The first time I saw the White Cliffs of Dover was in the late afternoon of a
Sunday in February 1955, as the steam train pulled into the station. The feelings
for me were mixed with apprehension and excitement, for I had boarded the train in
London leaving family and friends to embark on a career at sea. Daunting now as
I look back 50 years, a 15 year old with dreams of ships and far away places.
My thoughts were soon brought back to reality as an officer in naval uniform bellowed
“all Prince of Wales new boys over here”. We mustered on the platform, pleased that
at least we had someone to meet us, and somewhere to go.
We started the course on that Tuesday having been well and truly inducted. This
was the day I remember “Greg”. I was in the laundry with a group of “newbies”
like me when one of them said to me “Have you noticed Alan Newton?” I looked at
him puzzled and said “Not really, why should I?” He replied “Golly he is the spitting
image of Gregory Peck”. I didn’t have to ask what he meant because we all knew who
The next morning at breakfast I made it my business to seek out Alan Newton, it
was funny really we met quite by accident over the porridge and orange juice, there
in the mess hall. I recognised him instantly; he smiled and passed me the juice in
what was to become an instant life long friendship.
We learned to splice ropes and knots, sail lifeboats around Dover Harbour and signals.
Golly now there is a tale!
To qualify for our signals badges we had to learn the Morse Code and transmit and
receive at 20 words a minute. I must confess to not being very good at this, however,
Greg was brilliant! In order to pass the exam the candidate had to stand at one end
of a long hall, there was a light at the far end that was used to flicker the messages
in Morse Code. Greg passed with flying colours on his first go, ~sighs~, I had already
had two tries without success. However, the examinee was allowed to have a writer,
this was a person who would stand behind you and face away from the light. So on
my third attempt Greg was my writer. Pausing to smile here as I think about it, because
Greg was smart enough to listen to the Morse Code key that they were tapping the
messages out on, so as I was fumbling and saying “T E P” no “F R” no “P “ he was
quietly writing down the messages I passed and we became “partners in crime”.
We were beginning to enjoy the course now having overcome our homesickness and working
out the “System” and delighting on weekends when we were given leave to spend some
of our weekly pocket money of seven and six pence. We drank coffee at the Rose Tea
Rooms and listened to the jukebox playing “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” and
“Oh! My Papa” by Eddie Calvert who was at the top of the hit parade. My goodness,
we were so wicked! We went to the local picture theatre I flirted with some of the
local girls, remember we were wearing naval uniforms and in those days “all the nice
girls loved a sailor”, however, Greg was not really into that and more often than
not preferring to drag me along screaming as we walked along those famous White
Cliffs and investigated Dover Castle or fossicking along the wharf where the channel
ferries would come and go.
It was my fault when we were arrested, it is odd really how these things happen.
My Dad managed to score us some weekend leave so we could motor up to London to see
the F.A. Cup Final between Manchester United v. Manchester City, in April 1955.
However, my Dad, not being the best organiser in the world, had forgotten to book
accommodation and being Cup Final weekend in London, we were very lucky to get a
room in the basement of a Leicester Square hotel that was in fact the local Masonic
Lodge. I am laughing now as I remember all the regalia in that room, but we were
happy to sleep on our camp beds in this improvised arrangement.
We awoke early probably part of our training; we dressed quietly and decided to
fossick again as was Greg’s inclination. We had only gone a short distance through
the London Streets, suddenly a tall man in a red cap and wearing army uniform stepped
out from a lane and bellowed at us “Stop right there!”, in a loud Welsh accent.
“You two are a disgrace to her Majesty’s uniform” He placed his hand on my shoulder
and declared, “You are both under arrest”. Greg, never being one to panic, well
only a little bit anyway, enquired “Why?” He replied, “Because, nasty little man!
You are not wearing the CAP that goes with the Queens Royal Naval uniform!”
For once I had to admit he was right, we were both wearing our Royal Navy *winter
blues* without caps. We had forgotten to don caps as we tip-e-toed around early
getting dressed (well partly dressed anyway). “What ship?” He demanded. “We don’t
have one yet” Greg replied. “Very well smarty pants what establishment?” was the
instant reply. “Prince Of Wales Sea Training School sir”, I echoed in a not too brave
tone of voice. “Where the hell is that?" “Dover” I replied. There was a long reflective
silence, “Now tell me, is this a training establishment?" “Yes it is Sir” I replied
respectfully. “Training for what may I ask?“ came from a now more subdued gentleman
in the red hat. “The Merchant Navy”, we answered in chorus.
“Well lads, looks like there has been some sort of mistake here, now be off with you!”
It was very obvious that as a civil service we certainly did not come under the jurisdiction
of what turned out to be the Military Police.
Promotion and some of the Glory that went with it
I accepted the promotion with some reluctance, as I was afraid it would drive a
wedge between Greg and myself. However, this proved not to be the case, since his
display of ability was up there with the best of them and within two weeks he was
to join me at the dizzy heights of Petty Officer.
Just one small story comes to mind. Soon after Greg had been promoted it was his
duty to march the Wednesday theatre group to the local cinema. I observed, from
an upstairs room, that the troops were giving their new Petty Officer a bit of a
hard time, as was usually the case. When they returned some three hours later,
I observed the troops were still giving their leader a hard time. As he dismissed
them in the schoolyard, I walked down the stairs and declared in a very loud voice
“As you were!” I then dressed and re-assembled them, marched them back to the theatre,
1-1/2 miles away, where I advised them that there seemed some difficulty in their
response to Petty Officer Newton, and I wondered if they were prepared to display
this undisciplined behaviour for me. I marched them back to the school, a very smart
lot they were. I was about to dismiss them in the schoolyard when Petty Officer
Newton descended the stairs and said “Thank you Petty Officer Brown”. In his quiet
and assertive manner he reassembled the troops and marched them to the theatre and
back, to return just before midnight. He had asserted his authority and had no
trouble controlling the men under his command from that day on.
By now there seemed to be few challenges as the school routine clicked along, as
in the past, the time came when we would part company. For me it was almost instant
as there was news afoot of a dock strike and many British ships were attempting to
put to sea to avoid the costs involved with being Port bound.
On 27th May 1955, I was summoned to the Commander’s office and advised that I would
be joining the Port Pirie in Liverpool the following day. Not much time for farewells,
just a hasty packing of kit bag and a brief look back as I walked to the station.
On reflection I wondered who would fill my shoes as the Senior Petty Officer.
Greg made his escape just two weeks later on 7th June 1955, to join the New Zealand Shipping Company’s
passenger liner “Rangitata”. I was not to meet up or sail with him again until
27th June 1958, when we were shipmates on the “Port Lyttleton”.
Thank you to those of you that have chosen to read this brief overview of the times
I shared with Alan (Greg), those that knew him as a Dad, Granddad, work colleague or friend,
I can assure you that sharing these memories for me, is a great honour and privilege.
I am so proud to have known him and being called “his friend”.
Port Albany, Western Australia