Photograph of the plaque in the foyer of the Cabbala Suite at the civic halls (Rose Centre)
Copyright © September 2011 Alan Nixon and Lowton Websites
Photographs and artical reproduced from "Yachting Monthly and R.N.V.R. Journal" - January 1943
H.M.S. Cabbala is a shore station – so much a shore station, in fact, that to find the White Ensign flying in that particular spot has probably come as a surprise to a number of people. But once past the bluejackets guarding the gates with bayonets fixed, the great ship’s bell and the White Ensign fluttering at the masthead, the atmosphere is completely nautical.
This is a school where naval ratings and Wrens are trained in three separate branches of signals – wireless telegraphy, visual signalling and coding. Some of the classes are co-educational, but it is only with the training of the Wrens that we are concerned. All Wren classes are known by the names of ships, those of the Coders beginning with C, the Wireless Telegraphists with W and the Visual Signallers with V. A certain amount of tact had to be exercised when selecting the names of the Visual Signallers, as amongst the Vs were ships with names such as Vixen and Virago.
It having been decided in which of these three categories the girls are to be trained, the majority of them come here straight away as Probationary Wrens without first passing through one of the preliminary training schools, although in some cases they have been drafted from other categories. The first days are spent in general training, the girls are kitted up and eventually start with specialised courses.
The Coders are here for five and a half weeks of which the coding course occupies the last month, and they are trained by naval officers and yeomen of signals. Their work is naturally highly confidential, and after their final examinations they are posted to various naval shore establishments around the coast.
The Visual Signallers’ course occupies sixteen weeks, during which time these Wrens become proficient with semaphore flags, 10in. signalling projectors, the Aldis lamp and the International Code of Signals.
In the centre of the School there is a very fine asphalt parade ground, and here the Wrens have plenty of space for the use of all these means of communication, but if the weather is too bad for outside work there are ample facilities for the instruction to be carried on under cover. The Visual Signallers are divided into three classes of twenty-four, and in their early days they devote much time to mastering the semaphore alphabet and signalling as a class. Later they split up into pairs – a reader and a writer, with the reader facing the distant signaller and a writer with back to the signaller taking down the message.
For the use of the Aldis lamp and signalling projector, a complete and unhesitating knowledge of the Morse code is required, and when this has been mastered the girls again split up into pairs and practice in much the same way.
Just off the parade ground is a specially erected mast, at the truck of which flies the Captain’s pennant. On this mast are hoisted the flags of the International Code of Signals, so when these Wrens pass out from the School at the end of their four months’ course and are posted to their stations, they are able to signal and read signals from ships by all the usual means of communication.
The Wireless Telegraphists’ course lasts six months, and these Wrens work in classes of twenty-five. They work at wooden tables, and each girl has a pair of headphones and a buzzer on which to transmit messages in the Morse code. In addition to the regular naval instructors, Wren petty officers who are expert wireless telegraphists, and who have been right through the course and have served as operators, are now included on the teaching staff.
Senior classes work with receiving panels and take down messages in Morse as though transmitted form ships and naval stations, and so become accustomed to apparatus similar to that which they will be using when their student days are over.
H.M.S Cabbala is a completely self-contained unit. There is a large hall with a good stage which is used for general lectures, entertainments, and a weekly dance. Its cinema projector, intended primarily for instructional films, can also be used for less serious subjects. There is a N.A.A.F.I. canteen, a sick bay staffed by one nursing sister and four V.A.D.s, and facilities for outdoor games, the Admiralty having requisitioned surrounding fields for this purpose.
The wireless telegraphists get two recreation periods a week during working hours, the visual signallers one, and the coders, whose course is a comparatively short one, one during two of the weeks of their course.
The Wrens are housed in H-shaped buildings, each of which accommodates ninety-four Wrens, with eight baths and sixteen wash-basins between them. The cabins run down each side of the legs of the H and are divided into port and starboard watches. Each watch elects its own watch leader, who is responsible for the allocation of duties, such as cleaning of the cabins and bathrooms, which are carried out by the Wrens themselves. The cross-piece of the H is a general sitting room, with comfortable chairs and probably a gramophone.
Officers have exactly the same accommodation, except that there are two berths in the Wrens’ cabins and only one ion the officers’.
The Wrens’ Mess is a spacious room with rows of tables. Girls from each table collect the food from the hatches and serve it. Used plates are packed onto a trolley and taken to a room leading from the galley, where they are cleaned by means of an electric washer.
The galley staff consists of six Wren stewards and twenty-seven Wren cooks, which include the Captain’s cook, officers’ cook and sick bay cook. In charge of a chief petty officer cook they work in watches and cook for some 600 sailors and 500 Wrens and the staff.
