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Calum Beag (IV): At War
Calum Beag (IV): At War
Reminiscences by Calum Beag, Malcolm Nicolson, of Lemreway and Glasgow
IV At War
My uncle by marriage, Calum Chisholm, Gravir, was a Pipe Major in the Cameron Highlanders at Inverness and a cousin of mine was already serving in the Seaforth Highlanders. Little wonder then that when I turned 17 years of age, I thought it would be a good idea to join the Army. I applied for the enlistment papers with the intention of joining the Force in Stornoway, but because I was so young, I needed to get my father's permission and his signature authorising me to go.
He nearly exploded with rage when I put my request to him and he severely reprimanded my cousin and the recruiting Sergeant for putting ideas into my head. "If you go anywhere at all, you'll go into the Royal Naval Reserve" he said firmly. "What was good enough for me should be good enough for you" was his final retort.
So, on my eighteenth birthday,I left home to travel to Portsmouth where I did four weeks square bashing and a fortnight serving aboard a battleship. I had never seen anything so massive floating on water before and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. So much so, in fact, that I was in two minds whether to sign on there and then for twenty-one years, but would my father back in Lemreway have approved? I had some doubt and duly returned to Lemreway with the security of a quarterly retainer of one pound and ten shillings (1.50) guaranteed income. I was on my way to my first million.
In 1938, a few months after completing my R.N.R. training, there was a war scare and all the reservists were called up. One of the boats from Lemreway left for Stornoway laden with sailors and as most of the able-bodied men were reservists, there were not many men left behind. We reported to the R.N.R. Office in Stornoway to collect our warrants for Portsmouth, but as there was a long queue waiting to get in, a few of us decided to patrol the streets and show off our smart, uniformed selves to the girls. By the time we got back to the Office, they had filled up the transport and we were instructed to wait until it returned from the mainland. Before the vessel returned, the Prime Minister Mr. Chamberlain, and Hitler had decided there would be no more wars and we were sent home. We were very disappointed to miss out on the War and the money, as those who made the journey to Portsmouth were awarded 9.00 mobilisation money before they were sent on their way. My mates and I had more regrets than most, as those of our friends who had joined the queue travelled on from Portsmouth to London and joined the Merchant Navy.
It was a poor time for the fishing, but now that I was eighteen years of age, I was entitled to the "dole". Having signed on, I waited for the first cheque to arrive on the mail and was quite excited as I opened the small, brown envelope stamped O.H.M.S., but to my surprise it contained a letter offering me a job building culverts on roadworks between Lochcarron and Achnashellach. Quite a number of local people received the command and we all went off cheerfully and in good heart. The pay was one shilling and nine pence an hour (approximately 9 pence) and the job was lousy. We were nearly eaten alive by the midges and after about a month, I left and headed for Inverness where my Aunt Joan lived. My intentions were to get to Glasgow and join the Merchant Navy. Aunt Joan, however, had other ideas and she took me down to Fort William to try and get a job for me in the aluminium factory. I got a job right away, together with accommodation in the factory's living quarters and remained there until I was called up for war service the following year.
My mobilisation order arrived in August 1939 asking me to report to the R.N.R. Office in Stornoway. As I was working in Fort William and there were a lot of other reservists and territorials in the factory, I thought it might be possible to join up locally. My father reported my absence to the Stornoway Depot, but as the days went by, I got a bit restless and not wishing to miss out on a trip to London as happened the year before, I decided to go home and report in.
I reported to the R.N.R. Office on my arrival in Stornoway on Saturday and was told I would not get home that night, as I might be leaving immediately. It was highly unusual for a sailing on Saturday night, breaking the Sabbath and anyway, I did not have my naval gear with me. I wired home and my kit bag arrived by taxi on Sunday morning and caught up with me as our departure had been delayed. At eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, War was declared and we sailed away that evening and I was not destined to see Lewis again for two long years.
It took two days' travel before we eventually arrived at Chatham Barracks in Kent. The man who was with me had been on leave and his uniform was on board his ship at Grangemouth, so we had to break our journey at Glasgow and go to Grangemouth to collect his gear. Being newcomers, we were worried we might get shot for being late, but the Englishmen we met had no idea where Stornoway was or what mode of transport and time it would take to travel from there to Chatham and the incident passed without any trouble coming our way. We were issued with a gas mask and instructed to have it on our person at all times.
