It was run by two elderly spinster sisters and they were a bit taken aback by the invasion of a dozen or so beardless youths but they still served us. New Zealanders may think me mistaken about Good Friday but in England the pubs opened every day of the year.


This was also the time that Plymouth suffered two devastating air raids; one in March and another about a month later. I will never forget coming out of the air raid shelter and seeing Plymouth burning, apparently from end to end. It was during one of these raids that a bomb was dropped on the ATE, about 150 metres from the shelter I was in. It hit part of the workshops but no casualties resulted. Near to the ATE was H.M.S. Raleigh, a training centre where new recruits to the seaman branches of the navy did their first ten weeks training. A bomb from the same cluster dropped there and killed some men.


It was the day after the second heavy raid that I had my first leave of 14 days. Torpoint ferry had been put out of action by bomb damage to nearby oil storage tanks so we were taken to the navy rifle range where boats were waiting to take us to Devonport. On the way we passed close to a French submarine, the Surcouf, which carried eight-inch guns. I believe that these were the largest guns ever mounted on a submarine. The Surcouf had been brought to England by its crew when the French surrender took place in 1940.



Author’s Note:

For more details regarding the French Undersea Cruiser Surcouf please click on the following photo:


French Undersea Cruiser Surcouf


A desolate scene met us on landing at Devonport. The streets were full of debris, some buildings were still smouldering and, a sight I will never forget, a child was crying in a gutter. Strangely I cannot remember how those of us that needed to go to Plymouth's North Rd. station got there; perhaps the navy organised transport, perhaps we walked. The station was still functioning but I am not sure now if I reached London in time to catch the 4.00pm train for Brigg or whether I had to wait for the mail train that left at about 11.00pm and got to Brigg at about 6.00am. I know I was very grubby by the time I got home.


It was lovely to be home but I remember very little about my leave. I know my Dad took me to the Queens Arms pub; the landlord, George Jobson, had known me since birth so knew I should not be there but said nothing. Mum, Dad and I had an evening in a Barnetby pub with my Auntie Flo and her husband Chris. I am almost sure I went to Spalding to spend a day or two with Granny and Granddad Hills which must have also involved going to see several relatives. All too soon it was back to the ATE to count the days to the summer leave of three weeks.   


With summer came swimming at Whitesands Bay disregarding an order that prohibited navy personnel from swimming there as it was alleged to be dangerous. On one visit two or three of us saw some Plymouth girls who had got into difficulties. One boy, Ted Hawkins, got them to some rocks and we pulled them out. Afterwards we used to see them at the beach almost every weekend and they always brought sandwiches for us to share. Towards evening we used to walk with them to Millbrook where they caught the ferry back to Plymouth while we would go for a meal at a canteen for service men run by local women and then the long walk back to the ATE.


Mid-year 1941 brought an influx of new apprentices; we were no longer the lowest of the low. At about that time Britain's largest warship, H.M.S. Hood was sunk by Germany's battleship Bismarck which was in turn sunk a few days later.


I think it was on my second leave, in the summer of 1941, that I found a hostel for the Women's Land Army had been built across the road from our house. I got to know some of the girls and Mum had three of them to tea one Sunday. On a later leave I met a land girl, Dorothy; we did a bit of walking out during my leave and exchanged a few letters until she told me she was getting engaged.


The boy who had the bed under mine was called Frank Arthur; he was from a hamlet called Foxhole near St Austell. Boys who lived close to the ATE were allowed occasional weekend leave and Frank took me with him once. We hitchhiked there but returned by train. I knew Frank had attended St Austell Grammar School but at that time did not know that a famous scholar, historian A. L. Rowse, had attended the same school.


After two years in the navy we took an Admiralty exam in maths and science. We were given an afternoon off on the previous day and I am almost certain I went with my friend Stanley Redwood to see the film ‘Holiday Inn’ which launched the nauseating song “I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Safely over that hurdle we moved over to the senior side of the ATE and were then required to attend schooling three nights per week from 5.30 pm to 7.00 pm.


An instructor in electrical engineering was called Reeves; he too had been called back from the reserve. In 1958 I was working for the South Western Electricity Board in Torquay when, in a way about which I cannot be sure, I learned that Mr Reeves had worked for the Board's predecessor in Totnes and had returned there after the war. My colleague Leo Horan took me to see him. On his sideboard he had pictures of groups of apprentices he had taught and I was in one of them.


At about the same time I became 18 and thus eligible for "tickler", the name for duty free tobacco. It came in hermetically sealed tins each containing half a pound with a choice of tobacco for "roll your own" cigarettes or pipe tobacco; the allowance was two tins per month.  In the first World War troops were issued with tinned jam made by a firm called Tickler and there was a song about a soldier having a dream he was "having my tea with Kaiser Bill and Tommy Tickler's jam." It was accepted wisdom that there was a connection between the two tinned products but I do not know if there was any truth in the explanation.


The tickler cost about a shilling a tin; I was a few months older than my friend Redwood so I sold him my tickler at a small profit until he too became 18. It was considered bad form to make more profit than that. It was permissible to take a half pound tin when going on leave so on occasion Redwood missed out and I bought pipe tobacco for my granddad Turner. Reaching 18 also made it permissible to buy beer at the canteen but most of us did not have the money to indulge in that luxury.


It was also about this time that I paid my first visit to a London theatre and in Plymouth heard a symphony orchestra for the first time. With some other boys who travelled through London when going on leave I saw “My Sister Eileen” at the Savoy theatre in the Strand. We had got our tickets in advance by post. The only thing I remember is the name of the leading actress - Coral Browne. Going to the theatre meant that instead of taking the 4.00 pm train from King's Cross I went home on the mail train which reached Brigg at about 6.00 am. The Savoy theatre was built in 1881 by Richard D'Oyly Carte who was closely associated with Gilbert and Sullivan.


The orchestral concert was in a Plymouth cinema and did not start until after the last film show. It was probably our chaplain, who was interested in classical music that arranged for several boys to go. I cannot recall which orchestra I heard but it was certainly one of the major London orchestras and I was astonished to find it contained about 80 players. I am almost certain that Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick did a piano concerto for two pianos and am 100% certain that the programme included Antonin Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, “From the New World,” written in America during Dvorak's directorship of the New York Conservatory.


Two boys in my class had old-fashioned wind-up gramophones and a few records. It was from them that I learned of the existence of people such as Beniamino Gigli, Scottish soprano Isobel Baillie, and American tenor Richard Crookes.  Talking of singers reminds me that I once performed for my classmates. At one PT lesson our instructor Petty Officer Muir decided that instead of PT we would have solos from some of the boys. I sang “The Rose of Tralee” which P.O. Muir pronounced to be "very nice".


H.M.S, Raleigh had a cinema and occasionally ENSA (I think that was Entertainments National Service Association). I saw a few of the shows but missed Evelyn Leigh who was a big star in the 1930's. To go to the cinema it was necessary to buy tickets, costing three pence, in advance. If a group of us wanted to go one of us would get permission to cross the road to the Raleigh to buy enough tickets.  We discovered that used tickets were kept in a bin and one of our number helped himself to a large handful. One boy would go to buy a ticket to discover what colour of ticket was to be used that day and we would then select enough tickets of the right colour from our hoard. We were never caught doing this.


In our last year at Torpoint we had two spells, each of two weeks, in the old French Battleship Paris, which had been sailed to Plymouth when the French collapsed in 1940. It was too old to have any operational value and was used as a maintenance depot serving small ships in Devonport dockyard. We went daily onto ships to get a bit of practical experience; most memorable were the few days on H.M.S. King George V. This was one of five modern battleships whose construction started when Britain began to re-arm before the war; a sister ship, the Prince of Wales had been sunk by the Japanese off the coast of Malaya a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. It was on the Paris that I first slept in a hammock.


My mother died in February 1944 at the beginning of the last year of my apprenticeship. I cannot recall exactly when she was first diagnosed as having tuberculosis but think it was early in 1943. She went into a sanatorium at Branston near Lincoln and I think it was during the summer that she came home after the doctor at the sanatorium had wanted to send her to Brompton hospital in London to have one lung collapsed but she refused to go. I was at home on my summer leave when she decided that she would undergo the operation. She went back into Branston and was soon sent to Brompton but it was there decided that both lungs were so badly affected that the procedure would not be effective. She returned to Branston and soon afterwards returned home.


While Dad and John had been without Mum they had a live-in housekeeper, a widow called Mrs Taylor, a sprightly 70 year old. She had been to Canada, I think with the intention of staying there with a son, but had not settled and returned to England and needed a home.  She told Dad that she would not be able to cope and would have to leave if Mum came home but changed her mind and stayed to give Mum her devoted attention to the end. It was fortunate that Christmas leave for Ken and I coincided so the family was together for Christmas 1943. By this time Mum was confined to bed and as I walked up Station Rd to return from leave I realised that I would not see her again and shed a few tears.


