Being a Chef in the Royal Navy

From HMS Ganges I got my first posting to a ship - but what a ship! It was the flagship, HMS Ark Royal, the biggest ship in the Royal Navy.

Ever since I was a lad, I used to watch my nana cooking and thought that’s what I wanted to be when I left school.  But at the same time, I wanted to follow my uncles into the Forces.

I had an uncle who was in the Royal Navy, an uncle who was in the Merchant Navy, an uncle who was in the Army, and last but not least, an uncle who was a trawlerman working out of North Shields.  I suppose you could say he was a bit of the black sheep of the family, but he was still my uncle and I couldn’t leave him out, could I?

Anyway, I thought why not combine the two together so when I was about thirteen and at a band contest watching my two sisters, who were competing at the time, I noticed one of the stalls there was recruiting for the Royal Navy.  I had my heart set on joining the Army but was talked out of it by my uncle who was at the time a serving soldier.  Anyway, that was back in 1972 and I put my name down there and then and never thought nothing more about it until January 1974, when I received my invitation to go for my medical and recruitment exam at a place in Newcastle called Gunner House, just opposite the Central Station.  I believe it’s not there now.

About one month before leaving school I received a letter to say either I was accepted or not.  Being very nervous I opened it and yes, I had passed and had a certificate to prove it.  I was duly accepted as a Royal Navy recruit as of the 1st October 1974.  Included in the letter was a list of everything I was to take, as well as a travel warrant to exchange at the train station for my ticket.  The place I was to report to was called HMS Ganges, near Ipswich in Suffolk, wherever that was.

The time came to leave home – I was sixteen years old and had never been further than Sunderland.  There were lots of tears from my mam and sisters at the station, not knowing when I would see North Shields (where I’d grown up) again, for a while anyway.

I arrived at the gates of HMS Ganges at 9 o’clock as ordered.  I was not alone as I’d met some of the other new recruits on the train, we were all shaking and terrified.  We could hear the officers shouting and yelling and it made us think “what are we doing here?”  Within about two hours a lot of the young lads packed it in and wanted to leave, me included, but I thought “this is what I wanted in life”, so stuck it out.

Anyway, to cut a long story short we spent ten weeks in basic training, learning everything about marching, using firearms (yes, real guns and ammunition), learning survival skills, damage control in case of damage on board the ships (you weren’t allowed to call them boats) and firefighting skills.  Everything you needed to keep you and your shipmates safe.  Finally, came the day of the passing out parade, we had all passed and some of the lads had their family there to see them.  As we finished, we all had a long weekend off before we had to go to our prospective training establishment.  We were able to go home for the first time since we had arrived.  I went home in my uniform to a place called Longbenton.  You see my mum had moved during the time I was away.  It was great getting to see all my family again, but no time to see my mates from school.  The weekend  passed quickly but there were no tears this time when I left.

I had to report to HMS Pembroke in Kent, where I was to do my training as a chef.  We were there for a total of twelve weeks and I passed with flying colours.  From there I got my first posting.  The funny thing was that I was given HMS Ganges – the place I had done my basic training.  I didn’t fancy going back there but one of the lads, who came from Ipswich, had been given HMS Dartmouth in Devon so we swapped.  I’m glad I did, Dartmouth was the officers’ training college and it was great.  In fact, I loved it so much that no matter where I was serving in the UK, I would always spend two weeks there every year.  From there I got my first posting to a ship – but what a ship!  It was the flagship of the navy, HMS Ark Royal, the biggest ship in the Royal Navy.

I joined her in January 1976, a couple of weeks before setting sail for a six month trip to America.  What a shock that was – me going to America eighteen months after leaving school.  This was the ideal opportunity for me to fulfil a lifetime ambition.  You see I was big on astronomy at school (Ralph Gardner High School, North Shields) and after seeing the Moon landings back in 1969 I was hooked.

I always said one day I was going to go there, and there I was going to spend six months in the very country I had dreamed of going to.  And on top of that we were going to have a television crew with us the whole time we were there.  They were going to make a documentary of life on board a Royal Navy ship.  (It was shown on television later that year, maybe some of you remember it, it was called Sailing and of course the theme music was sung by Rod Stewart).  I think Rod Stewart had a number one hit with it that year.  It was the second time at number one, the first time was back in 1975.  Later on that year we were invited to make our own version of it, it was not a big hit like Rod Stewart’s version, but we had fun making it.  The ‘b’ side was Remember You’re a Womble and I’ve still got the single in my collection.

