My days at Barby came to an end when Mr Loach was suddenly taken seriously ill, he nearly died, he caught that decease of the teeth and mouth, it was horrible. I then wrote to Mrs Salter back in my old favourite place, Axbridge, they managed to get me a job near Axbridge at a little hamlet called Compton Bishop on this farm nestled on the side of the Mendip Hills, a beautiful place, I was employed there purely as the tractor driver, as the farmer had a satellite farm some miles away he had to get the tester to come from Taunton to take me on the highway and give me a tractor license, as the boss had a truck as well he got him to pass me for a car license as well, that was 1947, I would not be able to get one as easy as that today.
I am afraid sadly my stay at Axbridge did not last very long again, may be a year or so, I was lodging with my past foster mother Mrs Salter, and feeling very happy with it, Mrs Salter used to have another lodger, an accountant from Manchester, he was working for the local council, he used to live in this little room on his own where Mrs Salter used to give him his meals etc, he had a bedroom up stairs next to mine, I of course lived in with the family, one day as I was going to work she asked me to ask my boss for a ten shilling rise, I was getting two pounds ten shillings a week at the time, two pounds I paid Mrs Salter and ten shillings for myself, it seemed that the lodger had a friend from Manchester who had got a job with him at the council and would like to lodge with him and share the living room, well I had the only other bedroom and he was prepared to pay more than I was paying, if I could not get the rise I would have to find some where else to live, of course my boss would have none of it, so I started to look around for other lodgings or I would have to go home to London again, as it happened I had this double barreled shot gun that I then owned and I had to take it up to Bristol to the gun smith to have it repaired, the man told me it was too dangerous to repair so he bought it off me, as I came out of the gun smith shop, a few doors down the street, City Road as I remember, was this big shop affair with all these pictures of navy ships in the window, I was so interested in them I stayed a while looking at them, when all of a sudden this big naval officer was standing next to me, he said would you like to come inside lad we have a lot more pictures in there and models of ships too, so inside I went and he started to ask me lots of questions, what I was doing in Bristol, he had detected my London accent, what work I was doing etc, etc.
I told him about my misfortunes with my lodging and everything, then with his prompting I found myself signing on in the Royal Navy for eight years, of course when I got back to the Salters they were all delighted because it solved a sad situation for them, but not of course my parents, so that was the end of my brilliant farming career, I was about to embark on one quite different one.
I duly gave my notice to my farmer, then so did my friend who was one of the other chaps employed there, a Michael Parker who was of course a local country boy, a very quiet and shy young chap, a couple of years younger than myself, who also went up to Bristol and joined the Royal Navy, a young sailor who I was to bump into in Portsmouth some four years or so later, who was then, very surprisingly a very different chap all together, I met him in a pub, he was sitting at the bar chatting up this rather middle age bar maid which I have remembered vividly all these years, I suppose because it gave me quite a surprise as he recognized me instantly, but I did not recognized him, a point that has occurred often in my life, you see I joined the Navy at the age of nineteen, when most of the chaps joined at seventeen, looking like a boy seaman and I departed that service some eight years later still looking like a boy seaman, Michael it seems took his educational tests when he entered and became a seaman, I took the same examination and was made a naval airman engine mechanic which had a lot to do with my engineering experiences I suppose, all be them short, I some times regret that, as a seamen sees far more of the world than do naval airman, as there are a lot more of general service ships than there are aircraft carriers, still I love aircraft and I must admit it was the best thing for my future as we shall learn later in these notes.
My experiences as a naval airman would take us into far more pages than I would like to contemplate but I will high light some of the high points of that career and some of the low.
When I departed my beloved Axbridge and having promised to serve and if necessary die for my King and country, which the articles of war state as they were read to us on entry, I arrived back home in East Ham with some time to wait before my enlistment, I tried to get a temporary job and all that I was offered me was grave digging, Whow!, father said, forget, it wait for the navy to call, which they duly did, but the labour exchange people said I am lucky I had signed on for the navy, because I had escaped the call up at seventeen as I was a farm worker, Alec was called up in the army, they said I would have been sent down the coal mines as a Bevin boy it I had not enlisted, as at the time you could escape the army by going down the coal mines. I eventually got orders to reported to the Royal Naval enlisting barracks at HMS Royal Arthur in Bath, Somerset, yes here I was going back to my dear old Somerset only a few miles from where I was convinced that the Royal Navy was the life for me by that rather influential chief petty officer.
On arrival with my small suit case containing my bare essentials as detailed in my enlistment papers, I found my self along side of some twenty other recruits of different sizes and appearances, quite complete strangers who were about to become comrades and share the difficulties that were to come, as I said earlier one of the first things they do to you after all the medical tests and so forth is to read the articles of war to you, then to say to us, you are now going to be asked to sign the articles of war and if any of you want to run home to mum, now is the time to do it, up to this point the petty officers had been quite pleasant, but after signing that bit of paper the nature of these guys changed remarkably, we all started to wish, I think, that we had bolted for that gate when he gave us the chance, because life in the Royal Navy was brought home to us in the following days and weeks with some force.
One of the first things after signing the articles was the fitting out with uniforms, I use the word fitting very loosely, as every thing I had issued to me brought home to me the realization that I must indeed be a small creature, this was all a free issue, but from then onwards we had to replace any missing or worn articles at our own expense, as we were given a small allowance in our pay and I say small, on entry we earned four shillings a day. As is generally known through out all the services those training days are known for turning boys into men, which as a lot of fellows know makes it a very tough life, those same nice officers that welcomed us in were now concentrating on being Frankenstein’s in uniform.
