9. HMS London - A Fleet in Being
A Fleet in Being
From Bangkok we sailed right around Malaya to Pulau Langkawi, a group of islands that lie roughly due west of the Thai-Malay border. Here we took part with Eagle, Victorious, Albion, Bulwark and HMAS Melbourne in a very major exercise called FOTEX, involving practically every ship we and our antipodean cousins had in the area, whose purpose was to convince the Thai and Malaysian, and at a remove the Indonesian, governments that we were reliable and well-equipped allies, and could if necessary load for bear.
The Fleet Air Arm hit a rough patch. Three aircraft went into the drink in a day, one of them only launched to search for one of the others. One day had cost the lives of eight brave Naval Officers. Part of Kipling’s “Price of Admiralty”.
The staff ashore must have belatedly realised that our manoeuvrings for our exercises might be misinterpreted. Indeed a five-carrier task force with embarked Commandos might well have been thought threatening, perhaps using a fairly publicly trailed exercise as a feint, which was exactly what the Oriental mind would do if intending a more serious show. Therefore, on one of these runs, when we were due to pass rather close to a likely part of Indonesia, we went to full Action Stations - the real thing - for what was in fact the only occasion apart from Suez in my entire career. The worry was that, inefficiently run and managed though she might well be, a sortie by Indonesia’s ex-Soviet Sverdlov class 6” cruiser the “Irian” was an unwelcome possibility. While our carrier-borne airpower could undoubtedly deal with her, there was no point in being caught unprepared. At the time I had deep doubts as to the sense of taking risks on behalf of the indolent and ungrateful Malays. However, with greater maturity and no little hindsight I now see the Soviets’ game-plan more clearly. The Soviets’ global intention, if it could be brought off, was to manipulate their surrogates so as to cut off the supply of oil to Western Europe. Sympathetic activity by an Indonesia stirred into action by carefully inculcated fears (or, later, failing that, risings and a change of regime - which the Indonesian Communist Party was to play for a few months later) would close the area to the tankers. Risings had already been tried to cut off the flow at source in Brunei, but the intrepidity, professionalism, courage, and obduracy of the Royal Marines and the better sort of Army units, backed by the flexibility and versatility of the Fleet Air Arm had scotched that one. The Suez Canal had been very successfully shut down twice already to the point where it was no longer any sort of major oil route. A rising was fomented in Oman with the same aim, this time to gain control of the Straits of Hormuz and shut off the flow to the West from the Persian Gulf; this was similarly nailed by the Royal Marines and the SAS. Strategically it was also the aim behind the Communist support for and penetration of the ANC in South Africa, where the objective was to achieve, via a black take-over, closure of the last remaining practical route for oil around the Cape of Good Hope. For a time this looked like a possibility, until Galtieri played into our hands and created a scenario that justified, for other, more publicly agreeable, reasons, the creation of a major base in territory with a pro-British population - indeed definitively a British one - in the South Atlantic, which neatly outflanked the Cape.
In the end Communism imploded under the weight of its own inefficiencies, fried in the white heat of the technology developed by a society that nurtured independence and creativity, and we were able to let South Africa go, and go to hell economically, without geopolitical impacts. As it was, the Soviets had scored a major tactical win by decoying to the Far East whatever operational Fleet aircraft carriers were currently in commission, thus removing them from their primary strategic role in the Arctic. The debit to the Soviets was the extraordinarily high state of training of our Special Forces - in the widest term - since we were so obligingly provided with live practice for them. Besides oil, the game included trying to shut down the West’s only supply of rubber and of nearly all her tin. I mention only a part of the Great Game. Curiously I have no memory of any of this ever being explained to us while I was a serving Officer, let alone was it ever explained to the sailors. The Soviets had other agendas elsewhere, for instance in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, but these were not our immediate pidgin.
So I was quite wrong to grumble to myself about being cooped up at my Missile Control Officer’s desk with lifebelt, anti-flash gear, respirator and so forth. Seaslug did have a rudimentary surface capability but its effective range in this mode was untested and perhaps not much more than that of Irian’s 6”. If I had banged on a bit more brain-power I would have seen that we were fighting (or poised to fight) for the survival of our country and not just for a shower of layabouts in Kuala Lumpur. The blue-and-gold shoulder boards of the Royal Navy as usual held the sky suspended and, fortunately, it didn’t fall in. Elsewhere the Royal Marines and the SAS and the “jungly” helicopter squadrons from the commando carriers, and more particularly, since they were definitively mercenaries, the Ghurkas, were also saving the sum of things for pay. For my exceedingly trivial contribution I was awarded one of the new “joint service” General Service medals, with clasp “Malay Peninsula”, a somewhat utility thing compared to the Navy’s own version that had now passed into history. But it was cute to have two gongs to clink together.
