The Early Days of an Ordinary Seaman
by the Duke of Buccleuch KT
October 1942 W.F.J. Dalkeith joined the ship as a CW Candidate in the
seamen's mess on the lower deck to get in his three months seatime
prior to officer training. Back home in Drumlanrig Castle he was better
known as Johnny Dalkeith, the Earl of Dalkeith, and was educated at Eton. He became the 9th Duke of Buccleuch in
1973 and described his time as "a very ordinary seaman" in Hard Lying which is republished below.
On joining the Navy as an Ordinary
Seaman (Hostilities Only), I took care to conceal my title, sticking to
W.F.J. Dalkeith. I still have my pay-book and standard issue knife - a
large blade and a marlin spike with my name stamped on it.
Like a great many others, I joined
from university through the CW (Commissioned Worthy) scheme having done
some cadet training at school and at university. CW candidates were
usually dispersed among general entries at the rate of about two per
forty, with the initial training at HMS Collingwood,
near Fareham, being the same for all. It consisted mainly of square
bashing and classroom work that included general rules on seamanship
and knot tying.
Sub Lieutenant Adams, a former
school teacher, was in command of our class of between 30 and 40 with
Chief Petty Officer (Retired) Tony Hammond as our immediate boss.
Both were excellent. Most of us fumbled our knots laboriously,
until it was pointed out that if one was torpedoed and swimming in
rough oil coated sea the bowline was the one knot that would save ones
life when a lifeline was thrown, the pace of learning
Many nights were spent in an
air-raid shelter which was only marginally less comfortable than our
Nissen hut. However, far more frightening than the prospect of
air-raids was the great mast that towered above the parade ground.
Climbing up its great height was bad enough, but walking along the
yardarm was petrifying. One or two of our group virtually passed out at
the thought of it.
Our group could hardly have been a
more varied cross section of society from all parts of the British
Isles. There was Bayliss, a plumber, Willie Cadden a Glasgow tram
driver, Copley who had worked in a condom factory, Chapman an
aggressive red-haired Yorkshire man, and Fred Delany from Cork, he
confessed to being part of a gang who had burned down the home of the
Grandfather of the friend with whom I had joined the Navy, John M.
Synge. This did not bode well for hamonious relationships, but Hitler
was fortunately, perceived as the common enemy.
At the end of some eight weeks
training, we were considered fit to go to sea and were sent as a batch
to Portsmouth Royal Naval Barracks for a week or more square bashing
and being taught how to sling a hammock, which was provided with one's
name marked on it in large letters. A particularly
ferocious Chief Petty Officer was in charge of us and I well remember
his stentorian voice when we fell in for parade in the morning, aimed
mainly at the CW candidates. "Then as is keen gets fell in previous",
One felt one's chances of ever getting a commission were doomed if one
It was an exciting day when the
orders for our seagoing postings arrived. Now friends one had made were
now being sent to all ends of the earth. How many survived and where
they ended up is a mystery one can sadly never solve. My own posting,
together with my friend John Synge, was to Rosyth where we would learn
the name and type of ship in which we were to serve. The night train
from Kings Cross to Waverly Station in Edinburgh was crammed with all
three services. My rolled up hammock in the corridor was hardly a first
class sleeper but I remember sleeping very well. There was just time
for a wonderful breakfast in the canteen beyond Edinburgh's main Post
Office, before a truck took us over the ferry to Rosyth.
was the name given to Rosyth Naval Base and it was with trepidation
that we set off there to face the unknown. A surprisingly friendly
atmosphere greeted us and were told that we would be joining HMS Viceroy when she returned from Sheerness in two day's time. Cochrane
was spacious enough to enable me to sling my hammock as I had been
taught, but those two nights were the last I would know of luxury for
several months to come. It was here that I learned the
silly trick of washing one's collar in bleach so as to give a faded
look that you saw when worn by proper old salts who were wont to jeer
at one as 'Hello Rookie".
Ordinary Seaman W.F.J. Dalkeith on leave at Drumlanrig Castle
His friend and fellow CW Candidate, John Synge, is on the left in the photograph on the right Courtesy of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry KT
I was able to watch the sleek and slender destroyer slicing through the
Firth of Forth under the great railway bridge. A shiver of excitement
ran through me on seeing what was to be my home for the next three
months at least. The October air was already warning that winter gales
were not far away. Much of the ship's company were lined up on the
forecastle and quarterdeck, ready to man the steel berthing wires and I
was already imagining myself as one of them.
