About as far from the sea as you can be in the UK, Dudley, West Midlands.  I spent four years in T.S. Centaur, first in a disused flourmill and after a while a new unit was built on the remains of a canal basin, rowing whalers up and down that short stretch of water, getting “bollocked” for not saluting “the Quarterdeck”, what’s that when it’s at home?


written by John Barnes


John Williams had paid off and I had been promoted to 2nd Elect ’Off’, grandeous heights!


The run to Aussie. - Geraldton WA.


I have lived in Australia since 1973 and the changes in the past years have been phenomenal, but in 1967 things were so different.


A big country town, nothing like UK but so friendly (even though we were “Pommie Bastards”).


Reliant had been “down under” just before, to Bunbury, which I believe was a “Beaut Trip”.



John Williams grabbed my case and led me to my temporary cabin, which was on the starboard side just aft of the galley door. I make note of those details because I was shortly to learn about  “Bombay Runners”, poor air conditioning and the aromas from two galleys. One British serving foods the other Chinese, quite pungent to say the least


As I have said, J.W. was really keen to get to the bar;  free drinks at such affordable prices it was hardly worth bothering.  Regardless I was led into the Officers Bar, either Mrs Evans or Mrs McFarlaine had a birthday and was paying for the RPC (A very important abbreviation I was to learn).


Now during my school days I moved around frequently (my parents were divorced and Dad and I shifted from one lodging place to another) resulting in my being “The New Boy” at about 8 different schools. Those of you who have had that experience will appreciate the traumas associated with it. But this was something entirely different, all this “Gold Braid” after being a lowly Leading Seaman in cadets.  Not to worry they seemed a decent bunch and the beer was free!   Mind you I had never been and am still not accustomed to imbibing in the middle of the day (but you CAN teach old dog’s new tricks).


So this was my first experience of RFA personnel; me being very naive, still dressed in my NON TROPICAL clothes and feeling rather ill at ease. First chance I get, it’s down to “Toothy Wong’s” in the village and get some proper gear! “The Yacht” sat alongside in Stores Basin for a few weeks over Christmas and New Year, and lots of mechanical maintenance was carried out.  At the risk of me being sued, the engine room team had been working “Tropical Routine”, without the early start and with a much earlier finish.


Now I told you I shared a cab with the 2nd Eng Tom Foster, he turned out to be a workaholic and ensured that everyone followed his example. I reckon every removable item in the engine room was removed, maintained and replaced. No showering and dressing in uniform for lunch; it was the “Duty Mess” or nothing.  A proper start for a new 2nd; it was rumoured he was the youngest engineer in the RFA to get his “Double Ended Ticket” - steam and motor chief’s ticket. But a no messing around boss, do your work and we would get along – and we did.


I am not an engineer, but will tell you something of the main engine; A Doxford 6 cylinder vertically opposed piston diesel. This type of engine has the connecting rods of the upper pistons open to view, which then go down to connect to the crankshaft etc of the lower pistons. They look a bit like the old fashioned reciprocating steam engines


The maintenance routine called for a unit to be stripped every so many hours running, this was Tom’s delight, huge flogging spanners, pistons lifted out and liners ground to remove the wear ridge. Then new rings and all back together, after a few drinks in the bar it was not uncommon for the engineers to “Play Doxfords” . Standing in line bobbing up and down. You had to get the firing order right though.


The first time we went to sea I was standing by  “on the plates” (no MCR on that ship). Air receivers full, all auxiliaries running waiting for the engine room telegraph to ring. Three levers; ahead/astern, throttle and air start. Remember this was the first time for me, the telegraph rang, the 3rd flicked the air start lever and I nearly ran for the ladder, there was the most horrendous noise as the engine turned over and fired. Air start trucks have got nothing on it. Like everything though, you get used to it.


I have mentioned DC CURRENT, well this was a DC ship and I was in for a very steep learning curve! Never mind I got there, but there is no dirtier job than pulling a galley exhaust fan apart which has years of carbon dust and fat on it!  Reliant had two sets of generators, the main generators in the engine room and the RAS generators which fed the ATW’S (Auto Tensioning Winches).  In a separate room, one of the many alterations and additions since being MV Somersby.