There was something quite unreal about my Action Station and indeed about the procedure in the Operations Room generally. Nearly all the personnel were seated at desks where one’s enemy, trying with all his might to sink our ship, would be presented as a spot of light on a screen, accompanied by some trite abbreviations in the associated “track label”. The subdued light, the air conditioned comfort, the absence of physical activity, contrasted totally with the real world outside of wind and sea and manoeuvre, let alone the historic environment of battle, of noise and smoke and ultimately bloodshed and drowning. I refer not only to the guns leaping to their breech tackles as blood soaked into sanded decks, of roar and smoke and two-six-heavee! Think of Cunningham at Matapan, “compiling the tactical picture” in his head on an open bridge, or Mountbatten dodging between the bomb splashes on the fated HMS Kelly. Certainly not for us the scramble for boarding pikes and hand-to-hand combat. Think of HMS Wolverine’s Commander in 1799, his ship beset forward and aft, boarded and aflame, standing on his round-house and dropping one opponent with a pistol while he ran his enemy Captain through with a pike and pushed him overboard. This was still stuff for soldiers; my grandfather bayoneted through the hand by a Turk, my father taking an Arab dagger off its owner and sticking him with it, to come the Scots Guards going in with the bayonet on Mount Tumbledown. But not for me the rolling thunder of drumming hooves, push of pike or even ice-clad duffel coat. I should go to war in an armchair, breathing filtered air in a gas-tight citadel and working with carefully filtered information. In an instant all could change as the bulkhead bulged, the sea gushed in and doused the lights and then doused our own. As it was, in all of the tenth London’s twenty years’ service with the Royal Navy, there was to be no blooding of her guns.
We were due to take part in a big Internal Security exercise at the end of March, which would have meant resurrecting our rather neglected Landing Platoon and other excitements with the spotlight fully on myself and any mistakes I might make - although I believe I was pretty hot on the principles, there would be the usual weirds like the Engine Room sending me any old spare stokers instead of whomever had actually been trained. The projection of this exercise may have reflected very serious riots staged by the Communists in Malaysia in February while the London was, mercifully, away in Hong Kong. However this potential trauma went to the wall and we were, with other ships, detailed off to lay on a “Showpiece” for Tungku Abdul Rahman, the ruler of Malaysia, and for the moment the personal, if undeserving, beneficiary of all this outpouring of British taxpayers’ treasure. As Britain’s successor in title he certainly had a democratic mandate. As a scion of one of the old Malay ruling houses he was a more honourable bet than some of the terrorist scum we handed over to elsewhere. However the Malays had not been slow to use the way some Chinese had blotted their copybook during the Emergency to set in stone the Chinese’ exclusion from the general public process, and Malaysia was officially a racist state where your political status depended on your skin colour. Left out of account was the fact that it was the Chinese who had carried on the fight with the Japanese for four long years of war. The usual excuse was that the Malays would not have been able to stand up to Chinese competition. The real reason was that the Chinese were seen as something the British, who it was hoped would also dematerialise, had inflicted on the Malays. That this apartheid was a potent source of future disaffection was blithely ignored, long-range planning not being the Malays’ style. Shortly afterwards Lee Kwan Yew, sometime subversive, now unchallenged ruler of Singapore, got so fed up with this enforced Malay hegemony that he took his ball home for keeps. Singapore left the Federation, to soar under Lee’s somewhat draconian leadership to unbelievable heights of prosperity for all its people with the minor exception of anyone who got on the wrong side of LKY, or anyone dropping chewing gum on the street.
For this Showpiece most of the Far East Fleet was paraded to show off our might and impress not only our friends, who were invited on board the ships to watch, but also our enemies who we hoped would hear about it via the media. The highlight and finale was a flypast between two lines of warships by a Victor bomber. The Victor flew fairly low down the centre line between the ships and dropped thirty-five thousand-pounders set to airburst. The noise and flash were most impressive.
