The Portland Trials Squadron, 1960-2
The Other Ships of the Squadron
Berthed on us when I arrived was another CMS of the Squadron, the later rather famous Bronington. Her CO was an ex-submariner and an exceptionally fine ship handler, far better than Alan's predecessor who had put many permanent dents into HB's stemplate.
Bimbo had brought with him from one of his submarines the idea of a trident emblem. This had been adopted as a funnel badge by the 50th, replacing rather boring plain digits, but pointing downwards at the mines rather than upwards as was more appropriate in a submarine.
Bronington's distinctive peculiarity was a home-brew bridge enclosure which looked pretty flimsy but must have made life more comfortable in a seaway. Eventually pukka enclosed bridges were fitted to all the CMS - no other way to be gas-tight - but in 1960 in HB one was still offered a goffa of cold salt water down the neck of one's oilskin at regular intervals.
Bron's First Lieutenant was distinctly flamboyant, with an aristo style and a fine disdain for any regulation bearing on himself. He had a particularly well-developed Corinthian quiz reserved for any interlocutor he perceived as being of lower status than himself. A sample of his style was the arrival of braces of grouse, sent in Edwardian manner with just their legs tied together with a luggage label. The local Fleet Mail Office had difficulty getting used to this.
He did not believe in being uncomfortable. Of his two Sub Lieutenants, one was permanently employed catering and cooking for Bron's wardroom, for which he had considerable aptitude. Indeed, he soon after left the Navy to enter the hotel business.
During the Spring Bronington acquired a new First Lieutenant. I missed the flashy touch but perhaps Bron didn't! The departing incumbent had, for instance taken with him Bron's Armament Stores register, promising to sort it out and send it back. He still had it with him when we met up again over a year later. I last met him some time after I had left the Navy, supervising his elderly mother in law whom he had turned-to hay-making at his rather ramshackle ex-mini-stately home in deepest Devon.
Bron then also acquired a new Sub Lieutenant, an historical curiosity as he was one of the three very last National Service officers in the Navy (as an aside a school-mate of mine was the very last one in the RAF). He had had no end of deferments while he qualified as an accountant. Heaven sent! Just for once the squadron had a chance to get all its victualling and wine books and so forth into some sort of auditable shape. Bliss and huge relief. To add to his fey Scots charm he was also a chum of the heir to Eldridge Pope's brewery which you may believe was socially useful to us. Altogether no mean contribution from our new joiner.
Our third CMS was Glasserton, captained by a Special Duties List officer who ended up running Navy Days in Portsmouth.
Glasserton's No 1 was somewhat older than me. He went on to become a Captain. He was immediately famous for getting a letter published in The Field about a pigeon. Glasserton had been carrying out trials in the Bay of Biscay, quite far from land, when a pigeon arrived on board and took shelter in one of the bridge baffles. Not unnaturally the wheelhouse screen was soon festooned with droppings. He reached into the baffle and ejected the pigeon. It flew back into another baffle, one which did not have a gold-laced arm bothering tired pigeons. He reached in again, grasped the pigeon, and assisted it in a take off to a new home. The pigeon circled and homed back on its ship. He tried again to throw the pigeon away. And so forth. Eventually it went away of its own accord when Glasserton again neared land, and the hands were turned to to scrub down the wheelhouse screen.
Glass’s No.1 was supported by two full Lieutenants. The first, Fred de Labillière, of whose more famous big brother you have probably heard, was a Fleet Air Arm Scimitar pilot, sent to us for General Service time. He went on to command a CMS at Aden during the twilight year of that colony, and published an amusing account of that in the Fleet Air Arm magazine "Flight Deck". Fred was very relaxed and played hard. At one point - even on duty-frees - I gave up smoking for six months but partying with Fred got me back on the weed. With us of course Fred was deprived of his personal hangover cure, which was sitting in the cockpit of a Scimitar breathing the oxygen.
Fred's pride was his id card which showed a picture of a Gibraltan ape. He had used this without challenge for a couple of years even at Portland, which was still reeling from the Houghton-Gee-Lonsdale-Kroger thing - which either says something about naval security or about Fred's physiognomy, as we were not slow to point out. He reached Commander but then had to leave the Navy for personal reasons; in my view he might have gone much further.
Fred's wing-man, Bill, was an electrical officer who had transferred to the Seaman branch. While in Glasserton Bill received a letter telling him he had been selected for Observer training, for which he had emphatically not volunteered. He promptly did what the Admiralty secretly wanted in such cases and volunteered to be a pilot. Fred and Bill became good playmates.
