The reminiscences of Petty Officer Radio Mechanic Stan Spencer.

Stan joined HMS Nabthorpe at Ludham and remained with the unit throughout its commission, returning home to the U.K. aboard the R.M.S. Andes.

These remarks and recollections are not intended to be of historical value, rather they are some recollections after a 55 year period and the less than perfect recall of an ageing mind..

 

 

My first draft on completing my training and qualifying as Leading Radio Mechanic at HMS Ariel was to RNAS Inskip in Lancashire and I'm afraid that my stay there was not of long duration. I was affronted by a remark made by the Air Radio Officer and had the temerity to open my mouth in protest. The next thing I knew was that I got a draft to RNAS Ludham. HMS Flycatcher. The proper recipient of that draft should have been Leading Radio Mechanic Eric Leck but he had been taken sick with appendicitis and the Air Radio Officer Lt. J.C.Brandt, I'm sure, saw this as a golden opportunity to rid himself of this turbulent Leading Radio Mechanic.

 

It was early November 1944 and at that time East Anglia, and in particular Norfolk, was rather like Siberia. You knew where it was but you certainly didn't want to go there. It was a particularly cold winter and in spite of Ludham having been a RAF station, it seemed that the facilities were significantly less than satisfactory. Anyway we did our joining routine and waited while others destined for MONAB 3 arrived. The CO was Cdr E.W. (Ted) Kenton and the 1st. Lieutenant was Lt. Cdr. Parkinson. For us Radio types the important guy was the Air Radio Officer Lt. Robert Wales.

 

Once we were assembled, and to me it all seemed a bit haphazard, we started on the task of getting all the stores and equipment that we were to take to a destination as yet unknown. This exercise entailed going with a convoy of 3 Ton trucks to the railway sidings at Potter Heigham where we unloaded gear from the train and on to the trucks. This went on for days as train after train filled with stores arrived in the sidings.

 

One of the most amusing yet hazardous activities at this time involved erecting the Dorland Hangar. The concept was excellent and the erection went well until it came to installing the canvas roof and walls. This huge expanse of canvas acted just like a sail in the winds coming off the North Sea and to be atop the thing trying to get the canvas in place was an unnerving experience. However we managed it without mishap although there were times when one felt about to be thrown off the top by the billowing canvas. Everything was checked off and repacked for transit; by then we knew, to Australia. For me this was just a great bonus as I knew that I had relatives Down Under and this would be the opportunity of a lifetime to make contact.

 

Preparations being completed we embarked on a train for a seemingly endless night journey to Liverpool where, at Gladstone Dock, we boarded the Athlone Castle.


 

 

We departed on, I think, the 23rd of December and laid off Belfast on the 24th. setting sail on Christmas Day. The transatlantic crossing was uneventful, much to everyone’s surprise and our arrival in Colon at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal was a revelation. Lights at night, no blackout was something that we had not seen for years, the scent of the trees and the all pervasive sound of the Cicadas made the place seem magic.

 

We were allowed off the ship but only in the immediate dock area but in one of the dock buildings there was a wonderful USO show; USO being the American equivalent of ENSA. Who the artistes were I don't remember but it was lively and professional and a real treat. The transit of the Panama Canal was, for me, the highlight of the whole journey. The locks, the Gatun Locks and the Gatun lake, through the Gaillard Cut (Culebra), the Pedro Miguel Lock to the Miraflores Lake and Locks were breathtaking. The passage through the Gaillard cut with tropical birds flying from the heights on either side was magic. Finally Balboa and the Pacific Ocean. I have wanted to transit the canal again ever since then and I hope to actually do it. It is the only piece of the world that I have seen but my wife has not and I'd like to correct that omission.

 

Leaving Panama the Pacific Ocean was like a sheet of glass. I had never seen a sea so flat. Not that I had seen anything but the North Sea until then. All went uneventfully. We loafed on deck under strict orders as to the length of time that we were allowed to expose ourselves to the sun. Ten minutes on the first day, gradually increasing until our hides were safely tanned.

 

Then one day there was an almighty bang and the ship hove to. Rumours were rife as to what had happened and further rumours spread that there were Japanese submarines in the vicinity and here we were sitting motionless on a calm sea, a sitting duck. It transpired that a drive chain in part of one of the ships engines had broken and had allegedly thrashed its was through the drive casing and so it was necessary to remain hove to while repairs were carried out. I think that it took about 24 hours before we were under way again.

We spent hours just standing on deck watching the Flying Fish as they broke the surface near the bow of the ship and the iridescence of the sun shining on their scales was just beautiful. We were certainly not thinking about what lay ahead. In January 1945 we arrived in Sydney and that first thrill of passing through Sydney Heads into that magnificent harbour and the first sight of the harbour bridge has never been equalled. We headed in to Woolloomooloo where we were docked and we prepared for disembarkation.

 

We were herded into trucks and we headed out of Sydney to Warwick Farm racecourse where we spent a short while under canvas. Australia Day came while we were at Warwick Farm and we tasted our first bit of Aussie hospitality when a family picked myself and a friend up and took us to Koala Park at Pennant Hills for the day.

 

From Warwick Farm we soon transferred to Schofields, which at that time was far from complete. The CCC "Civilian Construction Corps" was still very much in evidence and remained so for some while building living accommodation. The NAAFI was the envy of the CCC as we kept UK hours and they could only visit the local and enjoy the uncivilized Aussie hours including the six o'clock swill. However they did run a good "Two Up" school after work.

