GENERAL ARTICLES

NAVY BASE

See the offices, the shops... but see the men at work on the ships if you want to understand what keeps a fleet in being"

THOMAS H. RADDALL March 15 1942
GENERAL ARTICLES

NAVY BASE

See the offices, the shops... but see the men at work on the ships if you want to understand what keeps a fleet in being"

THOMAS H. RADDALL March 15 1942

NAVY BASE

See the offices, the shops... but see the men at work on the ships if you want to understand what keeps a fleet in being"

THOMAS H. RADDALL

THE OLD city has been a naval base since early colonial times, but it has never seen anything like this, not even in 1914-18. Remember the last war, old-timers? Remember the old cruiser that grew fast to the jetty like a barnacle, the trawlers, the drifters, the armed yachts and curiosities that were always breaking down—but never quite broke up? Remember the "Battle of Igonish?”

Well, it was a good enough Canadian Navy for the job it had to do, and all honor to the men who shook it together and somehow made it go. But this is a different kind of war, and today we have a very different Navy representing Canada on the high seas. This time our bailiwick is the whole North Atlantic, more or less, with emphasis on the bleak grey road to Iceland; and since Hitler has chosen to fight the battle with submarines—in the Western Atlantic anyhow—our job calls for a Navy of small fast ships. That is right down our alley, for we can build such ships. And we can equip them, man them, sail them, and keep them sailing.

To be sure we had to collect a number of armed yachts and other makeshift craft in the beginning, to bolster our small destroyer force. But in the meantime we’ve been able to build a fleet designed for the job. Much of that fleet is now launched and

doing business, and much more is coming off the ways.

And Hitler’s Unterseeboot boys don’t like it a bit. You have heard some of the story, not half enough, but enough to show that Canadians can build and fight ships to the King’s taste. But did you ever stop to think what keeps them on the job, Sunday and Monday, summer and winter, in all weathers?

Come with me then, to this East Coast Canadian Port, which is full of sailors and sailors’ wives and sweethearts. As all water runs downhill, so all roads here lead to the harbor, and at the foot of the hill lies His Majesty’s Canadian dockyard, the heart and soul of the East Coast area.

Streams of men in blue pour down from all directions toward the main gate—men returning from shore leave; and another stream pours out of the gate and scatters—hard-bitten lads from the East Coast patrol, from the windy seas of Newfoundland, from the far sea bastion of Iceland, treading for a few precious hours the soil of home.

A keen-eyed Mountie scans our pass and waves us in, and we emerge from a wooden tunnel into a buzzing navy hive, where every clerk is a "writer,” every interoffice memo is a "signal,” and staid grey buildings have ship names like "H.M.C.S. Venture,” "H.M.C.S. Sombro,” "H.M.C.S. Stadaeona.” We haven’t been inside this gate since 1919, but some of the old buildings are familiar with their flatted

ironstone lower stories and their long grey wooden topsides. Some were old in Napoleon’s time. The dockyard was begun while Wolfe was knocking at the gates of Quebec, when its site was occupied by a rum distillery and the estate of a fighting frontiersman — Gorham of Gorham’s Rangers. Admirals with famous names have been in residence here; Hood, Gambier, Howe, Byron, Arbuthnot, Cochrane, Cockburn, Dundonald, Wellesley, McClintock. And one day long ago a humble post captain named Horatio Nelson walked up through the yard, and turned to look back on his weatherbeaten Albemarle.

We make a mental salaam to the ghosts of the past, and cock our weather eye toward the flagstaff. The white cross of St. George floats there, and the twin red polka dots in its white field announce that the rear admiral is in residence.

We go to see the admiral in a big new administrative building. New buildings are going up right and left, and old ones coming down. This metamorphosis is a sign of the thrusting times. Not the least of the Herculean tasks performed here since September, 1939, has been the building of a base fit to cope with the immensity of the battle and all performed incidentally, while training thousands of men and dealing with the battle itself. If you can picture a man engaged in a tight for life while pulling on trousers and boots you get a bit of the idea. And

it has been done efficiently. Not without dust and heat, of course. Good men have cussed and sucked cold pipes, and worked at all hours, and kept their thoughts two jumps ahead of the moment, for months on end, to achieve it.

As a humble wireless operator, years ago, we were in no position to call on admirals. We rather expected to see here a fierce old man with a grizzled grey beard. But this rear admiral is tall and lean and young, with a flashing dark eye and a sense of humor. He walks up and down as he talks, as if he were on a small bridge somewhere. A destroyer man if we know the marks—and the right sort of man for so important a post in this up-and-coming Navy of ours. He waves his wand—which happens to be a cigarette—and the dockyard is ours “for to see, for to admire.” Captains, commanders, dockyard maties receive us courteously and tell us about their jobs.

