I had always wished to become a cadet and thus eventually to become an officer in the Royal Navy, but the great cost which this entailed made it impossible for me. Thus when the ex-Thames was anchored in Simon’s Bay and became the South African Training Ship General Botha I was at once greatly interested. I asked my father if it would be possible for me to become a cadet aboard her and he started to make enquiries for me. I knew that if one did well aboard the General Botha the Navy took six cadets to be trained in the Royal Naval Reserve and, if any of them did well, there was a chance of their being taken up in the Navy itself. What I did not realise was that the fees for the two-year course on the General Botha were far too high for my Dad to meet. Fortunately there was other help to hand my Father’s older brother, my Uncle Alec, had just retired from being a Judge. He had lost his only son in the 1914 -18 war and his three daughters had been self-sufficient for several years. His pension was three or four times as much as my Dad’s salary, so he offered to pay for me to take the two-year’s course aboard the General Botha. I did not know that at the time and learned of it only at the end of my second year.
Thus when I had safely passed the Junior Certificate in the First Class at Sea Point Boys’ High School in December 1923 I learned that I had been accepted for the General Botha. The beginning of February 1924 saw me joining the ship as she lay in Simon’s Bay. The first thing that happened to me and the other “First Years” who had joined with me was that we were issued with our uniforms, etc., then ordered to get out of our civilian clothes and put on our No. 10 uniforms of white canvas. Our other clothes were made into parcels and we had to address them to our parents, so that we were deprived of having clothes in which we might try to runaway to our parents again. I was quite amazed at the number of things we were given: two navy blue uniforms; two white canvas uniforms; two navy blue collars with three white studs on them; one “silk” (a large square of black silk which was folded in proper naval style and then formed a kind of scarf around our necks, under the collar at the back and then tied in front in proper naval fashion); also two caps, blue with a white covering which could be taken off and washed. After “eight bells” (16h00) we donned a blue uniform without the collar (in winter) or a white uniform with no blue collar on it (in summer). The whitecap covers of course were put on in summer. Then also I got two pairs of blue socks and a pair of “navy” shoes, i.e., black shoes without a toe cap, also two navy blue blankets, a lovely white “ditty box” of wood and various brushes, a hammock in which to sleep and various other things that I can’t remember. We provided our own toothbrushes, etc., but were given a large cake of Sunlight soap for washing our clothes and also ourselves! All this kit had to be stowed in a certain way in our brown canvas kitbags!
We new cadets were divided into four “classes” for instruction, being put into one or other according to our school records. There were three other boys who had passed the Junior Certificate examinations, so we were put into class 5 with some 14 or 15 others who had done Standard 7. The rest of the “new chums” were in classes 6, 7, and 8. The “old salts,” as the senior cadets called themselves, formed classes 1 to 4.
We all had to do ordinary school work, taking classes in English, Afrikaans, Mathematics and Science, but we much preferred the “nautical” side of our training when we did boat-pulling, sailing, signalling, nautical astronomy, navigation, “boxing” the compass, etc. We also did a lot of Physical Training (PT), which included climbing up and down the masts (which I hated!) and also some squad drill, so that we knew how to fall in, to form fours, move to the right or left in fours, etc. We had to learn the various bugle calls (the one we hated most of all was what we called “Charlie” that called us out of our hammocks every morning at 06h00, summer or winter).
What a scramble there was every morning! We had to jump out of our hammock, wash, clean teeth, etc., dress, lash up and stow our hammocks, sweep the decks, get our table ready for breakfast (they were suspended from the deck that formed our “roof” by iron hooks, as were the wooden benches we sat on), get our plates and spoons out of our kitbags and sit around our mess table. Two lads from each mess table were told off as “mess cooks” but (fortunately!) they did no cooking, only fetched the food from the galley at every meal. After each meal these boys had to wash all the billies in the galley; each cadet had to wash his own knife, fork, spoon and enamel plate.
