For King and Country
WW II Reminiscences of Nelson Albert Tomalin R.N.V.R.

Reminiscences of Nelson Albert Tomalin
b 28 June 1914 in Livingstone, N Rhodesia, now Zambia
d 4 September 2003 and buried at Gussage All Saints, Wimborne, Dorset, UK


The new recruits 'fell in' in two rather ragged lines and the Gunner's mate, Chief Petty Officer Bland, called our names from his list. About thirty of us in that year's intake as I recall. We came from all walks of life. No matter what you were, or where you came from, or who your father was, if you were able-bodied you were called up for four year's national service. Unlike the U.K. national service after the 39-45 war, the South African service was part time. One evening a week, the occasional week-end, and the annual fortnight continuous training. The young men were allowed a choice. In the Cape Town area there were two Infantry regiments (Cape Town Highlanders and Duke of Edinburough's Own Rifles and why both with Scots connections I do not know); one garrison artillery regiment and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. I did not fancy the dust, and marching, and canvas tenting of the infantry; I felt unequal to hoisting shells into coast defence gun barrels. So I chose the R.N.V.R. as being relatively clean and the most congenial. I suppose there were good officers and NCOs in the Army, and good men too, but I know that they could not have been better than those we had in the R.N.V.R. Our quarters were in three lean-to structures; a large one filling part of a gap between two bastions of Cape Town castle; two smaller ones at each end. We had a flag mast, fairly high, at one end of the parade ground with a yard across it and signal halliards hanging from that yard. The parade ground was large enough to allow about 100 men to march and drill in four platoons.

Within the R.N.V.R. There were several branches into which one could go. Seaman Gunner, Stoker, Writer (clerk) or Signals. I chose the latter and unwittingly chose well for my future. But first we had to do a few months of basic training; learning to wear the uniform; what to do with rifle and bayonet; how to form fours and form column and form platoon from column and so on. The service period being four years we had at any one time a mixture of old hands and new, like myself. We had bright ones and dull ones and the Petty Officers worked us in full naval style having been seconded from the Royal Navy at Simonstown for that purpose. In his book 'The Wind is Free' Frank Wightman describes his kitting out in 1939 in hilarious fashion. This description is in complete contrast to my experience when I was supplied with a sailors uniform in the R.N.V.R. We were measured individually by the Petty Officer and uniforms of suitable size were issued and adjusted if necessary for size, we ended up as a well turned out body of men. I recall that I had my arms, rifle, bayonet and webbing belt and gaiters before I had the blue uniform. With the equipment I also had a roneod schedule of parades for the ensuing few months. The next on the list after enrolment was rifle drill and so the next week I turned up in flannels and a sweater with rifle, webbing etc ready to hand, much to the merriment of those who had not bothered to bring their rifles. The merriment lasted only an short while for they had a tongue-lashing in good old Whale island style while those of us who had heeded the object of the parade basked in the good will of the Chief Gunner's Mate. A trivial matter? May be so. But I'm sure that it all helped in the years to come when careful reading of Notices to Mariners and Sailing directions and Convoy Instructions could make all the difference between safe arrival or disaster.

After some months of general training we were expected to specialise. Some went to wireless telegraphy and learned about radio. Some stayed as seamen gunners. Others, like myself, chose the signals branch. Our instructor, for whom I had and still have, the greatest admiration, was Chief Yeoman Walker. Under him we learned to pass messages - signals in the Navy - in all sorts of ways. Semaphore by flag or mechanical arms. Morse by flag-wagging, buzzer and lights of various kinds; Aldis lamps, with a reflecting mirror worked by a trigger on the hand grip; long range shutter searchlights, ten inches in diameter, with blinding arc lights within them; the masthead all-round light: and smallest of all the boat lantern, with a single battery and bulb and a key on top of the box to make and break the light, and a masking metal disc in front with holes in it which could be turned to allow the light to be seen through a tiny hole or a large one, or in various colours, white yellow, red, blue, the latter hardly to be seen and used discretely to pass a message in one direction only and at short range and visable only to the reader. To these systems were added the alphabetical and numeral flags of the Naval and International codes. The same set of flags but with different letters for the flags so one had not only to be clear sighted but clear minded as well in mixed company, looking for the all important red and white vertical striped code pennant which indicated that the flags beneath it were to be read under the international system.

There was much to learn, for as well as being able to pass signals from ship to ship and ship to shore we had to be able to use the code books, learn the manoeuvering signals and, as one grew more experienced, what system to use, it could be quicker to hoist some flags but clearer to semaphore; an alteration of course could be signaled by flags in seconds; a challenge to a football match on return to port would best be sent by semaphore. It was the manoeuvering signals which were most fascinating to me. The Equal Speed signals could be used to change any formation of ships to line ahead and from line ahead to any other formation without any alteration of speed. We used to sit around the long table, each with a fleet of half a dozen or so little brass ships, moving them in accordance with instructions given by the Yeoman using two-inch square plywood flags hoisted on little hooks on a diminutive mast. We also carried out marching manoeuvres, each man taking the part of a ship and moving as directed by hoisted signals, or at night, by flashed morse.

