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Ganges from the recollections of Desmond Gerrish

1947 – 1948, At Ganges

Joining the Royal Navy. I joined in September 1947 at age 16, as a Boy Seaman, 2nd Class. I went to HMS Ganges, a huge training barracks for boys (3,000 of us) on the estuary of the broad River Stour at Ipswich. Ganges trained only seamen and communication boys. Electrical engineers, stokers, cooks, stewards and medical boys all went to their own individual specialist barracks dotted around the UK.

The first five weeks were spent in an Annexe Camp across the road from the main barracks, where they kept the new entries (200 every 5 weeks) separate from the hurly-burly of the real Ganges, while kitting out with Navy uniform which clothed you entirely, learning basic marching, learning to live in a Mess and doing basic school tests. We were batched together in groups of 30 for our entire time in Ganges (15 months) and lived in the very well-designed dormitories containing 30 beds and lockers, with a dining area occupying the first third of the Long Dormitory. No frills, but excellent quality throughout,for instance, excellent parquet floors and immaculately clean paintwork everywhere.

Cleanliness was almost a religion at Ganges.

Once you had learned the rudiments of Ganges living, you moved over to the Main Barracks in the same batches of 30, which had fused in the Annexe. Ganges was laid out in groups of 10 Dormitories called Divisions. We went to Blake Division. All ten Divisions were named after RN Admirals: Rodney, Nelson, Drake, Raleigh etc. The 10 Divisions were all linked by glass–roofed covered ways,we call them Malls in modern parlance. The enormous Galley (cookhouse) was situated centrally, where 5 boys from each Dormitory collected the food in large metal dishes to race back to the Dormitory Dining Area.

Daily Routine:

Monday to Friday:

  • 6.30 am Out of bed. Collect hot cocoa and hard tack biscuits.
  • 7.00 am Sweep covered ways and general clean all round.
  • 7.30 am Breakfast and clean Dormitory.
  • 8.30 am Assemble on huge parade ground for Prayers, Notices and Ceremonial March-past.
  • 9.00 am To classes. Classes included ordinary school subjects: Maths, English, History, Geography, Mechanics and Electricity. Seamanship classes - rope work, sailing, anchors and cables, sheer-legs, chartwork and rule of the road, signalling by semaphore, Aldis light and masthead flag signals, damage control and firefighting in ships, 4 inch twin turret gun drill, rifle range sessions and Physical Training (gym work), swimming and lifesaving.
  • 12 noon Lunch in Dormitory, wash up dishes etc. Change into sports rig.
  • 1.15 pm To allocated sports event, which was a rotation of soccer, hockey, cricket, gymnastics, swimming, cross country, track events, sailing, rowing, rifle shooting, cutlass drill.
  • 4.00 pm Showers. Change back into uniform. Tea.
  • 4.30–6 pm Classes again.
  • 6.30 pm Supper and free time. Occasional cinema, concerts, boxing matches all in the huge gym and rotated in allocation by Divisions.
  • 10.00 pm In bed and lights out.


Mornings Wash clothes in the purpose built laundries, huge sinks, endless hot water, scrubbing brushes and hard tack Admiralty soap bars, together with hot air drying rooms.

Backward classes for any subjects that groups were lagging in.

Afternoons Organised recreation. Top teams had regular fixtures with outside teams, both inter–RN and local schools, in soccer, rugby, hockey and cricket. I was not good enough to get into any of the Ganges First Teams, out of 3,000 very fit 16/17 year olds, these teams were of County standard. Fortunately, there were 2nd, 3rd and 4th HMS teams in all the main sports and from time to time I won a place in these, in soccer, hockey and rugby. To keep the emphasis on more boys playing in matches than boys as mere spectators, there were many inter-Ganges games, like every Dormitory produced teams to play the other 99 Dormitories.

