'Before the beginning of years'
The Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm requested, politely, but with full weight of authority that I present myself for service forthwith. To prevent any quibble as to my financial position they enclosed in the letter, a railway warrant and a postal order for four shillings. This was to provide the price of meals I might consume en route, in the manner to which they thought I was accustomed. A princely sum termed, with fine wit, subsistence allowance.
The journey to HMS Drake at Devonport was uneventful if tiring and in due course I, with faltering steps and a large suitcase, reported to the Officer of the Watch. He regarded me with an eye like an egg poached in blood, "Well ..?" I realised that it would be inopportune to say that I was not. "Alfred Warren, Sir, reporting for Fleet Air Arm training."
There was a silence, then he uttered one word, "God!" He looked away into the far horizon, the word stayed for a full minute, then with no change of expression, but with diabolical ferocity, he shouted, "Messenger!!" There was a crash of boots in the guardhouse and a seaman hurled forth, "Sir?"
"Take this man to hut 13."
We hastened from the presence of The Presence.
It was the 11th March 1940 and the beginning of a new life that was to affect the rest of my days. Hut 13 proved to be the reception centre for new entrants to the Fleet Air Arm. It was here that I first encountered the sailor's friend – the Naval Hammock, I learned to enjoy its comfort. The following day I was told I should have to take a Trade Test. I had volunteered as a Fleet Air Arm Fitter (Electrical) and the Navy wanted to know my capabilities.
The Petty Officer in charge of our hut was a mine of information and reassuring to the timid among us. He had only one failing; he was a heavy smoker and fancied one brand, "Anybodies."
I was fortunate enough to pass the Trade Test and was then advanced for basic training. Those of us who had succeeded were taken by Naval launch to Trevol, the barracks and rifle range where we were to be for the next three weeks. We were met by Petty Officer Heath, he was to be our Instructor in parade ground drill, Naval etiquette and the use of the rifle. As we progressed in our training I learned that PO Heath was the type of man on whom the Navy is built. With all of us, the foolish, the wise, the ignorant, the smart Alec, he was patient, firm, encouraging and kind. God only knows how the unending stream of untutored had failed to sour him. Our time on the basic course was alternatively hard work and good meals laced with plenty of fresh air. Being young, we thrived on the treatment and surprisingly when the course ended we all wished it had lasted longer. The Navy must have been short of men for we all got through our Passing-out Parade.
We were returned to HMS Drake and were told that we would, within the next few days, be sent home on leave. Leave was usually granted to trained men and also gave the Drafting Commander a chance to find a berth for all these eager young men.
We were three days in barracks and then fell an event that those of us left will always recall. We were sitting in the Drafting Master-at-Arms' office waiting for our passes, a PO came out, a handful of Leave Passes and Ration Cards held before him, he began to read out the names ...
"Potts, Warren, Wastell, Williams," at this point he was interrupted by the Bosun's pipe, "Do you hear that, do you hear that, all leave cancelled, all leave cancelled!" The voice of the Tannoy ceased, we besieged the PO in vain, he walked back into his office.
The main gates had been closed and parties of men about to go home were told to report back to duty, Hitler had invaded Norway. We stood paralysed for a few minutes and then started to walk back to our own block. As we came to the Parade ground a Leading Hand of some years service pointed, "Look there lad, a Naval Landing Party going out – God help them!"
In two lines there stood fully kitted all the seamen from Raleigh block. A Chief PO gave the order, "Number," the front rank called out, the Chief paced as they numbered. When they came to eighty, there were three extra men on the end. The Chief passed his arm through the ranks, "You three, right turn, back to Barracks."
Someone at the back of me said, "Lucky bastards."
The Chief Petty Officer faced the waiting lines, "Form fours," a pause, "By the left, right wheel, quick march," and away they went, 160 men of the British Navy. A Naval Volunteer Landing Party.