I was in the mess room at teatime in February 1944 and when the message came over the loudspeaker “Apprentice Turner report to the Regulating Office for a telegram" I knew what it would tell me.  Arrangements were made for me to have compassionate leave and a railway warrant and I left Plymouth late that night arriving in Brigg at about 3.00pm the next day. Passing the shop on the way from the station I called in and Nana said, "It's a sad home-coming".  I recall little about the funeral and next morning I returned to Torpoint. My instructor at the time had a few sympathetic words with me; apart from the chaplain, who had called me into his office soon after I received the telegram, he was the only person in authority to do so. This man was from mum's hometown of Spalding.


The remaining months at Torpoint soon passed and at the end of the year we were promoted to Artificers 5th Class with pay of five shillings and three pence per day - comparative riches. I did well enough in the final work test and examinations to get my choice of port division. All navy men were allocated a home port, Devonport, Chatham or Portsmouth; I had chosen Portsmouth. So just before Christmas 1944 about a third of the class of approximately 80 boys went off to Portsmouth Barracks (H.M.S. Victory) laden with kit-bags, suit-cases and hammocks. On arrival we were given immediate leave so after dumping kit bag and hammock in a baggage store I caught a train to Waterloo Station in London then to Kings Cross and home to Brigg. I remember almost nothing of my two weeks leave and then it was back to Portsmouth.


Before the war the training I was now about to begin was all done at another shore establishment in Portsmouth, H.M.S. Vernon, but the need to greatly increase the number of trainees caused the Admiralty to requisition Roedean School and the St Dunstans Institution for the Blind on the Sussex coast between Brighton and Rottingdean and some small hotels further along the coast at Eastbourne.


And so the day after returning to Portsmouth saw my classmates and I removed to Roedean, a school for upper class girls. It can safely be described as the female equivalent of Eton or Harrow. The thing I remember most is the pleasure of luxuriating in a hot bath for the first time in my life as we only had showers at Torpoint. One day I saw a copy of the Scunthorpe Telegraph and enquiries revealed its owner as Tom Melton who came from Scunthorpe and was cousin to Tony Melton, my classmate at the grammar school. Later I met Tom's father who owned a furniture shop in Scunthorpe and he told me he had been an apprentice cabinetmaker with my granddad.


The time was mostly spent in the classroom. We learned about the electrical distribution systems in ships and about the way in which information about enemy ships was processed in fire-control tables so that an enemy ship could be hit at a distance of more than 10 miles. Most electrical apparatus in British warships operated on Direct Current (DC) but we had about two weeks of intensive instruction on AC theory, which served me well later in life.


Some boys of the class immediately ahead of us at Torpoint were still at Roedean and from them we learned of the Running Horse pub in Brighton, which they patronised and so those of us who had taken a liking to beer also made this pub our Brighton "local". It was run by a middle-aged couple known as Ma and Pa. Ma used to make us cheese sandwiches free of charge; I do not know how she obtained the tightly-rationed cheese. Ma was huge. When she laughed, which was a frequent occurrence, the floor shook. One night we went to the pub to find a tearful Pa who told us Ma had died suddenly.



VE Day


It was while I was in Roedean that the German surrender took place and 8 May was designated VE Day. We were given the day off and with Stan Redwood and Sammy Mills, from Londonderry in Northern Ireland; I went by train to London to join in the general rejoicing.


I have only a jumbled kaleidoscopic recollection of that day. I am almost certain we went to stand in front of Buckingham Palace for a while and I certainly recall sitting in the back of an army lorry in Trafalgar Square. We also partook of liquid refreshment during the day and somehow ended up sleeping on benches in Hyde Park. In the cold light of dawn three scruffy footsore young men walked to Hyde Park Corner, past Buckingham Palace and on to Victoria Station to catch the train for Brighton.


Soon after VE Day I saw an ATS girl in a services canteen and thought I recognised her as Jill Chuter who came from Greetwell Cross Roads near Brigg and on asking her that proved to be true. We had a few dates in Brighton and when I was moved to Eastbourne she came for a symphony concert conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham (1879 - 1961), a very flamboyant character who spent much of his own fortune promoting music in Britain. The fortune came from his father who invented Beecham's pills, widely regarded as a panacea. The programme included Mozart's “Ein Kleine Nachtmusik” and Delius’ “Walk to the Paradise Garden” from “A Village Romeo and Juliet”.


After the concert we walked to Beachy Head and then went for a genteel tea which was totally unsatisfying so I asked Jill if she would like to go to Jax Snax, a rather rough cafe which served egg and chips for a very reasonable one shilling and nine pence. This turned out to be the last time I saw her as she wrote soon afterwards saying that she did not wish to continue our chaste friendship.


It was during this time at Eastbourne that one of our number “Nellie” Wallis came into the mess room and said he had just heard on the radio that the Americans had dropped a new kind of bomb on Japan. Within days the Japanese had to, as their Emperor put it, “endure the unendurable” and surrender unconditionally on 15 August 1945.


Some of the time near Brighton was spent a short distance from Roedean at St Dunstan's Home for the Blind which had also been requisitioned by the navy. This was closer to Rottingdean, an attractive village in which Rudyard Kipling lived for a while.


During the last part of my training l deliberately failed some exams in attempt to get out of the navy but all I achieved was a loss of seniority which meant that my promotion to Electrical Artificer 4th Class, which carried the rank of Petty Officer, was delayed by six months.



H.M.S. Birmingham


Later we returned to H.M.S. Vernon in Portsmouth for a course on torpedoes which then came under the electrical branch. During this time I tried to get out of the navy without success and in October 1945 I was drafted to HMS Birmingham, which was in Portsmouth Dockyard.


The Birmingham was a six-inch gun cruiser built in about 1936. She had been damaged by a torpedo in the Mediterranean and went to the Norfolk, Virginia, naval dockyard in America for repairs but was back in service in time to be the first British warship to enter Copenhagen at the end of the war in Europe. Many of my new messmates had been on her when she was damaged; three of them were ex Torpoint boys who I had known earlier although they were all ahead of me.


Although I was still only a leading rate the mess I was put into, called the Artisans Mess, also had people who were petty officers and we all got our rum ration neat instead of the two parts water to one part rum to which I had until then been accustomed.


The Chief Electrical Artificer was not a very nice man but fortunately his 12-year engagement expired a few weeks later and he elected to leave the navy. His replacement was Ron Botterill who took a shine to me and he was still with the Birmingham when I left her more than three years later when I had become the "oldest inhabitant".



Cliff in front of 'A' Turret on H.M.S. Birmingham


My first ocean going trip was of short duration - from Portsmouth to Portland Harbour in Dorset where we joined the 10th Cruiser Squadron. I found it exhilarating. Portland Harbour was the base for the Home Fleet; there were no jetties, all the ships were anchored out in the harbour and a trip ashore to Weymouth meant a trip in a liberty boat. I know I went ashore a few times but remember absolutely nothing about the place; I cannot remember even one street or pub name. Soon after arriving there I was instructed to take a month's "end of war" leave, which was given to all servicemen who were not "hostilities only" personnel. A month's leave in November was not a very exciting prospect but despite my protest I had no option but to take it and I spent most, if not all of it in Brigg. My chief recollections of the leave are of finding a vast quantity of mushrooms in a field at the bottom of Westrum Lane and putting a hand on a live electric fence in the same field.


We had occasional days at sea doing gunnery practice but it was soon time for Christmas or New Year leave. Half the ship's company had two weeks leave over Christmas and the other half had leave which embraced the New Year. Scottish crew members preferred New Year or, as they called it, "Hogmanay".


I received an undeserved Christmas present from King Christian of Denmark. The Birmingham was the first Allied warship to enter Copenhagen harbour after the German surrender. The King arranged for a parcel of Danish butter, bacon and cheese to be delivered to the homes of the ship’s crew. I had not been on the ship at that time but was included in the bounty.





In February 1946 the Home Fleet regatta came around in Portland Harbour. I cannot remember how many ships took part but as the Commander in Chief was a full Admiral I think there must have been at least one battleship. Most of the regatta consisted of races for ship's boats called whalers which I think had crews of eight oarsmen. The Carley float race was a more light-hearted affair and we entered a crew from the artisan's mess. Carley floats were life boats that were hung around the ships superstructure in a way that allowed them to be quickly put into the water if the order "Abandon ship" was given and they were equipped with paddles.


I forget how long the course was or how many crews competed but I do know that our crew won and we were foolish enough and elated enough to jump into the sea. The seas around Britain are very cold in February! My mates decided I should be the one to receive the prize from Admiral Sir Neville Syfret aboard his flagship. The Admiral shook my hand and gave me an envelope; I saluted and said "Thank you Sir". The envelope contained ten shillings each for us. At the time that was more than a day’s pay.