It was funny, in March that year I had turned eighteen and I was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when I was sent for to go to the bosun’s office.  I thought “what’s the matter, is something wrong at home”, not thinking it was my birthday.  No, it was to be given my beer card as I was now old enough to drink.  You see you got your beer ration every day, a whole three cans (not kidding, a whole three cans – wow!)  It was just the year before that they’d done away with the rum ration, although they did splice the mainbrace for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

I did fulfil my life ambition and got to Cape Canaveral in Florida, as you might have guessed out of all the places I got to visit (including Disney World, which was another ambition of mine, but I kept that secret, ha ha!) that was the highlight of the six months I spent in America.  We spent the Fourth of July celebrations in Fort Lauderdale, it was a good time to be there as it was the 200th anniversary of Independence, 1776 – 1976.  After that we set off home to England, the trip took thirteen days but what a trip – something I will never forget as long as I live.

Later on that year we went into dry dock for refit over Christmas, taking us into 1977.  When we came out of refit we spent about a month in the Mediterranean Sea before heading home to take part in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in July.  These were held at Spithead, a stretch of water between the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth.

It was an honour because I was chosen to be part of the Queen’s official guard and we had trained for two months to get everything perfect.  I also had the honour to be part of the team that cooked the meal the Queen had on board her flagship.  Sadly, I left Ark Royal shortly after that time to be posted up to Scotland, to HMS Caledonia, Fife.  It was handy as it meant I could get home more often  – Newcastle was just a couple of hours away.  I spent just over a year there and I became the captain’s personal chef.

1977 was also the year the firemen went on strike, I think they were on strike a good six weeks.  Do you remember the Green Goddesses?  They were very slow.  We were part of the team which was drafted into service as firemen on one of the Goddesses based in Cowdenbeath.

After that I was posted to HMS Bilderston, out of Rosyth Dockyard.  It was a minesweeper – funny that, after serving on board the largest ship in the navy my next ship would be one of the smallest.  It was like having a big extended family.  We baked all our own bread and you knew when it was baking day because the smell of freshly baked bread wafted throughout the ship.  Let’s just say it didn’t last long.  That year I volunteered to stay on board over Christmas to stand guard.  I didn’t mind, you see there were lads who had family and kids, plus we were able to draw everyone’s ration of beer, whether they were on board or not.  Even better was going on our own leave when everyone came back from theirs.

She was a good little ship and we were often called out if a trawler had dragged in a mine while out fishing.  You see there are still a lot of mines left over from WWII all around the British Isles.  We first had to release them from their nets or cut them free, then take them out to a safe distance, attach explosive charges and then blow them up, which was a lot safer than trying to disarm them.  Let’s just say we had fish for tea a lot that year.  I was the lucky one, you see when she went into dry dock for two months everyone went into shore accommodation, but not me, I was drafted to a sea going tug out of Faslane, Glasgow.  We could not cook because, being a tug, she rolled a lot, not enough to roll over but enough to make it dangerous to cook.  We lived on soup and sandwiches, but made up for it when we were alongside.  I did my fair share of watch duties while on board but sadly after Christmas that year I did not return to my ship as I had my next posting down to HMS Seahawk down in Cornwall.  Again, I was only there a short time as my time was nearly up.  I could have signed up again but felt that I had done what I wanted in life, fulfilling my life’s ambition.  Not many people I know have done that, especially within 18 months of leaving school.  I did miss it for a while, especially not going to the Falklands.  Sadly, I know mates of mine who went and never came back.  Who knows, I could have lost my life, but that was what it was all about, protecting what belonged to us.

What I found was that no matter where you were serving or how long you had served in the forces you always met up with someone you joined up with back in the early days of training.  I would never ever swap the time I served, if anything I would have stayed in, but on the other hand I met a young lady, got married, had two great kids and now I’ve got two grandsons and a granddaughter.  Who knows what life has in store for everyone; all I know is I wouldn’t change the time I served in Her Majesty’s Navy.

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