Feeding a Fleet

E ARE interested in victuals first—who isn’t?— and find them in one of the grey blocks which make up H.M.C.S. Venture. At one end we encounter a working party carrying legs of beef, bags of sugar, potatoes, turnips, sides of bacon, chests of tea, coffee, eggs, fish fillets—a wholesale grocery in transit, piece by piece. They load it into a tender at the jetty. She is going out to provision a

corvette lying in the stream. At the building’s other end (or should we say stern?) trucks are arriving with stores of all kinds. Within, we find an office, and a lieutenant-commander wearing the white of the paymaster branch between his gilt sleeve stripes, a busy man surrounded by a busy staff. He is young and pleasant and self-possessed, though he ought to be tearing his hair, for his job would drive most men mad.

Consider, please, that war conditions impose a radio silence on all ships outside the harbor boom defense, and consequently the supply officer never knows when a destroyer, or a whole flotilla, will slide in to the jetty or anchor in the stream, and demand twenty, sixty or ninety days’ provisions in a hurry. And that goes for the swarm of corvettes, minesweepers, minelayers, auxiliary patrol steamers, harbor-defense craft, Fairmile launches, M.T.B.s, tugs,ammunition lighters,oil-fuel tankers and lighters, and various other small craft, constantly coming and going. Add to that the warships of allied nations, Polish, Dutch, Free French, Norwegian. Add to that a number of outlying coastal posts manned by Navy personnel. All have to be supplied from this busy depot.

How is it done? A menu for the whole fleet—each breakfast, dinner and supper—is scheduled two weeks in advance always, and from this the Continued on page 50

Continued from page /j—Starts on page 12

necessary quantities are worked out and arranged for. The menu is calculated on careful dietary principles, and must be okayed by the staff medical officer and by the captain in charge of the port. The Navy consumes an astonishing variety of food, and the menu is arranged to take full advantage of that variety from day to day: fruit juice, poached eggs on toast, tomato soup, leg of ! pork, wieners, sauerkraut, sausage, j macaroni, tinned fruit, mince pie,

! cake and so on down the list, a hill of fare that any man’s restaurant could offer with assurance.

All the bread for the first ten or ! twelve days at sea is provided by the I dockyard bakery, where the up-todate equipment can turn out 2,000 to 6,000 loaves a day. They use nothing but the best of flour, whole milk., yeast and so on; you can’t buy bread like that ashore. For that matter, get this straight; the food that goes to our Navy is the best that can be got between the two oceans. Nothing second-rate will do. Provision contracts are arranged monthly I by Munitions and Supply; but every box, bag and bundle, every side of beef and barrel of kraut, is subject to the inspection of sharp-eyed men who don’t care a hoot for contractors, whose job is to see that the Navy gets the best—and would hear from the Navy very quickly (and forcibly) if they didn’t.

Let it be said, too, that the contractors for their part are co-operating. thoroughly. Great strains are thrown upon them at times, for I storage in the yard is necessarily limited, and in addition to the heavy demands of our own fleet, the Royal Navy may send into port a couple of battleships carrying 1,200 to 1,500 men apiece, together with their attendant aircraft carrier, destroyers and other craft, or perhaps a squadron of A.M.C.s (armed merchant cruisers) each with a crew of several hundred —all to be provisioned, at once, for weeks at sea.

All this means that contractors must keep large stocks on hand. Nothing is left to chance. Trains may be delayed by blizzards—anything might happen in the transportation line. The port is well provided with cold storage and warehouse facilities, and the whole business of supply goes like clockwork. But clockwork is the wrong word. Clockwork is a thing you wind up and forget about. This thing functions day and night,

throughout the year, on the brains and hands of men.

But all this is not the end of the supply officer’s concerns. Sea clothing and various other human equipment must be issued whenever required. And all of this, down to the last pound of mutton and the last oilskin jacket, must be accounted for.

Again, into the supply officer’s capable hands falls the job of distributing those knitted and other comforts which you women of Canada are so generously providing. He keeps a careful list of the various organizations—Red Cross, I.O.D.E., Navy League, and eighty or ninety others, with a record of shipments received from each, and acknowledges each shipment by letter. He also keeps a list, frequently revised, of all the ships in his flock, down to the last small launch with its crew of half a dozen; each issue of “comforts” to each ship, is carefully noted and dated, so that there is no duplication, and so that no craft within his reach is neglected—and that is a pretty long reach.

And note this well: your comforts go only to men on sea duty or on some exposed work about the coast. If your son is in the Navy, and has received nothing beyond the regular Navy issue (which is far from scanty, by the way), the chances are that he is still in training or is quartered in the reserve barracks at the port. Occasionally a man is transferred from ship to ship just in time to miss the rotation of comfort supplies. But he can get them promptly on application through his own officer or direct from the supply officer. Understand, too, madam, that all donated comforts are accounted for as carefully as the regular Navy issues. They do not get into undeserving hands.