Following our show-off for the Tungku, at the end of March we had a spell alongside in Singapore followed by a trip to the Pulau Tioman exercise areas.
Some while before, Giles Poole, presumably after a private letter from Whaley, had asked me if I was interested in the Advanced Gunnery Course. I must have glowed like a lamp bulb with eagerness. I obviously had Giles’ endorsement, for a letter now arrived for Joe from the Captain of Whaley saying that I had been chosen for the next course that was due to start at Greenwich in the immediate September. So in spite of being pretty well shut out of gunnery in the London, my technical career was still motoring forward nicely. Certainly it was unaffected by a lamentable lapse when I had miscounted and fired a 22-gun salute. I was on my way across the flight deck, penitence clouded by trepidation, to the bridge, to lay my neck across the pelorus for ease of amputation, when I met Mike Henry hurtling the other way. “Stop, stop! He hasn’t noticed!” I suppose that was the error for which I had had my leave stopped by Chris Eason all those months before.
I should not like it thought that I was giving no thought to other aspects of my career. To be promoted to Field rank (Major) in the Army (and thus to be entitled to a Present Arms from a sentry, instead of a butt salute), the aspiring army Captain had to pass a written examination, requiring, depending on the number of amps in the military cranium, considerable study. Our military cousins were scornful when the equivalent rank of Lieutenant Commander was introduced early in the century, to be awarded solely on the basis of eight years’ seniority as a Lieutenant. Those with long memories will remember the new two-and-a-halves being referred to as “Spunyarn Majors”, a term that in my time was only, and by then arcanely, in use as the title of a Whale Island veterans’ (= over-35) hockey team. Nevertheless there was an examination hurdle in the Navy, the more subtle in its application by being voluntary, so that Their Lordships could still promote whom they wished without any envious questions being asked. This apparently optional but obviously rather key indication that one was serious was called the Destroyer Command Examination. Plenty of Officers had commanded destroyers during the War without it. Now there was a Peace on, things were tougher.
The qualification consisted of separate examinations in all Executive subjects save the one in which one was oneself specialised, and therefore presumably already an expert. I considered that taking the various sections from the London, where I could obtain guidance from her own specialists in what to prioritise for study, was a chance not to be missed. Navigation was rather obviously more important than the other topics since Their Lordships might justifiably prefer some evidence that their precious ship was not going to end up high and dry somewhere. It was also something in which I was very much in current practice. This exam, taken with one in Action Information Organisation, included written papers and so I put in to sit, sat, submitted a “Day’s Work” (morning and evening stars, sunsights and meridional altitude sight), was orally examined by N and D specialists, and duly passed. So far so good. I decided to have a go at Communications next, which like all the other subjects was examined purely viva voce. I rashly assumed that, having as a Sub Lieutenant obtained the best pass the Signal School had seen in eighteen months, I could sail through a viva on the subject fairly easily. Now I encountered the weakness in the system, which was that the examining specialist had no guidance beyond the bare headings of the syllabus as to how to style his inquisition. I presented myself to, as it happened, the brother of one of my erstwhile Portland girlfriends (although he may not have known this). He presented me with highly hypothetical questions, didn’t like my answers, and that was that. I was just as shocked as I had been when I ploughed Greek Responsions at 15, and the causes were the same, cockiness, conceit, arrogance and being slapdash. This and that supervened thereafter and I never picked up the thread again.
In any case I now suddenly had the opportunity for a two-week side-trip to Borneo, where someone had broken his leg aboard HMS Loch Fada, and I got the chance to hop in and make one. I have spun this dit separately on RRPedia in ‘Tawau Guardship’.
Back in Singapore there was a major change in our support arrangements. Hartland Point, a converted Liberty ship that had limitations regarding the sort of engineering work she could cope with, was replaced by Triumph, now into a third career as a Maintenance ship after a life first as fighting aircraft-carrier and then as training ship. Her flight deck was now covered with shacks, which, with her hangar, contained all sorts of lathes and what have you. The idea was that she and a floating dock could support any Fleet, anywhere, short of needing to dock a ship of her own size (but there were none such left in RN hands outside the UK). She also had a useful turn of speed if required to leave A and set up facilities at B. The Royal Navy would now be independent of shore bases and fixed dockyards and the political impediments that these imposed. With a bit of luck we could sack some of the idle dockyard mateys as well.
