Amphion sailed shortly after my transfer to the Taciturn and I remained an untested submariner having yet to dive underwater. Near the end of February Margaret was transferred to HMS Dauntless a base near Reading. Here she began embarkation preparations for Malta. The Navy seemed set to keep us apart. Margaret would be stationed in Malta for the next two years. I found time for only one brief visit to Reading before her departure. Even though there was no hope of weekend leave I still explored all the possibilities. Military aircraft flew to and from Malta regularly. I inquired into the possibility of hitching a ride during my two-week leave. It was possible, but I had to have enough cash for a return civilian flight should the military one be cancelled. I had no chance of raising enough money in the time available. So my Malta plan never got off the ground so to speak. For now it was back to writing letters every day.
At the end of May the Taciturn completed her refit and we headed out to do our sea trials in and around the lochs of Scotland.
The first dive after a refit is very tense there always exists the possibility that somebody forgot to tighten a bolt or set a valve correctly. The Captain takes the boat slowly deeper while everyone watches and listens for problems. Every creak and groan seems to echo throughout the boat setting nerves on edge. The silence is sometimes broken when a compartment reports a problem over the intercom. Stern compartment reporting leak at escape hatch flange or some similar defect.
Once these items are corrected we continued to go deeper to reach and test our maximum depth. Occasionally a boat has to return to port to repair the more serious problems. Thankfully the Taciturn was a sound boat reaching its maximum depth and returning safely to the surface to continue our trials.
Having finally dived beneath the waves I saw myself as a submariner. Even the complicated blowing of the head lost its fear.
However it would remain the low point of serving on a 'T' class boat. There was nothing worse than going to the head to find the bowl full to the brim. No one bothered to empty it until it was an absolute necessity. It usually occurred at night when one was half asleep and late for the watch change.
Margaret and I continued writing but I was becoming aware that the period between her letters was lengthening. I decided to do what I should have done before she left for Malta. I purchased an engagement ring and along with a letter proposing marriage I sent it off.
At the same time I wrote to her parents asking for permission to marry their daughter. Two weeks later disaster struck. First, her parents wrote saying they had only allowed Margaret to join the WRNS to further her career. They made no mention of my marriage proposal, but their message was clear. This news alone didn't deter me, we were both over twenty-one and could make our own decisions.
But the second letter really took the wind out of my sails. Margaret wrote to say she was returning the ring because of the customs duty required. Apparently the Maltese customs were charging a duty of £12 sterling.
At this point there was nothing more I could do. A few days later the ring arrived in the mail. Margaret hadn't actually turned down my proposal but more importantly she hadn't said yes either. It was a serious set back that I could do little about. We continued writing to each other but the period between letters continued to lengthen. I refused to believe I was losing Margaret, yet somehow deep down I knew the truth. I don't know when I actually accepted that it was over it just simply seemed to fade away. I was heartbroken, and tried I to handle my depression by drinking too much.
Having an unused engagement ring can be a problem especially when the owner is often drunk. I got engaged at least once during an all-night pub-crawl. What finally happened to the ring, and where it eventually ended up is open to speculation. My shipmates retrieved it once and saved me from doing something stupid. I think in the end I might have dispatched it to the bottom of Portsmouth Harbour. On the other hand perhaps a faded Rose is still awaiting my return to Portsmouth.
Toward the end of the sea trials I made what, at the time, seemed to be a completely harmless decision, but it would eventually have a disastrous effect upon my future.
Coming alongside in Faslane for weekend leave, Matt Smalley, the boat's chef, asked me for a favour. He planned to rent a car but had no licence, so he asked me if I would drive for him. He wanted to visit his girlfriend and their two-year old daughter, who lived in Lochgilphead, a village on the shores of Loch Fynn. It was more than a year since he'd last seen them. This surprised me because I knew Matt was married and his wife lived in married quarters in Portsmouth.
However, I decided his extra marital activities were none of my business. I was more interested in what type of car was he going to rent. Plus it would be nice just to get away for a couple of days.
Matt actually borrowed a car from a shipmate on the depot ship. It was a 1957 Wolseley and it appeared to be in good condition. Which was a good thing because Lochgilphead was a hundred miles away over narrow and twisting roads.
We set out on a Friday afternoon in clear sunny weather. My first experience of driving through the Scottish Highlands of Argyll was one of breath taking beauty.
After a short drive to Arrochar we began a long steep climb to the top the of a mountain with a sign at the top that read 'Rest and be Thankful.' Then we began the long precipitous descent to the left bank of Loch Fynn. At the tip of the loch we crossed a hump back bridge and followed a road down the right hand sided. The loch is fed from the clear icy streams that cascade down off the surrounding snow-capped highlands.
Motoring along we soon reached Inveraray, which is the residence of the Duke of Argyll and the site of his magnificent and ancient castle. The winding road ran along the waters edge, abreast of rolling fields that were strewn with boulders and thick heather. We passed an occasional lonely crofter’s cottage. Sheep dotted the forbidding landscape that swept high onto the towering misty peaks. Driving for approximately four hours, and passing several tiny villages, we finally reach our destination.
My first visit to Lochgilphead was a very pleasant experience and I met many warm
and friendly people. Matt had arranged for the both of us to stay with his girlfriend’s parents who lived in a four bedroom council house on Brodie Crescent.
I was surprised at how welcome the family made us feel. I was actually expecting a somewhat cooler reception, considering Matt's recent exploits with one of their daughters. Had I not known better I would have thought this was a reunion with their favourite son-in-law. We were treated to a wonderful home cooked meal before
heading to a local bar for a few drinks.
Matt's girl friend was named Irene, a girl about my own age. She worked as a nursing aid in a local psychiatric hospital. Her little two-year old daughter Lorraine was very cute and it was easy to understand why Matt wanted to see her. The Campbell family consisted of the parents Angus and Marion, brothers Douglas, Angus and John, sisters
Irene and Marie.
