When I came back to the ship at then end of January 1925 I found that I had been promoted to Cadet Captain (First Class) and that I was to be in charge of the Foretop. I was sad at this as it meant that I would now be in a different “Top” and also be transferred to the Starboard Watch. We were all now in different classes: we “Old Salts” would now be in classes 1 to 4 and the new chums took our places in classes 5 to 8.
Many things out of the ordinary happened in 1925. First was the visit of HRH The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) to South Africa. He had a very full programme to discharge but we heard that he was coming to inspect our ship. Thus we all prepared to the ship as smart as possible before he came. The General Botha had been built for the RN as a “second class cruiser” in 1886 and in those days even warships were decorated so she had a small copy of the shield of Great Britain spread across her stern. It had originally been smart in its true colours but, when she ceased being a cruiser it simply was covered in white paint. So I remember our “chippie” (the ship’s carpenter) being hung over the stern of the ship on a boson’s chair where he first of all had a tough time chipping the white paint off the shield, smoothing it down and then painting the shield in its true glory of red, blue, white and gold colours. It was really a great improvement and we were all very proud of it. I remember that I got several members of my top to do polishing on some old, unused engines in or part of the ship so that they shone like gold.
Meanwhile we had the regatta in which the port versus starboard boat race was to be held. This year I was in the Starboard Watch’s boat and we exercised every day in the “dog watches”, very hard work. Great interest was taken in the race this year because it had been decided that the winning cutter’s crew would have the honour of bringing the Prince to the ship when he arrived. I think that
the race broke all records for time, as all of us wished to have the honour of bringing the Prince to the ship, but in the end the Port Watch boat won by a few feet. I remember when the race was over simply lying in the bottom of the boat, completely unable to do anything except breath – and grieve!
Some days after the race the Prince arrived in Simonstown. We watched as the blue and gold Royal train drew into the station and then we all fell in to our positions in “Dress Ship.” Our flags had been hoisted “Rainbow fashion” at 08h00 and fluttered bravely in the strong south easter that was raging in three long lines: from bow to foremasthead, from there to mainmasthead and from there to the stern. The Port Watch boat, with our chief officer on board, was
already at the jetty and our captain, with all our officers and instructors, was waiting at the top of the gangway, as were the chairman of the Board of Control Mr Clough and several members of the Board. When the cutter arrived alongside our bugle band sounded the royal salute while we stood rigidly at attention and the officers and instructors all saluted. We were dressed in our white Number 10 uniform with the blue collar, our best caps and very white cap covers with our capstays around our chins to prevent them from
being blown away by the wind. When the prince had arrived on board and been taken to the wardroom where the officers and instructors were introduced to him we were re-formed into a sort of square on the quarter deck so that the Prince could address us. He was very smartly dressed in a Number 1 RN uniform with tail coat, captain’s gold bands on the cuffs, many medal ribbons and the gold braid on his right shoulder as an ADC to his father, His Majesty King George V.
He was welcomed by Mr Clough who asked him to say something to us. He smiled, stepped forward and made a short speech. I was standing within ten feet of him, yet, because of the terrible south easter I did not hear a word he said. He and his entourage (two RN officers, if I remember rightly) then went again into the wardroom to be entertained by Mr Clough and Captain Norton, then returned to the cutter to make his way ashore again. We meanwhile had all been sent to line the ship’s side on the upper deck, from bow to stern, so that when the cutter pulled off from the ship we could all give him three cheers, which we did with great gusto. The Prince replied by standing up, saluting and then waving a hand at us, which we appreciated greatly.
A few months later our ship had to be taken to the dry dock for the first time since she had been moored in Simonstown. We had a terrific time as we tried to raise the anchor cables from the bottom so that she could be moved but, after much pulling a hauling, it was decided to slip the cables after buoying them so that the RN tug St Dogmael could take her in. When she had been properly fixed so that she could not move the dock gates were closed and the engines started to pump the water out of the dry dock. We, meanwhile, all dressed in our overalls, were slung over the ship’s side on planks held in position by ropes to the upper deck. Two or three of us sat on each plank with big scrapers to clean the ship’s bottom. The barnacles and other types of shell fish that were stuck on the ship we simply scraped or chopped into the water. As the water was pumped out we were lowered further down on our planks, to find more “prey” lower down. This continued for several hours until we reached the place where the ship’s side became the ship’s bottom. Then we could no longer reach the ship’s hull so we were stopped for the day. I can still remember the stench that came up from the stuff we had removed from our ship. We were sent to bed early so that we could finish the job next day.