Cooking is by means of an Esse stove for top heat and electric fryers, pastry oven and steamer. Four enormous boilers are used for soup, tea and coffee, and bacon and bread are cut by automatic slicers, while mixing is done by a
Starting the day with breakfast at 0800, the Wrens, after Divisions, march straight to their lectures. Dinner is at 1215, and at 1325 they muster on the parade ground and march to class. Evening muster is at 1645, with tea at 1650. Then liberty boat at 1715, and the Wrens are free until 2230, or, if it is Friday or Saturday, 2330. And so ends a Wren’s day at the
(Photo received by e-mail from unknown source)
(Photo received by e-mail from unknown source)
This is a page of recollections of time spent at HMS Cabbala by Ralph Smith
The order to report for Naval service was a great disappointment for my mother who was now left alone just as we were settling down at Thornton Heath. However, Freda nobly offered to move to 46 Leander Road to take my place, for which I was immensely grateful. My own feelings at being called up were mixed. Many of the chaps at work were envious or professed to be so, but I had no burning desire to enter the Armed Forces myself since I was already doing a vital and demanding operational job in what was still a high-risk location. My school friends who were in the Army or Air Force ground staff did not seem to be wildly enthusiastic about it and exerted no peer pressure on me to come and join them. On the other hand, at the age of twenty, any change has an element of adventure in it and I entered upon it cheerfully enough.
On 29 December 1942 I bade a fond farewell to my mother and Freda and "went off to war". For centuries the Royal Navy had based its ships on one of three Home Ports - Chatham, Portsmouth and Devonport (a district of Plymouth). Each port had a Naval Base, a Barracks and a Dockyard, all within the same site or very close. Ships were manned from their Home Port (in the old days often by Press Gangs who scoured local inns to haul men off to sea without even a farewell to their families) and after a commission lasting two or three years would return there to pay off into Dockyard hands for refitting and repair, their crews being sent on leave. After their leave the men would return to Barracks and be allocated to another ship from the same port. In peacetime the arrangement worked tolerably well, and most recruits would in time settle down with wives and homes not too far from their Home Port. The huge wartime expansion of the Navy, however, meant that for many people none of the Home Ports were convenient. Chatham was the most popular port because of its easy access to London and the main line rail termini. For this reason, the Admiralty tried to give Scotsmen preference for a Chatham posting, which may be why I was sent all the way to Devonport.
I left the train at Keyham station and was conveyed through the Dockyard gates to the Barracks, where I and several others were placed in the New Entry Mess. This was a dreary room under the charge of a three-badge AB - an Able Seaman with three red chevrons on his left arm denoting 12 years' good conduct, or undetected crime as he more accurately put it. He was an amiable chap but we were startled when he suddenly took exception to some fancied slight by the management and launched into a stream of invective. To be more exact, it was a long description of his officers and their parentage in which every second word was qualified by an adjective beginning with "f". Although, as you have seen, I had a fairly rugged childhood, in those days neither I nor my friends would have used that word and it would never, ever, have been heard in the home. At school we would have been whacked soundly had it passed our lips. The other recruits and I looked at each other sheepishly, wondering what vocabulary he would fall back upon if he were really upset. It was my first introduction to a life and people far removed from my middle-class upbringing in London. When I joined the Admiralty I met young men from many other parts of the country, but their backgrounds were mostly similar to mine. Now I would find I had to live close to, be dependent upon and take orders from people from every conceivable walk of life, with speech, talents, habits and attitudes quite foreign to me.
We slept that night in hammocks which, while not verminous, were decidedly grubby, with canvas-covered pillows and plain grimy blankets. The hammocks were already slung for us between strong bars fixed into the walls, but we had to get into them on our own and, more importantly, stay in them. Slinging, mounting and sleeping in a hammock is a skill which takes some time to acquire; the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship devoted nearly two pages to slinging, lashing up and cleaning hammocks.
Next day, I was given a number, D/JX 356846, the "D" denoting Devonport. I was then a Naval Rating. No-one cared for the name "Rating", which has a distinctly inferior sound to it, but it derives from the fact that from the earliest days sailors had held "Rates" not "Ranks". I was issued with a uniform, a hammock and mattress, a kit-bag and numerous supplementary items including two large shoe brushes (wonderfully made and still in my possession) and a pouch containing needles and thread, called a "housewife" but pronounced "hussif", with which to mend my clothes. We then entered upon a tour of a dozen or more huts and rooms scattered over the Barracks and the Dockyard, all of them small, stuffy and thick with tobacco smoke, where we obtained various documents, had a medical examination, were given soap and tobacco coupons and collected a "Quarters" card showing our Watch and Part of Ship for leave, messing and Action Stations. This routine, we discovered, was followed whenever a sailor joined or left a ship or establishment anywhere in the world. A skilled malingerer could fill two days - sometimes more - at it before anyone could find him and give him a job.
Every unit of the Navy is called a "ship" and carries the prefix HMS - His (or Her) Majesty's Ship - whether it is actually floating or is just a collection of buildings. The way of life is exactly the same ashore or afloat, even to the extent of lining up for the "liberty boat" to "go ashore" from a camp miles from the sea. The next day, New Year's Eve 1942, I was allowed ashore and, as it happened, I knew that Bob Mendoza was serving in Plymouth as an Army Dental Assistant. Fortunately, I also had his telephone number and was delighted when he said he could meet me that evening. We had a meal and went onto Plymouth Hoe, where Drake supposedly played bowls while awaiting the Spanish Armada nearly four hundred years earlier. There were many ships in the Sound, blacked out and invisible of course, but at the stroke of midnight they all sounded their sirens and there was the odd flash of light from seaward. We looked at each other, shook hands and wondered where we would be on the next New Year's Eve in 1943, or, tempting Fate, on the same day in ten years' time. We resolved to remember that night especially, and we always have. Fifty years later, in 1992, we celebrated New Year's Eve together though not, as we once planned, on Plymouth Hoe itself, in deference to the comfort of our spouses.