Douglas was the eldest and living in Australia but was planning to return home soon. John, at twelve was the youngest and still going to school. Marie was sixteen or seventeen and had not yet begun working. Angus worked for the local electricity dept. He had recently returned from Germany having served two years national service in the army.
The following morning after breakfast Matt, Irene and Lorraine went into the village. Left on my own and feeling like a stranger, I decided to take the car and tour the area. Around lunchtime we all met up at a local pub to down a few pints and play darts. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of the seemingly unattached girls in the bar. That evening we were going to a dance in the village of Ardrishiag, a couple of miles beyond Lochgilphead. I was partnered with a girl name Myra, who lived a few doors
down on the crescent.
On the way to the dance we stopped off at another pub. Apparently it was customary to consume several whiskies washed down with pints of ale before dancing.
By the time we arrived at the dance hall I was primed and ready for anything. However, I quickly discovered what I wasn't prepared for, a Highland fling. Fling
being the key word. I was also not prepared for the amount of energy that was required.
I was flung around a whirling dance floor amid what sounded like ancient clan’s war chants. Nevertheless, I survived, and I actually had a good time.
After the dance I dropped Matt and Irene off at the house, and then I tried it on with Myra in the back seat of the car. Unsuccessfully, I might add.
The next morning I awoke to a throbbing headache and aching muscles, and I was hardly out of bed when Myra arrived. I thought she might have been angry about the
previous nights advances, but apparently not. She even suggested that after breakfast we all go for a walk.
Later the four of us dropped into a local pub for lunch, and it was almost 2pm by the time we were ready to drive back to Faslane. Thus ended my first visit to Lochgilphead. It had been great fun and I was invited to come back again soon.
With our sea trials completed we left Scotland to join the 1st Submarine
Squadron, based at Fort Blockhouse in Portsmouth. On the 14th May 1960 I was
assigned a temporary transfer to HMS Dryad to complete a Navigator Yeoman’s
But the course had barely started when, on the 27th May, my father died. I received a telegram the following morning and I was immediately released on a week of compassionate leave to attend the funeral.
My father's death was a far greater loss to me than my family ever realised. I'd missed living with him for the first thirteen years of my life, and it was only now that I was beginning to feel a close relationship with him. I was well aware that his illness was
terminal, and I should have been prepared for the inevitable. But preparing for the
death of someone so close is easier said than done. The loss left me with a feeling of terrible sadness.
He was buried next to our mother at Carnmoney Cemetery. When my mother died in 1939 the family could only afford a simple grave marked by a numbered tag placed on a raised mound of earth. Now that we were slightly better off we raised enough money to have a white marble headstone and surround placed on it.
The day after the funeral, feeling very sorry for myself, I wandered down the
Ballygomartin Road. I wasn't heading in any particular direction, and I had no
idea of what to do during the two remaining days of leave.
Lost in a world of my own I almost collided with a girl coming from the opposite direction. As I stopped to apologise I thought she looked familiar, then I realised she was the young girl who, a few years earlier, had called me ‘Rock’.
I blushed as I clumsily apologized and explain who I was. With a warm and friendly smile she said she was fine. She offered her sympathy saying how sorry she was for the loss of my father. We stood there for what seemed like an eternity as I struggled to make small talk.
I knew I wasn't being very suave with this pretty young girl. Her name was Eleanor and she was on her way home from work. I was so taken by her that I ask to walk her home. On the way to her house I learned that she was training as a seamstress at Ewarts Mill. She was only fifteen, but her sixteenth birthday was only a month away on the 26th June. I made a mental note of the date, planning to send a card when I
got back to Portsmouth.
As I walked along with Eleanor my head must have been in the clouds because I stumbled when she stopped at her front gate. We stood in another awkward silence while I searched for the courage to ask her out.
That evening, after supper, I arrived for my first date with Eleanor, and when she
opened the door to greet me she took my breath away. When I'd met her earlier coming from work I thought she was beautiful. Now she was absolutely gorgeous.
That evening was the first of our many visits to the Stadium cinema on the
corner of Tennant Street. Later, after the show, standing at her front door we embraced and I kissed her gently. I think this was her first real kiss.
I was very disappointed when she told me she was going to a Gospel meeting the following evening with a couple of friends. She didn't want to let them down, but then added that I was welcome to come along too. I politely declined; Gospel meetings
were not my style. There was a wave of these Gospel meetings going on in Belfast at the time, promoting what they termed as ‘Good Living’. Their list of sins included going to the cinema, pubs and dancing. They regularly handed out religious tracts and preached to lines of people outside cinemas on Friday and Saturday nights.
I was keen to spend time with Eleanor, but not at a Gospel meeting. I was already guilty of their first three sins
On Sunday evening I had to catch the steamer back to England. Eleanor and I
met in the afternoon and we went for a walk. We rode the bus to the city limits
at Legoniel. Then, hand in hand, we followed a pathway onto the surrounding
hills to look down on our grand old city. When we returned home around suppertime
our last kiss was more of a peck than an ardent embrace. I realised that, because
it was still daylight, Eleanor was too shy to be seen kissing in public. We
said our sad farewell, promising to write each other as often as possible.
On my return to Dryad I joined another class that allowed me to complete the yeoman course. I eventually rejoined the Taciturn on 18th June 1960, just in time to
sail for Londonderry.
I was pleased about visiting Derry as there would be the opportunity of a weekend
leave, and I could see Eleanor again. I remembered to send her a birthday card, and
I’d also posted a couple of letters.
We were on exercise somewhere North of Scotland, and as usual the weather was foul. We were scheduled to spend two weekends in Derry, but the first was delayed by bad weather and we docked on a Saturday afternoon, too late to get home for the weekend.