Two things come to mind of HMS Royal Arthur, known as a stone frigate, one which left a nasty taste, the other not so nasty, the last being the fact that my divisional officer, that is the officer responsible to the captain for your welfare, was a rather tall man, I would say a typical naval snob obviously of an aristocratic upbringing, spoke very proper, who was officer of the watch one night and threatened to place myself and two of my newly made friends in the clink if we did not, come off shore quietly, of course we were already on land, he kept his promise though as minutes later the three of us slept in this cold room, this man I was to encounter on a flight deck some time later, with the new Queen, as her consort, yes HRH Prince Phillip.
The nasty event of which there were two sequentially, the first being that when they read the articles to us those first days, one of the things mentioned was that as sailors of the Royal Navy were giving free issue of two things, one being free issue of two tins of tobacco for rolling our own and when you reach twenty year old, an issue of duty free rum every day, it was stated very clearly that if you gave or sold these things you would be punished with imprisonment, I took these warnings very seriously, we duly got our first issue of tobacco and I did not smoke at the time, well it happened that night I was duty watch in the civilian drivers office manning the telephone and one of the drivers said to me, did you get your free issue today Jack, I answered of course in the affirmative, he then said, do you smoke and I said no, but I guess I am about to start, he then said, you do not have to Jack, I will buy them off you, of course I replied, we are not allowed to sell it, it is a punishable offence, he then said, oh don’t worry about that Jack they always say that to every one, they said it when I was in the navy years ago, all the chaps sell it, like a fool I excepted what he said and after I went for my supper I brought back a tin, as I was giving it to him and he was handing me ten shillings a petty officer walked in, that was it, we were caught red handed, he was an ambitious petty officer so he took my watch card reported me to the Master at Arms our head policeman and I found myself on the Commanders report, when I fronted up as a rather shaken young man full of fear, thinking I was about to go to prison on my first few days in the navy, a thing that would have stuck on my records for ever, the commanded said as it was my first offence and I was encouraged by the civilian driver, who I think was sacked, he gave me fourteen days number elevens. Now not many people outside of the navy would realize what fourteen days number elevens entailed, every thing in the navy has a number, including humans, well number elevens apply to junior ratings and it entails slinging your hammock outside the police office every night, at five in the morning rise for some deck scrubbing somewhere, mustering at midday for more chores for an hour which probably means you would be too late for dinner, tough, then at about four pm, four bells, you dress in full uniform with belt and gaiters and perform an hours rifle drill.
Now some of the petty officers are human, some are real sadists, some are not so bad, the not so bad ones would let you do what we called the number elevens shuffle, that is instead of double marching briskly you did little shuffling steps, which was far less tiring, remember we had this rifle above our heads for an hour, but the ambitious ones and bad ones would not allow this kind of rubbish, punishment is punishment, these are military criminals we are dealing with here, oh how I wished I had run home to my dear mother, she would have had a fit if she could have seen what they are doing to her boy, but look out Den, things were about to get worse, the second of these events was about to occur while I was still serving my sentence. One evening after I had got back to the mess after this grueling drill I sat next to my friend at a crowded table where they were playing cards for money, this friend said to me, he came from Southern Ireland, I called him Paddy naturally, more stories will come of him later, another disaster, he said to me will you hold my money for safety which I did, then all of a sudden a chap stood next to me, I could see his shoes and trousers which were not bell bottoms, oh dear no, it’s a petty officer, to make matters worse the same petty officer who caught me with the tobacco, he said to the four who were playing I will have your watch cards, I got up to walk away and he said I will have yours as well, all the fellows said he was not playing, but I was holding the money, so that was it, I said to him I have not got my watch card, which you were supposed to carry at all the time, he said, where is it, I replied, the master at arms has it, then he recognized me. Oh boy I thought, what now, they will lock me up and throw away the key, shall I run away or what, the next day I was in front of the commander again, who also recognized me, he asked me what I have to say for myself and I explained I was not gambling, but he remarked I was encouraging some one else to, any way I was already a criminal and naval criminals must be brought to hand, I collected another fourteen Days number elevens to run concurrently with my existing sentence, that destroyed I think the forth coming career of Naval airman Dennis Fitzgerald LSFX854332, I was for the next few years a worried, nervous, unconfident and law fearing man, yet in the future there was more to come to add to my misery, surprisingly I enjoyed my naval service, goodness knows why.
