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.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Further Training - A Guest Post by John Flitney

See previous post here

Si vis pacem, para bellum. (If you wish peace, prepare for war. ) The motto of the Royal Navy.

With that in mind the navy, in 1830, converted the third rate ship of the line HMS Excellent to a gunnery training ship and moored her at Whale Island in Portsmouth harbour. She was replaced by the second rate HMS Boyne in 1834 and finally HMS Queen Charlotte, first rate, in 1859. Both being renamed HMS Excellent. The guns were fired down a range on the island. The size of the island was increased with the spoils from the expanding dockyard. Eventually HMS Excellent became a ‘Stone Frigate’ a naval term for a shore establishment and continued as the navy’s principal Gunnery school.
(Third, second and first rate of a ship indicated its size and the number of guns it carried. Third rate had 48 - 60, seconds 90 - 98 and firsts had a hundred guns or more.)

Excellent’s reputation for discipline was well known and it was with a feeling of trepidation that I arrived there on the 20th May 1959. The place was immaculate and all personnel were correctly dressed at all times and moved smartly around the establishment. It was a case of having to as the shout “You ‘orrible man, report to me!” could come from anywhere. Except, and I found this out later, there was just one place on the entire island you were told to do the opposite. Between the main accommodation area and the parade ground was an area of grass and trees with a collection of flowering shrubs. Paths across this place took you through the shrubs and past a small menagerie hidden within. Here were housed several species of parrot and one of these was quite vocal. It was a large green job and should you foolishly enquire of it “Who’s a pretty boy then?” the reply you got very succinctly, just two words, told you how to depart the area. It was the only thing that drew any complaints from visitors to the island it was so rude. I just cannot think where it might have learnt such language and me such a delicate young lad too…………tut tut!!

Training continued but now was concentrated on guns large and small. The biggest I experienced was a 4.5in. twin turret, all enclosed and hydraulically operated. The shells and cartridge were separate and supplied to the turret by hoists from the magazine. These were then manually taken from their hoists and placed on the loading tray and then mechanically rammed into the breach. The faster you could do that the better the rate of fire. The Bofors 40mm (1.57in.) twin open mountings were loaded with clips of five rounds at a time and if you could keep the feed going each barrel was, in theory, capable of firing 120 rounds a minute. A short trip in a lorry would take us to Tipner rifle range where we were taught all about the hand held weapons, mainly the Browning .303 bolt action rifle, Lanchester submachine gun and the heavier Bren machine gun. After tuition, in classrooms, on cleaning and maintenance of the weapons, how to use the sights correctly and how to reload their magazines we would go out on the range and shoot at various targets at differing distances. Snap targets were the most fun as they would appear suddenly in different positions for just a few seconds so you had to spot them then aim and fire quickly. We also took turns in the butts marking the shots of other classes. This was done by lowering the target after the ‘all clear’ whistle, all the targets were coloured black and white so we would paste a contrasting colour square over the bullet holes and then raise the target again.

Also at Tipner we learnt basic fire fighting techniques. Fires of different substances were lit to simulate possible situations aboard ship and allowed to get well alight before we had to put them out using the correct method, such as foam for oil fires. On larger blazes we used two hoses, one to create a spray that acted as a heat shield the other to fight the fire. One incident I heard about involving Tipner was about security at night. I’m not sure of when exactly it happened but at the time paraffin was still a popular heating fuel. The oil company Esso had added a coloured dye to their brand of the fuel and were doing a serious advertising campaign for it. The security guard, each night at Tipner, mainly to protect the armoury there, was made up of part of the duty watch from Excellent. The Officer of the Watch would at some point in the night travel to Tipner to check all was well. On the particular night in question the duty officer was the Paymaster, the supply officer responsible for money obviously. He arrived at the gate at Tipner at about 2am and wanted entry. The man on duty there correctly asked to see the officers ID card. He hadn’t got it, and I imagine the conversation gradually got more heated. “I’m sorry sir but I cannot let you in without seeing your ID.!” “I am the Officer of the Watch and need to get in to sign the security log here, open up at once!” “No sir! I do not recognise you and I would still have to see your identification card even if I did. It’s the rules!” “But, but I’m S. O. Cash!” “ I couldn’t care less if you was Esso Blue you aint gettin in ere wivout your ID!!”

We also travelled to Fraser Gunnery range at Eastney in Portsmouth to fire the bigger guns. I remember using ‘breakup shot’ (centrifugal force caused the filling of the Bakelite shell case to break it apart shortly after it left the barrel) on the Bofors. What was used in the 4.5s I do not recall. I cannot imagine we lobbed large, albeit dummy shells, out toward the busy seaway of the Solent.

For the first time now I was doing ‘duty watches’ every fourth day which meant extra work in the evenings or weekends. This involved cleaning work around the establishment, sentry duty and security patrols during the night. Also fire fighting if necessary, as a first response before the civilian brigade arrived. When not dutywatch evenings were mostly free and we were now allowed ashore, though as Junior seamen we had to be back aboard by 2359. Along Commercial road was a small cinema that screened nothing but cartoons in an hour and a half programme with two programme changes a week. I was a regular there twice a week. Also I spent a lot of time racing the dodgem type cars on a delightful figure eight track at Southsea funfair. There were the routine weekly mess inspections and kit inspections but they were less frequent now. There was also the inevitable parade ground. (I would have loved to use one of Uncle George’s fabled Oxometers here just to measure the amount of ‘bull’ applied.) So even more marching and rifle drill. We learnt even more complicated ceremonial drills such as firing squad at funerals, reversing arms as at street lining or mourners at state funerals. We simulated being an armed landing party and the formations required for that and how to defend ourselves should we have to form an anti-riot squad ashore.

Shortly before we finished our course at Whale Island we were issued with our tropical kit. This was a pair of white square rig suits, white shorts, blue shorts, knee length blue socks and a pair of brown leather sandals and white canvas shoes plus a white canvas kit bag to stow it in. This gave a clue that our next posting, known as a draft chit, could involve travel to warmer climes perhaps. Not long after the completion of the training our draft chits arrived. Myself and a small group of the other members of the class were to join HMS Scarborough, recommissioning on 28th September 1959 in Portsmouth after a major refit.

To be continued...............


  1. Hi Barbara, A superb job again and I like the added interest of links to the books, also the clever way you have done the reference back to Uncle George.
    Thank you

    1. Thank you John, I'm glad it is all OK. Thanks also for all the time you are spending on this and for allowing me to share it. Barbara.

  2. Hi John, funny to think you started your training on HMS Excellent on my 17th birthday! How long ago it all is now, but you have a brilliant memory and I look forward to reading more of your adventures. Sue x

  3. Hello Sue, Sorry to be so late replying but my earlier effort has not got through by now. So this will be vaguely similar in content as I cannot recall exactly what I wrote previously.
    Sure was a long time ago as you say so it is a good job I have my service records to jog my memory. Also photographs, what a wonderful boon they are to illustrating long forgotten happy times. An example of which I had just recently thanks to Barbara. I shall persevere with the story and endeavour to keep it interesting. Thank you for you visit and kind words.

  4. Hi John, It is very interesting and makes me think "Where have all the years gone and what has happened to the world we used to live in?". I suppose every generation feels the same and it is lovely reading about the "Good Old Days" so am looking forward to your next instalment.


I really appreciate your comment. Thank you!
Barbara x

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