On the second visit we arrived on time, and I was granted weekend leave. It was
between paydays so I had to hitchhike the eighty miles to Belfast. I arrived home at roughly 8 pm and immediately called on Eleanor. We enjoyed an all too brief but happy two days together. On Sunday, to be safe, I left at noon to hitch back to the boat. It was my lucky day. No sooner had I put my thumb up when an RN ambulance heading to Derry stopped and gave me a lift, right to the dockyard gates. Once again it was back to the North Sea and more hard work. In my off duty moments I would lie on my bunk and let my thoughts wander back to Eleanor. For the first time since Margaret I was beginning to believe I could fall in love again. I knew I had to be cautious and take things slowly. Eleanor was only sixteen and hardly old enough for serious involvement. Margaret was still a painful memory, and I didn't want to set myself up for the same hurt again.
I thought the Navy must be co-operating with my new romance when I learned of our next destination. The Taciturn was scheduled to dock in Belfast for a few days in July. I was over the moon to actually be sailing into my hometown. I arranged for my
sister Anna and Eleanor to visit the boat while we were alongside. I first carefully explained why they should not wear skirts for the visit.
When a submarine was opened to visitors, it was a race to stand at the bottom of the torpedo-loading hatch to help the ladies down the ladder. In harbour, when the batteries are being charged, air is drawn though the conning tower hatch. It causes an updraft at the forward hatch, where the visitors enter. The popular style of the wide skirt of the sixties often made them difficult to control in high winds. Can you can imagine the effect on a skirt from the air blowing up through the hatch while a girl climbs down. The unfortunate girl needed both hands to grip the handrails, which left her with no means of controlling her billowing skirt. It was marvellous fun and a great view for the sailors below. Little concern was given to our unfortunate and embarrassed young victims. In the case of Anna and Eleanor I made very sure they would not be embarrassed. They would wear trousers. The tour of the boat didn’t impress the girls very much. Anna remarked that it must be like living in a sewer pipe.
After Belfast it was back to Portsmouth for some minor repairs before
joining an NATO exercise in the Atlantic. Although the Taciturn was built during
the war, her age didn't detract from the fact that she was still quite a remarkable
vessel. In the early fifties she had undergone an extensive refit and conversion. The old conning tower and 4inch deck gun were removed and replaced with a streamline fin. The pressure hull was cut in two and an extension inserted to lengthen the boat. The extra length provided space for another bank of batteries. This resulted in a very fast boat, capable of some eighteen knots underwater, a speed that was unheard of in a diesel electric submarine at the time. No wonder they were known as ‘Super T’s. However, it was a speed only to be used in an emergency because at eighteen knots the batteries drained in about thirty minutes.
I only experienced this amazing burst of speed once during my time on board. Lurking around the Bay of Biscay in the late autumn of 1960, we were positioned to attack an aircraft carrier task force. During the early morning watch I picked up a large radar contact that was determined to be the enemy force. As the contact closed it separated into a circle of several smaller contacts with three larger ones inside. I counted approximately twenty ships. A huge screen of escorts positioned around a carrier and two cruisers. The Skipper, using the smaller attack periscope, did a quick sweep to judge the situation. He decided to stay at periscope depth and attempt to sneak inside the circle between two frigates. The plan went well for the first few minutes and we glided silently past the escorts. Suddenly all hell broke loose as we were hit by several sonar pings from three or four ships. The game was up and if we waited around we would certainly be declared sunk.
That was when I experienced the power of our extra battery. Going to full ahead we turned and dived to two hundred feet in what seemed like seconds. Inside the boat it was almost like flying as we banked hard over and surged forward. In no
time at all we were clear of the searching escorts and well outside the screen.
We slowed to three knots and crept away, thinking perhaps we'd get another chance
later. As it happened we never contacted the enemy force again. We had not failed completely, though. At the exercise debriefing it was noted that the only boat to
penetrate the screen and live was the Taciturn.
The exercises continued throughout the remainder of the year because of the growing concern over the increasing Cold War brinkmanship.
Over Christmas of 1960 I was home on two weeks leave, and all of it was spent with Eleanor. On Christmas Eve as I was seeing Eleanor home she handed me a gift wrapped neatly in Christmas paper. She told me not to open it until the following morning. When I opened it the next morning I found a lovely Ronson cigarette lighter. But what really made the gift so special were the words engraved on it. ‘My Love Always, Eleanor’. Even though I’d recently quite smoking this was something I’d always cherish and carry with me. Through the holidays we danced and saw several films, but our favourite time was just sitting in the parlour playing records. The front parlour in our house was seldom used and was mostly available whenever we wanted it. I'd light the fire in the later afternoon and by the time Eleanor arrived the room would be cosy and warm.
In the dim lighting we'd listen to Perry Como, Jimmy Rodgers and Doris Day
singing their latest hits. We’d sit together on the sofa with our arms around each
other talking, petting and kissing. These were warm and tender moments, which are rarely experienced beyond the prime of one’s youth.
When my leave was over Eleanor came to the docks to see me off. We kissed one last time before I headed for the gangway. It was a warm and loving embrace. Eleanor was no longer quite so shy as when we’d first kissed in daylight. She handed me the photo I'd been pestering her for. I wanted to have it above my bunk where I'd see it each time I turned in. I was in love again, and a bounce had returned to my step. With Eleanor’s photo fixed above my bunk I was soon back in the North Sea on NATO exercises.
The North Sea is usually rough and cold, and it makes submarine operations very difficult. At periscope depth, in gale force conditions, we sometimes broke the surface, and this would cause our Skipper to go ballistic. In wartime, breaking the surface unintentionally could result in you being detected, which might result in the loss of the boat.
Living on a submarine in such dreadful weather conditions was also very unpleasant. The chef was often unable to provide us with a hot meal.
