My mum Rene (Alice Irene Flitney née Harding) died in 1999. When my brother, sister and I went through her things we found an envelope full of old newspaper clippings and other bits and pieces. We looked through the papers and put the envelope away, but those yellowing pieces of paper keep whispering of half-forgotten times and places. Places like Butlers Cross, Stoke Mandeville, Aylesbury, West Wycombe, Little Kimble, Wendover, Ellesborough, Southcourt and Princes Risborough.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

All Change - A guest post by John Flitney

See previous post here

The last week of March 1958 were my final days of school in Bicester, thereafter I would have the whole of April free before entering the Royal Navy on the 6th of May that year. What I did during those weeks I do not recall now but I feel sure I would have spent a lot of time revisiting familiar places.

Strangely I cannot remember the exact details of my journey to Ipswich. I know Mum and Dad took me to the recruitment office in Reading where they signed consent forms to allow me to enlist in the Navy from that date and to agree to serve a further nine years from the age of eighteen. That done they returned home, with Mum crying for most of the journey. I along with a number of other recruits were taken to the station and then by train to Ipswich and from there by bus to the annexe of HMS Ganges at Shotley. My going to Ganges was another thing ‘fixed‘ by Major Withers, really I should have gone to HMS St.Vincent in Portsmouth but because I had an Aunt living in Ipswich the Major arranged, somehow, that I should go there. The new entry recruits, known as Nozzers, spent the first four weeks of training in the annexe before moving to the main establishment. During that time they were not normally allowed leave but on the second Sunday I was there Aunt Jean and Uncle Graham turned up at the main gate and asked if they could take me home for tea at their place. They agreed to be responsible for my return and so I was allowed out then and subsequent Sundays. I was most grateful for that as I was desperately homesick. This was the first time I had been away from home or family so tea on Sunday gave me something to look forward to.

 The film ‘Carry on Sergeant’ always reminds me of those first weeks of basic training, in many respects there were similarities. The kit issue was done almost exactly as depicted in the film. Going to the clothing store and getting a huge pile of garments, bedding and footwear. This all had to be marked with our names. For this we were issued a wooden stamp of our name and initials. This we used to apply our names either in black or white paint to our clothes and once it had dried embroidered over it with red thread. All this had to be folded correctly and stowed in our lockers in a certain way with the name showing. We were also taught how to wash ourselves and also our kit. For the latter we were given blocks of soap (Pusser’s Hard) and instruction on how to launder by hand. How to use an iron was another subject as we had to iron a lot of kit and put the correct creases in, like the seven horizontal ones in our bell bottom trousers. One amusing tale that went around at the time was of a conversation during a kit inspection. It was between the inspecting officer and a Nozzer of below average stature: - Officer “Well, and what do you think of the RN so far?” Nozzer, “It’s alright sir!” “Do you like your new uniform?” “It’s alright sir! “ “And what about your new underwear?” After a pause “It’s a bit tight under the arms sir!” We all had the same hair style too, it was known as the Shotley Look. Short back and sides and little on top. We also began to learn a new language, all the terms used in the navy that were different to civilian words, such as bulkhead for wall.

 Collingwood 44 Mess.   PO GI Smith.  Courtesy RA Fisk.    

