SOME NAVAL PERSONS AND A CRAB

By Willie KeaysEngines


Do you remember those parade ceremonies held every year in the 1950s when a delegation from the Argentine Air Force presented a medal to an outstanding apprentice? The same delegation also visited Cranwell where a sword was presented to an outstanding officer cadet. The Argentine Air Force was a fervent admirer of "The Few" in the Battle of Britain. I only remembered these presentations when RN Sea Harriers began shooting Argentine Air Force planes out of the sky in 1982 - 23 downed for no loss. The full story of those fighter combats is in "Sea Harrier Over the Falklands" by Cdr "Sharkey" Ward. One chilling passage also tells of his destruction of a C130 Hercules; having set both its starboard engines and wing on fire with a Sidewinder AIM-9L, he then finished the job by firing all of his 240 30mm cannon rounds into its rear end. His words: '. . . banked gracefully to the right and nose-dived into the sea'; all 7 crew members were lost.

I found it difficult to decide who Sharkey hated more, the RAF or the Argies. He constantly refers to RAF personnel as "crabs". He's particularly disparaging about the Vulcan Black Buck attacks on the Falklands and gets worked up about perceived lack of respect for him on the part of some of our chaps in blue khaki. That's a pity; all my life I've had nothing but respect for the Royal Navy.

My earliest knowledge of the Navy was when I was eleven years old; I always carried a copy of Southey's Life of Nelson in my schoolbag and I was in the Sea Scout troop of my public school, "Inst" - The Royal Belfast Academical Institution. I was intent on joining the Navy but my older brother joined the RAF as a Boy Entrant Engine Mechanic at Cosford in 1953 and he had shown me the way to escape a less than happy home life, so I followed suit in 1955.

In 1956 I came to literal blows with RN Artificer Apprentice Wilson at HMS Fisgard, a stone frigate at Devonport, in a boxing match - see Journal 9. Next naval person of note I met was my wife's uncle, "Cardi" Jones, a CPO from Cardiganshire, on HMS Bulwark in 1966. This Commando Carrier was tied up at the Naval Base in Singapore. He wasn't just any old CPO, he was the Regulator - in Air Force terms, the SWO; he was also the man in charge of issuing the rum ration - the "Pusser". On a visit to his ship we viewed his cabin, a cramped space in the bowels of the ship that he shared with five other CPOs; it was hardly the size of our pantry. The folding bunks were in two tiers of three. I also learned the meaning of "sippers" and "gulpers": the first being a wetting of your lips with your mate's rum ration, whilst the latter means that he really likes you. I had too many gulpers and had to be guided off the ship as I had begun to list seriously to starboard. Cardi Jones became Head of Security in a whisky distillery in Scotland when he retired; horses for courses?

The Wessex helicopter unit on HMS Bulwark was No. 845 Sqn; on a Royal Navy Air Day held at RNAS Sembawang in 1968 it was scheduled to put on a flying display but a gearbox problem had led to all its aircraft being grounded. A leaflet was issued to the crowd apologising for the absence of the Wessex. It also said that our squadron - the RAF's No. 66 Sqn - would put on a display with its Belvederes instead. The leaflet continued 'Despite this, we hope you have a good day'!

In one of my classes at Inverness Tech there were some ex-Locking L Tech Cpls and half-a-dozen PO Artificers from RNAS Lossiemouth. The sailor-suits were inclined to keep to themselves at first; they had an air of contempt for us RAF chaps referring to us as "crabs". I'd never heard this term before so when things had thawed a bit I asked where the term came from: 'It's the colour of your uniform, "crab-f*****g-blue" - the colour crabs turn when they're f*****g!' Well, well, things on board ship can get a bit boring; watching the mating of crustaceans must help pass the time; maybe more interesting than bending down searching for the "Golden Rivet". We also learnt that the Navy consists of two parts: the "Airy-Fairies" and the "Fish-Heads" i.e. the Fleet Air Arm and the Seaman Branch, held together by mutual contempt; being disliked by both was not so bad - the extraordinary tension between Sharkey Ward and his "Flag", a seaman Admiral, is a constant theme in his book.

