Editor’s Note: As a counter-balance to all the weighty issues addressed in this issue, one of our Royal Navy contributors has given us a bit of fun for our reading pleasure. Sit back, read it aloud, and enjoy a blast from the distant past-both in time and place.
It took place on the China Station, where many of the best British submarine stories originated long ago between wars.
The depot ship, home for boats of Britain’s Far East Fleet, lay anchored at Wei-Hae-Wei, a happily inconvenient 10,000 miles by sea from Rear-Admiral Submarines-RA(S)-at Gosport in the south of England. Naturally, it was the single-minded ambition of the Flotilla Captain-Captain (S)-to avoid RA(S) ever hearing anything that might prompt him to embark on a five week voyage to evaluate for himself the efficiency of the Royal Navy’s furthest flung submarine flotilla.
This aim of Captain (S) was loyally supported by every right-thinking officer and man in the depot ship and submarines along-side. Indeed, the motto of the flotilla was Tacere-loosely translated as “Keep it quiet”. It was a farsighted dictum for submarines in those early days.
The whole show was effectively, and quietly, run by three wise men-the Paymaster Commander (Pay), the Principal Medical Officer (PMO), and the Chaplain (Padre); and this admirable administration abided undisturbed by external interference-until, one dreadful day, the idyllic calm was very nearly shattered.
Needless to say, an airman was to blame.
HMS L72, a marginally modernised World War I design, was not quite the oldest boat operating from Wei-Hai-Wei; but she was customarily awarded, for a few months at a time, to a last chancer-one in a long line of unspectacular commanding officers who would soon be celebrating a personal Feast of the Passover unless he did something noteworthy in a less populated promotion area than the Home or Mediterranean. L72 was thereby subjected to an unusually busy life on the China Station. She suffered several unreported bumps on the bottom and a few involuntary excursions to depths well below her physique and inclination, besides the ususal battering by high seas in the typhoon season when vessels with less ambitious skippers were sensibly sheltering in port.
Like any lady of a certain age, the submarine was sensitive about her appearance. It had not improved over the years, and despite continual touching up-paintwise, that is-by Missy Wong’s sampan crew on those rare occasions when L72 touched base, she always looked a bit manky.
Thus, when en route to the exercise area one morning, her latest desperate captain discerned a double-decker RAF spotter plane waddling towards him, he would have liked to pull down an all-concealing veil by diving. But that was forbidden on passage, as the pilot of the flying machine well knew. Slowly and precariously the plane circled lower and closer while the observer wound up a gramophone, screwed to the fuselage just in front of him, and made sure that a new-fangled amplifier was connected. For the Captain, Officer of the Watch, and look-outs on the submarine’s crowded bridge there was no escaping the insulting, Cocknified old music hall recording that burst forth:
“Any old iron, any old iron,
Any, any, any old iron … ”
And so on ad infinitum until the gramophone spring ran down. Then the pilot, known by reason of widespread growth on his upper lip as Whiskers, gave an exaggerated RAF-style salute, with two fingers widely spread, and turned for home, grinning at the thought of having put the Navy one down.
Naturally, the ship’s company looked to the Captain for retaliation. But short of shooting the plane down if it appeared again-and even the signalman, with his bridge-mounted Lewis gun hastily handed up from the control room, was not optimistic about that, to say nothing about the paperwork involved for firing live ammunition-there was really nothing to be done. The story would get back to England, the captain would look silly, and prospects of promotion would definitely fade.
Later, in the depot ship, the PMO merely growled that Squadron Leader Whiskers needed doctoring in the worst possible way; and Pay, as always, advised keeping quiet Oddly enough it was the Padre, the steadiest of souls, who made a suggestion that ultimately led to catastrophe: “Turn the other cheek. Give a dinner party on the boat for this flying person. Forgive him his trespasses. Then he’ll be too ashamed to go on about it.”
Captain (S) thought this was a good idea and instructed the Captain of L72 accordingly. The latter gulped at the thought of an inflated mess bill but saw sense from his own brass hat’s point of view. He discussed possibilities with the wardroom’s Chinese flunk-the customary appellation, derived from flunky, for a steward in submarines. The steward’s actual name was unpronounceable, so he had been awarded the friendly sobriquet of Frank; but, because of the Chinese inability to pronounce Rs, he naturally became Flank the Flunk in normal conversation.