The books and magazines which you collect and forward are all sorted and bundled by a devoted group of officers’ wives, all volunteers, working in a room upstairs. Whenever a ship is being provisioned and stored for sea, the base supply officer makes sure that plenty of reading matter goes along.

In For Repairs

BUT WE must look at other things. We visit the engineer captain who is superintendent of the dockyard. To this officer come the various demands for repair, replacement and overhaul on which the life of each ship depends. It may be a British battleship out in the stream, dot - and - dashing for an engineer officer to come aboard and inspect and estimate. It may be a rusty and sea-worn corvette coming in for a refit after long months in the North Atlantic. It may be an allied submarine with a periscope to mend, or merely a Fairmile launch with some sort of mechanical bellyache. All these things must be considered promptly, and put in hand by experts in each line. But the superintendent must consider his facilities. Priorities hang over him like a sheaf of Damoclean swords. Winter complicates his problems a hundredfold, for now the ships must take the hammer blows of the North Atlantic at its worst, and every ship coming in has some

kind of headache for him and his staff.

Winter also means that certain ports of repair are now locked by ice. One of the best stories of this war is the way in which the naval staff engineers quietly inspected various small ice-free ports on the East Coast, their wharf and machineshop facilities, and worked out a system under which an increasing number of corvettes and auxiliary craft are being refitted there. This takes a useful amount of strain off the big base, and refits are done thoroughly under the eagle eye of officers from the dockyard.

Our new guide is a lieutenantcommander wearing the purple of the engineers’ branch between his rings of rank. He is young, but that is a commonplace in thh new Navy. Age and experience are here, and doing a good job, but the thing that strikes you everywhere in this blue hive is youth. Nothing raw about it, either. Some of these young officers are products of our small but efficient Navy of the prewar days. But many —I should say a majority—have come from the merchant service. Ships are ships, whether they fly the white ensign or the red, and these men know what makes them tick.

Don’t think that all the men at work in this place are Navy personnel. The blue predominates and overshadows a swarm of civilian workers—the “dockyard maties” of Navy slang. We walk into a shipwright’s shop and find civilian carpenters at work on everything from a lifeboat to a piece of oak rail; attached is the paint shop, and the glass shop, which will tackle anything from a launch screen to a porthole. Nearby is the plumber’s shop, with its racks of spare piping, brass, copper, galvanized or plain iron, of all sorts, shapes and sizes. And here is the roomy blacksmith’s shop, with a smell of forge coals and the clangor of iron on iron. A dozen smiths are busy on a new propeller guard for a destroyer—she broke her old one coming alongside a sinking merchantman to take off survivors in a heavy sea. Attached to the concretefloored smithy is the boilermaker’s shop, a world of metal plating, where our eyes are dazzled by the fierce glare of welding and cutting arcs.

In the dockyard boatswain’s shop we snuff a fine old-fashioned smell of tar and cordage. The restless ghost of Captain Nelson must like this place. Here are coiled ropes of all sizes from a signal halyard to a fat blond hawser fit to moor a battleship; and here are steel hawsers, stays, and rigging of the modern sort. Groups of men are busy making spare rope fenders for a corvette at the jetty. We tramp upstairs into what once was a sail loft; sailmakers work here still, but their “palms” and big needles make hatch covers and blackout screens, and weather screens for small craft— everything but sails. Along the sunny south wall sit a row of women busy at sewing machines. They tackle anything in the sewing line that the sailmaker finds too small for his fingers; at the moment they are making up some spare white ensigns, and they’re singing at their work, an unexpected and pleasant sound in this rumbling world of men. In

I another part of the long loft men and ! boys are stuffing kapok into water! proof cushions; these are for the j narrow settees where, in chart rooms ! and such places, men fling themselves j down “all standing”—sea boots, oilI skins and all—to snatch a few mo| ments’ rest without leaving the j bridge.

Now to the big machine shops, some manned by civilian machinists, some by Navy personnel; here are lathe3 big enough to turn a propeller shaft, and small enough to make a spindle for a watch. This is where the sick innards of ships are brought for expert surgery; the most important part of the base. On we go to the electrical shop, a place of everincreasing importance now that Asdics and other mysterious devices play such a big part in the war. And here is the instrument room, where nirpble-fingered experts tackle anything from a range finder to a clock. To the torpedo shop, where men are probing the delicate innards of the long and deadly fish. They are not really deadly here, the warheads are off and gone. No explosives are kept in the dockyard area for obvious reasons. Ships coming in for refitting or repair must first de-ammunition at the naval magazine, which is— well, far away. In an adjoining store, piled high like neat stacks of logs by means of an overhead crane, are “fish” by the dozen, nasty looking things, some steel grey, most a vivid shining blue. And here, finally, is the ordnance shop, where guns of several kinds and calibres menace the walls and ceilings with muzzles at all angles. A corvette commander and his gunnery officer stand beside one, watching with almost motherly eyes the repair of their lean grey pet.

