Ian Fleming - RFA Regent
My Life in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary by Ian Fleming Part 1
19 May 1967 to the 15 December 1967
I started my sea going career in October 1962 when I enrolled at The National Sea Training School at Sharpness, known amongst old seafarers as T.S. Vindicatrix. My first ship was a Channel Island ferry, the Caesarea which I joined in January 1963 having passing out from my training as a Junior Catering Rating.
The RFA is something of a family tradition in the Fleming household as my father served on RFA Airsprite and Broomdale during World War 2, so I had been interested in joining the Service from an early age. I eventually wrote to the MOD to enquire about employment as a Steward.
In May 1967 I eventually heard from the Ministry of Defence, and was told to join RFA Regent in Belfast, where she was nearing completion. I still don’t know why they send people to join ships weeks before they were ready. You can’t do anything because the dockyard people won’t let you. They even have a gang of women cleaners to clean up after a particular area of the ship is finished. So we spent about two months sitting around doing nothing, we were being paid generous subsistence because we all had to obtain accommodation be in Bed and Breakfast places. I did like Belfast, mind you this was before the shit hit the fan, I used to go to the Stella Maris, which is a sort of Catholic Missions to Seamen, but a bit livelier and met some very nice people.
We were eventually allowed on board and we had a hectic couple of weeks storing ship. Then we went on sea trials (no one was found guilty) they were satisfactory and the ship was handed over to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. We sailed to Plymouth to do our major storing, that was quite busy.
Next we sailed to Portland for our Sea training, which at that time wasn’t too difficult. That all changed after the Falklands. FOST send an inspection team on board and they told us what improvements they want in the next six weeks. They inspected how we performed light and heavy jackstay transfers, man overboard drills, fire fighting and damage control. We finished the sea training without any major mishaps, and sailed back to Plymouth. Once there we took on board the skilled labourers (how’s that for an oxymoron?) to load our specialised cargo. Oh! I forgot to mention that RFA Regent is a Fleet Supply ship. We spent a fortnight in Plymouth being loaded from barges as we weren’t allowed alongside, wouldn’t have thought it made a lot of difference if we’d gone up we’d have taken most of Devonport with us.
We left Plymouth, and sailed for Faslane and the Holy Loch to load the rest of the cargo. We spent a week there, I got to know one of the drivers and I managed to get some time off, and he gave me a lift to Glasgow, so I went to see David my cousin who was at that time the Master of the steamship Shieldhall. I had to find my own way back but with the Holy Loch being a submarine base for the Royal and American Navies there was a regular bus service. We returned to Plymouth and topped up on our stores, and sailed for the Med.
I was excited as it was the first time I’d been foreign, I didn’t count France as being particularly foreign. Anyway we took three or four days sailing through the Bay of Biscay, and down the coast of Spain and Portugal My first sight of Gibraltar was early in the morning - a massively big rock rising out of the morning mist. It was impressive, really spectacular.
We berthed on the Mole, so we had to get a boat or have a fairly long walk into the town, I preferred the walk. Gib is a duty-free port so I bought my first decent watch, an Omega; it was still working twenty years later. I liked the town, all the taxis were Mercedes, some quite new, but all big, not bad when there couldn’t have been more than twenty miles of road.
We stayed in Gibraltar for the weekend and I did a bit of exploring, I tried walking round the Rock but there were too many military installations, the whole Rock is honey combed into gigantic caverns carved out by successive British garrisons since we captured it from the Spanish in 1713. I continued my exploring, I went up to the top of the Rock, where the Barbary Apes live, its believed that if the apes ever left the Rock the it would cease to be British. During the time we were there the Gibraltarians were holding a Referendum as to whether they wanted to stay a Crown Colony or become part of Spain, we were told in no uncertain terms not to interfere or get involved. The outcome of the Referendum was that they wanted to stay British, which pissed the Spaniards off so much so that they closed the border at La Linea and this stopped the Spanish workers from entering Gibraltar to work. Gib then got its worker from Morocco just across the Straits. I did walk down to Europa Point which is the nearest part of Europe to Africa.
We left Gibraltar and headed east towards Malta, about a thousand miles away in the middle of the Mediterrean, exactly midway between Gibraltar and Alexandria.
It would take us three or four day to reach Malta, so we caught up with our sun-bathing and as our helicopter hadn’t been embarked yet the flight deck was the preferred location. As we weren’t really operational we even had a barbecue and a Sod’s Opera, it was all very good fun and it did help to meld the crew together.
My first sight of Malta was at about six in the morning; it didn’t look much just a flat lump of sandstone. We had to sail half way round the island because Grand Harbour was on the other side from the direction that we had come
Grand Harbour is very picturesque, it has two massive forts, St Elmo guarding the harbour entrance and St Angelo in front of the three cities (Sengela, Vittoriosa known locally as Birgu, and Bormla
We were anchored in the middle of the harbour as we were too big to get alongside, so we had to rely on a boat routine to get ashore, but the local boatmen with their dhjaisghas also provided a very cheap and efficient service, I dread to think what the tourist pays now. Anyway they put us ashore by a hoist, you couldn’t call it a lift, and unfortunately it isn’t there anymore, probably too dangerous for the tourists. The hoist went from the harbour into Floriana, which is just outside Valetta, near the Bus Terminus. Riding on a Maltese bus is an experience well worth the fare; they all have little religious shrines on the dashboard. I think the driving required it.
I went ashore the first night and found myself in Strait Street (known as the Gut), the less said about that the better suffice to say I got drunk as the beer was cheap and I was young and foolish.
