HMS Drake was a huge but old Navy complex holding 20,000 sailors, and there should have only been half that complement.
We arrived there feeling sticky, after a journey through London, and we were browned off, so we made for the washrooms, about 100 washbasins in a great hall. One of our crowd who had purchased a Burberry raincoat the day before at Ganges took it off to have a wash, and when he turned round it had gone! An old 3 badge sailor told us not to leave anything loose in this 'Raleigh' block - even your kit-bag could be cut open. Never have we been so fed up.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on circumstances at the time), there was not enough accommodation in R.N. Barracks for us to sleep there. We were sent to a converted Grammar School at Stoke Damerel, about 1½ miles from the barracks. After breakfast each day (except Sunday) we were marched down to Devonport and given duties and jobs, and also meals. I got a nice job, working with about ten men and a Chief Petty Officer (P.O. Rowe) in charge, in the Drafting Commander's office. This work entailed finding correct complements (crews) or replacements for new ships, sunken ships, or recommissioning old ones. HMS Hood was sunk with 1,200 men, mostly from Devonport, with only 3 survivors and very much mourned. Winifred my sister in law (I don't know where the story came from) told her friends that I was a survivor!
HMS Drake Devonport
We had one free night in four, which was ridiculous because the Luftwaffe bombed this area relentlessly. One night 300-odd men mostly Chiefs and Petty Officers were killed or wounded when a bomb devastated the barracks. The next day was terrible, men in bandages and on crutches, all due to the Commander (Harry), who would not alter the watch to one night on and three nights off - "All my best men are at sea".
All Naval ratings were sent fire watching in the Naval dockyard, (the dockyard maties who should have been doing it scarpered off on to Dartmoor and safety), and it was a bit dicey for us especially 3 nights out of 4.
Bernard Betts and I, who had stuck together since joining at Ganges, and our two friends, Harold Smith from Handsworth, and Rogers a from London who was a bit of a lad, persuaded me that a weekend in Torquay would be a welcome break. Plenty of shows and bars, they said. But it was outside the 25 mile travel limit - 50 miles away!
Naval patrols were on the stations, so we went by bus. We stayed at a big hotel where I broke the black out regulations trying to find a lighted match that had dropped in a most awkward place whilst I was using the toilet.
Taking the oars in turns we were soon near Paignton Sands, but changing rowing positions one of the rowlocks fell into the sea, and although it was not deep it disappeared in the sand.
Well you can't row with only one oar, so Rogers suggested that we should leave the boat on the sands and walk back and tell the boatman, which we never did because the pubs were open, so the boat may still be there!
Smithy and I went on weekend leave together to our respective wives, since we were both newly married. The fuss about leaving R.N.B. had to be seen to be believed! Inspection by a Lieut. Messervy was minutely carried out, one speck of dust on your shoe and you lost your liberty, which was tragic.
First Leave with Doris
We duly left Plymouth Station and arrived at Bristol Templemeads, to change for Birmingham. We had about ¼ hour spare to have a cup of tea (jam jars here no cups!). In the tea room I heard the train whistle and guessed the Birminghan train was on the move, so I ran after it, calling to Smithy to run, and as I was helped into the last carriage by two soldiers, Smithy was a hopeless 30 yards away. On our seats were our caps and gas masks, so I let the guard know, and he took them and he told me that they would be given to Smithy on the next train at Mangotsfield. When we reached Birmingham I intended to let the platform announcer inform Smithy on the next train but on the arrival platform a young lady asked me if I had come from Plymouth. I correctly guessed she was Mrs Smith, and everything was sorted out.
The journeys back to Bristol at midnight were a nightmare with no lights, and every compartment seemed full. One night Betts and I struck a match and found two soldiers lying full length across the seats. In the darkness we soon whisked in. They turned out to be Captains, but they didn't argue.
Christmas Day was one I shall never forget. We did not have to attend the barracks, so we duly sat down to the Christmas dinner with the other residents. Everything was laid out nicely in the school dining room, the plates with turkey were actually put in front of us. Then the Chief Petty Officer's voice boomed out "All you barrack ratings out. Get your dinner in R.N.B.!" Well out we had to go, so near and yet so far to a lovely Christmas dinner. Into a wet misty dank Devon afternoon we all went, about 20 of us looking for somewhere to eat and shelter on this festive occasion. R.N.B. had finished serving, Aggie Westons had been bombed, all the restaurants were closed, and we spent the most miserable Christmas day ever.
Talking about dinners reminds me of a dinner time in the huge Dining Hall in R.N.B. where there were hundreds of tables each holding 12 men. The last man to arrive at his table had to fetch 12 dinners on a large tray from the galley hatches. I always managed not to be the last man. But one day I came unstuck and became the 12th. With 11, 3 badge (old salts) Stokers waiting for their meals, I dutifully went up to the galley and collected my tray of 12 plates of cold pilchards covered with tomato sauce - horrible! As I returned to the table with the 11 hungry men waiting, I slipped on the wet floor (if it's wet, it's clean in the Navy) the plates and the pilchards went everywhere! The men at the end of the table told me in no uncertain terms to get some more "bloody quick". Off I went through the sticky red mess on the deck, not to the galley, but out to the NAAFI for a decent meal, and as far as I know, 11 angry, hungry, Stokers are still waiting for their delicious (?) dinners.
Each month we were given half a pound of cigarette (or pipe) tobacco which you could hand roll into 400 cigarettes or 'ticklers' as they were called in the Navy. One enterprising chap from Liverpool told me he knew a way to double this issue and invited me to go with him to see how it was done. First of all soap was rubbed on to your Station Card before it was stamped by the Issuing Officer, and you got your first half pound. You then scraped off the date stamp (easy over the soap) and went back for the second issue. That was the theory, and it looked fine to me. But at our second visit about 2 hours later, the officer yelled "If you try this again, you will do a month in cells! P.... Off!" Beats me how he could tell, experience I guess. The Liverpool lad shook like a leaf at his escape.
