I served as a Leading Stores Accountant, Killick Jack Dusty to the lads of the Royal Navy, for two years in 1977 and 1978 on board HMS Salisbury. One of the things that I enjoyed about my life in the Royal Navy was the variety of skills that I was trained in and the variety of tasks that I was required to perform as a result of that training.
My time on HMS Salisbury was a prime example of this as while my main job was ensuring that the ship was fully and efficiently stored with all the spares and equipment that she required to fulfil her task as an operational frigate in the Royal Navy my Action Station was Mark 2 Squid loader and I had an additional task of receiving all vertreps of personnel and equipment from helicopters operating with the ship. Salisbury was a Type 61 Aircraft Direction Frigate and her main task was to track and direct allied aircraft flying to and from our own aircraft carriers and to detect incoming enemy aircraft. She did not have a Flight Deck and she did not carry her own helicopter and, therefore, she carried no Fleet Air Arm ratings and that left an interesting little job for me.
On top of all this, because I was the senior Leading Hand on my mess-deck and I was adept at organising things I was also the Leading Hand of the Mess (LHOM) or Killick o’ the Mess in the naval vernacular. All in all I suppose I was kept quite busy with all these tasks and I enjoyed every minute of it and was well known throughout the ship as a hard-working, cheery and well-disciplined individual with a real love of the Royal Navy, or, indeed, an anchor-faced old devil, as some less gracious oppos might describe me.
I have been asked to tell you a little story about time spent at sea over the Christmas period and that is what I am going to try to do by telling you what I hope will be an amusing tale of Christmas in 1976 on board “The Sally B.” We had been designated as Fleet Contingency Ship for the month of December that year and that meant that we would be at sea for the whole of that time and if anything happened anywhere that required the presence of the Royal Navy it was our job to attend and carry out any task that was asked of us. So when we sailed from Devonport at the beginning of the month we did not expect to return until the start of January and all the Yuletide festivities would be over, and, indeed, for us Scots among the crew even Hogmanay would have been passed and uncelebrated before we came home.
The first couple of weeks at sea were fairly routine as we just toddled around mainly in the English Channel and the Irish Sea keeping ourselves occupied with the usual exercises, tests and trials and ensuring that the old girl was in good working order. In the week approaching Christmas, while we were making a steady but quite rough passage off the west coast of Scotland an excited buzz went through the ship as the main broadcast came to life with the words, “This is the Captain speaking…” This introduction always ensured everyone’s complete attention as we didn’t often hear from the Old Man and if he was going to take the trouble to say something to us then it would surely be worth listening to.
The Skipper carried on to tell us that he had been in contact with Admiralty and the Powers That Be had agreed that we could return to Devonport, our home port, for the Christmas period so long as we retained readiness for sea at three hours notice. This was treated with great glee by all the married men who had their homes, with their wife and family, in Plymouth, but I was rather ambivalent about it as if we were under sailing orders the whole time we couldn’t afford to have a decent drink even if we were allowed ashore. Anyway lots of the lads were really happy about it and we were soon homeward bound at best speed, in rough weather, but no-one was complaining of sea sickness as we were headed in the right direction.
We arrived at the Breakwater in Plymouth Sound early on the morning of Christmas Eve and the whole ship’s company were in jubilant mood. Ominously, instead of the anticipated pipe for special sea duty-men to fall in for entering harbour the Jimmy, or First Lieutenant to the uninitiated, came on the main broadcast and in a puzzled and anxious voice informed us that the Captain had signalled the Port Admiral requesting permission to enter harbour but had received the response, “Your request is denied, maintain station and stand by for further orders.” Well that short little statement caused a really excited buzz throughout the ship, there is nothing as unnerving as not knowing what the Hell is happening.
We weren’t kept in suspense for long though as the Captain was soon to inform us that the offer of going alongside in Guzz for Christmas was cancelled and we had to make our way as fast as our old diesel engines would take us to a point off Milford Haven where a Greek freighter had been abandoned by her crew who had been rescued by the RNLI. Our task would be to rendezvous with the abandoned vessel and put a scratch crew on board her in order that she could be steered and taken into harbour by a tug that would meet us when we got there. We were then told that the weather was horrendous in the area and we would be unable to use the sea-boats to transfer our lads to the freighter because of the heavy seas. This meant that we would be met by an RAF helicopter which would assist in transferring our personnel onto the freighter and this required my oppo and me to take on our role as Biggles’ Buddies and help get our blokes away in the helo.