During these exercises the submarine’s actions were always covert. We were the
enemy, and just using the periscope could put us at risk of being detected. So surfacing to recharge the batteries was out of the question. This left us with only one option, and that was snorting. Snorting enabled us to draw fresh air into the boat and run the diesel engines, which in turn recharged the batteries. Although the snort mast operates much like a periscope, it has a much larger profile making it even more prone to detection. For that reason we only snorted after dark.
The problem with snorting in heavy seas is that it can cause some very unpleasant things to happen. For instance, if the snort dips below a wave, a valve snaps shut and cuts off the air, and this causes the diesels to shut down.
And in the few moments that it takes for the diesels to actually stop, they draw air from inside the boat creating a vacuum. Sleeping shipmates were often awoken abruptly with extreme pain in their eardrums. There would be a chorus of extremely colourful curses from the accommodation compartment, heaping blame on those who were supposed to be controlling the depth.
After a couple of weeks on such an exercise the conditions on the boat deteriorates and the crew become filthy, tired and often antagonistic. Arguments over the most silly and petty issues often erupted on the mess decks, and it took the intervention of cooler heads to stop them getting out of control.
Sometimes the flagship would call a brief halt to the exercise and order the submarines to the surface. While this was probably done with the best of intentions,
it actually had the opposite effect on us. The Admiral probably thought we'd all come
rushing out on to the deck for some much needed fresh air. But the problem was that a submarine on the surface in rough seas had as much water washing over it as it had under it. Going out onto the upper deck would have been suicidal.
Serving meals and most other tasks were all but impossible inside the pitching boat. A submarine is designed for stealth and silent running beneath the waves. On the surface, in heavy seas, it reacts like flat-bottomed barge.
But all exercises do eventually come to an end, and we were ordered to Faslane for repairs, and some welcome shore leave for the crew. Once again I was on my way home for Easter. I spent all of my two weeks leave with Eleanor. We did all the usual things, went to the pictures, went to the dances, and sat in the front parlour playing records. I borrowed an old car from a friend and we drove down to Dublin for the day, just before I had to return to duty.
During the summer of 1961 we mostly operated in the North Atlantic. There was a lot of concern about the cold war, and the fact that it appeared to be escalating.
Moscow and Washington were engaged in a dangerous game of brinkmanship, and our sea time and patrols increased accordingly. We spent most of our time sailing around the areas between Ireland and Iceland, listening for and attempting to track any Russian boats that might be heading out into the Atlantic.
To refuel and take on supplies we occasionally docked at Faslane, which was always a welcome respite. Matt and I planned another visit to Lochgilphead and we invited two of our shipmates, Michael Foster and Michael Chislett, to come with us.
Michael Chislett had only recently joined the Taciturn. He and I had quickly become good friends.
Getting to and from Lochgilphead wasn't always easy. The weather was often bad and we couldn't always afford to rent a car. Hitching a ride in the Highlands was never the simple answer either. The traffic was scarce and not everyone stopped. Wearing a uniform did improve our chances but nevertheless we still ended up doing a lot of walking. The biggest worry was getting back to the to base on time. With no guarantee of a ride, we ran the risk of missing the boat.
During one of these long and lonely walks the idea of buying another car
began to grown. However the problem with owning a car whilst you were serving in the Navy was where you were going to keep it.
Portsmouth was our homeport and the obvious place. But a car in Portsmouth wasn't much use if I was in Scotland. I’d been saving for some time and the money was starting to burn a hole in my pocket. It was time to go in search of a car.
I'd owned several ancient and unreliable pre-war cars of 1930's vintage, but this time I was determined to find a Morris Minor, Austin A35, or a Hillman Minx from the 1950’s era. Unfortunately my savings didn't match my desire. Those small cars, which were easy on petrol, were also in demand and they fetched a good price. On one sales lot I saw a clear example of this. A cheap and cheerful Morris Minor was selling for £1000, parked next to it was a luxury Mk 9 Jaguar with a price of £500. Both were 1956 models and in similar condition with low mileage. I couldn't afford either one and certainly couldn’t have afforded the petrol to run a big Jag. I finally settled for a very nice 1952 Morris Isis four door saloon with a six-cylinder engine for around a hundred pounds. It was finished in beautiful black gloss paint, with lots of chrome, but what really impressed me was the fact that it had a radio. I'd never owned a car
with a radio before.
I was very proud of my new acquisition and I spent as much time polishing it as I did driving it. But I only had a few days to enjoy it before we sailed into the North Atlantic once again. I tucked it in behind the accommodation block, locked it up and prayed that it would remain safe and sound until I returned.
Throughout the remainder of the summer we exercised in the North Atlantic, working closely with many NATO units.
To break the monotony of constantly being hunted by a fleet of anti-submarine vessels, we made brief weekend trips to Gibraltar, and near the end of August we visited the French port of Lorient.
The town had been a major U-Boat base during the Second World War. The huge submarine pens were impressive concrete structures, with heavy steel doors that were designed to withstand the most determined raid. Once inside the pens the German boats were able to refit, rearm and refuel in complete safety. I was disappointed that we were berthed at a wharf and not in one of the pens. I can’t say Lorient was one of my more memorable shore runs. Sidewalk cafes serving wine was popular with the locals, but there were no English style pubs, no best bitter and no darts. The language was a problem too and the locals were not particularly friendly. It was probably due to Allied actions during the war. Churchill had ordered the destruction of the French fleet before Hitler could use it. Lorient and other ports being used by the U-Boats were subjected to constant heavy bombing. The raids cost the lives of many French sailors and civilians. It was an unfortunate necessity of war. I tried understanding why we received such a cool reception, but it wasn't easy. I felt like asking them where they thought they'd be today if we hadn't done those things.