Flank the Flunk announced he would “Ploduce a velly special dinner with shark flipper in soy sauce”. He know where shark flippers could be found: flom time to time they were apt to fall off the back of a local lickshaw.
Dinner in the tiny submarine wardroom was truly magnificent Mrs. Whiskers, a formidable jolly-hockey-sticks Air Force wife, attended with her luxuriously hirsute husband. They comprised an unsubduable duo; and, although they beamed with bonhomie under the influence of duty-free refreshments, there were scant signs of abandoning a hard line in one-upmanship. The Navy was “so traditional” – clearly meaning old-fashioned-” quite unlike the Royal Air Force” which was “so modern”: it was time the world realised it was the up and coming service: “Per ardua ad astra and all that, what!”
The piece de resistance for the entertainment was, as promised, shark fin soup. Due applause greeted the Admiralty-pattern stainless steel tureen when it appeared-Chinese fashion-at the end of the meal, heralded by a fanfare on the first lieutenant’s harmonica Flank the Flunk was gratified: when the dishes were cleared away he carried uneaten slivers of flipper to the senior rate’s mess. Here, the Chief Stoker’s tame while rat lived in style alongside some musty unread engineering manuals in a convenient cupboard.
Flank held the Chief Stoker’s pet in awe: the albino colouring indicated godlike antecedents and special good joss. Whenever possible he supplied it with tidbits from wardroom leftovers in the hope of ancestral favors to come.
It was about the time that coffee was being served when the Chief Stoker returned, from a heavy run ashore, to find his rat flat on its back when all four feet in the sir. The corpse was already stiffening.
Flank the Flunk was almost as petrified as the rat. He had fed it with shark flippers, and there was a number one fly bloke and missy fly bloke and boat captain allee b’long same ploblem. Velly serious.
Blavely, he approached the Captain in the wardroom. With port circulating, the party was gaining momentum. The Captain did not at first believe what he was told. But when the rat was produced, laid out on a clean serving dish, it was obvious to all that the lickshaw from which the flippers had fallen was exceptionally bad joss. With diffidence the Captain informed his guests of the unfortunate circumstances…
The PMO, up in the depot ship, was delighted. Delving deep into a box of surgical stores he eventually uncovered some ominous lengths of rubber tubing and a Mark I stomach pump that had probably not seen active service since the Crimean War, with Florence Nightingale at the business end.
It was not the ideal end to a party; but the evening did not turn out to be entirely gloom and doom. While the Captain was nervously awaiting his turn outside the sickbay the Chaplain and Paymaster Commander suddenly appeared at his side, dragging a palefaced Flank behind them.
“Allee well”, the flunk assured his master faintly under prompting, “Chief Stoker lat not die flom bad joss shark flipper. Chief Stoker animal walk acloss main electlic switchboard-join ancestors plomptly. Chief Electrician lay out leady for bulial.”
“A dinner seemed such a peaceful idea when it came to me”, complained the Padre to nobody in particular. He put his ear to the wooden sickbay door and listened, wincing spasmodically. Muffled despairing noises from within indicated that phase two of the PMO’s emergency doctoring was currently being directed from astern at missy fly bloke.
Pay glanced heavenward before resting a heavy hand on the anxious submarine commander’s shoulder. ” It was an understandable mistake about that rat. Perhaps, you know, it will be best for all concerned if we say nothing. In the circumstances I’m quite sure that the Royal Air Force will keep quiet about the entire episode.”
The Padre, the captain of L72, and Flank the Flunk all signified agreement-in silence, of course.
Diving Into Dolphin History
The Dolphin Scholarship Foundation is announcing its tribute to the first 100 years of the Submarine Force by publishing Diving Into Dolphin History. This historic · publication will feature: recipes and ship’s seals from the 100 : submarine crews operating in the fleet; selected recipes from vintage Submarine Officers ‘Wives’ Club Cookbooks; and artwork especially designed by Dan Price of East Lyme, CT.
The book is $20.90 ($20 + VA sales tax), plus $2.50 for shipping and handling. Make checks payable to DSF’s Centennial Cookbook.
Send payment 10:
DSF Centennial Cookbook
5040 Virginia Beach Blvd., Suite 104-A
Virginia Beach, VA 23462
(757) 671-3330 (fax)
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