Every week one class became “duty class” which meant they had to man the boats which were our only means of getting stores, post, etc., from the land, or taking boys to the shore. Members of this “duty class” had to take it in turn to be “quartermaster” and be at hand to convey to the cadets or other crew members of the orders of the duty officer. This they did first by a shrill “double note” on the Boson’s Call (a type of whistle) to attract the attention of all and sundry. They had to begin their call on the main-deck aft and then repeat it several times as they ran forward so that all the “crew” could hear it. Any order, whether it be “All hands, fall in on the upper deck” or “Away, cutter’s crew” had to be obeyed “at the double”. We were told by our superiors that the Navy’s rule as to how any order was carried out applied to us also: “when you hear an order you don’t walk to obey it, nor even run – you must fly!”
To begin with we were all issued with Royal Navy-type ratings’ uniforms and , as our seamanship and signalling instructors were ex-RN warrant officers, our instruction was far more like the RN than merchant service training. Much of it, of course, was common to both services but, as time went on, we received more mercantile training, especially in the “classroom” way. For navigation we had two very fine ex-mercantile officers, especially Captain Whapham, a gifted man who was in charge of our training. We had a very fine Captain, Norton by name, who, though a strict disciplinarian, always had our welfare in his mind. He received from the Board of Control permission to have the ship’s carpenters build a deck-house on the quarter deck of our ship to enable him to have his wife and family always with him. He used to invite two of the Cadet Captains to have breakfast with him and his family in turn. How we looked forward to it: his breakfast was so far above what the rest of us had to endure!
Then he had a wonderful Chief Officer named Grey. He was so tall that when inspecting our quarters under the fo’c’sle of the ship he had to walk with as stoop. Some years later when the film actor Jack Hulbert began to be famous we ex-Botha cadets found him to be the “dead spit” of Commander Grey. He was also very kind to us Cadet Captains. He would get permission for two of us to stay ashore for a Friday night, take us to, a grand dinner in a hotel, then take us to a cinema and then escort us to the Missions to Seamen hostel where he had engaged a bedroom for the two of us. He would come back to fetch us after breakfast next morning and then see that we got back to the ship in safety.
As far as I can remember there seemed to be a difficulty in filling the berth of Second Officer. When I first joined the chip the position was vacant and then there were three, one after the other, none of whom lasted more than a few months.
We had a fine Scot, …….., in charge of our “school” classes. He was supposed to have a second teacher top help him but there, too, the position was difficult to fill and, again, there were three, each of whom served a few months and then disappeared.
Our Afrikaans teacher was more fortunate as he remained for all the time I was a cadet. His great difficulty was that at that time there was only one good Afrikaans book that could be used as a setwork. It was a good book of the adventures of various wild animals in then forests and marshes of Tanzania: Uit Oerwoud en Vlakte (From the Primeval Forests and Plains). Little did I dream then that it was to be a setwork for me also when I did my matriculation course in 1926, and still less that I had it as a setwork again when I was doing the course “Afrikaans en Nederlands” in 1929 at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
I think it was in April 1924 that the Dockyard Regatta for Ships’ Boats was held in Simon’s Bay. There was a cutter race for Boys under 20, so the Botha entered two crews (we had only two cutters!), one for each “watch”, Port and Starboard. I was a member of the Port watch but, being a very junior cadet, I was not in that boat’s crew. At the regatta, besides our two boats, there were two from the Dockyard and one from each of the two cruisers that formed the “Africa Squadron” of the RN, at that time, the beautiful four-funnelled sisters the Birmingham (Flagship) and the Lowestoft. Each of them put in a boat manned by “boy seamen”. These were lads of 18 to 21, thus much older and heavier than our cadets, who were all aged 14 to 16. All of us not in the crews climbed up the masts or any other places from which we could see the race, over a mile in the open bay. The motor boat from the Flagship with the starter and the judges in it puffed noisily into view and when the starter saw that all the cutters were in line with each other he started the race by firing a blank charge. How we all shouted at our crews to encourage them, but they were soon out of sight. They had to pull toward a buoy in the bay, round it to port and then to pull toward the finish, an imaginary line between the starting boat and the flagship. We watched the boats drawing away from us and couldn’t really see which was which but, when they had rounded the buoy and were coming back we could distinguish them. Our port boat carried a red flag forward, the starboard boat a green flag. As they came nearer we of the port watch gave a wild shout: our boat was leading! How we shouted to encourage them. Along they came, their oars rhythmically going “up and out”, the bow wave twinkling in the sun! Our shouts grew louder and longer as we saw that the port watch crew was increasing its lead then, suddenly, the bang and puff of smoke showing that the port watch boat, “our” boat, had won the race! The boat’s crew all collapsed into the boat; they had given all the energy and strength that they had; so the Admiral’s steam picket-boat went from one boat to another to give them a tow homeward! What a welcome we gave to our heroes when they returned to our ship. But all they wanted was a shower and then a “lay down” as we call it in the navy.