The rest of the time I was in Malta I went into Sliema, which was better than Valetta, and with more to do, nicer shops and that.
After a few days in Grand Harbour we sailed round to Marsasloxx to off-load some of our cargo, Malta at this time was still a naval base in the Med second only to Gib. There was one incident when we were off-loading some shells into a barge. The pallet that they were on tilted and the whole lot crashed into the bottom of the barge, no one was hurt and anyway the shells weren’t fused.
That was my first visit to Malta. We sailed back to Gib and spent a short weekend there and then we sailed back to Plymouth.
We arrived in Plymouth just in time to prepare for “Navy Days”; we were one of the ships “open” to the public. They were only allowed on the main deck and superstructure, one woman accosted us and asked us about the ship she thanked us, but her parting shot was that we all needed haircuts; she must have had the mistaken belief that we were Royal Navy, not civilians servicing the Fleet. Still it was only for two days then we got back to our normal ships routine.
We replenished with cargo to replace the cargo we’d offloaded in Gib and Malta. We also loaded the weirdest forklift truck I’d ever seen. It must have been experimental, because I’ve never seen the like since. So we finished loading and sailed again this time for Cold Weather trials in the Arctic. We were warned not to touch any bare metal with bare hands because it would act like super glue. They tried out the new forklift truck it was a real farce, it was supposed to be have better stability than normal forklifts, so the trials were really stupid, it was sliding all over the place, so much so that the driver wouldn’t drive it. It was just too dangerous, so it was put back in its garage for the duration of the rest of our Arctic trials.
We finished the Trials and returned to Belfast for some minor work to be done. I got a fortnights leave. I was given a rail warrant to go home but I didn’t fancy wasting twenty four hours travelling, so I went to Aldergrove and flew to London, It was my first experience of flying, I was a bit concerned when I saw the wings moving up and down, not the flaps, the whole wing. I was told it was quite normal. We arrived at London and I caught the train to Weymouth and arrived home the same evening, so I’d got an extra day’s leave. I had a fortnight at home then I went back to Belfast and the Regent. A lot of the original crew had paid off, so we had a lot of new faces mainly locals from Belfast. Some were good; others you wouldn’t trust as far as you could spit.
We sailed for Plymouth, which was our home port, and restored. We then sailed out into the Atlantic to replenish the frigates and destroyers that were shadowing Russian submarines and spy trawlers. This was during the Cold War.
We had a little bit of excitement during this time when we had a fire in the engine room - a fuel line split and caught fire, but it was put out before it became serious, in which case they would have probably flooded the holds. Some of the older hands were telling us about an ammunition ship that blew up during the war the anchor was found twenty miles inland.
For amusement we had bars, one for officers which they called the wardroom, the PO’s had a small bar and the rest of the crew had their bar under the flight deck. We also had a space to show films, of which we had a good selection, but I can’t remember any of them now, a lot of westerns and spy stories, I think.
We were on station for a couple of months then we were relieved by our sister ship Resource, and we sailed to Portland for some more Sea training.
We arrived at Portland the following morning and anchored in the Harbour, because all the alongside berths were being used by warships. Consequently we had a boat routine which was run for the convenience of the boatmen, who were not nearly as obliging as the Maltese. I didn’t expect any better. Anyway the first night I went ashore and went home for the night. I arranged someone to cover for me until the first boat arrived in the morning so everything was alright. I drove to the Naval Base in time for the first boat.
The first week of sea training was an inspection by FOST (Flag Officer Sea Training) staff, to check for defects and the cleanliness of the ship. They always find fault with something. That’s what they are supposed to do; otherwise they couldn’t see any improvement over the coming six weeks, but try telling the Purser that.
The next thing, were lectures on survival at sea, damage control, first aid etc. Followed by practical exercises on - man overboard, damage control, first aid, life boat drill. They walked round the ship dropping smoke bombs to simulate a fire.
There was a man who’d joined the ship in Belfast, real scum of the earth, he didn’t get on with anyone, but this particular evening he pushed me too far and I lost it, so I put him down, unfortunately I damaged my hand doing it. I’d severed a tendon in my right hand. I was lucky the Doctor was on the ball he stitched it together to minimise the damage. The only satisfaction I got was that I’d hurt the man I’d hit. I heard later that he was sacked for provocation. Anyway I’d got a more immediate problem, how to get down a jumping ladder one-handed when the boat you’re try to get on is rising and falling about six feet in a heavy swell. I managed, then my next problem was to how to get my car back to Weymouth, as I couldn’t steer and change gear one-handed, I managed it with a mate changing gear for me. I got the car home then I went to the Hospital, they checked me over, they didn’t have to do anything else as the Doctor on board had done all that was required. I heard sometime later that he fell down a companionway (ladder) and broke his neck, I was sorry to hear that as I was very grateful to him.
The Hospital referred me to my own GP, and he told me that I’d be out of action for quite some time, so I went back to Regent to collect my gear and Pay-off. My injury put me on the sick for about five months, but as I was permanent staff I was on Civil Service sick pay, which was a lot more generous than the DSS doled out.
I went to Odstock Hospital for some plastic surgery on the scar, a very nice Indian doctor did it, then in the afternoon I went down to Lymington for a bit of sailing, bad idea; I opened all the stitches again. Talk about being young and foolish.
That was my first RFA, but the incident with the Belfast fool left a bit of a sour taste on what was otherwise an enjoyable time.
My Doctor eventually signed me off the sick, so I contacted Empress State Building. A couple of weeks later I received a telegram to join RFA Lyness in Plymouth.