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- December 2015 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In the last (September 2015) edition of this magazine we asked Leyland Wilkinson, the author of a Letter to the Editor on Picket Boats if he might favour us with more information on this topic. Leyland, in conducting further research, came across this beautifully crafted article by the late Captain George C. Blundell, CBE, RN (1904-1997) using the pseudonym ‘Bluebell’. The article was first published in The Naval Review Vol 73, No 3, July 1985and is reproduced with their kind permission.
From November 1923 to October 1924 I was fortunate enough to be midshipman of HMS Hood’s first picket boat. This period included ‘The World Cruise,’ sometimes called ‘The Empire Cruise’. Both Hood’s picket boats were oil-fired 50 footers. Each had a double crew of one midshipman, one petty officer coxswain, two able seamen bowmen, one able seaman sternsheetsman, one stoker petty officer for the engineroom, and one stoker for the boiler room. At the time one did not give a thought, but, looking back, their competence – and loyalty – were incredible. Not once during the whole of my time did my boat run out of fuel, fail to have steam immediately after being hoisted out, fail to carry out the whole trip ordered on leaving the boom, or be manned speedily by the proper crew. On the ‘World Cruise’, when in harbour, the two picket boats ran almost continuously the whole day, the early morning up at midnight and the late boat at 2 am or later.
Many will be familiar with these steam picket boats, so it will be sufficient to mention only a few points. The engines were twin cylinder compound reciprocators complete with condenser, air pump, circulating pump and lubricating pump. The boilers were of the small tube ‘Yarrow’ type, fed by feed and fuel pumps. Forced draught could be applied by closing the boiler room hatch and running the fan. Communication between the stoker P.O. and the stoker was usually done by hitting the bulkhead with a ring spanner! The large propeller was right handed, and because stern power was equal to ahead power, stopping power was enormous, so that when going ‘astern’ on coming alongside the stern could kick quite viciously to port. A good stoker P.O. was a great help in going alongside and in stopping in the right place. How marvellously the crew backed me up: they provided all the thrill of a close and trusting team.
When one heard the pipe ‘Away First Picket Boat’ it was a point of honour to try to man the boat before one’s crew. I used to hare up from the gunroom, race along the shelter deck, charge along the lower boom, and dive head first down the lizard. Once I lost my dirk doing that. On the World Cruise picket boat midshipmen always wore their dirks, whether in monkey jackets or bum freezers, and, at least in Hood,manned and left their boats at the boom, never at the gangway.
Probably it is not generally known that the brass casings and bell tops to the funnels of the ships’ picket boats were not supplied with the boat; they had to be ‘acquired’ in some way. Hood’s first picket boat’s brass funnel was acquired from HMS Lion when that lovely ship was lying a sad hulk alongside the dockyard wall at Rosyth.
One of my early picket boat memories lies in taking some officers from the Hood, alongside the detached mole at Gib., to land at Flag Staff Steps. The more junior officers, including the snotties’ nurse, were sitting on the gratings on the casing, whilst the engineer, paymaster and surgeon commanders were in the stern sheets. I misjudged the alongside badly and ran the bow firmly on the submerged bottom stone platform of the steps. Being the senior officers in the boat, the three commanders, looking somewhat shaken, made to land over the bow. In ringing tones I sang out ‘Nobody is to leave the boat’. I then ordered my passengers, including the three commanders, to stand on the stern sheet gratings. As the officers of commanders’ rank appeared somewhat hesitant at carrying out my order to stand on the stern, perhaps I was over-peremptory with them. However, the stern went down and the bow rose up and the crew were able to right the boat’s precarious attitude. Much relieved, I sang out ‘Carry on ashore’. I can see the faces of the three commanders now: the engineer looked very angry, the paymaster nonplussed, but the PMO (Dudding) was beaming. In due course I was reported for insolence, my leave was stopped and I received a dozen from the sub. (Punishment was applied whilst bending over the ejector pipe from the sump in the subordinate officers’ bathroom.) The stoppage of leave hurt me most because my uncle, a captain in the Gibraltar garrison artillery, was taking me out to dinner at the Bristol and to a performance of The Pirates of Penzance. Two days later, my divisional officer, A. M. Carrie, a submariner doing his big ship time, and the snotties’ nurse, H.H. McWilliam, an unusually quiet and capable gunnery specialist, invited me to spend the evening ashore with them and to see the Pirates. (Carrie, whom I worshipped, was lost when M1 was sunk off Portland.)
On another occasion at Gib., three of Hood’s lieutenants (nicknamed by the gunroom ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’) decided to entertain their reigning popsies at the Reina Christina, Algeciras. We took them over in calm weather in the 1st picket boat and were ordered to return for them at midnight. We duly arrived at a quarter to twelve with the weather starting to blow up. Nobody appeared until just after 2 am, by which time the weather had got really nasty, howling wind and rain. They were very merry and got into the boat singing and cheering. As we set back to Gib., with the ‘dodger’ rigged snatches of ribald song and girlish giggles wafted up from the cabin. But, with the considerable chop, there was uneasy movement on the boat, and gradually a deathly silence prevailed, followed by heart-rending moans and fearful retching. We, the crew, huddled in our oilskins, felt that life was not quite so unjust.
