My pleasant and dreamy sleep was suddenly invaded by the glare of lights and the shrill sounds of whistles blowing hysterically. It seemed like I’d only just gone to sleep a few minutes earlier and now I was out of bed and standing at attention.
A few heavy sleepers, or perhaps they were just trying to avoid the inevitable, remained under their covers. It was a bad idea. Beds were quickly flipped over, empting blankets and bodies onto the deck.
Instructor Boys loomed over the hapless late sleepers issuing dire threats of punishment. The most unpopular of these punishments was to double around the parade square with your rolled up mattress on your back.
After that first morning everyone became light sleepers. We were out of bed the instant we were called.
At 0500 hrs on that dark and chilly Thursday morning we were ordered to wash and shave. It mattered not that most of us didn’t need to shave. It was wiser to do what we were told without objection.
Everyone lathered up and with our newly issued razors removed imaginary stubble, bum fluff and peach fuzz. Shaving for the first time was made even more difficult by the fact that the water was very cold.
By five-thirty we were stripping our beds and folding the bedding. Like the night before, this was a long-suffering exercise. Once more, our two Instructor Boys paraded up and down the mess throwing blankets and sheets on the deck that failed to meet the required standards.
The bedding finally folded in a uniform state we were ordered to dress in our number eights with boots and gaiters. Number eights consisted of dark blue trousers, light blue shirt, boots, gaiters and cap. We were issued with a pair of khaki gaiters that set us apart from the Instructors who wore white gaiters.
Out on the parade square the first rays of daylight were appearing as we separated into two squads. Instructor Boy Moss was in charge of my squad. I was glad. Of our two young mentors he was the more gentle. Although gentle probably isn’t the best word to describe any Instructor Boy.
Boys spilled out of the other two barracks to join us on the parade square. It was drill time! Drill requires total concentration, listening carefully to each order that was issued by the Squad Leader. The exercise was made doubly difficult by having six separate Squad Leaders all yelling similar orders at the same time.
The next hour was spent marching, doubling, turning left, turning right, and about turning. It was a disaster. Few boys appeared to know their left from their right. This sent the Instructors into a frenzy of more dire threats.
At 0700 hrs we were dismissed and told to form a single line outside the dining hall for breakfast. We were very hungry. Our last meal had been a meagre supper of bread and cheese. Added to this was the early morning hour of rigorous drill. We had become a ravenous hoard.
When I finally reached the food counter I surmised that the cook must be related to the one at the Liverpool Seaman’s Mission. My plate once more held a mystery food. It turned out to be kidneys on toast better known in Naval terminology as ‘shit on a raft’. I’d never tasted a kidney in my life, but with a powerful hunger I swallowed every bit washing it down with generous gulps of tea. I finished breakfast by polishing off several thick slices of bread, margarine and marmalade.
Breakfast was followed by a hectic morning. We collected the remainder of our kit and we had to stamp our name on every single article.
At the same time haircuts were taking place on the parade square. Several barbers (boys in training) from the main establishment were doing the shearing. I doubt any of them wouldn’t have been hired to shear sheep. Supervision came from two disinterested civilians who I assumed were qualified barbers. The parade square was a scene of lost curls and locks with occasional traces of blood. When it was over selling Brylcreem or a comb would have been impossible.
Through the course of the morning we learned that we were to remain in the Annex for six weeks. It was necessary to undergo basic training before moving to the main establishment to begin the actual seamanship training.
Boys in the Annex were known as Nossers, a somewhat detrimental name applied to newcomers and rookies.
During basic training our names had to be sewn into each article of kit with a red cotton chain stitch. To accomplish this task we’d been issued with a sewing kit, better known as a ‘housewife.’ A great many boys would spend every free minute of the next six weeks with their ‘housewife.’ No one could leave the Annex until the sewing was completed. No one wanted to be left behind to start all over again with the new intake.
In our naïve and simple minds we believed that once we reached the main establishment things would get easier.
Four particular things stand out in my memory of the Annex. Sewing and folding, washing and marching. Marching and marching. I believe we spent more time on the parade square than we did in bed.
Our first visit to the laundry was a severe shock for everyone. Hand washing our kit with ‘pusser hard’ soap was an experience none of us could have imagined. I suspect that the laundry and the sewing were a nightmare for many boys. The boys with long surnames suffered the sewing chore more than most.
However, many boys with short names who were woefully inept with a needle didn’t fair much better. Our Instructor Boys inspected each item of kit, and often made us cut the thread out again and redo it. I can’t remember the exact number of articles in a Naval kit but at the time it seemed like hundreds.
The most unpleasant experience in the Annex, and the one I consider a blemish on an otherwise fair training system, was the laundry. Ganges training was indeed very harsh and it’s true that sometimes the Instructors went too far. Nevertheless, if you carried out your duties properly you could generally stay out of trouble.
