Royal Navy

I was nearly nineteen years old when I attended a three-day interview for Supplementary List Seaman Officers. The interview was held at HMS Sultan, a Royal Navy shore base in Gosport. My family were quite excited for me as was I, but I don’t remember any special preparation for the interview, which in hindsight was fairly hectic. About forty of us were to be assessed physically, academically and psychologically. We were put in teams and set tasks; lifting forty-five-gallon oil drums, making a bridge from planks of wood, leading teams across a fictitious river, while a panel of five assessed our leadership capabilities. I spoke with a psychiatrist for probably an hour or two when I admitted I was a bit of a Francophile, and although my academic record wasn’t particularly stellar it was sufficient for that level of entry then, and I think my time in the Scouts also helped. A headmaster was one member of the panel at the final interview, and the fact that I had attended St Bartholomew’s was a big plus.

Britannia Royal Naval College

I didn’t have to wait too long before I received my letter of acceptance for naval cadet training subject to some dental work that I needed to complete prior to joining. Finally, on Sunday 7th January 1962, I took a train to Kingswear, opposite Dartmouth on the River Dart. A Gunnery Instructor (GI) met a group of us at the station and accompanied us onto the ferry across the river to Dartmouth; and then off we went and marched the mile or so up the hill to my new home for the next year, the Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC).

The college was built at the beginning of the 20th Century and is endowed with all sorts of interesting architectural features as it’s based on the layout of a ship in many ways. The building replaced two old wooden hulks that had been moored in the River Dart for officer training since the 1870s; the first term of cadets at the new college was in 1905. The college building has a beautiful brick façade and is surrounded with grass; rose beds abound as you come up the hill to a large parade ground in front. The roadway outside of the parade ground going up to the college is known as the ‘ramps. When we were in training and practising parade drills on the parade ground, a punishment was to ‘double’ (run) around the ramps with your rifle held over your head.

The college accommodated five hundred and there were about thirty of us in my entry. There were three entries each year and at the time I joined, the navy was changing the types of entry; suffice to say that I was a Cadet Supplementary List Seaman Officer. Also, under different levels of training, were acting sub-lieutenants, midshipmen, supplementary list aircrew and naval cadets. The students were divided up into divisions; Blake, Drake, Grenville, St Vincent and the Upper Yardsmen in Temeraire. I was in Drake Division and our Sea-Daddy was a retired Chief Petty Officer, who possessed a sympathetic ear. During CCF camps I had slept in a bunk room so dormitory life wasn’t new to me. I was just nineteen and most of the cadets were a similar age but there were a few who were six or eight years older. Compulsory National Service had only just stopped, and some came to the college through that channel after they’d completed their service. We were all allocated a bunk bed; mine was a top bunk and below me, in the bottom bunk, was David Howard, now Lord Howard, The Earl of Effingham, a very senior English peer. He wasn’t a Lord at that time as his father still held the title, but David went on to head the Royal British Legion. In the second term, after Easter leave, we moved into double cabins. Our divisional officers were Lieutenant Commander Basil Watson and Lieutenant Mike England.

Cadets messed in a large canteen run by Miss Buller, who had been a Third Officer caterer in the WRENS. She was quite an influence on all of us – and a real dragon. As I am a vegetarian, I was a bit of an enigma and at every meal I was issued with a half-pint of milk in addition to my normal food, which was mostly quite a lot of eggs. People didn’t know about vegetarians in those days, but I couldn’t drink milk either, so all my term-mates benefited from the extra milk; breakfast was always excellent, which no doubt, included bromide in the fruit juice! I became a lacto-vegetarian as a small child, I guess partly because my mother was awfully faddy, and she didn’t eat meat nor fish.

For the first six weeks we weren’t allowed ‘ashore’. Training started at six in the morning and finished at ten thirty at night, seven days a week. Early morning activity was either in the gymnasium or incorporated a run down to the river and back. As the college is on a hill, the run down was alright but running back up was a little tougher. In the Easter term in 1962 I was in a team of six from my division led by Edward Cassidy, who participated in Ten Tors, which was relatively new then. Conditions on Dartmoor can vary considerably and change suddenly during the forty-eight-hour event. As luck would have it the weather was actually very kind to us, and we came second.

