Michael B. Crowe was a Radio Electrical Mechanic, 1st Class on the 1958 - 1960 commsion - the last made by HMS Gambia.
Mike very kindly sent this story to me about a weekend leave he had in 1959:
Just a Whitsun Weekend Leave
I would imagine that the reader will say "Oh Yes?" when I explain, that an ordinary Whitsun Weekend leave from my ship H.M.S.Gambia in Rosyth, to my home in Leicester, brings in a fast army lorry ride, being given wrong train times by British Rail, a fog bound train, the filming of the film "Sink the Bismark" and much much more. Don't believe me?
Well, sit back, pour yourself a Tot and read a story which I can hardly believe happened, but it did!!
I had been deferred until I was twenty one to serve my two years National Service as I was completing a five year apprenticeship as a Marine Electrical Engineer. Come the age of twenty one and a bit, I was called up to do my stint in the Royal Navy. Almost all of the first year was served at H.M.S.Collingwood, the Royal Navy's Radio, Radar and Electrical School at Fareham between Gosport and Fareham in Hampshire. Now a National Serviceman's pay was not all that good so many of my off duty weekends were spent in Leicester thanks to 'my Thumb'; I hitch hiked. This was easy as the 'Sailor Suit' helped, 'Hop in Jack. Where're you going?'
I very soon developed the art of hitch hiking. For example, knowing where to stand so the drivers could see me and have time to pull in. Fortunately the roads were nowhere near as busy as they are now and also, no Motorways, so no restrictions on where I could stand and for the motorist to stop without having a dozen vehicles pile into the back of him.
I finished my course at H.M.S. Collingwood and drafted to H.M.S. Gambia, a Second World War Cruiser which was based at Rosyth in Scotland.
So, Whitsun Weekend 1959, non duty watch had from 1600 on Friday to 0800 on the Tuesday. I was non duty. Did I want to spend three days on board in Rosyth Dockyard? No. Now as a National Serviceman I could not afford the fare from Rosyth to Leicester return. Couldn't really afford it single, but using my experience in hitch hiking, I would look into hitching down on the Friday, but get the train back. Hitch hike from Rosyth to Leicester? Yes, well think about it! A very handy book to the hitch hiker was the A5 size book of maps supplied to members of the AA, and I had one! Work out the route. Calculate the mileage. Calculate the time it would take going on the average I had been making in the past of H.M.S.Collingwood to Leicester and return. Yes I used to hitch both ways. Average over many journeys = 25 MPH. Leave Rosyth at 16.00. MFV to Queensferry which is south of the Forth and make for the road. I calculated I would reach home in a little over 12 hours at 04.30 on Saturday morning.
When I started to get serious about this with the AA book of maps, pen and paper and calculations and I told my messmates, they thought I was mad. "You'll get there in time to turn round and come back" was the most common.
Well I was going to have a go. And have a go I did, not knowing just what an adventure it was going to be.
As planned I left the ship with the first Liberty Men, got the MFV from Rosyth Dockyards across to Queensferry, I believe it was a Minesweeping Base if I remember correctly, and headed for a road south. The first lift came along quite quickly which took me into and out of Edinburgh and the A1. Now I don't know where it was, somewhere up near Berwick upon Tweed and not very far into the journey, that I was standing, 'thumb poised' when an Army lorry came into view. Army Lorries are not exactly "E-Type" Jags, so, sorry Pongoes, I turned my back and started to stroll along. Heart sank, it pulled up alongside me "Where you going Jack?" Now I knew the journey and I always asked for the next town. "Oh well it will help get me South" I thought. "OK Jack, hop up in the back, there's some more in there". Canvas backed lorry. Hardly Limmo!! "Come on Jack let's have your case" Smally Brown case and me were hoisted into the back. "Where are you going?" I was asked, again, told them the next town. I hardly had time to get comfortable on 'something' when we were off. You know how a Greyhound comes out of a trap? We beat all the rest of the traps. We were moving. 'Bat out of Hell' We were on a mission. "We are on weekend Leave and heading for Nottingham. How far are you going?" All of a sudden this was ideal. I was heading into and out of Nottingham on my way to Leicester, so when the Driver stopped at wherever it was I told him, I explained where I was going and settled down.
Nottingham arrived, or we arrived in Nottingham, not sure which because I settled down and the journey seemed very quick. Out onto the Leicester road and I soon picked up a lift, going right into Leicester. A Market man if I remember correctly. Superb. I lived on the outskirts of Leicester, on the City boundary on the road out to Lincolnshire. From the centre of Leicester to within 200 yards of home, another Market man and I was there. My calculations as to what time I would get home were not too bad. I put the key in the front door at 4.28 am. Yes, Saturday! TWO MINUTES OUT!!!
