A SEAPUP’S TAIL Or
The tale of a soon to be seafarer
By Anthony (Berni) BERNTHAL
I was in the fifth form in 1965 (the real fifth form that is not this modern year 11 malarkey) just about to take my G.C.E.’s and had not yet decided to go to sea when a notice appeared on the school notice board. One of a continuing series of notices about possible future careers for the hard working schoolboy, a category into which I did not easily fit.
These notices usually took the form of “Mr.Bloggs of such and such will be in classroom X, at 4.00 p.m. to talk about a career in Banking / Surveying / Farming / or whatever.” Occasionally there would be slight variation when it would say Flight Lieutenant / Sergeant / C.P.O. or some such military rank would appear, this was when they were trying to get you to take “The Queen’s Shilling”. Being undecided about a future career direction I had attended a few of them but nothing had grabbed my attention as a possible way of life.
This particular notice announced “Commodore Gunn-Cunningham of British India would be coming to give a talk about a career in the Merchant Navy”. There was also an unusual post-script to this notice which went along the lines of “This is a very senior officer and in view of the school history we should put on a good show for him.” (My school was Sir Joseph Williamsons Mathematical School, Rochester. Founded in 1701 for the son’s of the Freemen of Rochester to enable them to learn Greek, Mathematics and Latin so that they could become Navigators in the Royal Navy or the Honourable East India Company. BUT by this time a common or garden Grammar school.)
Another talk worthy of my presence perhaps? A quick chat amongst my classmates to discover who else was thinking of going and the die was cast on something that would occupy my next 13 years and remain with me for the rest of my life. So with my name put on the notice board as attending I waited with bated breath for the day to come……well I waited anyway.
Came the fateful day and at the end of lessons those few of us in my group of friends went to classroom X to see what this Merchant Navy lark was all about. Hoping that perhaps it might be as good as the favourite radio programme of the day “The Navy Lark.”
Sat in classroom X we were horrified when “Oscar” walked in accompanied by a tall distinguished looking bald-headed gentleman. To take “Oscar” first, he was the Headmaster and a figure to be feared. He ruled the school with an iron rod, or perhaps I should say bamboo rod, and terrified all and sundry, even the big and hard fifth formers such as my friends and myself. For him to appear at such a mundane event as a career lecture was beyond belief and had us quaking in our boots as we stood there, one always stood up when the Headmaster entered the room. He introduced our visitor, who turned out to be none other than Commodore Gunn-Cunningham. Even after all this time I remember him as a very pleasant man who put across his talk very well and had me, and several others, quite captivated about the possibility of a career in the Merchant Navy.
Fortunately “Oscar” had left the room for the talk so we all felt able to listen and ask questions; however at the end of the talk he reappeared to take the Commodore away. But before he left the room he said, “Wait here for me boys I will be back in a minute.” Horrified at the thought of having done something wrong that we were unaware of we sat there quaking in our boots for what was about to happen. A caning, Saturday morning detention, lines, the choices were endless. Or perhaps he was just going to ask the Commodore if we had behaved in which case we were safe…….or were we???
“Oscar” reappeared and came out with a bombshell that was totally and utterly unexpected. The Commodore had invited three boys to go and visit one of the company ships that would be in London in a couple of weeks and were any of us interested in going? A day off school and a trip to London, who wouldn’t be? Oh and by the way one Master would accompany the boys to make sure they behaved, as they would be in school uniform. This put a few off but there were still a few interested, including myself.
Told to go home and discuss it with our parents and then if we were interested to go and tell “Oscar” the following morning……..well that, needless to say, put off a few more. Amazing what fear can do. The following morning found a small gang of boys standing outside “Oscar’s” office door, for once not in a state of absolute fear but still shaking in their boots for just being at this portal to hell.
Called in together we went in and stood there as he counted us, four!!! Chris, Simon, Dave, and myself. A draw was held and guess who came out fourth – yours truly. So the others were told to be ready to go on such and such date and me to be prepared to go if any of the others didn’t turn up on the day.
Chances of one of them not turning up on the day and me being able to go? NIL. Unless I could work on one of them. My best bet was Dave as he was the closest one to being a mate and I knew he was only going along for a day off school and not really interested in the possibility of a career at sea. (He also had previous for bunking-off school so there was some hope.) So I duly set about trying to persuade him he did not really want to go and it would be much better if he just took the day off school. But I did not hold out much hope.