As many will remember, a very strong current runs in the roads off Freetown, Sierra Leone. Hood, with Repulse, was anchored in the appropriately named ‘Destruction Bay’. One evening I was taking the first picket boat up to the boat rope on the starboard lower boom, but overshot the mark, the boat lifted on a huge swell, the top of the funnel caught the boom and the whole funnel snapped off at its base. It was prevented from going overboard by its after guys. The Commander (Goolden) whose cabin was starboard side aft on the shelter deck, heard it, came out and stopped my leave until it was repaired. I was very ashamed, but my dear coxswain and stoker PO helped me hoist it up on to the boat deck where we lugged it along to the coppersmith’s ‘caboose’. It was in the First Watch, but he came straight up from his mess, and was so sorry for this penitent midshipman that he sat up all night brazing and welding and hammering the severed funnel back on to its base. By ‘Place Spitkids’ time next forenoon the funnel was all back and the boat running in the afternoon. That shipwright seemed a very old and fatherly man to me, and I shall never forget his kindness. In fact, ships’ companies of those days seemed nearly always kind and sympathetic to the ‘middies’. Perhaps they saw in them a kindred ‘depressed class’; what in to-day’s language would be called ‘under-privileged’.
I suffered another disaster at Singapore, owing to my unobservancy. Things were hectic and the picket boats had been running no-stop from ‘Hands Fall in’. I had had no time to go inboard, or even to have my breakfast, and I hadn’t a clue to what the day’s programme for the ship was. Returning to the ship from landing the Admiral’s orderly, the officer of the watch (Atkinson: shot later when controlling the evacuation from Singapore) hailed me and told me to proceed inshore and bring off the Bishop of Malaya. The Bishop duly came down to the pier but was very late and in a hurry. We tore back to the ship which was moored in the roads 2 miles out, and surrounded by a dense mass of sight-seeing craft of all shapes and sizes. I approached broad on the starboard quarter intending to go alongside the starboard gangway; my sacred passenger was a Bishop! Just as I was about a cable off, a fairly large yacht-like steam vessel slid round the Hood’s stern and made as if to pass up the starboard side. She was covered with awnings which had tassels hanging from their edges; gay flags flew from every point, the bow, the two masts, the stern, the funnel, and a large number of passengers dressed in spotless white and wearing solar topees lounged in negligent attitudes on deck, even on chairs. Just another ‘goofing’ party, I judged. By the rule of the road she was ‘giving way’ to me, so I forced her to do so. After all, I had a mighty Bishop on board and he was in a hurry! The big yacht had to go full astern as I slid alongside to the most colossal din! Everybody on the quarter deck was bellowing and waving their arms. ‘Get to Hell out of it’ and ‘Lay off’ I distinguished from the general hubbub. I did so, and saw the white-painted yacht recover its dignity and proceed majestically alongside. As I lay off waiting I heard the saluting guns booming, bugles sounding. The Major Royal Marines giving orders to the Guard, the shrill whistle of pipes. The Governor of Malaya, accompanied by the Sultan of Johore, was paying an official visit to our Admiral, Sir Frederick Field. Oh! Merciful Oblivion draw a veil over my subsequent fate!
At Albany, Hood was weighing to proceed to Adelaide. The first picket boat had her slings on ready to be hoisted in. The floor gratings in the stern cabin were up, revealing the spotless clean red oxidised bilges. I was called alongside and Admiral Field ran down the ladder, jumped into the boat and sat down in the cabin. He told me to proceed to HMS Delhi, which was further inshore. At Delhi he was received by Rear Admiral Sir Hubert Brand, flag officer of the 1st Cruiser Squadron. The two men conferred on the quarterdeck, then went down below together. Shortly my Admiral re-appeared looking very grave and sad. I took him back to the Hoodfeeling very pleased he had seen how clean my bilges were. Later on I learnt the reason for his sudden visit. He had had the unpleasant duty of informing Admiral Brand that Hood’s wireless had received the sad news of Lady Brand’s death.
At Suva, Fiji, I was sitting in the gunroom smoking my pipe (pipe tobacco in sealed half pound tins was one shilling and threepence), when I heard the call ‘Away first picket boat at the double’. I dashed up on deck, hastily thrusting my pipe into my right hand monkey jacket pocket. I tumbled into the boat, the crew following. We let go and, passing the quarterdeck, the officer of the watch (Gladstone) shouted my orders. As we set off for Suva I saw one of the boatmen face aft to house his boathook, then, without any orders from me, seize a bucket to which a lanyard was attached, heave it over the side, scoop up some water, come aft and hurl the contents over me. It was done in the twinkling of an eye. I was horrified! ‘Mutiny’, I thought, ‘What do I do now?’ But there was my bowman, grinning and saying ‘Sorry, Sir, but you was on fire’. My coxswain, standing beside me with his attention on something else, had not seen my pocket burst into flames, but the bowman had acted quickly, good seaman that he was.
I have often reflected on what a lot the petty officers tactfully taught me on how to behave. One day we landed a number of officers just after lunch: the ship’s company was still at work. On return I asked the coxswain (Jeffreys was his name; he was a darling man) ‘What do the men think of the officers going ashore in working hours’? Jeff looked at me with that ‘three badge’ twinkle in his eye. ‘Lor, bless you, Sir,’ he replied, ‘We likes to see them out of the way.’ I have never forgotten that wise remark.