Dreaming of the Sea

Ted Matthews’ story

I was born in Portsmouth in 1921, so I suppose the Navy was an obvious choice for a forces career. Our family left Pompey when I was very young, but the memories of the vast fleets that always seemed to be in port, had already made an impression on me. Although we moved to Wrexham, a mining town in North Wales, my love of the sea didn’t falter, from my earliest recollections the only career I wanted was that of the Navy.  

Leaving school at 14 years of age l sought work in a local butchers, as an errand boy, although my heart wasn’t in it and I spent any spare moments reading the specifications of all the ships in our Navy. I’d done this to such a degree that I could identify almost all the Empire’s warships by their silhouettes. Gradually my parents realised they couldn’t make me go down any other path than that of the Navy. From that point on, I had all the encouragement I needed in my quest to enlist. This wasn’t as straightforward as you may think, at that time the entrance exams were very strict. This was in total contrast to the army, where youngsters who found themselves in court, would often be given the choice of a career in the army or a spell in jail. This wasn’t the case with the Navy, in those days sailors (matelots) felt they were in the most prestigious of all the armed forces.


I sat my first tests in Wrexham which were very basic and having passed these, the next hurdle was a medical examination in Liverpool, followed by another series of more intense tests. As these incorporated references to the Navy, I felt on home ground. On the train journey home I sat with lads who’d failed their exams. Some weren’t too bothered, I have to add, if I’d have failed I would have been devastated. But I suppose that’s the difference when you really want to achieve something; the fear of defeat is the strongest incentive to succeed. After this day I had a couple of week’s wait until venturing to Manchester for my finals, during this spell I did the odd day’s work for the butcher. In between revising for the exam, I managed to have a chat with my Uncle Jack, who was a matelot; he encouraged me, but warned of becoming too complacent.


The day of my finals soon came, once sat in the waiting room, I began to get nervous. An instructor who noticed on my entrance forms that I was a keen boxer helped me through this anxious time. He cheered me up no end when he said, “Get this over with today and you will be able to box anytime you want”. It was the final spur I needed and although I went through the series of tests with some tight moments, I’d reached the accepted pass level and was in. Before we left the centre I was told I’d receive my basic training at Ganges, I wasn’t in the least worried by this at the time, but that would soon alter.

I had a wait of a week or two and then it was off to Liverpool, I wasn’t happy to leave my family, but my biggest desire at the time, was to wear a naval uniform. I spent my first night away from home in company with the other recruits who were also bound for Ganges. None of us had much sleep we were revelling in how hard the basic training was supposed to be. I never laughed about it again after that evening.  


We were woken early the following morning and taken to Lime street station, boarding a London bound train, on arrival, I had no doubts that my holiday was now over. As soon we set foot on the platform our first sight of instructors from Ganges confronted us. They immediately began to scream at such a pitch, that I had no idea what they wanted us to do, and found myself almost running in circles, accomplishing nothing apart from the wrath of every single P/O in sight. Eventually we realised they wanted us to go to another platform to catch the train to Harwich. We must have looked more like a herd of rampaging wildebeest than a group of naval recruits as we flew across the station.

Once on the train and in a state of hyper-ventilation, they told us to shut up or else we’d be on a charge before reaching barracks. No one said a word. On arrival at Ganges, I knew from the episode at the station that I’d better keep my head down, sure enough the instructors were keen to show just how little you’d have to do to receive some form of punishment. The worst sight I saw during that period was a lad running around the parade ground with a dummy rifle held above his head. He was made to do this until he collapsed from total exhaustion. I was having none of that, so for the first time in my young life I kept my nose squeaky-clean. 


Ted Matthews in uniform  (click to view - opens a new window) (23967 bytes)

A few weeks after induction; posing in my new uniform.

I soon settled in and found my way onto my division boxing team. I enjoyed this immensely; the instructor was first class and always got the best from you. Although, the only time I suffered from bullying at Ganges, was when I first joined the team. It didn’t come from another recruit, but rather from an instructor who wanted to have one of his charges take my place on our boxing squad.

He first approached me in the mess hall asking would I relinquish my place to this other lad, as in his opinion, he was a better boxer. Our coach didn’t share his view and in fact this lad had tried on numerous occasions for the squad, never once looking as if he could make the grade. The instructor who wished his lad to replace me seemed to think that I would just put up my hands and concede my hard-earned spot. Well, he had to think again. I told him if he wanted to see the lad in my place, I’d gladly fight him for it.


A meeting was arranged in the gym during our free time, this had to be held in some secrecy, as our coach wouldn’t have been too happy to see the other instructor attempting to pick his team for him. I had two lads from our team as my seconds, the other lad had the P/O in his corner. We touched gloves and that was the last time he got near me. He was a poor boxer and I disliked him immensely for the situation he put me in, so I bounced him all round the ring for the full three rounds. I could have stopped him in the first, but I made him suffer and in some ways, humiliated him. As the bell sounded to end the contest he couldn’t stand any longer and the instructor had to carry him out. The look he gave me as he helped his charge out of the ring, left me in no doubt, that he’d seek his own form of revenge.