I spent that night at "Aggie Weston's". The life of a sailor is always hard; ships are uncomfortable and overcrowded, and for merchant seamen it was common to find yourself with no ship and no home, at the mercy of grasping innkeepers or worse. Agnes Weston was a benevolent Victorian lady who founded hostels where sailors could get a meal and a bed cheaply and safely. I slept in a hard but clean bed, much different from my hammock in the New Entry Mess, and rose early to return to Barracks at 7am. Within a few days I was drafted to HMS Cabbala, a new establishment at Leigh, near Warrington in Lancashire, which specialised in training Coders for the Royal Navy. I had registered as a Coder at the Admiralty's suggestion, on the basis that since I was already trained in the art they could (wrongly as it turned out) keep me as a civilian in that capacity.
The journey to Leigh was the forerunner of many epic wartime rail marathons for me. The train was crowded with servicemen of all kinds, with the odd sprinkling of civilians, often young women with children on their own. The guard's van was quickly filled with kitbags, hold-alls, hammocks and other goods, so that many of us had to lug our gear into the carriages, adding to the confusion and taking up valuable space. The seating was quite insufficient for us all and the corridors soon filled with men jealously guarding a square foot or two where they might sit uncomfortably with their belongings through the long journey. Luggage racks were appropriated for sleeping purposes by those nimble and determined enough to climb into them. Most of the journey was by night and I had a bleary recollection of halts at dimly-lit platforms bearing legendary names like Hereford, Gloucester and even Crewe, the famous railway junction immortalised in the Music Hall song about the lady who took a ticket to Birmingham and found herself there instead. It was strange to find that these towns actually existed, whose names I knew so well from History lessons as the scenes of important battles or the sources of industries and artefacts with which Britain had created the modern world.
HMS Cabbala itself was a new camp with brick-built blocks each accommodating about 20 people, a comfortable dining room, a cinema and, of course, a parade ground. We arrived exhausted but cheered by its air of cleanliness and efficiency after Devonport Barracks. The purpose of the place was not only to teach young men how to do their job as Coders in the Navy but, just as important, to convert a diverse and mixed group of people into a disciplined force. The marching, drilling and seemingly senseless rules are a standing joke in all the Services, but the Armed Forces are actually very skilled at moulding an individual into a soldier, sailor or airman who can be trained to do things he never thought possible. Slowly but surely we found ourselves absorbing the traditions and ethos of those generations of British sailors before us who had faced both their enemies and the elements to force their way across the farthest oceans of the world. The Royal Navy still regarded itself as being the best in the world, even if no longer the largest, and we were left in no doubt that we should carry on its traditions. In time, as we became immersed in our new and totally strange world, we would find that "civilians" were strangers who lived a different life and had different values from us; and that after the war we should have to re-learn what it was to be one of them. But that was to come later.
Our immediate reaction to HMS Cabbala was excitement. The food was superb after civilian rations which three years of war had reduced to utter dreariness. Now we had plenty of meat, sugar, butter and eggs; and the Navy excelled in producing the most heavenly plum duffs or spotted dick - steamed suet pudding with jam or sultanas respectively smothered in custard. Not only that, but we shared the camp with a large contingent of Wrens - the Women's Royal Naval Service - who we were told were our shipmates and must be looked after. Not that we were encouraged to take this too literally, but there were weekly dances on camp and fraternising on our infrequent excursions ashore was smiled upon. We sensed a return to the carefree self-concern of our schooldays and relief from the obligations of adult civilian life. The Navy looked after our wellbeing in every respect and all we had to do was to learn and observe its curious ways, chief among which was complete obedience to a superior. Initially this seemed a small price, but we chafed at some of the quite trivial misdemeanours which brought down the wrath of the authorities. The Naval Discipline Act now contained only a shadow of its once appalling cruelties. Even so, life could be made miserable, with penalties ranging from stoppage of leave and pay, extra duties and hard physical exercise, to incarceration in the guardroom, cells or ultimately in the Navy's own quite frightful detention centres.
We started quickly on our training. In my case there was little or nothing I did not know about codes except the Morse Code, but I had much to learn about the routines of a Wireless Room and the intricacies of Fleet signals procedures. Our class instructor was a regular-service Petty Officer - Yeoman of Signals was his proper title - whose normal job was to stand on the bridge sending and reading messages by flags, flashing Aldis Lamps or semaphore. When radio silence was imposed, as it usually was in order to conceal one's position, these were the only methods of communication among ships sailing in company or for that matter with friendly aircraft. The Signalman's job called for keen eyesight, quick wittedness and an ability to concentrate on distant objects with wind, rain or snow beating about him and a deck heaving violently in all directions underneath him.