The first week of May was spent in Hong Kong. This time it was steaming hot and we remained in whites. This was very much a working visit; arriving on the Sunday we had to tart ourselves up for our Harbour Inspection on the Thursday and in fact had to look neat as a pin by the Wednesday when the Governor paid us a visit. Friday was a breather for everyone but me - Officer of the Day - a better bet than Inspection Day which fell to David Brown. At 0900 on Saturday we sailed for exercises with Victorious off Subic (although we did not call in).
The Gunnery Department was inspected by the Gunnery Officer of HMS Victorious, an ex-pilot who had flown Sea Furies in the Korean War. He gave us a rather shaky report - in the nicest possible way, since Giles Poole and he were old friends. He was for home, so the rescrub was conducted by his relief, “Hugh Dot”, who had acquired his nickname from his fondness for the mathematics of Gunnery. Hugh Dot had other enthusiasms including getting himself up in Jungle Greens and dashing off into the ulu with the Commandos, leaving Vic to his sidekick.
Now for a small mystery of the Orient. On the way back to Singapore the helicopter spotted a vessel stranded on the Royal Captain shoal, which lies well out to sea off Palawan in the Philippines. The wreck was a small Japanese coaster called the Konan Maru. We spent most of Tuesday 11th May investigating this, putting the Navigating Officer and a shipwright on board by helicopter to investigate. On the return trip a few weeks later the helicopter was sent for another look and Konan Maru had entirely vanished, although she had been high and dry. It had been scavenged down to the last crumb of metal by the Chinese.
On Friday 14th we were back alongside the wall in Singapore. The day after we arrived the Commander, Mike Henry, was laid low - screaming with pain - by a kidney stone. Doc Truesdale had him whipped off to the British Military Hospital. After sundry excavations the patient healed rapidly and returned on board and to duty four days later. He schemed a date with the nursing sister who had been in charge of him. At this point Mrs Henry arrived unannounced in Singapore, presumably much worried by the thought of her husband being at death’s door, from the Army sawbones if not from the kidney stone. Consternation in the Wardroom was only resolved by Mike Prest’s gallantly volunteering to take over the nursing sister for the evening.
I obviously acquitted myself too well at the Board of Inquiry in Bangkok. Another was now dumped in my lap. An Able Seaman Quarters Armourer, ignoring instructions clearly printed on the metalwork, had severely damaged his hand by getting it caught in the breech of one of the 4.5-inch guns. We had to determine that, sadly, this was his fault and not the Navy’s so he paid heavily for his mistake as he would have had to be invalided without compensation. As we were alongside in the Naval Base the services of a professional secretary were enlisted. I went to meet her at the gangway and was mildly non-plussed to find my inamorata from that jolly party in Sembawang staggering up the brow carrying a very non-portable pusser’s Remington. She was very professional and never batted an eyelid.
On the Sunday lunchtime after our return I was having a leisurely pre-prandial gin when into the wardroom came two guests to whom had been extended an invitation the night before, a tall teacher lady and one of her current beaux, a tall Naval helicopter pilot called Bruce Brown - who was only months later to lose his life when his cab banged in in the Borneo jungle, where 848’s Whirlwind pilots from HMS Albion had, over two years, been pretty well flying themselves into a state of exhaustion. They made a handsome couple. Their host was scoffing shepherd’s pie behind the curtain that divided the eating and relaxing parts of the mess (I mention the menu to show that we had not left everything English behind us, tropics or no tropics). He had entirely forgotten that he had invited guests onboard, no surprising thing considering that he had been quite a party animal the night before, so I stepped in and gallantly entertained his visitors while he collected himself.
