Remembering the Telegraphist Air Gunners
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Memories of the War Years by Joseph (Joe) Griffin Telegraphist Air Gunner Joseph B. Griffin Telegraphist Air Gunner Course 39 (Worthy Down) The Other Navy As a very naive 18 year old, I joined the Royal Navy a few days after my birthday in July 1939. Having passed the fitness and education tests (I was able to lift a pen and write my name) I was told by the Recruiting CPO that because of Admiralty Orders, he was only allowed to enrol Cooks and Stewards at that time, but not to worry as it was only a formality and as soon as I arrived at RNB Portsmouth I would be able to transfer to whichever branch I wished. Which is why five months later, as a fully trained assistant Cook (S) with diplomas in swabbing gallery decks and spud bashing I found myself in Hartlepool staring down from the fish quay, onto a deck of what had once been a fishing trawler but now resembled something from one of Emmetts nightmares. A 4 inch gun was mounted on a platform above the fo’csle and extra lookout bridge built on top of the original one with a Hotchkiss machine gun on either side, a Lewis gun on the stern with a couple of depth charges ready to roll off. Lashed down around the deck were various of mine sweeping gear such as kites, doors, cutters and a couple of huge torpedo shaped floats which had a name something like Oropesas. The whole scene was dominated by an enormous winch situated in front of the bride housing: “Welcome aboard HMT Ben Dearg”. Starting from the top, the crew consisted of a Lt. RNVR, a Skipper who had the rank of S/Lt RNVR and who was a ex- trawler Skipper. The Chief Engineer was an ex-trawler man, now a CPO Stoker; the Chief Gunners Mate was a CPO seaman RNR who held a trawler Skippers ticket; and the Leading Seaman RNR held a trawler mates ticket. There was one Telegraphist and one Signalman, eight Seaman and four Stockers. A Steward looked after the needs of the Officers and Senior Rates who all shared the aft cabin which was the original crews quarters and then there was me. That made a total complement of 22 and except for the five in the Wardroom we messed in what was once the fish hold now filled with bunks, four pairs of hammock hooks and a mess table. My introduction to the galley was a horror story. It was approximately six feet square with a worktop, a cupboard full of various pots and pans and a cast iron coal fired range covered with grease, choked with soot and dust, and the whole place was infested with cockroaches. Cleaning the range and getting rid of the soot to get the oven working was one of the first jobs. Containing the cockroaches was just an ongoing task. As in all small ships we were canteen messing, which should mean caterers, duty cooks, etc. but the Patrol Service chose to ignore this routine and everything was left to guess who? Our normal sweep was from Hartlepool to the Humber and took from seven to fourteen days depending on conditions and with no fridge or even a cool box, it was a nightmare trying to keep the food fresh especially in summer. Inevitably some food went off, which is why I was probably the only TAG who had entered on his history sheet “Awarded seven days No. 11’s [stoppage of leave] for rendering 12lbs of beef unfit for human consumption”. Coming from Brum, I had never seen the sea until I went to Portsmouth and my only shipboard experience was the Gosport Ferry. It was with some trepidation and excitement that we “let go fore and aft” and headed out of harbour. Anyone who has experienced the North Sea in winter will appreciate it is bot exactly a millpond. In a top heavy trawler with waves higher than the mast head I can only leave to your imagination. Fortunately, I was a natural sailor and didn’t suffer from sea sickness but struggling to keep the pots and pans from flying off the range was a different matter. However, I must have coped reasonably well for nearly two years as nobody suffered from food poisoning. It was very hard work, uncomfortable, and boring doing the same sweep week after week. Things did get interesting when we were attacked by enemy aircraft, sinking several floating mines and detonating acoustic mines which nearly took us with them. In winter “rig of the day” was Balaclavas, duffel coats and sea boots, the deck was constantly awash. Summer rig was singlets and plimsolls; uniforms were for shore leave only. Everyone turned out for laying out and retrieving the sweep, also for coaling ship, a dirty job. One of the few perks of the Patrol Service although unofficial was that even U/A ratings had their daily tot and it was always neaters. One day in the summer of 1941, I saw an AFO stating that suitable volunteers were accepted to be trained as TAGs. I thought this is my chance to get off this old tub and put in a request. “Sorry my lad this does not apply to you. Once you are in the Patrol Service, you stay in”. Bewailing my luck to the Chief Gunner, a wise old man who was at least 40, said “Hang about, you are not patrol Service, your Royal Navy. Put in for your hook and they will have to send you back to Portsmouth to qualify. Once you’re there, put in for a TAG again”. That is exactly what happened and after more stringent medical and education tests I arrived at HMS St. Vincent in October 1914 and began the first stage of No. 32 Telegraphist Air Gunners Course. I must say it was quite a transition from being a trawler cook to being one of the elite of the lower deck, something of which we are all proud. J. Griffin Source: Article “The Other Navy” (Journal of the Telegraphist Air Gunners Association - August 2003) Telegraphist Air Gunner (TAG). (ST. VINCENT) Ratings were recruited both from direct entry or transfer from an existing branch of the RN. Direct entrants reported to HMS ROYAL ARTHUR, Skegness, for their seven week new entry and basic training before being drafted to HMS ST. VINCENT as Naval Airmen 2nd Class; men accepted for transfer to TAG were drafted to HMS DAEDALUS to await the available next course. On completion of the 4 week part one TAG training the TAG candidates received their flying kit and were allocated to a TAG School for their part two training; for many this was No. 1 Air Gunners School at RCAF Station, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
Joseph (Joe) Griffin
HMT Ben Dearg Photo: © IWM (FL 1758)
Joseph Bernard Griffin Petty Officer Telegraphist Air Gunner Fleet Air Arm Royal Navy - WWII Service: 1939 - 1951 HMS Victory (Royal Navy Shore Training) HMT Ben Dearg (Royal Navy Patrol Service) HMS St. Vincent (Telegraphist Air Gunner training) HMS Kestrel HMS Jackdaw (Fleet Air Arm base located Kingsbarns, Fife, Scotland) HMS Tern (Orkney Islands) HMS Urley (Isle of Man) HMS Daedalus (Royal Naval Air Station Lee-on-Solent) Joe Griffin survived three Swordfish crashes during his war experience. He served as the last Chairman of the Telegraphist Air Gunners Association. The Association disbanded in 2010. Joe died April 15, 2014 at the age of 92.
Joe Griffin (left) Lee-on-Solent May 20, 2012