My naval time, as I say, perhaps could fill a book if I could remember all the details correctly, which I think was somewhat disappointing as joining the air branch meant to some degree that it was less exiting, as in the general service I may have seen more sea time and more foreign travel perhaps, but of course my experience with aircraft was to be of great benefit to me later on in my life as we will see and I certainly do love airplanes and life on the flight deck was exiting although dangerous as we will also see, some of my experiences are vivid, especially the bad ones. I was duly excepted after my education test as an engine aircraft mechanic, which meant the only ships I would do time on would be aircraft carriers, my engine course was conducted on another stone frigate, one as far from the sea as you would ever get in England, at HMS Gamecock, near the midland town of Nuneaton in Warwickshire, it was here I met a young girl who captured my heart and was to become my wife a couple of years later, Gwendoline Vera Ison, daughter of a coal miner. From HMSGamecock I served on a number of RNAS airfields and carriers, I certainly cannot at this time in life vouch for their order but the list is as follows, RNAS HMS Heron, at Yeovil Somerset, RNAS HMS Peregrine, at Ford Sussex, RNAS HMS Seahawk, at Culdrose Cornwall, Naval Bombing Range, Delabole Cornwall, RNAS HMS Fulmar at Lossiemouth Scotland, RNAS HMSGannet, at Eglington Northern Ireland, RNAS HMS Condor, at Arbroath Glasgow, RNAS HMSDaedalus Lee on Solent, at Portsmouth. HMS Illustrious, HMS Centour, HMS Theseus, HMSAlbion, HMS Bulwark. RNAS stands for Royal Naval Air Station (stone frigates).
To continue some of my naval mishaps, as I mentioned earlier I befriended this Southern Irish lad, Paddy, a rather tall lad, I always seem to befriend taller chaps, perhaps there was a psychological reason for that being so small myself, anyway Paddy was very clever he romped through our educational test 1 and also romped through test 2, I must admit I struggled through test 2 and did not pass, we were pals for about five weeks or so when all of a sudden he disappeared from the class and on inquiry I could not find out why, but to my utter horror I did a few years later, I was on the flight deck of HMS Illustrious when this Firefly aircraft landed and I was delegated to help the person in the rear cockpit to dismount and as he did, who was it, but none other than my old mate Paddy, I recognized him straight away, then I did something rather stupid, without thinking I patted him on the back as a welcome, his reactions told me all. I then saw he had a badge on his flying suit, that of a naval officer, oh dear, I thought I have struck an officer and in front of all these guys on the flight deck and the bridge, he walked off without a word or anything and I stood there waiting for some reaction from the bridge or where ever and it soon came, the big loud speakers around the flight deck came alive and started to hum, then came the command, that rating at the Firefly report to the bridge, oh my god, I thought here we go again. It will be the firing squad this time for sure, I duly went and reported to the bridge officer who told me to stand and wait, flying was taking place, so it gave me lots of time to stand and worry and get nervous, and wish the ship would suddenly sink, eventual he returned and sent me to the master at arms to get myself put on a charge of striking a senior officer, now that is serious, well worth the death sentence I thought.
As it turned out our commander on the ship was one of the good guys, of which there are not many, he listened to my sad story, how we joined up together and so forth, I think It caused a chuckle with some of the witnessing officers, the out come was to my complete surprise, I was reprimanded and told to learn how to recognize my senior officers and then to salute them, not to try and knock them down, some I have met I would love to have done just that, to finally end this disaster, I passed Paddy quite a few times while he was on board that ship, I stood to attention to let him pass every time, as was the custom, even with a heavy parcel on ones shoulder, which would get light when the ship was plunging down but twice as heavy when she rose up, not a word or a from Paddy, he had, had the Dartmouth treatment I guess, the main embarrassment of the whole affair was that so many of the ships company witnessed what I had done and I only knew personally a few of them, but I became universally known through out the ship as the mighty mouse, everybody on the ship came to recognize this brave little fellow, hence forth when ever I got drafted I always bumped into some one from the Illustrious with the remark hey! here comes the mighty mouse, it stuck to me like you know what to a blanket.
OK, you might be saying to yourself, he could not have any more nightmares like that surely, well you are wrong, there are more to come, there was the time when I was up at Glasgow at RNAS Arbroath, HMS Condor, when I heard the loud speaker one Friday saying, Leading Airman Fitzgerald report to the drafting office, also they called for a petty officer, on reporting they told us we were both going to be drafted to Saigon to join HMS Warrior, we were taken to Glasgow Hospital to have all the necessary inoculations etc, and things were so hectic on the Saturday doing this and that as we were being flown out by BOAC so we had to have certain civilian papers for where we were to touch and we were told we must go in civilian cloths, on the Sunday morning we were sent on fourteen days foreign service leave, I found myself sitting on the London bound Royal Scot heading for London, when I decide to take stock and look through all the papers, that is when I made my mistake, I carelessly worked out that I had to leave London on Saturday fortnight to get back on the September 17th which I worked out to be on the Sunday, when I finally got home people all asked me the same question, as they always do, when have you got to go back. I told them the 17th so I was convincing myself wrongly all the time. Well after an enjoyable leave it came near time to depart, get this, I was sitting on the toilet reading the paper at 1 pm on the Saturday I looked at the date and it said the 17th, I thought they have got that wrong, so I yelled out to my wife Vera and said, what date is it, have a look at the other paper, she replied the 17th, oh my god, I had reasons to stay on the toilet then, here I was already one hour adrift 400 miles from Glasgow and sitting on the flaming toilet, here we go again, a nervous breakdown, a physical wreck I became, I promptly rang the railway people and they told me it was no good catching any train till the Royal Scot at 7:30 pm, oh my god, they will lock me up for sure this time, here I am going abroad and a married man I could read their minds from where I was. At 7:30 I was on my way north, commandeering all the toilets on the way, I think one person tried to talk to me and tell me not to worry, you will see home again soon sailor, if only she knew, little did I know that while I was