The Britannia Royal Naval College
Far left, my top bunk. Drake Division Junior Dormitory, 1962
Drake Division Ten Tors Team. From left to right; Andrew Laurie-Pile, Nicholas Pack, Richard Dall, Elsworthy (obscured), Edward Cassidy (team leader), and me

Ten Tors

The first Ten Tors Expedition took place in September 1960 with around two hundred young people taking part. By 1980 the number of participants had grown to more than two thousand six hundred. To protect the environment, numbers are now limited to two thousand, four hundred individuals, consisting of four hundred teams of four to six teenagers. The course is over the rough terrain of Dartmoor, visiting ten nominated tors or check points in under two days. The teams must be self-sufficient, carrying all that they need to complete their route and stay out overnight safely. It is a test of endurance, navigation and survival skills due to the distance and challenging terrain. The weather can be very changeable and at times quite extreme and conditions on Dartmoor can vary considerably. In 1996, for example, the event was struck by a heavy snowstorm, leading to some teams still being out on the moor a day after the event was due to have finished; while in 1998 temperatures reached 26 °C (79°F).

Ten Tors Certificate
Ten Tors medal and reverse side
Ten Tors map

In May that year (1962), during an early morning activity, running forward up the gymnasium and then when running backwards, I was going too fast and fell over damaging my wrist. I broke my scaphoid, which is a tiny bone in the wrist, and it took three x-rays before it was detected, resulting in my right hand being in plaster for about seven weeks. That’s the only bone I have ever broken in my life and it meant that I couldn’t take notes, so I started trying to take notes with my left hand. This didn’t work very well so I asked one of my term-mates to put carbon paper underneath his notes, and this provided me with copies to study from. There were three terms a year and we learnt navigation with chartwork, seamanship, gunnery, leadership, an introduction to naval aviation and submarines, engineering, both electrical and mechanical. There was also marching on the parade ground, saluting, sword drill and rifle drill and in between times, I helped run a Scout group in Paignton with term-mate Peter Ambrose, both of us had previously been Scouts.

Formal balls

At the end of each term we attended a ball, which often included three dance bands; two playing at once in different areas in the college. At my first ball (April in Paris), somehow the organising division managed to manoeuvre a French Renault car up the ramp through the front door, across a passageway, and then the eight steps up to the front of the quarterdeck to form part of the display – it was very impressive. As a cadet only ‘number fives’ were available to wear to these events, which is a jacket the length of an ordinary jacket but with eight buttons. When promoted to midshipman on leaving the college, I wore a ‘bum-freezer’, a short jacket for evening wear. But during my time at Dartmouth we wore semi-stiff shirts and bow ties with our number fives in the evening to balls. I didn’t take anyone to my first two balls, but I did take my parents and a lady-friend I knew to the Christmas Ball in 1962, Lyn Foster, who was in Liz’s year at school although they didn’t really know each other.

At the end of the Easter term I joined a couple of divisional officers and four cadets, and we sailed to the Scilly Isles off the west coast of Cornwall in a sixty-foot sailing yacht, Wyvern. It was a wonderful time navigating and sailing this beautiful vessel and exploring the Scilly Islands from sea and land.

Left to right, me, Lyn Foster, Cedric, Mum and Dad. BRNC Christmas Ball, 1962
Invitation to the BRNC Christmas Ball, 1962

Tall Ships

Wyvern
At the end of the summer term of 1962, Queen Elizabeth II came to take the passing out parade. Also, that summer Dartmouth hosted the start of the Tall Ships Race. The race is held every year and designed to encourage international friendship and training for young people in the art of sailing. I ran an eighteen-foot wooden motor-cutter and ferried people between the shore and the various tall ships that were moored in the River Dart: a big German ship, Gorch Fock; the Swedish Sorlandet; the Norwegian Christian Radich; the large Spanish Amerigo Vespucci and a couple of medium sized French ships, L’Etoile and La Belle Poule. It was a sight to see, especially from the water. There were also smaller entries from Dartmouth, Sandhurst and other organisations.

Tall Ships

The first Tall Ships Race involved twenty of the world’s remaining large sailing ships and was held in 1956. They raced from Torquay, Devon to Lisbon, and it was meant to be a last farewell to the era of the great sailing ships. Public interest was so intense, that since then Tall Ships Races have occurred annually in various parts of the world, with millions of spectators. Today, the race attracts more than a hundred ships, among these some of the largest sailing ships in existence, like the Portuguese, Sagres.