The following weekend we visited the port of Brest. It was much like Lorient, and the people had a similar cool attitude towards us. I suppose I should have expected it, history has shown the French and English were never the best of friends.
On a Sunday evening I was on duty watch, and preparing the boat for an early departure the following morning. I was in the forward torpedo compartment installing two of the three ‘strong backs’ below the torpedo-loading hatch. On British submarines and in fact most submarines in general, the torpedo-loading hatch is the weakest point of the pressure hull. The problem is the length of the torpedoes, they are at least 20ft, and have to be loaded at an angle.
The loading hatch is fitted over the pressure hull at approximately a thirty-degree angle to enable the torpedo to pass into the compartment. This creates an oblong hole in the pressure hull, that is much weaker than the usual round type of hatch The ‘strong backs’ are inserted across the oblong gap to take up the pressure when the boat dives. I was only installing two for the moment leaving enough space for the sailors coming from shore to enter through the hatch. The third would be installed in the morning when the hatch was shut.
A ‘strong back’ is a solid iron bar that weighs roughly one hundred pounds. It is necessary to use the ladder to reach the insert points. I lifted the first one above my head and it slipped neatly into place without a problem.
For the second one I had to step higher up the ladder and as I was about to slip it into place I nearly lost my footing. I arched my back as I desperately attempted to control my balance and felt a sharp pain at the base of my spine. Somehow I managed to hold on and slip the bar into place.
The panic was over. Had I dropped the ‘strong back’ it would have gone right through the deck plates and probably caused major damage. Or worse it might have struck a shipmate.
The next morning when they called of the hands at 0500 hrs I rolled over to swing my legs out of the bunk and almost fainted from the sudden pain. I remained perfectly still and flat on my back afraid to move again. Of course, no one believed that I was in pain. The duty Petty Officer eventually stopped shouting at me and informed the coxswain I was ill. I wasn't ill! I was simply unable to move without causing myself severe pain.
Once we cleared the harbour and the boat dived, the coxswain arrived to find out what was wrong with me. I'd managed to struggle out of my bunk but I could only sit upright keeping very still. The slightest movement caused me awful pain.
Submarines didn’t carry medical personnel and the coxswain was responsible for giving first aid and administering medication. Medication at sea usually meant a couple of codeine tablets. That’s just what I received, plus a bandage wrapped around my waist.
The bandage offered no support to my back and merely rolled into a ball around my middle when I moved. It was decided that I should be transferred to the depot ship to see a Medical Officer.
Transferring someone from a submarine at sea is an ordeal even when the person is fully fit. For me climbing to the bridge and inching myself into a small boat that rolled heavily with the sea motion was total agony. The whaler took me to the depot ship and I finally made it to the sick bay. After a cursory exam the doctor said I had a slipped disc. I was to stay on board the depot ship resting in the sick bay for a week. The treatment I received during this time was to sleep on a hard board instead of a mattress. At the end of the week I was declared ‘fit for light duties’ and returned to the Taciturn. I didn't bother explaining to the doctor there was no such thing as light duties on a submarine. I was dragging my right leg noticeably when I left the ship to rejoin the Taciturn.
Slowly the pain subsided and my back recovered, and soon I was walking normally
again. I was young and healthy, and I quickly forgot about the whole episode.
I never imagined it would return some ten years later and affect me for the rest of my life.
My growing friendship with Michael Chislett was proving to be an added bonus. He was a competent submariner, and being a few years my senior he acted as my mentor. Through his friendship and patience I learned so much about the submarine trade.
Before joining the Taciturn, Michael had served with the 6th Submarine Squadron in Canada. In 1958 he'd met and married a lovely young Nova Scotia girl named Betty, and he was very excited when his wife finally arrived in England. They rented a small flat in Gosport. They already had a son named Paul and a second baby was on the way.
On the 4th September Betty gave birth to a baby girl who they named Tina. But things don't always go as expected when one is in the navy. A few days after Tina's birth the Taciturn was transferred to Devonport. Michael and Betty had hardly settled into their Gosport flat when they had to move all over again. It turned out okay because Michael was almost immediately allocated a house in the new base married-quarters.
The first time I met Betty was in the autumn of 1961. One Saturday Michael was on duty and worried about Betty because she had only moved into the new home a few days earlier. He asked me to pop in and see it she needed anything and make sure that she was okay. Betty was a shy and very young twenty year old who was still learning to deal with to the strange ways of the English.
When I first saw her, she was standing on her front door step struggling with a handful of coins as she tried to pay the milkman. She appeared to be having difficulty understanding his odd West Country accent. I had arrived in the nick of time to save the situation. Extracting three shillings and sixpence from her fistful of change I paid the amused milkman.
That morning was the beginning of a friendship that continues to this day. I was often invited to their home to enjoy Betty's fine cooking, and I was quickly elevated to honorary uncle to the children.
When we were away from our homeport, which was often, Michael and I spent most of our shore time together. As friends go we were quite inseparable and we enjoyed many a good time. I trusted Michael and I often relied upon his advice. Unfortunately I didn't always follow it.
At the same time Matt Smalley's wife had put her foot down declaring that Lochgilphead was out of bounds for him. On the next visit to Faslane with Matt grounded I asked Michael to come with me instead. I thought he’d enjoyed our last visit and was surprised when he said no. He told me that I'd be wise to give Lochgilphead, and in particular Irene, a wide berth. I just laughed insisting that I wasn't interested or involved with Irene, and that visiting the village was just a bit of fun.
My old Ganges shipmate Michael Foster was smitten with Marie, Irene's younger sister, and he was spending a lot of time in Lochgilphead. A few weeks before Christmas leave was due to start he announced he was getting married.
