From Sea Cadets to Sembawang

From Sea Cadets to Sembawang



Some anecdotes from John Barnes, ex RFA Electrical Officer 1966-71




About as far from the sea as you can be in the UK, Dudley, West Midlands.  I spent four years in T.S. Centaur, first in a disused flourmill and after a while a new unit was built on the remains of a canal basin, rowing whalers up and down that short stretch of water, getting “bollocked” for not saluting “the Quarterdeck”, what’s that when it’s at home?


14 to 18 years of age I finished up as a Leading Seaman, and looked great in my “Bellbottoms”.  I always wanted to go to sea, but my father insisted that I get an apprenticeship, which I did and got an ONC in Electrical Engineering.


I still had a yearning to go to sea, so I trotted off to Broad Street Royal Navy Recruiting Office in Birmingham, and all was going well but I had a lazy eye (no, it didn’t match the rest of me!) but not to worry, if I got some spec’s and came back the deal was I would enter as a direct entry Artificer, doing 9 years active service and 3 years as a reserve.  I started to have second thoughts here as I had just done five years as an indentured apprentice, so I got a big book from the library; Lloyds Book of Shipping and got the address of people like BP Tankers, Shell Tankers, Fyfe Banana boats, etc.  I wrote applications to several, but they wanted people with DC (Direct Current) experience.  I had all the theory, but very little practical knowledge.



The Author – waiting for the Officers Bar to open

(the Author’s description)



All seemed lost until I saw an advert in The Mirror I think, Junior Engineer Officers were being recruited for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and I fitted the general requirements, except for the category.  Not to be beaten (though I have been over the years), I wrote a letter to MOD (N) at Empress State Building in London.  Now I am not into the esoteric side of life, but I recall during my Tech College studies that one day I was doodling in my log book (remember those, not the navigator’s type, but the one’s after slide rules).  The item of my attention was a three curved winged building, supported on a matrix of steel.


The lecturer looked over my shoulder and asked “what’s that Barnes”, “don’t know, just a building” says I.  He reckoned that it was impractical as a design and would fall down.  Well, those few years later I came out of the underground and walked up the street, I swear to god the old Empress State was the very building I had been sketching, was that strange or what?


I digress; after being interviewed by someone who had obviously only learned electrical theory, I returned to the “mucky midlands” awaiting my fate.  It seemed an age before things started to happen, but then it was medicals, registration with the MN (Merchant Navy), buying uniforms etc.  I was not as fortunate as one of our editor’s in that regard, as my Father was against me going to sea (one wage earner less at home), so I had 48 pounds from my superfund and bought my kit.


Bear in mind the list I was given omitted any tropical uniform, only a  “Blues” suit made from moleskin, with trouser leg bottoms which covered my shoes, a Burberry raincoat, cap and black tie.  Eventually it all came down to a slip of paper with space for two dates to join, the first was when I finished with my shore side employer and the second, when I could be ready to join a ship.  At this point I thought that a couple of week’s holiday would be in order, so that is what I allowed.


I did the rounds of friends and relatives saying my goodbyes and so on, even stepping out one night in my new uniform (you didn’t see many young men in uniform in my neck of the woods).  This eventually led to some smart comments in a pub, my cap being thrown around the bar together with some punches, I’m sure you can imagine the scene!


My two weeks break ran into four and I ran out of money! So a letter to MOD (N).  A very nice reply said not to worry, there was no appointment for me at that time, and I should be receiving payment from Bath, which I subsequently did at irregular periods!  This period ran from mid September 1966, until mid December of the same year, by this time my friends had seen enough of me and were glad when my travel orders arrived.


Report to Brize Norton to fly to Singapore (where on earth is that!)  British Eagle airways were chartered back then to transport service personnel to the Far East.  Four engine prop jet “Brittania”, the whispering giant (pig’s bum).





In the ice and fog we took off, I had never flown before so quite an experience for me.  Istanbul first, then somewhere in the Gulf (each leg of the journey was about 7- 8 hours).  Then it was on to Colombo, Ceylon as was then, the plane came to a standstill and up rolled the gangway, it was dark outside and I was wearing my best 3 piece wool worsted suit, so I must need a jacket as it is night time, a short walk to the exit door then wham, a big stinking hot wet blanket had been thrown over me; the tropics, get used to it lad!


The transit lounge was a roof on steel supports, lots of spotlights, hence lots of “beasties”.  After a short stop over we took off, running into a flock of birds, one engine down which resulted in a return to Colombo and a 26 hour delay?  I booked into the Mount Lavinia hotel after being driven through the jungle, dodging elephants and the like.  A beautiful beach location.


Eventually we arrived at Singapore at about 4 am, an RN dormobile transports me to a hotel (can’t remember the name, but it was a two story place out of the 20’s). It was pouring with rain and I couldn’t get to sleep, so I showered and had a walk around the veranda, no signs of life anywhere.  I hear voices coming from one of the rooms, so knocked on the door to enquire where the staff were.  The door was opened by a middle aged man to whom I told my tale; he said not to worry as I would be picked up again sometime.  Looking over his shoulder I saw another man who gave me a pleasant wave, thanking them I went back to my room; funny that two blokes should be in one room, when there were so many to go round!


Eventually the rain stops, people are moving around and I hop a cab to the Post Office to send a telegram home to explain the delay (no mobile phones in those days).  I go back to the hotel to find the transport had been and gone.  What to do-panic?  The hotel manager drives me in pursuit of the RN vehicle (he knew the route).  We arrived at another hotel where second engineer Tom Foster had also missed the transport.  Not being very pleased (I could tell – but didn’t fully understand the Geordie language at the time).



HM Naval Base, Singapore



Wha aye, we’ll get a taxi, so up to Sembawang Stores Basin and the “Yacht”.



RFA Reliant  (2)

I was left standing on the quarterdeck like a shag on a rock, when all of a sudden this bundle of humanity fly’s out of the accommodation with the  greeting: -“Come on ya bastard there’s an RPC in the bar”, this was John Williams the 2nd Electrical Officer.  What a start to my RFA life!



To be continued.