 

Tall Ships at Dartmouth, 1962. From left to right: the Swedish Sorlandet; the French ships L’Etoile and La Belle Poule, the German Gorch Fock, HMS Pellew and Spanish Amerigo Vespucci
Tall Ships at Dartmouth, 1962. From left to right: the Swedish Sorlandet; the French ships moored side by side L’Etoile and La Belle Poule, and the German Gorch Fock
Spanish Amerigo Vespucci
Sunday Divisions, October 1962
Dartmouth Training Squadron, HMS Urchin, Valetta, Malta, October 1962
Newbury Weekly News article, December 1962

Final exams

In September, after not doing very well in the exams, our term joined the Dartmouth Training Squadron, which comprised two frigates, and I was appointed to HMS Urchin. Our captain, Captain Lewin, was the senior officer of the squadron and he eventually became First Sea Lord and then Chief of Defence Staff. He knew how to handle cadets under training and was very supportive. In October 1962, we left from Devonport and sailed down to the Mediterranean. Among other exercises and evolutions, when I went up on the Bridge and conducted OOW (Officer of the Watch) manoeuvres, I was actually in control of the ship, albeit under supervision. I was also watchkeeping in the Engine Room, in the Boiler Room, and in the Ops Room, and learning to fire the four-inch gun and Mortar Mk 10 anti-submarine weapon. The Training Officer on the ship was quite sympathetic towards me and realised that despite not performing that well in my exams, I was doing reasonably well on the practical side. “Do a bit more studying and you will be alright. Your practical side is good, just pass those silly exams,” he said, which I did when I returned from the Mediterranean. On that cruise we visited Gibraltar, Malta, Barcelona and Huelva. My passing out parade was in December when I was fully kitted out and the parade was full of pageantry; it really was impressive. I was one of about thirty of my entry on parade, which my family attended, and l felt very pleased with myself.

Daily Telegraph article announcing the Passing Out Parade, 1962
Collage of ship’s crests
Me in ‘Whites’ on the Landing Craft Tank, HMS Parapet
HMS Duncan
HMS Parapet Amphibious Warfare Squadron
HMS Hardy – Londonberry Squadron. Temporary watchkeeper for six weeks from 6 October 1964
HMS Tilford Seaward Defence Boat, Singapore Straits patrols during confrontation with Indonesia.
First Lieutenant, November 1965
Passing Out Parade, July 1962
HMS Beachampton 5th Minesweeping Squadron.
Midshipman January 1962 – December 1963.
Sub -Lieutenant January 1964
The Senior Gunroom, the setting for formal mess dinners
The BRNC assemble to hear the Queen’s address before ‘Advance in Review Order’
The Britannia Royal Naval College

HMS Beachampton, 1963

At the beginning of 1963 after completing my naval cadet training, I joined a minesweeper in Portsmouth, as a midshipman. Originally, I was appointed to HMS Monkton, but she was going into refit, so as a temporary measure the crew transferred to HMS Thames, which was the London Division of the Royal Naval Reserve’s vessel. A few weeks later the crew transferred to HMS Beachampton, which was part of the Fifth Minesweeping Squadron, and I spent the following eighteen months based in Portsmouth. We went on many minesweeping exercises often just south of the Isle of Wight, which was a well-known exercise area.
Newbury Weekly News article, January 1963
Ford Popular
Map of Western Europe

The start of 1963 was the coldest winter on record. I remember transferring stores, which involved taking stores from one minesweeper to the other, much of which was metal minesweeping gear that was frozen. Fortunately, there was a Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) Lieutenant on board, and he managed to find some insulated gloves so that we could actually handle the stuff, otherwise it would have stuck to our hands.

Minesweepers have changed considerably over the last fifty years and they now use underwater remote-controlled vehicles. In those days the ship towed two long lengths of wire from the stern on which were cutters. The cutters cut the mine mooring wire and the mine floated to the surface, which we then destroyed with gunfire. Dummy mines were laid for us to sweep and we went out and trained most weeks.

Another exercise involved towing an electronic device that sent out pulses, which we used to detonate acoustic mines. Acoustic mines were set off by the propeller noise of a ship going past; the idea being for them to explode in the hope of damaging the ship. Fortunately, we never came across any live mines. We also went on various visits to Europe, through the canals to Brussels, up the Seine to Rouen, down the Bay of Biscay to Bayonne and up the North Sea to Strömstad in Sweden. We spent a summer month on the west coast of Scotland based in Loch Ewe and visited Stromness to fuel, and several of the lochs including Little Loch Broom and the pretty little town of Ullapool. We also visited Heysham, the port for Morecambe in Lancashire and the Mayor and Town Clerk took a party of officers on a day trip to the Lake District. Morecambe hosted the ‘Miss Great Britain Contest’, or at least it did then, and I was invited to judge at one of the local heats in Reading; an interesting evening, but nothing came of it!
HMS Beachampton was Guard Ship in Poole for the Royal Motor Yacht Club Regatta in June 1964 and also visited Swansea in South Wales. While there, I met two charming Welsh lasses and planned with them to return with my Welsh friend, Chris Francis, during my next leave. By this time, I was the proud owner of a black Ford Poplar for which Nana had loaned me a hundred pounds. I thought that it would be a good idea if Chris and I shared the driving from Newbury to Swansea, so I gave Chris the wheel and, on a dead straight road, he kept overcorrecting the steering and eventually rolled the car. Fortunately, neither of us was hurt but that put an end to our weekend in Wales and I never made it back to see the girls.

