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Douglas was on holiday in north Wales with his cousin in February 1942 when he had to register for military service.

?I had to go to a little church hall to register. I stated a preference for the navy. I chose the navy because I liked the sea. It was very popular, the navy; it was the senior service and they were a bit more fussy about who they took! You could get into the navy if you had been in the Boy Scouts and knew semaphore because they were desperately short of signallers. You use flags to do the alphabet. It can be done very fast ? up to 12 words a minute. In Nelson?s time the signallers were known as ?gentlemen of the lower deck? because you had to be able to read and write and in those days that meant they were the sons of gentlemen.?

He had to report to Skegness and the unlikely site of Butlins Holiday Camp that had been turned into a naval training camp where he was to begin training as a signalman. First impressions were not promising.

?The first thing they did was line you up in your civvies and an officer came out. He looked as if he was old enough to be my granddad. What he was, was a pensioner and he said, ?Right, you are a load of stinking civvies and I am going to make you into sailors.? I thought, ?Crikey, fancy talking to us like that.? I was a young 18 and a shy sort of bloke.

There were rows and rows of huts built for holiday makers ? a couple and 2 children, and each had a double bed and bunk beds. Anyhow, they had 4 sailors in each hut. The sleeping accommodation was bizarre. The double bed had a barrier down the middle that was 3 planks of wood. We called it the ?walls of Jericho.?
Each chalet had a little wash basin with cold water and there was an electric heater that didn?t get very hot. It was a bitter winter and we were absolutely frozen. We were about 50 ? 25 metres from the sea and we were in the end chalet and the wind blew across. Some nights we didn?t bother to get undressed, we slept in our clothes. And the toilet arrangements! Of course you had to go outside to the toilet block in the freezing cold. I was brought up in a good home and to go to this was absolutely terrible, but you got used to it. We did drill and went to classes. We learned Morse code and semaphore, coding and special signals for convoys at sea.

The afternoon of our passing out parade we were dived -bombed by some Germans. We?d planned to go to a pub for a meal but some of the instructors and other people planning to come had been killed. It was our first experience of death and the meal had a cloud over it.?

After basic training you could you be sent to Portsmouth, Plymouth or Chatham. Douglas was sent to Portsmouth where he waited to be drafted to active service. He soon learned the ropes.

?The navy was very traditional ? steeped in history. For instance, you weren?t allowed to whistle. If you were caught whistling you would be put on a charge. That was because in earlier days a mutiny was started by someone whistling a certain tune. Also, everyone in the navy got a tot of rum and there was a procedure where you had to line up in a certain order. If you were an ordinary seaman you had 2 parts water with your rum, petty officers had one part water and full officers had it neat.

Some of his friends were lucky and got postings in Britain but Douglas was sent to Freetown in Sierra Leone. He was warned that it was a terrible place. They called it ?the white mans grave? because of the extreme heat.

?We set off with our kit bag and our hammocks. Each sailor had a rolled up hammock to carry. Inside were 2 blankets and a thin mattress. There were hooks in the deck head (ceiling) and we slung our hammocks from these. They were very comfortable. As the ship rolled the hammock swung gently.
Most of us were terribly homesick. We?d had embarkation leave and said goodbye to our mums and dads, brothers and sisters. Africa seemed like the other side of the world. There was talk of torpedoes and I must admit that I was frightened.
One good thing though was that signalmen had the privilege of going up onto the bridge with the officers. You could see what was going on ? much better than being a stoker down below.
We were with a convoy, mostly troop ships but there was an aircraft carrier with us. It was quite a sight ? 50 ships all steaming along together. Troop convoys would go very fast so they could outrun submarines.?

Freetown proved to be quite an experience.

