J.A.S.S. and all that

H.M.S. Sea Eagle was a Joint RN/RAF stone frigate close to the banks of the River Foyle in Londonderry in Northern Ireland. JASS stood for Joint Antisubmarine School and was a controlling authority for joint submarine and air reconnaissance exercises in the North Channel an area of sea between Ireland and Scotland. Foreign as well as British forces trained on submarine tracking and attacking using both ships and maritime aircraft. Nearby was RAF Ballykelly situated on the shoreline of Northern Ireland. Here were based Shackleton aircraft of Coastal Command with units such as ASWDU (Anti-Submarine Warfare Development Unit). Between Londonderry and Ballykelly was a RNAS (Royal Naval Air Station) flying station again on the shores of the River Foyle which was home to a fixed wing squadron as well as helicopters.

I was a young ‘Erk’ or airman on my first non training posting having completed a WOP’s course (wireless operator) and achieved the high rank of Airman 1st class. I had previously been a seaman gunner with the RNR for the best part of two years but had been discharged from the RNR (according to my discharge papers for no longer being in the Merchant Navy) The truth, I was to find out many years later, was on medical grounds (I had fractured my left wrist and it refused to heal so an operation bone graft was required which took 14 months to heal) and being under 17 and a half years old discharging me was to save the MOD a sickness pension.

I had passed my 18 wpm Morse test to become a qualified WOP together with the 90 other national service or regular airmen on my course at RAF Compton Bassett in Wiltshire. Halfway towards the end of our six month course a selection team came to speak to us and started a security vetting procedure. I had meanwhile wanted to volunteer for Air Sea Rescue duties and started off the application. In the September of 1959 I found that my application had been successful and I was the only person that was not posted to Habbaniyah in Iraq or Jordan on ‘Y’ duties (intercept).

Now Londonderry was practically a foreign posting for me coming as I did from the South Coast of England. It took me two days by train and ferry to reach HMS Sea Eagle, reporting to the RAF office which was run by seagoing airmen. The MCU (Marine Craft Unit) had its headquarters inside Sea Eagle but its operational base was close to Craigavon Bridge between the fire floats and the RN SDB’ s (Seaward Defence Boats). Here, were moored to the river bank, up to four RAF Pinnaces and one RSL (Range safety Launch). These were manned by MBCs (Motor Boat Crews). Marine fitters and a WOP with the skippers being Flight Lieutenants that were mostly ex Merchant Navy Master Mariners with a couple of Warrant Officer Master Mariners. The MCU also had several Boat shipwrights (which must be the strangest of all trades in the RAE). You have to remember that during the war years the RAE had several Flying Boat Squadrons and Boatwright skilled technicians were required to maintain them. I had to go to RAF Ballykelly as this was my parent unit and be kitted out with MBC’s clothing and sea boots together with Royal Navy number eights and waterproof clothing.

The only way you could tell us Crabfats (RAE) from the naval ratings was by the beret and badge. There is a procedure in the RAE where you have to report to all the various sections and sign in on posting to a new Unit. On an operational airfield where the various sections are scattered all around the base, it wasn’t easy as you had to sign in, in a certain order which meant that I had to cross the airfield many times either walking or begging lifts. I was at last completed and caught the bus back to Londonderry laden with all this gear. A sergeant Bo’sun then walked me down hill to the boats to introduce me to the crews.

I was allocated a Pinnace (HMAFV-l 378) Her Majesty’s Air Force vessel 1378. I was to find out that I was expected to man any of the boats but that 1378 was my responsibility. Now came the shock, the WT cabin was the size of a broom cupboard you could not stand upright and it had a rotating seat so that you could get into the cabin with your knees jammed up against a bulkhead with straps to hold you in place during rough seas. Worse was yet to come, in front of me was a completely strange radio set up, something I had never seen before, let alone been trained on. I was beginning to wonder if Habinayah would have been a better posting.

I was soon initiated into my main duty that was keeping the boat clean with the wheelhouse being my main centre of responsibility, polishing all the brass roundels around the instrumentation and the WT cabin way down the list. The only difference between me and the MBC’s was that I could send Morse as well. With between four to five boats there was only three WOP’s one was usually on duty in Sea Eagle’s radio office and the other two were at sea. As a consequence we did more sea time than the MBC’s. I was taught how to use the radio equipment by the other WOP’s and found out that it was an 1154 transmitter with an 1155 receiver, originally fitted in Lancaster Bombers during WWII.

This was an AM/CW rig with 50 watts power on HF and had DF facilities for beacons which was regularly put to use when sailing up the River Foyle from Moville Anchorage in thick fog. It took an hour and half to reach base from the sea because of the speed restrictions on the river. Our top speed was only 15 knots but the pinnace had a double hard chine hull and was a very good sea boat in the many storms we encountered. I used to feel sorry for the crews on the SDB’s these boats rolled crazily because they had round bottomed hulls and even a gentle swell on the river would have them rolling about.