In command of the thirty-odd crew on HMS Beachampton was the captain, Lieutenant Trevor Chapel. The other officers were; First Lieutenant Sam Hawkins, me as midshipman, a sub lieutenant, and usually a RNR Officer. There were four of us, including three watchkeepers and the captain. The crew consisted of seamen, engineers, electricians and signallers. I was effectively the navigating officer of the minesweeper and kept the charts up-to-date referring to ‘Notices to Mariners’ that were produced every week, and I navigated the ship ensuring we sailed from A to B safely. I sat more exams to qualify as an Officer of the Watch and in January 1964, I received my Bridge Watchkeeping Certificate and was promoted to Sub Lieutenant. For more of an idea of life as a cadet please read, We joined the Navy, by John Winton.
My commission from Queen Elizabeth II. Her signature is faded, 1964
On leave with some of ‘The Gang’. Top from left, me, Kevin Thompson and Geoff Probert. Bottom, Nick Gregory and Chris Francis

21st Birthday, November 1963

My parents arranged my 21st Birthday Party at Burnett’s Dance Studio in Newbury. Many of my Newbury friends were there as well as a naval colleague, John O’Driscoll and his parents. John had a wonderful way with the ladies and my Newbury male friends were not too impressed!

My local friends, known as ‘The Gang’, which included Nick and Alan, presented me with a scroll and a silver tankard. The scroll, which still hangs on a wall at home, was beautifully calligraphed by Jo Probert and signed by all my friends. The silver tankard is engraved with a Latin motto –

Vivabo celeriter, amabo forte, iuvenis moribor, pulchramque memoriam reliquabo.

Nick translated the song sung by Country and Western star Farouk Young –

‘Live fast, love hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory’.

I was the only one in my group of friends to be given a scroll and silver tankard; everyone else was given pewter. I was the lucky one I suppose being the oldest.

My 21st Birthday Scroll from The Gang
From left to right Terry Loughman, me and Tony Spiller after Mike and Helen Goodman’s wedding, July 1964

Meeting Liz

During the 1963 Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend, while I was on leave in Newbury from HMS Beachampton, and before I joined HMS Parapet, a crowd of us went to Burton Bradstock on Chesil Beach in Dorset. There were about ten of us who all knew each other from school. Liz owned a car; her boyfriend Steve Deacon, who is still a good friend of ours, couldn’t drive because he was epileptic. I must have driven my old Ford Poplar. The plan was to drive the fifty odd miles from Newbury down ‘B’ roads, through the countryside to the beach for a swim, enjoy a picnic and a beer and then return home the same day. I was walking on the pebble beach that is about fifteen miles long with billions of stones, and I just happened to pick up a little heart-shaped stone. I gave it to Liz and she still has it today.
The stone
After leaving HMS Beachampton I was appointed to HMS Dryad, the Navigation and Air Direction establishment at Southwick House, Southwick just north of Portsmouth. The building had been General Eisenhower’s headquarters for Operation Overlord and the planning for the D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944. Together with six other sub lieutenants we undertook training at HMS Dryad and HMS Heron (the Fleet Air Arm base in Somerset) to direct our own fighter aircraft to intercept enemy aircraft. I failed this course as I didn’t have the right aptitude. This didn’t faze me as I really didn’t want to spend the rest of my naval career looking at a radar display. I was given a temporary appointment to HMS Hardy (a sister ship of HMS Duncan and part of the Londonderry Squadron). I joined the ship in Londonderry and was a bridge watchkeeper while the other officer was on a diving course. During my time with her we visited Bristol and enjoyed a very interesting visit to John Harvey and Sons (of Bristol Cream sherry fame).