Coding was a minor part of our Instructor's skill but he invested it with an interest and importance which gave us pride in the job. Coders were a very recent addition to the Navy but as far as he was concerned, we were members of the Communications Branch, wearing crossed flags on our arms, and it was unquestionably the best Branch in the Navy. These Regular Navy Chief and Petty Officers were quite remarkable men, with a combination of simplicity, integrity and professional skill which I later found characterised the Navy's non-commissioned officers and gave it such immense strength in adversity. My fellow recruits were quite a mixed bag. The call-up had been extended and tightened up, with the result that numbers of older men had been clawed from the bosoms of their families. Our class included several of these, worthy individuals often having held responsible positions in Industry, who had thought themselves secure. Not that they showed too much outward resentment at finding themselves in uniform; but they were less tolerant towards the strange practices and discipline of Naval life which we younger ones took in our stride.
In one respect, however, there was common ground - looking smart. One heard stories of the Army's devotion to shiny boots and the frantic efforts of Sergeant Majors to get unwilling men to look like soldiers. In the Navy it was different. Sailors have an obsession with clothing which puts many women in the shade. They called it "looking tiddley". The uniform was more complex than it appeared and the reader may like to know more about it. Chief and Petty Officers and some of the technical Branches wore jacket suits with peaked caps, called "fore-and aft" rig. But most of us had the familiar sailor's uniform which was called "square rig". In winter one wore a blue, tightly woven woollen jersey of considerable weight and proof against the elements, which in summer was replaced by a short-sleeved white tunic shirt with blue edging. (Summer started and ended on prescribed days regardless of the actual weather). Over this went a blue serge, sack-like jacket with long sleeves and no buttons anywhere. It had a large square flap hanging down over the back of the shoulders, tapering over the breast to a wide "V" front. Between the jersey and the jacket went a separate sleeveless blue linen collar with a similar square back and "V" front, tied with tapes around the waist. The linen collar was then pulled outside the jacket and hung neatly over the latter's square flap. This is the familiar visible sailor's collar which is supposed to bring luck to anyone touching it. When on leave I became accustomed to feeling a sudden light touch on my shoulder, but rarely turned quickly enough to see who had done it.
Underneath both collars was wound the "silk", a piece of shiny black material about 130cm by 25cm which was variously said to be in commemoration of Nelson's death or, more practically, for old-time sailors to bind round their hair in battle. This was folded neatly into four and secured at the bottom of the "V" neck by blue tapes fastened to the jacket, its ends tucked inside the jacket. Only a few inches of the silk were visible as it emerged from underneath the collar but it considerably smartened the appearance of the uniform. Below all this were the bell-bottomed trousers, so shaped to give freedom of movement in leaping about the ship and to be rolled up above the knee for ease in scrubbing decks. These did not have a conventional fly-front but instead had a large flap, buttoned at each side above the hips. They had one small internal pocket and the jacket fitted snugly over them, giving the sailor the slim outline which distinguishes him from the other Services. The final touch was a white cord lanyard, also wound under the collar and appearing as a loop above the silk and the tapes at the bottom of the "V".
One might think that this was enough for anyone to have to worry about on the crowded messdecks of a warship on active service, but not so. The jacket, which was designed to stay on in all conditions, had to be pulled over the head and was not the most convenient of garments; yet all sailors coveted an even closer-fitting jacket for special occasions and would obtain a purpose-made "Number One" suit from the flourishing Naval tailors who could be found at ports all over the world from Chatham to China. The regulation red badges would be replaced by handsome replicas in gold wire thread, and the blue tapes at the midriff would be long and flowing. The official trousers were equally considered to be too loose round the hips and too narrow at the bottom, both of which would be corrected by the tailor. The result was an extremely smart outfit which clung to the figure like a lady's sheath dress but was well nigh impossible to get into or out of without the assistance of a shipmate or "Oppo" to pull the jacket over one's shoulders.
The only incongruity in an otherwise striking uniform was the colour of the blue linen collar, which when issued was of deep navy blue with thin blue and white stripes at its edges. This instantly identified the wearer as a newcomer since the more the article was washed, the paler it became. An old hand would have reduced his collar to a pale sky-blue and was suitably respected. All new entrants therefore spent many hours washing and re-washing their collars to remove the dye. Fortunately it came out easily. Less fortunately, the blue then went into the white striped edging, entailing intensive scrubbing with nail- or toothbrush and fingers to remove it.
