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A YEAR ON THE ARK
IAN EPPS - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5
by Ian Epps

No it's not Noah's (I'm not quite that old) it's the one between the one sunk by the Germans in WWII and the one scrapped by Cameron in 2010 and it's just some recollections of my year spent on the Ark Royal
June 1965 to June 66

I joined the band when it had already been on board for some time and the ship was due to sail to the Far East in a week. They were short of a Corporal and the Drafting Office said I needed some sea time if I wanted to qualify for a third stripe. It would have been nice to have more than a weeks notice but that was the way of things back then. Freda, (my wife) was not best pleased as we had two young girls and a weeks notice did nothing to enhance the thought I had just signed on for another ten years. But then it's what happened in those days and it was only a year which was a lot better than two and a half which was the norm when I joined in 49. It was no use the wife going to welfare and complaining, they would have told her she shouldn't have married a serviceman.

We sailed on the 17th June '65 with a first stop at Gibraltar for a quick run ashore, then through the Suez Canal where we picked up the "Gully Gully" man (He was an Egyptian entertainer who kept every one amused on the flight deck during the transit) and then into the Red Sea and on to Aden

Transiting the Canal

Ken Fretwell
Barney Wincop Ian Epps
Ginge.Davis, Mick Hayes, Oggy Busby, Jock McLaren

We arrived on the 2nd of July and had one unpleasant surprise. At the time Aden was in the midst of trying to gain independence and bombs were being thrown around, into cafes and cinemas and anywhere else that would cause mayhem. The authorities ashore were not very happy with the thought of a thousand sailors piling ashore each day and it was decided that only one watch would go ashore each day and the band who were the only personnel onboard who had weapon training were to be sent ashore to patrol with the Army. I spent six hours a day on the streets of Aden patrolling with the Army but it seemed a lot longer. Willey Chamberlain relieved me as he took the other patrol.

We then had two spells alongside with some added sea time so that they could fly the aeroplanes. It's a funny thing but back then they thought that aircraft carriers had to have aeroplanes flying off and on them. Now it appears we are building carriers which will have no British built planes to fly off them or fill the hangers and the ones we were going to order from the Americans can't land on because of a badly designed arrester hook; it's a funny world we live in now.

We left on the 17th of August for Subic Bay in the Philippines for a visit to the American Base. It was quite an eye opener in some ways and I must say they made us very welcome. I visited the ten pin bowling alley in the camp, the first time I'd ever been in one. They weren't automated then and a little boy sat up above the pins. He then dropped down onto the lane to reset them at the end of each players turn. It was quite disconcerting to see a pair of bare brown legs hanging above the pins. The local taxies were quite an eye opener too, very much converted "jeeps" that the American Services had left behind. All too soon it was back to Singers before we had to go to Hong Kong to have the steam catapult repaired. On the way we ran into some weather and no one was allowed on any exposed decks for two days, we were told that the flight deck was awash with waves breaking over the bows at times, I must admit I didn't envy the sailors who had to work in those conditions.


These photos were taken the first time we could launch a helicopter

I had never been to Hong Kong before and must admit that it was an enjoyable two week stay. We managed to show ourselves around and gave some local residents a concert; at least we were guaranteed that they wouldn't run away as it was one of the local hospitals.


It also gave us time to really get around a few of the tourist sites, all changed now I expect but I should imagine that the Tiger Balm Gardens are still a must on the tourist trail. There weren't that many skyscrapers then and even the new tall blocks being built were still using bamboo for scaffolding, health and safety now would have a fit. I should imagine the Hilton is well overshadowed by the new sky scrapers now but back then it towered above everything on the Hong Kong side of the harbour. All too soon the repairs to the catapult were completed and we left Hong Kong it was flying stations every day on the way back to Singapore.