Gibraltar and the West Indies


March 1946 brought my first trip to foreign parts. It lasted about six weeks and we visited Gibraltar, Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Bermuda in that order. My first purchase on foreign soil was in Gibraltar - a large bag of grapes for sixpence. I walked to the Spanish border but did not go to see the apes of which it was said that so long as they are there Britain will rule Gibraltar. That is proving correct up to now. Although the British Empire has withered away the people of Gibraltar have shown a strong determination to stay with Britain in spite of efforts by Spain to retrieve the Rock it ceded to Britain in the 18th century.


In the evening, like most of the men ashore, I visited one of the many places which catered for Jack Tar's thirst and which boasted a flamenco dancer with castanets. It was unwise to over indulge because the next day I was due to take the navy's Higher Education Test, a requirement for any man hoping to achieve commissioned or warrant officer rank. It was scheduled for the day I spent mostly ashore in Gibraltar but somebody had decided that I could take it the next day.


I was the only person in the Birmingham taking the exam. I took it because after failing to get out of the navy in 1945 I had decided to make the best of it and to aim for promotion. I cannot remember with certainty how many papers there were; I think there were maths, science, English and general knowledge. What I do remember was that the sea was rougher than any I had hitherto encountered and at one stage I was hurled off the stool I was sitting on. I passed the examination.


A day or two later we entered warmer waters and I saw for the first time dolphins and flying fish. The dolphins swam effortlessly near the ship's prow and like many of the crew I spent a long time watching them. Another few days went by and we arrived at Port of Spain, Trinidad where the Governor was waiting to welcome our captain, G W Simpson, ashore. Just before we reached Trinidad Captain Simpson had assembled the crew on deck to warn us of the perils of cheap rum. It must be reported that many did not heed his well-intentioned words. I do not think I overindulged on shore but I had my 21st birthday in Trinidad - in those days 21 was the age at which one became of age - and my messmates plied me "sippers". That was the navy's term for a sip of a mess-mates tot. Tot time was about mid-day and I spent the afternoon sleeping it off.


No-one in the Royal Navy today will have given or received "sippers". More than 20 years ago Admiral le Fanu, First Sea Lord, decided that modem ships did not need half-fuddled men in the afternoons and tot-time became a thing of the past.


Not many memories of Port of Spain remain; one is of going to some public gardens and seeing for the first time cocoa beans growing. I also saw the Earl of Athlone and his wife Princess Alice who I think was a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria. The Earl had just finished his term as Governor General of Canada and they were having a side trip on the way home to England. I also recall buying a coconut for a halfpenny.


After a few days we left for Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, a voyage of more than a thousand miles. All I recall is a trip by rail across the island to Port Antonio where the local community entertained a large party from the ship to food, drink and entertainment and as we left we were given stalks of bananas, one stalk for every two men. A stalk is the entire output for the season of the tree and all the bananas on it come from one huge flower; the stalk I shared with a mess-mate had about 140 bananas.



Kingston Jamaica Mar 1946

L to R Mickie Venn, Charlie Thornton, Harry Woods, 2 unknown, Cliff Turner.


Next stop was Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas Islands. Nassau is barely 200 miles from Florida and the shops had prices in pounds and US dollars. I think it was in Nassau (but it may have been Bermuda) that two girls invited me and a shipmate, Buck Taylor, to their house. The sisters looked like Europeans but their mother was black. A party from the ship were invited to the house of a Major Simpson, a retired British army officer who lived permanently in Nassau, who with his wife entertained us to tea and possibly stronger drinks.


Nassau was the only place on the cruise where we were not alongside a jetty and so we had to go ashore by boat. As in every port, the ship was open to visitors and a crammed vessel brought out many of the locals to be impressed by Britain's naval might. I wish now that I had kept a diary because I no longer recall how long we spent in each port. I think it was three or four days at each of them. The whole trip was only six weeks so each stay must have been fairly short.


Then it was off to Hamilton, Bermuda, where we were tied up at a wharf barely 50 metres from the main street. Sadly I have no recollection at all about Bermuda. When we arrived back at Portsmouth it was time for two weeks Easter leave.


In May 1946 the first anniversary of the end of the war was celebrated throughout Britain and the Birmingham was sent to Cardiff. As we were going through a lock to get into the docks I heard a broadcast of the One Thousand Guineas, a race over one mile for three year old fillies. The King's horse Hypericum bolted just before the start and ran a considerable distance before she was caught and brought back to the start. The preliminary gallop must have been beneficial as she won the race. Any other owner would have had his horse scratched.


A large party of us were given a civic lunch, which I remember as being of a frugal nature, at the City Hall and I think a party of sailors from the ship took part in some sort of ceremony. The ship was open for visitors and I was looking through the port in the artisans‘ mess when I saw two attractive girls coming up the gangway. A mess mate and I rushed to the gangway and asked the girls if they would like a guided tour, an invitation which they accepted. Later I had a date with one of the girls. I have forgotten her name and cannot recall whether or not she was a blonde. If she was she would have qualified for the title of the dumbest dumb blonde of all time and so our first date was also our last.


Soon after Cardiff came the summer cruise along the east coast. First stop was Hull and entering the River Humber I saw our boyhood Mecca, Cleethorpes, from the sea. From Hull I was able to have a day in Brigg, catching the ferry to New Holland and then a bus to Brigg. There was a beer shortage in 1946 but some of us found a pub called The Alma, named for a battle in the Crimean War, where we were allowed through the door which was locked for all but regular customers.


Then it was on to Scarborough where we were anchored some distance from shore. Every summer Scarborough puts on a musical show in the evenings in Peasholme Park and many of us were given free admission. On one occasion I was returning to the ship at night in bad weather and the officer of the watch decided it was too dangerous to allow us to board the ship, so we were sent back ashore to fend for ourselves. With several ship-mates I went to the bus station and stretched out for the night on the bench type seats on the top deck of a double-decker bus.


The next port was Hartlepools, a town of which I remember nothing, but from where I went to Newcastle-on-Tyne to tour the factory of A. Reyrolle, makers of high voltage switchgear. Ron Botteril, my chief, was friendly with a girl he had met while on a ship being built at Newcastle during the war; her father worked for Reyrolle and organised the tour for a group of us. High voltage switchgear, up to 132,000 volts, was a subject about which I knew nothing. I did not know then that later in life I would become very familiar with the products of the Reyrolle factory.


The same evening we went to a variety show in Newcastle. Top of the bill was Gilbert Frankau who described himself as a comedian. He flattered himself. I had seen him in Plymouth during the war and now, at least one and a half years later, his act was word for word the same. He got the audience to sing a ditty:


It must never happen again,

No, no, no,

We must keep the Huns in Berlin,

And the Japs in Tokio.




The final place on the cruise was North Berwick on the Firth of Forth in Scotland. Here again we were anchored off-shore and it was there that I had the experience of having two girls waiting for me on the jetty. I have completely forgotten how I coped with that but know I walked with one of them up The Law, a steep hill crowned by a pair of whale's jaw bones.


About mid 1946 my father married a widow, Margaret Cooney, who had come to Brigg with a family that had taken over the Angel Hotel. She had two children, Agnes about a year younger than me and Michael about the age of my brother John. I was briefly engaged to Agnes but it became apparent that it would never have worked and the engagement was called off.


Soon after the summer cruise we went into Portsmouth Dockyard for a major refit which was to take over a year. Only a skeleton crew remained on board; Chief E A Ron Botteril stayed and wanted me to stay and so it was arranged. During the refit I was able to get to Brigg very frequently and usually managed to avoid the railway fare for which I should be ashamed. Leaving Portsmouth about tea time on Friday evening enabled me to be in London in time to go to a theatre and then catch the mail train at about 11.00pm, getting to Brigg in the early morning.


During this time l saw some stars of the British theatre. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in “Antigone”; Anton Walbrook and Mai Zetterling in lbsen's “The Wild Duck”, Angela Baddely in lbsen’s “The Doll's House”. At the Palace theatre I saw a show called “Gay Rosalinda” which was an adaptation of “Die Fledermaus” written by Johann Strauss ‘the younger’ in 1874. The orchestra was conducted by Richard Tauber, a famous tenor who had by that time given up singing.


I also went to two performances by one of the leading London symphony orchestras conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. This was at the Coliseum theatre just off Trafalgar Square and one of them provided me with an unforgettable moment; the opening of the second movement of one of Tchaikovsky's symphonies - either the fourth or the fifth. I have since heard it many times on recordings but am still unable to remember which. The movement starts with a clarinet and was turned into a popular song “Tell Me It’s Moon Love”.

On a less cultured note I went to the Windmill Theatre which produced continuous revues, many of the acts featuring scantily dressed chorus girls. It was there l saw Jimmy Edwards before he became famous.


January and February of 1947 brought one of the worst winters for many years. Electricity generation, still suffering from years of war-time neglect, was overstretched and much of industry was limited to a three day week. The King and Queen were on their way to South Africa in the battleship H.M.S. Vanguard. When the King heard about the chaos he is said to have wanted to return. The Vanguard was escorted as far as Freetown in West Africa by an aircraft carrier in which my brother Ken was serving. I cannot remember now if it was the Indomitable or the Indefatigable. The crew were given shore leave in Freetown in Sierra Leone, Ken's first taste of "foreign parts".