Finally came the sailor's traditional round hat. This simple ornament was capable of considerable distortion to bend its rim upwards fore and aft and downwards at the sides. It also had a ribbon around it, embroidered in gold with the ship's name in peacetime but simply "HMS" in war, for security reasons. The ribbon was tied round the hat with the letters at the centre of the forehead and a bow over the left ear. That is to say, it was supposed to be. In practice, the sailor would make the ribbon into a loop to fit the hat, a large artificial bow would be created with the spare ribbon, and this sewn onto the ribbon as near to the left eyebrow as the owner dared. From time to time an exasperated Captain would have a blitz on irregular modifications and we would be forced to undo some, but never all, of our work. I suspect that the modern sailor has a more practical outfit with zip fasteners and other conveniences but as far as I know the basic uniform remains the same. The hammock, however, has largely disappeared because modern ships are fitted with bunks. Our training included a certain amount of marching and drilling which all servicemen profess to dislike. In practice, it can be a satisfying activity, instilling a feeling of unity and comradeship among members of a unit by forcing them to think of each other and to act as a single entity. Of course, one could have rather too much of it, especially when ceremonial drills demanded long periods of waiting in cold or wet weather. For special occasions or when on guard duty, the sailor wears white gaiters round his ankles, and his hat is held on by a ribbon chinstrap. A marching column of well-drilled sailors can match the best Guards regiments for smartness. We also learned the drill for ordering, sloping and presenting arms, i.e. rifles, including fixing bayonets, a manoeuvre which was both hilarious and dangerous until we learned to make sure they really were fixed. I recall a bayonet flashing past my ear on one occasion when the sailor in front of me responded to the order "Slope arms" with such vigour that his weapon became detached from his rifle.
Reproduction of ticket for the last reunion held in 1989
Contributed by:Peggy Byatt
At the beginning of 1943 I volunteered for the WRNS as a wireless telegraphist, and on the 25th May, aged 20, reported to Euston for signal school at HMS Caballa, Lowton St. Mary's, Lancs. It was mixed sex, and as well as training wireless telegraphists there were courses for visual signallers (semaphore) and coders (de-coders of morse).
The course was for 6 months, but we were on probation for two weeks - within this time we could leave or be sent home. I remember the navy blue overalls we were issued with in case our stay was a short one; however, nobody left. Some girls in my class, Wolsey, had travelled a long way. One was from Rio, and another from
The course-work covered Morse code, coding and de-coding, basic Sonar and ASDICS, and how to repair radio receivers.
Prayers and the raising of the White Ensign (divisions) were held each morning with the playing of the National Anthem by a Royal Marines band. To ensure we were all dressed the same, we had to watch for the position of the‘O' signal flag on the flag mast. If it was at the top raincoats were to be worn, halfway and raincoats were to be carried, and if no flag, no raincoats. The White Ensign was lowered at sunset.
In the evening we were allowed to go to a canteen in Lowton St. Mary's. Everyone in the village was extremely kind, and often we were invited to the villagers' homes.
There was no drill, but we could play hockey or lacrosse - there were some lethal mixed matches! When the weather was fine we went on gentle route marches.
We were allowed ‘shore leave' at weekends which meant either Liverpool or Manchester, depending on which side of the East Lancs Road we stood to hitch a lift.
To join the Women's Royal Naval Service you had to have passed the School Certificate, which in those days, meant you HAD to pass in English Language, Arithmetic and one foreign language (French in my case). Even if you passed with distinction in any amount of other subjects, if you failed in one of the set requirements, you had to sit the whole lot again - no picking and choosing and carrying forward your better pass marks.
Before I joined up, I was torn between becoming a meteorologist in the WAAF and a radio mechanic in the WRNS. When my friend Irene Davies and I decided to join up together, I had to forego my wish to be a mechanic, as Irene did not take a science subject in her School Certificate. So, to stay together, we agreed to train as Telegraphists.
We trained at HMS Cabbala, Lowton St.Marys, Leigh, Lancashire. This was a 6 months' course and we had to pass out in six subjects - Procedure, Coding, Receiving, Transmitting, Technical and Theory. We were trained to transmit and receive at 24-25 words per minute, but the pass mark speed at the end of the course was 20 words per minute. Believe you me, you NEVER forget Morse (any more than you can forget shorthand). It creeps up on you in most unexpected times and you find yourself di-da-ing tapping out or transcribing letters and figures into Morse. I always had a bit of a mental block in distinguishing H' from 5 when we were receiving mixed letters and figures. This caused me a great deal of anguish. We had to be able to receive in French (with the various accents as well as the language). We had various practice phrases which transcribed rhythmically into Morse and we used to practice them over, and over again. One was BEEF ESSENCE.
At the end of the course, three of us were sent to Royal Naval Headquarters HMS FORWARD, at Newhaven, Sussex. This was end of March 1944. Access to our W/T Room was via a long, steep descent into the bowels of the earth, 122 steps and a heavy metal door at the bottom. Half way down the stairs there was a machine-gun post, with its barrel pointing up. In the W/T Room at that time, there was a Leading Wren Telegraphist on each watch and two WRNS Telegraphists (three when we joined) on each watch. There were also two civilians in their late 40's/50's, known as Uncle Alf and Uncle Stu who lived locally and had been Wireless Officers on the Newhaven-Dieppe Cross-Channel Service pre-1939. They were there during the day. Over all, there was a Chief Petty Officer (Nobby Clarke B.E.M.) and a 3-badge Leading Hand (Alf Clasby) who both lived locally. There were 3 or 4 wireless sets in use.