Normally all the helicopter transfers were conducted back aft on the quarterdeck, which I considered to be my second home as the Squid was back there as well, but on this occasion the weather was really rough and with a heavy sea on the port quarter that area was almost permanently under six feet of water. So we mustered in the port waist, just abaft the forecastle, to await the arrival of Crabair. This also meant that the blokes who were being airlifted across to the freighter could keep relatively dry until it was their turn to be winched into the helicopter. So it was just me and Banjo, the other Killick Dusty, who got soaked to the skin. In Banjo’s case it was a waste of time as well, as his job was to use the “Earthing Pole,” to capture the static electricity before I grabbed the strop. This time we were assured that this was unnecessary as each of our guys was accompanied by the helo’s RAF aircrewman who had a magical airy fairy method of dispersing the static. So when the operation was completed I went down below, soaked to the skin, but happy because of a job well done but Banjo was dripping like a drain because his particular expertise was un-required and unused but he was just as wet as I was.
I knew that it would only be a matter of two or three hours before I was required to repeat this procedure all over again as our chaps were all coming back the same way once the recovery of the freighter was completed and before we left the area but we were freezing so we sloped off for a hot shower and changed into clean Number 8’s before having a nice cup of hot char and a lovely meal. It didn’t seem very long after that meal that the call to “Vertrep Stations,” came again and I was off to get my second soaking of the day. This time the weather had eased off just a little and we were back to our normal location on the quarterdeck. Banjo had also switched on and, as we realised that the clever crab would not require his assistance to clear away the static he stayed inside and kept dry while I ended up as soggy as Neptune’s starboard flip-flop once again. Everything went well and at the end of it my boss, the POSA, told me I might as well secure and clean into night clothing. Thanks George, I think you rewarded me with an extra ten minutes off for all my efforts there, very generous of you.
Very soon we were on our way north and the First Lieutenant, ever anxious to keep the ship’s company informed, announced that we would not be returning to Devonport but would proceed to the Clyde Submarine Base at Faslane to take on fuel before carrying on to sea to fulfil an as yet un-named task that their lordships had in store for us. The weather was still very rough, about Force 9 or 10, all the way and the good news was that we would arrive in Faslane on Christmas Day and Christmas Dinner would be postponed so that we could have it in harbour and nobody would have to chase their turkey over the table as the roll of the ship tried to throw their dinner across the messdeck. It is tradition in the Royal Navy for the ratings to be served Christmas Dinner by the officers but this wasn’t really feasible on Salisbury as we didn’t have a dining hall, as modern ships do, and we all had to collect our meal on our individual platters from the galley counter. Our officers and senior rates did join us for the meal though and the wardroom supplied the beer and a tot of rum to help us celebrate and that was fine by me.
Almost immediately after our dinner the ship was off to sea again and it was time for the Captain to tell us how we would be deployed. He told us that a Soviet destroyer was at sea, just outside UK territorial waters, off the northern coast of Scotland and it would be our job to follow her around, take pictures, and see what she was up to for the next week or so. This was much the same as the Russians did when we were on exercise in those days of the Cold War but many of our lot thought they went to sea on purpose just to bugger up their Christmas. Now that it was clear what we would be doing and that we would certainly be at sea over the festive period we were advised that we should keep a close eye on morale and especially among the family men who might feel the strain of missing the wife and kids at this time.
The next day was, of course Boxing Day, and everything was settling down to just being a normal time at sea. I was quite surprised when Jan Weeks, one of the young chefs came rushing down the store to tell me that Old Soapy was down the mess supping on a can of beer and crying his eyes out and it was my job to go and sort it out. This came as a bit of a surprise to me as Soapy was a rough old Three Badge Killick Chef with, as far as I knew, a heart of stone and I couldn’t imagine what could be upsetting him. By the time we had walked forward and descended into the messdeck I had decided that I was being a bit harsh on Soapy, he was, after all a loving husband to his wife and the proud and devoted father of four lovely children. So I arrived in the mess ready to comfort the distressed parent and calm the situation down.
There was Soapy, sitting in the after end of the mess, consuming his fifteenth can of McEwans Scotch Ale and sobbing loudly. I went up and sat beside him and asked what the matter was. I was ready for him to tell me how sad he was that he was missing the company of his wife and family and was sorry to miss seeing his sons and daughters playing with their new toys, but that was not what was troubling Soapy. Through the tears and the beers he exclaimed, “That bitch! She’ll have scuppered all the booze by the time we get back! I paid for it but she’ll drink it!” Grins appeared on all the worried faces of our messmates and the whole place erupted with laughter as I mumbled, “Bloody Hell, Soapy, buck up,” and headed off back to my work. Soapy went away for a kip, sobered up and the incident was never mentioned again until now.
The rest of that little trip passed without much incident as we followed our Russian pals across the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, taking happy snaps along the way. We returned to Devonport on the second of January and I for one, was quite pleased to have missed all the commotion and drunkenness of Christmas and the New Year. It was the first time that I had been sober over that period in years and I’d be able to get ashore and sink as much beer as I wanted without being encumbered by the amateurs who always appeared out of the woodwork for their annual piss up at this time of the year.....
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