I was rather taken with the lady but could hardly ask for her telephone number with Bruce so close to hand. I later found the sight of her long legs stuck out by the side of the pool at Terror distracting, so persuaded Toothie to go and obtain the vital digits for me. I reasoned that a lady asked for such information by a third party would yield it out of curiosity, a faculty not short of supply in females, whereas a direct approach would give her a chance to find the suitor wanting. I was thus positioned to move on to the next stage, a dinner date at the nightclub in the Singapura hotel, and I was encouraged in that I was allowed a further serial at a restaurant in Singapore called Old Russia. She lived across the Strait in a ladies’ mess run by the Army, where the Chinese amahs called her “Chang Tway Che-chee” (long-legged sister). As a teacher in an Army school in Johore she was Army property, but, finding the Pongoes deficient, had sensibly taken out membership of the HMS Terror Officers’ Club, on what entitlement, apart from her 33” inside leg measurement (the same as mine!), I cannot say. There she was a definite adornment and did not want for male company, and therefore nor I for competition, much of it married and older and therefore more experienced than I was. She was soon to contribute a footnote to history when she was roped in to take part in a Naval recruiting advertisement, published as a double page spread in the Sunday Times colour supplement, that showed Naval Officers in dazzling whites bringing her cool drinks on the swimming pool patio. She would often tell me later that she had found me boring, but she had the grace to conceal this from me at the time. She had a distinctly teacherish manner. The only thing I can now remember her saying to me was on the dance floor at the Singapura on our first date - “Stand up straight!” I was graciously invited to her Mess party at the beginning of June and then London sailed away for exercises and to Hong Kong and Subic again, and by the time we finally repaired to Singapore for a self-maintenance period preparatory to London’s trip home I had rather lost the end of the thread - but, as it turned out, not for ever. Whether it was her original forgetful host who was my deus ex machina or Dr Sukarno could be debated.
As was usual, our time on the wall at Singapore was complemented by weapon training and tactical exercises in the practice areas around Pulau Tioman in the South China Sea. On 9th June we sailed, initially for local exercises, after a visit to the RN Armament Depot to load Seaslug for eventual firings at Subic. But first we had more conventional games. The Fleet facilities at Singapore included a Shelduck flight run by a Gunner. For one run of exercises this was embarked in HMAS Paramatta, an Australian type 12 frigate. We were due to use the Shelduck as a Seacat target. The night before I came off the bridge after the first watch and turned in, looking forward to a decent night’s sleep. At 0200 I was called with an urgent message: “The Captain wants to see you on the bridge.” I scrambled into my kit and reported myself to the Navigating Officer as Joe was talking to someone else. Pilot told me to wait in the chart house. For two hours I could get no sense out of the situation and then Joe at last worked round to me. With no sort of recognition that I had been turned out for no reason, he told me that I must transfer by jackstay to Paramatta the next morning to supervise the Shelduck operation. I was then dismissed. I was so hopping mad that any idea of further sleep was quite out of the question. Also hopping mad, it turned out, was the Gunner in charge of the Shelduck who had been operating his flight for months without anyone being sent to breathe down his neck. With the support of Paramatta’s Captain, who was ultimately responsible for what went on in his ship, and who was plainly not pleased by the implication that Australians were a bunch of amateurs who could not be trusted to run their show without RN supervision, I was banished to Paramatta’s wardroom for the day. There were no problems with the Shelduck operations, not that I could have intervened if there had been. A total waste of a day, and a night’s sleep down the drain. Thank you Joe.
On one occasion (and one only), as a sort of concession or perhaps as a health check, I was allowed to conduct a 4.5” shoot. This was very unsatisfactory as I had no part in the responsibility for preparing for it and was clearly a locum tenens; I had had no part in training or drilling the crews. Everything else was effectively determined by the technical state of the equipment, which was a Greenie responsibility anyway. I felt that I was being treated as a trainee under examination rather than as a qualified professional. Not having conducted a shoot since the Firing Ship week of my G course nearly two and a half years before (indeed I was not to repeat the experience for a further eighteen months and that with FOST’s people watching) didn’t help either but I suppose I must have passed the test.
Throughout I continued to have responsibilities in the Commander’s Office and some interest in the Regulating Office next door, run since the demise of our Jaunty by the “Crusher” (Regulating Petty Officer) RPO Jacobs, a burly and cheerful soul who was to the fore (in unlikely partnership with Murphy) in jollifications like Crossing the Line. The Reg. Office was the base for such factota as the club-swinger (Physical Training Instructor) who was also the Land Rover’s driver and keeper, and for the ship’s postman, a Leading Seaman. Postie had only just signed on for a further term when he came into some money from a legacy. This made him want to change his plans and, almost immediately after signing, he requested that his application for further service be withdrawn. Authority would have none of it although it had in no way acted upon his reengagement. He must serve out the whole of his new term. I thought this was most short-sighted and unfair but typical of the behaviour of the MoD’s civilian staff.