Heroes Ashore

BUT WE must take a look at the jetties, white with hard-trampled snow. The temperature is about zero and a bitter wind is whistling down the harbor. Now we know what the admiral meant when he looked from his window toward the moored destroyers and corvettes at the jetties and said, “See the offices, the shops and all that; but go down there and see men at work on the ships if you want to understand what keeps a fleet in being.”

We have come at the right time. Summer is no time to judge the task in hand. This is January, the North Atlantic January, the time when ships receive their cruellest punishment—and the dockyard crew must labor under the cruellest conditions. For you can’t haul a destroyer, a corvette or a minesweeper up the boat slip into the shipwright’s shop as you would a launch or a pinnace. You must work on her where she lies, in the full blast of the weather, at the end of a spray-lashed quay.

Look at that welder ! He stands on a slung plank a couple of feet above the water line, on the windward side of a destroyer. He is heavily wrapped, but the spray from the harbor chop has coated his clothes with ice as high as his shoulders. In his hooded grey lammy coat, spangled with glittering ice designs, with the metal mask before his face and the unearthly violet flare of the arc flicker-

ing over the mask, he looks like a figure out of the Inquisition. He has worked there for hours, and will work there till the job is done. Not all the heroes go to sea.

We board the destroyer. She’s sustained some heavy weather damage, and while she’s in, they’re making certain necessary changes topside. The deck swarms with muffled and busy men—shipwrights, boilermakers, pipe fitters, welders, riggers, electricians, machinists. One group is ehecking over the port torpedo tubes, and the January wind whistles through those tubes like the pipes of Pan. We make our way along the deck, weaving among the depthcharge throwers and the other angular objects which infest a destroyer’s deck. Everywhere the hooded men are crouching, standing, lying, kneel-

ing or stooping over their tasks. No loafing, no idle joking here; these men are deadly serious. Up in the dockyard engineer’s office, on the schedule board, this destroyer is marked to he ready for sea on a certain date—and she will be ready on that date.

On the other side of the jetty lies a cluster of weatherbeaten corvettes, flank to flank. The hooded figures swarm there, too, and on all sides you hear the chip-chip of chisels, the swish of plane and tap of hammer, the musical tink-tink-tink of caulking mallets, the machine-gun rattle of rivetting machines and pneumatic caulkers, the hiss and roar of welding and cutting arcs, the squeal of frosty nuts and bolts under the wrench. On the quayside, portable compressedair machines roar and subside and roar again as the pressure changes in the tanks. And now and again a mighty hooded figure, a supermonk, swings a big sledge hammer, and the whole ship rings like a gong. Yonder a minesweeper is shipping a new mast. A Fairmile—one of those fast pocket - torpedo - boats which the Italians call E and the Germans call S-boats—is being tuned up after a trial run up the coast from the builder’s yard. An armed yacht is getting a new depth-charge rack. So it goes.

We clamber down an icy ladder to

a bobbing launch, which is plastered with frozen spray like a cake in a bakeshop window, and whirl across the hissing grey water to the slips where certain underwater repairs are made. A corvette is just coming out of the water, drawn by the great steel chains. A destroyer sits high and dry, a little indecent somehow, but you see how fine are her lines. "A floating razor blade,” suggests one irreverent young officer. Another swears that she rolled sixty-eight degrees by the bridge clinometer in the last gale on the Banks.

The bleak wind sweeps under her naked hull and whistles about the men at work there. She has touched something, a submerged bit of wreckage, a rock—rammed a submarine, maybe (the guide is mum)—and started several bottom plates. The

new plates have been fastened in place with nuts and bolts, and the rivetting crews are busy. We watch one heater at his little forge, a ridiculous thing somehow, a spark in this big and hitter outdoors; watch him flip a red-hot rivet to the halffrozen man with the catching tin, who picks it out of the tin with his tongs and whips it to someone inside the hull. The rivet vanishes, and reappears mysteriously, small end out, through a hole in the edge of the plate. The rivetter stoops, rat-tattat goes the hammer, the skilful hand rolling the violent tool as it works, fashioning a good round head on the rivet. And up goes another.

Farther along, a hot rivet is missed by the catcher in a gust of wind. It falls, glowing to the icy floor of the slip, and a little ripple of fine sparks runs over it, as if the thing were shivering in the cold. Then its hot cherry red fades, and in half a minute it is black and dead. Only human blood and human purpose can keep at working heat in this atmosphere. There is the story. The brains in the office, the sweat in the shops, these play their important part. But what keeps the Navy afloat is human endurance and persistence under the open sky. You feel like taking off your hat. But you don’t. You’d freeze your ears.