The sports fields were fabulous. At least 15 soccer pitches, 10 hockey grounds, 8 rugby pitches etc. All kept in immaculate condition by an army of civilian Grounds staff.

We were allowed to be spectators at the sort of semi-finals and finals of Cup Matches, or the occasional blood match like Ganges 1st Soccer XI playing HMS Vincent, our mirror image in Portsmouth.

Some Saturday afternoons were spent on the River Stour, sailing Naval whalers (crew of 7) or rowing the whalers, very strenuous activity and of course there were organised races in both sailing and rowing. I nearly forgot the twice as large Naval cutters with a crew of 12. We spent more time in the cutters than the whalers.

You could qualify to be a boy coxswain for both cutters and whalers by passing a practical test and this allowed you to sail or row these boats, complete with a crew of other boys, under your command without a Petty Officer Instructor aboard. I became a boy coxswain early on and added another badge to my uniform.

Saturday evenings Free time. You were never allowed out of Ganges.


Usual morning clean up all round.

Church parade in Best Uniforms, on the Parade Ground - in the gym and covered ways if raining. After lunch we had genuine free time for the rest of the day, write letters, darn socks etc, and generally laze around.

The Ranks were:

  • Leading Boy
  • Petty Officer Boy
  • Instructor Boy

I achieved all three promotions. The top rank of Instructor Boy was very special as there were only 10 of us out of 3,000 boys. It meant remaining at Ganges for an extra full term (4 months). The authority that went with the rank was awesome. Duties included taking command of Daily Parade and March Past, 3,000 boys, a full Royal Marine Band, a huge Boy's Drum and Bugle band, a Boy's Guard and all Officers and Adult Instructors accompanying their Divisions for the March Past. The salute was taken by the Captain of Ganges or the visiting Admirals. Minor movements of this huge parade, like Dressing the Ranks, Coming to Attention, Standing at Ease were carried out by a short roll on the drums followed by a single loud beat. Major movements were controlled by your voice alone and it had to reach the very back of the Parade Ground, crisp and curt.

You stood on the rostrum alongside the Captain, who, to us boys, was next in line to God. He would deliver his opinions as to the quality of the March Past and his highest accolade was "A satisfactory March Past, Gerrish".

Other duties included teaching New Entries over at the Annexe, teaching backward classes in Ganges, inspecting kits and Dormitories and general policing the smooth running of the daily routine from dawn to bedtime. Punishments at our disposal were harsh and terribly effective. The common one was to turn out the entire Dormitory in marching dress, carrying the heavy 303 Lee Enfield rifle for drill at the double on the Parade Ground in their precious free time slots.

Often the punishment was for the misdemeanour of one individual, who would be leaned upon again by the other 29 members of the Dormitory. No one, but no one, argued with Instructor Boys. Adult Instructors used these same exhausting punishments for remedying sloppy behaviour by their classes. A boy would collapse and subsequently die about once every one or two years from those punishments, with only a modicum of protest from relatives, Press and M.P.s. Thankfully, I never drove any boy to anywhere near complete exhaustion.

The adult administration could order punishments ranging from caning to fines, after hearing the case by Officers. Serious offences were heard by the Commander or Captain as laid down by the Admiralty Law. The Captain had powers ranging from jail sentences (Naval Detention Quarters in Portsmouth) to dismissal with disgrace from the Royal Navy.

Sometimes, we Instructor Boys discovered serious crimes and gave evidence at the subsequent hearings. Unofficially, but universally accepted by all at Ganges, Instructor Boys would deal with minor offences by a few lashes with a knotted rope across the rebel's backside. Marginal cases of minor/not so minor followed the time honoured code of the Instructor Boy offering the offender "official report or my punishment". The latter was always chosen. Cover-ups were superb. From time to time M.P.s responsible for governing military training in the U.K. would visit Ganges and probe for unofficial punishments by questioning boys at random. The answer was monotonously the same from any Boy, "Oh no Sir"! The answer simply said we wanted no outside interference to the Rule of Law we found fair and just.