He began his quest the following morning; everywhere I went he was on my back, but there was nothing I could do, for the time being I had to put up and shut up, everyday I found myself doing extra duties. This situation lasted for a couple of weeks, until he realised no-matter what he did, I wasn’t going to let him see that he was getting to me. Eventually he appeared to lose heart in his attempts to break me as one day he totally ignored me, and that was the matter closed, he never spoke or recognised my existence ever again. From that day on, my life returned to normality and I eventually boxed for the more exclusive Establishment Team.


Throughout my entire wartime memories, I have none that were any worse that the time I spent in Ganges. It certainly toughened me up, but there were a few times when I thought I was going to die. I have no doubt that this place was worse than borstal and the irony is that you had to commit crimes to end up in the former, whereas I had to revise and pass exams to qualify for this treatment. I still remember with envy the day that Ian Hay walked out of the gates and onto his first ship. I would have gladly given a month’s pay to be in his kit bag. Sadly, I had to wait a further three months before I could close the page on this, the first, and by far, toughest part of my naval career.  


Ian Hay now tells of his feelings as he learnt of his first draft onto a warship. It was January 1938 and he was now to embark on a career at sea that would eventually draw to a close on his retirement from the Merchant Navy fifty-six years later.


The last evening I stayed at Ganges was spent saying my farewells and trying to find as much information as I could about my first draft, which was HMS Cornwall. At that time in her life she was a training ship, so fittingly most of her crew were fresh recruits. On January 13th 1938 I left Ganges. Unfortunately I also lost contact with Michael, as he was bound for HMS Repulse, but our paths were to cross again in the not too distant future.

I caught the train from Harwich, bound for Devonport were the Cornwall was berthed, as befits a training ship, she looked immaculate. Even to this day, if I close my eyes I can still remember the apprehension and excitement I felt on boarding her. She was gently rolling with the sea; this sensation and the sound of the intakes pumping air through her for ventilation filled me with awe. I’d made it, this was the real thing, a warship. At that moment I wouldn’t have swapped places with anyone. To this day, I’ve never felt any feeling so strong as the initial buzz I had when first setting foot on the Cornwall. After a couple of days we sailed for the Mediterranean, this was better than I could have ever imagined. You have to realise that I’d never set foot outside Scotland before joining up; sailing to foreign lands was going to be a fabulous experience. I had various duties on Cornwall, I think the most enjoyable (and cushy) was being a Commander’s ‘doggie’, so called because you would trail behind the Commander at a respectful distance, ready to dart off the moment he gave you an order. It was whilst doing this work, I met up with a young midshipman (midi). The story he told of his early life in the Navy was quite horrific. I joined at fifteen, but for them a life in the service began as a twelve-year-old. The brutality they received during basic training was truly barbaric; the navy certainly was a hard place in those times.


We only had a short cruise and I remember most of the time was spent learning how to clean the ship in the correct manner. This was an anti-climax although the instructors onboard assured me that things would soon alter with my next draft. After three months at sea we docked once more in Britain. That evening in barracks I went to the draft board and read that my next ship was to be a lot bigger than the Cornwall. I was to join the battleship Revenge. I was pleased with this, as in those days battleships were looked on rather like nuclear powered submarines are today. They sailed with an air of invulnerability surrounding them, which gave the crew a great sense of pride. I couldn’t wait.  


 The careers of Ian Hay and Ted Matthews certainly were on similar paths. No sooner had our young Scot left the Cornwall, than in his place stepped Ted. This ship was also to be his first draft. He now gives a brief insight into his time aboard this cruiser.  

On setting foot on the Cornwall I knew I was going to be happy, the atmosphere was far less intimidating than the hostile and often abrupt nature of life at Ganges. I was to train as a general seaman, the route taken by all boys whilst under training; we didn’t receive any specific duties until the age of eighteen. The main career options open to me were ‘Lay Rating 3rd class’ (LR3), responsible for training of guns from side to side and elevation. ‘Quarter Rating’ which involved the loading of ammunition into weapons and finally ‘Seaman Torpedo Man’ responsible for all working of torpedoes.


The duty I chose whilst on the Cornwall, was that of phone boy on the torpedo tubes, it was work that I enjoyed, but later on in my career when on Repulse, I choose the LR3 role. This decision may be the reason I’m writing today, because of your location in times of action you at least had some chance of survival if your ship was sunk; I was to discover this fact in the not too distant future.


Our cruise wasn’t going to the warm climes that Ian sailed to, instead we’d be restricted to UK patrols, although this was still a great adventure for a bunch of young lads. We dropped anchor at Oban, but any chance of a good run ashore soon went out of the window as the 1938 crisis began. This was the first time it really struck me that our job was to defend the country. I realised that if things turned sour I may never see my family again. After the crisis subsided we sailed to a place I learned to dread as my career progressed, the naval base at Scapa Flow. It was the most god-forsaken hole in the world, but on that first visit, I saw a sight that brightened up the dreary scene and made an ever-lasting impression on me.