I managed to visit Doris's Aunt Annie in Tavistock, and had some enjoyable hours up there. Uncle Will liked the free cigarettes. I also went to Birchy Farm on Dartmoor. One Sunday after the lovely long walk from Whitchurch, across the Moors to Tavistock past the wild ponies, I arrived at The Square to catch the bus back to Plymouth, to find a very long queue waiting for the bus. No chance of getting on this last bus of the day. So feeling tired after my long walk I went over to the church canteen and had tea and cakes. I asked the nice young lady who served me if the Salvation Army or W.V.S. had anywhere I could put up for the night. She said that if I waited until they closed she would take me back to her house where there was a spare bed. So at 10pm after a stroll along the river, we arrived at her cottage, and any ulterior motive I might have envisaged, quickly disappeared when she opened the front door. There was her elderly mother, as large as life, sitting in the armchair. I was shown my bedroom, still feeling very grateful for this most kind hospitality. She asked me if I was getting up early to catch the 7am train, and would I try not to wake them. I woke up at 6am after a good night, went downstairs and found a teapot, and an egg for boiling, also a note telling me to lock the back door and leave the key under the third stone. This I did, but as I was walking away I realised I had left my gas mask in the cottage. Going back I stumbled over a chair and woke them up! I don't think I was one of their most popular non-paying guests, and after they had been so kind.
With 5 nights bombing out of the last 8, Betts and I decided to get out of Plymouth for a nights rest, so we caught a bus to Saltash just across the river Tamar Bridge, which we heard had been 'raid free'. We were made most welcome in the wooden hutted services canteen, run by the Church and Sally Army. We had sandwiches, cakes, tea and played snooker. At about 8pm we heard the sirens wail and then heard the bombers. Everybody said Plymouth's for it again - but those Heinkels had followed us to Saltash! Soon the end of the wooden canteen was on fire from incendiary bombs used to guide the big stuff in to destroy the Tamar road & railway bridges. All of us got out, helping the canteen ladies, up the steep hill away from the burning huts. Up the main street of Saltash, fires were raging on each side, so we made for the top of the hill, and took shelter in someone's large front room.
The next morning at dawn we made our way down the smouldering main street to the bridge to get back to Plymouth. On the way down a sailor in front of me was bandaged round his head, and walking like a drunk. I asked him what was wrong and he told me he couldn't see. Apparently during the night's raid he saw an old lady outside her cottage and asked her if he could help. She said her cat was inside and bravely but foolishly he opened the door and was met by a sheet of flame. I took his arm and walked him across the railway bridge and into the Naval Hospital, where the Doctor told me that the lad had lost his sight. What a tragedy!
My stay in Devonport was not the best of times, mostly fire watching in the dockyard, on the roof of the barracks. One night I was part of a sentry guard round the perimeter of the barracks under the charge of a leading seaman, bayonets fixed and torches ready. We heard footsteps, a lot of them, approaching in the pitch darkness and the Killick shouted "Who goes there?" A voice from the darkness replied "Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs!" The quick reply from our leading seaman was "Advance Snow White, stand fast the 7 dwarfs". Within seconds a Petty Officer was in his torch beam, and his throat was inches from the guard's bayonet. "All right, carry on" eased the situation.
One of my duties was a night in the Drafting Commander's office to inform him of any calls on his 'Hot Line' and let him know in the Wardroom. Also I had this duty on a Saturday afternoon, but first I went to the NAAFI and bought some sandwiches, cream cakes and Coca Cola, and then back to his office to listen for the 'Hot Line' I sat at his huge desk in his swivel chair, and settled down to not unpleasant 4 hours, with my feet up on his desk with cakes and sausage rolls at the ready. I noticed he had left his morning paper (The Times) and this was a bonus! So, I was nice and comfortable reading and eating, when the door opened, and it was he himself, 3 gold rings Commander Hammett! He looked at me and smiled "Do you mind if I take my paper?" I folded it up and gave it to him in a dream, he quietly went out without a word. What a gentleman, I have not recovered yet.
Long before the connection between smoking and cancer was established, the Navy issued free cigarette and pipe tobacco (and rum!) to every rating, half pound each month. The cigarette tobacco if rolled in a hand machine would produce 400 cigarettes known as 'ticklers', pipe tobacco had to be sorted and treated before going into your pipe, or for, yes, chewing, which was quite common among the old salts. The hand rolled cigarettess were a bit crude and rough looking, but in Plymouth we found a shop which sold a machine with a split cylinder into which you put your tobacco and it pulled a posh tube of paper over the contents, then out came a cigarette just like you get in a packet, 'tailor made'. So while on watch in the barracks all night, I made about 100 of these posh Ticklers. I put them in a proper Craven 'A' cigarette tin, with my shaving tackle, soap, towel etc. You had to pass through the Guardroom to get out of the barracks to get back to Stoke Damerel, but of course it was a crime to take more then 20 duty free cigarettes out. It was always no problem to pass through the Guardroom, we just said "Stoke Damerel" and went through. But this one particular time when I had all these duty free cigarettes, one of the guard Petty Officers stopped me and asked me to open my case. He took out the tin (not opening it!) and towel, and then carefully searched the soap and brush containers putting them all on his table. I was shaking like a leaf; the discovery of the cigarettes was inevitable (a cell offence) I mean it was so obvious a cigarette tin full! But to my amazement and relief he put each item back, shut up my case gave it to me and said, "Pass on Stoke Damerel". Well I literally ran and never stopped until I reached the bus to take me back. What a lucky escape!