After those first weeks of induction, learning naval law and discipline, kit upkeep and how to march to a reasonable standard we moved to the main establishment and became part of Collingwood division. The group I was with were in 44 mess, class1, and we would be together for the rest of our training. We were on the second floor of a two story block, each floor or mess had its own toilets, bathroom, laundry/drying room and ironing room. There were two classes per mess so twenty eight ratings to each. Our official rating at the time was Junior Seamen. This would be ‘home’ until mid 1959. Petty officers Durrant and Smith were our regular instructors, Smith for gunnery and parade drill, Durrant for seamanship and boatwork. Life became hectic from now on with hardly a moment of free time. Being able to swim, obviously, was essential. As I couldn't I was listed as a ‘Backward Swimmer”, (I couldn't swim either way, ahead or astern!) so I had to get up extra early and go for swimming lessons before breakfast. On arrival at the poolside on the first occasion I was told by the Physical Training Instructor to go to the deep end, walk to the end of the springboard and “Just jump in!” Such humour some of these military boys! I had never seen water this deep before, never mind got into any without my feet touching something, so I just stood there in fear. Not only of the waters depth but also of a potential bowel movement. After some graphic words of encouragement, which I chose to ignore the PTI took up a long pole and said “If it will make you feel better hang on to this!” Now me being an innocent country boy thought ‘how kind’. As soon as I gripped the end he heaved. By the time I hit the water I was at least ten feet up the pool with no sign of the pole. Eventually I passed the test of jumping in the deep end swimming two lengths of the pool and remaining afloat for ten minutes while wearing overalls. Another thing that was compulsory was three rounds in the boxing ring. I think it was to do with checking ones ability to take orders and possibly search for potential candidates for the Navy team. I was none too keen on boxing as I had never fared well against Richard at home. Just my luck the pairings for this particular match were done on physique only. If you were about the same build and height you were in the ring. I did the three rounds and like to think I hit my opponent a glancing blow at least once during those three long minutes. Turned out he had done very well in his local amateur boxing club before joining the navy.

Once a week, Saturday mornings, the main activity was cleaning the mess for “Rounds” which would start at noon. (Rounds = An inspection, by an officer, of all junior rates accommodation for cleanliness.) Any failure meant a ‘rescrub’ and forfeiture of any free time that afternoon. These inspections took place throughout the navy regularly and some years later I heard a story involving a ship commanded by Earl Mountbatten. He would carry out Captain’s Rounds and would have the cooks prepare an iced cake as a prize for the messdeck he deemed the best. The Royal Marine’s mess had been on a winning streak for some time. Mountbatten being a tad biased in favour of the seamen secretly, he thought, hid a penny in an awkward to reach small gap on top of the overhead fan trunking, thinking that if he found the coin again next time it would give him reason to find fault and award the prize elsewhere. To his surprise the following week he found two halfpennies in its place and on enquiring “What is this?” the Sergeant of the mess replied “None of the lads had put a penny up there so it was considered a potential ‘plant’ and therefore to avoid any doubts of theft and to prove we had cleaned the area we replaced it with coins to the same value sir!” Needless to say the marines won again and were also commended for their honesty.

Not long after moving to the main camp we were fallen in beside the mast. This stood at one corner of the parade ground, it had once been the foremast of HMS Cordelia. Now it stood a hundred and forty three feet (43.58m) high with a safety net rigged below it. We were ordered to climb up the ratlines to the upper yardarm, cross over and come down the other side. Just to check our head for heights I suppose. Thereafter we could go up any Saturday afternoon if we wished to.

As we got used to the routine and learnt the tricks of the trade we achieved things quicker and gained more free time in the evenings and at weekends. This allowed us to indulge in a choice of other activities. I teamed up with three others and went sailing on the river in either Cutters or Whalers which was great fun. Another thing I was involved in was the Field Gun competition. A scaled down version of the Earls Court spectacular of the Royal Tournament. Our event only involved changing wheels during the lap of the course with a much smaller gun and limber. Another memorable thing was my first experience of the ‘Grey Funnel Line’ at speed. We were taken for a days sea experience onboard a Daring class destroyer, HMS Dainty I think it was. When she was up to nearly thirty knots it was an impressive sight. Yet another thing I recall is euphoria. No! Not a feeling of pleasure, it was the navy version as in “ YOU FOUR ‘ERE!!” and was something to be dreaded as it usually resulted in some form of punishment such as having to run up and down Faith, Hope and Charity several times. They were the names given to a group of three long, steep flights of steps.