Come the big day I turned up ready to go, blazer almost presentable, creases in the trousers (Mum made, of course) and clean shoes but expecting to stay in school for the day nonetheless. Registration came and joy upon joy Dave was missing but still no certainty of going, as Dave was often late.
Come the appointed hour and the door opened still no Dave……… I WAS GOING
then in came the master to accompany us …………………..“Oscar”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Fear overcame joy, absolute and terrifying fear. We were going to be just the three of us with HIM……….all day. I’ve had better and less scary nightmares. Called forward you could hear the sniggers from the rest of the class as the three hangdog figures went out of the classroom….…….if only they knew what the next 10 hours would bring………….if only we had known at this time.
Down to the schoolyard we then discovered we had to walk along the High Street, to the station, with “Oscar”. What if we were seen? A worse start to the day could not have been envisaged.
The train journey to Woolwich Arsenal was horrible, alone in our worse possible scenario we did not know what to do for the best. Looking back on it with hindsight and a better knowledge of life it is obvious that “Oscar” was also on his day out. He tried to be nice, I now realize, but I don’t think we were terribly receptive.
Arriving at Woolwich we somehow, time has dulled the memory as to exactly how, got to the ship. There she was S.S.Uganda in all her white and red glory. A lovely sight to behold as she sat in dry-dock! We had been hoping to go to sea…well at least on to a ship afloat. Her being in dry-dock was a disappointment to me and one, which came back to bite me later, but more about that later.
Built: 1952 by Barclay, Curle & Co., Whiteinch
Tonnage: 14,430 g, 8,035 n,
Engines: Twin screw, 2 x 3sgl reduction Parsons geared turbines 12,300 BHP , 3 water tube boilers at 475 psi. by Wallsend slipway.
Launched on the 15th January 1952
Converted to school cruises 1967/68 at Howaldtswerke, Hamburg.
Greeted, once on board, we found that we were not the only schoolboys to be visiting the ship that day, in fact there were hundreds of us from all over the country. Obviously BI was having a major recruitment drive for cadets at this time.
Taken to some vast room our old friend Commodore Gunn-Cunningham, who welcomed us and greeted us all also apologised for the fact that the ship was in dry-dock. Mind you by this time we had forgotten this fact and were just overawed by the whole ship thing and would have forgiven almost anything. He then gave us an outline of the programme for the day, which would consist of a tour of the ship and then lunch. Free lunch on the ship, schoolboy heaven!
As if by magic a whole host of ship’s officers appeared and started to take away the various groups of schoolboys and their masters. (I don’t remember any schoolgirls but this was the 60’s after all) An old seadog came to us and one other group of boys to introduce himself as our guide for the day. He was a third officer from the sister ship S.S.Kenya. Home on leave he had been brought in to show a group round. One of many brought in as I recall and based on his comments.
Kenya and Uganda were passenger/cargo ships engaged on the UK to East Africa run at the time and marvellous ships they were too. Uganda eventually went on to be converted for service as a school cruise ship and later as a hospital ship during the Falklands conflict. Kenya saw her days out on the UK East Africa run.
I wish I could remember the name of the Third officer so that I could shake him warmly by the throat for getting me into a life at sea. Although, if truth were known, I would probably say thank you and offer to buy him a beer or twelve.
The visit round the ship has paled from the memory, probably I was too overawed, but the lunch …….now that was a different story.
As we approached the end of the tour we were intercepted and “Oscar” plus the other master were taken away from the group. The motley crew of schoolboys, plus the 3/0, then headed towards one of the bars, which we could see was the gathering point for the all the boys at the end of the tour. However something was wrong the boys were all stood round drinking beer.
When the Third Officer said to us “Fancy a beer then?” our hearts stopped; what was the right answer? Dare we? Should we? Well I suppose that bravado overcame fear, or perhaps it might have been sympathetic noises from the 3/0 saying it would be O.K. and don’t worry about your headmaster. All right for him to say that - he didn’t know “Oscar”.
Anyway four glasses (half-pint of course) of Allsopps appeared and there we were on a school trip, with “Oscar”, drinking beer!!!!! When a second round appeared, WOW, devilment personified. I have to mention the name of the beer because Allsopps was standard issue on all Home line BI ships at the time and was probably responsible for more hangovers than anyone will ever know.
The beer drinking obviously had to stop and this was affected by a sound, which became very familiar over the course of time. A steward came into the bar playing a little tune on a four bar xylophone type instrument. I was later to find out this was standard throughout BI.
So in we trooped to the main passenger-dining saloon following our tame 3/0, which I suspect had drunk more then his two glasses of beer.
