Big Bad Ben
Following my basic submarine training courses I was now on to Part 3 where the hands-on training begins for real. I was finally being introduced to the wonderful world of the diesel submarine. It had been decided that, although I was an Engine Room rating, that part of my multi-task training should be as a torpedo-man. I was to be trained in the types of weapons used onboard and their handling and firing systems. It would become fun to learn and I began to become impatient to get to sea.
I had made the long journey north to Faslane Submarine Base, the home of the third and tenth submarine squadron’s, it is located on the Gareloch, just outside Helensburgh, about thirty miles north of Glasgow. I arrived and carried out the ritual joining routine. Unlike men serving aboard surface ships, submariners do not live aboard when alongside. The cramped conditions make it impractical to live on a submarine when it is not absolutely necessary, and there is insufficient storage space to allow personal possessions to be kept aboard. In the home port a mess space ashore is kept for each man and his kit, except for those few items required for sea, are kept there whilst he is away.
The advantage of this is that, when a submarine is visiting a foreign port, or a UK port without a naval base, hotels are provided or a subsistence allowance is paid to each man. It is normal for subsistence to be paid in the UK and for each man to find his own accommodation. Abroad, hotel rooms are booked in advance and these are on a bed and breakfast basis, paid for by the Navy. A small allowance is then paid, in cash advance, to each man, to allow him to purchase food ashore. This is a sore point with those serving on surface ships as, when abroad, they are required to spend their own money on beer, whereas submariner’s invariably use their food allowance to finance their liquid diet.
Although I was now a member of the crew of HMS/M Ambush, I had yet to set foot on the boat. I slept my first night in HMS Neptune, the operational base serving the submarine squadrons at Faslane. The transit mess decks were very quiet and I soon fell asleep after my long journey. The following morning, after a shower, I made my way to breakfast in the dining hall, several hundred yards from the accommodation blocks. It was bitterly cold and pouring with rain, the normal weather for Faslane throughout the majority of the year, as I was soon to discover during my numerous years there.
I walked from the dining hall to the tunnel, which led from the base to the submarine jetties. Ministry of Defence Police were at the end of the tunnel controlling access.
Several boats of varying types were tied alongside and I slowly walked along, marvelling at the sleek look of them. All submarines are painted black and it may be this that gives them a sinister air. They appeared to be quite small, but, like an iceberg, about eighty percent of a submarine is always beneath the surface. I finally caught my first glimpse of Ambush. She was secured alongside and outboard of another submarine, across which I had to walk to get to her. The hatch was covered by a fibreglass hut, in which a sentry sat. I introduced myself and, amazingly, received a friendly smile and a guide was called to show me below.
I was taken to the Coxswain's office where I was actually made to feel welcome. Within a few minutes I had been directed to the fore-ends, also known as the torpedo compartment. On a diesel submarine, the torpedo room is on one level. There are the torpedo tubes, six in all, two high and three across. Here are stowed all the torpedoes and mines that a submarine will carry to sea. Above, are racks, which could during time of war, carry extra torpedoes, making a bunking space for up to twenty men. This is where I, as a Part 3 trainee, would be sleeping, for the foreseeable future. It was, as I was soon to find out, a good place to sleep. It was more spacious, better ventilated and certainly less smelly, than the mess spaces in which the majority of the crew slept. Privacy is almost non-existent in a submarine, and on Ambush sleeping arrangements would allow me precious little of it in my time aboard.
My first day was a haze. It was a mass of new faces and routines. I was introduced to virtually the whole crew, all of who seemed welcoming and eager to help me settle in. I was told about the daily routine and I was given an idea of the ship's programme for the coming months, which, luckily, involved a good deal of time at sea, and some visits to both UK and foreign ports. The only drawback was that I would be duty watch that night. I actually looked forward to sleeping on a submarine for the first time. As a trainee, the only duty I could carry out was casing sentry and I was to spend part of the night in the fibreglass hut above the hatch. Even that was fairly civilised. A heater had been fitted and a stool provided, it was fairly comfortable and I was only required to move outside once an hour. I was shown how to read the draught marks. These indicated how much of the boat was actually under water and thus, the crew could tell if it was slowly sinking. I was also shown how to slacken off moorings should the need arise.
I was allocated the first (8pm to midnight) and morning (4am to 8am) watches. This was easy, I could even sleep from midnight to four and, so I was told, the whole duty watch were given a 'make and mend' (afternoon off) the following day. The first watch was uneventful and, excited but tired, I turned in. No sheets and pillowcases here. Everyone was issued with a green naval issue sleeping bag. It was the only bedding issued for as long as the boat was at sea. There were no facilities which would allow anything bigger than a shirt to be washed and sleeping bags made out of nylon do tend to become smelly very quickly. Shortly before 0400 I was woken from my slumbers. This was incredible. On the Ark Royal it had been a bash on the side of the head from an anonymous fist. Here, I was being brought a cup of strong, hot coffee by the person I was to relieve. I could see that submarine service was really going to be a dream of a job. Just how naïve could I have been?
