Michael Heath-Caldwell M.Arch
Around about this time our school during the first few years of war was evacuated up north. That was a great eye opener for me, and I was there in two locations. At the age of 13 I had the chance to take the common entrance examination to an exam for entry into the Royal Navy. This was quite an event. My grandfather had tried to join the navy but he failed the exam. That was around about 1870. But he later became a Major General in the Royal Engineers and finished up his career as an Air Commodore organizing the Royal Air Force. Anyway he failed to get into the Navy, but for some reason or other, I don’t quite know how, I got a scholarship into the navy. My father was not too pleased when he found that he still had to pay the school fees. I suppose in times of peace he might have got off paying the school fees because scholarship people were supposed to have got their education free. That happened when I was 13. The actual interview down in London was quite a exercise and quite an adventure. The headmaster accompanied me down to London by train, we went to the Admiralty, I did not know where I was going but he obviously knew the way, and there my interview was just after lunch time and once while I was waiting for them to process me or for me to go in front of the board I was asked to sit down and write an essay about what country I would like to visit most at the end of the war. So I thought for awhile and thought I might say Switzerland, but I thought that would be a bit, and I had another choice, so my choice was that I would like to visit Poland. And I did that because I could then get in all the reasons for why the war had started in 1939. That was four years previously and that must have gone down well, and I was perhaps just lucky and I also had a word from the father of a fellow pupil, I forget but he was a Channel Islander, from Guensey, at my prep school who had been the first man to dismantle a magnetic mine on beach without being blown up. Other bomb disposal men had been killed because mines and shells and bombs were sometimes booby trapped so that if somebody tried to get in to them and find out how they worked that would cause the mine.
Having passed in to the Royal Navy, having passed the exam, I found that I was not the only one from my school to get in, there was another friend of mine from the school called Geoffrey Lemon, who also gained entry into the Navy. He was actually turned down for a start because his doctor said he was colour blind. The only thing was that on rechecking him they found that was not the case at all so he did very well in the entrance exam and got in as well, so there were two of us who had been at prep school together and then entered the Navy together.
The Navel college was originally situated at Dartmouth in the south of England where it was on the sea. Then when the war came in 1939 and things did not go very well for England in the war the college was evacuated up to a place in Bristol, that was in range of the German airforce, so they decided to move the college again to the Duke of Westminster’s country seat near Chester, and that was where I went with 45 other young boys aged 13 ½ in September 1943. There was a certain amount of language to be learnt there, all the various terms the Navy used for all sorts of things, for instance when you went on holiday you did not actually go on holiday, you went on leave.
Eaton Hall – Which reminds me why my naval colleagues called me “Woggles.” I spent the last summer holiday at my prep school ‘Digging for Victory’ as the Government slogan went. And a party of us from school weeded a farmer’s potato field and I got very brown doing that so when I, along with 50 others, joined HMS Brittania or R.N. College, Eaton Hall, Chester, the country seat of the Duke on the river Dee, and here we met together for the very first time off a special train from Paddington Railway Station in London. And we were bussed to Eaton Hall and we were put in what was called Drake House, after the famous British Admiral. And it was in the main building and our gunroom was in the Painted Hall and we’d been given strict instructions to look after the Duke’s property and not treat it as of very little worth as we were told the Army did, because they’d been there occupying it before the Navy took over. And all was well till a cadet who had made a model copper or bronze cannon he turned at the Engineering Works we attended in Chester, set it off in the main fire place with ammo in it and this hit the ceiling, damaging it. And so we were moved downstairs in the basement in the old kitchen area with its giant spits for roasting sheep and pigs. The Masters and Officers used the Painted Hall as their Common Room. Punishment Naval fashion came quickly.
Another thing was that if you went out into the country side or left your naval establishment, you went ashore, in spite of the fact that you were all on dry land. And that was just part of the language that was taught us. And that was all part of the acclimatization to a naval culture.
At this particular naval establishment, the Dukes’ country home, he lived there in quite a big house but separate from the main building where the whole college had their classrooms and a few dormitories, and throughout the grounds of the Dukes’ country estate were prefabricated buildings and huts and divided up into groups of houses. They would have been called houses in a public school, but our school was not a public school, it was a government run school, we were actually HMS Britannia at that time. And a friend of mine called Hargraves decided one day that he would venture into the Duke of Westminster’s part of the establishment where he lived in private and had a few green houses in which peaches grew, and my friend, John Hargreaves, he pinched a couple of peaches from there but got caught doing so. Now this was a very sort of bad mark for the Navy, I suppose being caught in the first place, it was not exactly acceptable and my friend Hargreaves was caned in front of the whole assembly in the gym. I did not actually see it, I was not there, I think I was sick at the time or was attending sick bay.
And one of my friends, A B. Eagles, because we scoured the woods round the Duke’s estate and brought back anything edible. This included chestnuts and edible fungi. These we cooked on the round stoves in our hut. Poor old [Barry?] Eagles was slung out of the R.N. before we graduated because he didn’t work enough. Once, at a half term, we visited together the Forest of Dean in Wales – there we also sought edible fungi etc
At that time, just next to the Duke of Westminster’s buildings and estate and polo grounds we found marvelous, there were lots of grounds for rugby, football, soccer and hockey and just over or outside the boundary on this very flat farmland area there was an aerodrome which had been built at the beginning of the war for training purposes and while we were there for a start Air Speed Oxfords took off from the nearby runway, and they circled and flew around the area teaching people to fly, bomber pilots. One bomber pilot unfortunately, on take off, crashed into the school grounds and all on board were killed, except one who was injured and he was taken to the sick bay in the college grounds and unfortunately, everybody asked after him, and he died there. So that caste a bit of a pall over the college for a few weeks or so until the event sort of merged with the past and we got on with our lives. Later on in the war the aerodrome which was just next door to us was taken over by the Americans and their transport aircraft, Dakota DC3 they were, and hundreds of them used to use it.