Next in line was the Inshore minesweeper Yaxham. The 'hams and 'leys were a smaller class of minesweeper born partly out of the same flap as the CMS, but also because the wartime inshore craft for sweeping estuaries and rivers, the Motor Minesweepers or Mickey Mice, had fallen to bits. IMS only carried two officers who were cramped into a half-section aft (the Leys for some technical reason had a bigger wardroom across the whole broadside). Yax' CO was Ronnie Laughton, a florid, jovial soul who fully shared the dictum that rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools. Ronnie's version (I quote) was that ninety percent of the time you don't get found out, and the other ten you talk your way out of it. In this spirit he set about, with hardly more than eleven hands spare standfast his duty watch, to have the best cricket team in the base. To achieve this he used to have his whole ship's company up in the nets all day when Yax was in for her barely one day a week maintenance. The maintenance happened somehow in other odd moments. Unsuprisingly Ronnie was worshipped by his juniors who NEVER let him down.
Yaxham was the only ship of our squadron to enjoy a liaison with its name-hamlet. Annually Yaxham would chug up the Yare as far as it could to meet up with its associated villagers - and if the ship didn't win the cricket match, it wasn't for her captain not putting in the effort.
Ronnie's Number One was a great-nephew of the mighty Cunningham, who went on to be an Equerry at Buckingham Palace and after a reasonable pause to become First Sea Lord. He should have gone on to be CDS; and he was the first eligible admiral to be denied, because of the Betts Report, the rank of Admiral of the Fleet.
Ronnie shared a chummery in an old country house at Buckland Ripers but later moved to Ringstead Bay. By this time Jock had been relieved by another Scot, Iain. Ronnie used to have Iain take Yax in and out of harbour and then Ronnie would be picked up or dropped off Ringstead in Yax's skiff (even smaller than our motor cockleshell) for the day's trials.
Ronnie was a superb natural seaman. We were frequently diverted to look for crashed helicopters, partly because the Admiralty in its usual unwisdom, to "save money" (hardly true if you lose all the resulting aircraft) had had Westland's version of the Sikorsky S51 re-engined with the Alvis Leonides. This was (a) repositioned at 45 degrees, an angle at which it was never designed to fly for long periods and (b) reengineered to reverse the direction of rotation of the crankshaft. This ignored the fact that the distribution of oil in the engine was dependent on the direction of rotation. The result was engines seizing up in flight, a wholly foreseeable disaster which cost the lives of many brave aircrew for nothing but the careless egotism of their civilian masters. One of these unfortunates splashed in; Ronnie and many others were sent to look. Ronnie worked out where it would have ditched but was told to look where he was sent. After days of fruitless plodding he was finally allowed (or deliberately went) where he was sure the aircraft was. Spot on. Vastly more corroded and difficult of recovery than it would have been if Ronnie had been allowed to find it on Day One. As to the Whirlwinds, their problems were so well known that two American S51s were kept at Portland for any really critical missions.
The 50th MSS tail-end Charlie or canteen boat was the Gossamer, a minelayer of 1937 vintage (same as me) and therefore more elegant within, at least for the officers, than our wooden walls. Goss was rather one-up on the rest of us as she bore four Battle Honours. However I doubt her name will be re-used! Her No.1 was relieved soon after I arrived by an officer with a big brother in submarines, to whom the fairy had given the lion's share of application, leaving a bare sufficiency for the junior. We'll come to him in a minute.
As a Squadron we were actually a satrapy of the 2nd Frigate Squadron, a collection of the cheapo and easily bent single-screw Blackwoods, led by a Type 15, which were used for sonar training. 2nd F's canteen boat was however more of a star, the war veteran Brocklesby, last of the Hunt class, which was used by AUWE for sonar trials. Her CO, a Scots laird, played the hunt theme hard with Brock's comings and goings announced from her bridge with a hunting horn and various cabins and so forth labelled from his (MoH) downwards.
F2 in turn came under the Flag Officer Sea Training, the austere Peter Gretton who had, as a Commander, been an outstanding Escort Force Commander in the Battle of the Atlantic. In training the ships that passed through Portland he set very high standards indeed. I think his staff felt that the local ships were loafers by comparison and there were frequent attempts to sharpen us up. Had he not died in harness I believe he would have become First Sea Lord without a doubt. His son became an admiral in his turn.
My own introduction to Gretton snr was a disaster as he suddenly turned up on the jetty when Alan was ashore ("Get him back!") and my original coxswain, a slob by nature, came on deck without socks and in lace-less gymshoes to pipe Gretton on board. After a sticky few minutes I was shanghaied into giving Gretton a lift back to his office. His expression was unbelieving as I held open the door of my Austin 10. We had an almost silent trip except for: "How old is this car, Griffiths?" "Twenty-seven, Sir." "How old are you?" "Twenty-three, Sir."