In this young, generally very tough, community of potential RN sailors there would be a sniff of mutiny. One occurred in my time. A Dormitory, which had more than the usual sprinkling of rebels and whose collective I.Q. fell far below the average, had undergone a year of despairing efforts by the Administration to get this bunch of 30 boys up to an acceptable level of knowledge and moral competence. Their Instructors were not the best either. The mutiny started when they were told they were to be held back for an extra term at Ganges. They collectively said they would no longer obey any orders.

Events moved with great speed and slickness. The Captain ordered the rogue Dormitory to be placed on Shotley Routine. This was the well documented contingency plan, two Instructor Boys move into the Dormitory permanently and the two best instructors take overall responsibility for getting the Dormitory back to normal.

The 'mutineers' knew the sequence of events as well as we did. They accepted us two Instructor Boys to live with them in their Dormitory without hostility. We quickly got their consensus to buckle down to the inevitable duel of strength, where time is the only variable. Both sides know Officialdom will win. The only challenge for them is how long can they put up with a particularly harsh routine before agreeing to conform again. This bunch lasted about 5 or 6 days. An unrelenting routine from dawn to lights-out of being hounded through endless parade drills, standing at attention for long periods, heavy, grinding chores such as loading bags of spuds into the Galley, hours rowing the heavy cutters against the tide, etc, and eating their sparse meals standing.

The Peace Treaty goes like this:

  • Us - We are impressed with their strength and grit
  • Them - They respect us by being tough but fair
  • Us - We've seen many classes qualify that were only half as good as you
  • Them - Tarnation, we can qualify like falling off a log if we want to!
  • Us - Why don't you?
  • Them - We will!
  • And they do.

All classes leaving Ganges go to destroyers in the Training Squadron based at Rosyth, near Edinburgh, for 3 months of sea training. Very unpleasant it was too.

The worst aspect was the food. Small warships, destroyers and below operated a ridiculous system, blatantly called 'Canteen Messing'. Each Mess of approximately 20 sailors was allocated a notional sum of money. You 'spent' this allowance by shopping from the ships butcher and grocer. You prepared the raw food in the Mess and then took it to the Galley for the ship's chefs to cook it. All this in a corkscrewing, bucking destroyer, playing war games in the winter gales around Scotland. As learners we ate very badly but survived. This system was very popular with the older hands for 2 main reasons:

  • You chose your own menu
  • Any 'allowance' left at the end of the month was paid to the Mess in hard cash.

Admiralty found resistance to modernising this feeding system from The Fleet in general until about 1950, when new Classes of destroyers and frigates were built with larger Galleys and meals were provisioned, menu'ed and cooked by the Supply Officer's team of properly trained cooks.

Living conditions were, of course, very crowded in all sizes of warships that had survived the war. The number of men Admiralty had to cram into every ship was mainly dictated by the number of guns the ship had. For instance, the universal twin 4-inch mounting needed 8 men to each barrel, which equals sixteen, plus another sixteen to keep a flow of shells from the deep magazines.

The average destroyer had four twin guns, so the total started at 128 men for its main gun armament alone. Add to this the torpedo crews, the smaller AA guns like Bofors and Oerlikons, depth charge and smoke float crews, radar plotters, engine crews, medicos and you arrive at the number of men in an average size of destroyer as 280.

Back in your own living quarters, called a Mess Deck, you had a communal rack to stow your very tightly rolled up hammocks during daytime. Each man had a locker, no bigger than a tea chest, for all his uniform clothes. One table, two benches and a small cupboard for your cups, plates or cutlery. And that was it for 20 men.

The training programme for us included all everyday seamanship skills, working anchors and cables manning the ships seaboat (the whaler), steering the ship, lookouts, working the ship's berthing harnesses, towing another destroyer, searching the upper-decks for foul weather etc.