When we resumed work early next morning we found that all the water had been pumped out of the dry dock so that we could go to work under the ship. As is usual she had settled on huge six-feet-high blocks of wood to enable us to get right under the ship. This meant that we had to work above us, in very close contact with the barnacles, etc., that we had to scrape off our ship’s bottom. These bloated things coloured pink and yellow, red and green, were fat and full of yellow “blood” which, as soon as we had scraped any of them off the ship, squirted foul smelling stuff all over us. It got into our hair, our ears and eyes and our mouths, if we opened them. Within a few minutes we were wet through. Moreover, we were working on top of all the stuff that we had so blithely scraped off on the previous day. It was terrible and many of us became quite sick.
Fortunately our officers saw what was happening and so, as soon as we had finished the scraping of the ship’s bottom we were ordered to return to the ship where we were told to get undressed, to throw all our clothes into piles in the bathroom and then to bath, with a special injunction that we had to wash our hair thoroughly. This we did. Unfortunately we were given soup for dinner and one misguided youngster said “barnacle soup” which made several of us quite sick again.
We did not know it then, but later we found out that our officers had ‘phoned Mr Clough (who was a clerk in the Houses of Parliament) to report to him what had happened. It was then decided that immediate steps should be taken to get all of us off the ship for a week. Actually, when we had signed our papers for admission to the SATS General Botha one of the things we had agreed to was to serve from February to December without any holiday, but the powers that be had decided, very wisely, that this was an emergency and that we should be got off the ship at once for a short rest. Most of us came form Cape Town and the peninsula, so it was very easy to make the arrangements for us to leave; those who lived too far away were, if I remember rightly, sent to the Missions to Seamen where some of our officers looked after them. Anyway, my parents were delighted to meet me at Cape Town station and take me home to Three Anchor Bay.
When we returned from our unexpected leave we found that our ship had been towed across the harbour to tie up under one of the huge “goose neck” cranes where steps were being taken to lift her big funnel out of her. It was connected to the “hook” of the crane by a number of chain-cables, held in position by steel cables and then the crane started putting pressure on the funnel. Thereafter several “dockyard maties” with blow lamps started cutting through the steel of the funnel. A chalk line had been drawn round the base of the funnel to make sure the cutters did the right thing. As soon as the cuts were all finished the crane was set in motion . With sadness we watched how our ship lost her funnel, but with interest as we saw how cleverly the crane driver worked his machine to lift the funnel off the ship and then lay it down on the quay behind it. There it lay for several days until some scrap metal merchant bought it and, after
carving it into small, manageable lengths, carted it away. It took us a long time to get accustomed to our ship with no funnel. There was, however, some consolation for us by what had happened; it was now possible to take various pieces of old machinery from the ship’s engine room through the big opening where the funnel had, for more than 40 years, proudly stood, and in these spaces games rooms and other facilities were built for us. But we got a shock some months later: the ship received a lot of new Admiralty charts for our use in navigation study. There was one for False Bay and we were shocked to see that the place where our ship was moored was indicated by the symbol for a wreck! This was, of course, when the St Dogmael had towed her back to her “station” after she had been “beheaded.” Thereafter life went very much as in the previous year, with the final examinations beginning in November. I shall never forget our final navigation paper: a week or so before we sat for it Queen Alexandra had died in England. As usual there, her funeral took place nearly a week after she had died. When Royalty is being buried it is customary for all HM ships to lower their colours to half mast and then to fire minute guns, one shot for every year of the deceased’s age. Queen Alexandra had lived for some 84 years so, at 08h00, all the RN ships of the Africa
station, the light cruisers Birmingham and Lowestoft, plus the sloops Verbena, Wallflower, Daffodil and Delphinium, lowered their ensigns and at the same time started firing the 84-gun salute. The examination paper we were writing was one for three hours so, for nearly half the time that we were writing we had these powerful bangs going on very near to us.
We had to undergo a “viva voce” examination also and this was done by some RN officers who boarded our ship and took us around the ship where they asked various questions from, each one of us about the rigging and the boats, the compass and so on. The one dealing with me got me caught up in something in the rigging, I can’t remember what, but I managed the rest of his questions fairly well.
Soon afterwards we got the results of our examination and I found, to my great delight, that I had come first in all subjects, “school” and nautical and my friend Douglas Macleod was second in each one. Meanwhile the competitions for the King’s Prize was held, the prize to be given to the cadet who was most likely to be a good officer. Our officers picked out two of us, “Zulu” Brown and me and then our fellow cadets voted for who should get the prize. Zulu was a first class cadet captain as I was but was also our heavy weight boxing champion. Thus he received most of the votes for the King’s Prize. As I had come second I got a gold watch presented by Lord Kylsant, then chairman of the boards of the Union Castle Line and several other companies.