We were greeted with white linen tablecloths, an array of silver which we could not possibly need all of, glasses, in fact all of the paraphernalia that one would expect from the highest class of ship trading for and carrying passengers for the British Raj.
Then we looked at the menu. I can honestly say that before then I had never seen such a menu but I subsequently found out that this was a standard BI passenger ship menu. There was soup, there was fish, there were several main courses, there was curry, there was salad, there were cold cuts, there were sweets, there were puddings, there was coffee, the whole thing was mind blowing. I did not know where to start, or if the truth was known where to begin ordering. As for the array of cutlery, well you see many a comedy sketch on the TV based upon this situation.
I realized that I was not the only one, as did the 3/0. But he had obviously been briefed beforehand and his advice was, “Start at the top of the menu and work your way through”. Now we really did know we were in schoolboy heaven. Although rationing had been over for a long time the ethos of rationing was still around and the money was not around to pay for the exotic foods only basic “good grub”.
Looking back on it all the other officers eating with the boys must have been similarly briefed, as we were keeping pace with all the other tables around us. Quite what the Goanese stewards made of it all I’m not sure.
The one thing about the meal that real sticks in my mind, even after all this time and many more adventures into the culinary delights of India, was the chicken curry I ate that mealtime. At home curry consisted of a pile of minced beef liberally dosed with curry powder but this………..well what can I say? The readers of this who sailed with BI will know exactly what I mean and for those of you reading this who did not sail with BI……..you will never know what you missed. And it wasn’t even Sunday the traditional day for chicken curry. BI were pulling out all the big guns this day.
Well the meal drew to a close and it was time to leave the glorious company of Uganda and our 3/0 BUT we had to face “Oscar” and with our breath stinking of beer! I actually doubt that he could have smelt the beer over the top of the curry but in those days it was a genuine fear guaranteed to make us sweat, as if the curry hadn’t done enough of that already. We needn’t have worried “Oscar” did not seem to notice and when we got back on the train for Rochester he almost immediately fell asleep. Looking back on it now how we could have been so naive I don’t know…….he was obviously well feted by BI and whoever it was had taken him away from us before lunch.
Anyway we weren’t worried we were all much too stuffed. That is we weren’t initially worried but by the time we got to Strood we were starting to get a bit fretful, as “Oscar” was still asleep and the next station was Rochester. Who was going to wake him up? Who was brave enough? Who would dare to shout at him or touch him? We need not have worried though as the shaking of the train as we went over Rochester Bridge woke him up just in time.
What happened next, at the station, I don’t remember after all this time, but obviously all went well and I got home safely and full of stories of the day. I can still remember the look in my Father’s eyes later as I told him about the curry that evening. He had spent a long time in India just after the war and was on a major regression trip I would guess. And I now know why.
Well as night follows day I duly wrote to BI expressing an interest in becoming a Deck Cadet and then completed an application form. This form resulted in a letter, dated 27th April, asking me to attend One Aldgate, an address, which would subsequently be held in awe for many years, at 11.15 on Tuesday 4th May for an interview. It also stated
“The opportunity may be taken for you to undergo a medical examination and, in this connection you should bring a recent chest x-ray certificate. We enclose herewith a rail voucher to enable you to obtain a return ticket to London.”
So come 4th May, accompanied by my father, off we set for London for the interview. As an aside as I sit here writing this I have just realized, 39 years down the line, that it was actually my father’s birthday. I suppose I knew it at the time but for some other reason it did not spring to mind that day.
I know I faced three people on the interview panel but who they were or what they did I have no idea. I was terrified of them, even more than of “Oscar”. This was the first time I had been to an interview for a job of any sorts and I had not received any preparation for what was to come.
To be honest I do not remember much about the interview at all. I know they asked me about my scouting, which at that time was the most important thing in my life, but that is about all. That is except for one question, “I see you were on the visit to Uganda in dry-dock. Why do you think she was in dry-dock?” I told you it would come back to bite me and it did with as good a pair of teeth as you have ever seen. I didn’t have a clue! I guess I said as much because the next question was “Why did the old wooden sailing ships go into dry-dock?” Reply “To have their bottoms scrapped.” “So why do you think Uganda was in dry-dock?” Reply “To have her bottom scrapped?” more of a question from me than a reply to theirs but it seemed to fit the bill and they seemed pleased.