I made my way to the casing, which was lashed by rain blowing down the loch from the north. The water around the boat was slapping against the sides and I could feel Ambush, tugging at her ropes and bumping the wooden pontoon placed to protect her hull from damage by the submarine alongside. I huddled into my waterproofs and pulled the hood over my head. The heaters warmth now seemed a little feeble and I was cold. Leaving the hut to read the draught markings was a chore. It was cold and wet and, walking on the narrow, sloping and slippery casing was dangerous. On more than one occasion I very nearly fell between the two submarines.
I had been on deck for two hours when a face appeared at the hatch. "Go on then mate. You can go below, get a cup of tea and warm up before breakfast." I looked up to see Dave Garland, known to all on board as 'Judy', one of the torpedomen.
"Thanks," I replied, "but I thought I was here till eight."
"You've got to get ready for breakfast."
How nice and civilised these submariners were. Two hours till breakfast and, already, I was being allowed to go below and warm up before sitting down to a full English breakfast. "Thanks Judy." I said with a smile.
"I'll have my bacon crispy." said Judy with a grin, "And my eggs runny."
I looked at him baffled. "What are you telling me for?" I asked.
He looked at me. "They haven't told you have they?"
"Told me what?"
"You are the morning watch trot sentry; therefore, you have to cook breakfast for the crew."
I looked at him completely stunned. Me, a cook, he must be joking, just because I knew how to boil an egg didn't make me the Galloping Gourmet. I went below to the galley. It was about the size of a household bathroom and about as well suited to cooking for a full crew of submariners who would rip my face off if I didn't supply them with breakfast. I looked around. There were two small ovens, one electric hotplate and a deep fat fryer. There were all the ingredients, placed neatly on the stainless steel work surface.
I have never sweated so much in my life. The bacon was, well, let us say crispy shall we. The fried eggs were about the consistency of a dog's rubber ball and the fried bread became shrapnel as it was attacked by knife and fork. The baked beans and tomatoes were warm and the sausages were cooked but slightly cold. The professional ability of the cook aboard Ambush was called into question when crew members began to congratulate me on my culinary skills. It appeared that I got away with that one but, as I was to find out, there were plenty more little traps awaiting my clumsy attentions.
"Diving now, diving now."
The ship's broadcast system crackled into life. A hiss came from the main vent, close to where I was sitting, and a faint whoosh could be heard as the air left the main ballast tanks, to be replaced by seawater rushing in and making the boat negatively buoyant. My image of men rushing to the front of the submarine as it hurtled below the water in a matter of seconds was dashed. It can take three or four minutes for a boat to disappear below the waves and it seemed a slow, almost laboured event.
A slight tilt of the deck as the bow slowly began to dip beneath the waves was all that could be felt. No squealing of steel plates and popping of rivets under pressure, no panic stricken dash of men to their stations to prepare for depth charges. If I hadn't been able to see the depth gauge between the dials of the torpedo firing gear control panel, I wouldn't have known we has descended sixty feet. No pressure on the ear drums and no rush of water past the hull. The slight roll that the boat had experienced on the surface had gone and, against what I had expected, it was quiet and still.
Ambush was moving along at eight knots, pushing the water aside without even a ripple on the surface marked only by the white feather of wake from the periscope. The overall impression the crew gave was one of professional boredom. My heart was pounding. At last, I was at sea on a submarine in its element, beneath the waves and unseen by those above.
We had been at sea for some weeks and, as I walked along the narrow passageway I heard a hiss. Was this escaping air? Perhaps it was a hydraulic leak. Maybe there was water pouring through a hole in the pressure hull and I was destined to drown before my first run ashore with my new found crew mates. There it was again, a definite hissing noise. I looked around and saw the Coxswain, the First Lieutenant and several rather hefty sailors hiding in the Coxswains stores. I looked at the Coxswain and realised that he had been making the noise. He was beckoning me in a most conspiratorial manner. As I walked towards him he held a finger to his lips. I approached the door of the tiny storage area and was immediately dragged inside. Oh God, male rape, flashed through my mind. I began to struggle.
"For Christ's sake shut up, he'll hear us." said the Coxswain, I began to think that this was, perhaps, some maniacal game of hide and seek. But who was looking for us and how many did he have to count up to before finding us.
The inside of the store was in virtual darkness, the only light coming from the poorly fitting frame around the door. Someone shone a torch in my face and, like all torches on board, it had a red filter across the lens to permit only a slight glow. This was to prevent the night vision of the officer manning the periscope from being ruined in the event that a torch was needed to illuminate something in the pitch black of the control room at night. I could just make out that the torch was being held by the First Lieutenant, the second in command of the boat.
"Now, I have a job for you." He said. "It's that time of year when we must all gird our loins and put our collective brawn into the fray and ensure that nobody gets hurt."
What was he on about? Had he gone mad? Was this some bizarre and perverted submariner's ritual?