HMS Parapet, Bahrain 1964

In December 1964 I was appointed to HMS Parapet, a Landing Craft Tank (LCT) as the navigator, based at HMS Jufair in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Our job entailed patrolling the Gulf and boarding suspicious vessels to ensure that they weren’t drug traffickers nor pirates and exercising with the British Army based in the Gulf. Every month or so we’d embark military vehicles with soldiers, sometimes tanks, other times lorries. We’d approach a beach on the Trucial Coast (Sharjah or Abu Dhabi), drop a kedge anchor from the stern and bows first, beach the ship, disembark the military and then proceed on patrol. We returned a few days later and collected the military and their tanks and go back to Bahrain.

HMS Parapet spent Christmas 1964 alongside a wharf at Mina al Ahmadi in Kuwait. When on an official visit to a new port, HM ships hosted a cocktail party at which we would meet invited local big-wigs and hopefully friendly young ladies, and it was when HMS Parapet visited Doha, the capital of Qatar that I met a girl of Liz’s age, who was about to start at Guy’s Hospital. Through friends I sent a message to Liz who was training at the hospital, that this girl was coming to Guy’s and to keep an eye out for her.

The Gulf was very different in those days, Dubai and Sharjah were just fishing villages. Iraq was always very dodgy, and we never went there; Persia (now Iran) and Saudi Arabia were the only independent countries in the Gulf at the time. The Trucial States were basically run by Britain as we looked after their foreign affairs and defence as British Protectorates until 1971. HMS Parapet was due to go to Karachi for a rigging test of all its chains, cables, wires and ropes and then Bombay for dry docking, but at the last minute, that plan was cancelled, and the ship was put into reserve together with all the Amphibious Warfare Squadron ships. The ship was to be sold off and no doubt became razor blades. Together with the rest of the ship’s company I was posted back to the UK for leave until my next job.

When HMS Parapet paid off and I was back in Newbury on leave waiting for my next appointment, I phoned Liz.
“I’ve come a long way to take you out to dinner,” I said.
“David! How nice,” Liz said.
“Who the hell is David?” I asked.
“Who the hell are you?” she enquired.
I told her who I was, and she said, “Oh, that would be lovely.” (Or something like that!)

HMS Tilford, Singapore 1965

We went out for dinner at the Henwick Club and I saw Liz a few more times before taking up my appointment to HMS Tilford in Singapore in November 1965. Before I left, we decided to communicate while I was away, which we did. I bought her a pair of string-backed leather driving gloves and organised a photograph to leave for her. I went to Singapore as the First Lieutenant of HMS Tilford, which was a Seaward Defence Boat (SDB). There were four ships in the squadron based at HMS Terror at the naval base in Singapore, and we were there specifically to patrol the Singapore Straits to help stop the Indonesian terrorists that were coming in to attack Singapore and Malaysia, or Malaya as it was called then. There were plenty of British service people serving in Singapore, the Royal Air Force, the army and there was a huge naval fleet based there; aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates, and minesweeping squadrons and the smallest ships, the SDBs.

The four SDBs, HMS Ickford, Tilford, Greatford and Camberford patrolled the Singapore Straits and intercepted any small craft that we found. These were boarded, searched for weapons and the crews interrogated to ensure that they were going about their lawful business. Very often these vessels were innocent fishing boats but there were some infiltrators around and a Midshipman Boarding Officer was killed in one incident.

On one occasion HMS Tilford was going out to patrol the Singapore Straits and we met up with HMS Ickford returning from patrol to transfer mail and letters. HMS Tilford was the senior officer and HMS Ickford took station alongside us and after the mail had been transferred, someone started throwing spuds. These were returned with interest and fire hoses were run out and jets of water exchanged, which was very pleasant in Singapore’s hot and sticky climate! HMS Ickford pulled ahead and then turned to port and HMS Tilford’s bow impaled HMS Ickfords’s port side. Very little damage was done to either ship. The small hole in our bow was patched up with some canvas and grey paint and we proceeded on patrol. The incident wasn’t taken further, after all there was an emergency!

Liz received an invitation to Icky’s Crunch Party on Government loo paper. Attire: Men in Jock Straps and Ladies in G-strings. Sadly, she didn’t come out to Singapore but sent me a photograph. When I had a free afternoon I went into Tangs, the department store in downtown Singapore, where I bought a kangaroo leather picture frame which I still have. When the ship visited Penang, amongst other things I had my palm read – a long and happy marriage was foretold.

Singapore’s climate really didn’t agree with me; it was extremely hot and very humid despite the rudimentary air-conditioning. I developed what was known as cystic acne all over my back, in particular, and my face to a certain extent. But when the medics offered to give me injections of female hormones I declined and eventually I was sent home medically unfit for that climate. By this time Liz and I were in regular communication and I caught a Military Trooping Flight VC10 back to Britain.