The wedding was planned for Boxing Day, 26th December 1961, and I was invited. I would have rather gone home but couldn't let my shipmate down on his special day. I wrote to Eleanor saying I couldn't get home for Christmas. I didn’t go into details and left her to assume I was on duty. It was a guilty letter because in truth I was lying without actually saying anything. My invitation to the wedding came with a few strings attached. I was asked to rent a car and drive some of the wedding party to Scotland. Matt Smalley was to be his best man and he was coming with his wife. I wondered what might happen when his two women met.
It was arranged that I pick up the Smalley’s first, then drive to Epsom and collect Michael's mother and his sister. Naturally everyone was expected to share the cost of the car rental and the fuel.
But problems started when I tried to rent the car. The Christmas rush was in full swing and there was nothing suitable available. All I could get was a battered old Bedford van with only two seats in the front. I wasn't too concerned because one of the seats was the driver's. I decided Michael's mother could have the other one, and everyone else could sit on cushions, or on their luggage, in the back.
A few days before Christmas, with my passengers safely on board, the old van lumbered along the Great Northern Highway heading for the Border and the Scottish
Lowlands. I drove straight through, only stopping for food and petrol, and we arrived in Lochgilphead late that evening.
Totally exhausted, I turned in almost immediately. The next morning Irene awoke me with a cup of tea and a fresh bread roll. She sat on the edge of my bed and talked about the upcoming wedding. I was tempted to ask her how she felt about meeting Matt's wife but I decided it was none of my business.
However, the two women kept their distance throughout the celebrations, surprisingly no sparks flew and no hair was pulled.
On the morning of the wedding my head throbbed from too much whiskey and beer at Michaels stag party the night before. After shaving, bathing and donning in my uniform I felt a little better. When I entered the living room I was met with a situation of chaos. It was impossible to hear what was being said above the din. Did you phone the photographer? Have the flowers arrived? I need a safety pin. Who ironed
It was a mad house. Clothes were hanging everywhere, on the furniture, on the doors, on the mantelpiece. The room was strewn with women's gowns, hats, coats
and shoes. Apart from me there wasn't another male to be seen.
It only took me a fraction of a second to assess the situation, and clear out. The pubs were open and it wasn't long before I met up with Angus, Douglas and Matt. Douglas had only recently returned from Australia, and he was struggling to establish who was married to whom. He thought Irene was married to Matt because of Lorraine. I did my best to avoid his questions and not become involved in the conversation. The men were already dressed and ready for the 2 pm wedding ceremony. Until then it seemed wise to remain in the relative safety of the pub, where we sank a few pints while waiting to go to the church. Irene arrived on the scene about thirty minutes before the ceremony was due to begin, and she brought carnations with her to pin on our lapels.
On our way to the reception I was surprised when Irene caught up with me and took my arm. I just put it down to being friendly. Everything had gone off without a hitch. The flowers had come on time, the photographer had arrived, and most important the bride turned up. I wondered if the earlier search for a safety pin had contributed to the day's success.
More photographs were taken at the reception with the bride and groom cutting the cake. Next came a variety of speeches and toasts, and finally, later that evening, the bride and groom left for their honeymoon.
The place was awash with whiskey and beer, and I had my share. I was celebrating enthusiastically, and later in the evening I somehow ended up wearing a kilt. I'm not sure how that happened but it’s possible that I traded my uniform with Angus.
I was certainly no fashion statement wearing a kilt, and I definitely didn’t capture the Rob Roy look. I seemed to recall that Irene had been involved in the exchange of the costumes. I’d flatly refused to go completely native and she called me a chicken, insisting that real Scotsman didn't wear anything under their kilt. I might have been thoroughly inebriated and barely functioning but I retained enough dignity to hang on to my underpants.
It was in the early morning hours when I eventually arrived home and found my bed. In literally one movement I undressed and collapsed onto the bed. Moments later I was aware of Irene slipping in beside me. The next morning I awoke alone suffering from another vicious, self-inflicted hangover.
The memories of the previous night were at best a little vague, and I struggled to fill in the blanks. How did Irene end up in my bed? Did I ask her? Was it her idea or mine? I just didn't know, and maybe she didn't remember either. Neither one of us was sober. But regardless of how it happened, it was time to get up and face the world.
I had to pack the van, round up my passengers and leave at no later than 10 am. I had promised to pick up the newly weds at their hotel and drop them off in Glasgow.
The silent and empty living room was a huge contrast from yesterday. Margaret and her mother's luggage were already in the front hall, and they were in the kitchen finishing a last cup of tea. I couldn't face food right then, but a cup of strong hot tea went down very well.
Once I’d loaded the luggage we had to go and collect Matt and his wife. They were lodging with friends at the other end of the village. There was no sign of life in the Campbell household. The brothers were probably laying low nursing their hangovers. I'd have been doing the same if I didn't have to leave so early.
As I started the van Irene and her mother appeared at the front door to bid us farewell. They were still dressed in nightgowns and robes with their hair and makeup looking somewhat the worse for wear. I guessed they were probably suffering the same morning-after symptoms as me.
I opened the window and waved as I shouted goodbye. Irene smiled and said something that I couldn't hear. It was too late now, I had the van moving and heading out onto the main road.
We picked up Michael and Marie in the village of Minard, about five miles away. The
return trip was long, quiet and uneventful, and I was glad when I reached to the end of the trip and returned the van.
Safely back in Portsmouth the recent excitement in Lochgilphead quickly faded
from memory. A pile of mail was waiting for me back on the Taciturn, including a Christmas card and a letter from Eleanor.
In early January of 1962 we sailed back into the miserable weather of the North Atlantic.
While sitting in the forward torpedo compartment one evening drinking tea I told Michael Chislett about my recent adventures. He warned me again that I was asking for trouble. What happens if you get her pregnant? I shrugged this off saying I was being careful, and knew what I was doing. Besides, it was only a bit of fun and certainly nothing serious.