Our local exercises with Victorious preceded seven days of intense Fleet exercises called “Windy Weather” in the South China Sea, based around an amphibious landing with aircraft carrier support. For this we were closed up in Defence Watches throughout, myself juggling bridge and Flight Deck, our Bridge union padded by the odd spell-oh from Douglas Clark. In the middle of Windy Weather we underwent our Sea Inspection and when Windy Weather was over we detached at lunchtime on Friday 18th June for Subic, arriving am on the Monday.
This time at Subic the sailors got some shore leave or at least one watch did. For fun and games ashore there was Olongapo, whose main street was one long run of sailors’ bars. Olongapo was the Wild West. A fellow G told me that once when he was there, sitting quietly at a table with a cool beer, a local policeman sat down next to him. My informant asked him if his gun was loaded. The policeman drew it and shot out one of the street lamps. As to the Londons, we were warned not to stray off to the side; two American officers had been found, one quite recent morning, with their throats cut and other bits chopped off for good measure. There were US Navy buses from the main gate of the Base back to the ships. The next morning we had dozens of sailors adrift. It turned out that the white American sailors had decided not to allow any black ones on “their” buses. Nigras kin walk, only white folks ride, sort of thing - apparently quite usual. There was an immediate race riot involving hundreds of men, which lasted till the Snowballs (from their white helmets) of the US Shore Patrol waded in with their billy clubs and beat everyone up. The Officer of the Patrol had with great foresight sidelined all our men into some shed out of the way so that they were not involved, but it was late when they were let out. All very educational.
One of our midshipmen, an engineer, was found dhobeying out his spectacles in TCP in his cabin wash basin. They had been plucked from his nose by a go-go dancer and when they were returned he did not care to wear them immediately considering where they had been. Moral: do not sit too close to the stage in foreign parts, or your glasses may end up in foreign parts.
We sailed on Tuesday 22nd p.m. so as to be on the range, well out to sea, the next afternoon.
This was another prestige run for Joe as we were the first RN ship to do this sort of thing using US facilities. The target was to be an air-launched, small, fast drone. The rules stipulated very clearly that I as MCO must positively observe a clear separation between target and parent aircraft before a certain point, otherwise Seaslug launch was not to take place. The first firing on 23rd went well and we then spent two days stooging around off Subic exercising internally before another turn on the range came up early on Saturday 26th. The blip came ever closer but remained single. I kept my hands in my lap. Joe was furious, “Why hasn’t he fired? Why hasn’t he fired?” I explained to Giles, who supported me and tried to explain to Joe but Joe was having none of it. I just do not believe he understood where he would have been if we had shot down and killed an American airman. Certainly nobody could have carried the can for me if that had happened. The afternoon firing was a success but that was ignored. Before closing Subic to land records - we sailed shortly afterwards and did not give leave(!) - we were given a beat-up by a Phantom, the new aircraft which the RN was to buy and which in its hundreds was to become the hugely successful work-horse war-wagon of the Vietnam War.
HMS London, Seaslug Firing, Subic (Philippines) 1965
Back at Hong Kong - where we arrived early on Monday 28th - I did not fancy any run-ins with boxing champions but my social problems were solved by Jonathan Langdon who organised a Wardroom invitation to that salvation of the weary sailor, the Helena May Institute in Garden Road, still offering respectable lodging to English bachelor girls. Onboard we gave an official cocktail party. It was a necessary courtesy for Joe to invite the Commanding Officers of all the warships in the harbour, and, of course, their ladies. One of these ships was an American tug that was permanently based in Hong Kong. Its commanding officer was shacked up with the madam of a Wanchai brothel. Joe had eight fits as this Yank propelled his gaudy, blowsy Chinese mistress up our gangway.
At noon on Wednesday 7th July we sailed for Singapore, although we did not get alongside until Friday 16th, after a trip up the Malacca Straits for exercises off Penang with Ark Royal and another Shelduck shoot with the 4.5”s, and a call at the Armament Depot to swap Seaslugs about. A major limitation of Seaslug was that it could not be replenished at sea. Westbound we had landed our Chinese tradesmen, tailor, shoemaker and so forth, by helicopter. We were definitely winding down if such could ever be associated with a ship commanded by Joe. Waiting for me on the jetty was my relief, John Lightowlers, a brainy SD who had won through to a Long G course and who was young enough to achieve eventual promotion to Commander on the General List. He must soon have realised why he was greeted with undisguised glee.