We FAA ratings spent another three boring days hanging about and then were told that we were to go to Newcastle-under-Lyme for an electrical course, the Navy had commandeered a Girls High School for our lectures. There was of course the usual clot who wondered if the girls would still be there.
There was quite a crowd of us on the train to Newcastle-under-Lyme, I began to wonder if the Navy travelled only by rail. I also wondered when I should see the salt sea, my urge was to be sated in the fullness of days.
Another CPO met us at the end of our train journey and led us into trucks awaiting our arrival, in his hand he had a list and at intervals he halted the truck, took counsel at certain houses and called out the names of two or three ratings, we were being put into Civvy Billets. A Liverpool chap named Jack Stewart looked at me, "How about you and me for the next one?"
In due course our turn arrived; the PO took us to stay with Mr and Mrs Hope. We were accepted as members of the family and called Mrs Hope 'Mother', she was to prove to be a true mother. Her kindness to us and Mr Hope's kindly understanding was to give us great pleasure in our days of study.
We spent many happy days at Newcastle-under-Lyme, it was while I was here that Vera and I decided to marry. Vera Cope was the girl I had left behind in Birmingham. We discussed the idea of marriage on the occasions on which I popped home for odd week-end leaves. We finally made the decision and I asked the Naval chaplain to announce the Banns.
Vera and I were married on November 2nd at All Saints Church in Erdington. The Rev Chute performed the ceremony; he had known us both from our younger days. Not long after we became man and wife my course finished and we were on our way to Lee-on-Solent. This was the main base of the Fleet Air Arm and we moved in to await draft chits. Once more we were in a hutted camp with the usual large wooden sleeping dormitories. There were one or two chaps already in the huts and we, who were new arrivals, were made welcome and soon settled in.
Jack Stewart and I were still together and visited the usual rounds of picture houses, pubs and cafes. As we were now fully trained in the Navy's eyes we were allowed reasonable leave facilities and I managed to get back home to see Vera and the family on one or two long week-ends.
It was after returning from a week-end leave that I and one or two others in our hut heard our names called over the Tannoy with the usual addendum, "Report to the Drafting Office." On arriving there we were told to report for a medical examination and to check our kit, then we were given chits to draw Tropical Kit. Expecting to be on the move pretty soon I chanced a rebuff and asked the Drafting Officer if I could take a few days leave, to my surprise he said that if those of us on draft would give in our names the Drafting Commander might well grant a week's leave. I spread the good news and in due course we were home for a full week.
Vera and I spent a happy time together but the days passed too quickly and the Sunday arrived when I had to board the train back to Lee-on-Solent. I learnt on my return that our draft was for Dekelia, a Fleet Air Arm base in the Mediterranean. We waited for orders to move and we waited and waited, it was to be six weeks before we were to receive firm orders to go. I took as many opportunities as possible to get home to see Vera. The last week-end pass that I applied for, the Draft Officer said, "Be back here by midnight on Saturday." I told Vera that this would be the last leave I should have for some time.
On return to barracks, Jack came to see me, he had asked the Draft Officer if there was room for him on the draft. The Officer had told him that he could be fitted in, but said that sometimes, a man who went to be with a mate, was often the one who suffered. Jack told me of this and asked my opinion, I agreed with the Draft Officer, I said, "Leave it Jack, we'll meet again somewhere."
We started on our way to board ship which was berthed at Liverpool, the hour was two o'clock on Sunday 9th March 1941. Once again journeying by train we headed north for Liverpool. Late that night we ended up in a quiet side station somewhere in blacked-out England. I never remembered the name of the place but it was here that one of our boys got out his cornet and played for us as we waited for our connection. We ended up by marching round the platform singing our heads off, the cornet leading the way. The surrounding towns must have awakened to our rendering of "Come and join us." The arrival of our train silenced us and on we went.
We arrived at Liverpool in the small hours of the morning and we were soon at the docks where our ship the SS Britannia awaited us.