I was expected late Friday afternoon, but we were about twelve hours late. Because I wasn’t where I was expected to be, in central London, Liz went home to Newbury for the night. On the way she picked up a hitchhiking friend of mine (Nick Gregory) and was, apparently in a very bad mood, she couldn’t let on that I was on my way home. When I did arrive, I phoned her in Newbury and she promptly returned to London to collect me. We decided to go to the pub, The Queen’s, in the Market Square in Newbury where our group of friends always met on Saturdays at lunchtime. No one else knew I was coming home. Liz preceded me holding hands into the bar, and as soon as they saw her, everyone thought she had a new boyfriend, but then I appeared with her and there was jubilation. It was meant to be a shock tactic and it worked.

I was supposed to report to the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar in Gosport as they wanted to admit me, but I managed to persuade them to let me go on leave, and Liz and I started courting seriously. She was still at Guy’s Hospital as a senior nurse by this stage, although not yet qualified, and living in a house in Streatham with six of her set. Liz occupied a double bedroom and when I was on leave, I shared it with her, which was great! Right from the word go, I thought that Liz was an elegant, sophisticated, intelligent and very attractive young lady; ideally suited for a young naval officer. We hadn’t really seen a great deal of each other, but we had been communicating from almost halfway round the world on a very regular basis. I think we both realised that this ‘thing’ was going forward and eventually that summer, I asked Liz to marry me, and, to my relief and pleasure she said, ‘Yes’! I asked Margaret, Liz’s mum first and we swore her to secrecy as I needed also to ask Bob.

Bob (Liz’s stepfather), Margaret (Liz’s mother), Liz’s two step-sisters, Mary and Ann, all went down to Newton Ferrers that summer and Liz and I joined them there. Newton Ferrers is a very special and picturesque village in South Devon not far from Plymouth and Bob’s mother lived in a small cottage there, Furslea. It is fair to say that Bob was a very stiff sort of a chap, but I always got on quite well with him; he thought the navy was ‘the best thing since sliced bread’, he had worked for the Admiralty in the past. Bob didn’t have a clue what was going on when I went out with him in his small boat with its little outboard motor. After about half an hour I plucked up courage and said, “Look, I would like to marry your step-daughter Liz.” He said, “I think I’d better go and buy some champagne.” Our engagement notice was the first entry in the engagements published in the Court Circular page of The Daily Telegraph (it helped being in the Senior Service) and the Newbury Weekly News.

The photo Liz gave me
HMS Tilford

Newbury Weekly News engagement announcement

During our engagement

Liz and I at the Sphinx Club, Soho, October 1965

Me as Assistant Staff Officer Operations on Flag Officer Sea Training
After I returned to the UK from Singapore, I was appointed to Portland, which is very close to Weymouth, to the staff of Admiral Sharp (Flag Officer Sea Training or FOST) as Assistant Staff Officer Operations (A/SOO). Portland was a naval base where ships of the Royal Navy and other navies, including the Royal New Zealand Navy, held what was known as a Work Up. This happens when a ship is commissioned, and the crew undergo six or seven weeks of intensive training.

Work Ups in Portland were very well-established, and it was known to be one of the most difficult Work Ups in the world. There were NATO ships as well as Commonwealth ships, German and Dutch ships but not any French; occasionally there would be an American warship. There was a Dutch naval officer on the staff. The frigates and destroyers were crewed by between a hundred and fifty and three hundred men all going through drills and training. This involved firing guns at aircraft towed or surface targets, hunting submarines and operating with fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, Replenishment at Sea (RAS) exercises, taking on fuel and/or stores from another ship, damage control (fighting fires, shoring up bulkheads etc), and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence (NBCD) tests. All the while ‘sea-riders’ on the Admiral’s staff went out and monitored the ships and their crews as they conducted these exercises.

My job was to assist Lieutenant Commander Barry Cowles who was Staff Officer Operations (SOO). Our task involved organising the ships, six to seven at a time, to be in the right place and right time for exercises. We didn’t use computers then, instead there were huge boards on the wall, and we used tape to indicate where each ship would be in the English Channel. Each area was several hundred square miles and divided into blocks, so one ship would be firing anti-submarine missiles in one block, and in another, they would be operating helicopters or firing guns. I was promoted to Lieutenant on 29th July 1966 and Liz gave me a card.