I should have mentioned that soon after I became a cadet aboard the SATS General Botha we were all measured by a tailor for our cadet uniforms which we were supposed to wear when going ashore, dark blue uniforms with a double-breasted tunic having eight brass buttons in two rows on the front, ordinary width trousers, not like the seamen’s’ wide ones, and a peaked cap with the General Botha’s badge in shining copper at the front. It was expected that we would all wear this miniature officer’s uniform for prize day as
we had the usual number of important people on board, but when prize day dawned and we had dressed the ship overall with colourful flags our captain felt that it would be asking too much of the 120 of us cadets to wear our heavy cadet uniforms in such heat. Thus he phoned Mr Clough and told him that in the circumstances he was ordering us to wear our No 6 (white) sailor’s uniforms which were really very handsome and much cooler than the cadet’s uniform. So when the important visitors arrived we were all “manning ship”, most of us standing in a long line along the upper deck next to the removable chain fence from bow to stern, some on the bridge others in the starboard rigging of the ship, when all the worthies were on board and sitting in the seats provided for them on the quarter-deck we all came in and sat on stools behind the visitors. The captain, Mr Clough, the Admiral and one or two others sat on a specially erected platform with all the prizes next to them. It turned out that I had son most of the prizes and my “half section” Douglas Macleod had come second in most, so it became almost monotonous to hear: “first, McGregor, second Macleod.” There were no “thirds” for any prize. I was glad to see my parents among those present and with them my uncle Alec McGregor. I’m sure that they were very pleased that I had done so well and I was very pleased to see them there. Another person whose presence was very pleasant to see was the Rev ML de Villiers, the Dutch Reformed Church minister of Simonstown. He was a friend of my father’s and al the time I was aboard the General Botha I and all the other Dutch Reformed cadets used to attend his church every Sunday when we landed as “church
parties.” There were three other “church party” groups, the Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic cadets. We used to land every Sunday morning, form up in our four groups, then march from the landing jetty to the town, each of the four groups in charge of one or other cadet captain, turning this way or that to their respective churches. My father had got permission for me to return home with Ds De Villiers on Sunday mornings after the service and stay with him and his family until it was time for the 18h00 boat to come from the ship to the jetty, then to board it and return to the ship. I loved that, as it was always a much better Sunday dinner that I had with the De Villiers family than aboard the ship. Moreover I was pleased that none of my fellow-cadets ever showed any displeasure at my having this privilege. Perhaps spending time with a minister was not their idea of pleasure!
I loved sitting in the church, waiting for the service to start. Ds De Villiers was wonderfully musical (he called his two daughters “Harmony” and “Melody”) and, as he waited for the people to come in to he church he used to play the organ beautifully , going from one tune to another, frequently playing tunes of his own, never stopping until it was time to begin the service. While I was on the General Botha he also used to give organ recitals in his church to which entry was free but at the door where people went out was a big box into which people dropped money as a donation to the funds of the congregation. When he came to Simonstown as minister the congregation had a fairly heavy debt owing to the builders of the church, but Mr De Villiers by means of his organ recitals every week collected enough money to pay off all the congregation’s debt. This was, of course, in the days when there was no TV, when “bioscope” shows were infrequent and fairly costly to go to, when even ordinary radio broadcasting was hardly known, so his recitals were a Godsend to the people.
A week or less after the prize giving my time in the SATS General Botha was over. I had done so well that I was offered a cadetship in the Union Castle Line and six months as a cadet RNR but I had already decided that my calling was not to go to sea but to go to the university. So I said “good Bye” to my shipmates and to the officers and instructors who had done so much for me. My time in the training ship was not wasted – it had made me into a man physically, it had taught me much of great value to me, it had given me many precious friendships. One of the chief reasons for my not going to sea was that during my second year in the ship my father’s health had deteriorated and he had several operations in hospitals. I was his only son and I always felt that if he died I would have to take care of my mother. But if I was an officer in a Union Castle ship it would have to be a cargo ship (you had to work your way into a passenger ship) and the Union Castle cargo ships were as often in America as in Africa. Thus I might very easily have been far away from home just when my mother needed me most. Later I found out that both my father and my Uncle Alec had been very pleased with my decision, as both of them felt that a “gentleman” had to have some university experience.