HMS Victory & HMS Mercury
The radar training at the Isle of Man came to an end and we were all drafted back to the Signal School at HMS Victory at Portsmouth. Here my service number was changed from 'D' - Devonport, to 'P' - Portsmouth, and we were made up to Leading Hands ('Killicks' as they were called in the Navy). From Victory we went to Mercury at Petersfield in Hampshire. This was an isolated mansion belonging to Lord and Lady Peel (Vesta Tilley the actress) in hundreds of acres of wooded countryside. The security of this place had to be seen to be believed. There were ten times as many Chiefs as Indians. We had no leave and did sentry duties round the boundary fence every night, which was scary even with a rifle, in the pitch dark, with the owls hooting. Before breakfast we had to go scavenging (tidying the place up). There were 6 P.O.S., and 2 Ratings, so you can guess who did all the work! Cleaning out bars and canteens were duties inflicted, as it was supposed to be a rest home for submarine ratings from under the sea. The fire drill was comical, with an old 2 wheel hose carrier which had to be pulled up and down hill. It was very heavy and once we had to let it go down hill and it crashed into a wall and demolished it. The Commander (always with a large telescope under his arm) strutted about the whole area like a God, what he was looking for I shall never know. It was at Leydene HMS Mercury C/O G.P.O. London that our instruction on receivers and transmitters was well carried out during a day of 10 hours.
Returning to Portsmouth (fully trained now in all aspects) we awaited a draft to a ship. I had chosen to work on the small ships. We did manage some cricket on the very fine Services Ground for the Navy against the Combined Services. Although the lovely ground impressed me, I didn't like their attitude towards the game, which was to win at all costs. On the Victory parade ground we were drilled again, marching to the famous Royal Marine Band in their full white kit. One instructor during a stand easy behind the huts asked if anyone of us was from Brum, and when Betts and I said, "Yes", he said, "Do you know the name Norman Sell?" I replied, "Yes, the Fishmonger, well he answered, "No, the Chairman of Aston Villa, I'm his son". It's a small world!
Portsmouth was better than 'GUS' (Devonport). Every other night off, we used to go The Union Jack Club, which was the 'Grand Hotel' Southsea nearby, and for a shilling (5p) had Bed and Breakfast! We put in for a shake in the early morning to get us back on duty on time; the guy employed for this facility was known as the 'Portable Earthquake'. I remember going to see the film 'Gone with the Wind' which had just been released and thought it was marvellous.
Each day we waited (the class of 60) to see if we had a draft to a small ship (Destroyer, Corvette, or Minesweeper, etc.) and to really see the world. When the news came through it was for 58 out of the 60, I was one of the two missing. The others eagerly found out about their ships and their location, but not me! Bernard Betts was given HMS Shearwater, a patrol vessel in the North Sea, which was not a pleasant prospect in Machine Gun and 'E' Boat Alley. Several went to Corvettes, and one of our pals had to join a Minesweeper that was torpedoed on his first voyage, poor chap.
Anyway, two days later I was sent for and was given a draft to HMS Express, so naturally I started enquiring what and where she was. One chap (Freddie Fox) was very forthcoming and he told me it was a mine-laying Destroyer Flotilla Leader H61, at present in Durban, South Africa, after 18 months service in the Far East. A marvellous draft, he said, and when I asked him how he knew so much about the ship, he told me that the draft was originally his two days ago, and he had it rescinded on compassionate grounds. The artful devil didn't intend to leave England. How he managed it I shall never know, perhaps it was his name!
But it was my future now, and really I was quite pleased to have the anxiety over. I was kitted up with tropical and arctic clothing; it wouldn't do for the Germans to know where I was going, with my kit bag and hammock!