The Shiny Sheffield - A Home Fleet Commission
1951 to 1953 by Frank Coleman
Frank Coleman (roll over mouse)
I do not believe that the powers that be in those days meant that a normal commission would include over a year west of Bermuda, involving a long period in the Pacific to as far north as Comox in Vancouver Island and as far south, as Valparaiso in Chile. But this did actually happen.
In the early part of 1951 a band was assembled at the R.M. School of Music under Bandmaster "Bunny" Attfield to serve a Home Fleet Commission on H.M.S. Sheffield. In those days the normal sequence of a man's engagement was to expect a period of service in a Home Fleet Ship operating from the Home Ports, and to be able to be with his family every few months during a spell of two and a half years.
The Band soon came under the directorship of the newly appointed Major (local) of Marines, who, obviously was a great musician, and so the attitude of the Band, flourished and the standards deteriorated.
was obvious that a favourite of his was "Orpheus in the Underworld"
as, each time he graced us with his presence, we were obliged to play
the overture. Our two Cornets were always able to over do the expression
in the Barcarolle, which he never noticed. We should have been named
the "Can Can" Band. Maybe though, he was reminiscing on previous
visits to the Moulin Rouge!
Our first cruise was to Hull, from where the band with a Marine Guard paid a visit to the City of Sheffield. At Sheffield the ship was presented with a Mace, for the Band's use.
The next ten weeks were spent in and out of Invergordon and swinging around the anchor at Loch Eribol. From there to Liverpool where we assumed the duties of the Royal Yacht in order to convey the present Queen Mother and Princess Margaret to Belfast. The Royal Yacht (The Victoria and Albert) at that time was only managing to keep afloat by resting on milk cans off Whale Island.
The Sheffield being a warship did not normally accommodate additional passengers; so the Royal Marine Band, whose hammock slinging billets were aft in the Gun Room Flat and in order to ensure the privacy of the Royal Party, became Itinerant Musicians for the night.
During this period the Band moved their mess from the Marines mess deck to an upper deck mess (Topmen) and then to a separate mess below the Topmen's mess deck. The Ship returned to Portsmouth, and the Band to leave.
On October 1st the Ship sailed for Bermuda and within five days was sailing into a hurricane. We lost our whalers and dinghies during this spell of bad weather together with our Major of Marines, who disappeared for three days. There was nothing the Band could do, as even going on to the upper deck was out of the question and so, card schools were the order of the days.
On the fourth day the bad weather abated, the R.M. Major emerged, and immediately descended on the Marines mess deck. He inspected the area and tore into the men not on watch, picking every fault as if expecting the mess deck to be as immaculate as it would be when the ship was in harbour, and not in the condition of mess decks being awash. At the time I happened to be going through the mess deck, and dashed up forward to warn the band of the approach of their favorite officer. I could not get past a seaman who was scrubbing the gangway so called across to a matelote I knew to warn the mess. I looked around a second time to see the Major disappearing into the distance.
After a short time in Bermuda we sailed to Norfolk (Virginia) and Baltimore, here the band left the ship to stay at a U.S. Marines Barracks in Washington (The Navy Gun Factory) in order to be available for ceremonial duties. They were to play for the visit of a Frigate (H.M.S. Starling, H.M.S. Snipe or H.M.S. Bigbury Bay) with the C. in C. of the Station, Admiral Andrews on board.
Being the last few days towards the end of November we had had our pay for December before leaving the ship and landed up on December 1st the day we returned to the Ship being almost broke. Our hosts the U.S. Marines payday was the same day and they were unable to return our hospitality.
Just prior to leaving Portsmouth the only coloured seaman in the Ship's Company was drafted ashore in order to avoid any prejudice in the U.S.A. and subsequently it was noticeable, that "Jack" when traveling on local buses in Baltimore made a point of vacating his seat for coloured ladies (Baltimore is on the Mason-Dixon Line and coloureds were obliged to either sit or stand at the rear of the vehicle).
We had three Musicians in the Band who were just eighteen and after being refused drinks in the local bars, altered the dates of birth in their pay books to make their ages over twenty one. I am told that four years later, when one of these lads (J. M.) on a similar commission restored the date, to the correct D.O.B. he was refused drinks as the Barman had spotted the alterations in his pay book.
On the ship as Corporal of the Mess I was obliged to complain about the freshness of the reheated mutton we had for our lunch. The Chief Cook sent for his Supply Officer, who made me wait outside the Sick Bay whilst he supposedly got the Surgeon Commander's opinion of the quality of the meat. Since the sun was over the yardarm I doubt very much that there would have been any Medical Officer in the Sick Bay at that time of day. I was warned about my "frivolous complaint" but had the dubious satisfaction on New Year's Eve in company with the rest of the mess, who had not eaten their lunch that day did not suffer the D.&.V. which swept the Ship's Company, and so that evening I played at a dance at St. George's. An old friend Bob Law (84 Squad) had settled in Bermuda, after being discharged from the service, and I played for the dance in his place. On reflection I can understand why the Major in my annual report stated "Resents Authority". There are various explanations as to the quality of the food on the Ship, but I later met the person who was responsible for supplying the ships in Bermuda who told me that he had not had complaints from the other ships in the Squadron and was of the opinion that the refrigeration was at fault on the Sheffield.
The next cruise was to be part West Indies and then to Pitcairn Island in the Pacific to meet up with the R.M.S. Gothic that had been chartered as a Royal Yacht for the Royal Family for a world cruise. As the King was in poor health the cruise was cancelled very shortly after we arrived in the West Indies.
Before joining the Ship we had been issued with what we were assured were tropical shirts. They were very similar to the thick flannel collarless shirts worn by the Army under battledress (in fact they were the same) After a M.P. raised the matter with the Admiralty, instructions were given to convert our No. 6 Tunics (tropical) to tunic shirts. We had a regular inspection at Colours by the R.M. Major who invariably found fault. It was noticeable that at times the heels on his tropical stockings were in need of very large darns. I presume that this was a case of "do as I say, not as I do".
Our cruise was to Kingston Jamaica, Port of Spain. Trinidad, Bridgetown Barbados, St Georges Grenada, St. Johns Antigua, La Guaira (for Caracas Venezuela), Willemstad Curacao, and before going through the Panama Canal en route to Pitcairn, the intention was to visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
En route to the Caribbean the ship was involved in exercises with the U.S. Fleet (Lanflex 52) and for a few days was based at Guantanamo Bay (Cuba) The Band being Transmitting Station Crew had achieved a good reputation for their gunnery control, although Bert S. on telephone, was heard to pass on to the Gunnery Officer the message "B Turret wants beer" instead of "B Turret won't bear". (I believe that Bert and "Daddy Winn" the Gunnery Officer were "old ships" and staged this deliberately.)
One of the first places we visited was La Guaira in Venezuela and the Band went from there to the Capital, Caracas by road in a very rickety bus. The route was a single lane road over the mountain rising to a height of eight thousand feet. The distance from La Guaira as the crow flies is 9 miles but by road in those days was 24 miles. There was what appeared to be a sheer drop at the side of the road, and it was not very comforting to see a plane flying below us. At frequent intervals at the side of the road there would be small shrines with the photos of accident victims. At the highest point a wrecked car had been placed on a pedestal. The visit to a local brewery with the liquid goodwill provided, sedated us sufficiently for the return trip on a similar road.