The Annex laundry was a different matter. The person in charge was a civilian named Knobby Clark. It was rumoured that he’d once been a Royal Marine Corporal. If this was true it did nothing to enhance my image of the Marines. He was a bully and tyrant deriving pleasure from picking on the smaller boys in our division. He carried a sail baton and used it liberally and mostly without cause on many a bare buttock of his hapless victims.
His golden rule was silence! Should a boy dare to speak he was struck maliciously and made put a wet wool sock in his mouth for the duration of the session. It was a doubly unpleasant punishment. The dye from the sock ran into your mouth and dripped into the sink. Washing your whites while avoiding the blue dye dripping on them was nearly impossible.
Each washed item was held up in front of Clark to inspect and approve. He rarely approved anything the first time around. He enjoyed grabbing the wet article and, in a swinging motion, wrapping it around the unfortunate boy’s head.
He enjoyed inflicting punishment, and his face seemed permanently fixed in an evil grin. I no longer remember his actual features but retain an image of an unshaven, overweight bully with a half-smoked butt in the corner of his mouth. Looking back, it’s disappointing that our Instructors didn’t step in and take control. It will forever stand out as a serious blemish on the Ganges organization. To employ such an ill suited person and placing him in a position of authority over defenceless boys was, to say the least, shameful. From that dreadful laundry experience I have often wondered if the term ‘put a sock in it’ originated at Ganges.
Beside my bed was a kit locker. Its doors were always open displaying my (hopefully) neatly folded kit. A photograph of how the kit locker was supposed to look was placed on the mess notice board. Our lockers were supposed to look identical. Unfortunately many lockers failed to meet the standard and, like our beds, were often tipped over.
Once a week we had a full kit inspection. All kit items had to be laid out on our canvas hammock. Every article of clothing must be folded to the same length and width as our seamanship manual. The sewn on names had to be centrally located on each folded item. Spit and polish was soon added to an already overwhelming list of chores. Petty Officer Birmingham expected to see his face in the shine of our boots. Dawn to dusk was filled with work. If we found a spare minute it was used to complete our sewing.
A variety of other training events were happening at the same time. The mess hall was cleared one afternoon and a boxing ring set up. We were paired up regardless of size, and ordered to punch each other’s lights out.
On a cold and windy April morning we were ordered to strip to the waist and form three single lines on the parade square. I was covered in goose bumps with my teeth chattering as we waited in line for inoculations!
I still shudder at the methods employed back then. Three tables were set up at the end of the parade square. At each table sat two Sick Bay Ratings (nursing assistants of a sort). On each table was a Bunsen burner that was used to sterilize the needle after each use. The same needle was used on approximately thirty to forty boys. We were lined up in alphabetical order. For those at the rear, which included me, the blunt needle felt more like a six-inch nail being driven into one’s arm.
We were never given more information than necessary during our day- to-day training in the Annex. So imagine our surprise when a rumour began to circulate that we were going on leave the following week.
I couldn’t believe it. Three weeks in the Navy and we were going on leave. It just didn’t seem possible. Nevertheless, it was true. The following Wednesday the entire camp was closing down for three weeks Easter leave.
The news was both good and bad. It was exciting to be going home wearing our uniforms. However, it was a serious interruption to training just when we were adapting to the harsh routine. Going on leave could mean having to start all over again when we came back. It was also a temptation for any unhappy lad to attempt desertions.
Organizing the leave of hundreds of boys and dispatching them to different locations across the nation was a grand example of Ganges efficiency. Everyone was separated into local zones; my group consisted of approximately thirty boys going to Northern Ireland.
A handful of boys from the South of Ireland had to travel in civvies. It was considered unwise to wear the Queens uniform South of the border.
Ipswich Station thronged with young sailors looking for space on the trains. Almost everyone travelled to London then fanned out and disappeared into various tube stations.
On the train I was amazed to see many of the boys from the main establishment busily sewing a variety of badges onto their tunics. They exchanged their Ganges cap tallies for those of sea going ships. We Nossers from the Annex sat apart in our plain and obviously brand new uniforms.
Nozzers were considered wet behind the ears and boys from the main establishment ignored us. Sailors for barely three weeks, we had yet to learn the trick of looking smart and natty in our new uniforms. Boys from the main establishment had learned to bleach their blue uniform collars. After many washes the collar turns a lighter shade of blue, and it was the sign of an old salt. My own collar, along with my companions, was dark blue. In fact it was almost black.
During my time at Ganges I would see many a collar ruined with bleach and a variety of other experiments used to lighten the colour. I would surmise that the purchase of uniform collars from slops (Supply) was an item high in demand.
My first shore leave as a sailor was very quiet, and it required the constant explanation as to why I was home so soon after joining. Besides, having only been in the Navy for one payday, I had very little money to spend. Three weeks later I was back in the Annex to complete my basic training before moving on to the main establishment. When that big day finally arrived we were divided into our new divisions and introduced to our new Instructors.
I joined Drake Division, and I was allocated to number 40 Mess. We were further divided into two separate classes, number 16 and 17.
Our new Instructors were Petty Officers Booty and Russell. They would soon prove to be much harder on us than the ones we were leaving behind.