Toward the end of November I got Flu and had to spend some time in sickbay. Then I was put on the School List. This meant I could go back to the mess and attend classes but was excused marching and any strenuous activity. I had a chit from the MO to prove it. This was to last three weeks to allow for full recovery. Toward the end of it I was feeling fit and full of energy, and bored. So when the mess was one short for a football team I volunteered. BIG mistake as during the game I got a serious knee injury and was helped off the far side of the pitch. To add insult to it when the game finished I had been forgotten and everyone went off in the opposite direction back to the mess, ignoring my shouts for help. The sports fields were some distance from the main camp area so I got up and tried to hop but that only made the pain worse. It was about an hour later that three mess mates came looking for me and found me slowly crawling back to the mess. Now I was not only in pain but in trouble as well for disobeying medical orders. The worst punishment though was having to miss Christmas leave as I was sent to Chatham hospital for more specialised treatment and was there until January 1959.

The New Year brought more of the same routine, up early, breakfast, clean the mess then out to morning parade. From there we would march to wherever our morning tuition would be. Class 1 were all going to be Seamen/Gunners so we learnt all things to do with handling craft large and small. From anchoring or securing a ship to a buoy right up to how to rig for a jackstay transfer at sea. Plus all the lesser stuff like knots and splices or how to use ones peripheral vision when using binoculars at night. This was mixed in with days of weapons training on the 4inch mounting or the smaller twin barrel Bofors plus rifles and pistols and just like in the ‘Carry on’ film how to dismantle and clean then reassemble a Bren gun. There was also parade drill, being taught ever more complicated manoeuvres while marching, like those seen at the Trooping of the Colours ceremony. So never a dull moment. Easter leave came and went, all too quickly, at least I did get home then. We had to wear our uniform ashore in those days (ashore being anywhere outside the main gate) and I felt proud to do so.

                               Courtesy RA Fisk                               At home Easter leave

After the holiday we were into our last term at Ganges and took our final tests in the various categories. The most graphic and exciting was the simulation on the 4inch gun. This time we got the whole works, it was a supposed night attack so done in the dark, sprinklers in the roof created a heavy rain affect. Thunderflashes (very loud fireworks) represented enemy fire and large gouts of water came at us from each side. The gun used fixed ammunition, shell and cartridge together and we had to ram these into the breech as the gun tracked the target and avoid the same when it was ejected after being ‘fired’. All this while the deck was pitching and tossing vigorously. During these final weeks of training we got several inoculations, some of which caused discomfort for several days, these would prepare us for travels abroad.

Finally there was the Passing Out parade when Collingwood division would form the guard and march on parade with rifles with fixed bayonets to form up at the front of the parade for inspection by the Captain. Then, after a few speeches and awards, we led the whole establishment in our final march past and salute at HMS Ganges.

Photographs courtesy RA Fisk

To be continued...

RA Fisk was the official photographer at Ganges, and those pixs marked courtesy of Ra Fisk were purchased from him direct by me in 1958/9.


  1. Thank you Barbara that is another excellent job and 'Excellent' will be my next episode.

    1. Hi John, all the hard work is down to you. My contribution is minuscule and very easy. I really enjoyed this post and am already looking forward to the next bit. Thanks again, Barbara.

  2. Hi John, What a good looking lad in your uniform. I still have Bobs uniform in my pine box, have you kept yours? I felt for you missing Christmas with the family, not easy at that age. Love to you and Liz and looking forward to her part in your story. Sue

  3. Evening Sue, Thank you for those kind words about me in uniform, if you had said that to me all those years ago I probably would have blushed something awful.

  4. Hello Mr F
    I've just finished reading your guest post, and I so enjoyed it, thank you.
    My hubby and I are in our motorhome in Devon for a few days..... Needless to say it is raining, but we do have a glimpse of the sea from Hope Cove.
    Having to spend enforced time Inside (lots of rain) was a blessing this morning as it enabled me to find your captivating words.
    Thanks again, Frances

  5. Hello Frances,
    Thank you for such kind words' it is very gratifying to bring others pleasure and I am grateful to Barbara @marchhousebooks for the chance to to that. I do hope the weather improves for you and you enjoy your visit to Devon. John

  6. Aw, this was an incredibly nice post. Finding the time and actual effort to make a very good article… but
    what can I say… I hesitate a lot and never manage to get
    nearly anything done.


I really appreciate your comment. Thank you!
Barbara x

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