There were three or four others I had only recently met whilst in Cochrane being
drafted in at the same time, a Stoker P.O., a W/T operator and an Able
Seaman, besides John Synge and myself. We crossed the gangway, were
signed in by the Coxswain and then taken by an Able Seaman to our
respective mess decks. The inside of the ship was like the inside of an
ants nest, seething with activity, some men cleaning up to go on shore
leave, others cleaning up the mess deck, others preparing for general
duties around the ship. The air in the cramped spaces, holding a crew
of 240 (never known a V&W to hold that many Ed.) Having been
designed for 140, was as thick as a plum duff that was the first odour
to hit us as we passed the galley. It became thicker still as we
penetrated further inside a series of steel boxes, a mixture of
cigarette smoke, steamy oil from the capstan engine in the centre of
the mess deck and vomit.
A charming, tall Leading Seaman
greeted us and immediately made us feel one of them. He laughed when he
saw our hammocks, saying we would not be seeing them again as the
number of hammock billets was sufficient for only about half the more
senior ratings. We were allocated lockers, the tops of which served as
a wooden seat running along the ship's side. When we asked where we
would sleep, he gestured at the lockers, and the deck and lose planks
which lay on top of the capstan engine. This is where I picked my
berth, because as I discovered later it was at least dry compared with
the deck which was swimming with water, oil, spilt cocoa and vomit.
Having parked our gear we were
taken off to meet the Officer Of the Day, a friendly, heavily built red
haired Sub Lieutenant. ('Jimmy' or number one). A Scotsman, Lieutenant
MacAlister, RNVR whom I discovered came from Melrose. A little later we
met the Captain, whose hostile glare and thick lips, that seemed to
form the word 'scum', filled me with foreboding. He was Lieutenant
Halifax R.N. And at the time it did not occur to me that someone in his
position of responsibility must have been under considerable strain
after long nights and days on the bridge escorting a twenty mile long
convoy of straggling merchant ships creeping along the coast at 10
knots, everyone a sitting target for the E-boats at almost any point
along the 400 mile route from the Thames estuary.
The forenoon was spent learning the
way round the ship and meeting my companions in the mess to which I had
been assigned. The ship's company was divided into two watches - Red
and Blue. I was to be in Red and my friend John in Blue, so we seldom
met after that. As the air was already filled with
cigarette smoke while lunch was being prepared in the galley following
the rum issue, which burnt my throat like a rasp. I lit up a cigarette
myself. After only a few puffs a voice cried out "What f****er is
burning string?". The aim of the question left me in no doubt that my
Balkan Sobranis Turkish cigarette was not appreciated. From then on it
was 'Players please' from the canteen.
After the first meal, which wasn't
at all bad. I was given my first duty, it was to paint the funnel! It
was still quite hot as we had to keep up steam in case of a sudden
crisis at sea. Another and more experienced seaman and I struggled with
ropes and stage and pulleys, and eventually paint and a brush. Whilst
we sloshed the paint on in a most inartistic fashion he told me about
the Viceroy, how she was built in 1917 and in 1920 was 'mothballed'
into reserve, and parked on a sand bank somewhere.
Miraculously her engines were still in fine fettle and able to produce
32 knots for which she had been designed. Her single 4.7 inch guns were
replaced with two twin 4 inch high angle guns, useful for anti-aircraft
as well as anti- U-boat fire. The only worrying signs of decrepitude
was the rust that was barely concealed by more and more coats of
paint. The ships side was only one eighth of an inch thick
steel plate to start with and I was to discover later when painting it,
instead of the funnel, one was quite concerned that one might put a toe
The next day I was introduced to my action station. This was a loading
number of the left gun in 'A' turret on the fore deck. The combined
shell and charge was nearly three feet long and fairly heavy. Pushing
it into the breach when the gun was pointing towards the horizon was
quite easy, but when the gun was elevated to a high angle, I simply
didn't have the strength. This I was to discover on our first day at
sea when doing gun drill, but I was thankful to find that there were
very few who could manage it. We did not fire many rounds that day and
I never discovered what the target was. All I do remember was the
really deafening blast on my ears for which we were given no protection
whatever. Like so many others no doubt my present deafness probably
owes much to those practice shoots. Happily during my time in Viceroy, we never needed to fire the guns in anger.
My first day at sea I was on duty watch 0800-1200 as starboard lookout
on the bridge. This meant I covered the sector from straight ahead to
Green 90 (right angles to the right side) It was a wonderful sensation
sailing under the Forth Rail Bridge, with what looked like
a toy train puffing along towards Edinburgh. Soon we passed familiar
land marks, such as North Berewick Law and the Bass Rock which I
remembered as a child.
All kinds of incomprehensible things were happening on the bridge; the
Captain and Navigator were taking endless bearings on certain landmarks
with the compass mounted on the binnacle in the centre of the bridge;
signal lamps were flashing and R.T (radio telephone) messages were
crackling through discordant loudspeakers.
