An account of HMS VERNON (R)
PART TWO - LIFE AT VERNON (R)
Many ratings arriving at Roedean School thought the place looked
gothic and creepy, as they looked up at the imposing buildings from
the sentry post at the gates. Large proportions of these men were
fresh out of basic training and were still wet behind the ears,
while seasoned hands found Roedean a big change. The navy still used
hammocks, both at sea and in many cases ashore, slung in large
communal spaces, each man carried his own hammock from ship to ship
as a part of his personal kit. The small rooms (three men to a room)
and single ‘cabins’, all with bunks that formed the accommodation at
Roedean were an unheard of luxury.
It is rumoured that the first batch of trainees to be billeted at
Roedean received a rude awakening after eagerly pressing a small
button found above every student's bed – a small label carried the
legend 'Press if you need a mistress for any reason during the
night'. After the bell at the other end had been rung to near
destruction and the members of the duty watch had been driven mad,
the only person to arrive in response to their requests was an irate
Chief Petty Officer promising unmentionable consequences for
touching the button ever again! The buttons were subsequently
Officers attending VERNON for courses could be billeted ‘ashore’ in
Brighton, Rottingdean or other local villages, some married men
brought their wives down to join them.
Besides the Naval personnel of HMS VERNON there was a large number
of civilian staff, some were hired locally to fill domestic
positions, others such as Draughtsmen moved from Portsmouth with the
establishment and lodged in the local area. In Portsmouth many of
these men had been a part of their local Home Guard unit and they
were eagerly welcomed into the ranks of the Rottingdean Home Guard
by their Commanding Officer Colonel Percy Filkins, M.C., a local
farmer from Ovingdean. Ratings from VERNON helped out on Colonel
Filkins’ farm on occasion, including harvest time.
Local relations - a helping hand.
Ratings from VERNON help Ovingdean farmer Percy Filkins
with the harvest and earn a welcome refreshment break.
Photo from author's collection/
Games and organised sports helped VERNON (R) to keep a good liaison
with the neighbouring naval establishments – HMS King Alfred at Hove
and Lancing and HMS Marlborough at Eastbourne College, the Canadian
and British Army units stationed around Brighton, and the National
Fire Service School at Rottingdean. Hockey, cricket and tennis, saw
the games fields at Roedean put to good use. Several officers took
in part in hockey matches, with the Wrens fielding a team which gave
them some good matches. It is not clear whether there was a VERNON
(R) football team but he ratings did ‘knock about a football’ in
their brief spells of spare time, usually between finishing meals
and mustering to march off for instruction. Often some of the local
girls who worked at VERNON joined in the kick about; 93 year old
Miss Laurie Hollands of Ovingdean recalls how they would rush to
finish their duties in time to join in with the lads. Roedean School
also had a swimming pool which went some way to making up for the
beach being off limits, being both wired and mined.
The Wardroom staff at HMS VERNON, the Officers
Stewards and Cooks and general domestic staff. C. 1943 Click
on the image to enlarge it.
Photo: courtesy Mr. Nick Lade.
Instruction was given Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings,
involving marching six or seven hundred men into the workshops in
and around Brighton twice a day for instruction and back, some as
far away as the Dreadnought Garage site in Hove. The daily routine
was quite intensive, consisting of – breakfast, classes, lunch,
classes, tea, classes, and dinner. There was little free time other
than Saturday afternoon and Sunday. After Sunday Divisions some of
the men would to go to Neville House, a family hotel at Black Rock
(164 -165 Marine Parade Brighton) for tea, biscuits and a read of
the Sunday papers. Other popular off duty pastimes in Brighton
included ice skating, attending the Hippodrome theatre, and dances
at the Dome or at the Regent Ballroom.
The Captain addresses the men &
women of VERNON (R) during divisions.
Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN
A number of those who served at HMS VERNON were locals, young women
recruited to fill posts in the various sites as ‘immobile Wrens’ –
enlisted into the WRNS but for service only in a specified area
around their home. These Wrens wore the same uniform as regular WRNS
and had the same duties and responsibilities but they lived at home
and could not be drafted outside their home area. Jobs filled by
‘immobile’ Wrens included cooks, stewards, typists and store clerks.