The card Liz made for me when I was promoted to Lieutenant and received my ‘two rings’

HMS Duncan, 1966

At the end of six months at Portland I was appointed to HMS Duncan, a Type 14 Blackwood Class Anti-Submarine Frigate, which I joined after her refit in Rosyth, Scotland. I was a bridge watchkeeping officer and also responsible for looking after the ship’s office; the pay, the cash, confidential and secret books, and I was also involved in looking after the guns. It was a good ship to serve in; led by a Lieutenant Commander who was our captain, Peter Pinkster; he was a bachelor and lived separately on the ship. There were three General List career officers, three Supplementary List officers of which I was one, and three Special Duties (SD) guys who were people promoted and commissioned from the lower deck. We also had a couple of Midshipmen (under training) and a compliment of 130 ratings. Interestingly, the nine officers consisted of three Catholics, three Non-Conformists and three Protestants. There were three that had attended public schools, three from grammar schools and three from secondary modern schools, so it was a good mix of officers, which no doubt went a long way to create a very happy ship. Peter Pinkster was inclined to have a duty football to ‘kick’, which sometimes was me!

Soon after we commissioned the ship in Scotland, we went down to Portland for six weeks’ Work Up and there, of course, I knew all the staff officers. We were part of what was known as the Londonderry Squadron and we actually did quite well at Portland, partly because I knew how things worked from the other side. Ships of the ‘Derry’ Squadron all wore a red hand on their funnel – the ‘Bloody Red Hand of Ulster’. Legend has it that the King of Scotland had two sons and he promised Ulster to the first son to lay a hand on the land across the sea. The two boats were neck and neck as they approached the Irish coast; one drew his sword, cut off the other hand and hurled it onto the beach. The red hand won him the title, King of Ulster.

Fo’c’sle Officer O’Riordan in the bows of HMS Duncan as she sails into Grand Harbour Malta

Perisher Course

Much of our time was spent on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland exercising with a submarine that was conducting the Perisher Course – the submarine commanding officers’ course – you either passed it or you perished. As a submarine officer if you failed, you were sent back into the surface fleet to never set foot in a boat again; it’s ‘make or break’. Our frigate went up and down the Firth around Ailsa Craig hunting the submarine below that was doing its best to avoid our attack. In between exercises we went into other places like Dunoon, and a little place we frequented during the weekends, Campbeltown. One weekend we were anchored off the Isle of Skye. The captain and navigating officer went ashore with their fly rods but caught nothing. I knew nothing about fly fishing, so I borrowed one of my seaman’s spinning rod and with the help of a couple of worms, I landed two trout – all very illegal as I certainly didn’t have a licence; however, the captain and ‘pilot’ enjoyed the trout for breakfast.

We always returned to Portsmouth for leave, and I caught up with Liz. Normally we went on leave for two weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter, and two weeks in the summer, but sometimes leave was delayed if HMS Duncan was the duty frigate.

Six-day war

During my time in HMS Duncan two ships from the Londonderry squadron, ourselves and HMS Whitby, were dispatched to the Mediterranean to farewell the last Royal Navy Commander in Chief Mediterranean. There was no longer a Mediterranean fleet, unlike the time when Malta was a heavily defended naval base in Mountbatten’s era. Britain’s defence structure was changing, and its three-armed services became managed by the Ministry of Defence, so our weekly Admiralty Instructions became Ministry of Defence Instructions. Ships’ companies are organised in Divisions (eg. seamen, stokers, communicators) and one of my jobs in HMS Duncan, was Divisional Officer of the Maltese cooks and stewards.

The Royal Navy locally employed Maltese as cooks and stewards to work in galleys and wardrooms of some HM ships. They also locally employed Goans and Chinese and we had Goan cooks and stewards in HMS Parapet. In HMS Duncan we had a petty officer steward, two leading stewards, two leading cooks, two able cooks and an able steward. The captain had a steward and a cook, and in the wardroom were two cooks and three stewards and these people were all Maltese led by Petty Officer Joe Agius, who was a great organiser. He held very high commendations and had served in HMS Tiger when Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s leader, and Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister met to discuss the future of Rhodesia in 1966.