on the train a warrant had been made out for my arrest, Dennis Fitzgerald a small innocent young fellow like me, a wanted man, I can’t believe it. At about 10:30 pm that night there was a knock on the door at 204 Roman Road, East Ham, where we were renting the upstairs in my brother John’s house, my sister in law Sally, John was on night shift, answered the door and to her shock standing there were these three huge naval policemen saying they had come to arrest leading Naval Airman Dennis Fitzgerald. Vera my wife was pregnant with our first child at the time and this worried Sally, they asked if they could come in and search which they allowed, but I was not under any bed, they explained what had happened to me and that I was on my way back to Glasgow so they left, now that’s where it should have stopped, but alas it did not, there was far me worse to come. You see when my brother John came home from work and was told the story he was not going to sit down and take all that, oh no, he was in the RAF during the war and he knew all about our rights, they had no authority to search the house and frighten a pregnant woman, so what did he do, he got in touch with our local member of parliament and made a very strong complaint, which alas for yours truly got back to Glasgow. Now the navy do not like these lower deck ratings who have the audacity to complain to parliament, oh no, we cannot have this, so when I finely got to the barracks in Glasgow, twenty one hours twenty minutes adrift according to the charge, boy did they give it to me, yes it’s the firing squad this time I thought, the master at arms came out with a statement like. Oh! you’re Fitzgerald are you, we have heard you have been on a dirty weekend, this was designed to provoke me, which of course it did, as I was very worked up by then, so I gave him a bit of my tongue (a bit of the mighty mouse again I guess, mice must be suicidal). I knew by the way the master exploded, I had lost the blindfold, I would see the bullet coming now, I was formally stood there and charged with my offence in a truly Royal Naval Fashion, given a Blanket and conducted to this death cell, as if I was going to sleep. Who do they think they are kidding, oh mum why did I join. The next morning I was paraded in front of the commander, an unpleasant chap this time, he asked me what I had got to say for myself, and I started to relate how I was sitting on the toilet, which gave the witnessing officers something to chuckle about, I seem to do that, don’t I? the commander was far from pleased, so their chuckles were not doing me any favour, the outcome of it all was I got two weeks loss of full pay and loss of all leave for a month. I quickly thought perhaps he had overlooked the fact that I was on my way to Saigon, at least I had been spared the firing squad, how many more times can I survive, I thought, tread carefully Den.
As things turned out our draft to Saigon had been cancelled as their lordships had decide to bring the Warrior home, I was then sent to Belfast Northern Ireland to join HMSBulwark which had just been built and was commissioning, on this ship I was to have some bad times, as I was made leading hand of a mess deck, which, take it from me, it is not one of the easiest tasks in the Royal Navy, the admiralty hold you responsible for all the actions of your mess mates and believe me they can be your worst enemies. Its alright for the petty officers and the commission officers, they can bully the men under them as much as they like, they are isolated from them after duties, but a leading hands have to live with and try and control his own mess mates.
I have one more hard tale to tell but I must confess it is out of turn because it goes back to 1948 when I left the Illustrious, there was about six of us on the draft with a petty officer in charge, we were on our way to join RNAS Culdrose in Cornwell and we left the ship in Portland harbour on one very stormy night. We left the harbour and went into Weymouth jetty where we had great difficulty disembarking with our gear, some of which had to be retrieved from the sea, but finally we found ourselves on the Cornish express heading for Penzance. I relate this story because not so much that I was a criminal this time, but that it was a perfect time I think to escape the navy without them perhaps knowing. Any way, to continue, we were merrily puffing our way due south west with time to spare, so the petty officer laid his suit case between us and we all had a game of cards, no gambling, I think the guard would resent that. I was sitting furthest away from the corridor near the outside exit door and inevitably I suddenly needed to use the toilet, I got up and tried to step over all these feet which was around the suit case. I trod on a lot of feet and got a lot of abuse, so I leant forward to try and grab the door frame to the corridor which was closed, I missed the frame and went straight through the door glass pivoting on the window frame and ended up on the floor of the corridor. People coming down the train told the guard and when he appeared he thought that there had been a fight and I was knocked through the door, Hollywood style. Not so, of course, I was in a bad state, my hands were all cut my side was cut and I was loosing a lot of blood, a doctor could not be found but a nurse was located who tied me up the best way she could to stop the loss of blood.
The train was not due to stop till it got to Penzance, but it seems the guard dropped a signal at St Austel for an ambulance to meet the train at Truro, where there was a big hospital, to which I was taken, I was helped to walk into the ward with an arm over a nurse on both sides, all the inmates thought, here we go again a bashed up drunken sailor, they cannot keep out of trouble, not so, when I was able, to, I put them all straight, when I was installed in the ward ready to have surgery, the nurses found that they could not get my tight sailor’s outfit off without aggravating my wounds, so a huge pair of scissors was produced and my only uniform I had with me was ruined. After a week or so, as it appeared I got blood poisoning, I left the hospital and was taken to this rehabilitation hostel at Perranporth on the north Cornish coast, a wonderful spot, it was a public institution nothing to do with the navy of course. Now having been a few weeks since my mishap I had no money to buy anything with and I was strapped up with plaster of Paris so I asked a nurse if she could get in touch with Culdrose to see if she can get me some pay. In due course I received five pounds. When you consider I had my accident at the end of September and I did not return to the navy until two days before Christmas it was not much to live on. Good job I had a bed and food in the home. Now in the home, there was an American merchant sailor who apparently fell out of a bosun’s chair, breaking his leg among other things, he had plenty of money and his mother in the states kept him topped up, when we were allowed out he took me to Newquay all expenses paid and made me drink, of all things, whiskey. I had never touched the stuff in my life.