The King had given the order “Splice the main brace" as the Vanguard left Portsmouth. This meant an extra tot of rum for navy personnel in the Portsmouth area but I missed out as I had gone ashore hoping to see Portsmouth in a soccer match but I missed that too as the ground at Fratton Park was too frozen to play on.


As autumn 1947 approached the ship was almost ready for service and it became known that we were to join the East Indies Station, based at Trincomalee in what was then Ceylon. The crew increased to the normal complement and three new artificers joined my mess; Freddie Studwell (electrical), Pat Hannan and Bugsy Wheeler (both ordnance). They had been six months behind me at Torpoint and we became firm friends. An additional Chief Electrical Artificer, Jim Stead, joined us and, as he was senior to Ron Botteril, Ron took over work which mainly involved gunnery control and kept me under his control.


Jim Stead was well liked but was a little eccentric. One day he came into the workshop rubbing his hands and saying "It's my wedding anniversary today". "Congratulations Chief" we chorused. "Don't congratulate me" said Jim, "I’ve left home".


On the first day at sea for post-refit trials, paint started to peel from one of the funnels and about the same time the diesel engine that drove one of the ship's four electricity generators suffered a serious fault. I do not know what caused the funnel to become so hot but it necessitated a further spell in the dockyard. Eventually the faults were rectified and after a period of leave we left for Trincomalee in October or November 1947.



Gibraltar, the Mediterranean and Middle East


First stop was Gibraltar, for only one day l think, and then we entered the Mediterranean. For several hours we were close to the coast of North Africa and I spent some time in the gunnery control tower looking at the scenery through the huge binoculars which in action were used by the gunnery officer to direct operations.



H.M.S. Birmingham in Grand Harbour, Valetta, Malta


Soon we arrived at Malta and entered Valetta Harbour on the day of the celebration of St Paul Shipwrecked. St Paul was on his way to Rome when shipwrecked in AD 61 or AD 62 and spent about three months there. The event was (and probably still is) one of much festivity with brass bands parading in the streets. The Birmingham did not stay as long as St Paul; next day we were on our way to Port Said at the northern end of the Suez Canal.


About the first thing l saw in Port Said was a huge sign - COCA COLA. What a welcome to the mystic east! The second thing to strike me was a huge statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps the Frenchman who built the canal. In 1956, when an ill-fated expedition was launched by Prime Minister Anthony Eden in response to the Egyptian nationalisation of the canal, this statue was destroyed. Small boats carrying Arabs trying to sell all kinds of merchandise swarmed around the ship. Ropes attached to baskets were thrown onto the deck so that goods could be hauled up for inspection; and if a prospective buyer showed interest haggling over the price took place and eventually the goods were either sold or returned.


Then it was into the canal. The west side of the canal was quite green and fertile looking but on the east there appeared to be nothing but desert. I thought of the Israelites and their 40 years of wandering in that hostile environment. At about half way in the canal are the Great Bitter Lakes which are big enough to allow ships travelling in opposite directions to pass each other.



H.M.S. Birmingham in the Suez Canal


Emerging from the canal into the Red Sea we spent a day or so at anchor to paint ship so that we would arrive on station looking spick and span. There was an oil refinery close by which had a terrible smell.


Two or three days brought us to Aden, at that time a British possession. We were told it hardly ever rains in Aden and l know the streets were very dusty and the cinema did not have a roof. At the cinema l saw Robert Donat in “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” By this time the film, which earned Donat a Best Actor Oscar, was eight years old.


With some of the crew l was given a conducted tour into the old part of the town which occupies the crater of an extinct volcano. Access is through a tunnel in the side of the crater. We also saw a place that was alleged to have some connection to the Queen of Sheba and her visit to King Solomon. In the evening with one or two mates l somehow met the local police chief who showed us the cells which were full of shouting Arabs. He explained that he had rounded them up as they were known petty criminals who might prey on the Birmingham's unsuspecting crew. So much for Habeus Corpus.



Ceylon, India, Burma


Then started the last lap - across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon and Trincomalee. It was said in the navy that Trincomalee is "Scapa Flow in technicolor" and so it proved. The harbour is huge, it is described in Encyclopaedia Brittanica as "one of the world's finest natural harbours", and it is surrounded by tropical vegetation. There were no jetties large enough to accommodate a big ship and so all the time we spent there was at anchor in the harbour. The town itself was then a shabby place with no buildings of any interest; even the Hindu temple looked in need of spruce up.



Trincomalee, Ceylon


We were now on tropical routine which meant a fairly early start in the mornings but work finished at mid-day. We had plenty of opportunity to swim; over the side of the ship; on Sober Island or at a beach on the open sea in Trincomalee. Sober Island was a small island in the harbour with a jetty and every afternoon a boat left the ship with men wanting to swim there in an area enclosed by shark-proof netting.


In Trincomalee there was a club on a beach for naval personnel where sandwiches and tea could be bought but going there meant a walk of about a mile along Tricomalee's main street from Pepper Pot Pier where the ship's boats took liberty men. I never heard any explanation of how the pier got its name. Quite close to Pepper Pot Pier was a canteen where meals and drinks were on sale. The beer was brewed at an inland town, Nuwara-Eliya, and was known in the navy as "sludge". I found the name well-deserved and consumed very little of it.


Apart from swimming at the club we were able to watch the Tamil fishermen at work close by. Out-rigger canoes took a huge semi-circular net out to sea and it was then dragged in by men on the shore and always contained a large amount of fish. The market was also close by and l used to buy mangos and limes there.


Soon after arriving at Trincomalee we went to Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar), for the independence celebrations and to carry away the last British Governor. It had been planned that Burma would throw off the British yoke on 1 January 1948 but astrologers determined that 4 January would be a more auspicious date.


I well remember my first trip ashore in an Asian city. With three companions l entered the Volga café in Phayre St, Rangoon‘s main street, and ordered four bottles of beer. I proffered a ten rupee note only to be told "Another four rupees, please."  That meant the beer cost five shillings and three pence a bottle at a time when it might have cost a quarter of that in Britain. The beer was made by McEwans in Scotland and called Revolver brand which I thought highly appropriate - it was a stick-up.


We did not stay for a second bottle but fortunately on the next night help was at hand from the British Army. Chief and Petty Officers were invited to the sergeants‘ mess at the army barracks. British army units were being withdrawn with the approach of Burma's independence and the sergeants were making sure their mess funds were well spent. I went with my friends Studwell, Hannan and Wheeler and we were greeted by each having two bottles of Bass thrust into our hands. Ladies were invited and we met three very pretty girls, sisters of Portuguese - Burmese descent. Food was provided and just after midnight one of the girls picked up a meat sandwich only to be rebuked by one of her sisters, "Philomena, today is Friday". The girls were Catholics and at that time meat was forbidden on Fridays.


It is probably that incident that made me remember Philomena's name, I have forgotten the names of her sisters. Later we were invited to their house and in turn we entertained them to tea in the artisans‘ mess. We asked them about the years of the Japanese occupation and were somewhat astonished to learn that the Japanese had not behaved badly and that the troops were confined to barracks from early evening.



Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Rangoon


Rangoon is home to the famous Shwe Dagon Buddhist pagoda and a large party from the ship was given a conducted tour. The pagoda has a large dome which is covered in gold leaf and according to Encyclopaedia Brittanica has a height of 326 feet. My main memory is of having to remove our shoes to enter the court yards of the temple and being careful about where we put our feet as there were numerous pigeons.


Another, more gruesome excursion, was to see the embalmed bodies of assassinated Cabinet members in the Jubilee Hall. In July 1947 two gunmen had burst into a cabinet meeting and killed several of its members. Their bodies were put on view in glass coffins and were not buried until independence was achieved.



Glass coffin of one of the assassinated statesmen - Rangoon


I was standing on the jetty where the Birmingham was berthed when sirens and hooters sounded at mid-night to announce the end of British rule. A Burmese man was standing next to me and with the arrogance of youth I asked him if he thought independence would be better than British rule. His dignified response was "Self-rule is more important than good rule".


The Union Jack was lowered for the last time by Birmingham's Chief Yeoman of Signals; a picture in the newspaper carried the words “Ben Hilton lowers the Union Jack.” Next morning the last British Governor, Sir Hubert Rance, came aboard. He was accompanied to the dockside by members of the new government and soon afterwards we left Rangoon. I cannot remember now if we took Sir Hubert directly to Colombo or to Trincomalee but I know he sailed for home from Colombo in a Dutch liner, the Willem Ruys which was on its maiden voyage.


