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A Kinook Eye View

A Canadian on Sirius

Peter Magwood, Canadian Navy


 F40, the six-ft.-high black pendant number on HMS Sirius’s side, was barely discernable in brilliant sunlight the day I saw her for the first time at sea off Lisbon, Portugal.  The sea-reflected sun gave Sirius’s light-grey hull an attractive sheen and she looked clean and powerful. 

I was a 29-year-old junior petty officer 2nd class (bo’s’n) in HMCS Annapolis, (right) flagship of the Standing Naval Force - Atlantic and, as I looked at Sirius and the other five ships of SNFL on a sunny seascape in April 1974 off Cape St. Vincent, Portugal,  I had no idea I would be spending the next six weeks as a “guest” of the Royal Navy.  I knew Sirius was a Leander-class frigate, out of Plymouth, England, but had no idea what life would be like for a young Canadian, from Ottawa, Ontario, in the Eastern Atlantic and North Sea with the RN.  

HMCS Annapolis, out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, had just relieved HMCS Yukon as SNFL flagship in Lisbon harbor and the April 23 - 24, 1974, weekend was marked by a revolution in the streets of the historic capital.  As we unberthed from Yukon and turned down the River Tagus, part-ship hands were immediately ordered below but the helmeted bridge watchkeepers told us later they heard gunfire from the streets.

At sea again, southbound toward a large NATO exercise,  I had put my name on a list, posted by the cox’n’s office, to be “cross-pollinated” to another SNFL warship, thinking “officialdom” might get around to entertaining my request weeks or months later.

“Dawn Patrol,” a NATO/NAVOCFORMED exercise including 34 ships, four submarines and aircraft from Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, Portugal, the US and France, was about to begin.  And much to my astonishment, my request to “cross-poll” had been approved the same day -- I was to be assigned to HMS Sirius forthwith.   The cox’n, CPO Guy Joudrey, told me to get packed and on the quarterdeck in 10 minutes.  “You’re going to spend a few days with the Brits,” he said.  But events would translate that few days into a few weeks.

Thinking we would not be making any ports of call in the next few days, I packed the usual essentials (but forgot my shaving kit and my then-unshaven upper lip became adorned with a mustache I would wear for the next 27 years), a couple of changes of the Canadian Forces’  then dark-green workdress, and reported to the quarterdeck where  hands were preparing to receive a sturdy, little motor workboat that was shouldering the grey-green swells between us and the Sirius, about a half-mile away.

“Boat ahoy!” called the quarterdeck PO.  “HMS Sirius!” came the reply, as heaving lines were tossed and manilla bow and stern lines turned up on the bollards.  Soon, the head of a British petty officer, the “oppo” I would replace, popped up and he was pulled aboard and escorted below for in-routine.

My turn.  

I looked at the jumping ladder and the surging RN motor workboat below, looked around, said a couple of goodbyes and eased my way down the narrow, chain-and-step ladder to become a temporary member of Sirius.  My attache case was thrown into the gurgling, gyrating workboat after me and we were soon cast off and away, through four-ft. swells, toward the frigate and an adventure I would never forget.

“Welcome aboard, mite,” said the young, red-haired “killick” coxswain, as I looked over the stern at the slowly-diminishing hull of HMCS Annapolis.  Ahead lay Sirius with her squarish, bluff focsle, a squat, dual 4.5-in. gun and funnel emblazoned with a baby-blue NATO badge.  Aft lay the flight deck with Wasp embarked, the mortar well and an ever- immaculate White Ensign snapping smartly in the breeze over the quarterdeck.

A few minutes later the workboat came alongside Sirius’s quarterdeck with a squishy-fendered thump and I had to negotiate another jumping ladder to reach the quarterdeck.  A small knot of seamen watched as I climbed inboard and greeted me with a smile and nod as I recognized a time-honoured smell of fresh marine enamel paint, fuel oil and deep fryers from the main galley.

 Petty Officer “Sharkey” Ward, of Plymouth,  introduced himself and said he would be my “tour guide” for the next while.  He took me down to 2-D mess, assigned me a bunk and informed it soon would be  “tea time.”  I thought he was joking but realized the RN (then) had 1500 - 1515 set aside as “stand easy” (the Canadian navy’s afternoon break was 1430 - 1440).  Members of 2-D mess trickled in from their workplaces, cups were passed around and I was given my first delicious cup of pussers’ tea with condensed milk.   After a few minutes of chat, Sharkey informed me the ship would be going to action stations very soon as Exercise Dawn Patrol shifted into high gear and that I was to accompany him to the gunar room.  Sure enough, “bong, bong, bong; Action Stations, Action Stations . . . ,” sounded as Sirius sprang into a warlike state.  It was a rare treat to see crewmen dashing down the flats in antiflash gear, gas masks and lifejackets as Sharkey and I made our way into the heart of the ship where members of the ship’s company would direct the 4.5-in. mount to repel aircraft.  It was exciting to sit and watch the little, glowing-green screen that Sharkey told me was tracking aircraft as they came in to attack.   I could feel the deck angle as the ship turned hard to evade the unseen attackers.  This was good enough to be real, I thought, and it kept up for hours. Sharkey was tirelessly cheerful as he spoke almost endlessly into his headset doing his part to “fight the ship.”

It was after 2200 when the ship reverted to a lower degree of readiness and we headed back to 2-D mess to recap the day’s events.