?There was nothing at Freetown, just a few corrugated iron huts and a jetty. For accommodation we had an old Union Castle liner called the Edinburgh Castle. It had been converted into barracks. The accommodation was worse than Skegness. The engine had been taken out and it was just a hulk. The food was pretty grim and there were rats. Going ashore was interesting. It was so hot that shore leave was only from about 12 until 5 o?clock. I was so fed up I only went once. Some of the sailors used to get drunk. That was an experience. The men were so drunk they had to be thrown into the boat like a sack of potatoes. There was a beer called Black Horse that was twice as strong as any other beer. They were dragged down to the mess deck and they slept it off on the deck or a table. They couldn?t get into their hammocks.?

After 2 or 3 weeks in Freetown Douglas was given another interesting job. Some of the Frenchmen who had been rescued from Dunkirk had formed a Free French Navy. He was about to join them.

?I was told I would be drafted to the Commandant Drogou. I asked an officer what that was and he said it was a Free French ship - a flower class corvette ? and the best of bloody luck! I thought, ?Oh, crikey. What have they done now??
It was a boat specially designed to escort convoys ? not a big boat. The crew were all French with about 6 Brits on board. One of these was the liaison officer and he spoke fluent French. The idea was that the French could work with English ships because they had English signalmen on board. It was so unusual. Discipline was nil and the French didn?t really like us. The first day I was on board there was a knife fight. I asked this English chap who was helping me with my baggage what was going on and he said, ?Oh, don?t worry about them. Their bark is worse than their bite.? They had 3 sailors from New Caledonia on board. That was an island in the Pacific and they were Polynesian. They took a shine to us. They were our bodyguard!?

Food on board the ship was bad but it soon became worse.

?The refrigerator broke down and they couldn?t get it fixed so they decided to take livestock to sea. They got a pig, a crate stuffed with chickens and 3 ? 4 goats. They tied the pig up and it fouled the deck all the time. The cook was an albino Polynesian and a most uncouth man. One day he plonked 4 dead chicken in front of us and said, ?You no pluck, you no eat.? When the chickens were dished up they were just cut in half, right down the head and body. He couldn?t be bothered to cut the head off. We got fed up with this and lived off cornflakes and condensed milk for days.?

Another interesting experience took place when Douglas was on watch. It was very early in the morning and pitch black.

?One of the lookouts called that there was a ship, so we flashed it a message in code. There was no reply. We flashed again, 3 or 4 times. Still no reply. So someone rang down to the captain to say there was an unidentified ship. We were called to action stations. The captain came up and decided to fire star shells which would light up the sky so we could see the ship. There was a bang. They?d only opened the wrong box and were firing live ammunition! Finally one of the English chaps picked up an SOS message. A ship was being fired on by an enemy ship. I said, ?Oh yes, that?s us!? They fired about 5 rounds of live ammunition before they found a star shell. Then the ship ? it was only a small merchant ship started flashing back. It was a friendly ship and we all went on our way. If that had happened on an English ship people would have been court -martialled but they just laughed and joked about it.

In 1943 Douglas came back to England after convoying for about 15 months plying from Gibraltar and south to Pointe Noire on the west coast of Africa.

?The ship was returning for a re-fit. It was British built by Harland Wolfe in Northern Ireland. A re-fit was usually done every year or so to bring it up to date with the latest equipment that had been developed during the war.?

Douglas says it was exciting arriving back in the UK, meeting family and friends again but he was upset to hear about various friends who had been killed whilst in the forces or in air-raids. He remarks that his time abroad was very interesting, being on a French ship and learning how the Allies could cooperate in times of war. One has to experience serving under these circumstances to appreciate what it was like.
The ship was due for a fairly lengthy re-fit so the most of the French and British crew were drafted for disposal to other ships and establishments. Douglas was drafted to combined operations. This unit was to establish signal stations when assault troops landed during an invasion. He was posted to India and Burma and took part in the re-capture of Rangoon in May 1944.
He eventually retuned to the UK and was de-mobbed in May 1946.

Interview by Ed Gardner and Nicola Price

Keywords signals, convoy, Africa, morse code, Chatham, corvette, Free French
Collection Overseas Battle Fronts
Place Skegness, West Africa, Burma
Year 1942 - 1946
Conflict World War Two
File type image
Record ID number 134

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