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SCHOOLIE AND THE ADMIRALTY.
|To join the Royal Navy you had to take a free ticket to Butlins
Holiday Camp at Skegness. This was H.M.S. Royal Arthur, which sounded very
grand, but you were only there a few weeks, while they sorted you out and
either clad you in bell-bottomed trousers, or in more normal wear (as in
my case, for I was a Jack Dusty, not an able-seaman) which laid you open
to the gibe "Taxi". Soon you found yourself at Chatham ready to be posted.
My destination was a new ship still being built on the Tyne. She was to become a very famous ship, especially in the saving of Malta, H.M.S. Welshman.
But for the moment we were having a very boring time in the supply office waiting for the next consignment to arrive, longing for the siren to go, which meant we were free to return home to the digs where we were living.
I shall never forget when a large heavy package arrived. What could this be? We tore the packing away with some excitement. It turned out to be a harmonium, which of course I immediately commandeered. My friends must have become tired of the sound of that harmonium which was kept going for the rest of the day.
At last the day came in the late autumn of 1940 when we sailed down the Tyne into the open North Sea. Im glad to say that I managed not to disgrace myself on this maiden voyage. The next morning we found ourselves in Scapa Flow swinging round the buoy, an activity to which we were to become not unaccustomed.
We were allowed ashore the next day, so I took the liberty boat and walked down the shore past the old Iron Duke, where I was one day to give a lecture and past the Admirals house not knowing that I would one day be entertained there.
Soon we moved down the northern Scottish coast to the beautiful spot known as Kyle of Lochalsh - a place which I was very pleased to revisit, for I had been there on holiday with my friend Douglas Lilburn only a year before. I was delighted to find that Kyle of Lochalsh was to be our "hide-out" when we had nowhere more important to go, but I was very exceptional in welcoming this, for most of the crew looked askance at Kyle. "Give me civil-i-sa-tion" was the general cry. They preferred the worst parts of Portsmouth to the beauties of Kyle. So I was not in favour when we had Christmas at Kyle of Lochalsh on a beautiful warm spring-like day.
I forget whether we began our activities before or after Christmas but we were soon on our way to Milford Haven to load our mining deck with great black mines on trucks which filled our mining deck ready to be pushed into the sea when the right moment came. It was here that I made a vow as I surveyed the beautiful Cornish cliffs which I knew so well from a child: "If ever I get free from this lot Ill have a beautiful garden on that cliff overlooking the sea - a memorial garden for all my friends on this ship" - a vow that I have managed to keep, Im glad to say.
At dusk we took our bearings somewhere between Lands End and the Scillies, then the navigating officer dropped a little anchor and we began to pay out a lead at the end of which would be the exact spot where we were to "sow our mines in enemy waters".
Meanwhile we were allowed to go to bed, but at the given moment "all hands" were expected down on the mining deck prepared to push the great ugly black things overboard through the open gates into the midnight sea, then when they were all at sea, close the doors and thirty knots for safety and home.
Fortunately we were only able to do this on two or three moonless nights in the month, or the enemy might have found out something about our little tricks. As it was, only a Breton fisherman once came across us with great surprise and probably something of a shock. How the mines were cleared after the war I never heard, but presumably a record was kept of their location. This little jaunt we repeated every month on moonless nights until we were due for a refit in the Autumn when I was able to return for a short while to my Return of Odysseus.
Soon we were at the old game, but the Admiralty seemed to be finding new uses for us. We found ourselves sailing down the African coast calling at Freetown and visiting the Gold Coast. Here we took on a very large amount of gold - enough, one would have thought, to pay for the whole war. I remember seeing the local inhabitants lying about while our fellows sweated to bring the gold on board. Apparently the natives were in quarantine. I also remember our cook bringing on board a beautiful stem of bananas, which were unobtainable in England but sadly they all went bad before we got home.
By the time we reached home we were due for a complete overhaul and transformation into a French cruiser with parts of our anatomy blacked out. I think we even lost a funnel. In this guise we sailed down to Gibraltar, having taken on at Milford Haven a whole load of airmen, smoke floats and supplies of every kind. Early on May 8th we set forth into the Mediterranean flying the French Flag, which is apparently allowable according to the code of war as long as one does not shoot. It was my birthday, so I have reason to remember that it was a beautiful day. We hugged the coast of North Africa as if we had really been a French vessel. I remember the beautiful scents that drifted over the sea from the land. Various planes came to inspect us and were apparently satisfied that we were doing no harm, so we were left alone. At nightfall we changed our speed and went forward at a tremendous speed, only to resume our gentle velocity the whole of the next day - the ninth.
At nightfall we turned sharply left and continued all night long at top speed so that in the early morning of the 10th we were entering Valetta Harbour.
We made our way to the one jetty where it was still possible to unload, where conveniently was a wonderful air-raid shelter in the cliff side.