Gretton was a Roman Catholic. Therefore, he would bestir himself early of a Sunday and attend Mass and then return to the Base, Duty Staff Officer in tow, for colours. One Sunday the Duty Staff, eyes boggling, observed the ensign aboard Gossamer apparently raising itself, with nobody at all on deck. The halliards were found to be rove down through a hatch to the signalman's bunk. Goss's officers were for the high jump. This Holy Romanising of Gretton's had an odd side effect - one had to be on board and on the qui vive on Sundays if one was duty so I would have to skip C of E matins in the Base church. Perhaps PG scored some brownie points with the Pope for that.
There followed Goss's Inspection. Locker after upper-deck locker was found to be painted up solid (they were empty). One of Gretton's staff went to try a new locker. It was infortuitously the only one actually used. He gave a mighty heave on the cover and several hundredweight of potatoes fell out onto the deck, skittling the Inspecting staff.
Around this time there was another nausea for Goss when her No.1 found that a lady guest had not made it ashore by midnight, Portland Naval Base chucking-out time for females. Using his initiative he heaved he rinto a bunk for the night and the next morning got Goss’s little motor boat into the water and set off for a secluded part of the harbour outside the Base area, himself coxing and crewed by a figure in number 8s with rather a protruding chest. Unfortunately it was blowing a bit and he had failed to notice the ‘NO BOATS’ signal flying, something of which the Mod Plod reminded him when their boat caught up with his.
Our hero was relieved rather soon by a term-mate of mine who was more on the ball than his predecessor. It was a good move for him as he found a girl ashore somewhere and married her, and stayed married to her.
Highburton's Wardroom used to try and keep the forward wardroom flat screen door shut for privacy, but the sailors to keep warm also liked to keep the forecastle hatch shut and to use our flat as a rat-run to the gangway. This is a permanent conflict in naval life. The sailors did really overstep on one occasion when two of them stole bottles of Scotch off us and those we did thump quite hard. Two hundred years before they would have had 200 lashes at the gangway for that.
We had other playmates besides members of our squadron. Two Ley-class IMS had been converted to replace the Channel MFV fishery protection vessels, and had taken their names of HMSs Squirrel and Watchful. They came into Portland as seldom as possible since they preferred to avoid senior officers, but when they did come in they expected to join our fun. Squirrel's successive First Lieutenants were term-mates of mine. The Watchful's we shall meet later.
I had an easy introduction to the trials world. Initially all we were asked to do was steam up and down over some sound detection loops on the sea bed off Bexington, while boffins ashore listened and took recordings. West of the Bill it was pretty exposed and HB heaved up and down. Bouncing like a cork, it was tricky to get a true line over the coils. Alan's expression was a picture when after one pass the boffins said complainingly "You were two feet out that time".
The boffins were another life-form. The most humanoid was the man in charge of straightforward wire sweeping. As the subject got more technical the boffins came from further out in the solar system. I knew they claimed twelve shillings a day for lunch even if they brought sandwiches, so I used to charge them half that for lunch in the mess of which half went into our Mess funds as a cumshaw.
The bouncing hit me hard. Even in a Type 15 frigate in a gale I had been pretty immune from seasickness when out on deck. Now I really suffered. Perhaps it was old age. I tried the official pusser's solution, Hyoscine Hydrobromide but it just dried me out and gave me a splitting headache and still UP came the yellow bile into the bottom of the bucket. Somebody put me onto Avomine, a morning sickness pill. Don't leave home without it. It worked a treat. I also discovered just one food that seemed to stay down, perhaps because of its blotting qualities - cheddar cheese white bread sandwiches.
I explained magnetic mines. Any evidence of a ship's passage can be used to detonate a mine and ships also have an acoustic signature. By the end of the war both sides were using acoustically-triggered mines, mostly laid direct onto the ocean bottom from aircraft, typically in conjunction with magnetic mines. Inside thirty fathoms the mooring can be dispensed with as the mine explosion will still hit a ship hard enough to sink it. To deal with this we had the Acoustic Displacer, Acoustic Oscillator and Acoustic Hammer (AD, AO and AH) "sweeps" which were dangled over the side from derricks sited at the forecastle break. The aim was to detonate the mine sufficiently far ahead to spare the sweeper any untoward effect. The catch to this was that the acoustic signal was thus delivered several cables ahead of the magnetic and it was easy to construct a mine requiring BOTH triggers. I should mention here that, besides combinations of trigger, mines can also easily carry built in time delays running to months and, say, ship counts that ensure that detonation only occurs after so many equivalent "ships" have been detected.