One minor event on the day of our arrival was the reading of the 43rd and last Warrant of the Commission. That’s about one warrant per 270 man-months; I’ve no idea what “good” or “bad” rates of warrant punishment would be but I think to be fair to Joe that’s a fairly modest figure.
On the Sunday the Air Department, which could do no wrong in Joe’s eyes, borrowed a dockyard launch and set out with booze and popsies for a banyan. Somewhere on the Johore side of the strait they ran aground and stuck fast. They had no means of escape nor of summoning help. When they were long overdue, Joe, visions of his precious aircrew having been kidnapped by Indons dancing before his eyes, and bound by orders from above, had to swallow his pride and ask the RAF to send out a Shackleton to look for them. The banyan party was not back alongside until 1400 on the Monday afternoon and Joe was not best pleased by what had happened. As to the aircrew, Joe was blind with love, but stopped Mike Henry’s leave to make himself feel better.
The same day the first wave of “Old Commission” left the ship for the barracks at Terror to await flights home and on Tuesday their reliefs arrived on board. It was now time for me, too, to leave the ship. I had of course arranged things so as to be sure of getting in all my due leave before starting my next job. In fact I had done rather better than that. I was aided by the fact that I had so little on my plate that my turnover to Lightowlers could be accomplished pretty well over a cup of coffee. I was also helped by there being nowhere to sleep once I had handed my cabin over to him. I moved into the sumptuous quarters of the official captain’s sleeping cabin for my last few nights, private long bath and all. Joe, of course, was in the flag quarters as was usual while we were a private ship. There was little left to do except a last day-on as Officer of the Day and to attend our farewellers Cocktail Party for various senior freeloaders.
I was still living on board when there was a re-run of the fateful banyan trip the following Sunday. Joe, whose humiliation had been more than complete, had banned all officers from hiring any more shore boats or from organising anything like that again. However our resourceful aircrew had a friend ashore, a Royal Marines officer, who hired another harbour launch and invited all London’s officers who wished to join him in a picnic party. We were thus not in contravention of orders; and there seemed little point in telling Joe what we were up to. A banyan for blokes only, while jolly hearty, could be quite boring. Fortunately there had been invited to join us a crew of secretaries and Foreign Office crypto girls from Braddell Rise. We had a happy day of frolic on the Johore side of the Strait. After returning the boat to Red House (the Fleet sailing centre, once temporarily the Japanese Kempeitai headquarters), we continued down to Braddell Rise for an evening’s whoopee in the girls’ mess, bopping to “Boardwalk”.
I was logged out of the ship at 0745 on Tuesday 27th to get myself down to Paya Lebar to catch my plane home. London sailed without me an hour and a quarter later. A chapter of life’s adventure was closed.
The expense of Sukarno’s silly games finally caught up with him and he was deposed, and a peace treaty negotiated with Malaysia, in 1966, but not before the Communists, whose Soviet masters must have realised that in the East Indies they were in end-game, had tried to use Indonesia’s parlous economic state to launch a rebellion, which earned most of them, unmourned, the untimely but useful termination referred to above. As to the Raj:
“ .... the Lion and the Lizard keep /The courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep.”
Omar Khayyam (tr. Fitzgerald), ‘Rubaiyat’, ca.1250 AD
The trip home, towards the end of July, was more leisurely than it had been in a Comet eight years before. This time we were in a Britannia, the “Whispering Giant” turbo-prop, owned by an outfit called Feeble Eagle that got its bread freighting servicemen about, in between joining in the then-embryonic package tour business.
I had high hopes that the schoolteacher lady I had met, who was for home at about the same time, might be on my flight. Later she told me how much, when awaiting her own flight order, she had been praying this should not be the case. Her prayers were answered. When I checked in at Payar Lebar my bird had already flown.
We had two stops en route, the second in Istanbul. I thought I must try a cup of Turkish coffee, really only because one had read about it; it was utterly disgusting. When we touched down in Blighty I gave up smoking for the rest of my life. In fact I had intended to stop when we left Singapore, but the midshipman sitting next to me was a smoker and kept offering me the things. I think he could not quite handle the fact that he never got one back in return. The only other memorable aspect of the flight was the cleaners stealing my fountain pen from my seat at the earlier fuelling stop at Bombay, but that was my fault for leaving it there. I felt bad about that as my half-brother had given it me as a present out of his feeble means.