The first thing was to get our airmen off and I believe these valiant people started to operate as soon as the alarm went. The next thing was to get the smoke floats landed. I dont know what we should have done without these. But they were ready as the first alarm went. They covered the whole scene with a pall of smoke so that it was impossible for the enemy to aim any bomb. All they could do was to drop their bombs haphazard. I came out of the air-raid shelter time after time to find our valiant ship lying safely alongside the jetty unharmed. Meanwhile there was more and more unloading of stores to be done, until the bombing raids slackened off as the day wore on and we were able to leave Malta. I cant remember anything about our return journey to Gibraltar, whether we kept up the farce of being a French cruiser or not. All I can remember is when we received a wireless message from Winston Churchill. "Well done, Welshman." We had succeeded in saving Malta.
When we got back to Kyle I was delighted to receive a message from the Education Department of the Admiralty summoning me for an interview. What a wonderful journey that was through most of Scotland and England, with never a dull moment - so full of expectation and promise - But alas! when I got there they did not seem very hopeful. Perhaps the turning point had not occurred yet when suddenly the people with Arts degrees were welcomed to the war effort.
I returned with my tail between my legs, to find that we were off on another visit to Malta in June, but a very different one, as part of an open convoy of warships escorting six supply ships which sailed in the middle.
Every time the air alarm occurred, I had to retire to the ammunition room which was my action station, so that there would have been little left of me if we had been caught. We were nearly caught on one occasion when our ship took a sudden violent turn in a certain direction. When I came up, I asked what this had meant, to be told that our skipper had taken a violent turn in one direction in order to avoid a torpedo that had been aimed straight at us. It was depressing to find one less of the supply ships sailing away in the centre of us warships after every alarm. In the end only two of the supply ships managed to reach Malta.
But what a difference within one month when we found ourselves alongside that jetty at Valetta once again. The other warships had disappeared over night. No need for smoke screens any longer. The R.A.F. seemed to have got control of the air over Malta within a month. This time we were able to unload in peace.
When we got back I was delighted to find that the Education Department of the Admiralty had taken pity on me after all. Perhaps the turning point in the War had come when the authorities found that after all people with Arts degrees could be used.
I was ordered "to join Roedean School in plain clothes" within the next few days. This undoubtedly saved my life, for when six months later at Chatham I read the list of casualties from H.M.S. Welshman every man in my mess, whom I knew so well, had gone down.
We were gradually able to discard our "plain clothes" and appear decently clad as warrant officers with a thin gold ring and the sky-blue colour that denoted you were a "schoolie." In spite of my classical upbringing I was easily able to hold my own in subjects like Relative Velocity. In fact I was given to understand that the long classical grind had given me a deeper understanding of Science than the scientists had. At the end of our nine-week course we were posted all over the country. My destination was back to Chatham, but to the Marines as a kind of "loan" as they did not have "schoolies" of their own. I was under a Royal Marine education officer, Captain Farmer, but another naval schoolie and myself did most of the work.
We used to be supplied with little booklets, which gave us the plan of a lecture to the troops. We had to be prepared to deal with almost any subject. I remember one of these subjects which managed to impress me so much that it remained in my memory to this day. It was that we are all related. If you begin to count up your grandparents and great-grandparents on an ever-increasing number of sides, you soon find that you have as ancestors more people than exist in your own country and soon than exist in the world. It is therefore obvious that many of As ancestors are really the same people as those of Bs and in the end we are all related over and over again.
These little books had a permanent effect on my mind, for they rendered me capable of giving a lecture on any subject, especially my own, so that after the war I could easily join the ranks of the W.E.A. and University lecturers, which provided a valuable source of income.
Becoming an officer had enabled me to have a room of my own and therefore the ability to continue composing in off hours, and being thrown upon the Royal Marines, who had a band that could become an orchestra gave me opportunities to pursue the art of composition. I soon found I was writing an Overture Per Mare Per Terram (the motto of the Marines) which could be performed at a concert at Chatham given by the Royal Marines Orchestra and conducted by myself. But as always, music leads to jealousies and though there was outwardly full friendship between the Royal Marines Officer in command of the Band and myself, a mere interloper, a warrant officer and a Naval Schoolie, it was obvious who should be in firm control. I was allowed to take some of the orchestral rehearsals when it was convenient for the officer in charge to take the time off, but there could be occasions when the subordinate person tried to go too far. As far as I know I did everything to prevent this happening. But there was one occasion when it may have been concerned.
There came an occasion when a work of mine (it may have been the overture Per Mare Per Terram) was to be rehearsed by the Royal Marines Orchestra at the H.M.V. Studios with a view to being recorded. Not unnaturally the Captain wanted to conduct his orchestra and make the recording. But unfortunately Boyd Neel, who was judging the performance, did not think it was good enough to be recommended for the Company. So I narrowly missed having a record of one of my works. It may have been due to the quality of the work, which may not have appealed to Boyd Neel. But from what I heard later from one of the orchestra, that the Captain was kicking himself for not having put up a better performance it may have been due to the quality of the performance.
