Topic: Civilian Weekend Sailors by Ivan D. Taylor
A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.
I had just done my compulsory 18-year old military duty for the good of the nation at HMS Tamaki when I received my call-up notice for part time service and orders to report on April 24th 1952 to the Royal New Zealand Volunteer Reserve (RNZVR) headquarters. Initially we paraded in various temporary premises until we finally moved into a new building built for the navy in Montreal St, RNZN Pegasus.
Training was held every Monday evening 7pm to 9pm and was still general training in seamanship and all that stuff. I had a background with the St John Ambulance and once the Division became fully established all the ratings were asked to give their preference in which branch of the service they would like to serve in. My choice of sick berth attendant was granted.
In the beginning we had a Lieutenant Dr Whetter, as the Senior Medical Officer, an ex RNZN sick berth petty officer, and two other sick berth attendants. This gradually expanded to the M.O. plus a Lieutenant Dr M.Weston, who later took over from Dr Whetter, a petty officer and four sick berth attendants.
We started off learning basic nursing skills and medical care. A major part of our training was spending time at the Naval Hospital at the Devonport base. As part of the commitment to the CMT training we were required to spend a minimum of two periods of two weeks each year working and training at the navy hospital. I managed to go more than twice each year as I enjoyed it so much. Each time I went I sat further tests, and exams, gaining experience in general nursing and general ward work, eventually assisting in the operating theatre.
I was promoted to Leading Hand and eventually passed the navy’s equivalent of the Junior State Nursing exams. This gave me the rank of petty officer but as we were only a small branch consisting of one doctor, a chief petty officer, myself as an L.S.B.A and two other S.B.As I couldn’t be promoted.
My biggest problem was getting to and from Auckland. The Navy would only pay for the ferry trip to Wellington, and the overnight train to Auckland and return. I needed to spend two weekends getting there and back home, making it an 18-day trip. I tried cashing in the travel vouchers and paying the extra to fly but they caught up on that one.
They finally decided to fly me up rather than pay for the four extra days travelling pay when I took the boat and train. However I didn’t get paid for any travel days and had to pay for the taxis to and from the airports. Consequently I did fewer trips to Auckland, and eventually stopped going completely once I passed my final exams.
Following a serious injury to my leg in 1953 I was forced to give up playing rugby so I started going out on the RNZVR’s motor launch (ML) at weekends. It was an ex U.S. Navy coastal patrol boat and was great fun. We went out most weekends for one reason or another. Long weekend trips to Akaroa and Timaru providing the weather was good were great fun, bearing in mind that they were all ‘training exercises.’
We often had exercises with the army and occasionally with the air force as well. The army exercises mainly involved transporting soldiers from one place to another as part of their exercises, with the Banks Peninsular bays being popular.
On one occasion the Army Medical Corps were transporting wounded across Pigeon Bay on a barge built with four stretchers and a tarpaulin. Unfortunately when they were about half way across the barge slowly started to sink and we had to rush in and rescue the four medical officers and the three patients who were all tied to their stretchers on top of the barge.
We later went back and slowly towed the partly sunken vessel nearer to the shore where it could be salvaged. We did the same exercise several months later with successful results, but the army personnel and the patients were now all wearing life jackets.
The army also employed us target towing out at sea from the Godley Heads battery up on the hill. The target was a flat barge with a vertical panel about 30 metres square mounted on it. We towed it out to sea behind us and then let out about 1000 yards of cable and towed it at about 5 to 10 knots parallel to the shore about four or five miles out from the coastline.
We had an army gunnery officer on board, who with the aid of a device made from two bits of wood in the shape of a cross with lots of nails sticking up, could tell how far the live shells had landed from the target. He would then radio corrections back to the gunners.
The CMT gunnery solders were operating and firing the big guns. We did this exercise many times and not once did they hit our target. But on one occasion the flash from the gun was much brighter than normal followed by a desperate ‘Hit the deck’ cry from the army officer just as a shell whistled straight over us and exploded about 100 metres on the seaward side of us. A second shell fell short and just astern of us.
The radio was red hot and no more shells were fired that day. Some clown had corrected the gun’s directions the wrong way and their gunnery officer had failed to check before ordering the firing.
We got our own back on the next combined exercise when we were patrolling around the harbour headlands and out to sea on night radar exercises. We were supposed to cruise around and the army radar operators on the headland were meant to be tracking us. Around 2am we sneaked in under the cliff and they lost us.
Going in as close as was possible we launched the inflatable and four of us went ashore, climbing up the cliff track we crept up to the radar hut. Bursting in like any good action movie we shut down their radio, radar and switched off all their power.
I took the fuse tops with me - I was a registered electrician. The two operators were tied up in their chairs with ropes despite cries of ‘You can’t do this to us’ and we left them in the dark. We were back on board and heading out to sea before they managed to get free and raise the alarm and find spare fuse tops.
We didn’t answer their radio calls to us as we were supposed to be under radio silence which made them even madder. At first we denied any knowledge of the raid.
“What raid? We have been at sea all night, check your radar.”
Later we did later admit to it. The army hierarchy was not amused but we explained that neither were we when we were nearly shot out of the water by them only a few weeks earlier.
At least once a year the three services combined together on a joint exercise and they were great weekends. On one occasion we were deployed to rescue members of a fictitious high command from Port Levy and transport them secretly to Pigeon Bay. They were held prisoners in Port Levy and with army assistance they were to escape and we were to pick them up.
The Air Force Harvards were our friends and they were to give us protection from the other enemy planes. We spent the night in Little Akaloa and the next day we had to take these same army officers from Pigeon Bay back to Lyttelton on a similar exercise.
Mysteriously, we were not told that the Harvards were now our enemy, and they were to seek us out and bomb us and that we were to instigate diversionary tactics to avoid them!
As the low flying planes flew towards us we gave them a friendly wave only to be greeted by flour bombs; two actually hit the boat. The Air Force commander had a big smile on his face when we later docked in Lyttelton covered in flour. But all is fair in love and war.
While towing the target on another occasion a strong gust of wind caught the target and tipped it over on its side. A large part of the target broke off and the barge was now floating completely upside down. It had to be cut loose and it floated away never to be seen again.
When we arrived back at Lyttelton the story went around that the army had finally hit the target and sunk it. We didn’t spoil their celebrations and led them on.
Only now can the true story be revealed.
This page archived at Perma Cc in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/D4TR-WXMZ