'Mallee to Matelot'
Maybe it was learning of the exploits of Raleigh, Drake and Nelson at school in the 1930s (when history was still taught) [Never mind the editorialising, concentrate on the reminiscence -- Ed], or perhaps it was a fortunate sea trip to the UK in 1935 that influenced me to join the Navy during WW2. More likely, the fact that one could apply to join at age 17 was the deciding factor.
In any event, on 4 July 1944, I found myself with 20 or so other pimply-faced youths [He was not -- Ed] being sworn in to the service in the old drill hall of shore establishment HMAS Torrens, Birkenhead, South Australia.
That afternoon we entrained for Crib Point, home of Flinders Naval Depot, also known as HMAS Cerberus, south-east of Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula, about 90 minutes (in those days) by train from Melbourne.
The rail trip and the first few days after our arrival remain somewhat blurred, but were a mixture of swapping names, home towns or suburbs, being organised into classes, getting our shots, being allocated dormitories and finding the mess hall and bathrooms, but mainly getting to know our immediate boss -- usually a Leading Seaman in charge of each dormitory. We were issued with winter and summer uniforms, a blanket, a seabag, and of course a hammock. All our gear had to be stowed correctly in our lockers, and surprise inspections were frequent, especially for the first few weeks.
I think breakfast was the most interesting meal of the day. If you have ever seen three dozen eggs frying in a square flat pan and a couple more such pans further along the line at various stages of cooking, it's a sight you can recall instantly for the rest of your life. At this stage I must say that for the two years and 35 days I spent in the Navy, I was never hungry and the cooks were absolutely first class, especially the ones on HMAS Warrnambool 1944-46. Congratulations and thanks a lot.
From July 4 until November 14, we marched, drilled, learned to do what we were told when we were told [*Snort* -- Ed], and learned always to recgnise an officer, both on the base and, especially, off the base, when on leave. Paid a kingly two shillings and sixpence a day, we had gun drill, fire drill, stripping and assembling Lewis machine guns, large gunnery practice, boat drill, signal flags etc etc. From July 4 we had been called men -- and by November 14, we felt like men.
Every other weekend we had leave in Melbourne. Pictures [He means movies -- Ed], dances, transport, even the races -- we had free admission to all. My mates and I were lucky enough to see the mighty Bernborough win a couple of races at Caulfield. Winter in Melbourne was not fantastic, but being young and fit we were not worried at all.
The mighty Bernborough.
The two main organisations that raised money for the entertainment and welfare of servicement were the Red Cross and the Comforts Fund. Their members saw to it that servicemen were never hungry or lonely while on leave. Dances were on every night, usually with supper. These were held in suburban halls, as well as in the cities. We were even approached in the street, to be made aware of local halls and clubs who would see that we were made welcome.
We were invited to stay in private homes on our weekends off, but most of us preferred to stay in one of the numerous hostels in the cities. On looking back, the hospitality accorded us was incredible, and at the time we didn't realise the generosity of the people we met in all the cities we visited. Most of these people had family members to be concerned about, so I guess they felt good about caring for us.
At this point I feel compelled to interrupt briefly and remind the reader that these are seventeen-year-old boys we're talking about. Here is Papa Cat, centre, with two mates on Princes Bridge in Melbourne, a matter of days after joining up.
November 14 came around very quickly. A week or so beforehand, our class of 20 were asked if we had any preference as to the class of ship we would like to go to. 'Jacko' and myself were called aside, and because we had Leaving Certificates, we were prevailed upon to do a six-week radar operator's course in Sydney. Radar was fairly new in the Navy, and I suppose they presumed that we would be able to absorb the mysteries in a short time. We soon found out that our instructors were learning as they went along. We were told that we would be posted to a Corvette on completing the course.
The other 18 in the class were lined up. Surnames A-B went to Shore Base Darwin, and the rest to HMAS Australia. That's how the Navy handled preferences.