I can no longer remember the frequencies used though 2850 is in my mind. We did not use R/T - everything was in Morse code. We used Naval Code - a 5-figure block, then the message in 4-figure blocks, ending with another 5-figure block. (On D-Day night, a new code called AQUA was used. The first block was AQUA followed by 3 or 4 -letter blocks. This was broken by the Germans within a day or two and was abandoned. It probably served its purpose in the initial stages).
When we arrived, a three-watch system was being worked and we were assigned to a watch. I cannot remember the sequence of how the watches were matched to the days, but over a 3-day span the watches worked were divided 0800 to noon, noon to 1600, 1600 to 2000 (the dog watches) and 2000 to 0800 following morning (the night watch). During night watch we snatched a quarter of an hour break, for sandwiches, drink of tea, visit to the loos, etc. but if it was slack, we would have an hour or two off in turns. We could put our head down in the sleeping cabins (about 4 or 6 bunks as I remember). Two cabins, one for the men, the other for the WRNS.
What I DO remember is the fuggy, airless pong in the tunnel. We were always glad of the break. However, a visit to the loo involved a long walk 'through the hill' to the lower entrance - a long tunnel with heavy metal doors opening on to the hillside where a lone Marine sentry guarded the tunnel entrance. There were 2 loos just outside. A bit embarrassing for us but it must have been a welcome break for him to be able to have a chat. But the breath of fresh air after the tunnel was wonderful
When we came off night watch, we had breakfast at the Denton Quarters Nissan hut. Fried bread, scrambled egg (dried, I expect), beans and sometimes sausages, bread, lashings of tea (much better than at Seaford). We would often see the WRNS Despatch Rider there - a very individual and glamorous job. She wore breeches and leggings, her motorbike at the ready outside. Drivers from the motor pool were quartered at Denton.
HMS FORWARD double-banked Portsmouth, whose callsign was MTN. Our callsign was MFF, Dover was MTU, and Ramsgate was MFK. (Ramsgate double-banked Dover). In the case of Portsmouth being 'knocked out'we would have taken over. We received and recorded all messages on their wavelengths and, on occasions, transmitted on their behalf. The civilian (Uncle Alf or Uncle Stu), the Chief Petty Officer or the Leading Hand, whoever was in charge overall, had a direct line (by buzzer) to ?Portsmouth? or Newhaven which they used if any 'IMMEDIATE'or 'URGENT'signal was received - alternatively, 'they' got in touch with FORWARD.
In the first few weeks I was at FORWARD (those weeks prior to D-Day), all signal traffic was largely connected with Exercises taking place in the Channel, and offshore etc. These signals were distinguished by the inclusion of -X - in the preamble.
Just before D-Day, there was an intake of male Telegraphists - 3 Leading Hands (Phil Sherwood, Frank Hands, Tommy Gorman) and Telegraphists, of whom I remember Vic Sievey, Bob Laidlaw, Reg Cannan, among others. They were experienced sea-going men who had been on Russian or Atlantic Convoys. They had worked watch and watch about, 4hours on, 4 hours off, for months on end, so FORWARD was a haven for them. All the men were billeted at Denton or South Heighton.
Immediately preceding D-Day, there was not a great deal of wireless activity (probably W/T silence) but afterwards we were very busy and the signals room was a hive of activity - there were 6 sets manned.
The Germans frequently jammed the frequencies, particularly the Portsmouth frequency. Later, in 1945, the Americans seemed to use the frequencies as a telephone line between ships, asking about laundry, films, food, etc. This annoyed us, as naval discipline was paramount. They were blocking the channel should any emergency or immediate messages need to be made, as it did one night when I was on watch and had an emergency signal - O - ship struck by torpedo or mine. This really brought all systems into action as it was in our section of the Channel.
I am rather hazy about the exact layout of the tunnel but I do remember the Signal Distribution Office, and there were Writers, Typists, Coders, Teleprinter Operators, Switchboard Operators, as well as our W/T room. There was the Plot Room which we never entered but did see it D-Day night (through the doorway) and also a 'kitchen' where someone called Grace wielded a big metal teapot during the day. At nighttime, we made our own tea for the watch. There must have been other rooms but I cannot recall them. For example, where did our Chief Petty Officer and 3-badge Leading Hand Clasby hang out? They were rarely in the W/T room all the time.
The WRNS who were already at FORWARD when we arrived were quartered at Denton, whereas we were quartered at Surrey House, Seaford. This had been a men's convalescent home - an Edwardian building with lovely views, set in its own grounds. When Irene and I were first quartered there, we were put in a particularly drab cabin at the back of the house apart from the main rooms. It was wooden-partitioned, painted a drab chocolate brown, had no outlook and was terribly depressing. We shared it with two others. As soon as we knew our way round, we quickly put in for a move to another cabin and got a much better room -large and airy, with a lovely view. There was Irene and myself, Ruth Hall, Mavis Cook, Mavis' friend, and another girl I cannot now name. Mavis' friend had a penchant for soft toys and her bunk was covered with them.
