Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…

I Was in the Navy You Know


See, I was looking for a picture of a freshly inked tattoo. I knew it was there somewhere but I found a thousand other pictures first. There goes my evening. I’ll have to look at every single one of them….and so will you!

First up, Falklands tour from September 1984 to March 22, 1985. Your blogger was eighteen years old and had already been in the Navy for two years. I joined HMS Southampton, a Type 42 Destroyer  in June ’84 and was with her for a year.

HMS Southampton
HMS Southampton

Trivia note from the Wikipedia article:

In 1984, she ran over one of the Shambles Buoys off Portland during final War Games before deploying to the Falklands, sinking the buoy and resulting in repairs in dry dock.

We had just left Portsmouth and stopped in Portland for some war-gamey kind of exercises and finally set off for Gibraltar. We had just made it out of Portland when the ship lurched and there was a painful scratching sound. Then the propellers started making a horrible noise.

We had to return to dry dock to replace one propeller shaft and have the other straightened out a bit. We headed with careful haste to Gibraltar to meet up with the rest of our squadron.

Top of the Rock of Gibraltar with a Barbary Ape
Top of the Rock of Gibraltar with a Barbary Ape

We were the lead ship of our squadron and as we arrived in Gibraltar, the other frigates had to salute us as we came into the harbour. All three ships were in full dress with all the crews lining the decks. Right after the salute, each of the frigates unfurled a ginormous banner over the side.

One said

Buoy, Oh Buoy! What a Shambles!

The other said

Congratulations! It’s a buoy!

Note to Americans: “buoy” is pronounced “boy” in normal countries (as in buoyant).

Our Captain was absolutely furious. He was also very embarrassed after he was court-martialed when we got home.

They almost did a fine repair job of straightening out that propeller shaft but not fine enough. For the next six months, if we went above 12 knots, the noise in our mess was completely unbearable. We could barely hear each other even if we shouted. My bunk was about 4 feet above the seal where the propeller shaft entered the ship.

From there, we headed south!

[I’ll tell you about our Crossing the Line ceremony another day]

The next stop was Ascension Island where we encountered the Shit Fish. They were like salt-water piranhas. We used to throw huge bags of gash (aka: garbage) over the side to watch them get eaten. The water would swarm and froth and the whole thing would be gone without a trace within a minute. Legend had it that if you fell off the ship, you would have a heart-attack before you hit the water.


On to the Falklands!

The Falklands really sucked. It’s hard to imagine a worse place on earth. It was cold and barren with barely a tree and there was always a gale blowing.

My family almost moved there in the late seventies as my dad worked for the company that owned most of the fisheries there.


We used to call the people who lived in the Falklands Bennies after Benny from Crossroads until one day we weren’t allowed to call them that any more because someone noticed that it was derogatory. So we called them Stills (because they were still Bennies) instead. I could’ve been a Benny!

Port Stanley, the capital of The Falklands, had four pubs and they all sold the same cans of Penguin Ale. It was not uncommon to get banned from a pub in Port Stanley and, indeed, on one night I got banned from all four of them. I forget why but I imagine it was something to do with having too much Penguin Ale.

We spent Christmas Day anchored in San Carlos Water which the military historians among you may remember as the scene of a ferocious battle and one of the main landing sites from which British forces had recaptured the Falkland Islands two years earlier.

Christmas Day on the Flight Deck
New Romantics of the Southern Seas

The picture above is taken on the Flight Deck after Christmas Dinner. See the clear blue skies? I think that must’ve been the only clear day the whole time we were there. The five of us (Harry, Jock, Andy and Pincher) were great friends and went everywhere together. I wonder where they are now?

And here’s us having dinner. For some reason, I wasn’t drinking at the time but everyone else was pished as a fart. The dude opposite me (don’t remember his name) had just turned sixteen — impossibly young to us eighteen-year-olds!

christmas dinner

Here’s me with an after-dinner coffee and my Green Machine Fighting Machine t-shirt.

christmas coffee

Wearing that very t-shirt, I played a full 90 minutes of football with 6 pints of beer in me, narrowly missing George Best’s record by 2 pints.

And here’s me sitting on my pit.

My Bunk

Note that the pits (aka bunks) were stacked three high and note also that all of the pits were collapsible to make a kind of couch but, in practice, only the pits in the mess square (the area where everyone socialised) were ever collapsed.

The pits in the mess square were reserved for the most junior of junior ratings unless there was an Artificer Apprentice on board. Artificers (Tiffies) were engineers and because we were destined to be promoted rapidly up to a senior rank, we were condemned to suffer twice as badly during our apprenticeship. Most young sailors had to tolerate a couple of months in the mess square before they were given a proper bunk, but tiffies — me and Jacko — had to spend the whole year there.