Anchored in the harbour were scores of battleships, in amongst all these immense dark leviathans, lay a sleek beauty, painted in bright clean Mediterranean colours. Sitting low in the water, looking like a thoroughbred in comparison to these heavyweights, was Repulse. This was the first time I’d seen her and the memory of that moment still brings a tear to my eyes. The older men on Cornwall told us young recruits to look at the most beautiful ship in our Navy. I didn’t need to be told this; I already knew. I was aware that being a battlecruiser, Repulse was burdened with a serious design flaw, of which you shall read in further chapters. Even this knowledge didn’t detract from the moment and to this day I’ve never seen a better balanced and more gracious vessel.


A day or two later, we sailed to Rosyth, where the Captain informed us that we’d be going to see the Empire Exhibition, which was being held in Glasgow. This was a truly immense gathering of all the main goods producers of the Empire. This impressed me to such a degree that I remember thinking, Hitler must be crazy to contemplate declaring war on our country.


Ian Hay had settled into life onboard the battleship HMS Revenge and was eagerly learning the art of seamanship from the older men onboard.


The Revenge was a happy ship and the older sailors onboard took the young lads under their wings, but not without a few jokes at our expense. There were some days when we would be sent to borrow a glass hammer, or something similar. I enjoyed the feeling of security whilst onboard, and because of her bigger dimensions and extra weight, she was more stable than the Cornwall in heavy seas. The discipline was also very different to Ganges. As here you were expected to act in a more sensible manner, whereas at Ganges it was assumed that you were some kind of delinquent and treated accordingly.


Our cruise was spent mainly on patrols in home waters, though this didn’t bother me. I had much to learn and hadn’t any time for sightseeing tours. A few days into the patrol we younger lads were jolted by a terrible accident that happened on the upper deck. Although at the time I knew the lad in question, time has taken its toll on my memory and these days his name escapes me. He had gone up top first thing in the morning to hoist the flags, which were located in the ‘aft’ part of the ship. To reach them he had to walk under a massive canvas canopy, which was kept in place by ropes, which were tensioned every day by a ratchet known as a tackle. As he walked past, one of these tensioners broke free and struck him on the side of his head, killing him immediately. On hearing of the tragedy I rushed up top; it was the first time I’d been so close to death, soon it was to be an everyday occurrence.


Eventually things calmed down and I looked forward to my first leave in a long time on docking at Plymouth I jumped straight onto the first available train to Glasgow, spending a week with my family. When I returned from leave a distinct change in the atmosphere onboard, could be felt as the situation with Germany was becoming ever more intense. It was now December 1938 and although storm clouds were gathering over Europe I still had reason to be cheerful on hearing of my next draft. This change of surroundings meant, I’d be seeing a lot of old Ganges mates again. In particular Michael O’Hern, as I was bound for the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, this was great news as she was a ship I never heard ill talk of, and was to be my new home.

Ian Hay in uniform  (click to view - opens a new window) (19069 bytes)

On my first home leave whilst serving on Revenge.

Ted Matthews now brings to a close his time on the training ship HMS Cornwall.


After the trip to the mpire Exhibition we had one more awe-inspiring sight on our way back to Plymouth.  Our ship would be taking part in the Fleet Review at Weymouth and I hope the reader doesn’t compare this, with modern day reviews, the Navy of the thirties was so vast it can’t be imagined these days. We tied up with other ships of our class and sat back to watch the show. It was amazing, all the vessels I’d read about for years were on display, I think the most impressive sight was the Rodney and her sister-ship Nelson. The presence of these ships always amazed me during my naval career, although seeing them for the first time had me dumb struck.


It was the end of a great cruise, I was certain that I’d made the right decision with my life and couldn’t have been happier. I was paid off the Cornwall around Christmas 1938 and went home for the festivities, obviously I was glad to see all my relations, but felt that I’d grown apart from the good friends I’d had in Wrexham before signing up. We no longer had any common ground to talk on, I suppose the main problems lay with myself as I couldn’t wait to get back to sea and found life back home too quiet, after the places I’d seen. However, my attitude soon changed once war broke out. I was always glad to sleep in a bed at night that didn’t have a chance to become my grave.


I suppose everyone knew that war was inevitable, particularly my own mother. I remember the words she spoke as I got on the train back to Plymouth. “Keep your head down and don’t volunteer for bugger all”. She needn’t have bothered her comments were wasted on youth; at that time in my life I’d have volunteered to jump off a cliff.  Arriving in Plymouth late at night, the main priority was to reach barracks and get my head down. Awaking the following morning I went straight to the draft board; there for all to see was my next ship. I couldn’t believe my luck. ‘D/J X 154352 Matthews Edward John, HMS Repulse.