Mayday - Tugs of War - Europe

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Mayday Tugs of War - Europe




Ever since seafarers brought back tales of mermaids and monsters, matelots have been noted for a tendency to ‘Swing the Lamp’ (i.e. to embellish or even invent, yarns) and some of you may suspect that the following story is a prime example, but I swear to you that this account is true in every essential detail, as any historian, with access to the appropriate Naval records, could probably ascertain.

The events I will describe, took place in 1948, when I was the ‘Tanky,’on  HMS Surprise, with the Mediterranean Fleet.  The Royal Navy has changed greatly since those days and few people today will know what a Tanky was and did, while the ‘Tot’, which figures largely in my story, has long been abolished; so let me first explain the background to this unique tale.

In 1948, as now, most RN ships had the ‘General Messing’ system, but some of the smaller ships, including HMS Surprise, still operated the older ‘Canteen Messing’ system (which goes back to Nelson’s day).  With General messing, sailors have no say, choice or financial interest, in the food they eat. With Canteen Messing, each Lower Deck Mess, consisting of about 20 sailors, was allocated its own victualling budget, and could purchase and prepare its own food.  Each Mess elected a President, who would order and collect supplies, usually from the Ship’s own stores, but occasionally ashore, if that was cheaper, while other members of the Mess would take it in turn to prepare the food and deliver it to the Galley, to be cooked as they instructed.  The President’s main task was to keep within the Mess Budget, because if he exceeded it, the deficit would be deducted from the wages of his messmates!  If he spent less, the surplus would be credited to the mess and could be spent or drawn.


The Store’s Petty Officer, (AKA Jack Dusty) was officially responsible for purchasing and maintaining the ships victualling supplies, and ostensibly, for recording each messes purchases, and billing them.  He was also responsible for the rum locker and for supervising its daily distribution.  However, Petty Officers are not expected to hump boxes and Barrels, nor do they like to spend hours weighing and doling out, supplies.  Therefore, on every Canteen Messing ship, an Able Bodied seaman (who had to be numerate and literate, as well as fit) was appointed to be the ‘Captain of the Hold’ (more commonly known as the ‘Tanky’).  His job was to assist the P.O. by doing all the donkey work and by giving out supplies and keeping the day-to-day records.  The more he relieved the PO of work, the more power and influence he accrued himself.  On the Surprise, as on most small ships, the Tanky’s mess was always in credit and everyone wanted to be his friend.


The more so and especially, because the Tanky also measured out the daily rum ration! (1/8th pint per man). Until it was abolished (in the early 70s, I think) the ‘Tot’ played a crucial part in life on the lower deck, where rum was an unofficial currency, used to buy favours and pay debts.  As the ship’s Tanky, I quickly discovered that, without giving anyone short measure, I could juggle with the allowance for evaporation, and spillage, to allow for selective overflowing!  This made me the most influential rating on the lower deck, even before the serendipitous event I am about to describe.


It was early in the Spring; I had given out the rum, under the supposedly watchful eye of the Officer of the Watch, and was sitting at the mess table, when I was approached by an AB from a different mess.  “Tanky” he said, indignantly “I want to make a complaint.  My Tot had a foreign body in it.  Look what I found in my mouth?”  He produced a small piece of what looked like very thin transparent plastic, no bigger than a three-penny bit.   I took it from him and quickly dispelled his ilIusion that he might be entitled to another Tot, and that would have been the end of it, if I hadn’t visited the Sick Bay that afternoon, where I remembered the item I had put in my pocket, and showed it to the Tiffy (SBA).  He didn’t know what it was but promised to find out.


We left Malta on a cruise soon after and were away for several weeks, during which I hadn’t given the matter a second thought.  Then, shortly after our return to Grand Harbour, the Tiffy sought me out. “Jim!  Remember that complaint you asked me to check out?  I sent it off to Bighi (RN Hospital) for examination and I have got their report back.  It seems that “foreign body” is an accurate description.  They say it is the skin of a human eyeball!”


This was serious!  A bit of skin or a fingernail, could be a matelot’s prank, but no one skins their own eyeball for a joke.  I informed the Crusher (Regulating Petty Officer) and we took the report to the Officer of the Watch, who took it to ‘Jimmy the One’ (the First Lieutenant), who took it to the ‘Old Man’ (the Captain). Who decided that all the rum we had in store from that particular batch, (two eight gallon kegs) should be set aside, pending a full enquiry.


The Navy keeps meticulous records, but it took them some weeks to trace the history of the rum before it had reached the Surprise.  Finally a detailed report arrived, which recorded that after the batch had been shipped from South Africa, it had been stored, in large barrels or tuns, in a bonded warehouse in London’s East India Dock, on a particular night in 1944 when a German bomb had landed nearby, damaging the warehouse and blowing a dockyard policeman to smithereens.  The official conclusion was, that a fragment of the unfortunate policeman must have been driven by the blast, between the staves of the tun.  The whole batch was therefore condemned and all remaining kegs were to be disposed of forthwith.

While the Admiralty frowns on all aspects of cannibalism, Jack is not quite so particular, and the thought of 16 gallons of neat rum being poured into the oggin, was enough to make strong men cry. The Crusher and I drew up a plan!