Jim Mc Claren, Ken Fretwell, Mick Hayes
Ian Epps "Oggie" Busby

? ?
? 'Bungy' Williams ? ?
Ian Epps, Dip Hillman, Jock Wilson, Mosten Coles

We then had a six whole weeks in Singapore the main reason being that one of the boiler rooms was gutted by a very big fire, to give some idea of the heat generated, ladders down into the boiler-room melted. For once many of us were sorry that we were delayed as it meant that we would miss the trip to Sydney and Melbourne. It had been agreed at a high level that as the band would have a lot of engagements both on the ship and ashore we would get very little time off in both ports. The Captain had stated that anyone in the band who had relatives or friends in Melbourne could take a weeks "Station Leave" and then fly to Fremantle to pick up the ship after it had finished an exercise with the Australian Navy. Gloom and despondency, I had arranged to stay with a cousin and her husband who had emigrated in the 50's on the £10 fare scheme.

When we eventually left on the 7th of December on our way to visit Fremantle we were steaming minus one boiler and two buglers who had left on the Devonshire with FO2FEF to take part in the exercises with the "Aussie" navy. We didn't get far as we had to turn round and return to Singapore as we had water contamination in one of the remaining boilers. We eventually got under way again on the 12th. And arrived in Fremantle on the 23rd, just in time for most of the ships company to be invited to spend Christmas with local families "up homers" was the term used. What a Christmas, I had been invited with Pete Shelton, our Bandmaster, to stay with some friends of his family and it's the first time I've had barbequed turkey in the garden at seven in the evening on Christmas Day and then with a hangover worth a million, iced Fosters that weren't far off solid were the cause. On Boxing Day we travelled a hundred plus miles down the coast in a Holden with two motor bikes in a trailer to take our hosts son motor bike racing with a picnic lunch thrown in.


It really was a Christmas with a difference. I think the only people left onboard were the "duty watch" the rest were being hosted by the people of Fremantle. To show the ships appreciation all the hosts were invited onboard and we put on a special edition of the ships pantomime and those who have served on ships will remember what they were like. When we left it seem that the whole of Fremantle was there to wave us on our way.

What a Christmas visit to remember but all too soon it was back to Singapore until the end of January when we sailed for a visit to Gann, the American air base in the middle of the Indian Ocean and Mombassa in East Africa and arrived on the 18th of February.

During our stay in Mombassa some of the ships company were sent up the coast to a service rest camp called Silversprings others went on coach trips to Salvo National Park whilst others went to Nairobi.

For those who read my first "Dit" on my time in the East Indies on the Gambia & Newfoundland in the early 50's you may remember that when in Mombassa the band were sent up to Nairobi to entertain the locals towards the end of the Mau Mau uprising. We had been billeted with local families and I had stayed with Wally Walton and Tex Tyler with a Major Cade and his family. I had over the years kept in touch with him by letter so when we arrived I gave him a ring as he had said that if ever I was in the area get in touch. He asked where I was and when I told him Mombassa he asked for how long. To cut to the chase he invited me and a friend up to Nairobi, it seemed an ideal way of repaying Pete Shelton for my very enjoyable Christmas and with the Captain of Marines blessing we left the band in the capable hands of Sergeant Chamberlain at the rest camp and caught the overnight train.

Major Cade had been made the Director of the Nairobi Nation Park and his sons were still supplying animals to zoos. The bungalow itself was still filled with animals as it was when I was there in the 50's and on the day we arrive a baby rhino had been delivered, it's mother had died and the locals knew just where it would find a good home.

Pete Shelton making friends Thompson Gazelle

We saw a lot of the local countryside and the animals in the National Park as we were guided by Major Cade but all too soon the holiday was over and it was onto the train and back to Mombassa and the Ark. We sailed on the 5th of March for the Mozambique Channel.