When we later docked in Gibraltar for a few days rest the first thing I looked for was mail from home. I received two letters from Eleanor and I opened them immediately, and in my enthusiasm didn’t notice the one from Irene. Eleanor was fine. She had missed me over Christmas and went on to tell all about the holidays and the gifts she received etc. That was when I noticed the letter from Irene and I suddenly felt very guilty about my deception.
Irene’s letter was very flattering, saying how much she had enjoyed being with me. She said she was missing me, and she could hardly wait until my next visit. She invited me to spend Easter leave with her. I could travel up with Michael. I was aware that with a shipmate married to her sister it would be difficult making excuses. She’d be aware of my every move. Michael would write to Marie, and she would pass all the news on to Irene.
I had no intentions of spending Easter in Scotland, but at the same time I was reluctant to hurt her feelings. I still wasn't sure how events had unfolded at Christmas. I was even less sure of how Irene actually viewed our relationship. I decided to write and tell her that I was going home for Easter, as it had been six months since I’d last been home. It was the honest answer and solved the issue for the moment. At the end of March we returned to Plymouth for maintenance and to allow the crew leave. I travelled home for my two weeks leave and at once realised how much I had missed Eleanor. The reunion was a heady time for both of us and we were surely in love. We spent every free minute together and I must confess the temptation to propose was very strong. But I had to control the urge, after all Eleanor was still only seventeen. When I returned aboard the Taciturn later she was all I could think about.
Then incredibly in August Michael Foster talked me into going to Scotland for summer leave. I can’t explain this stupidity, I had the most wonderful girl waiting for me in Belfast and here I was driving to Scotland. I was certainly not in love with Irene, but sex was a powerful motivation.
Back in Plymouth in September and on weekend leave I was offered a ride to Portsmouth by a Canadian submariner who had just purchased a new Vauxhall Victor with left hand drive steering. He was eager to take the new car out onto the highway and give it a good run. He was due to return to Canada soon and he had ordered the car especially so he could take it home with him.
He and his wife were visiting friends and they had plenty of room for me. We set out on a Saturday morning with the three of us sitting on the front bench seat.
Driving in the UK while sitting on the right hand side of a left hand drive car is a little bit disconcerting. As the passenger you are the first to be exposed to the oncoming traffic when trying to over take.
About ten miles out of Plymouth we joined a stretch of dual carriageway and gradually increased speed. Humming along at about 60 mph we were relaxed and enjoying the ride. Approaching a slow moving lorry in the inside lane we pulled out to overtake. Suddenly and without warning the lorry pulled out directly across our path. What a strange feeling it is when you realise you’re about to crash.
My life passed before my eyes as we raced toward the lorry. The next thing I was aware of is lying on the grass with people standing all around me. I couldn’t see much because my head was bleeding and the blood was running into my eyes. I was vaguely aware of being lifted onto a stretcher and placed in an ambulance. Then blackness.
Somewhere far off I could hear singing, but I couldn’t seem to focus. Through a strange fog I was aware of five or six angels standing and singing nearby. Was I dead and in Heaven? A sudden surge of pain made me realise that I was still alive. But I still couldn’t explain the angels or why they were singing. As my head cleared I realised that it was Sunday morning. I was in a hospital ward with a Church service in progress. The angels were choirboys dressed in white gowns.
I had been unconscious for about sixteen hours after being transported back to Plymouth to the RN Hospital. I had twelve stitches in my heavily bandaged forehead. I was also very aware of pain that seemed to radiate from a variety of cuts and bruises.
The following Tuesday morning two doctors came to remove the bandage from my forehead, and they seem a bit concerned about the nasty gash. The twelve original stitches had only been temporary to close the deep wound. They felt that a more permanent repair was needed. They explained that this was an opportune time because a Plastic Surgeon on Naval Reserve duty was available.
So on Wednesday morning it was back to the operating theatre. When I awoke later I had thirty-two stitches in a much tidier wound. Looking in a mirror it appeared as though I had a zipper on my forehead.
About ten days later the stitches were taken out, and it was extremely painful. I was wishing I only had the original twelve stitches instead of thirty-two. Nevertheless, my scar looked so much better. It was still red and angry but the doctor assured me it would soon fade.
I remained in hospital for three weeks, and I was then sent home on three weeks sick leave. Michael Chislett had come to visit earlier and he informed me I was off the Taciturn and returning to HMS Dolphin as unfit for sea duty after my leave.
Whilst I was home on leave my brother-in-law Dan suggested I visit a lawyer and claim damages for my injuries. I didn't have the slightest idea of the legal aspects of an accident, so Dan took me to see his solicitor. I gave him all the information I had, but my only real evidence was a small cutting that I'd taken from a newspaper. The lawyer took a note of this and said he'd be in touch if he had any news.
I spent the next three weeks enjoying my unexpected leave in the company of Eleanor.
When I returned to Dolphin I was given a brief exam by the base MO who declared me fit for sea. Within a few days I was travelling north to join the submarine Otter. She was just completing a refit in Greenock. The fact that I couldn't wear my uniform cap had not been taken into consideration. I simply could not tolerate wearing any type of headdress. Every time the rim touched my scar I suffered extreme shooting pains across the top of my head. When I explained this to the coxswain I was sent to see the Medical Officer on the submarine depot ship.
He was a young and modern thinking doctor, and he believed he could cure me by using hypnosis. It didn't work, so finally he recommended I be returned to the Haslar Naval Hospital. I was on my way back to Dolphin having spent barely three weeks on
A medical specialist at Haslar explained that my problem was caused by nerve damage. When nerves are severed in an accident such as I had experienced they often become frayed. He was most sympathetic when he explained the remedy and cure for my problem. For the next three weeks I attended his surgery every morning for half an hour of treatment. The treatment consisted of lying on a bed while the scar was hammered to deaden the nerve ends. The hammer was the type used for testing a person's knee reflex, but it felt like a sledgehammer to me. I had to remain on the bed for about an hour after the treatment just to recover.