Oh was I drunk on return, the old men tied me in bed because I would not stay put, that did not do the bed any good, well the out come was matron was very upset with me and it was time for me to be returned to naval discipline, so on the 23rd of December, transport was arranged for me to return to Culdrose, of which I had never seen, she gave me this big envelope to give to my medical officer, it scared me as to what might be in it, I think as a precaution she told me it was my medical report. Now remembering that I had to have my uniform cut away from me so destroying it, the hospital gave me a bright blue wounded soldiers outfit that they used to put on wounded chaps during the war. So I arrived at RNAS Culdrose looking like a wounded sailor. The thing was I still had my sailors hat, when the transport dropped me at the guard house, the master at arms was there and the duty quarter master and they could not believe their eyes, where the hell have you come from was the remark to me, I explained that I had had this accident on the train with the draft on such and such a date, so the master at arms looked through his logs and could find no trace of this bloke who went to the hospital. He said have you had any pay? I told him what the nurse had done and got me five pounds, so down to the pay office we went but even they had no record of naval airman Fitzgerald, the master said what about all your kit, I said it was brought with the others. Now in cases like this it should have been placed in the guard house kit locker, so that was opened and there was no trace of it, oh dear, I was beginning to think I could have done a bunk and gone home for Christmas and they would not have known any different perhaps.
The master instructed the quarter master to take all the mess keys, I forgot to say that most of the people were on Christmas leave, so the place was nearly deserted, there was only what they call a retard party on board, any way the quarter master and I went to every hut and in the very last one on the end bunk was my kit bag with my name stencilled on it, which was bulging with goodies and all my belongings when I left the ship, now it was nearly empty with a big gash in the bottom where it had been looted, my hammock was still intact. The master dealt me the last blow by saying, well the sick bay must know something about you, but when he made inquiries they had no record, I had already given the master my envelope which I regretted, but he could not open it as it was addressed to the medical officer. Finally I was paraded in front of the Commander Surgeon who was on retard party, a very nasty fellow, he said he could smell my feet, I have no doubt he could after the trouble I had been through, he had that envelope and was reading it, giving me nasty looks, I thought here we go again, criminal Den, I still had a few dressings on at the time, he suddenly said to me, I suppose you want to go home for Christmas, I replied, yes sir, he then said, I am a good mind to refuse to let you go. I began to develop a low again, but he came good and said, if you inflict any more damage to yourself I will put you on a charge when you return.
I forgot to mention while I was in the rehabilitation home and they took of the plaster on my arm and hand, I found I could hold it under the very hot water without pain, i showed the Yank, but I did not realize I was scalding the flesh, so it all fell off with no pain, the matron was not impressed, so it was all in the letter, but when I did return some weeks later the surgeon commander was dead, he actually shot himself, he was discovered to be an homosexual, we read about it in the papers while I was at home. He let me have my leave, I was given some back pay and a train warrant for London, I looked very much the wounded sailor in my light blue outfit, I got that much sympathy on the way home, I came to like it, people were buying me cups of tea, giving me food on the train, it was great, I eventually arrived at Roman Road where all the houses were lit up and there was much partying going on, as it was now Christmas eve, ignorant of this poor wounded sailor struggling down the street, when I knocked on the door of our house, the Fitzgeralds all congregate at 213 at Christmas time, I could not get any one to hear the knocks for all the Irish singing and so forth that was going on. Finally a lady opened the door and stepped back in surprise not recognizing me, she cried, Eliza, that’s my mum, there is a wounded sailor at the door, well from that time on my life took a sudden turn for the best, I was a hero, every one was in tears, I do not know why, I should have been the one in tears, you would have thought I had come off a sunken ship, I had an ex sailor cousin there, George King, who was on the Nelson during the war and really inspired me to be a sailor, he managed to listen to my sad tale and said if he had that opportunity, he would have took off, I can tell you I slept well that night, that commander at Culdrose would have had a fit if he knew what I had consumed, so soon after his warning.
I eventually found my self back at Culdrose securely locked in the clutches of the Royal Navy, my memory is quite vague about the period at Culdrose, but what I do remember is visiting all those lovely Cornish fishing villages and the lovely town of Helston, fortunately I can remember I was there mostly in the warm weather. My next draft was to a Naval aircraft bombing range on the north coast of Cornwall at a place called Delebole near Tintagel castle ruins, the mythical home of King Arthur. This is the place where I nearly went to heaven, that’s if a criminal like me can do so, our task down there, which was varied, measuring aircraft dives when rocketing the old tanks, checking on their accuracy and so forth, most of us were mechanics waiting to go to our courses, we only numbered about ten of us at a time, we had old tanks on the cliff top for rocketing and a chalk bulls eye target for smoke bombing.