At the airfield there were hangers up there [semi-circle profile] at both ends. And a flight of tiger Moths, three of them, were attached to the college and the pilots were wild young men who flew down and through the hangers just for the hell of it. And those of us who were lucky went up in a Tiger Moth and were taught to fly. But not to land or take off. And I had my turn and it was great to see Cheshire from the air and Warrington, I think, and Liverpool to the west. And I found the actual flying was a piece of cake but of course taking off and landing we weren’t given enough time to lean to do that. But altogether it was great fun to fly in a Tiger Moth with an instructor.
Anyway, at R.N. College Eaton Hall there was Oily P., a Master who taught us to sail on the River Dee. Incidentally the river was not all that wide and particularly when you were trying to tack to windward and refresh[?] that meant lots of [clinging?] tacks. Oily P was actually a very good sailing instructor. W.L. Pritchard actually, who taught science if my memory holds.
One afternoon at the end of 1944, me and some friends of mine were on a boat in the river. We had to have some place on the river so that we could learn about boats and how they behaved. Sailing dinghies, there were, and rowing boats, and carvel built whalers which could sail. The River Dee was quite narrow, but you got all the more practice then having to change tacks fairly quickly if you were wanting to sail upstream sometimes. You simply had about a couple of cricket pitch widths and you had to tack all the way up. And this of course, gave you lots and lots of practice of actually tacking. And one afternoon a friend of mine, and myself were out in one of the skiffs, we were just rowing up just to enjoy the boating on the river, and we got far away, about a mile or two up, quite near this aerodrome where the Americans had been and they had moved on, and we heard the intercom of the air field being used by somebody, and what happened was that some cadet had been exploring this deserted aerodrome and found the control tower and the position where the microphones were that the loud hailer system all around the airfield and he delighted himself I suppose magnifying his voice all the way around the air field. The only thing was of course he was given away by this and discovered and got into big trouble and I think he got caned for that too. He was just playing around with military gear, it was all there and all in working order but there were no Americans there, or no air force personnel, they had moved on further down to the south of England.
And there was a fellow cadet called Julian Howard and he bullied me. His desk, being ‘Ho’ and me being ‘He’ was directly behind mine in class and he would flick paper pellets form behind at my ears. And one day in one of our Nissan huts I was wrestling with him on the floor and I got on top of him and I had my hands round his neck and I squeezed. And then I said to Howard, “Howard, if you continue to bully me I’ll kill you!” And never again did he bully me. And that was a lesson to me. Always stand up to bullies or you’ll never right it. Believe me, bullies are really cowards and they don’t realize that till their victims turn on them.
That would have been getting on past 1944. The war effected us in that we could not visit any ships that went to sea because they did not really want any of us to go to sea an be torpedoed by a lurking German submarine in the waters around the UK at that time. And of course the only thing was that we did manage to do some ship visiting in Manchester. We were taken in buses and paid a visit to the end of the Mancheste rShip Canal which enabled merchant ships and destroyers to go all the way from Liverpool to Manchester where the ships were repaired in the dockyards there. That was fun, that was seeing what a real ship was like.
Now, at the end of the war in Europe, and Japan, it happened that the atomic bomb which brought the war to a very swift close within twelve months of the Germans being surrendering. The war was continued in the Pacific against the Japanese and it was the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which brought the war to a close within fourteen days of that happening. The Emperor of Japan told his people that the war had gone against them, and they were going to surrender. He had seen his cities in Japan, a lot of them burnt down by incendiary raids by American and British bombers and he saw that the war was over when this new weapon of war was introduced. Nagasaki and Hiroshima saved the lives of thousands of servicemen all over the Pacific, and I think they were as surprised as we were when we were one lunch time at the Royal Navel College up there in Eaton Hall when the Head Cadet Captain announced that some explosive devices had been dropped over Hiroshima and a fortnight later the war came to a close in the Pacific. The Emperor of Japan’s palace was not razed to the ground in the air raids that the Americans conducted against them, obviously it was forethought, this was, they had had the Emperor’s buildings out of bounds of bombers, they were not allowed to drop their bombs anywhere near it and they didn’t. Perhaps the Americans had more people who used their brains to do that, but I think it possible that if the military had been totally in control of the lot they would have razed the lot to the ground including the Emperor of Japan, because it was the influence of the Emperor, almost a god, more than in may other religions, and when he said the war was up they all immediately followed him and all the pilots who were earmarked to be Kamikaze pilots, they all survived too. So there were a lot of lives saved, although about 250,000 civilians died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that was a very large amount of people to die just because one airman pressed one button, or two airmen in the case of both cities and this terrible power was unleashed in the world for the first time.
At the end of the war when German submarines were no longer a menace, we had the chance, and the whole of our term were put on board, or we went on board a destroyer in Liverpool, it could have been a frigate, it was not a very big ship, and each one of us cadets was paired off with a sort of a sea-father, an understudy to each member of the ship’s company. We went from Liverpool to Bangor, a small seaside port in North Wales and then we crossed the Irish Sea having anchored and spent a night at Bangor Northern Wales we went over, we went over to Bangor in Northern Ireland in Ulster. And that was a very successful for us, we saw what happened in a ship, we saw how a ship’s company lived, everything. It was mainly be shown things, but we did actually sink a mine with rods sticking out of it, a contact mine, which was reported, and we went and sunk it by rifle fire. We hoped it would explode, but it didn’t, it just sank. We hoped we would have a bit of a bang and a bit of a display
Michael Heath-Caldwell M.Arch