Our main employment was for providing Range Safety on the Submarine Exercises and to recover the sonabouys that were used to track submarines by the Shackleton aircraft. (these emitted a signal from a sensor usually 100 feet below the floatation device which then transmitted the findings to the patrolling aircraft). We also recovered the 17 inch torpedoes dropped by the Shackletons which would home acoustically onto the submarines. Because of this we had to run silent when they were dropped. To keep my radios running I would have the donkey engine running, one day I was not told that a torpedo had been dropped and was looking out of the hatch in the fo’csle with the donkey engine running,

Suddenly across the bows came a torpedo flying out of the water and straight over me spraying me with water as it passed. Never have I moved so fast to switch off the engine. The skipper was as white as a sheet when I described what had happened. We certainly learnt how good these torpedoes were at tracking sound. Once they had run out of power we had to go alongside and roll them aboard with a net, not easy with storm force winds at time. Another duty was to find the smoke markers off the exercise range and sink them, this was mostly done with either a Lee Enfield 303 rifle or the skipper would use his pistol from the wheelhouse, as I found to my discomfort after a certain Warrant Officer fired from about two feet behind me.

In my first two months at Sea Eagle I was introduced to the various duties, we always had a duty sea boat’s crew ready to sail and of course a duty WOP in Sea Eagle’s radio office. We were called on very regularly not for emergencies but as a taxi service for Naval Officers returning to their ships at Moville anchorage at the sea mouth of the river. I was to experience my first trip at sea in a submarine through such an occurrence. The duty boat that day was the RSL 1660 and our job was to deliver mail and some fresh rations to an anchored submarine, several milk crates were to be handed over and this went well for the first two but as I handed over the third, our skipper had decided that we were too close to the submarine and opened up the throttles. Now the RSL has a well deck with a very small transom which I had to stand on in order to pass over the milk crates, I was immediately dumped overboard together with the milk. I suddenly found myself a guest onboard the submarine, sea conditions were bad and the skipper could not get safely alongside so I was to spend the next three days at sea on the receiving end of the sonobouys and the torpedos. I will say one thing it was a lot calmer underwater than on the surface.

Approximately one month later I was again on duty sea boats crew, this time there was no taxi run to do. After a certain time at night the main crew stood down and went back to Sea Eagle to sleep leaving only one crew member on board to maintain watch. One of the duties the MCU had was to support the local police force in times terrorist activity, (although in 1959 we were not in an official IRA war). This was done by turning a search light onto the Craigavon Bridge when shots were heard from there. The bridge is actually a double bridge with the top being road traffic and the lower deck for rail traffic. The search light is operated from the wheelhouse the most exposed part of the boat, and this particular night I heard firing and dutifully turned on the beam directing it at the railway bridge. It was only a matter of 100 to 200 yards away, I then became the target by the gunmen, they managed to hit the Kent screen in the middle of the wheelhouse shattering Perspex glass everywhere. I decided that it wasn’t a wise thing to have the search light on and promptly turned it off. I must admit that I was a little bit shaken having come under fire for the first time in my life. I decided that it might be a wise thing to load the sten gun that was kept in the fo’csle.

Now I had never fired one of these in training and had only been told how to load the magazine into the gun. I sat in the fo’csle and tried to load the magazine into the gun, but it would not load properly, in desperation I cocked back the cocking handle and this allowed the magazine to slide in OK. But then the cocking handle slipped out of my hand and I was deafened by automatic gunfire, I was on automatic with no safety catch. I could hear ricochets of bullets everywhere pots and pans were being hit and I was amazed that nothing was hitting me!. Completely deafened I was to say the least disorientated. I finally gathered my wits about me and did a damage check very much aware that the Pinnace was of wooden construction and was expecting water to come gushing in through many holes. Much later on I was to find out that miraculously the hull had not been penetrated after an inspection of the bilges by the shipwrights (much later on). I had though ruined the galley which was actually part of the gangway to the wheelhouse puncturing many cooking utensils. The ricochets had been caused by the copper nails in the superstructure.

After what seemed seconds later I was to hear the clutter of large feet on the top deck and in charged a group of SDB seamen armed to the teeth and looking trigger happy.. Once I had explained what had happened I was frogmarched ashore and up Bond Hill to HMS Sea Eagle and placed in the cells. To say I was worried was putting it mildly! I really thought the book was going to be thrown at me and I would be put away and the keys thrown in the ‘oggin’. To my surprise at 0500 hours I was rudely awakened by my skipper and taken down to the jetty for sea service, I was to spend the next three days at sea via the Isle of Islay and back to base. Of course the crew were dying to hear my side of the story and fell about laughing at my version of the events (even the skipper). We docked and I was expecting to be escorted back to Barracks but nothing happened so I proceeded back to my quarters and carried on as normal.

The next day I was not on duty but went to the Administration Office to find out what was happening next. The hugely built Warrant Officer (he became that way after being a Japanese Prisoner of War and had been starved, then made up for it on reaching freedom), called me over and said” To put your mind at rest no further action is being taken against you”. So I asked why? I t appears that I was not liable because of a technicality. In the RAF you have a set of orders called SSOs (Station Standing Orders) I should have been made to read these and sign to the effect, being new to ways of the RAE I had not known about them and therefore quite innocently carried on my duties blissfully unaware of the misdemeanor. Although I was prepared to fight my case by stating that I had never handled a Sten gun before in my life let alone had any training on it. I never did get to fire the Sten on a firing range and it was the last time in my life I was ever to touch or see one, as they replaced it with a Bren Gun on which I had obtained my ‘marksmans badge;’ But that is another story.

I was that “erk” Tony Selines G4KLF.

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