Soon after arriving back in Trincomalee we learned we were to go on a trip to Madras and Calcutta in India - the official name for such excursions was "good-will" but to the men it was "flag-wagging". In Madras some of my mess-mates met an Indian couple, Mr and Mrs Azariah, who invited them to their home for a meal and told them to bring another friend. So the previously mentioned foursome, Studwell, Hannan, Wheeler and Turner turned up at the Azariah house in the suburb of Vepery. Mr Azariah was a tax official and his wife Elizabeth was a lawyer but their house was, even by my working-class standards, very shabby. However their hospitability was far from shabby and we had a great evening although I cannot remember what we ate. The Azariahs were Catholics and their four boys all had English sounding first-names. The youngest was Eric and the oldest was Christian; I have forgotten the names of the other two. We did not meet Christian as he was in the army as an officer cadet. Later in the evening a friend called in; he too was a lawyer but Mrs Azariah explained that he did not practise in the courts as he came from the Bombay area and spoke Gujarati. That was the first time I had ever heard of that language but many years later I worked with a man who spoke it. In Madras the main languages were Tamil, Telegu and Malayalalam. We paid one or two more visits to the Azariahs and took the three boys swimming and gave them a tour of the ship.


In Madras we had a visit from Admiral Lord Mountbatten, Governor-General of India. He was the last British Viceroy and was invited by the newly-independent India to stay as Governor General after independence in August 1947. He gave the assembled crew a talk about the last days of the British Raj and told us of a Rajah whose hobby was breeding dogs and who gave his subjects a public holiday whenever he mated his dogs. Mountbatten noticed an Indian reporter standing on a gun turret and making notes. He gave an almost imperceptible hint to his aide-de-camp who confiscated the reporter's notes.


We were inspected by Mountbatten; l was standing near to my chief, Jim Stead, who was wearing the ribbon of the Burma Star. During the war Mountbatten had been Commander-in-Chief, South East Asia, and he stopped to have a few words with Jim about the war in that area. After leaving India Mountbatten resumed his naval career and eventually became First Sea Lord, the highest office a naval officer can hold.


A day or so later, 30 January 1948, came the news that Mr. Ghandhi, who for many years had been a leading member of those seeking Indian independence, had been assassinated. India was plunged into mourning and it was decided that we should return to Trincomalee, leaving our visit to Calcutta until after the mourning period ended.


When we did reach Calcutta I was appalled at the sight of so much human misery and degradation. Many people had no homes and spent their entire lives on the streets. One night l was the Petty Officer in charge of the shore patrol. I think l had four ratings, maybe six. Our function was to look out for any of the crew who appeared likely to get into any kind of trouble but probably because of the high price of alcohol we did not meet any. We were accompanied by a similar patrol of Indian Army men.


Although the patrol had no trouble from crew members I had a momentarily terrifying experience. It was full moon and the occasion to bring some kind of effigy from a Hindu temple and carry it through the streets. The effigy was carried on an ornate platform; poles protruded from its four comers and about four men shouldered each of the four poles. There was a huge crowd. Many of them were burning paper and rubbing the resultant ash into their foreheads; the noise was deafening. Suddenly one of the men carrying the thing stumbled and the whole thing tipped over and broke into pieces. A loud wail came from the throng and for a moment I thought that we white faces might somehow be thought to be responsible for the disaster. But the police using their sticks soon restored order and we returned to the ship unscathed.


Any trip ashore exposed us to multitudes of beggars and I was pleased when our visit of a few days came to an end and we left for Port Blair in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. This was the only place I have ever been to where it was necessary to take medication to prevent malaria. The island on which Port Blair is situated was at that time used by India as a penal colony and there was little of interest to be seen but it also provided one of the highlights of my life.


A party from the ship were taken, first by motor boat and then by canoes, into the jungle to see a forestry operation. After being felled the tree trunks were dragged by elephants to a railway line where other elephants lifted them onto bogeys which ran on railway lines to a river. When the laden bogeys reached the river more elephants were waiting to tip the tree trunks into the water. I cannot recall if the trees were milled locally or after being floated down the river, loaded on to ships to be exported.



South Africa


Soon after returning to Trincomalee we learned that we were to go to South Africa for about three months, with a few days in Mauritius en route. Mauritius was taken from the French during the Napoleonic wars and French was still spoken there and as previously recounted I was able to air my school-boy French. Most of the inhabitants were of Indian origin, descendants of workers taken there to work in the sugar cane plantations. Rum was produced on the island but I do not recall sampling it. What I do remember is some horrible locally produced sherry. The quartet Studwell, Hannan, Wheeler and Turner disposed of a full bottle in a shanty-like bar somewhere in the interior of the island.


The interior could be reached by steam trains which were wood-fired and the names of two townships, Quatre Bournes and Curepipe have stayed in my memory. There was a British army unit somewhere in the interior and several of us spent a few evenings in the sergeants’ mess, sleeping there overnight and being returned to the ship by army vehicles driven by African soldiers. At the time this did not strike me as being odd but I now wonder why the British government felt it necessary to have troops on a speck of land of no strategic importance.


We arrived in Simonstown, South Africa, on the day that the result of the election which ousted General Smuts as Prime Minister became known. Simonstown was a British naval base known as the South Atlantic Station and we were to be on the station for about three months to replace another cruiser which had gone to Britain for a refit. Simonstown is about twenty miles south of Capetown and is connected by a railway along which passenger trains ran frequently.


On the first evening after our arrival I travelled up to Capetown with one or two mess-mates to find the place abuzz with excitement about the election result and many people bought us drinks. After the expensive drinks in Rangoon and India and after the horrible "sludge" in the Trincomalee canteen, South Africa was a drinking man's paradise. Two breweries, Lion and Castle, produced drinkable beer at a reasonable price and due to the vineyards in Cape Province, brandy was very popular when taken with ginger ale or other mixers.


There was a huge bar called Del Monico's in Cape Town with a ceiling that looked like the night sky with moving stars and it did not take long for the Birmingham crew to make this our favourite night spot.


It was about now that I first went to horse racing. The ship's painter, a mess-mate George Nuttal, asked me to go with him on Union Day, a public holiday commemorating the union of Transvaal, Cape Province, Natal and the Orange Free State in the aftermath of the Boer war. Here l learned of "the double", which meant picking the winners of two specified races. George and I picked the first leg winner and l had dreams of a good win but our second pick did not perform.


Then came a visit to Port Elizabeth and East London. Going ashore in Port Elizabeth I encountered a couple called Mundey who asked me to have dinner with them in a restaurant. They turned out to be English, working in Southern Rhodesia and having a holiday in South Africa. Some-time later, when back in Simonstown, I saw them in Del Monicos and invited them to the ship. I think they had a drop of rum in our mess and they certainly went away with some duty-free cigarettes.


At one of these two ports a party from the ship were given a tour of a car assembly plant - l think it belonged to General Motors. Apart from that visit and meeting the Mundeys l recall nothing of those two places.


Next stop was Durban, a much more attractive place. Again l went to the races to see one of the big events of South African racing, the July Cup. I did not pick the winner. Another enjoyable trip was organised by a seaman’s mission to a place called Amanzimptoto (or something like that). We had a boat trip on a river running through acres of sugar cane. On returning to the mission we were asked if we would like to go to the Sunday evening service. Several of the men went but l was not among them. In Durban l went with my friend Pat Hannan, a rugby enthusiast, to my first and last rugby game. It was between Natal and Transvaal and seemed to me to be just a lot of beefy men pushing and shoving.


Captain Haines had reached the top of the captains’ seniority list and as he was not promoted to Rear Admiral had to retire while we were in Durban and his replacement, Captain Pakenham, joined us. He was to later play an important part in my life.


Then it was back to Simonstown for the rest of our stay in South Africa. When we left we were short of several crew members who had deserted. Years later, in New Zealand, l worked with Peter Trevett and in conversation found he had been in the navy at Simonstown at the same time in the frigate H.M.S. Actaeon. Peter told me one of the deserters, a gunnery petty officer called Chatfield, had been caught slicing bacon in a grocer’s shop where he had found a job. He was reduced to Able Seaman and sent to the Actaeon.



Ceylon and India (again)


On the voyage back to Trincomalee we called briefly at one of the Maldive Islands where natives paddled out in canoes with fresh fish. In return they were given newly baked bread from the ship's bakery. At that time few British people could have pointed to the Maldives on a map but it is now a tourist destination. Nancy's great-nephew went there for his honeymoon; when his mother told me this on the telephone l said "I've been there ~ three hours on a Sunday morning". She thought l was joking.


Soon after getting back to Trincomalee l had two weeks leave at Diyatalawa in inland Ceylon. (Spelling of the place may not be entirely accurate) The journey by bus took all day. We had a stop in Kandy which was the capital when Sinhalese kings ruled Ceylon. I saw the Temple of the Tooth – the tooth being reputed to have been Buddha's - but did not go inside. The journey took us over the Ramboda pass which I think was 6,000 feet above sea level and at one stage we were held up by a ceremonial procession of elephants. It may have been the Buddhist equivalent of the Harvest Festivals l attended and enjoyed as a choir boy.



Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Ceylon


For the first time l saw hillsides terraced into small flat areas for growing rice and saw tea plantations. Due to its elevation Diyatalawa was much cooler than Trincomalee and we wore our blue suits in the evenings rather than tropical whites. It was possible to hire a bike so l got into the surrounding country and one day came across a school where there were some boys in saffron robes. An elderly man explained they were learning Pali, a “dead" language in which many of the sacred texts of Buddhism are written. Every evening flocks of huge bats flew overhead and l was told they lived on fruit. I came across a dead one; it had a wing span of about 30 centimetres.


Later I had another trip to Diyatalawa, this time in charge of a prisoner going to the military prison there. Wee Jock, a little Scotch seaman, had been caught asleep when he was guarding a prisoner in the ship's cell. His offence was deemed to be more serious than that of the man he was guarding so he was sentenced to a few days in the military prison at Diyatalawa. I had two sailors to help me and as we left the ship the Master at Arms asked me if l wanted Wee Jock handcuffed. Since Wee Jock weighed about eight stone I said we would not subject him to that indignity.


After an all day journey we delivered our prisoner. I think we all enjoyed the journey and enjoyed a meal at a government rest house with the voucher I had been given. It was more like four pals having a day out than a serious business. This changed in an instant as we entered the prison and Wee Jock was spoken to as if he was a bad dog. I was disgusted that for what I thought was a minor misdemeanour, four men and a Ceylonese driver spent two whole days travelling. The escort and I had a night at the leave camp and returned to the ship on the next day.


Recalling this somewhat unusual job reminds me of another function totally unrelated to my normal work. I occasionally was Petty Officer of the Day and had to be present at the rum issue. Every day at 11.00 am the words "up spirits" came over the loud-speakers and the P.O. of the Day joined an officer of the watch and a man from the Stores branch in the spirit room deep down in the after end of the ship. I cannot recall how the exact amount of rum to be issued on any particular day was determined or how the rum was stored in the spirit room but enough rum was taken to give every eligible man one eighth of a pint and the P.O. of the Day had to be sure that no more or no less was taken. We must have had at least 400 men eligible which meant that 50 pints, or more than six gallons, were taken onto the deck amidships.


The mess-men for each of the Chief and Petty Officers’ messes then collected enough neat rum for their messes and the remainder of the rum was watered down in a large wooden tub bound with brass rings and carrying, in large brass letters, "The King God Bless Him". Then a rating for each of the other messes came for their "two and one", so called because their rum was diluted by two parts water to one part rum.


It was about the time of my trip as an escort to the prison that we went to Colombo to go into dry dock, mainly for a bottom scrape. Unlike merchant ships we spent a very small proportion of our time at sea and in the warm tropical waters in-harbour weeds grew quickly on the ship's bottom. This was enough to cause a reduction in the maximum speed the ship could attain and also caused an increase in fuel oil consumption when we did go to sea. Colombo was a much more pleasant place than Calcutta or Madras and we were able to go swimming at Mount Lavinia on the outskirts.



Leaving the Navy


Towards the end of 1948 we went into Singapore Dockyard for a refit and what became a turning point in my life. Normally most of the crew would have been put into barracks while we were in dry dock but for some reason which was never explained the crew of the Norfolk remained in barracks after she had been refloated. So we had to endure the heat and our sanitary arrangements on the side of the dock which were totally inadequate for a full crew. For obvious reasons the ship’s bathrooms and toilet facilities could not be used while in dry dock.


When in Trincomalee I used to visit a library attached to the shore station there and took to reading Hansard, the record of Parliamentary proceedings in London. One day I read of a Scottish M.P. called Willis who said in a debate that boys should not be allowed to sign on in the navy as I had done. I wrote to Mr Willis and learned that in his youth he too had joined the navy as an artificer apprentice, served until he was 30 and then had gone into politics. I then started writing to M.P.'s using an alphabetical list and had got through about 150 before going to Singapore. My letters all had the same theme; that it was unethical to allow a boy not yet 16 to sign away 14 years of his life.


Many of the M.P.'s I wrote to referred my letter to a minister in the government, the Civil Lord of the Admiralty whose name I have forgotten. He had so many letters from M.P.'s that he used a duplicate letter to reply and so I had many of these letters sent on to me. They explained that the training of artificer apprentices was so expensive that it was necessary for us to serve many years in recompense.


The situation in Singapore put me onto a different tack. There were more than 100 Chief and Petty Officers in the Birmingham and the number of W.C.s and washbasins in the ablution facilities at the dry dock were totally inadequate so I wrote to about 12 M.P.'s about this. Some-time later I went ashore one day and bought a copy of the Singapore newspaper, The Straits Times, and learned that one of them had raised the matter in Parliament and had been told that the conditions were indeed as I had described them.


Next day I was summoned to appear before Captain Pakenham and several other officers on the quarter deck. The Captain opened the proceedings by saying "You will notice that you still have your cap on." By this he meant that I was not being dealt with as a defaulter on some kind of charge. He asked me why I had written the letters instead of making a complaint to him as regulations permitted. I replied that I had no faith in the complaints system. After a while I told him that I did not wish to continue as I thought I might lose my self-control and say something I could regret.


At this he said "Come with me" and took me to his cabin. He offered me a cigarette (declined) and told me to speak freely. He also remarked that I had been in the ship for three years, longer than any other man, with an unblemished record and that my immediate superiors were highly satisfied with my work performance. I told him I hated the way we lived; no peace, no privacy. I also told him the stokers' mess-deck was a disgrace to a civilised country. After a while he told me that he could see that I was very unhappy in the navy and would try to get me out of it.


I was still in the ship at Christmas 1948 but soon afterwards was sent to the sick quarters ashore at Trincomalee. Looking back I think I should not have accepted that without protest - there was nothing wrong with me but I was so keen to get out of the navy that I accepted this. I forget how long I was in the sick quarters before embarking in H.M.S. Sussex which was on its way home after a long spell on the Far East station based at Hong Kong. In the Sussex I carried out normal duties but as she was going home to be scrapped there was not a lot of work done. Strangely I cannot remember the name of any person I came into contact with in the ship. We called at Aden and I went ashore long enough to buy 1,000 duty free cigarettes but I cannot recall if we stopped at Malta or Gibraltar.


It was late February or early March when we arrived at Portsmouth where the band of the Army's Sussex Regiment was playing ‘Sussex by the Sea’ and wives and children of crew members were waiting to greet their husbands and fathers. I was whisked off to the Royal Naval Hospital at nearby Gosport to see a psychiatrist who had the rank of Surgeon Commander. We had a long talk. The only thing I remember is me telling him how I sometimes used to go to the Barnetby cattle market with my Dad and that the biscuits in the canteen at the market were always damp.


I was able to telephone the Queen's Arms pub in Brigg to tell my Dad where I was. The Commander decided that I could not be invalided out of the navy on medical grounds. My stay in the hospital was short and then it was off to Brigg for some leave. Only one memory of the leave remains - I went to Market Rasen races on Easter Monday, my first experience of horse racing over hurdles and fences. In the first race I backed a horse called Aces High ridden by Irishman and champion jumping jockey Tim Moloney. It won.


After my leave I returned to the barracks at Portsmouth fully expecting to be soon discharged but after a day or two was told I was to go to H.M.S. Starling. I told the drafting Master at Arms that I thought I was about to get my "ticket". He said "You're going to the Starling." I went. The Starling was a frigate that had been adapted as a training ship attached to a shore establishment, H.M.S. Dryad, a navigation training school on the outskirts of Portsmouth. We went to sea most days but returned to harbour almost every night.


We also used to take parties of Sea Cadets for a day at sea. They were brought to the ship by a Petty Officer who had his mid-day meal in our mess and, by adding a little water to the rum allocated to the mess, we were able to give him a tot. He told us he used to tell his colleagues at the Dryad that it was a horrible job so that none of them wanted to take his place.


Because we were in harbour most nights I took a room at the Salvation Army for a very small payment and slept there most nights. We were allowed to take 20 duty free cigarettes ashore per day so I was able to build up quite a pile in my room for my Dad on my next visit home.


Soon after I joined the Starling the captain sent for me and handed me a form. It was headed Application for Discharge and had two options, Free Discharge or Discharge by Purchase. Naturally I went for the free option. I do not recall how long it took for the wheels to go round but in June I was sent to H.M.S. Collingwood, the Navy's electrical school near Portsmouth and from there I was ejected into Civvie street. I was given the kit of civilian clothes that people who had been conscripted into the armed forces were given when they finished their time.


Dad and step-mother were on holiday in London so I stayed there for the rest of the week. Still in uniform when I got to London I was able to get a room at the Union Jack services club adjoining Waterloo Station. Then I took off my uniform for the last time and went to meet Dad and my stepmother in my new clothes.






Back in civilian Life and the Merchant Navy


It was Royal Ascot week, perhaps the biggest event in British horse racing, which always takes place in mid-June. Thursday is Ascot Gold Cup day and we decided to go there by Greenline bus. Royal Ascot lasts for four days, Tuesday to Friday inclusive, and the Royal Family always entertains a large party at nearby Windsor Castle for the racing. There is a straight course of almost a mile at Ascot and after travelling from the castle by car the royal party transfers into horse drawn carriages and drives down the straight mile, past the grandstands into the Royal Enclosure.