My mishap occurred as follows, we had these big dirt mounds about six feet high and say ten feet long, upon which we used to peg big white canvas sheets, one on each side of the mounds, along side we had a shelter in the ground covered with earth and so forth, in this shelter was a telephone connected to our tall control tower, who were in contact with the aircraft, this was my duty position when we had cannon firing exercises, I had a pot of red paint, a brush and pencil and log book, my job when the tower gave me the all clear was to pop out and count the direct hits on the canvas targets, log them and then paint them so I did not count them next time, then come back into the dug out and inform the tower I was safely in, they then would call the next aircraft in to have a shoot, there were usually two aircraft at a time in the circuit, this was the procedure that should have been followed on what was nearly my last living day on this earth, we had these two Canadian Lancasters from RAF St Morgan in Cornwall this particular day for practice, first the front gunner of the first aircraft would aim and fire a burst as they passed over the target, then the rear gunner would have his turn, all aircraft used to approach from land ward so that any stray shells would go over the cliff into the sea, just before the range was a sharp rise in the landscape, a hill so to speak, well, I was safely in my shelter which of course I told the tower, so they called in the first aircraft for his first run, I could here the aircraft quite well, I could hear the sound getting louder when they were coming in and then all hell would break loose, until one got used to it , it was quite alarming. I could hear the 20 mm cannon shells striking the dirt on my dugout, which was about six to ten feet away from the target, then the rear gunner would have ago on the other side of the mound and it would all start again, I remember the shelter used to get full of dust which took some time to clear, a short time after the firing stopped the telephone used to ring telling me it was safe to go out and count the holes, safe, not this time Jack, because while I was out there, I could hear the aircraft quite loudly, then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose again, when it should not have done so, the second aircraft had followed his mate in to have his turn without our towers permission, well, I remember I became a flying machine myself, miraculously, I do not know how, but I managed to drop my pot of paint and so forth and dive for my dug out without picking up one of those 20 mm shells on the way.
I cannot recall much detail after that, as I suppose I must have been in shock, I can remember I was frightened to death, I did not hear the phone ringing like mad, which is the reason why they came over in our blood wagon (Ambulance) they actually thought I must have copped one, our senior officer was very relieved to see me unhurt, except I was cold and in shock and very dirty, they quickly called in the local town doctor, the aircraft were ordered home, everybody knew that a head was going to roll for this near disaster, I was glad it was not mine, one of those shells cold have parted my head from my shoulders and I would stalked those cliffs forever with my head under my arm. The out come of all this is that a court of inquiry was called at St Mawgan where it was discovered that their pre flight briefing had let them down and nearly yours truly, as well. The front gunner quoted that he only saw the white target for a few seconds because of the hill and that my figure was not noticed on the target, a long while ago but not forgotten by me, there were of course more close encounters to come in my future to shadow that one.
So my career as a naval airman moved on, I duly found myself on the move again this time as far away from the sea as you can get in little old England, I was posted to HMS Gamecock at RNAS Bramcote, Nuneaton, Warwickshire where I met the girl I was duly to marry and share her company for the rest of my life. After successfully completing my aircraft engine mechanics course at Bramcote, I was posted to 767 squadron at HMS Heron, RNAS Yeovilton in dear old Somerset, which used to train new pilots to land on carriers. A rather hazardous task because it was these chaps first taste of deck landings and accidents were very frequent and quite a few fatal, so periodically I used to get some sea time in. My next move I think was to HMS Fulmar at RNAS Lossiemouth up in Scotland on the Moray Firth, from there I came back down south to HMS Peregrine at RNAS Ford in Sussex near Littlehampton and Clymping beach, a great spot to be sure.
I was with 703 squadron there, where we used to have all the new airplanes made for the navy, we used to do all sorts of trials with them on land and on sea, which meant we used go north in the cold temperatures and then to the Med or somewhere to do hot weather trials, while I was on this squadron and on HMS Illustrious I came home one Christmas to marry my Nuneaton born lady, Gwendoline Vera Ison, in actual fact the ships padre who happened to come from Coventry came over to Nuneaton and married us, he was a friend of the vicar at St Johns church in Stockingford where Vera was born. He did not please his friend as we went over the time allocated and the brides passed on the way in and out, being a very superstitious part of the world that did not go down too well. Vera and I had a very utility type of wedding. We held it at my in-law’s social club, the Liberal club, rationing was still on and Vera’s mother did all the catering herself with the help of her friends. Vera and I took off on our honeymoon to a little village in Dorsetshire where we had a very pleasant holiday, before it was time for me to return to the navy, this time a rather proud rating. I still had five years to serve before I could return to civilian life as a married man and settle down to start raising a family.
My last twelve months I was on the aircraft carrier HMS Bulwark, we were tied up along side of the jetty in Portsmouth harbour on the morning of the 11th of May 1955, I knew Vera was due to have our first child so I got down on to the jetty where there were a lot of telephone boxes for the lads to use and I rang home and my father answered and said hello daddy, yes Vera had had our first child Duncan on the 10th, we were preparing to put to seas again so I rushed up the gangway to see my divisional officer to get leave to go home before they lifted the gangway, he said go down and get changed I will see the commander as soon as he arrives back on board. I did that in all haste and I went up and waited and waited but got no call then I saw that damn gangway being removed and knew that all was lost now. Anyway we put to sea and sailed down the channel towards the Atlantic ocean.
In Portsmouth I was a short hours train ride from London and as we were steaming south west down the English channel I knew that journey was getting longer, that’s if they can get me ashore, my officer said if he can he will get me in an airplane if one was going back to Portsmouth, that never happened and I thought that’s, Den being punished again. If we get into the Atlantic all will be lost, my divisional officer told me later that we are calling into Falmouth in Cornwall and I would be put ashore there, a damn long way from London, my little boy was nearly two days older when I saw him.