Now we must get the journey home organised and I wasn't trusting to my thumb. Let the train take the strain.
Later on during that Saturday my wife and I went to Leicester London Road Railway Station and asked for "Train times to get me to Inverkeithing Station before 08.00 on Tuesday" I must be on board by 08.00 because the ship was under sailing orders. The Clerk duly thumbed through all the timetable books and eventually presented me with a piece of paper with my connections. 19.53 from Leicester's other Station, 'Central', change at Nottingham for the fast train to Edinburgh, then local train to Inverkeithing. All nice and easy. Relax and spend the rest of Saturday and then Sunday and Whit Monday at home.
Come Monday Evening and we make our way to the Central Station. Plenty of time for the 19.53 when we arrived at about 19.35. "Single to Inverkeithing please". Booking Clerk looks at me and asks, "Which way are you going?" Pass the piece of paper with the train times across to him. He studies it, looks up and announces, 'These are the Sunday times. Weekdays the train goes at 19.25. It's gone'. "As I was here on time and the fact that these are British Rail times, can you sign my chit please? The Navy won't believe me otherwise" and this was the first of many signatures and notes on this chit!!
So what now? I knew from experience that there was a later train to Edinburgh via Nottingham from London Road Station, but it left later and arrived later. I would be about half an hour adrift. Train times confirmed and we made our way to London Road Station. I cannot remember the exact times, but it would leave somewhere around 22.00, maybe before, not worth going home so my wife went back home and I waited at the Station. Train came. Got on and we departed Leicester. This train met with the fast train from Kings Cross at Nottingham, leaving there at about 22.50, but not long into the journey we slowed down, stopped, started, slowed down, stopped etc much to the bewilderment of the passengers who must all be regulars because it didn't normally do this. Someone found the answer ........ Fog. And so we arrived at Nottingham, late, and I missed the fast train to Edinburgh. What time is the next one? 08.00 tomorrow. Another signature on my little bit of paper!
So what now? About midnight and in Nottingham. Need to get to Edinburgh. Next train 8 hours away. Travelling time on the train and it would get me there by about 16.00 Tuesday afternoon!!
So I polished my thumb and hit the road again!! I don't really remember much about the journey North except that once again I had some superb luck and lifts. A bit I do remember was one of the lifts. A serving RAF Officer who picked me up in his sports car! He too was willing to sign my chitty of paper to say I was at least trying!! Another part of the journey was being dropped off in Gateshead. Now the problem was that I wanted the road north of Newcastle, I was way down south of this and whilst there was traffic about, it was local. Only one option, walk across that huge iron bridge and make for Newcastle. I do remember looking at my watch as I walked across that bridge 04.00. Never been across it since!! I had done more than half the journey in about 4 hours! A few more un-remembered lifts until the last one. A lorry. We were close enough to Edinburgh to explain I wanted Waverley Station. "Where are you heading?" 'Rosyth Dockyard', "Settle down, I will drop you at the gates, I will be going by them."
I am afraid that this is where things didn't quite work out due to my lack of knowledge and it was more ironic when I tell you we were in the vicinity of Edinburgh's Waverley Station at about 08.00, good time or what? Of course in 1959 the Forth Road Bridge hadn't been built so the lorry driver took me the long way round, up to the Kincardine Bridge and back to Dunfirmline and Rosyth. Duly dropping me off at the Dockyard Gates as promised at 12.30.
The Dockyard Police informed me that H.M.S.Gambia had sailed. "Where to and is she coming back here?" 'Don't know and don't know. You had better join your mates in there' and directed me to an inner room whereupon I met 4 more off H.M.S.Gambia who had missed the boat!! Their story was simple. They had been ashore for a good night out in Edinburgh, stayed overnight in a Navy Club and when they were given a shake this morning, turned over and went back to sleep!! One of them was a Leading Hand so was put in charge of us. My worries or concerns were over. Let the Navy worry now.
We were dispatched to H.M.S.Cochrane, the Naval Base for Rosyth and found beds and food. A great relief. But where was H.M.S.Gambia? Well we were called together a couple of days later. The leading hand given train passes etc etc and off we went. To Loch Eriboll. Where is Loch Eriboll? Get your map of Scotland out, you will be needing it, and look right at the top near Cape Wrath, that's the place right in the top left hand corner of Scotland. Move along the top coast to the East and you will find a huge inlet. That is Loch Eriboll. We are at present, just north of Edinburgh. We have a long, exciting and in parts, a beautiful journey ahead of us.
Once again I have to admit that there are parts of the journey to Loch Eriboll I do not remember. For example after the overnight train from Edinburgh to Inverness, did we change there or did that train go a bit further and we changed later? I do know that our last train took us as close to Loch Eriboll as possible and this was to a place called Lairg. Lairg is at the southern end of Loch Shin, so we had to get out. We had arrived and the place wasn't really awake, neither were we come to that, but it didn't take long to see most of Lairg and our Leading Hand found an hotel where we had breakfast. Look at where Lairg is and imagine the looks we were getting. 5 matelots in 'Sailor Suits' as far away from the sea as one could get quite likely!!!.
