Naval Service in Wartime Rothesay
Letter to Anthony J Walker
from Richard M Green, Ex. Lt. RN.
Dated: 12 May 2001
I am thoroughly enjoying your book "Aye, Aye, Sir!" - Commander Ian Hamilton sent me a copy.
I am enjoying your recollections of your time in Rothesay. It brings back wonderful memories of my time in, 1940-1945, with a short break in 1943.
I served on the 'Cyclops' and 'Varbel.' I was a submariner and diver serving overseas from 1936-1939. I was in Malta when war was declared. Volunteers were asked to man the 'Cyclops' which was one of many ships, mostly small craft, that were in reserve, or as we say today, 'mothballed.' Every naval port had ships laid up in reserve after the First World War. Medway had destroyers and cruisers. Solent had cruisers and lots of small craft. Bermuda, Singapore and Hong Kong also had some ship in reserve.
As I was due to come home anyway due to having completed my commission, 2 1/2 years, I was accepted and went aboard to ready her for the journey home.
We had to wait for more crew to arrive from the UK, especially stokers, then we rounded up some stoker pensioners from Malta. These men had retired after serving their time and decided to settle down in Malta, married Maltese girls and most of them owned pubs and restaurants in the area of "The Gut" Strada Strata.
A lot of these pensioners had served in coal burning ships in WW1, so they were ideal to teach the young stokers how to use the tools of the trade in the boiler room of "Cyclops". The 90lbs. Slice, the Rake the Devil and the Pricher. How to spread coal in the fire box to get optimum steam. How to lay fire, change fire bars and how to draw fire etc. How to trim bunkers, a really tough job.
We left Malta late October 1939 and brought her to Portsmouth in December, first for bottom cleaning and checks, then home for Christmas for 3 weeks. Re-joined her at Harwich as a Depot Ship of 3rd Submarine Flotilla. I did two patrols from her there. Then she sailed from there, first to Rosyth, and incidentally she had to strike her mast to get under the Forth Bridge. Luckily she still had older seamen on board who knew how to do it.
I joined her from patrol at Rothesay, January 1940. I had done quite a few patrols so I stayed on board "Cyclops" as spare crew and ship's diver, sometimes cleaning the water inlets below the water line, and one time recovering our power boat that had quietly sunk whilst attached to the stern boom during the night.
I remember well my runs ashore in Rothesay - three cinemas, which in my day would only open Sundays for servicemen and their partners, so you can imagine how popular servicemen were to the local girls.
The Italian restaurants and fish and chip shops all had official documents on the wall stating they were now British and had sons and daughters serving in the Forces.
The Winter Garden was also popular. Many famous Scottish singers and comedians got their first start there before going big time in Glasgow and Edinburgh. I remember Robert Wilson, Will Fyfe, the Houston Sisters, Billie and Renee, and others.
I met my future wife (Isabella Fyfe) there: she was working in a little sweet shop, my first girlfriend and we went steady. Her mother used to put us submariners up for the night for 1/- and tea and toast for breakfast, so I got to see her often. We were married at the Free Church on April 25, 1941. Honeymooned in Paisley and Perth. We lived at first at her mother's place in Bridge Street, then moved round the corner at 1 Ladeside. So I joined many other shipmates to settle down in Rothesay.
Some men brought their families up from England to live in Rothesay, away from the bombing. It was funny to hear the children picking up the Scottish accent. Our two sons were born at Cottage Hospital and of course spoke with a Scottish accent, and caused many strange looks later after the war when I took my family to live in Kent, my home town.
I loved Rothesay, it was my home really Ð I had many friends and my wife had a lot of relatives there too. My mother-in-law was well known in Rothesay. She was the Chief Templar and my father-in-law looked after the Templar Hall.
Rothesay had few notable people too. A sister-in-law worked for Mrs Oates, a widow whose son was Captain Oates of Scott of the Antarctic saga. Also Mr Bennie lived there too, he was the inventor of the monorail. The first autogyro was built there, and used to go up and down Kames Bay. The inventor was a school friend of my wife and she was the first person to fly in it.
I remember the 'San Demetrio' coming into Rothesay Bay with big letters painted across the bridge wings Ð "S.O.S." The Cyclops actually refitted the crew out with clothing and fresh underclothes. I enjoyed the movie of that ship "The saga of the San Demetrio."
I was myself involved in a little bit of history. On 30th August 1940 about 200 miles NW of Bloody Foreland, T.S.S. Volendam was torpedoed by a German submarine Ð U59. 'Volendam' was carrying 335 children and escorts to Canada and the U.S.A. She was struck on the starboard side by No.1 Hold, which being empty, quickly filled. As she was in danger of sinking, the passengers and crew were transferred to destroyers and distributed among other ships of the convoy.
The bulkhead between No.1 and No.2 Holds held, the crew returned to the ship and waited for tugs to come and tow her back. The Liverpool & Glasgow salvage tug 'Ranger' happened to be tied up alongside Rothesay Pier. The captain had trouble getting the crew on aboard after sounding the siren many times. The few members that did return would not sail, so the captain asked if Cyclops would provide a crew to man her. I was fourth of Duty Part of watch and being a diver too, a crew was made up of 4 Ratings, 1 P.O. and 1 Lieut. We hustled around and put some gear together for a long journey, and boarded Ranger.
We sailed and met the Volendam on Monday 2 September, and started towing her stern first, she was using her engines too, and brought her into Kames Bay and beached her stern first at high tide.