Once a year we had a fortnight or so of practical training aboard a ship of the South Atlantic Squadron, based at Simonstown, at that time wholly leased and run by the Commander-in-Chief at Admirals House with its gate columns each crowned by a cannon ball. I can vividly recall some training in HMS Milford, a sloop of the squadron, where I learned that the sending and receiving of messages was only a part, a minor part one might think, in respect of time spent, of the duties of a signalman. Milford was a small ship. She had two 4.7" guns, mounted fore and aft, and was about 2,000 tons displacement. I soon found myself with rags and 'bluebell', polishing the voice pipes and their covers and the brass awning stanchions of her bridge; scrubbing gratings till they were bone white; spending hours on watch looking out for any movement of other ships, or their boats, of fishing boats, anything that floated - with half an eye all the time on the shore station and half the other eye on the Senior Officer's ship. A 360 degree watch whether at anchor or at sea, and woe betide the signalman who failed to spot something to report to the leading signalman or the yeoman or the officer of the watch.

Specialising in signals did not mean that other things (skills they would be called now-a-days) were neglected. We learned to knot and splice (signal halliards were our responsibility). We were taught boatwork - how to row and steer and how to manage the simple sails of a whaler. We learned how to use, as distinct from drilling with, the 303 rifle and the heavy Webley pistol. And in addition we were expected to acquire the rudiments of seamanship, shackles and cables and anchor work. And we learned how to work as part of a team, each man with his little bit to do so as to produce a complete whole. One fascinating piece of team-work, to my way of thinking, was the drill for hoisting a boat back on board. Lowering a whaler or gig or lifeboat is a matter of judgement and timing on the part of the boat-crew and coxswain who have the whole matter in their hands. Hoisting a boat is a very different matter for the judgement and timing are in the hands of the boatswain or a petty officer who uses for motive power the muscles of as many on board as can man the ropes. The drill, for that is essentially what it is - or was - (perhaps they have computorised winches now?) started with the call of the boatswain's pipe 'Clear lower deck all hands to hoist sea boat' and everyone who had not a very good reason not to obey, would muster in two lines, fore and aft, along the deck beside the boat falls which would have already been laid out side by side. When ordered to do so each line of men would pick up his part of the rope next to him. So there might be thirty to forty men each with his hands of the rope. Then the call would come to take up the slack. The boat would have been hooked on by now but the fourfold tackle would be slack while the boat was being towed by her painter and fended off the ship's side. Then first one then the other fall would be adjusted, care being taken to keep them sufficiently slack so that the boat would remain fully afloat and as level as could be. When the man in charge was satisfied that the falls were even in length the order would come to 'Marry'. Each line of men would move to the other, the ropes put together and the pair of them grasped in the hands of all the men. Watching the rise and fall of the sea the CPO in charge would call 'Hoist and run away', and that is just what would happen. With some sixty odd men all pulling together the boat would be snatched up out of the water in a few seconds, effortlessly with all that muscle and weight on the falls, until the call came to 'Hold'. Then the boat would be swung in, the davits turning inward one after the other and the order would come 'walk back' followed invariably by "Handsomely" (which means carefully) and gently the boat would settle on the chocks.

It was the signalman's task to attend to the hoisting and lowering of colours at 8 AM and at sunset. Both operations had to be carried out in slow time. The ensign and jack staffs were no more than eight feet high and this meant eight feet only of halliard available for either hoisting or lowering while 'colours' or 'sunset' was played on the bugle, a performance which could take over a minute. Try moving a rope a few inches a second and see how difficult it is. Ensigns and Jacks were never 'broken' at the staff head; always hoisted fully extended and the trick was to move the halliard up or down at such a speed that the flags were fully up or fully down as the last notes of the bugle faded away. Control of the ensign on the stern was not very difficult as one had the shelter of the superstructure and the length of the quarterdeck to break the force of the wind. But the handling of the Jack, on its staff, on the bow, exposed to a howling Southeaster squalling across the bay, was a different matter. Six foot by three foot of bunting whipping back and forth across the face was no joke. One just could not get out of its way by standing close up to the staff. To get to windward was of course impossible - that would have meant standing off the ship. One could only stand to one side hoping that the jack would be up, or down and out of the way, before the ship took the opposite yaw on her moorings and the wind took the flag into one's face.

Although I was a signalman, and thus not really entitled to be interested in engines, steam reciprocating engines were fascinating to me. Perhaps a trait inherited from a father who was an engineer. Whatever the reason for it I used to enjoy going ashore, or coming off, in the steam pinnace 'South Easter' and never was more happy than when allowed into the tiny engineroom cum boiler room whose presiding genius was a stoker first class. The tiny bunker held about two sacks of coal; the boiler was no bigger than a forty five gallon drum; the triple expansion engines beautiful models of a big ship's engines, gleaming brass and copper and shining steel pistons and cross-heads, and all of it smelling of steamy hot oil. (You will have gathered by now that I was one of those fortunate beings who was never sea-sick). I little thought when in that little minature engineroom that I would be present, and play no little part, in the final hours of that little pinnace when she was driven ashore in Simon's Bay in 1940, or was it 1941. But that is a story to be told in another chapter.

Copyright Gillian van Zijl (née Tomalin)
Put onto the web (2007) by Joan Marsh

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