Each cabin was a small unit in itself. We always tried to bunk up with friends but were often a motley lot thrown together. We were responsible for keeping the cabin clean. Frequent random inspections by Quarters staff were a big incentive. They would come round carrying a long walking stick with a crook handle and reach under beds and into corners. There were bunk beds (top bunk always the most popular), and 4-drawer chests-of-drawers shared by 2 people, so in a cabin for 6 there would be 3 bunk beds, 3 chests-of-drawers and a curtained off corner to hang our uniforms, topcoats, raincoats, etc.
Size was a disadvantage with some rooms that were used as cabins (dormitories). One I was in, slept 24 (6 double bunks each side - like a hospital ward). As we were watch-keepers on differing watches, it was difficult to sleep during the day with comings and goings, radios on, chatter, etc. Each cabin rented a radio from a shop in Seaford (about 1/6d. to 2/- (7½ to 10p) per week), to which we all contributed. These were more or less permanently tuned to the American Forces Network (except for BBC news and ITMA (acronym for a popular contemporary radio programme It's that man again starring Tommy Handley)).
We were detailed for fire watch duties (by rota, we had to give our times when on watch in the tunnel). We did not always take kindly to patrolling the attic floors when we would much rather have stayed in bed and taken our chances.
During the warm summer days of 1944, we would come off night watch, grab blankets and pillows, and find somewhere in the gardens to sleep. Always we 'looked out'for each other, making sure we woke in time for lunch or a 'date'. Some girls would really sunbathe - stripping down to the bare necessities. This was suddenly stopped. There was a Polish fighter squadron at Polegate. When they came back from a sortie over the Channel, they diverted off-course and flew low over Surrey House to view the bathing belles. Their CO got in touch with our WRNS Officer and we were all told to be more circumspect.
Other houses in Seaford were also taken over as WRNS Quarters, for a short while I was at Hughenden which was nearer the town centre.
The greater proportion of the WRNS quartered at Seaford worked for NOIC Newhaven as Boats crew, Torpedo WRNS, Artificers, as well as the Writers etc. They were certainly a mixed bunch both in age and background. I remember Lavender Herbert, the daughter of A.P.H.Herbert (the author and columnist), an older person (Maisie) who was a gifted artist, a Bishop's daughter, several daughters of Admirals, and some university graduates. It was certainly an education in the University of Life for my friend Irene and me who came from a sleepy county town on the borders of England and Wales. (Irene and I were at school together from the age of 10, we joined the WRNS together, were at FORWARD together, and remained the closest of friends until sadly she died in 1991).
The FORWARD WRNS billeted at Seaford who worked at Newhaven HQ were bussed to and from watch. The bus would pick us all up, stopping at various points in Seaford. We would next go to Newhaven Harbour and then on to Denton. It would wait for those coming off watch, back to Newhaven Harbour to pick up those coming off watch there, then back to Seaford. (Woe betide anyone who missed the bus).
I must say we enjoyed being at Seaford. There was more to do off watch, a cinema, a good canteen in the centre of the town, the Scotch Tea Rooms and another café on the front. The more sophisticated joined Canadian Army Officers at the Pelham Club. There was the convenience of the nearby railway station so we could get to Brighton on our days free, and a frequent bus service to Brighton and Eastbourne (and all stops in between).
A favourite jaunt was to take the Eastbourne bus, get off at Exceat Farm, walk over High-and-Over Hill to Alfriston, have tea at the Urn or Drusillas (where occasionally we could get a BOILED EGG!!!) and then pick up a bus back again. Alternatively we would walk over the Seven Sisters where we got to know the various gun crews who always gave us tea and 'jelly pieces' (which I discovered to be Bread and Jam). Sometimes we would go to the coastguard cottages at Birling Gap where the Royal Observer Corps had a lookout point. Again, always good for tea and a bite to eat. I have some wonderful memories of warm summer days, the downs, cowslips, poppies, harebells AND lizards (not known in my part of the world).
My only experience of the HQ building on 'top of the tunnel' was coming on and off watch, and on Pay Day where we lined up before the Paymaster and his writer at a table. When called by name we approached, saluted, gave our name and number, received our pay, saluted again and walked away. I am almost sure it was £2 10s. a fortnight (£2.50 in decimal money). We immediately put the bulk of our pay in the PO account, and then made frequent withdrawals of 5/- (25p) or even 2/6d (12½ p).
Many of the girls had someone close in the Services (RAF, NAVY or ARMY - a husband, fiancé, brother or parent). Some were POWs or posted as missing, so they would listen daily to Lord Haw-Haw's broadcasts from Germany - 'Germany calling, Germany calling' - as he would give long lists of POWs, wounded or bodies found etc. (as well as a whole lot of dis-information), e.g. when he announced that HMS FORWARD had been sunk!!! Too true, we thought. But there was great sadness when the minelayers (or sweepers) from Newhaven suffered heavy losses in the Scheldt estuary - so many of the girls lost their husbands, fiancés or boyfriends.
Of course, the old hands in the tunnel remembered the abortive raid made by the Canadians on Dieppe in 1942. I remember the army contingents being encamped at Denton just before D-Day, and seeing them march to Newhaven to embark on the various boats/landing craft. Perhaps, in many cases, we were the last girls they saw. We always waved enthusiastically - and cried a little.