Thus it was that on a bright summer’s day, in solemn procession with ‘Jimmy the One’, the Officer of the Watch. The ‘Crusher’ ‘Jack Dusty ’and the Quartermaster, I carried the condemned kegs onto the quarterdeck and under the watchful gaze of my superiors, poured the contents into the grating that covered the scuppers (all of which I had scrubbed spotlessly clean in the dark hours); the while, sweating blood that no one would notice the four gallon mess fanny that I had jammed into the scupper outlet, and praying that ‘Jimmy’ would not look over the side until the fanny was full; because, although he would not see the protruding fanny, due to the rake of the hull, he would expect to see the rum hitting the water!  When he did look that is what he saw because the fanny was overflowing.  There followed several agonising hours until I could retrieve it. but eventually the Crusher and I were able to bottle and hide our booty; Thirty bottles of neat pussers rum! With just a hint of dockyard policeman.  Who, I like to think, was a good fellow, who would appreciate the many grateful toasts that we made to him on board HMS Surprise.

With such a store at my command, from that day on I could do no wrong and ask any favour, and that is how I became the biggest rum baron in the Mediterranean Fleet.

Jim Radford, Deep Sea Rescue Tugman, UK

Jim Radford's Stories Continued...


Ships at sea immediately set course for the stricken ship and rush to the rescue. The accident below happened as a ship was entering a port, probably Liverpool. We encourage all persons whether dinghy sailors or Ship’s Masters to read this report. The ship was never found and the Master never located.

This report by a ship's Master, is reproduced from the Newsletter of the
Deep Sea Rescue Tug's Association.

Sir, It is with regret and haste, that I write this letter to you; regret that such a small misunderstanding could lead to the following circumstances, and haste, in order to get this report to you before you draw inaccurate conclusions from reports in the world press, for I am sure that they will tend to over dramatise the affair.

We had just picked up the Pilot when I observed that the new apprentice, who had changed the "G" flag for the "H", was having difficulty in rolling up the "G" flag. I therefore proceeded to show him how. Coming to the last part I told him to "let go". The lad, although willing, is not too bright, necessitating my having to repeat the order in a sharper tone.

At this moment the Chief Officer appeared from the Chartroom, and thinking it was the anchors that were being referred to, repeated the "Let go" to the Third Officer on the forecastle. The port anchor, having been cleared away but not walked out, was promptly let go. The effect of dropping the anchor from the 'pipe' while proceeding at full harbour speed, proved too much for the windlass brake, and the entire length of the port cable was 'pulled out' by the roots. I fear the damage to the chain locker may be extensive. The braking effect of the anchor naturally caused the vessel to sheer to port, right towards the swing bridge that spans a tributary to the river up which we were proceeding.

The bridge operator showed great presence of mind by opening the bridge for my vessel. Unfortunately, he did not think to stop the vehicular traffic, the result being that the bridge partly opened and deposited a Volkswagon, two cyclists and a cattle truck on the foredeck. My crew are presently rounding up the contents of the latter, which from the noise I would say are Pigs.

In his efforts to stop the progress of the vessel, the Third Officer dropped the starboard anchor, too late to be of any practical use for it fell on the swing bridge operator's cabin. After the port anchor was let go and the vessel started to sheer, I gave a double ring "Full Astern" on the engine room telegraph and personally rang the Engine Room to order maximum astern revolutions. I was informed that the sea temperature was 53 degrees and asked if there was a film on tonight. My reply would not add constructively to this report.

Up to now I have confined my report to the activities at the forward end of the vessel. Down aft they were having their own problems. When the port anchor was let go, the Second Officer was lowering the ship's towing spring down to the after tug. The sudden braking effect of the anchor caused the tug to "run in under" the stern of my vessel, just as the propellors were answering my double ring "Full Astern". The prompt action of my Second Officer in securing the inboard end of the towing spring, delayed the sinking of the tug by several minutes thereby allowing the safe abandoning of that vessel.

It is strange, but at the very moment of letting go the port anchor there was a power cut ashore. The fact that we were passing over a "Cable area" at the time might suggest that we had touched something on the river bed. It is lucky that the high tension cables brought down by our foremast, were not live, possibly being replaced by the underwater cable, but owing to the shore blackout it is impossible to say where the pylon actually fell.

It never fails to amaze me, the actions and behaviour of foreigners during moments of minor crisis. The Pilot, for instance, is at this moment huddled in the corner of my day cabin, alternately crooning to himself and crying, after consuming a bottle of Gin in a time worthy of inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records. The Tug Captain, on the other hand, reacted violently and had to be forcibly restrained by the Steward, who has him handcuffed in the ships hospital, where he is telling me to do impossible things with my ship and person.

I enclose the names and addresses of the drivers and insurance companies of the vehicles on my foredeck, which the Third Officer collected after a somewhat hurried evacuation of the forecastle. These particulars will enable you to claim for the damage that they did to the railings of No. 1 hold.

I am closing this preliminary report, for I find it impossible to concentrate with the noise of Police Sirens, Fire Engines and Ambulances, and their flashing lights. It is sad to think that, had the apprentice only realized that there is no need to fly Pilot Flags after dark, none of this would have happened. For the weekly accountability report I will assign the numbers T/ 750000 to T/750199 inclusive.

Yours Truly,

The Master
Master – unknown / Ship - unknown


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