The next naval person I met was one who became a good friend, Lt Cdr G, CO of the School of Physiotherapy at Halton; he was a Nelson nut. Every Trafalgar Day, 21st October, he'd organise an evening musical celebration in Halton House - that Rothschild mansion - with the Station Band in attendance. Opposing lines of sofas would be drawn up in the South Drawing Room behind which those nominated as British or French/Spanish would stand armed with bread rolls. We had a make-shift signal hoist where I, detailed off as a forehead-knuckling signalman, would hoist "England expects . . . etc. etc." to start the proceedings. The Frogs would sing La Marseillaise; we'd reply with Hearts of Oak, Spanish Ladies, Rule Britannia and bread rolls! A US surgeon, a Colonel, was hidden behind the full-length window curtains with an open dustbin into which he'd hurl thunder-flashes. Was it enjoyable bedlam or absolute hooliganism, your choice? After this, we'd repair to the ornate Grand Salon and await the arrival of a Royal Army Medical Corps Captain dressed as Nelson in kit borrowed from the BBC. The band played Hail the Conquering Hero Comes as he descended the grand staircase waving and winking one-eyed to the ladies. The fact that Nelson had expired during the battle was ignored. Without our medical colleagues from the Princess Mary's RAF Hospital, Halton House would have been a dull place. One year we were blessed with the real Lord Nelson; no, not a corpse but one of the Admiral's descendants who had recently inherited the title, serving in Berkhamsted as a Police Sergeant - and he was an ex-RAF Apprentice!

Lt Cdr G actually received a Royal Apology when HM The Queen visited Halton in 1980. We had been standing around in circles of about a dozen, in Halton House, as Her Maj approached. She acknowledged each of us with the Royal Nod as our names were announced. She looked at Lt Cdr G who was standing with his hands crossed behind his back:

'Ah', says Her Maj, 'You must be the Fire Officer.'

'No ma'am,' says G, 'I'm in your Navy', as he revealed his gold braid.

'So sorry!' says Her Maj.

We presented G with a fireman's helmet afterwards.

Now this has nothing to do with naval persons but it reveals some of the planning for that royal visit. It was anticipated that Her Maj would have to "pay a visit" so a ladies' loo in Halton House was cordoned off and Liz, a WRAF officer, armed with a jug of water, poured the contents into the loo pan. Others were listening outside to establish the Limit of Audibility of the Royal Tinkle. On the actual day a sentry stood just outside this limit to make sure no-one could get close enough to hear Her Maj when, inevitably, she performed. It gave a new meaning to a Royal Flush! I was running the Ceramics Club so later I was able to kiln-fire a Royal Crest transfer into a Victorian chamber pot which was then presented to Liz.

In 1975 one of our Nimrods from RAF Kinloss had an interesting encounter with HMS Churchill - one of our nuclear fleet subs. An exercise had been arranged for a Nimrod loaded with two Type 46 homing torpedoes in its bomb-bay to work out how to attack a Soviet nuke. The torpedoes had concrete warheads and were programmed to search for a target that the aircraft's sensors had detected; the plan was that after being dropped, and reaching a certain distance from the Churchill, the torpedo's propulsion system would stop, the concrete warhead would detach and sink to the bottom of the Atlantic whilst its expensive works would surface and be recovered. Somehow things went pear-shaped; propulsion didn't cease; the torpedo carried on and struck HMS Churchill a resounding clang. The sub quickly surfaced to check for damage. There was a heated exchange between the skipper of the sub and the Nimrod's captain:

'So sorry!' said our boy. 'We've got another torpedo so shall we have another go?'

He received a dusty answer from the man in navy blue; I suspect it mentioned crustaceans.

Like so many of those WW2 warriors to whom we owe so much, Val Bennett, a good neighbour, noted sculptor, watercolourist and a director of Teddington Aircraft Controls, has passed on. He had been an Observer in the Fleet Air Arm. He and his pilot flew over Tokyo in a Fairey Firefly on the last day of the war, flying off HMS Indefatigable - part of our Far East Fleet in 1945. He told me of the signal his Admiral had received from a US Admiral after the total tonnage of the US Navy had exceeded that of the RN:

'What's it like being in the second biggest Navy in the World?' the signal asked.

'Not bad', Val's Admiral replied. 'What's it like being second best?'

Now living in the Brecon Beacons just about as far away from the sea as you can get in Wales, you'd think the Navy wouldn't appear here. Wrong! There's an Outdoor Training Centre where upwards of 2000 matelots a year discover the joys of yomping over mountains. I see platoons of them when out walking my dog. I always make sure I'm walking sideways when they go past, just like a real crab.

Any other offers as to the meaning of "crabs", when referring to the RAF, will be welcomed?

(Try this one Willie, it seems to be the more popular suggestion amongst those I've heard: In days of yore, matelots suffering with "crabs" - Pediculosis pubis or pubic lice - playing around in their nether regions were treated with a greyish-blueish ointment . . . need I go on? Brian.)