We set sail from Portsmouth and made our way down to the Mediterranean and it was a wonderful experience to participate in a ceremonial farewell representing the Royal Navy. Liz’s leave period happened to coincide with our visit to Malta and she flew out, and by that time Peter Pinkster had married Jane. There were only two ladies available from HMS Duncan to attend various functions and while Liz was in Malta, she joined me at various events. The captain wasn’t really quite sure how to treat Liz, despite the fact that for the time she was in Malta, we stayed in a flat ashore; I think he turned a bit of a blind eye to our unmarried situation. Each evening at about five or six o’clock a local water taxi, (or ‘dhajsa’, a little rowing type boat), came alongside HMS Duncan and took me ashore and returned me the next morning. One evening we attended a cocktail party hosted by Admiral Hamilton and his wife, Emma, at Admiralty House ashore in Malta, and in attendance were ambassadors and high commissioners, admirals, army generals and top brass from all sorts of places; everyone was dressed to the nines in their full regalia.

A typical dghajsa or water taxi in action, Malta

A couple of days after the cocktail party at the Admiral’s house on 5th June 1967 the six-day war broke out with Israel fighting Egypt, Jordan and Syria and for us, it was very exciting. I rushed into our flat to tell Liz, “I’m sailing in an hour!” HM ships Whitby and Duncan were ordered to immediately set sail and sit off the coast of Libya ready to evacuate British nationals in case the war spread along the north coast of Africa. Once off Tripoli, both ships stayed close to the coast at night and then at daybreak we withdrew to about twelve or fifteen miles offshore. Liz telegraphed Guy’s Hospital and arranged to take another week’s leave; she didn’t even tell her mother what was going on; she was right in the middle of it. Everyone feared the whole world was about to go to war again. But it didn’t eventuate, the Israelis knocked everyone for six and then everything stopped; it literally was a six-day war and fortunately it didn’t spread.

After the Six-Day War there were a few parties to attend, one involved the American Sixth Fleet, and then we returned to Portsmouth. By this stage my captain, Peter Pinkster, realised that we wanted to get married once I turned twenty-five in the coming November, as that was the age you could receive marriage allowance and became entitled to a married quarter. Peter Pinkster said, “Well, I will even give up the Dartmouth Ball, so your wedding date will be 16th December.” Before commanding HMS Duncan, Peter Pinkster was a training officer at Dartmouth, and he would normally have attended the Christmas Ball, but instead he gave us that date so he could attend our wedding.

Six-Day War

In six days of fighting, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, the Golan Heights of Syria, and the West Bank and Arab sector of East Jerusalem, both previously under Jordanian rule. By the time the United Nations cease-fire took effect on 11 June 1967, Israel had more than doubled its size.

In the spring of 1967, the Soviet Union misinformed the Syrian government that Israeli forces were massing in northern Israel to attack Syria. There was no such Israeli mobilisation but clashes between Israel and Syria had been escalating for about a year, and Israeli leaders had publicly declared that it might be necessary to bring down the Syrian regime if it failed to end Palestinian commando attacks against Israel from Syrian territory.

The military and diplomatic crisis that followed continued. On 5 June 1967 Israel pre-emptively attacked Egypt and Syria, destroying their air forces on the ground within a few hours. Jordan joined in the fighting belatedly, and consequently was attacked by Israel as well. The Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies were decisively defeated, and Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

The June 1967 war was a watershed event in the history of Israel and the Middle East. After only six days of fighting, Israel had radically altered the political map of the region with new captured territory that more than doubled the size of the nation of pre-1967 Israel, and which placed under Israel’s control more than one million Palestinian Arabs.

Shackleton exercise

A little later in 1967, the ship crossed the Bay of Biscay and visited Gibraltar where I bought Liz a caramel-coloured twinset and a gold necklace that she still wears today. On the way back we participated in a large maritime exercise in the Atlantic to the west of Ireland. The Royal Navy submarine, HMS Dreadnought, the first of our nuclear boats, was involved, as well as the Royal Air Force. The exercise included an Arvo Shackleton, a propeller driven four-engine maritime patrol aircraft derived from the Avro Lincoln and Lancaster bombers. The Shackleton was more advanced; it was developed as a long-range anti-submarine aircraft and carried depth charges and sonar buoys and could patrol low over the sea searching for submarines.

The area for the exercise was from Gibraltar, north across the Bay of Biscay, around the coast of Ireland and back down the Irish Sea to Portsmouth. It was a large area and the Atlantic Ocean was like a mirror, and absolutely flat. The Shackleton was manned by nine crew plus a naval lieutenant commander who was an anti-submarine expert and on a training exchange. Because the sea was so mirror-calm the pilot couldn’t tell where the surface of the sea and the sky met and while banking, the wingtip touched the sea. The Shackleton crashed and except for two sergeants, everyone died. One of the jobs I was involved in was picking up the bodies from the water and identifying them, and the only reason we could do that was because they were wearing lifejackets. I started smoking again!