 

 

We soon settled into a routine, the first squadrons landed and work began in earnest. Our transportable Radio Workshops were situated at a remote part of the site and early on, torrential rains made the terrain into a quagmire. Much time was spent in digging drainage ditches to channel the water away from the workshops. The early morning duty was to ensure that the YG and YJ beacons were switched on and operational. The YG was a Morse radio beacon and the YJ a Radar beacon for navigation purposes. There were, of course, quiet periods but when squadrons landed on then it was concentrated effort. At this time the control tower was a mobile affair in a truck, as the permanent control tower had not been built.

 

I believe that we weren't intended to handle all types of aircraft originally but in the event anything that landed was coped with including Seafires, Barracudas, Fireflies, Hellcats, Avengers and Corsairs. There was also one Stinson Reliant communications aircraft. At one time there were even a couple of Commonwealth Wackett Boomerangs, an Australian built small fighter aircraft. There were great differences between British and American aircraft. Flush riveting on the American planes was immediately obvious and on the whole the accessibility of equipment was superior on the America machines. I can only speak from the point of view of radio installations.

 

All American aircraft used Radial engines, Wright Double Cyclone and Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp. I'm sure that engine, airframe and armourer trades also noticed great differences in their fields. We even had an open day when the local populace were invited to come aboard. That made for good relations with the locals. Schofields was located adjacent to the Sydney to Richmond railway line and virtually took up the ground between Quakers Hill and Schofields stations. On the other side of the territory was Eastern Creek a tributary of the Hawkesbury River.

 

Some of the facilities were to us a bit primitive especially the heads which consisted of a long hut in which were installed two rows of toilets, about ten a side facing each other with absolutely no privacy. Flushing consisted of two channels, one below each row of toilets, through which ran a continuous stream of water. It was the conversation centre of the site.
Runs ashore consisted of taking the train from Quakers Hill to Sydney as there was nothing in the vicinity, except a small pub which I think was called the ROYAL in Riverstone, the station past Schofields.

 

I do remember that the publican had been the lightweight boxing champion of Australia. Our trips to Sydney were made possible by the issuing of a fortnightly season ticket which would take one over the whole range of the New South Wales Railways "Sydney and surrounding areas" system. This cost four shillings for a two-week ticket. It was very good value indeed. Of course, no one came back except on the last train out of Central Station.

Our presence brought out a couple of local entrepreneurs. One was a local milkman who would come onboard every day with his cart to sell us milk and fruit. He was always a welcome sight and I drank more milk during that period than at any other time of my life.

 

The other was a guy who would be at the entrance to Quakers Hill station when the train arrived from Sydney and he sold hot dogs. He seemed to do a roaring trade thought why anyone would want to eat hot-dogs late at night I can't imagine. I suppose we were always hungry. Not a vendor but a welcome sight on the place was the Australian Church Army representative who was allowed to operate on the station even though we had our own C of E Padre, The Rev. Lamb. I remember the Church Army man's surname only, it was Hoepper and he was known as "Hep". He was always ready to listen to any of our concerns or troubles and I'm sure that many MONAB 3'ers will recall his cheerful presence.

 

We were by now in a settled routine, and the facilities improved; permanent workshops and the control tower were built and thus it continued until VE Day. This was, of course a cause for great celebration for us but not so much for the local population. However we had a day free and then back to the routine.

 

Life was always busy and interesting and the time came when MONAB 3 was to pack up and move on. We were told that the first stop was to be for some Jungle training at the Australian Army jungle school. However came the fateful day when the dropping of the Atom bomb was announced on the radio with all the speculation as to what this would mean, then the second bomb and the end of the war in the Pacific.

 

Then there was real celebration in Australia. Of course we were freed to go to Sydney to join in the hi-jinks and the celebrations were really great, from Kings Cross to Martin Place.

Here I recall a very sad event. When we returned late at night one of our group, Leading Radio Mechanic Findlay Gee was distinctly under the weather and during the night was taken worse. He was got to the sick bay but in spite of the attention of all concerned he died of heart failure during the night. His funeral was a very sombre affair and it was the first and last time that I have acted as a pallbearer.

 

It was not very long before we were instructed to pack up and prepare for our return to UK. There was an option to remain in Australia and transfer to the RAN and one of our number, John Dunford, who had married a girl from Riverstone opted to remain.

 

We handed over Schofields to, I think MSR 2 who had come down from Queensland and we embarked on the RMS Andes at Woolloomooloo, where we had first set foot on Australian soil.

 

There were on board, many Australians who had been prisoners of the Japanese and who were returning to Perth, which was our first port of call and a jolly good run ashore. Bombay was next and once again a good run ashore. Just to prove that the world is a small place I met, in Crawford market an old English lady who had lived in India for years and who came from the same small Cheshire village that was my mothers birthplace.

 

After a Suez canal transit it was home to Southampton from where we were taken to HMS Daedalus III, which was located in Havant ,and with a draft to HMS Ariel my MONAB saga ended. It is a period long past and however my recall diminishes it will forever remain impressed on my memory.

 

Some years later on a visit to family members who I had been able to meet in 1945 I returned to Schofields which was then HMAS Nirimba and while the airfield had been taken over for civilian use the site looked much as it did on the day we left and I have to say that memories flooded back at the entrance gatehouse.

 

Having put these reminiscences together I have now taken the time to look at those of Messrs Purcall, Sutton and Dickinson and I take pleasure in discovering that there are consistencies between their recollections and mine in various respects. It gives me satisfaction to learn that my memory is not as faulty as I had thought.

 

Stan Spencer

 

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