A few months later we had a race between “Parts of Ship”, not watches. I was a member of the “Forecastle” (usually pronounced “fo’c’sle”) and this time a member of the Fo’c’sle racing crew. We had to race against the “Foretop” crew and managed to beat them. After our race was over we wearily climbed out of the boats and then the crews from the remaining parts of ship (usually referred to as “Tops”), the Maintop and Quarter-deck crews took them over and they did the mile-long race, which was won by the Maintop crew.
A week or more later we were again raced, this time the Fo’c’sle and the Maintop crews were in action to see which was the winner of the competition. Once again we of the Fo’c’sle crew were the victors, so we became the top top! Then the Foretop took on Quarter-deck and beat them. This meant that Fo’c’sle had won the competition, Foretop and Maintop were joint second and poor Quarter-deck were last.
We “new chums” were told by the “old salts” that we had to obey them always and this sometimes led to bullying, but only of a mild sort. Moreover they always tried to keep for themselves anything that was going. One day, however, we had the laugh of them. It was a public holiday so the Old Salts had asked and got permission to take one of the cutters out sailing. They took her and set up the masts for the dipping lugsails as the wind was fair for a trip round Roman Rock in the centre of False Bay. They crowded into the cutter and sailed away happily, waving us goodbye as they went. It was a very hot day but, as they were sailing and not pulling, they did not mind. We watched them going so happily and wished that we could go also, but we had to carry on with our normal routine. Suddenly in the afternoon the wind dropped and the day became hotter that ever. Time went by but no cutter came back. We had finished out afternoon tea and sat around on the upper deck in the shade to escape the heat of the sun. Suddenly one of us shouted “There she comes!” and, looking up we could see something in the distance. Then we were able to see the sun glinting off wet oar blades. About an hour later the cutter with its load of tired and sunburnt Old Salts came alongside the “Botha”. After they had their boat under the boom they wearily climbed inboard amidst the hearty laughter of us “new chums” whom they had refused to share in their “sailing” trip. When they reported to the duty officer their story came out: they had had their “picnic” when some 12 miles from the ship but, when they wanted to return to the ship they found that there was no wind. So they had to row the boat back, and what an effort that had been with a full load of cadets aboard and 12 miles to row! They had taken turns to row but even so they were dog-tired (and very grumpy!) when at long last they could tie up alongside their parent ship.
I loved sailing; this is, I think, the most pleasing of all sports: to be aft and steering the boat, with the sails full of wind, feeling the boat going over the waves and the coolness of the wind, hearing the “slap” of the water as you go along, there is nothing to beat it!
Once, however, it was not so pleasant. Mr Smith, our beloved sailing instructor, took a group of us out sailing one day. He was at the helm, with his cap pulled firmly over his left ear and his pipe in his mouth (he use to smoke very strong “Navy Cut” tobacco whose fumes were very pungent). The wind picked up and waves grew stronger and we were sailing diagonally across them, so that the boat rolled from side to side as well as pitching fore and aft. Although by that time we were all more or less accustomed to the motion of a boat in the sea this new and strong motion added to our cox’s pipe smoke, made first one then another of us get sea sick and have to lean over the side of the boat to “give an offering to Neptune” as the old sailors called it! Normally I was never sea sick, no matter how much the boat rolled or pitched, but this time even I had to lean over the side. It was not really the wild antics of the boat that upset me, but the sight and the sound of the others. Meanwhile old “Panicky” Smith just sat in the stern smiling at our discomfort. I had the feeling that he had deliberately steered the boat to show us what the boat could do in the waves.