So we saw George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth with husband Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Margaret and other lesser royals. My royalist Dad loved it. The Gold Cup was won by Lord Derby's Alycidon. Lord Derby had three other runners in the race to act as pacemakers as so often races over two and a half miles were run at a dawdle for most of the trip with a sprint at the end. The pacemakers were there to ensure a truly run race. We had a good day betting-wise but I only remember the name of one of the winners I backed, Swallowtail, which had been second or third in the Derby in his previous race.


Back in London we had a meal at the Lyons Strand Corner House. Stepmother was feeling so pleased with herself she gave the waiter a tip of half a crown which was a useful amount back then. Half a crown is two shillings and sixpence; Britain also had another coin, the florin, which was two shillings. I never understood why it was thought necessary to have two coins of such close value, or why we had half a crown but did not have a crown.  After enjoying Gold Cup day we decided to go to Ascot again on the following day.


We then returned to Brigg. Soon afterwards I received a letter from the Admiralty addressed to Electrical Artificer C.R.Turner with a cheque for money due to me. As I did not have a bank account I could not cash the cheque so I sent it back asking for cash and saying I was now Mr Turner. The money came in a more negotiable form in a correctly addressed envelope.


I had always enjoyed any stays I had in London and after a few days in Brigg I went back to London to look for work. But putting pleasure before business I was at Sandown Park race course within an hour of arriving at King's Cross. The Eclipse Stakes is one of the big events in the British racing year and I saw it won by Amour Drake from France.


The Victory Club for ex-service men had been recently opened close to the Marble Arch end of Tottenham Court Road and I joined this and took a room there and studied the Situations Vacant columns in the newspapers.  This bore no fruit so after some days I went to a Labour Exchange and got a job as a clerk with the railways in an office near Marylebone Station. The job involved records of freight carried on the railway and was incredibly boring. At the same time I moved from the Victory Club to lodgings in West Hampstead. The landlady was a hard-faced woman. She had four other lodgers that I remember. We all had separate rooms so it must have been quite a large house.


The next few weeks were probably the most miserable of my life. I discovered that life in London was very different from the occasional visit and I had a financial disaster. I kept records of greyhound racing results at London tracks and came up with what I thought was a sure-fire system. One Saturday night I went to the dogs at Wembley to test the system and lost most of a week’s wages. Monday saw me at a pawnbrokers shop near Charing Cross station where I pawned my watch and binoculars so I could pay the hard-faced landlady her week's rent. They were not in pawn for long. Since then I have not visited either a pawnbroker or a greyhound track.


A young man at my work had been in the Merchant Navy and I think it must have been talks I had with him that made me think in that direction. I stayed at the railway job for only six weeks and went back to Brigg. I took a job with an electrical contractor. For most of the six weeks with him the main job was wiring new houses being built at an airforce base at Swinderby between Lincoln and Newark. This involved travel of almost an hour each way in the back of a van and I hated this job too so, at Dad's suggestion, I wrote to the shipping company Alfred Holt at Liverpool. I was called to Liverpool for an interview and given a job as ship's electrician. I did not know that a chance meeting in Liverpool would change my life.



The Merchant Navy


At first I worked on ships at the Birkenhead docks where cargo for the company's ships was loaded and stayed in lodgings arranged by the company. This was with two sisters, the Misses Wolfenden, whose late father had been a chief engineer with the company. The younger sister, in her forties and working in an office, was the archetypical sour spinster but her elder sister who looked after the boarders was very different. The house shone and the meals, in spite of rationing which was still in force were good.


I also did a spell on nights on a ship called the Deucalion. I lived on board and only had to get out of bed if needed. I was free during the day and during that time had two trips to Haydock Park races and also saw Laurence Olivier's film of Shakespeare's Henry V.


My first voyage for Alfred Holt's Blue Funnel line was only as far as Glasgow, in the Astyanax. All Blue Funnel ships were named after the Greek heroes of Homer's Odyssey. When ships returned from foreign voyages their crews went on leave and temporary crews manned the ships for coastal voyages. We went to Glasgow to load cargo for the ship's next foreign voyage.


I had to be in the engine room when leaving harbour and when the order to start the engine was given I nearly jumped out of my skin. The Astyanax was a motor ship driven by a diesel engine and to start the engine a blast of compressed air was driven into the cylinders and this created a very loud noise. All my previous experience had been in steam ships.


Thanks to my Seaman's Record Book, which I still have, I know the return trip from Liverpool to Glasgow was from 4 November 1949 to 11 November 1949. About all I remember of Glasgow was going to see Scotland play Wales in a soccer match at Hampden Park. Then it was back to the shore gang and probably spending most of the time at the Misses Wolfenden and having a few days at home at Christmas time. On 30 January 1950 I went to Glasgow by overnight sleeper to join the Peleus. Arriving about breakfast time on New Year's Eve I was whisked off to the shipping office to sign on. New Year's Eve is a time of celebration in Scotland and I was looking forward to a few beers ashore in the evening but by lunch time the Peleus and I were sailing down the Clyde bound for Liverpool where I signed off on New Year’s Day about 30 hours after signing on.


Life in the Merchant Navy was very different from that in the Royal Navy. On the ships I had my own cabin complete with a wash basin. A steward made up my bed and every evening left tea making material and sandwiches in case I had to get up during the night. The food was far superior to that in naval ships and as I soon discovered became epicurean when we had passengers.



To the East Indies


On 31 January 1949 I signed on as second electrician in the Anchises, a sister ship to the Astayanax. They were quite new ships built after the war. Most of our cargo was destined for Labuan, a small island off the north coast of Borneo, and consisted mainly of bags of cement and galvanized iron window frames for an oil refinery which was being built there. The first electrician, there were only two of us, was in his forties and had been at sea for many years.


Ships of the Anchises class carried 14 passengers. Most of them were not travelling for pleasure but were employees and families of various firms or government departments. This of course was in the days before air travel became so common. We had two other passengers - race horses bound for Singapore. They were housed in two large wooden boxes on deck and did not come out of the boxes until we reached that port.


Dinner on the first night out astonished me; it was real luxury. Course followed course; soup, fish, entree, main dish, dessert and cheese and biscuits were served by the stewards. We ate in the saloon with the passengers but at a separate table and we were not encouraged to fraternise with them. Drinks were now dirt cheap. A double gin, a tenth of a bottle, was sixpence; whisky was eight pence and a small bottle of Bass beer sixpence. My pay was about one pound a day; a pound was 240 pence. I took a liking to gin and tonic and the first electrician and I had one every night before dinner.


The first part of the voyage, as far as Gibraltar, was the roughest I ever encountered but I was not sea sick. We had a young engineer who had been to sea before, had given it up, and was now giving it a second trial. He hardly kept down a mouthful of food and was looking very frail by the time we reached Gibraltar. He left the sea again at the end of the voyage.


Our main work in the early part of the voyage was overhauling the winches and the switch gear which controlled them. They would be used to discharge and later load cargo. We had one helper, a Chinese man. The engine room crew was Cantonese but the deck crew and stewards were British. From our Chinese helper I heard the only Chinese I ever learned. As 10.00 am approached he would look at his watch and say "Yum cha" (tea time) and disappear to the aft end of the ship where the Chinese crew was housed.



Suez Canal Offices, Port Said


First stop was Port Said, prior to entering the Suez Canal. In the Royal Navy we hired a searchlight and an operator from the Canal Company but Blue Funnel ships carried their own. The searchlights consisted of two carbon rods mounted in front of a large concave mirror. The rods almost touched each other and when a Direct Current voltage was applied to them they produced an intense light. A mechanism ensured that as the rods burned away they were moved back towards each other so that their tips remained a constant distance apart. The canal was lined close to each bank by floating reflectors much like the cat's eyes we see on the roads and the light from the searchlight reflected from the mirrors enabled the pilot, a canal employee, to keep the ship in the middle of the canal. One of the two electricians had to be standing by the searchlight when it was in use. I learned that it can be very cold at night in Egypt.


After a brief re-fuelling stop at Aden it was across the Indian Ocean to Singapore and then to Labuan to unload the bulk of our cargo.  We then went around to Tarakan and Sandakan on the north east coast of Borneo. Sandakan was in British Borneo but Tarakan was in what had been part of the Dutch East Indies and was now part of newly independent Indonesia. Tarakan was a poverty stricken place. At the end of the jetty at which we were berthed we sold cigarettes for fistfuls of paper money but when we reached the township about all we could buy was some vile sticky soft drink. At Sandakan we took several Chinese workers on board and went up a broad river to load logs. I wish now that I had enquired about the name of the river; all I know is that it was in the British part of Borneo.


