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.

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

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. Back we went to dry dock to have one propeller shaft replaced and the other straightened out a bit. We headed with careful haste to Gibraltar.

It was pretty funny when we arrived in Gibraltar as we were the lead ship of our convoy and the two 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 and 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 like “boy” in normal countries (as in buoyant).

Our Captain went mad. He was very embarrassed. But not nearly as embarrassed as he was when he got court-martialed. And though they did a fine repair job of trying to straighten out that shaft it wasn’t fine enough and for the next six months, if we went above 12 knots, the noise in our mess – right above the seals where the shafts entered the ship – was absolutely unbearable. We couldn’t even shout to each other. My bunk (pit in nautical lingo) was about 4 feet from the seal.

From there, we were headed south!

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

Shit Fish!
Shit Fish!

Next stop:- Ascension Island where we encountered the shit-fish. They were like salt-water piranhas. We used to throw huge bags of garbage (gash in the lingo) over the side and watch them get eaten. The water would swarm and froth and the whole thing would be gone without a trace in a couple of minutes. Legend had it that if you fell off the ship, you would have a heart-attack before you hit the water. Any ichthyologists know what they are really called?

On to the Falklands!


The Falklands sucked really, really hard. It’s difficult to imagine a worse place on earth.

My family almost moved there in the late seventies as my dad worked for the company – Southern Ships Stores – that owned most of the fisheries there. We used to call the people that lived there 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). I coulda been a Benny!

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

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 one of the main landing sites—and the scene of a ferocious battle—from which British forces had recaptured the Falkland Islands two years earlier.

christmas dinner

The picture on the right is taken on the Flight Deck. 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 that I don’t quite remember, I wasn’t drinking at the time but everyone else was pished as a fart.

Dunno who the dude at the front was but I remember he had just turned sixteen — impossibly young to us eighteen-year-olds!

Here’s me with an after-dinner coffee and my Green Machine Fighting Machine (the name of my mess’s football team) t-shirt.

christmas coffee

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

My Bunk

And here’s me sitting on my bunk.

Note that the bunks (pits in the lingo) were stacked three high and note also that all of the bunks in the mess were, in theory, collapsible to make a kind of couch but, in practice, only two of the bunks ever were actually collapsed—mine and Jacko’s. The mess square was the living area where the fridges, stereos and TVs were and where all the socializing happened and that’s where my bunk was.

The pits in the mess square were reserved for the most junior of junior ratings unless there was an Artificer Apprentice on board. Artificers (or 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 newbies had to tolerate 3 months in the mess square before they got promoted to a proper bunk, but tiffies—me and Jacko—had to spend the whole year there.

The rule for Mess Square pits was that you weren’t allowed to go to bed before Pipe Down at 23:00, but even then, you would have people sitting on your bed drinking until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning while you were trying to sleep. Fortunately, you 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 so 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 work for a period in each of the Weapon Engineering departments (small arms, Sea Dart, 4.5in Gun, Comms, Radar, Computer, Sonar plus some others that I don’t remember). That was my day job. But we each had other responsibilities too for Defense Stations and Action Stations.

On Deck

For Defense Stations (Americans have a funny term for this – Sean, help me out), but it basically means “we are not under attack right now, but we might be at any moment”. Defense Stations has half the ship’s company manning the weapons systems. 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 you could be ultra-ready—which was code for sleep. Actually, 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. Usually, it was 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

Also, every now and again, we would actually fire the thing at a practice target.

A brave pilot would tow a target on a wire – or release a drone – 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.

My Action Station (translation: we are about to engage the enemy) was in the gunbay.

The gunbay is the magazine underneath the 4.5in mk8 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 gun bay below decks that has, like, 12 rounds ready to go. There are also rows and rows of shelves of additional shells. 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 have 5 seconds each to grab an 80lb shell and carry it over to the feed ring.

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 stand – never mind carry an 80lb shell. If the sea is rolling too…? …fahgettaboutit.

Now imagine this:

“Naval Gunfire Support! 300 Rounds! Engage!”

Holy crap, that was hard work! The top shelves in the magazine were so high that you had to stand on tip-toe to drag the shell down from the shelf and catch it on your shoulder. 4 times out of 5, it would hit your collarbone. Holy crap, 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 started following him for another week or two. 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

Actually that storm was pretty nice. On any given ship, about half the people get seasick and about half don’t. I get sick for about the first 2 or 3 days onboard – whatever the weather – and then I am fine and nothing will bother me after that. Our Captain and The Jimmy both suffered from seasickness so, whenever there was heavy weather, they would send everyone who wasn’t actually required to keep the ship sailing to bed. The half of us who didn’t get seasick got to sit around drinking and playing cards. Sweet! 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 and the three-legged volleyball, but I am tired so, if I remember them, I’ll tell you about them another day.