I was on watch the day scheduled for D-Day but it was postponed for 24 hours because of bad weather. Before going off watch, the Commander spoke to us all emphasizing we must NOT speak even among ourselves, what we had seen and heard in the tunnel. We were all very solemn that night as we walked along Seaford front - the sea was really wild.
A day or two after D-Day the doodlebugs started. Initially we were made to get up every time one came over but, later, we would lie in our bunks and watch them. Fighter planes would try to tip them over with their wings - one plane was blown up. Often, in the morning, we would find shredded tin foil used to confuse German radar all over the grounds.
On the night of 22 November 1944 the whole tunnel rocked and juddered - an ammunition barge had broken adrift of its tow and had crashed into Newhaven west beach exploding on impact.
By February/March/April 1945, everything slackened and talk was all of 'when it's over'. Two at a time, we exchanged places with WRNS Telegraphists from Fort Southwick, Portsmouth, which had been the centre of all operations and planning for D-Day. I think we went for 2-3 weeks (to give the Portsmouth WRNS a break). What a difference! Fort Southwick was a tunnel as well but about ten times the size of FORWARD - all very pucker and correct. I did not like it at all - so impersonal and very strict discipline. There was a Warrant Officer Telegraphist in charge, everything was done by the book. Also there were frequencies about which I knew absolutely nothing, and no one instructed me. I never did find out about the UHF radio, who and what was the other end, and what was I supposed to do.
While I was at Southwick, I felt I made a little bit of history. Throughout the whole of one watch, at half-hourly intervals, I had to send out the ultimatum to the Channel Islands (in plain language), giving terms of surrender.
The WRNS were different from all other services - we were all volunteers, and we did not come under the Naval Discipline Code. If anyone 'deserted', no naval police brought us back - there was no punishment quarters etc. Instead, the matter was dealt with by the Civilian Authorities - you could not get far in those days without a ration book or identity card and they had the power to direct labour so you could be sent to munitions, the land or whatever.
That being so, we enjoyed many privileges:-
1. We did not have to wear the thick black issue stockings, but could
wear fully-fashioned, seamed rayon or chiffon-lisle stockings with our
uniform, - as long as they were BLACK. (Nylons were unheard of then).
2. Neither did we always wear the issue knickers (elastic waist and legs) known as passion killers or harvest bloomers (All is safely gathered in!).
3. Nightwear was a fashion parade, from lacey negligee type to warm pyjamas but DEFINITELY NOT the SLOPS (Naval stores) issue of hideous stockinette!
We could wear civvies off duty - this avoided having to salute anything in officer's uniform. It was a great freedom to off uniform and become ourselves. Ah! I hear you say - you needed clothing coupons to buy civvies. Well, we were issued with our initial uniform (hat, greatcoat, raincoat, 2 suits, shoes, stockings, shirts, collars, and tie). After that we had to buy all replacements out of our own money. You put in a request to Quarters for, say, 1 pair pyjamas (everyones favourite request) and you would be given a chit to purchase 1 pair pyjamas. This was equivalent to 8 clothing coupons. Local shops in Seaford, Lewes, and Brighton were not slow to offer to exchange these chits for any other clothing equivalent to 8 coupons. You could buy skirts, blouses, coats, knitting wool (even coats) - or even that which you had originally requested, i.e. - 1 pair of pyjamas.
I was on watch on VE Day and received the signal 'Splice the mainbrace'. I never did receive MY part of the mainbrace! That evening a gang of us went to Brighton and we sang and danced in the streets.
Thereafter everything was a great anticlimax - everyone was talking about demob Gradually people were posted away. It was obvious, in the W/T room that we had served our purpose and were now superfluous.
Some WRNS went on rehabilitation courses to decide their future in civvie street, some debated whether to stay in the service (Irene thought of staying on but was suddenly posted to a Fleet Air Arm station in Lancashire where her duties were no more than a receptionist and dogs body. She realised she would have to change category to a very ordinary office type job, so she came out). Volunteers were called for to serve in the Far East because it was thought the Japanese war would last months if not years. It was only the dropping of the atomic bomb that brought this conflict to an end. In June 1945, I was posted to the holding depot at Portsmouth and was demobbed in the September.
My days at FORWARD were the most intense of my life. We lived and worked to the full extent of our abilities. It really was a terrible anticlimax when it was all over. Civilian life was so different to our dreams. You missed the comradeship and the company. How sad it was to say 'Good-bye'to our watch mates as they were posted away. With all the good intentions in the world to keep in touch, and to meet up again, in our heart of hearts we knew this would not be so, and it was 'Good-bye'to a phase in our lives.
You can discover much more about HMS FORWARD (1939-1945) by visiting www.secret-tunnels.co.uk where you will find the full 'cradle to grave' story of this establishment and many pictures. This 'ship' has now been recognised by English Heritage to be of National Importance following detailed research. The Friends of HMS Forward are endeavouring to restore and revitalise the site as an Historic Monument. You'll find more on the BBC WW2 People's War web site if you search for Forward or Newhaven.