The tree trunks were floated down the river from the interior. Two trunks of a lighter wood were lashed to one which would not float. I think the heavier wood was the more valuable. There was certainly a lot of fuss from the British forestry official when one was mishandled and sank. It was a nightmare job loading the tree trunks; they had to be lowered into the holds at an angle and in the holds there were ropes and pulleys to get them stowed. The Chinese workers from Sandakan were employed on this job. The first mate, who oversaw the operation, aged visibly in the several days we were up the river.


The logs were guided to the ship by pygmies from the interior. Nothing could persuade them to set foot on the ship. Once they had

attached the winch ropes to the logs their job was done. We were told that their main reason for doing this work was to get money to buy salt. Almost every day brought periods of torrential rain. When the rain stopped and the sun reappeared clouds of steam rose from the dense jungle on the sides of the river.


The Anchises' captain limited us to four bottles of beer per day and also limited the daily amount of spirits we could buy. The British forestry man told us we could have a case of gin at five shillings a bottle. For some now forgotten reason I was the only one with ready money so I bought the gin and recipients paid me when we returned to Liverpool.


At last the logs were all safely stowed. We dropped the Chinese labourers, who had lived on deck in makeshift accommodation, back at Sandakan and headed for Singapore. We probably loaded cargo at Port Swettenham and Penang on the west coast of Malaysia. I have certainly visited those two ports more than once but am not sure of which voyage I did so. Tin, which is mined in Malaysia, was an important cargo. Tin is very valuable and was exported from Port Swettenham. When we were loading it there were always armed guards watching. The port is named for Sir Frank Swettenham who was a colonial administrator in the area in about 1880.


Another important export of Malaysia was palm oil, extracted from nuts, which is used in soap manufacture.  I think it was in Singapore

that a large party of Chinese women, all dressed in blue blouses and shiny black trousers, boarded the ship to clean the holds which were to be used to hold the palm oil. They brought long bamboo poles which were lashed together to make scaffolding and from this scaffolding they thoroughly scrubbed the sides of the hold. It is necessary to keep palm oil warm so pipes were laid in the bottom of the hold in which steam was circulated once the oil had been loaded. Long tubes accessible from the deck allowed a thermometer to be lowered to take the oil's temperature and the ship's carpenter had the job of doing this several times a day until the oil was pumped out in Liverpool.


But before getting to Liverpool we went to London to discharge the tree trunks. When the hatches were opened there was an appalling pong from the river water which had been unavoidably loaded with the timber. I think we arrived on a Thursday and on the next day I got permission to go to the races at Kempton Park on the outskirts of London. I had a disastrous day; the only winner was the bosun who asked me to back a horse called Eclat for him and which duly won.


In the first race I saw Lester Piggott who was to go on to be one of England's most successful jockeys of all time; he was then 15 years old. In that race I backed a horse called The Accused ridden by champion jockey Gordon Richards. Close to the post he appeared to be well in the lead and I was getting ready to collect my winnings. Then a red shirt flashed past him. It was worn by Lester Piggott on a horse called Tancred.


I consoled myself for my bad day thinking I would go again on the next day and recoup my losses by backing a horse called Peter Flower in the Great Jubilee Handicap.  Peter Flower duly obliged but I was not there to see him. By the time of the first race we were sailing down the Thames heading for Liverpool. The tree trunks that the Chinese workers had taken so long to load were discharged quickly by the London dockers who had the convenience of dock-side cranes instead of having to use the ship's winches.


I was paid off in Liverpool on 15 May; the trip had lasted about 10 weeks. I went home for some leave of which my main memory is of going to the races at York and Epsom. I must have been an optimist as I went to Brigg market place in the hope of somehow getting a ride to York. I met an old Brigg worthy there, Edmund Thorpe, a retired coal merchant. When I told him I was hoping to get to York he pointed to a group of men and told me they were going to the races. They said I could join them. When their transport arrived it was driven by an ex-school fellow, Frank Proctor, and was a hire car. I offered to pay my share of the car hire; it was one pound which was a very reasonable fare for a round trip of at least a hundred miles. The three men were all prosperous farmers; two of them had sons who had been at school with me.


Feeling flush with money after getting paid for the voyage I went into Tattersall’s ring at a cost of thirty shillings. This gave access to the parade ring around which horses walked prior to racing. There I saw Johnny Proctor, owner of the Lord Nelson pub in Brigg and also owner of Sheila's Cottage which won the Grand National in 1948. Mr Proctor knew my Dad and Granddad so I introduced myself and asked him if his horse, Keepatwoatwo, was going to win. He thought it would not and he proved to be right. The winner of the big race that day was Miraculous Atom owned by a man who farmed near Brigg.


A few days later I set off for Epsom to see the Oaks, a classic race for three year old fillies, and the Coronation Cup on the following day. I wish now that I had stayed one more day to see the Derby, England's most prestigious flat race, which Disraeli described as the ‘Blue Ribband of the Turf’.


I rejoined the Anchises in time to sign on for the next voyage on 6 June. This was to be a shorter trip. First to Bangkok, where we lay off shore and discharged cargo into lighters and so none of the crew got ashore, and then to Singapore, Port Swettenham and Penang. This trip I had a new first electrician from Newcastle. We paid off in Liverpool on 29 August.


I cannot recall how I spent my leave in Brigg. It did not last very long as only two weeks later I signed on in the Peleus. This was one of the best ships in Blue Funnel's large fleet. It was powered by a steam turbine, was about 20% bigger than the Anchises and carried forty passengers. It also carried enough refrigerated cargo to warrant an extra engineer who did not keep watches in the engine room but looked after the refrigerating equipment. The first electrician, Clarrie Bentley, had been at sea for several years. I did not like him much and when we got back to Liverpool the electrical superintendent at head office was keen to know how I had got on with him. I learned that my predecessor had complained about him and had asked for another ship. I told the boss that although we were not bosom pals I found him a capable man and I would be quite happy to sail with him again. This all got back to Clarrie who told me that he was grateful for my words.


After leaving Liverpool we went to Rotterdam to load more cargo and I had a trip ashore. Back in England strict food rationing was still in force but in Holland, which had suffered almost five years of German occupation, food appeared to be plentiful. From Rotterdam we went to Plymouth Sound for a brief stop to pick up mail and then left bound for Port Said. We had the usual short stay there and then through the Canal to Aden where again we only had the brief stop for taking on fuel oil.


After Singapore it was on to Hong Kong where we berthed on the Kowloon side of the harbour. A ferry took me over to the other side where I went up The Peak by the rack railway but do not remember much else except that, as everywhere in the East, drinks were expensive so I stuck to my sixpenny double gins on the ship. Visiting Hong Kong again in 1996 I was amazed by the number of sky scrapers and the amount of building work which was still going on despite the imminent transfer from British rule. Only the ferries appeared the same.





Now came my first visit to Japan; Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagoya. From Yokohama I went by train to Tokyo which was still largely in ruins from the war but I saw the emperor's palace which appeared to be unscathed. At one place I bought Nana a pair of locally made vases. The last time I saw them they were in my Auntie Flo's house at Barnetby. She acquired them when Nana died.


Sitting here almost sixty years later I am finding it strange that I recall so little about Japan. One memory is of seeing a black American soldier with his wife and two little girls at the Yokohama railway station. Japan still had American occupation troops present. Another is of being in a bar and hearing the song Mona Lisa with the words ‘Are you warm, are you real Mona Lisa, or are you just a lovely work of art?’


On one of the two occasions on which I went to Japan we also went to a port in north-east China to load liquid eggs but I have no recollection of the name of the port or how the liquid eggs were handled. By this time the Communist government of Mao Zedong ruled all China. There were armed guards near the ship and we were not allowed ashore. Chan, our Cantonese helper, would sometimes say "By and by Chiang Kai-shek come back" but Chan and Chiang were both doomed to be disappointed.


I did two voyages in the Peleus. On both trips we called at a European port on the way home but I cannot remember in which order. Going to Genoa we passed through the Straits of Messina which separate Sicily from mainland Italy and there was something of a panic as we got too close to a ferry but all ended well. The docks in Genoa were close to lots of bars and although it was quite late when we berthed several of us went ashore to be introduced to new names in the drinks line. Marsala all'uovo was a sweet wine with eggs somehow incorporated and another tipple I tried was Lacrima Christi, tears of Christ.


I went ashore next day and heard a man singing for money in the street, perhaps only in Italy would one be likely to hear a busker sing  Che gelida manina  (Your tiny hand is frozen) from Puccini's opera La Boheme.


To reach Marseilles we passed through the Straits of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia so I had a glimpse of the island where Napoleon was born. I had one run ashore in Marseilles but remember little of the town.


My first trip in the Peleus ended in Liverpool on 17 December 1950. The return trip to Japan had taken just over three months. I spent my leave in Brigg and rejoined the ship at Birkenhead soon after Christmas. The company gave a Christmas bonus of a month's pay and I think it was on 9 January 1951 that with two shipmates I went over to Head Office in Liverpool to collect it. We then went to a pub which had the rather incongruous name of ‘The Temple’.




Cliff Turner and his wife Nancy in later years






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