I made one of my best friends when serving with the Marines. Before the War I had been to a performance of Il Trovatore at the Wells conducted by chorus master Geoffrey Corbett. Now, my fellow Schoolie told me he had met a sick berth attendant who was none other than this Geoffrey Corbett who was looking for a pianist to join a string trio in which he was playing. I was always a poor pianist but I jumped at the idea of meeting Geoffrey Corbett, so soon found myself trying to keep up on the piano with two excellent string players. It was Geoffrey Corbett who introduced me to the Workers Music Association and this led to the writing of my third opera The Partisans. But before that, in 1943, I had my Prom at the Albert Hall.
Geoffrey Dunn had introduced me to Max Hinrichsen who had been the Director of Peters of Leipzig until the Nazis made it uncomfortable for Jews to hold any influential position in Germany. He had fled to England and started up his own music publishing business from a room in Novellos, who had been the agents for Peters in England. He was looking for a likely composer whose fortunes he might hope to manage and for a time I seemed to fulfil that role. He published my "Five Bells" and "Heyday Freedom", which was performed in the Proms in 1943.
Five Bells, which was originally called A Naval Suite until it acquired its more colourful title is a suite for Chorus and Orchestra. The first movement deals with the colourful way the Navy has of waking people up in the early morning: "Wakie, Wakie. Show a leg, you slug-a-beds " which I had always noticed from my earliest days in the R.N. It was typical of the mixture of stern command and friendliness typical of the Navy. The second movement was "Divisions" - the naval term for "Morning Prayer", the sailors hymn. The third movement, a scherzo, "Up Spirits" that used to raise the spirits even of tee-totallers every day. For a short span one could no longer say "Chocker?" to ones neighbour. Incidentally it was one of my duties as a supply assistant to bring up the rum from the hold of the ship. The fourth movement makes use of the beautiful poetical command "Away, Seaboats Crew" the kind of language that ingratiated me to the Royal Navy and was the reason why I had to join the Navy rather than either of the other two forces. The last movement is entitled "Pipe Down." It is the command given every night to stop talking and encourage silence and sleep. But it has a possible tragic nuance in the last movement of this work. Was it the "Pipe Down" that led to the finality of fate which overcame so many beautiful ships ploughing the waves during the war, especially the fate of H.M.S. Welshman that always brings tears to my eyes whenever I think of it.
Some of the survivors of the H.M.S. Welshman that had found themselves in the Admiralty were determined to get this work performed by the B.B.C. but it was not accepted; unfortunately some of the survivors from Nazi Germany were equally determined not to allow this to happen despite the fact that Five Bells had been published by one of them. The survivors of the Welshman tried again and again to send the score to the B.B.C., but they were equally determined and complained "this score is always finding itself in this Office." Perhaps it made them all the more determined to have nothing to do with it. In the end the only performance Five Bells achieved was at a music camp conducted by Geoffrey Corbett, and it was a great success.
Heyday Freedom was a different matter altogether. Max Hinrichsen was on good terms with Sir Henry Wood and gave me to understand that if I could write a suitable work it might be performed in the Proms. This was too good an opportunity to be missed. I thought of using the themes from my Return of Odysseus Act I which had been performed successfully in 1940 to make an orchestral suite which I called Heyday Freedom after Caliban when he celebrated his freedom from Prospero, as I was celebrating my freedom from the Royal Navy by writing music at all.
It was first performed by Basil Cameron in the Proms of 1943, when not enough time was given for rehearsal. A much better performance was given by the Scottish Orchestra under Iain Whyte, which was broadcast a few years later.
In the Albert Hall when I was taking my bow as a mere warrant officer I noticed the figure of an Instructor Commander who turned out to be the cousin of Wilfred Sobey, the great footballer, whom I had known as a boy at Mill Hill. I soon found I was being picked out by this instructor Commander to take part in a week-end course at Greenwich College, and this must have led to my eventual elevation to Instructor-Lieutenant and finding myself in the Education Department of the Admiralty. So I spent the last year of the War as virtually Music Director of the Navy, giving lectures in attractive places (I could arrange my own tours), holding Music Courses, supplementing gramophone libraries. As the last phases of the war came, everyone realised how important it was to keep people in a good humour and the arts began to play their part in this. One experience that dates from my Chatham days I must not forget to relate. I used to go home from Chatham for short week-ends and on one occasion I went home to Mill Hill to find that there had been a fire bomb raid the night before and a bomb had landed on my bed! I had been to Malta twice but probably the most dangerous thing that could have happened to me was in my own home!
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