I had a call some weeks later from our engineering officer on board the ship and he informed me that the navy had just changed the rules, I had already passed my exams for the petty officer rank, that is power of command and the engineering side, I was just waiting for my promotion to come through, but he told me that anybody with less than six to serve would now no longer be promoted unless they signed on for another five years, well I could not do that. Vera has waited for me to come home for the last five years I do not think she would be happy if I stayed in, so I refused and lost out on extra reserve money, you see I had signed on for seven years with the fleet and five on the reserve, I had already gone over my term because of the mobilization for the Korean war, as it turned out I was demobbed and I only received one payment on the reserve when the government changed the rules again. They disbanded the RNVR and I became Royal navy reserve special list with no more money, my life story I guess with lots more missing out to come.
Finally those eight years of wearing bell bottoms came to an end and Dennis Patrick Fitzgerald suddenly finds himself out here in civvy street not quite knowing what will happen next, believe me all ex service men will tell what that moment feels like, you are happy in many ways, but it is a new world and you have to find your way around it.
At this stage Vera and I had already for some months installed ourselves in a flat which happens to be the upstairs part of my brother John’s and his wife Sally’s house. We had already furnished it and as you know from the previous chapter we now had a small son, so I was no longer a sailor serving their lordships but a father with responsibilities to perform. I had already applied for a position with the Bristol Aircraft Company in their London drawing office, I had already been offered a job with BOAC as a line mechanic but I told the manager that I had applied to the Bristol Aircraft company in their design office as a detail draughtsman, he said take that if you get it, Dennis, because it will be a better job in the long run.
I was to find that was not so true many years later, any way I had a letter from Bristol’s, regretting that I did not get the position, so I rang the man at BOAC again and he said he would arrange for me to come and have a medical, so I waited, then behold I get another letter from Bristol’s telling me they have had a refusal and offering me the position again, another call to BOAC manager and he was good, he congratulated me and that was that, so here I was on the first rung of my new career as an aircraft draughtsman. Bristol’s London Office was in the Haymarket a well known thorough fare in London, I spent at least five years in that position, I started a course at the East Ham technical collage to obtain my engineering certificate in mechanical engineering, which took me seven years to obtain, already with one baby and before those seven years were up we had another one. We were in the flat for about two years, when we finely had the deposit to buy our own home, which we did. We bought a new house quite some way out in Essex at a small place called Wickford, about 32 miles from the center of London, in fact it was a thirty two minute ride on the electric train to Liverpool street station.
At this time about 1959 things stated to go wrong in the aircraft industry in England, the government was closing down defence contracts and buying foreign, mainly American aircraft. Ultimately the inevitable happened, Bristol Aircraft closed down their London design office and some 100 to 200 blokes suddenly found themselves out of work, we were given a brief period to search for new work, we were allowed time off to go for interviews, it all became cut throat stuff, as soon as you were absent the other guys would ask questions, where did you go, if you told them they would be straight on the phone for an interview. I was lucky in the end, my section leader, Tony Hughes got me to one side and said have you found work, my answer was no, off course, he said, would you like me to get you a job, as I have been asked by De Haviland aircraft if I would go there and start up a new section in their design office and bring six draughtsmen of my choice with me to start an installation section on the new Blue Streak intercontinental Ballistic missile. I accepted of course, he asked me not to say a word to anybody about it, as it would cause him some problems. At the interview with the chief draughtsman at DH, I got the job, which looked good until Mrs Thatcher cancelled the missile and I joined yet again another lot of men looking for work.
It turned out that Lockheed came to DH to see if any of us would like to go to Georgia to work on the new Lockheed Electra, I was excepted by them and was discussing arrangements to go to the states with my family, even my dog if I had one, I made a very big mistake though, watching the television with Vera one night, they were showing the race riots in Georgia, I said to Vera that is where we are going, she promptly replied, no we are not, nothing would get her to change her mind. The interviewer when I rang and told him I was not going, he said, you will be living no where near where the riots are, alas I could not convince Vera. I was lucky again, I managed to get work at Southend Airport which was only a few miles from Wickford where we had bought our new home, I was lucky as not many chaps lived that far out of town. This job was with Aviation Traders Ltd, which was a firm owned by Mr.Freddie Laker , the owner of Laker Airways. This entailed the conversion of the Douglas DC6 into a car ferry, to take five medium cars and the passengers across the channel. I really did enjoy this job, it really gave me a chance to prove my worth, if I had any, as I was the first Draughtsman there with real aircraft experience, structural that is, you see the company had been designing and building their own aircraft, a medium passenger aircraft, they could not get orders for it as their was another company building a similar type of machine, from the ground up. Our converted Douglas DC6 finally flew and looked like the picture below, the shape of which was my responsibility which I drew it up on the drawing board and then laid it out in a full size loft tables.