Something which caused great amusement, one of the “juniors”, had done some electrical theory and had in mind that; ”The lower the voltage the less current would flow”. Which is basically true, but when you’re putting a generator “ on line ”the incomer has to be generating the same voltage as those already running!  It took many repeated explanations before he stopped winding the voltage back and then closing the circuit breaker; resulting in a flash, a bang and a pall of blue smoke drifting up through the engine room.  The old DC Switchboards with “open” circuit breaker, all brass and copper contacts, and the generators with open commutators and brushgear were a lot of work to maintain.


I remember rebuilding an Air/Conditioning control panel (our workshop was in the fo’c’sle) we would strip them completely soaking the parts in acid to clean them up.



Me heading for the electrical workshop in the fo'c'sle


Mount all the components rewire everything and remount the starter in its box.  I had done all this work and was taking the panel back to its location. The ship was moving about quiet heavily and as I stepped over the combing, caught my foot, fell to the deck and smashed the panel in about three pieces, BUGGER redo it all over again.  The second mate was watching from the bridge window and thought this was really funny!




They reckoned at the time that this was a first six ship RAS around the South China Sea
Top to bottom:- A329 RFA Retainer [munitions], F18 HMA Galatea [frigate],
A84 Reliant - "The Yacht" [air/victualling stores]. R12 HMS Hermes [aircraft carrier].
A97 RFA Tideflow [replenishment tanker]. F45 HMS Minerva [frigate].
Only the tanker was acctually RASing, the rest were "Keeping Station"
with distance marker lines connected!


During my 12 month trip the ship visited the following ports, I may be chronologically incorrect but bear with me.


In and out of Subic Bay a couple of times during exercises,the great place of Olongapo City, this  was like a cowboy town. A bar a shop, a bar a shop and so on (a bit like Sembawang). Tiny kids begging, and as soon as you opened your mouth they had you sussed ”Limey Bastard” you were called!  Thanks to The Yanks.


Hong Kong better than Singapore cooler and cleaner,but full of Yanks on R&R from Vietnam. Red cross blood transfusions were followed by parties with the staff, as were Consular and Ambassadorial get-togethers. All in all a party town!.


Whilst in HK the engine room officers were treated to a “Banquet” by #1 Fireman, the crew (HK Chinese) had not been home for over 3yrs so we were treated to a big night out, see picture.


We also had a very sad experience; after customs rummager’s had found Opium in The Carpenter’s cabin, he was confined to the ship and his drugs confiscated.  One morning the 2nd asked me if I’d seen the carpenter and told me to see if I could find him.  I went to his cabin but the door was locked, so I went outside on deck and looked through his porthole.The poor man had hanged himself,from the pipe work on the deckhead.  Believe me it was not a pretty sight, having forced the door open we cut him down and called the doctor. TOO LATE!

The Chinese being very superstitious, were reluctant to occupy his cabin. I think it took 3 applicants for his position before someone would stay, even then all soft furnishings had to be replaced. I don’t blame them!



They say “There’s no show without Punch”, well one of our 4ths Danny was a bit inclined to be violent. So much, that juniors on watch with him would always keep a safe distance. One night in the bar (in port) Danny asked our 2nd R/O “Scofe” for a “Lucky Strike” who declined, as he was running short (not very far to Danny’s cabin I might add).  Danny became aggressive, with his usual statement of, “I’ll bleeding thump you”. However his seemingly spontaneous temper, became tempered when the reefer eng Ted Ellis asked “Would you like to thump me Danny”  He backed off real quickly, it seemed he was selective as to who he would take on.


As is usual in these cases, he was his own undoing.  During a “BanYan” he actually thumped the Doc’, who took the matter all the way and Danny was paid off.  The funny part was he threw an RPC when leaving.  MR HO the officer’s Bar Steward, always counted the empty cans after the event, to arrange the bill. Well, every empty can around was collected and placed outside the bar; must have cost him a fortune!


