RFA Hebe 1964
The Adventures of a Conway Lad on RFA Hebe 1964
My previous colleague from “Wave Knight” and I both joined this ship at Devonport as the two Deck Apprentices. She also carried two Engineer Cadets. The Chief Officer, who supervised us along with the Maltese crew, was a small but tough and rather dour Scot, whilst The Captain was another Scot, of the larger and more extrovert variety.
“Hebe” and her sister-ship “Bacchus” were both at that time painted a duck-egg shade of greenish grey instead of the standard Admiralty grey colour sported by other RFA’s, and neither carried the distinguishing naval side numbers painted on the hull. They were both general cargo ships, employed on a regular liner service between the U.K. and the Far East, calling at British naval bases en route as required. The ships were loaded by ‘dockyard mateys’ at Chatham. The wide variety of cargo would include such items as military fighting and ancillary vehicles, naval and RAF launches, smaller boats and spare parts for aircraft and ships. There would also be NAAFI stores, pallets of bagged and tinned foodstuffs, cases and kegs of beer, crates and drums of all shapes and sizes, boxes of equipment and personal effects and even large wicker covered jars of navy rum, (which occasionally and quite accidentally got broken by the stevedores! You could smell the spirit vapour coming out of No1 hold ventilators for days afterwards). The ship would probably also be loaded with long boxes of helicopter rotor blades and thousands of other packages of loose general stores. Drums of highly flammable Avpin, (helicopter starter fuel), were stowed on the foredeck, where they could easily be jettisoned overboard in the event of a fire. A regular feature of the cargo was the ‘Chacon’, (Chatham container). This was a large and strong wooden box structure, approximately 7 feet square by 8 feet high, fitted with lockable double doors on one side, a steel sheathed roof and four lifting lugs. Large numbers of these might be stowed in the holds or on deck having been pre-loaded with cartons of smaller or high value items of stores.
Regular ports of call after sailing from Chatham included Gibraltar, Malta, then through the Suez Canal to Aden and on to Singapore. Discharge at interim ports would take about two days with a turn-around of about five days at Singapore. We normally discharged cargo on the outbound leg, perhaps picking up items for ports further east. On the homeward leg we would call again for cargo to be returned to the U.K. The destination on return to U.K. was Devonport, lying alongside at the large transit shed on No.1 Jetty, South Yard. At some time during my time on “Hebe” we went into dry-dock for a mini refit at Willoughby’s Yard, which was located within the Inner Basin of Millbay Docks at Plymouth. This ship repair company and the dry-dock have now long gone, with the dry-dock itself having been filled in to create a vehicle park for the cross-channel ferry terminal.
On one of our outbound voyages, we sailed from Aden and having passed the shelter of the horn of Africa and the large island of Socotra, we ran directly into a monsoon storm. With the weather on our beam, we rolled and pitched quite heavily. Our deck cargo included several single decker buses for Singapore Naval Base and as a result of our violent movement the buses began to shift and break loose. Through that night and the following morning, the other apprentice and I were called by the Chief Officer to help the crew try and re-secure the wire lashings, whilst the ship was brought head to the seas and hove to. The daylight showed that the buses had been extensively damaged and as a result we had to carry them back again to the U.K. as ‘written-off’.
Another disturbing incident during that storm was that one of the engineer cadets went missing. The ship was searched from top to bottom, with fears that he had been lost overboard. Fortunately he was found, tucked away in an engine-room locker, completely overcome by the debilitating effects of seasickness!
In port this was a great ship for parties in the Officers lounge. With many characters on board amongst the officers, we often invited groups of Wrens, nurses or teachers (female), aboard for an evening’s knees-up. The cosy lounge and bar area had been attractively decorated on this ship, including the use of fronds of hop vines probably collected from the Chatham area of Kent.
The Naval Base at Singapore was always an interesting port of call. It was located on the northern shores of the island, on the Jahore Straits. “Hebe” and “Bacchus” usually berthed alongside in the Stores Basin, surrounded by a wide variety of warships and RFA’s. In the RFA contingent there was generally a couple of ‘Fort’ boats, along with the air-stores ship “Reliant” and the small tanker “Gold Ranger”. They appeared to be having a wonderful life, with just the occasional trip to sea and the odd ‘ban-yan’, (beach barbecue somewhere up on the Malayan coast). A ten-minute walk from the ship to the Naval Base gates and you entered the different world of Sembawang village with all its shops and bars, buzzing with life in the evenings. It was here that you could buy all manner of oriental goods. Amongst the shops there was the renowned naval outfitter called ‘Toothy Wong’. He could knock you up a whole range of made-to-measure tropical uniforms and safari suits in no time at all, and velly, velly cheap! If you wanted a change of scene on your day off, a ‘fast black’ (a battered old black Mercedes taxi), would whisk you off to the city or to the nearby Officers Mess at “HMS Terror”, which had a great swimming pool and skittle alley. A book of tickets costing a few dollars would keep you in ‘Tiger’ beer and poolside eats for the whole day.
Whilst at Singapore, I was able to contact an old RAF friend of my parents, who we originally got to know when my father was posted to “RAF Seletar” between 1953 and 1955. This was the British fighter and flying boat base at Singapore, located on the Jahore Straits just a few miles east of the Naval Base. Dad was a Flt.Lt. Engineer, looking after Meteor jets fighters and the large, white painted Sunderland flying boats, which were moored in the Straits. This friend was back there again although now nearing retirement. It had been ten years since I was last there as a boy. Modern aircraft, (Lightning’s), now replaced the Meteors and I noticed defensive batteries of ‘Bloodhound’ ground to air missiles along the shoreline as we had navigated through the Straits.
We deck apprentices shared gangway watches during the day, checking the identity of ship visitors, whilst also keeping a general eye on the cargo work activity. One strange but regular visitor to the ship was a little Chinese chiropodist, who had a thriving business sorting out the foot problems of his customers. He carried with him and was proud to show you, several letters from delighted senior naval officers who could walk again comfortably after his skilful ministrations!
Almost as regular as clockwork, and usually mid-afternoon lasting for about an hour, the skies would darken and the warm rain would suddenly pelt down. There was lots of dashing about as the stevedores took shelter and the crew rushed to close the McGreggor hatch covers. The decks were quickly awash and the water gurgled out of the scuppers, whilst the roads poured the rain water into the deep monsoon ditches on either side. Then almost as quickly as it had started, the skies cleared and the rain stopped. The hot sun re-appeared causing the steel decks and the roads and roofs all around to steam as they dried again.
I really enjoyed my time on this ship and was sorry to have to leave at the end of 1964, paying off at Chatham for just a few days of home leave.