The Coxswain came to the XO’s aid. “Well you see it's time for Ben's inoculations."
The light suddenly dawned. Ben Slade was the Torpedo Instructor. He was the red-headed version of Bluto from the Popeye cartoons. He had muscles where a person had no right to have muscles. From his bushy red beard to his shovel sized hands he oozed latent power and incredible strength. I had been given a graphic demonstration of his strength only a few days before. Whilst loading a one and a half ton of torpedo into a tube, the tail had stuck on a ridge in the steel rails on which it was carried into the tube. Nothing would budge it and the inner tube door being open with a torpedo half in and half out, a dangerous state for any submarine. Ben got a huge steel bar and, placing one end of the bar under the offending beam, passing the bar under the tail of the torpedo, he put his shoulder under the other end of the bar. With a slight grunt he lifted the back end of the torpedo fully three inches clear of the obstruction. He'd hardly broken sweat.
But Ben had one weakness, his Achilles heel. He was petrified of needles and injections. During the annual round of inoculations on the submarine, Ben was conspicuous by his absence. In a previous attempt to give him the various shots required by men of the Royal Navy, three of the crew had required stitches and one a plaster cast. That goes without mentioning the various black eyes and other bruised body parts suffered by those trying to restrain him. The Coxswain revealed his plan which would require a sacrificial lamb. I wondered who that was going to be. I looked around. Well it wasn't going to be the First Lieutenant. It was the Coxswain's plan so it wasn't going to be him. Eventually, without the use of too much brainpower, I realised that I was to be the decoy.
In the passageway, immediately outside the door to the torpedo compartment is a ladder. It goes to two small storage spaces above. The ladder formed an integral part of the plan and was to be the only protection I had from the wrath of Slade. Either side of the ladder were two further small spaces with doors, one of which we were in, sweating away in conspiratorial stupidity. I was quietly ushered out of the door of the storeroom with three packets of Ben's favourite pipe tobacco in my hand. I looked to my right and left, the biggest men on the boat were crammed into the two spaces on either side of the ladder, peeking through the crack between door and frame.
"Well get on with it then", coaxed the encouraging voice of the Coxswain.
I cleared my throat and called to Ben who was sitting on the step just inside the door to the torpedo compartment doing some paperwork. "Excuse me TI, the Coxswain asked me to give you this." I said in what I hoped was a normal voice.
"What's that then?" asked Ben.
"It’s your ration of duty free pipe tobacco TI." I said.
I could feel the sweat trickling down my back and a small bead was making its way down my face, irritating and making me twitch.
"Well bring it in and give it here then."
"Why the hell not?” growled Ben.
Oh s**t, he'd got me. God he was a clever bastard. Why couldn't I go to him? Why should a Chief Petty Officer have to come to me, a newcomer to the boat and a lowly trainee at that? Suddenly it came to me. At the time I thought it was brilliant. Now, I can't believe he actually fell for it. A thousand miles away from dry land and the only dogs in sight were sea dogs and I came out with this pearl of utter stupidity.
"I trod in some dog s**t and I don't want to walk it all over the torpedo compartment."
There was an audible groan from the Coxswain and a snigger or two from the other men hidden in the cramped spaces either side. Ben got up and moved towards me. I took a small step back and held the tobacco close to the ladder and between two rungs. Ben reached for it and I moved back slightly. A puzzled look came over his face and he reached forward, through the rungs of the ladder.
There was now an eruption of huge sailors bursting from all corners. Three of them got behind Ben and pushed him hard against the ladder. The remainder grabbed a section of his huge, hairy, tattoo covered, arm and pulled it through the ladder rungs. He was held fast. I saw a perplexed expression on his face as he tried to figure out what was going on. It didn't last long. The Coxswain appeared with a hypodermic syringe in his hand and all hell broke loose. Suddenly these huge sailors, who looked like pygmies alongside Ben, were now flying in all directions, as the sound of bone upon flesh rang through the air. I saw the First Lieutenant dumped, unceremoniously, onto his backside after to coming into smart contact with Ben's huge, flailing free arm. A burly six foot stoker was writhing in agony on the deck with a broken nose. The needle was rammed into Ben's upper arm and the contents injected into his bloodstream.
Ben's final words before he fainted were "Pedro, I'm going to rip...."
There were men running away all around me. Nobody wanted to be there when Ben came round. It was alright for them, I had to work for the guy. I was going to die; there was no other possible end to this tale of woe and deceit. Shaking and sweating profusely I hid in the junior rates mess drinking coffee and smoking endless cigarettes.
Ben never even mentioned the event. It was as though it had never happened. Speaking to him some years later, just before he retired, I found that Ben was ashamed of his, as he saw it, unreasonable behaviour. Once it had happened he would never mention it again. By the time the next annual medical exercise on Ben was required I was now qualified and back in the engine room where I belonged and I did not have to play the Judas goat in trapping Ben into getting his jabs.