So what happens now? We wait for 'the daily bus' to come and pick us up. This is the local post/community/everything bus. (You will need your map here) It leaves Durness in the morning, arriving at Lairg at midday. The driver has a rest and lunch, then departing at 14.00, he drives back to Durness and we would be on it! It must be pointed out that this was once an ordinary bus but the back few seats had been taken out and a wire netting partition put across. This was the 'cargo' area, reached through the back door. I cannot remember what there was in there, but I am led to believe that cattle 'could' be in there!! Something we did have, in the bus itself and alongside the driver, was a milk crate with mail on top, complete with newspapers and bread! A 'Community Bus' in the true sense. What was to unfold now, was the highlight of the journey to the ship, from where the Ticket Clerk told me I had Sunday train times and that my train had gone. We travelled alongside Loch Shin, Loch Merkland, Loch More, other Lochs and rivers through some stunning scenery, and remember this was late spring.
What was fascinating , was that every so often the bus would stop in a field gateway, no buildings around, and the driver would get out and shove a newspaper or letters or a bottle of milk in a hole in the hedge, "There are some houses down there, they will be up for them in a minute" and with that drove off to a group of houses clustered at the roadside with people waiting. The driver would hand out goodies again, mail, milk, letters etc and so on to these little gatherings which were in some cases miles apart and the only sign of any human life.
That journey, one of the most fascinating of my life took the afternoon and so we arrived at Durness. We looked for H.M.S.Gambia tied up alongside the wall. I don't even recall a wall for a Colonial Class Cruiser to tie up against, but what we did see, was a Royal Navy, because it had RN on it and pained Navy Blue, yes a Royal Navy Land Rover! Up here in the very north of Scotland! Why? How? What for?
We were flying the Flag of the Admiral of the Home Fleet and as such, he had his own staff, AND, a Land Rover for running about and getting messages etc. His Land Rover had driven all the way up to Scotland to be on duty and his duty tonight was to take us back to the ship. Well to a jetty half way up the Loch to where the ship's motor boat would come and fetch us.
And so at about 19.30, 5 days adrift, I stepped back on board. "Nice to see you Mike. Welcome back. Go and get something to eat, have a wash and get your head down" ? No not likely, it was OOW's defaulters. "Off Caps" 'Commander's defaulters tomorrow'. I was then allowed to sort myself out. Commander's defaulters sent us to Captain's defaulters and so I was 'sentenced'. To be very honest I was a bit miffed. I was given 5 days stoppage of leave, 5 days stoppage of pay and 5 days extra duties, 'Men under punishment' (Forgot whether it was 9's or 10's) My Divisional Officer said I could appeal. I thought I had done well and used my initiative to get back and should be let off, but as my DO explained, someone had to do my work whilst I was away. When I heard what the others got, I shut up.
Let's look at what I had got. 5 days stoppage of leave. We were stuck in Loch Eriboll and there was nowhere to go. When we did leave, it was on an exercise, at sea. 5 Days stoppage of pay. As a National Serviceman my pay was minimal so 5 days of next to nothing didn't add up to a fortune and 5 days extra work. Like washing paintwork on the upper deck as the sun was climbing in the early morning still of the Loch. Packing the packed lunch for an exercise one of the days in the near future.
And the other 4 who were adrift through their own fault? 21 days stoppage of leave. That would affect them later. 21 days stoppage of pay. These chaps were regulars and that would hurt. 21 days extra duties, well it depends on your view on that.
I mentioned an exercise. Well I did go ashore on this and it turned out quite hilarious, well I have just had 5 full days and nights of 'fun', why not a few more? We had a detachment of Royal Marines on board and very early in the morning they went ashore and got themselves dug in and camouflaged amongst all of the heather etc. The ship's company went ashore later and were lined up across the glen. The signal to sweep across and dig them out was a Very light fired into the sky where we would all see it. The time came, Very light fired and it went high. We started the sweep. Meanwhile, behind us, 'what goes up, must come down' and the very light did just that. Into the very dry heather. This caught fire. Exercise called off, we spent the next 12 hours fighting the fire in the heather.
Thus ended my Whitsun Weekend 'and a bit'.
Filming of the film 'Sink the Bismark' mentioned at the top? Well on her way from Rosyth to Loch Eriboll, H.M.S.Gambia was used as the Bismark. In the film, many of those 'lined up on Bismark's deck' were H.M.S.Gambia's crew, including one from my mess, Tom Keefe. Always smile when I see that excerpt and see Tom looking all German!!