Greg and Rob 1955




A STEP BACK IN TIME

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.

Induction

My memories of the induction are not so clear now; we were issued with bedding and uniforms, instructed on where and how to do our “Dobbying” (washing) and instructions that we were never to talk with the girl that lived across the road. I can’t for the life of me work out why even now; I suppose it is one of the best kept Prince Of Wales Sea Training School secrets.

Introduction to "Greg"

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 that was!

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.

Finding our feet

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.

Our Arresting Moment!

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.

By the way, Manchester United won 3-1.

Promotion and some of the Glory that went with it

The School was an on-going event not so much structured courses, but boys coming and going to join their respective ships at unscheduled times, having completed their training. It was one of these times of rapid departure that I was summoned to the Commander’s office and informed that I had been selected to become a Petty Officer, replacing the poor lad I could see walking towards the station, in the rain, with a kit bag on his shoulder.

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.

Departure and/or Escape

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”.

Conclusion

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”.

Robert A Brown
Port Albany, Western Australia


10 October 2005