The military training covered firing the guns, torpedoes and depth charges. The latter contributed to the crew's food rations, fresh fish.

The Captain would have the destroyer steered to find a shoal of cod. The sonar man would con the ship over the shoal, pretending it was a submarine and we (the depth charge crew) would fire to kill. In fact, the explosions mainly stunned the shoal, which would float up to the surface and be whipped into the steamboat. A good shoal could produce a couple of hundred huge cod.

Any ship any man joins is instantly allocated his Action Station. Mine in this ship was on the Bridge as Captain's Messenger. Our Ganges ranks no longer prevailed, but our first ships made ex PO and Instructor Boys as Messdeck Leaders and ex coxswains, as coxswains of the ship's boats.

Ganges invariably marked Instructor Boys' records as Officer Candidates and your subsequent Captains made sure you got the most responsible jobs and on-going on the spot instruction from all the ship's officers. Strangely enough, the greatest support and spontaneous teaching came from the ship's crew themselves, ranging from the senior Chief Petty Officers to Stokers in the engine room. Their motivation in this was summed up by the simple phrase, "Oh well, as you are going to become an Officer, we might as well make sure you will be a good one". And remember, all these adults had just come through the war.

Our rank at this time remained Boy Seamen First Class and the next step up to Ordinary Seaman occurred on your 18th birthday. Below that age, Admiralty acted as our 'parents' and strictly controlled our supervision by written laws. At Ganges we were permanently confined to camp. In these Training Destroyers, the Captains could allow us out of the ship to the canteen and cinema inside the Naval Dockyard at their discretion. We had to be back on board by 9 pm. We were allowed out to afternoon sports events, there and back in Naval coaches. Set amounts of your pay were given to you in cash, for pocket money, the rest went directly to your parents. You were forbidden alcohol, but you were allowed to smoke the small amount you could afford out of your pocket money. In a ship you became eligible for the same Duty Free smoking allowance as everybody else, 600 cigarettes a month, at very cheap prices, and pocket money could absorb this.

Leave was generous. 2½ weeks at Easter, Summer and Christmas and your rail fare paid by Navy, plus Navy transport to the nearest main line station. We travelled in uniform and only wore civilian clothes when you got home. Navy even gave us picnic bags for your journey.

After completing our Term in the Training Destroyer Squadron, we were sent to our home barracks to await being sent to ships of The Fleet as permanent crew members. Every sailor on joining the RN was allocated one of the three home barracks for life. These were Chatham, Portsmouth and Devonport. We liked this period of about 6 weeks, since you were back in good RN shore accommodation with not much to do.

And the barracks was a transit base for the entire adult population of the RN, so we shared some of their privileges like cinema every night and later 'lights out', even though we were segregated in a building for boys only.

The Kitbag

Made of almost indestructible light brown canvas, standing 4 ft high cylindrical, marked with your name and number and a padlock for locking. Your entire kit travelled with you in this monster plus your personal hammock roped up like a tight sausage.

So, eventually, in dribs and drabs, we were allocated to ships of the Fleets. There was the Home Fleet (European waters), the Mediterranean Fleet, the Far East Fleet, subdivided into the famous China Fleet (Yangtze Incident) and the West Indies Fleet.

Me and about 5 others were allocated to a destroyer in the Med' Fleet, HMS Chivalrous. First we travelled in a Troopship from Southampton to Gibraltar. At Gib' we moved over to our new ship which was not up to standard and after a few days we witnessed the fiery Rear Admiral of Destroyer Squadrons in the Med' storm aboard to inspect the calibre of the ship and hear him tearing off a blistering criticism to the CO, ending with "Your destroyer is not a fit ship for young trainees, who will move now to a better destroyer and you will go to sea under intensive manoeuvres until your ship gets itself up to Fleet standards".