The first indication that there was a War on came early next morning while we were in the washroom. The siren went and we were ordered into the tunnel dug underneath the barracks. There were some sights to be seen that day as they started to arrive from all quarters - some straight out of the showers with a scrap of towel wrapped around them and their gas masks on their faces. Incredibly, some arrived without their gas masks and they were ordered to dip their towels in water and cover their eyes, nose and mouth. The "all clear" was sounded after an hour, but we were confined to camp until six o'clock in the evening when we were told that we were to join HMS Royal Arthur. As no one had ever heard of it, we assumed it must be a new battleship and as we were mustered and issued with hammocks, kit and a .45 mm pistol, expectation of high adventure in the forefront of the Royal Navy's demolition of the German Navy lent excitement to the occasion.
We boarded a train to London and on arrival transferred to another train which roared through the night to deliver us at the break of day to our secret destination. What a disappointment it was to realise that we had arrived in Skegness at the entrance to the Wash on the Lincolnshire coast and that HMS Royal Arthur was actually Butlins Holiday Camp, requisitioned by the Admiralty for training purposes.
We spent a fortnight there filling sand bags, digging gun pits and practising pistol shooting. Some of the chalets were still occupied by holiday makers but we were allowed to use any of the facilities, including the bars.
After our training and assessment course at Butlin's Holiday Camp in Skegness, we received our first postings. The order to depart arrived at short notice and we set off in the middle of the night bound for Southampton to join H.M.S. Tiercel. On arrival, we were disappointed to find that once again we were denied service on a battleship, for the ship turned out to be a five hundred ton steam yacht. There were five similar vessels in port and they were charged with patrolling the Mediterranean Sea on contraband duties. They were armed with a twelve-pounder gun, mounted on the fo'c's'le head and had never been fired before we arrived on board.
Most of the regular Naval men were used to sailing on big ships and you never saw such sea-sickness in your life. From the Commander down, their pallor turned ashen grey while those of us who were used to life aboard small fishing boats were in our element. Sea sickness is a great leveller and the red tape went down the plug hole with it.
We ran into a gale in the Bay of Biscay and we were stuck there for four days. If the Germans had seen us, they never let on. At last we got into calm Mediterranean waters and "red tape" reared its ugly head again. The gunner was not sure how the gun would go off, so it was gun practice for the gunners and pistol practice for the rest of us. A shell was loaded in the gun and a fishing line attached to the trigger. We all moved as far away as possible and the string was pulled. It fired okay, but most of our crockery was shattered. How lucky the Germans were not to come to grips with us!
We never had an occasion to use it after that till it got overhauled in Gibraltar. Our job was to stop all merchant ships and search them for contraband. The gun was fired across the bows of any ship failing to stop. When the ship was stopped, a boarding party of six men armed with fully loaded pistols would demand to see the cargo manifest. If anything was found, we ordered the ship into Gibraltar and all cargo to Germany or any of its allies was seized. Most of the time the cargo was coffee beans.
All ships were searched including the British. I remember one Spanish ship we were ordered to take in - a passenger ship. The manifest was okay, so we could not understand why she was ordered in. Then Intelligence Officers were flown in from London and we were told that there was gold on board in one of the passenger's cabins. Angus McKenzie and myself were in a cabin with one of the Officers searching their luggage. Angus unconsciously unscrewed the handle of a knife and out poured some powder. Being Lemreway boys, we had never heard of gold dust, but the Officer recognised it and we discovered more after further searches. It was stored in watches with only a dial, in handbag rims and in imitation cutlery. We were told later that there was thousands of pounds worth and the man and women, all Germans, were whisked ashore. I often wondered what happened to them.
That was all we ever got except for mail and coffee beans. Two of our yachts were torpedoed. When the Italians entered the War, we were disbanded. We were sent relieving on destroyers, escorting convoys to Malta. That was rough! After two years, we got back to Britain and enjoyed six weeks' leave at home.
After I got back to Chatham, I was sent to Rosyth this time to join a new battleship - H.M.S. Anson. I was a member of the crew for about six months and was then sent back to Chatham for an ASDIC course. That's like radar except it searches under the sea. I was promoted to Leading Submarine Detection Seaman with a pay rise of five shillings a week. My pay before that was twenty-one shillings a week - ten shillings of which was left. I sent an allotment to my father.
Following a request for a transfer, I ended up with the coastal forces. That meant motor gun and torpedo boats based at Portland, Dorset, and patrolling the east coast searching for U-boats. The rest of the War was spent there and nothing really happened except that we were bombed once and lost one of our propellers. I got a week's leave while we were under repair and during that time, I married a Land Army girl! When the War was over, we were out meeting German submarines and escorting them to port.