December arrived and I was home again on Christmas leave. It was wonderful to be free of the hammer for two weeks, and being with Eleanor was tonic enough to deaden my woes for the duration of my leave.
The new year of 1963 saw me back in Dolphin, still unable to wear a cap for any length of time. Walking around a Naval base whilst not wearing a cap is an absolute nightmare. It’s guaranteed to cause every passing Officer, Chief Petty Officer and Petty Officer to stop you with the howl of, “ Where's your headdress lad? Put your
cap on, boy. Who do you think you are walking around the base out of uniform?”
Of course I had a chit stating that I was excused wearing a cap, and it was almost worn out from having been produced so many times.
Finally in March I was able to wear a cap, and I was promptly declared fit for sea duty and posted to ‘spare crew’ at Dolphin. The base held a spare crew in case a boat needed a replacement for a sick or injured member in her crew. The spare crew guaranteed that a replacement was readily available.
It was late in the day by the time I picked up all my transfer documents from the Regulating Office. I needed to file papers with the pay office and the fleet mail office if I expected to be paid or receive mail. But the first and most important task was to move into the ‘spare crew’ quarters. I had to draw bedding, find an empty bunk and transfer my kit, and by the time I’d done this it was very late. I decided to leave the rest of my routine until the following morning. That night I turned in early and quickly feel asleep.
Suddenly a blinding light was shinning in my eyes. Behind the light someone's voice is yelling, "Are you Rodgers? You've got ten minutes to get your ass on board the Totem. She's about to sail."
I arrived just as they were removing the gangway. I was unshaven, unwashed and now underway. The boat was heading out to operate in the Irish Sea, with a visit to the City of Cork on the weekend. Thursday at sea was payday, and everyone was paid. Except me! My pay documents were sitting in my locker back at Dolphin. I was broke, with perhaps five shillings to my name. The chance of borrowing some funds from a shipmate was nil. I was not a permanent member of the crew, so lending me money would be too high a risk. I could disappear just as quickly as I had arrived.
Alongside in Cork on the Saturday morning, I was off duty and free to go ashore.
Directly opposite the gangway was a pub and although it didn't official open until noon, a discrete tap on a side door and we were ushered inside.
The blinds were still down so the interior was pretty dim as we ordered pints of Guinness and headed for a table by the fireside. As our eyes adjusted to the gloom we jumped when we saw a Garda (Irish policeman) standing at the bar.
"Is it British sailors breaking the law I'm seeing here?"
We froze on the spot. After a dramatic pause he continued, "Ah well, sure wouldn’t it be breaking the law to let salty young seafarers like yourselves to go thirsty.”
A couple of pints later and my funds considerably reduced I decide to return
on board for lunch. The levity in the seamen's mess usually increases after the daily issue of a tot of rum. This certainly was the case aboard the Totem. So of course someone had to suggest we head out of town to Blarney Castle to kiss the famous stone. Having imbibed a tot of rum and two pints of Guinness, kissing the Blarney Stone seemed like an admirable idea.
The bus fare depleted my dwindling funds by a further sixpence. Arriving at the castle we were directed to climb a circular stairway to the top of the tower where we found the Blarney Stone, and an enterprising photographer. Who, for one shilling would take a photo of our lips touching this famous stone. We readily agreed. We had to have a record of the event. But after paying the photographer I couldn’t afford the return bus fare and I had to walk the five or so miles back to the city. I returned on board depressed, and with my pockets empty and feet aching.
The city was hosting a dance for the crew that evening, and it promised lots of girls in attendance. But even if my sore feet had recovered in time I still wouldn't be doing any dancing. I was broke.
When I entered the mess I noticed the mail had arrived. I showed no interest, my change of address was with my pay doc's back at Dolphin. Therefore I was stunned when a shipmate asked if I'd got my letter. What letter? It had to be a mistake. It couldn't be for me.
Nevertheless, on the table lay a large official looking white envelope with my name neatly typed, and HMS Dolphin as my address. I quickly tore it open to find it
contained several typed pages. What immediately caught my attention, though, was the attached cheque.
The letter was from my lawyer back in Belfast. I had long since forgotten all about my visit to his office. Yet here it was, a settlement for my injuries in the sum of one thousand pounds. Never in my life had I held such a huge sum of money in my hands. The first question that came to mind was how it had reached me. The fleet mail office didn't have my present address. Then it occurred to me that only a few hours earlier I'd spent my last few coins kissing the Blarney Stone. Now I was rich beyond my
wildest dreams. Was this a coincidence? Or was it the luck of the Irish?
I'm sure you will have already guessed that I did make it to the dance that
Two weeks later I was back in the ‘spare crew’ mess at Dolphin, waiting to begin my Easter leave. My recent wealth had me going in different directions trying to decide how to spend it. Eleanor was foremost on my mind. Was the time right to buy her a ring and propose? I was a little hesitant because she was still only eighteen. But she would be nineteen in June, was that old enough? Would her parents approve? Would my family approve? For days I struggled with these questions, finally deciding to wait until my leave in August. By then she'd be nineteen, and I thought that was a more acceptable age for a girl to marry.
For Easter I bought Eleanor a silver bracelet inset with small diamonds. They probably weren’t genuine, but they looked real enough and came in a blue velvet presentation case that looked very expensive. I gave it to Eleanor on our first night together. She was delighted and hugged me tightly, and in that brief moment I wished I had bought the engagement ring instead. It took all of my will power not to blurt out that I wanted to marry her. But it was a big decision and the timing had to be just right. Years later looking back on this moment I’m reminded of an old saying 'He who hesitates.'
But at Easter in 1963, I was happy and my thoughts were carefree and the future looked rosy.