Setting out on a long motorcycle journey in the month of January required a lot more thought than I'd given it. January is better described as the dead of winter. I left Chatham Dockyard at 0800 hours on 12th January 1959 clad in Army surplus motorcycle clothing better suited to desert warfare than a winter crossing of England.
Nevertheless that’s exactly what I did, leaving on a cold and wet morning. Three days before my twentieth birthday, I faced a daunting three hundred miles of slow winding roads passing through endless towns and villages. There were no fast two-lane highways in those days, and the speed limits varied from 30mph to 50mph,which was the maximum. Numbers of buses and lorries used the roads and getting stuck behind one could last for miles. Using a map while riding a motorcycle in the rain was impossible without pulling over. Around 10.30 am I passed through Croydon and Reading having covered perhaps fifty miles. Rain was seeping through my clothing. I was cold and wet as I pressed on to Newbury. I stopped at pub called the Spotted Bovine. I ordered a pint of best bitter and a pork- pie and sat beside a glowing fire. Leaving the pub half an hour later the rain had stopped. The improving weather lifted my spirits a little.
An hour later it was snowing. It was a mixture of rain and sleet that made the roads treacherous and slowed traffic. Late afternoon I crossed the Bristol Channel and entered Wales.
Here the roads quickly became even more winding and narrow. Just west of Newport, exhausted, half frozen and starving I pulled into a bed and breakfast for the night.
The next morning I was up and on the road very early. I felt refreshed and eager to reach my destination that afternoon. The bad weather continued with cold temperatures and more sleet. As I travelled deeper into Wales the roads became narrow lanes with high hedgerows on both sides. Often so narrow it was impossible to pass an oncoming vehicle.
About a mile apart were widened areas where one vehicle could pull over while another passed. It seemed the rule was the vehicle nearest the passing area would back up. In a car this works quite well as cars have a reverse gear. Motorcycles don’t. I'd have to stop and push the bike back.
At three o'clock that afternoon I had arrived in the town of Haverfordwest. I was filthy and tired but a mere fifteen miles from the base. I asked a local policeman for directions. Impressed, he listened to my adventures while pointing me in the direction of Harrier. When finally the main gate of HMS Harrier came into view it was a wonderful sight. I reported to the guardhouse and received my instructions. I found my barrack, had a hot bath and collapsed on my bunk.
HMS Harrier began in1947 as an extension to the naval air station at Dale, HMS Goldcrest. It was first known as Goldcrest 2. It was used as a test centre
for new radar and meteorology equipment.
In 1948 it became HMS Harrier, and radar training began with the arrival of the first classes. The camp consisted of mostly portable buildings, prefabricated accommodations, Nissan huts and such. The largest building was the Cotton Trainer, a place where I'd spend much of my time while learning the radar trade. Harrier closed down in 1960 and radar training moved to HMS Dryad in Southwick
During my first days at Harrier I was re-united with several of my old Ganges shipmates. In particular I remembered Michael Foster and Andy Brown, classmates from the Ganges Annex.
The radar plot course covered a period of six months. I found the training familiar having done much of the same thing aboard ship for the last two years. Memorizing the sequence for turning on several different types of radar sets wasn't so easy. A unit might consist of three or four large cabinets containing radio valves and tubes. They took time to warm up before they were operational. Turning the wrong switch or using a wrong sequence could result in burning out a circuit. This was guaranteed to bring the wrath of an instructor down upon your head. I learned that in many areas of training we worked closely with radar-qualified Wrens. The term ‘wren’ was substituted for WRNS – Woman’s Royal Naval Service. Harrier had a compliment of some eighty Wrens, most of whom were in the radar branch. To say that eighty Wrens could be a distraction would have been an understatement. Aboard ship we had long since become used to the absence of female company. At Harrier we might bump into a wren at every turn. Of course there was absolutely nothing wrong with that. It was a simply marvellous situation, just like living in paradise. The wrens usually found themselves on the receiving end of most jokes taking place at the camp. The first thing a shipmate asked me was, did I know the difference between a wren and a sailor? I replied, “I’m sure you are going tell me”. Well it’s obvious a wren wears a double-breasted jacket. Waiting one morning for our instructor to arrive some fool decided to give us his slant on algebra. On the backboard he wrote the following example (AB/wren = wren/due = AB/C’s) For those of you not sailors let me explain. We were all AB’s (Able Seaman) and wren over due meant she was pregnant, the responsible AB then volunteered to go overseas. Another regular event was to wake up and see a variety of wren’s underwear flying from the masthead. Embarrassing for the owners whose names were clearly stamped on each item. The morning colour party took pleasure in attempting to return the items after hoisting the Ensign. Needless to say, no wren ever asked to have her missing knickers returned.