We moved immediately to the destroyer nominated by RA(D) and watched our first ship proceed to sea under a black cloud. The three Destroyer Squadrons sailed several days later for Malta and our new Guardian, RA(D) chose to fly his flag (himself onboard) on our ship.

Unbelievably nowadays, he also shipped his wife back to the Main Base at Malta. She was given the Captain's Cabin and free access to the open Bridge. We learned, in hours, to fear her more than the splendid Admiral. She would rise at dawn to inspect the brightness of the brass we polished feverishly during the Morning Watch on the Bridge and then scan the sea as to the tightness of formation of the 24 destroyers racing in tight company at speed to Malta, all under her Admiral husband's command. We hit a Mediterranean gale 'en route' and I remember being on duty as Messenger on the Bridge at night, when a hatch door in the Gunnery Director above the Bridge flew open. The Officer-of-the-Watch, driving the ship, with enough problems of his own to contend with, shouted through the wind-lashed spray (open Bridges in those days) "Gerrish, get up there and shut that damned hatch". Even now I wonder how I did it. Except for our previous training, which imbibed you with the knowledge that orders were given for the utter necessity and you obeyed them without question.

After a spell in Malta to restore and paint up the ship, we sailed in company with another destroyer for a cruise around the Greek Islands. We spent a few days in Athens and, now we boys were proper ship's company, we were allowed to go ashore in daytime. So, we did all the tourist sites, which were deserted after 5 years of war followed by the Greek Civil War, Communists against Royalists, which was in full swing in the mountains at the time of our visit. Indeed, Admiralty carefully kept the entire Greek coast covered with pairs of destroyers in case the Greek fight escalated across the water to Communist-ruled Albania.

We changed our pound notes in Athens for 40,000 Drachmas each, which would give us lots of spending power in the more remote Greek ports, where last week's rate of exchange of 20,000 D's to the pound still prevailed. This was my first experience in currency markets. We went next to Salonica. Most pleasant visit. Wonderful food in the cafes and marvellous beaches (kept out of minefields though) all around this busy fishing port.

News came in that all CW candidates (potential Officers) were to be sent to cruisers, which had a schoolmaster and classrooms. I was transferred to HMS Euryalus, when our destroyer got back to Malta, with a little apprehension on my part. In general, most sailors preferred the informal, friendly style of life in destroyers. Cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers, while having the better living quarters and more creature comforts, were much more formal and less personal. In small ships you knew everyone onboard well and lived in close company with the ships' Officers. The big ships were 600 men upwards and there was enough space for the Officers to live detached and aloof from the men.

Euryalus was one of 4 cruisers in this Squadron, Liverpool, Newcastle and Phoebe, the others. Mountbatten, having just finished being the last Viceroy of India and having ended the war in the rank of Admiral of The Fleet (top RN ranking) as Supreme Commander in Burma, asked Admiralty if he could come back in the RN at a lower rank to continue his Naval career. He was made Rear Admiral and given command of this newly formed Mediterranean Squadron.

He and his staff lived in the Liverpool (flagship), though he regularly lived for short periods in his other 3 cruisers, so we got to know him quite well. There were 6 of us CW's in Euryalus and we quickly settled down in this new life. Once again I was detailed to be Captain's Messenger, but this time he was a senior four-stripe Captain, RN and I had a much bigger ship to find those people he wanted to speak to or pass his orders to. Worst part of this particular job was having to be in my best uniform while on duty with him and just try going down the engine room to get, say, the Engine Commander in my spotless white shorts and shirt, without smearing grease on your clothes.

On 21st May our group started the first really demanding Course, Gunnery. This great empire was based at Whale Island, near the northern end of Portsmouth Harbour and had been growing in stature for over 200 years, as Naval guns advanced in size and accuracy. The Navy with the best guns and gunners ruled the oceans, right up to the 2nd World War, when the submarine and aeroplane interrupted this supremacy.

The Miracle Year of HMS SleuthWartime Memoirs of Coxn Oscar Moth