Enter Osborn. The idea was to tow the acoustic sweep in between the ends of the loop so that acoustic and magnetic triggers presented simultaneously. The towed body, which looked like a large buoyant bomb, contained the elements of all three acoustic sweeps so as to make the most convincing noise. To manage this we had a specially strengthened replacement port derrick, and Osborn lived on crutches immediately inboard with its cable on an adjacent reel. Streaming and recovering this thing was quite complicated, particularly recovery when it had to be fished for amidships with a Davy hook on the end of a thirty-foot bamboo pole. This was new business NOT in the manual, but the sailors had had practice under my predecessor. Osborn usually had its own shy but friendly boffin in attendance. His name I instantly forgot; I always referred to him as Mr Osborn Boffin which he took rather well.
The idea was to work up to streaming wire and then magnetic sweeps and then Osborn, all together. The idea was that Osborn should be towed between the electrodes of the loop. We had many bouncy days practising this.
Once the minesweeping and the running of the ship were well in hand I gave thought to the social scene. January in Portland was the same bleak prospect that had presented itself when I was there as a midshipman; the allegation that there was a bird under every bush in Dorset remained unproven.
Close to hand, we were members of the mess in HMS Osprey, the base 'ship' ("stone frigate") half way up the Bill, and we had the use of the Naval Officers' Club, which presented a bar, skittle alley, dance floor and rudimentary restaurant (all restaurants seem to have been rudimentary in those days). Just outside the main gate was another pub with a skittle alley (proper English nine pins in both locations - none of this Rank American ten-pin stuff). Further up the Bill was a strange Gothic hotel called the Pennsylvania Castle and at its tip a pub, the Devenish Arms, so far from civilisation that it stayed open late in the sure knowledge that the policeman coming to close it would be reported by some late boozer who had overtaken his bicycle.
I should here mention the Black Dog, which was about the only pub in Weymouth with any atmosphere and which was therefore the jump-off for some of our runs ashore. In a corner of the bar, but ignored by us youngsters, used to sit a lady called Bed-Time Valerie, sometimes with a chum known to us as the Screaming Skull. I don't think they were on the game but perhaps a bit lonely and certainly thirsty. I came upon one more mature officer early of a Sunday morning ironing his shirt on the wardroom table. His back was covered in scratches. He confirmed that BTV could be grateful for a bit of company.
The Club was the main thing. For the really bored there was a solitary fruit machine. It was one of only two I have ever seen dispense a jackpot. The other was in the Nuffield Club in Portsmouth and I was the lucky recipient, but when I took my token to the bar to claim my £3 or whatever, many new friends clustered around. One, already an acquaintance although I cannot believe he remembers me, left the RN to be a TV presenter. His wife is now probably more widely known.
The Portland machine was stuffed with sixpences; Glasserton’s CO had been playing it solo without result for an hour. At the bar Alan was entertaining his brother, over from Jamaica. Glasserton eventually gave up and came over to the bar. Cawston frère wandered over to the machine, popped in a solitary coin, and swung on the handle. Out poured a cupro-nickel (and some, still, silver) river. Glasserton, who had just paid for his drink, took it personally and wouldn't speak to Alan.
A Scot on the Sea Training staff used to run Scottish Country Dancing evenings. I was a useless embarrassment at this but the surrounding party was worth attending and there was a coterie of girls who came to reel. One particularly appealed as she had what is still the finest, roundest, bounciest but firm bottom within my memory. However I had neither the confidence nor the social skills to work past all the competition.
There was still the Teachers' Training College. I gained some sort of entrée here through a helicopter acquaintance who used to gad about in a large estate car with its back seat down and six feet of deep pile carpeting spread in the resulting boot. I found a local girl from Wareham and others were to follow; the 50th MSS Wardrooms became better established socially.
Came a party night and the Fish boat Watchful came in, late in the evening but with her First Lieutenant roaring to go. The first intimation I had of this was him appearing in my cabin doorway while I was getting shifted into plain clothes (never "mufti" in the Navy).
"How good a pimp are you? I need a woman for the party".
This put me on the spot as we were up on numbers and had already rounded up most of our spares. Then I figured that the Squadron Duty Officer would be stuck onboard Highburton where he could be located in emergency. I blush to remember that I offered up his current girlfriend, a sister at the Portland hospital. All was fixed. I had failed to anticipate Squadron Rounds while the party was in full swing. Rather embarrassing.
Now read on – 50MSS_2