In my six months at Harrier I saw romances blossom and wither among my shipmates
Owning a motorcycle and sidecar proved to be a valuable asset. Indeed any vehicle was an asset when so far from the nearest town. Within my first week at Harrier I was dating a very pretty wren name Margaret. She was one of the few wrens not in the radar branch. Margaret wore a trade badge of crossed flags denoting the Signals Branch. Better known in the Navy as a bunting tosser.
We quickly became very close and we spent every available off-duty moment together. We divided our time together between the base cinema, Haverfordwest and long walks along the cliff pathways. Our romance grew steadily and for the first time in my life I was truly in love. In previous romances I'd often thought I was in love. However this time it just felt right and had to be the real thing. Anyone seeing me heading to the barracks after kissing Margaret goodnight would probably have agreed. I literally bounced back to the mess leaping in the air to kick my heels together. Boy! I must have had it bad.
In Haverfordwest we'd eat supper at a little café on the main street. I usually had sausage and chips while Margaret ordered mushrooms on toast. I confess I'd never tasted a mushroom, they reminded me too much of 'shit on a raft'.
In mid March, with the first signs of spring in the air Easter leave began. I wasn't excited to be going home. Leave meant separation from Margaret for two long weeks.
I made the best of it riding my bike home via the Holyhead ferry. In Belfast I visited relatives and friends showing off my machine. One evening I dropped in at McWater`s Bakery to pick up my father. I thought he'd be pleased as I lowered him into the sidecar. Especially as I had him home fifteen minutes earlier than usual. He appeared relieved as he climbed out of the sidecar and disappeared indoors. Later he said to Anna "tell that wee fella not to pick me up in that contraption again.”
Eventually leave ended and excitedly I returned to Harrier. Margaret and I were reunited and all was well with the world. A few weeks later Margaret invited me to her home in Worcestershire. It was a big step and I was quit anxious about meeting her parents for the first time. What would they think of me? Nevertheless I set about cleaning and polishing the motorcycle for the trip. I hoped my bike would be impressive even if I wasn’t.
A few days before we were due to leave a crisis arose. Margaret's parents wrote pleading with her not to travel home on a motorcycle. Her mother considered it much too dangerous. It seemed that just like my father she saw my contraption as unsafe.
Without transportation it looked like the weekend was off. Travelling to Worcestershire in private transportation was difficult enough. Public transportation such as trains and buses were either unavailable indirect or too slow. I scrambled around the camp looking for an alternative. I offered my bike in trade for a car for the weekend. A classmate agreed to swap his 1938 Hillman Minx convertible for my bike. This solved my immediate problem but his car left a lot to be desired. The many faults included a leaky top, worn steering, bald tires and almost non-existent brakes. The only saving grace was the fact that it couldn’t reach much over thirty miles per hour. That at least made the need for braking a little less urgent. If Margaret's mother had been aware of these facts my motorcycle might have regained favour.
Spending a whole weekend with Margaret would be wonderful. Upon our arrival in Worcestershire I soon realised I was not favoured as a suitor by her mother. During the weekend we drove to Bristol to visit my brother Tommy and his wife Joan. Tommy had a 1936 Hillman Minx saloon for sale that piqued my interest. I decide to sell the motorbike when I returned to base and buy the car. It was two years older than the borrowed convertible but was in much better condition with brakes that actually worked. Margaret and I arrived back at Harrier late on the Sunday night to a silent and sleeping camp. We unloaded the car, kissed goodnight and returned to our respective messes.
The next morning I returned the ignition key to its owner. He looked a little sheepish when he saw me, and I understood why when I saw my bike tucked in beside our mess block. The sidecar body was sitting on the ground behind it.
