H.M.S. WILDFIRE – SHEERNESS

Wildfire was a magnificent ‘backwater’ where one could almost forget that one was serving in Her Britannic Majesty’s Grey-funnel Line.  We had a three-ringed ‘skipper’ who had no idea of what was going on around him (or his establishment).  Naval ‘good order and discipline’ was maintained by a Regulating Petty Officer who was Rationed Ashore and spent as little time as possible on the premises.  The Chief Cook was also RA but seemed to cook up some reasonable meals (at least for the Chiefs and Petty Officers Mess – I don’t know how ‘the other half’ fared, although I don’t recall too much in the way of mutinous talk.  The daily ‘routine’ was arduous.  We would stroll off to our allocated ships sometime around nine in the morning.  Have a quick check up on the progress (if any) on the white and pink defect sheets – carefully marking them with the official ‘codes’ – a capital C with a tick through it in the unlikely event of the dockyard actually completing an item of work, or a capital “IH” and the date if you discovered an item that they had finally decided to give some attention to the requirement of the defect list.  Most defect lists consisted of a series of “IH”s with dates which stretched further and further back into historical times.  Occasionally they did complete an entire white sheet (but I don’t ever recall a pink sheet achieving better than a 50% completion record).  My first sweeper was the Calton and had standard Mirlees main engines and pulsing generator.  The day the dockyard fired up the main engines for the first time after having completed a top overhaul was quite exciting.  They had left a 1¼” whitworth nut on top of one of the pistons on the port main engine.  The resulting noise was quite something, but the chargehand insisted that ‘nothing was wrong, they always sound like this!’  I was not taken in by his assurances and moved along the individual cylinder fuel pumps, pushing the control  to the maximum fuel position to see if I could isolate the offending piston.  I found it!!!  When I increased the fuel flow to the appropriate cylinder there was an almighty BANG!!! and the engine covers fell down.  I stopped the engines and asked the chargehand if he would like to repeat his comment about the engines always sounding like this.  He, believe it or nor, was still unconvinced, until I pointed out the 1″ diameter pushrods on this cylinder literally bent like a dog’s hind leg!!  They reluctantly removed the cylinder head to display the ‘carnage’ beneath.  Needless to say the “Calton” did not complete her refit on time.  During my time at Sheerness I not only picked up refits on Coastal and Inshore Sweepers, I had the dubious honour of being allocated a couple of ‘Gay’ boats.  I can remember the Gay Charioteer, but can’t recall the name of the other.  The dockyard weren’t happy about having these floating ‘bombs’ in their basin.  They were supposed to have ‘gas free’ certificates but the bilges were swimming in Avgas.  I was in the engineroom (room not being the operative word) one day when Sparks did something in the switchboard which created a spectacular flash – unfortunately this event was immediately followed by some fuel in the bilges deciding to ignite.  I happened to be fairly close to the engineroom ladder at the time but Sparks beat me out (I think I had a set of footprints up the back of my overalls).  As I went up the ladder I pulled the releases on all three Methyl-bromide extinguishers.  Yep!! You guessed it.  Nothing.  All three were empty.  I grabbed an ordinary extinguisher and like the gormless fool that I am I tried to put out the fire.  Fortunately for me there was not a lot of fuel swilling about (and I think that it was probably Pool petrol and not Avgas anyway) and about the same time as I got the extinguisher working the fire had run its course and given up, with only some minor charring to show for all of the excitement.  I decided to come up on deck for some fresh air and a cigarette to steady my nerves and discovered to my amazement that the brave fellows of the Dockyard Fire Brigade had cast the MTB adrift and shoved it into the middle of the basin.  I was not impressed!!  They also decided that every time I was going to run one or more of the engines I had to let the Dockyard Fire Brigade know and I was not to start an engine until they had all of their hoses and equipment ready and gave me the go ahead.  I remember that one day I had gone all through this pantomime, received their blessing and duly started up the Starboard RR Merlin.  Unfortunately the Dumbflow decided to misbehave, producing quite a loud banging noise which I could hear clearly above the noise of the engine, so I shut the engine down.  Apparently the noise outside the engineroom was a little more demonstrative, so much so, that when I came up on deck (inwardly cursing my luck) there was not a sign of any of the fearless firefighters.  Their equipment was still there.  Slowly heads appeared from behind various ‘shelter points’ until we had a full muster.  I thanked them for their concern for my safety and their prompt action in saving their own skins.  They packed up their gear and slunk off back to their station ‘muttering darkly’, I was never again to benefit from their invaluable assistance!

The only thing to interfere with this idyllic existence at Wildfire was when Suez ‘blew up’.  I was one of three who had our bags packed and were on 12 hours notice to go to Suez to man minesweepers.  Where these sweepers were going to come from was never actually explained to us.  However the ’emergency’ was short lived and we reverted back to ‘Navy Lark’ routine after about three days.  At one stage the ‘skipper’ decided that the RPO was not keeping the establishment ‘up to scratch’ and that it was getting to be too much like the Wild West for his liking, so he put in for, and was granted, a Master-at-Arms. An air of gloom immediately descended upon the place (and in particular the Chiefs and Petty Officers Mess) when it became obvious that our halcyon days of late starts, long stand-easy’s, additional unauthorised grog at tot times, keeping the bar open for an hour longer than permitted at lunch time and evenings and a fairly lax recording of weekend leave, was all about to disappear in a puff of authoritarian smoke.  We had advanced notice in the mess of the day that this Master-at Arms was going to join Wildfire.  That lunch time I got the NAAFI girl to call time and pull the shutters down on the mess bar at the allotted time.  Half a dozen or so of us were still finishing of our lunchtime beers when the bar door opened and the not insignificant frame of Master-at Arms Marsh appeared.  “What the b***** h*** is going on here” he bellowed (and our worst fears were confirmed) “why is the b***** bar closed!!?” (and our faith in human nature was immediately restored).  Marsh proved to be the biggest rogue unhung.  I refused to be rum bosun for the mess after drawing the grog the next morning.  We used to fiddle two or three additional tots each day, but when I went to collect the rum and Marsh bellowed out the mess entitlement in pints and tots there was enough rum for us to have spliced.  I took the rum up to the mess but refused to allow anyone to draw their tot until Marsh turned up.  I told him that his idea of ‘perks’ was a bit higher than I was prepared to ‘swing for’ but that I would be more than happy for him to take over the duties of rum bosun for the mess.  He happily agreed and I don’t think anymore work was done in the yard from that day on.  Those who weren’t totally written off with additional rum were drinking themselves legless in the bar which never seemed to close after lunch – except on Sundays (we felt the NAAFI girl needed some time to herself).  Give her her due, she didn’t seem to object to all of the additional hours and the mess made sure that she was well looked after.

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