The next morning the diver of the Ranger went down to have a look at the damage. I was ready as a back-up. When he surfaced, he said, "You had better go and look," because the torpedo was still in the hole and he did not know if it was still dangerous. I went down and sure enough, there was a torpedo in the hole. I felt along the fish and noticed the warhead was missing and that it was a completely different type to ours. I was a torpedoman, so I knew that the Admiralty would be interested, so when I came up I reported my findings to the Lieutenant who had a message sent to the Whitehead Torpedo Factory in Greenock, who then sent a large pinnace forthwith. When they arrived I went down and secured torpedo straps and slowly withdrew the torpedo from the hole and the factory workers secured it alongside the pinnace and took it back to the factory. It was an electric torpedo.
Our job done, the Captain of the Ranger took us over to Port Glasgow to pick up a new crew and we returned to Cyclops. I found out later from the Captain of U59 report, he had fired two torpedoes and they had both gone in the same hole. This was confirmed when the Volendam was patched up and towed to dry dock.
Well, that was quite a story on it's own. That was how I came in contact with Commander Ian Hamilton. We wrote to each other for quite a while and in March 1999 I met him.
I left Rothesay for a while to go down to Hayling Island and Portsmouth to train divers in special training for X-craft. I returned to Rothesay to train crews for X-craft at Port Bannatyne. Lucky me, back home again, and surprised that three old messmates had volunteered for X-craft, Bill Smith, Ron Ainsworth and Bill Francis.
Since the war I have only managed to find Bill Francis. I still write to him. He lives in Daventry. Bill Smith and Ron Ainsworth lived in Rothesay, and we used to meet in the morning at the bottom of Bridgend Street and walk out to Port Bannatyne if the weather was good. Later, we bought bikes from Calder's in Montague Street and cycled. It was good meeting the lads again and we had good times.
We had good fishing for brown trout in Loch Fad. Other things I noticed you missed out, the Serpentine, the long twisty road up from castle Street. We would call that Cardiac Hill now! I learned a lot from my wife about Rothesay and Bute in general. We travelled all over and she spoke about the old days before the war when she was growing up.
Well I got caught a couple of times to coal ship on the Cyclops, what a dirty job. Everyone mucked in except Bunting Tossers (signalmen), Sparks and Cooks. Everyone was black, even the Commander. It took about two and sometimes three days. The tugs would bring two barges and place them side by side. The subs had to move out into the bay.
Down in the barges we would go and start digging into the coal and fill 2ctw bags. After 5 bags were filled, a rope strop was passed through the handles and a wire hawser would come down. We would put the strop on the hook, and it was then hoisted on deck by steam dankies and boom ropes. It was then unhooked and the men on deck would use sack barrows and take the bags to be emptied into the bunkers.
The Bunting Tossers on the bridge would count the tons of coal coming aboard and hoist the appropriate number pennant to the yard arm. Then it was a race to see which barge would be emptied first. We had a tough time getting the coal dust out of our noses and eyes. We tried wearing rags around our mouths and noses but it was difficult. We usually went ashore or home with black rings around our eyes. Very funny.
The galley was in the middle of the mess deck, and was coal fired. Men under punishment or Duty Part of Watch had to fill the coal bunker. Every night, the stokers would answer the call "Up Ashes." They would load 10 gallon drums with the ask and clinker and haul up by hand in one of the ventilators which had a pulley in it and then empty overboard through a door in the ventilator shaft.
Rothesay Bay must have been polluted, what with ashes, garbage and sewage that had been dumped overboard. We never went swimming.
One of the times I dived under Cyclops I sank down to my waist in garbage, lots of ask and thousands of cans. If the Cyclops had stayed much longer, she might have grounded Ð ha, ha.
I miss the old pleasure steamers from Wemyss Bay. Comfortable, good dining room and music provided by travelling musicians like the Verichi Brothers (harp, fiddle and sax.). I do not like the ferries that run now Ð very dull and miserable below decks.
I was over a lot after the war. I used to drive up from Kent overnight to Doncaster where my wife's brother lived, then up to Paisley and up to Loch Lomond, Arrochar, over to Loch Striven to Colintraive and the ferry across to Rhubodach then on to Rothesay. Wonderful trip.
I emmigrated to Canada after my discharge in 1949, and I enjoy it here. I have a man from Port Bannatyne living nearby Ð a real Brandane, and we share "The Buteman" newspaper.
My wife passed away in 1993 after 52 years wedded. She requested that her ashes be spread in Rothesay Bay. My two sons and I took them to Rothesay in 1994 and scattered them as she wished. A school friend who was the Pipe Major of Rothesay Pipe Band piped the 'Lament' and 'Sweet Rothesay Bay.'
He (The Piper) had served with the 51st Highland Division in France and was captured at St Valery with my wife's brother. They returned after the war and my wife's brother emmigrated to Australia and the school friend settled down in Rothesay taking over the running of the pipe band once more.
I come over to England every year for a reunion of the submariners in March, but I missed this year because of a very bad bout of flu.
Well, I have enjoyed writing this to you and I hope I did not bore you. I shall carry on reading your book and re-reading.
By the way, I just remembered the 'Waverley' has been rescued and is running well. My brother has travelled on it and he informed me that the Restoration Society has done a good job. I remember seeing her partly submerged and rotting in a backwater of the Medway, Kent, quite a few years ago. Well, I wish you good health and maybe, who knows, our paths may join.
Richard M Green, Ex Lt. R.N.
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