In the Mess Square pits, we weren’t allowed to go to bed before Pipe Down at 23:00 but even then, we would have people sitting on our beds drinking until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning while we were trying to sleep. Fortunately, we couldn’t hear them over the noise of the bent propeller shaft.

After Christmas, we had a fun little trip over to South Georgia. I hope to tell you more about South Georgia another day. For now, I’ll just mention that South Georgia may be the most beautiful place that I have ever visited.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. As an apprentice, I had to spend a week or two in each of the Weapon Engineering departments (Sea Dart, 4.5in Gun, Comms, Radar, Computer, Sonar, small arms, plus some others that I don’t remember). That was my day job. But we each had additional responsibilities for Defense Stations and Action Stations.

On Deck

At Defense Stations, half the ship’s company man the weapons systems because “we are not under attack right now, but we might be at any moment”. We were at Defense Stations for most of the time we were in the Falklands and my Defense Station was the 30mm BMARC twin-barrelled anti-aircraft gun.

It was a pretty cushy gig actually. Each gun had two people (one to load and one to fire) and a little cabin next door where we could be ultra-ready. I was teaching myself A-level maths at the time and spent all of my watches working through a textbook that I borrowed from Jacko.

Every now and again we would spring into action. It was usually a drill but one time it was for real when two Argentinian Jets came to give us a scare. They closed us to about a mile before they veered away and left us in peace. It’s quite thrilling to have your guns pointing at a plane with your finger on the trigger and you don’t know whether or not the plane is going to shoot first.

Defense Stations in a 30mm BMark
Defence Stations in a 30mm BMark

Every now and again, we would actually fire the thing at a practice target. A brave pilot would tow a target on a wire and we’d hear

“Alarm aircraft! Bearing: Red nine-zero! Elevation two-two!”

I’d rush for my gun and wait for

“Port guns, engage!”

Then I’d blast away at the target at 60 rounds per second per barrel, flanked by two 20mm Oerlikans and accompanied by the 4.5in Mk8 gun in the bow, all filling the sky with tracer.

Action Stations were called when the ship was preparing to fight. My action station was in the gunbay.

The gunbay is the magazine beneath the 4.5in gun way up in the bow of the ship. The gun fires a shell every 2.4 seconds and there is a feed ring thingie in the gunbay below decks that has maybe 12 rounds ready to fire. There are also dozens and dozens of shelves of additional shells all around the gun. My job was to make sure that the feed ring never got empty when the gun was firing because then the gun would stop firing and we would get shouted at.

Now. Imagine, if you will, a rolling sea. Imagine a magazine full of rounds weighing 72lbs each. Imagine two 18-year-olds who each have 5 seconds to grab a 72lb shell and carry it over to the feed ring for the gun.

Any Gun in a Storm
Any Gun in a Storm

Did I mention that we were way up in the bow? When the ship rises and falls in a heavy sea, the forces on your legs are so strong that you can barely walk. And if the sea is rolling…? And if you are carrying a 72lb shell?… You can barely stand up.

Now imagine this:

“Naval Gunfire Support! 300 Rounds! Engage!”

It’s hard work to load 300 shells that weight 72lbs each! The top shelves in the magazine are so high that you have to stand on tip-toe to drag the shell down from the shelf and catch it on your collarbone. Holy crap, did that hurt!?

The rest of our tour passed without incident. Oh. Except for the Argentinian submarine that followed us around for a few days before we spotted him and followed him for a week or two instead.

Oh. And the storm that caused the ship to roll over so far that one of the Sea Dart missiles fell over in the magazine and we all thought we were going to die. Oh. And the Force 11 storm that battered us for a week on our way home.

Sea Dart missiles.
Make sure you don’t let them fall over.

Actually, storms are pretty cool. On any given ship, about half the crew gets seasick and about half don’t. I get sick for about the first 2 or 3 days when I first join a ship — whatever the weather — and then I am fine and nothing will bother me after that. Our Captain and First Lieutenant both suffered from seasickness so whenever there was heavy weather, they would send everyone to bed if they weren’t actually required to keep the ship sailing. The half of us who didn’t get seasick got to sit around drinking and playing cards. A storm that lasted a week was a week’s vacation!

I am sure I have missed some important bits – like the Master of Your Domain contest (predating Seinfeld by several years!) and the deckchair bonfire and my Two Days’ Nines for being “thirty seconds adrift from the operations room which place it was my duty to attend” but I am tired so if I remember them, I’ll tell you about them another day.