Talking of “Panicky” reminds me that I have not mentioned our other instructors. Two of them, Like Mr Smith, were ex-Royal Navy warrant officers: “Bill” Hayes, who helped Panicky in seamanship instruction; and “Bert” Costick, our signalling instructor, a very fine man and a very good instructor whom we all liked very much. He sometimes took us to the ship’s bridge just below the foremast, from which a number of halyards were rigged to take signalling flags which were stowed in a big “cupboard” which had many pigeon-holes for stowing the flags of the International Code of Signals. He taught us how to use these flags, sometimes to make a single word, usually to have two or three or even four flags to make sentences. Then he taught us semaphore, which I knew already, having learnt it in the Scouts; also to signal Morse code by making “dots and dashes” by one flag or by means of a light , which was the best way. Signals could also be made by means of sound, e.g. by using the ship’s steam whistle. I love clipping the flags of the International Code to the halyards and hoisting the signal to the mast-head, which sometimes in a stiff wind meant quite a muscular effort. Bert Costick was always very patient with us but insisted on our doing exactly what should be done. Thus we all liked Bert very much and did well in signalling.
The last of our four instructors was a former soldier, “Jaunty” Johnston. He was a Physical Training instructor and a very good one. He used to take us on the upper deck every day except Saturday and Sunday and give us strenuous exercises. I often used to think as we had so much boat rowing to do that we didn’t really need any more exercise, but we had to do it. Every day when our PT was over “Jaunty” made us race over the rigging on the two masts, half of us over the foremast and half over the mainmast. This certainly added to our agility as well as our muscles.
Mr Johnston was called “Jaunty” because in the RN the ship’s police are called the “Jaunties” and he was our ship’s “policeman”. The biggest “crime” in our ship was smoking. A number of the lads used to smoke, thinking, no doubt, that this showed them to be grown-ups. They used to smoke in the “heads”, as the latrines on a ship are called, but Jaunty was not easily fooled and almost always caught them at it. They were then hauled before the Chief Officer or the Captain and always sentenced to “six of the best.” And it was Jaunty who always had to administer the punishment.
His best piece of instruction with us was when we all drilled together. Clad in our “flannels” (white shirts with blue facings) and navy-blue trousers we all used to be paraded on the sports field in the dockyard and do physical drill to the music of the band. This was so good that the organisers of the Rosebank Show used to ask us to drill in public there, which we did. While it was not as striking as the naval “field gun race” it was a very good show indeed.
Talking of the show reminds me that the Navy League used to invite us to take part in a signalling race, which we loved. We worked in groups of three: one to signal, one to write down and the third to run as fast as possible with the message and give it to the “referee” of the race. My great friend Doug Macleod and I and a third cadet whose name I forget were the winners in 1925 and each won a fountain pen.
Once a year we all went by train to Cape Town and then marched from the station to the Groote Kerk at the top of Adderley Street where we sat for the morning service, on the Sunday nearest General Botha’s birthday. We enjoyed that very much as after the service we were marched to a cafe in Parliament Street where we all were given a good feast!
At the end of 1924 we all had to write tests which were fairly stiff. Classes 1 to 4 (the “old salts”) were doing final exams while we in classes 5 to 8 did end of the year exams. I was lucky to do well in my tests. A week or two later we had a prize-giving in which we had many very important people, such as the Admiral of the Africa Station of the Royal Navy with his Flag Lieutenant, the local school inspector, the chairman of the Navy League and, of course, the members of the “General Botha’s” Board of Control. Then, after taking leave of the “Old Salts”, we all went on holiday.