It was not difficult to settle into the ship's routine, there was
simply no alternative and I was quite overwhelmed by the kindness of
older hands helping me to adapt. In the course of it, I made many
friends and I was quite surprised to find how frank and open people
were about their backgrounds and their family life. This may be partly
due to the ever present thought that at any moment one might be
torpedoed or hit a mine and that would be that. It was a great comfort
to me to feel accepted, they knew nothing of my background or title.
This was fine and I continued in the routine, most night I slept on the
deck beside 'A' gun. My first night I settled in the shelter provided
by the base of the gun mounting until the Gun layer pointed out if he
had to rotate the turret in a hurry, I would be turned into strawberry
jam. After that I managed to get hold of a mail bag (sleeping bags had
not been invented in those days) and using my inflatable life belt as a
pillow, I slept marvelously well. It was then pointed out to me in the
middle of E-boat Alley, a life belt round one's chest would be more
useful than one under one's ear. Washing, etc; presented difficulties
as the facilities were provided for half the number using them. One
longed for a proper bath and finding one in the YMCA in Sheerness was
one of the great treats of my life.
When up at Rosyth, I occasionally made it to the Caledonian Hotel. Once
I ventured into the New Club in Princess Street to rendezvous with my
Father. The hall ported was most disconcerted at finding very ordinary
seaman wandering about in such a hallowed place and politely asked if I
was looking for the NAAFI Canteen! His composure was quite unchanged
when I told him who I was meeting and why.
On board ship I was like any other CW candidate, with a lot of special
instruction on practical navigation, cleaning the wardroom silver and
polishing the brass name plate on the quarter deck - the only piece of
brass allowed in the ship to avoid giving our presence away through
moonlight reflecting off a shiny surface.
One day however the Captain received a signal as we approached Rosyth,
saying that HRH Duchess of Gloucester wished to see me. He sent for me
and demanded to know why on earth she would want to see me, in a voice
of fury and contempt. When I said it was probably because she was my
aunt and Godmother, he snapped "You had better go and get yourself
cleaned up then".
When I returned from my afternoon out. I found John Synge doing sentry
duty on the gangway. He warned me about jolly jokes of putting a red
carpet out for me on the gangway and to expect much ridicule. I was in
two minds whether I should turn and make a run for it, but with a heavy
heart I carried on to my normal quarters and not once did anyone of my
fellow seamen give any indication that my status had changed. My faith
in human nature was sealed.
My appointment to Viceroy
ended a week sooner than expected. Thick January fog enveloped E-boat
Alley and the convoy merchantmen were desperately trying to keep in
contact with a variety of fog horns, hooters, sirens, and whistles. We
had been ordered to move to the head of the convoy, so were proceeding
a good deal faster than was wise. From my position near 'A' gun on the
forecastle, I saw a stationary ship ahead a second or two before the
eyes on the bridge. My warning cry was duly heard and although the
Captain ordered full astern 1700 tons of destroyer could not be
possibly stopped in time. Our bows rode up over a surprised Escort
Trawler, which appeared to keel right over with the mast level with the
sea, gradually we slid back and up she came with hardly a scratch and
no casualties. When we examined our bows, the reason was plain to see.
Everything had crumpled in as if made of tissue paper and I realised
then how valuable was my paint in keeping the ship afloat. A spell in
dry dock triggered the CW Candidates move to HMS King Alfred.
The cleaning of the quarter deck name plate had a happy sequel. In
1948, while I was the Director responsible for the management of
Granton Harbour which my family had built 110 years before, I saw the
superstructure of an unusually large ship in Malcolm Brechin's ship
breaker's yard. It normally took nothing bigger than a trawler, but
when I approached closer. I was astounded to recognise my own paint
work. It was Viceroy herself and Mr Brechin very kindly presented me with this nostalgic souvenir, now proudly displayed in an
exhibition room at Drumlanrig Castle.
present nothing further is known about the wartime service of the 9th
Duke of Buccleuch in the RNVR but we are hoping that his son who
succeeded to the title on the death of his father in 2007 will be able
to add further details. But we would also like to hear from the
families of his shipmates in HMS VIceroy so please get in in touch if a
member of your family served with OD John Dalkeith in HMS Viceroy.
"Walter Francis John Montagu
Douglas Scott, 9th Duke of Buccleuch and 11th Duke of Queensberry, KT,
VRD, JP, DL (28 September 1923 – 4 September 2007) was a Scottish Peer,
politician, and landowner. He represented Edinburgh North in the House
of Commons for 13 years. He owned the largest private landed estate in
the United Kingdom, covering some 280,000 acres.” Wikipedia
To find out more about his subsequent life click on the link to read his entry in Wikipedia and his obituary in the Independent.