Wren Steward Lois Lade (nee Price) was one such ‘immobile wren’ she
enlisted in November 1941 for work in the Brighton area and was
allocated to HMS VERNON the following month for duties as a Wardroom
Steward. She cycled the 2 miles from her home in Mayo Road to
Roedean every day. In 1945 she was promoted to Leading Wren Steward
(O) and married Rifleman Christopher Lade of the Royal Sussex
Regiment on VJ Day.
The WRNS personnel of HMS VERNON
(R)) - 91 ratings, 14 SNCOs, and 8 Officers. C. summer
Click on the image to enlarge it.
Photo: courtesy Mr. Nick Lade.
In March 1944 the establishment received a Royal visitor when
Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent came to inspect the Wrens and
stayed to lunch at John Howard House. Miss Tanner, the Headmistress
of Roedean School, was a frequent visitor to HMS VERNON (R), for
‘tours of inspection’; she took the threats of the RN returning to
visit after the war - to see if the place was as clean as a girls’
school as it was as a naval establishment - in her stride. She was a
popular guest, so much so that on September 6th 1944 she was invited
to take the salute at the weekly march past of divisions, Miss
Tanner carried it off with great distinction.
H. E. Morse, RN DSO greets HRH Princess Marina of Greece, Duchess of
Kent, on her arrival at Roedean in March 1944. She was
attending in her capacity as Chief Commandant of the W.R.N.S
to inspect the Wrens. Photo: courtesy Mr. Nick Lade.
There were two marriages held at Roedean during the naval
occupation. Electrical Artificer Jack Parsons and Leading Torpedoman
Felix McClusky marrying Wrens that they had met while attending
courses at VERNON (R); Felix married Dorothy in 1942 while Jack
married Violet in 1943.
Enemy Action and Local Defence
HMS VERNON (R) made for an easy target for enemy aircraft and its
proximity to the beach gave cause for concern; armed sentries
patrolled the perimeter of the site day and night, whilst the duty
watch manned sentry posts at entrances. The various instructional
sites in the town also had sentries posted, a duty which fell to
junior rates at the establishment - at least once during their time
there, trainees being utilised as security manpower when not under
instruction. The threats of attack from a U-Boat landing party was
taken seriously, and regular exercises were held against this
eventuality- luckily none ever materialised. During early 1944 the
Army Divisional Commander, Lieutenant General Montgomery, visited
HMS Vern on to advice on the defences; he had a few words for the
VERNON civilians who he had encountered when they were on Home Guard
There were few instances of enemy action affecting HMS VERNON with
the exception of ‘tip and run’ aircraft attacks, machinegun rounds
and cannon shells caused some casualties. One rating was killed
whilst he sat in the canteen at St. Dustan’s, hit be a single stray
bullet from a machinegun, another was injured when he was hit in the
knee by a cannon shell, this chap was lucky, the shell failed to
detonate, he recovered in hospital. Bomb damage to Marine Gate saw
two fatalities, a Sub-Lieutenant, and an officer’s wife were killed
in one of many raids which damaged the block of flats; the building
was eventually deemed unsafe later in the war and evacuated until
repairs could be made.
May 25th 1943 – Brighton’s worst Air Raid
One of the VERNON (R) civilian Draughtsmen went missing early on the
afternoon of May 25th 1943, he had been walking on the cliff after
lunch but was never seen again; this was the day of a major air raid
on Brighton and it was feared that the man was hit by enemy fire and
fell into the sea. At just after noon, Captain Egerton, who was due
to be relieved by Captain Harold Morse, RN DSO on June 4th, was on
the Quarterdeck along with the ship’s officers gathering for a group
photograph to mark his leaving. While the assembled officers were
being lined up for the shot the air-raid siren went of. No one took
any notice until they saw about a dozen planes flying due west,
below the level of the cliff at wave top height, heading towards
Brighton. The group scattered as another dozen aircraft which had
approached the back of the school over the downs roared over them;
these were so low that the colour of the bombs in the racks could be
clearly seen. There were a few cannon shell fired as they sped past
but no casualties were incurred at Roedean.