Our next notable trips[s] were to Aden – twice if I remember correctly. The Arabs and Yemenis were at odds and Britain was acting as a peacekeeping force.  We were transporting whatever Stores we could, back to Singapore, the ship was tied up to bollards in the harbour and the “Pongoes”(Army) were ferrying the goods out to us in flat bottomed barges. The expats were burning cars and domestic white goods on the dockside,as there was no means of taking them home.


A scary side to this was that the Quartermaster and Duty Officer were armed.QM with a .303 from the bridge and the Duty Officer with a revolver. A 3rd Off (Povey) ex PO Himalaya was more dangerous than the locals (steer clear of the Quarterdeck).


On our second trip, things were hotting up between the locals and we were trying to complete the exercise ASAP. Whether by accident or design, aircraft came in and strafed the fuel tanks ashore.Leading to fuel being spilled across the harbour,others them dropped incendiary devices and ignited it. This seemed to be a covert way of attacking the RN and RFA’s,time to go so ship’s crew fore and aft. The 1st Off’ “Lurch” was on the fo’c’sle head when small arms fire was coming in from a dhow nearby. Poor old “Lurch” came down the ladder to the RAS Point keeping very low! See pic of me going to el/workshop above, that was the spot!


Back to Singapore and a bit of a rest (isn’t it wonderful when you are young you are bullet proof)?  Backtracking to our arrival at Aden (1st or 2nd I’m not sure) and RPC’s. It was my birthday, so being a very good fellow I did the right thing and bought the drinks. Now you have to be very aware of protocol; Reliant having a Chinese Crew we also carried three British PO’s who had their own bar. The Yeoman and 2 signallers and it was the accepted thing to invite these three to an RPC should you desire!  The trouble was that one invite was always reciprocated; now that was dangerous. “Come back aft after tea lecky” says “Nobby and Pat”, which I did the top was unscrewed from the “Don Bacardi”, thrown in the bin-won’t need that again!

My cabin was very poorly air conditioned, so quite often I would sleep out on the boat deck.

After the RPC’SSS, I awoke during the night lying on my back, staring straight up at the sky. Which was just a mass of stars, I’m not deeply religious, but remember quite clearly thinking; Jesus Christ I’ve done it this time!



Next episode 1st  trip to Western Australia


From Sea Cadets to Sembawang



Some anecdotes from John Barnes, ex RFA Electrical Officer 1966-71




About as far from the sea as you can be in the UK, Dudley, West Midlands.  I spent four years in T.S. Centaur, first in a disused flourmill and after a while a new unit was built on the remains of a canal basin, rowing whalers up and down that short stretch of water, getting “bollocked” for not saluting “the Quarterdeck”, what’s that when it’s at home?


14 to 18 years of age I finished up as a Leading Seaman, and looked great in my “Bellbottoms”.  I always wanted to go to sea, but my father insisted that I get an apprenticeship, which I did and got an ONC in Electrical Engineering.


I still had a yearning to go to sea, so I trotted off to Broad Street Royal Navy Recruiting Office in Birmingham, and all was going well but I had a lazy eye (no, it didn’t match the rest of me!) but not to worry, if I got some spec’s and came back the deal was I would enter as a direct entry Artificer, doing 9 years active service and 3 years as a reserve.  I started to have second thoughts here as I had just done five years as an indentured apprentice, so I got a big book from the library; Lloyds Book of Shipping and got the address of people like BP Tankers, Shell Tankers, Fyfe Banana boats, etc.  I wrote applications to several, but they wanted people with DC (Direct Current) experience.  I had all the theory, but very little practical knowledge.



The Author - waiting for the Officers Bar to open

(the Author's description)



All seemed lost until I saw an advert in The Mirror I think, Junior Engineer Officers were being recruited for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and I fitted the general requirements, except for the category.  Not to be beaten (though I have been over the years), I wrote a letter to MOD (N) at Empress State Building in London.  Now I am not into the esoteric side of life, but I recall during my Tech College studies that one day I was doodling in my log book (remember those, not the navigator’s type, but the one’s after slide rules).  The item of my attention was a three curved winged building, supported on a matrix of steel.


The lecturer looked over my shoulder and asked “what’s that Barnes”, “don’t know, just a building” says I.  He reckoned that it was impractical as a design and would fall down.  Well, those few years later I came out of the underground and walked up the street, I swear to god the old Empress State was the very building I had been sketching, was that strange or what?