Apparently driving down to the village pub with two passengers, one in the sidecar and one on the pillion they hit a bump. The sidecar body parted from the frame and came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the road.
The sudden loss of weight caused the bike to veer off into a hedgerow dumping the two riders in dense thicket. The helpless sidecar passenger was trapped and sitting in the middle of the road. The canopy could only be opened from the outside. No real damage had been done and after thinking about it, it was really quite funny. The bolts holding the sidecar to the frame had rusted and worked loose. I’d never sat in the sidecar so was unaware that a problem existed. However I was most grateful it hadn’t happened to Margaret while visiting her parents
I didn't bother repairing the sidecar and removed the frame and wheel from the bike. I placed a ‘for sale’ ad on the mess hall notice board. A few messmates showed immediate interest and by the end of the second week a deal was concluded and the bike was gone. My next off duty weekend I made tracks to Bristol and bought my brother’s Hillman.
In May the radar course became more complicated and we spent a lot of time in
the Cotton Trainer learning aerial radar tactics. No one in the class had served
aboard an aircraft carrier so the type of radar we now worked with was new and unfamiliar. We surely caused our instructors no end of problems as we
attempted to vector aircraft onto enemy targets.
Our aircraft were known as ‘Friendly’ and we were supposed to guide then to the enemy aircraft, known as ‘Bogeys’. It was easy to get confused and mistake a classmate's Friendly as a Bogey. We often ended up shooting down our own planes. Slowly we began to learn and were able to accurately guide a friendly fighter onto a Bogey.
The training was a simulation without real aircraft. I had no desire to do it
for real and lived in fear of being posted to an aircraft carrier.
The month of May was a difficult month in more ways than one. I received a
letter from home saying Pop was unwell and had to leave work. There was no
mention of what was actually wrong with him. The omission caused me concern. I knew Pop never missed work. Whatever was wrong with him must be serious.
Later Anna wrote to explain that he had a large sore on the inside of his mouth. Apparently it was caused by poorly fitting false teeth. I relaxed, thinking it would soon heal and with new better fitting teeth everything would be okay.
The next bad news arrived a few days later. Margaret had received a draft notice to
leave Harrier on the 20th June. Her new posting was HMS Mercury the Naval
Signal Station located near Portsmouth. I was unprepared for the possibility
that Margaret might move. Deep down we both knew it was bound to happen but had chosen not to think about it. I knew when the course ended I'd be drafted and possibly stationed overseas.
The weekend before Margaret was due to leave we packed the Hillman with her
many belongings and headed for Worcestershire. She had an unusual collection of
items that included a teddy bear named ‘Twurly’ and a potted cactus called
She held Alfred on her lap for the duration of the journey. He actually turned out very handy because during the trip we ran into heavy rain. The Hillman was a saloon car with the centre roof section made of fabric. Over the years the material had deteriorated and rain dripped directly above Margaret's lap. Alfred had never before been so well watered.
After Margaret departed Harrier I suffered indescribable pain and heartache.
I had never before missed someone so completely. We wrote to each other
every day and, while it was a thrill to receive letters they only offered
The commencement of exams forced me to clear my mind and prepare for the
tests ahead. The exams lasted for a whole week and consisted of written, oral
and practical. The last thing I wanted to do was fail.
Fortunately I passed, and on the 15th July 1959 I was sewing my newly qualified radar badge on the right arm of my uniform.
In the following days draft notices began to arrive. This could be exciting or disastrous depending on where one was posted.
When my name appeared I was dumbfounded to read I was posted to HMS
Dolphin, to begin submarine training. I didn't recall volunteering for the
submarine service. I checked with my Divisional Petty Officer. He looked up
my records and sure enough I had put my name forward whilst aboard the
Slowly it all came back to me. I remembered that particular tot time when I decided an extra shilling a day was a good idea. Once recovered from the initial shock it really wasn't so bad. The extra pay would certainly be handy. Better still Dolphin was in Portsmouth, and so was Margaret.
I loaded the Hillman with my kit and hit the road. Leaving Harrier my journey would be more comfortable than my January arrival on the motorcycle.