If you remember your history, for that's what it is now, there was a little trouble with Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe now) and their Prime Minister a character called Mr Smith. He had declared independence for the country and Great Britain were blocking exports and imports from and to Rhodesia to try to bring him into the "party line" and we were being sent to patrol the Mozambique Channel off Beira to make sure that nothing got in or out through Mozambique. We arrived on station and cruised up and down the channel but there was a slight problem. The sea was like a village glass mill pond, very nice for cruising but not the best conditions for launching fast jets. We sent a Gannet off in the morning and regained it at lunch time when another was sent off for the afternoon shift. The Captain decreed that as there was no wind what-so-ever, jets were grounded as the ship would have to speed at its limit to get the planes off, remember we only had three boilers which meant we were unable to reach our top speed except in an emergency.

As there was no real flying except for the Gannet taking off and landing for patrol duties twice a day the ship went to a type of Sunday routine, the flight deck looked like Brighton sea front at times. The problem was keeping everyone on top line. One way dreamed up was "Fight Deck Sports". Every department had to provide a team of ten and depending on how many teams there were the number of different "sports" was one less. The type of "sports" included each member of the team climbing a rope and ringing a bell suspended at the top, rolling a barrel up a slope, carrying a team member a set distance fireman style, going a set distance with a medicine ball between your knees and wearing boxing gloves and a fencing mask. Each team member had to go one after another and tallies of the number of completed runs on each "sport" were recorded. Each team had to do all the sports with one rest period. I can assure you at the end you were well and truly knackered.

Flight Deck Games

We were relieved by the Eagle around the middle of March and we steamed back to Singapore where we stayed until the end of April. When we were in the Mozambique Channel to relieve the Eagle we did a three ship "Raz" as an exercise and then sent Eagle on its way as they were due in Mombassa for some R & R.


Just the two of us

Our second stint differed very little from the first but we didn't care as we knew it was our last as when we saw the Eagle again we were off to Aden on our way home.

We arrived in Aden on the 31st of May and anchored off for twelve hours prior to transiting the Suez Canal on the 4th of June.


Aden from our anchorage

Then it was off to Gibraltar where we stayed for three days for a last 'rabbit run' and then it was all points north to Devonport on the 11th where our families came onboard and the following day we went on leave.

When we returned from leave Pete Shelton had left us Richard Chamberlain had been made temporary Bandmaster and I had picked up my third stripe and off we sailed to Oslo for a visit before returning to Portsmouth for Navy Days. Whilst we were there I went up to Frogner Park which I had visited in 1956 when I was serving on the Midshipmen's training ship, HMS Devonshire. [that's the one with three funnels] The park had not changed, it was still filled with some wonderful sculptures and I took some photos in colour but I think my original ones taken in 56 gave them more atmosphere.

Frogner Park


When we returned to Pompey for Navy Days the Queen Mother (who had launched the ship in 1950) came onboard and when the guard and band were paraded on the flight deck we were told that she had made a request to inspect the band. This was because when she launched the ship she presented the band with a Drum Majors staff and sash; fortunately both were still in pristine condition.

Captain Fell was not best pleased with me as when he inspected the guard and band prior to the Queen Mother arriving he wanted to know who had given permission for me to shave off my rather large and long moustache the ends of which I had been known to wax. I then explained that a Royal Marine did not need permission to grow or shave off moustaches, mine had been removed the day I got home from the Far East following a request from "Her who must be obeyed".

When we left Portsmouth it was a trip down to Lands End to dispose of excess aviation fuel and any items from stores that had been opened. The ship was due in Devonport for a full refit and her new ski deck and stores would not accept opened boxes of components and the avgas tanks had to be empty in dry dock. I sometimes wonder what they do now in a similar situation. Then it was back to Deal to find out what wonderful places "Drafty" was going to send us next. Mine was down to Excellent to join Flag Officer Portsmouth's band with Captain Roy Nash and Bandmaster Peter Hemming and that was fun.


My thanks go to 'Oggie' Busby who kept a diary of where and when we went during the year away. It's taken some time to finish this and without his help I would have found the task of writing the text much more taxing.

Ian Epps

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