I digress; after being interviewed by someone who had obviously only learned electrical theory, I returned to the “mucky midlands” awaiting my fate.  It seemed an age before things started to happen, but then it was medicals, registration with the MN (Merchant Navy), buying uniforms etc.  I was not as fortunate as one of our editor’s in that regard, as my Father was against me going to sea (one wage earner less at home), so I had 48 pounds from my superfund and bought my kit.


Bear in mind the list I was given omitted any tropical uniform, only a  “Blues” suit made from moleskin, with trouser leg bottoms which covered my shoes, a Burberry raincoat, cap and black tie.  Eventually it all came down to a slip of paper with space for two dates to join, the first was when I finished with my shore side employer and the second, when I could be ready to join a ship.  At this point I thought that a couple of week’s holiday would be in order, so that is what I allowed.


I did the rounds of friends and relatives saying my goodbyes and so on, even stepping out one night in my new uniform (you didn’t see many young men in uniform in my neck of the woods).  This eventually led to some smart comments in a pub, my cap being thrown around the bar together with some punches, I’m sure you can imagine the scene!


My two weeks break ran into four and I ran out of money! So a letter to MOD (N).  A very nice reply said not to worry, there was no appointment for me at that time, and I should be receiving payment from Bath, which I subsequently did at irregular periods!  This period ran from mid September 1966, until mid December of the same year, by this time my friends had seen enough of me and were glad when my travel orders arrived.


Report to Brize Norton to fly to Singapore (where on earth is that!)  British Eagle airways were chartered back then to transport service personnel to the Far East.  Four engine prop jet “Brittania”, the whispering giant (pig’s bum).





In the ice and fog we took off, I had never flown before so quite an experience for me.  Istanbul first, then somewhere in the Gulf (each leg of the journey was about 7- 8 hours).  Then it was on to Colombo, Ceylon as was then, the plane came to a standstill and up rolled the gangway, it was dark outside and I was wearing my best 3 piece wool worsted suit, so I must need a jacket as it is night time, a short walk to the exit door then wham, a big stinking hot wet blanket had been thrown over me; the tropics, get used to it lad!


The transit lounge was a roof on steel supports, lots of spotlights, hence lots of “beasties”.  After a short stop over we took off, running into a flock of birds, one engine down which resulted in a return to Colombo and a 26 hour delay?  I booked into the Mount Lavinia hotel after being driven through the jungle, dodging elephants and the like.  A beautiful beach location.


Eventually we arrived at Singapore at about 4 am, an RN dormobile transports me to a hotel (can’t remember the name, but it was a two story place out of the 20’s). It was pouring with rain and I couldn’t get to sleep, so I showered and had a walk around the veranda, no signs of life anywhere.  I hear voices coming from one of the rooms, so knocked on the door to enquire where the staff were.  The door was opened by a middle aged man to whom I told my tale; he said not to worry as I would be picked up again sometime.  Looking over his shoulder I saw another man who gave me a pleasant wave, thanking them I went back to my room; funny that two blokes should be in one room, when there were so many to go round!


Eventually the rain stops, people are moving around and I hop a cab to the Post Office to send a telegram home to explain the delay (no mobile phones in those days).  I go back to the hotel to find the transport had been and gone.  What to do-panic?  The hotel manager drives me in pursuit of the RN vehicle (he knew the route).  We arrived at another hotel where second engineer Tom Foster had also missed the transport.  Not being very pleased (I could tell – but didn’t fully understand the Geordie language at the time).



HM Naval Base, Singapore



Wha aye, we’ll get a taxi, so up to Sembawang Stores Basin and the “Yacht”.



RFA Reliant  (2)

I was left standing on the quarterdeck like a shag on a rock, when all of a sudden this bundle of humanity fly’s out of the accommodation with the  greeting: -“Come on ya bastard there’s an RPC in the bar”, this was John Williams the 2nd Electrical Officer.  What a start to my RFA life!



To be continued.

Copyright © 2008 – 2018 Christopher J White

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website, by continuing to use the site you agree to cookies being used. More info.