A Carvair aircraft which I encountered as described later when I got a job in Australia
From Aviation Traders in Southend when the Carvair was completed I got a job in the city of London again with the British Aircraft Corporation on the BAC 111 airliner which unfortunately suffered a set back again and we all lost our jobs. I got a job at Billericay near Wickford in Essex with a safe and strong room company, but it was not aircraft and so not to my liking, so through an agency I found a job in Montreal in Canada with the DH company
But unfortunately I let myself down again by saying to Vera my wife as a joke that she may have to learn French, that done it she was not going to Canada, she said if we go any where it will be with her brother who already lives in Melbourne, Australia. I said to her it’s the other side of the world, 12000 miles away, we will be Asians not Europeans. Anyway that’s where we ended up in 1967. We sold our house to Indians in Wickford and we are going to live in their part of the world, or near enough. I go the agency to find me a aircraft drawing office job in Melbourne Australia, they did so at the Commonwealth Aircraft Company at Fishermans Bend Port Melbourne.
I had trouble as I always seem to get through my life, Australia House in London were have difficulties with my qualifications, they were deciding whether I was clever enough to go to their country. I had a friend I was working with in a drawing office and he came around at once and said to me are you having difficulties with your migration, I said, indeed I am, he said would you like us to help you. I said how can you help, he said well you know my wife is Australian, well her brother is up here working in Australia house, in the migration dept of all places, I said oh yes, well the next night he called around again with three sailing dates. I picked the last one as I had not completed my house transactions. Just as well as it turned out to be the best ship, the RMS Ellinis, pictures of which you will see. It’s not what you know it’s who you know. When we finally embarked on the vessel at Southampton in March 1967, the cabin that the steward led us to gave me a big shock, not so much a shock of displeasure but one of surprise and concern, it turned out to be the second class cabin on the ship, giving me worries that the steward and others will think I am rich, a laugh seeing as we only paid ten pounds each for the whole trip, below is a picture of the cabin, we had our own toilets.
The door seen was our private ensuite.
We had a wonderful steward and I gave him a pound every week we were on the ship. I had to say to my wife do not tell anyone down in the bar that we are on the promenade deck and we were in a stateroom cabin, some of the Aussies returning home were in terrible cabins compared to ours and well down in the ship, as was our friends and we were ten pound Poms as they called us for many years later. It was a Greek ship. The biggest fault getting such a status was that they gave us a dinning table on our own, where as most of the people had much bigger tables with more people and more sociability,
Unfortunately my dear wife was not a good sailor and so I dined most nights on my own, she had her birthday on the ship and so I had to compel her to come down that night.
My wife Vera getting her birthday cake after the band paraded around playing happy birthday.
Things I am sad to say did not go the way things should have gone on that voyage, we enjoyed it but when I went to the bank in England, Barclays, to get some travelers cheques I found out on the Greek ship and in non Commonwealth ports I could not use them as they had stamped on them commonwealth countries only, which meant I started to run out of cash. I was only able to use them in Aden. When we left Aden and crossed the Indian Ocean in which we suffered a terrible typhoon, which did not help my wife’s sea sickness, the ship had sent out forms early on asking us to declare what we wanted to buy duty free but I could not buy mine as I had run out of cash and they would not take my travelers cheques, so I informed them that I would not need what I had put on the form, but alas I was not aware of what a storm I was to walk into when I got to the customs desk in Melbourne. The ship people had not destroyed my form but sent it to the customs with all the others. Well when I got to customs they had the form saying that I had ordered all this duty free liquor and asked me where it all was, I explained what I had done and why, but oh dear, was I in trouble, it brought out the top brass, I thought here we go again, criminal Den has been finely caught, they searched and opened every single bag and suit case we had. What added spice to my problems was that when they opened one suitcase there was all this stainless steel cutlery, OK, what this they asked, I told them that when every one asked my wife what she would like for a going away present, she said stainless steel cutlery. I was ready for the cufflinks by then, but some how these admiral like creatures with all their brass decided I did not look like a criminal. Any way, whew, that was another close one. That was all on the morning after the shipped docked at port Melbourne.
Late at night, they let us disembark and go and stay ashore, with Vera’s brother Alan and his wife who had been here since 1958, Vera and I were not impressed with Melbourne at that time of night, it reminded me much of the London dock land that we had left, I must say things improved a bit when the sun came out in the morning when we went back to the custom sheds and I had that narrow escape. Vera’s brother lived in a very small house in a suburb of Melbourne called Footscray, yes a bit of old Kent I guess, Footscray is the equivalent to Canning Town with regards to London, instead of the dingy side being in the east like London, Footscray is on the west side of Melbourne. When we landed all the houses on that side of Melbourne were mainly weather board.
We stayed with Vera’s brother and his wife Nancy and a very uncomfortable couple of weeks it was, they had two big boys and a small daughter at home, I very quickly got things going with regards to getting our own home, went to the estate agent and finely bought a double fronted weather board home, I say double fronted as that is what they call the homes here with two windows or two rooms at the front, Vera’s brothers house was much smaller and it was a single fronted house, one window with one room at the front. The house we bought was really still in Footscray but addressed as Yarraville so there for a border street.
We were very comfortable there for a while, my work at Fisherman’s Bend was about thirty minute bicycle ride, I used to have to leave my bicycle by the river and go across on this small ferry to the factory The Commonwealth Aircraft Company, CAC, I of course was working in the drawing office. Once I had bought my first car, a Morris Minor it did not take me so long to get to the river, I still caught the ferry across of course. Unfortunately my time at CAC was to be brief as they were designing a jet fighter of their own but the government decided to buy the American 111 fighter so the project was scrapped and we all found ourselves being made redundant.
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