Giles Poole had also escaped early, but his relief and I were not long together; professionally only about two and a half weeks as Giles left at the end of June and Lightowlers, as above, arrived in mid-July. Giles was never further promoted and eventually went to work for BMARC, a UK Oerlikon subsidiary, where he achieved the uncommon distinction of knocking down his own stand at the RN Equipment Exhibition by whizzing a 37mm mount round without its having any training stops fitted. He died, debilitated by long illness, in his late fifties.
London eventually got herself back to Plymouth after a trip that some people did not enjoy very much. I drove down to collect my kit, which was mostly still encumbering John Lightowlers’ cabin. My last vision of my ship was of her flight deck with a Seaslug missile sticking up out of the loading hatch at a wonky angle where the Greenies had got it jammed. I think that was some sort of metaphor for the whole thing.
London continued in service and was present at Denis Healey’s scuttle from Aden in 1967 and at our withdrawal from Malta in 1979. The former occasion was one in which, as elsewhere, the Fleet Air Arm provided fighter cover to pull the RAF’s chestnuts out of the fire. The army and RAF were evacuated under the protection of the Royal Marines of 42 Commando embarked in HMS Albion. Although it would have cost more lives in the short term, if we had hung on in Aden we should not have given the nod to the IRA that Britain would chuck her hand in if enemy terrorists could muster sufficient violence. The only way out of a security situation is to bring your enemy to battle and beat him before you treat for peace. Even so, after expending all that British blood we have usually handed over to the chief terrorist murderer in the end, for instance, Kenyatta, Mugabe, Makarios, Mandela and so forth, and this syndrome goes back to the Boer War. Any locals who were fool enough to be loyal to us then usually got their punishment.
It was Sea Power that made our Empire, and Sea Power that enabled us to give it up without a bloody nose. In 1982 London came home for the last time, from a bronzie in the Caribbean, and before entering harbour fired off the last four-gun broadside in the history of the Royal Navy.
The same year, her Seaslug removed and its magazine eviscerated to provide quarters and classrooms for training classes, London was sold to the Pakistan Navy as PNS Babur. She went to the breakers in the late nineties after a later transmogrification in which her AA armament was much increased, and her flight deck and hangar extended so that she could carry two Sea King helicopters; this made her a formidable all-purpose vessel.
My London’s successor, the XIth London, was one of the last batch of Type 22 frigates, and served in the Persian Gulf in the 1990-1 Gulf War.
Joe stated that I had carried out my duties “very much to his satisfaction”, which was more than I would say in return! He was also kind enough to say that I had shown that I was a natural leader.
Josef Czeslaw Bartosik has dominated this story in a way not matched by any of my other Commanding Officers. He was not a better Officer than them, and mostly instead of leadership ruled by fear, but he gave me more to think about than any of them. Soon after leaving the London he became a Rear Admiral, and was used by Wilson to plan the notorious Beira patrol, possibly because no honourable British Officer could have remained in the Service if asked to do such a thing. In this Joe was the catspaw for his buddy Lord Chalfont. But Joe carried his own nemesis in his briefcase, and his philanderings while based in the MoD became too much for Mrs B and, now that their children had left the nest, when Joe was retired from the Navy she pressed the eject button on him. Possibly she had held on in the unrequited hope of becoming Lady B - that was not to be.
Leave included a week driving around Ireland (then, except for a welcoming burst of .303 at Brave Borderer in Cork, temporarily resting from its age-old confrontation with civilisation) and a restful fortnight in Guernsey, six quid return from Portsmouth in a DC-3, where my mother was very happy not to have tobacco stink trailing round the house. The return flight was a winner. The weather was foul and Portsmouth was socked in. We rocked about in the clag. Real flying! The cheerful stewardess, swinging from seat to seat like a burlesque version of Tarzan’s Jane, announced that “It’s all right, we can stay up for another hour like this.” My immediate neighbour disappeared into his sick-bag. Eventually we were let-down in the Thorney Island pattern and emerged at nought feet to grease our way in over the Polytechnic rugger posts. Real barn-storming, slat-hanging, tail-wheel dragging stuff. Only a little while after this the airline re-equipped itself with more modern aircraft. Two of these crashed through the boundary fence onto Eastern Road on the same day and the publicity was just too much. Sic[k?] transit Channel Airways, goodbye a field famous for Amy Johnson and Neville Shute, hello ghastly housing estate.