The daylight raid by 25 enemy aircraft was over in just six minutes
- twenty four people died and over 130 were injured in Brighton’s
worst bombing raid of the war. The nearest bombs to Roedean School
hit the Black Rock gasworks setting gas attenuators ablaze. Preston
Park Pullman Workshops were damaged and London Road viaduct was also
hit bringing south coast rail traffic to a halt and several
residential areas were hit by bombs. One attacker, a Focke-Wulf 190
was shot down by 8 Battery, 2 Canadian Heavy Anti Aircraft Regiment
sited on the Roedean golf course just west of Roedean School, the
aircraft crashed into the sea at 12:22 pm. There was one fatality
from amongst HMS VERNON's personnel when Mr. Percy Shakespeare, a
celebrated artist from Dudley working for the RN as a civilian
draughtsman, disappeared. Percy was walking alone on the cliffs at
the time of the attack and never returned, it was presumed that he
had fallen into the sea in a freak accident and drowned.
The other airborne threat to approach from the sea was the V1
“Doodle bugs” or “Buzz bombs” which began to fly over from northern
France beginning on June 13th 1944. Although none fell to earth at
any HMS VERNON site (one did fall on Saltdean, 2 miles up the coast)
they were often observed flying overhead on their way inland. Many
naval ratings saw their first V1 through the windows of the St.
Dunstan’s Building which offered an exceptional vantage point from
its glass fronted ‘cockpit’. A Lewis machine gun was mounted on top
of St. Dunstan’s and manned when V1s were heard in the hope of a
lucky hit knocking one off course or destroying it.
On June 6th 1944, D-Day, the flagstaff flew a No.1 White Ensign (a 9
x 11 ft flag) in honour of the men about to land on the Normandy
beaches, those who were there on that day remember seeing wave after
wave of ships going down the Channel on their way to France. Captain
Norman Grace, who took over command of VERNON 1n September 1944,
presented the Ensign to the Head Mistress of Roedean School when
VERNON moved back to Portsmouth, and this was hung in the School’s
chapel in a place of honour.
The Quarterdeck and flagstaff at
Roedean with the quadrangle/parade ground in the
foreground and the English Channel in the background.
Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN
Victory in Europe – HMS VERNON returns to Portsmouth
May 8th 1945 marked the end of the war in Europe and both Roedean
School and HMS VERNON turned their attention to returning to
normality. The need for dispersed military bases and schools and
children evacuated from the densely populated areas of war-time
Britain had come to an end; June 7th 1945, was the last day of naval
instruction at Roedean.
HMS VERNON began the move back to Portsmouth the next day; the
operation involved ninety-two 5 ton lorry loads and was completed in
just over a month. By mid July the various sites occupied around
Brighton and Sussex were being cleaned up and prepared for return to
heir civilian owners. Roedean was reopened as a girls' school in
Captain Brian Egerton, RN 01.12.1939
Captain Harold Edward Morse, RN DSO 04.06.1943
Captain Norman Vere Grace, RN 19.09.1944
Captain Egerton and Captain Morse both retired in
the 1930s with the rank of Rear Admiral and returned to active
service at the outbreak of war with the reduced rank of Captain. All
three officers were to hold the position of Naval ADC to King George
The White Ensign still
proudly hangs in the school chapel, the Ensign was presented to the
Headmistress when the Admiralty returned the buildings to the
control of the school,
Photo: Courtesy of Tony Mould,
Brighton and Hove Community Website
Royal Pavilion, Libraries & Museums, Brighton
Mr. Kevin Bacon, Curator of Photographs
warfare & Clearance Diving Officers' Association
Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN, Vice Chairman & Webmaster
of Marine Gate, Brighton
wardroom mess committee of HMS VERNON (1956) 'HMS VERNON 1930-1955'
Diary, 2nd Canadian Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, May 1943,. printed
in The Times, LONDON, 26 May 43
(1998) ‘Memories of Roedean, the first 100 years’ Seaford, S.B.
D. (2003) 'Out of the Blue: The story of Brighton's worst air raid '
Brighton, Finsbury Publishing
B. (2000) Shore Establishments of the Royal Navy (Second Edition)
Liskeard, Maritime Books
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