I came away from One Aldgate not knowing who, why, where or what. But I did not have to wait long as the next letter was dated 5th May and it said;
Your application was given very careful consideration at the Deck Cadet Selection Board held at this office yesterday and we are pleased to advise that we are able to accept you for a Deck cadetship with this company subject to success in the GCE O Level in Mathematics, Physics with Chemistry and another subject, excluding woodwork.
I was going to sea with only one slight problem; O levels. Academia had never been my strong point, not so much the studying but the taking of the exams. A feature of my whole life right up until this point in time and one which has caused me problems at various different times and here it was right at the start of my working life jumping up to bite me.
The results came out and horrors upon horrors I had managed to fail the Physics with Chemistry, only just but a failure it was. Father persuaded me that it was not the end of the world, but obviously it was for me. He told me to write to BI and tell them that whilst I had failed I had only just failed. I did not hold out much hope.
Well on 7th September BI wrote back to me and said;
“Thank you for your letter of the 2nd September enclosing your GCE results. We note that you have failed Physics with Chemistry but, in view of your passes and the narrow failure in this subject, it has been decided that you should be accepted for a Deck Cadetship with this Company. We shall forward pre-appointment procedure in due course.”
Dad was right! I was in! I was now waiting with bated breath and this time it was a genuine bated breath. Where would I go? What ship would I get? Would I enjoy it? The questions were endless. My friends were envious, my parents were glad; whether it be for me or because of it I’ll never know. The world was rosy and I was going to be a seadog.
The next letter from BI is dated 15th September and says;
“We refer to your acceptance as a deck Cadet with this Company and would advise that it is presently anticipated that you may be appointed to a vessel approximately 20th October.
This date is by no means fixed as the appointment will probably be in the India area and, as you are aware, the present situation there may necessitate alterations to arrangements.
We hope to be able to confirm the date of your appointment within the next two weeks.”
The interesting thing about this letter is that it was addressed to Cadet A. Bernthal all the previous ones had been to Mr A. Bernthal. Boy was I proud of myself.
A ship! And in India as well. Can you imagine the atmosphere at home? The envy of my friends was beyond description. Remember these were the days before even the package holidays to Spain. The fact that India and Pakistan were at war hardly came into the calculation at all. In fact it didn’t come into consideration at all with me, I don’t know about my Mother and it is too late to ask her or my father now. I was going to sea.
I had to wait until 13th October for the next letter and this one came as a bit of a let down but at the same time a sudden jump in pleasure. It read;
“Contrary to previous advice, regarding your future appointment, it is now anticipated that you may be appointed to m.s.Devonia in Liverpool on Thursday 28th October.
Confirmation and details will follow in the near future”.
I’m on my way. Watch out the seven seas you don’t know what is going to hit you……….. Perhaps the truth of the matter was I didn’t know what was going to hit me.
Well it wasn’t the 28th October in the end it was the 29th and I had to get to Lime Street station by 1700hrs. I don’t remember any long and tearful goodbye at home but I do remember the taking of photographs of Mum and a very self-conscious young man in Merchant Navy uniform on the front doorstep of our house. A photograph that had pride of place in my Mother's house right up until the day she died.
Arriving at Lime Street station I found that there were others in a similar situation to myself. Eleven of them to be precise and boy did I feel out of place. There was one obvious old salt with his cap firmly placed on the back of his head……….not quite right it was also his first day as a seadog and I subsequently found out his butterflies were as great as mine but he just hid them better. Another “Jack the Lad” stood there talking sixteen to the dozen holding forth on every subject under the sun. Another, a quiet one, just watching everything and taking it all in. In fact the others all seemed so self-assured as well. I suppose we were all good at hiding our emotions or were we just scared witless?
Sometime after my arrival we were taken to Princes Landing Stage , how I don’t remember, and there she was my first ship. M.S.Devonia, a huge white passenger ship. I was no longer a seapup I was a seadog……, well almost!
One final aside, of the twelve of us that joined that day two have berthed elsewhere than this mortal coil and the rest of us are still in contact through the worldwide web thirty nine years on. They are “my trip” and this certainly means something to me.
Built: 1939 by Fairfield S.B. & e. Co., Glasgow
Tonnage: 11,275 g, 6,758 n
Engines: Twin screw, 2 x 8 cylinder 2S.S.A. 6,500 BHP by Sulzer Bros Winterthur installed by Builder.
Launched on the 20th December 1938 as Devonshire for Bibby Bros., Liverpool.
Sold to BI for £175,000 January 1962 and reconstructed for school cruises by Barclay Curle, Glasgow.
What happened on and after Devonia is another story perhaps to be told at a future time.