“We’ve got one more day of this lot then we’re heading up north,” someone said.  I recalled that our next port visit would be Frederikshavn, Denmark, but another NATO exercise, Bright Horizon, and other squadron activities en route to Denmark, awaited. 

 We were released from Dawn Patrol next day, April 26, and the fleet of seven destroyers and frigates (HMS Sirius, HMCS Annapolis, USS Julius A. Furer, HNLMS Rotterdam, FGS Augsburg, HNoMS Narvik and NRP Almirante Periera da Silva)  were en route up the coast of Portugal and into the Bay of Biscay where a bit of “roughers” made sleep a premium for anyone living up forward. 

Life in 2-D mess was no different than the for’d messes in Annapolis as the ship plunged and pounded into the North Atlantic seas.  In the morning, I remember having to hang on with one hand and lather up with the other during my morning shower in the WP just forward of the mess.  It was becoming a bit bumpier when I went to my first RN breakfast -- kippers, red lead, beans, French toast and abundant other yummy smells -- as we passed down the steamline in the chiefs’ and POs’ cafeteria.  I settled easily into the ship’s routine and followed Sharkey and learned from him and the buffer–everything from supervising cleaning stations to observing replenishments at sea – while we made our way northeast to transit  the English Channel into North Sea.  I soon discovered the RN day at sea was not much different from the Canadian routine:  hands were called at  the same time (0700); followed by  breakfast, cleaning stations, stand easy, out pipes, departmental work, secure at 1150; out pipes at 1300, etc., in a one-in-three watch rotation.   I enjoyed the Courage Sparkling lager at 1600 in the mess and the movies in the cafeteria at night were good.  HMCS Annapolis had been given two movies to last six months – The Sound of Music and Jonathan Livingston Seagull – and, clearly, the RN’s choice in films were far superior although the titles elude me today.

The meals were alway first rate and I remember the fresh-baked bread and rolls, excellent fish and chips and a little breakfast delight, known as “hammy, eggy, cheesey,” the RN’s answer to McDonald’s Egg McMuffin.

Days turned into weeks as we exercised in the English Channel and North Sea.  I stood on the flight deck one day as HMCS Annapolis sped close up the starboard side and waved and smiled at my shipmates and CPO Joudrey who looked at me and wondered whether I was having a good time, he said later.

  I developed friends in 2-D mess and have forgotten all but one of their names. It was great fun to listen to their sea stories in ships with such fascinating names -- Ark Royal, Bacchante, Blake, Juno, Minerva – and the runs in ports I had only heard of: Aden, “Singers,” “Honkers” and more.

Some of the time at sea can be boring, as we all know, but Sirius had a highly-entertaining  program, broadcast twice a week from 1900 - 2000, featuring pop and classical music, quizzes, news and other ribald lightheartedness. 

I was an instant celebrity in 2-D mess one night when I answered a music question correctly.  “The next question is . . . ,” intoned the tannoy.  “What is the name of the famous aria of unrequited love from Madama Butterfly?  Who wrote it?  And what is the name of the character who sings it?”  I was, and still am, a great fan of classical music and knew the answers (Un bel di, by Giacomo Puccini, sung by Cio-Cio-san).  Excited, I told Sharkey the answers and we watched from the settees, glasses in hand,  as Sharkey rung up the wardroom, which apparently organized this sort of thing, and were rewarded moments later with the announcement that  “The correct answer . . . goes to 2-D mess.  Three points.  Good show.  The next question is . . . . ” 

I received a standing ovation from the mess and given another pint of Courage Sparkling.

About three weeks later, and many hilarious sea stories later, we made Frederikshavn, Denmark, on a beautiful early May morning.  I had no instruction to leave Sirius and, next day, we were back at sea for  Exercise “Bright Horizon” in the North Sea involving submarines, aircraft and fast patrol boats.  We were shadowed astern by the Soviet intelligence-gathering trawler, Zond,  throughout and,  if memory serves, the flagship ordered the squadron one day to turn 180 degrees and speed past the Zond which was about three miles aft.   I wonder what Zond’s logbook said the day the rusty, little ship saw seven warships bearing down on it at speed from a couple of miles away?  Sirius and the six other NATO ships swept past Zond but, next day, it was still there dogging our tracks and watching our every move with its fantastic electronic array. 

 After Bright Horizon, the ships were ordered to Scapa Flow and word was passed that I was to return to Annapolis ASAP.   Wearing my first moustache and carrying an attache case full of memories and souvenirs from the NAAFI canteen and 2-D mess, I made my way to the quarterdeck with Sharkey.  We shook hands and said we hoped to see each other once again.  I climbed down into the seaboat and watched as Sirius grew slowly shrank on the cold, grey waters of that bleak northern Scotland anchorage.

Aboard Annapolis again, our next port visit was Oslo, Norway, and I was delighted when Sharkey and a few of his messmates came over to Three Mess, the chiefs’ and petty officers’ lounge in HMCS Annapolis, and we renewed many happy times together.

 Our “Moose Milk” was a British favorite although I never cared too much for it but I was always happy to see the Brits enjoying our Canadian hospitality and scran.

HMS Sirius was relieved by HMS Minerva June 27, 1974, off Den Helder, and I never saw  the ship or my mates from 2-D mess again.  But I am left with a wealth of happy memories and sea stories that I will never forget.

Peter Magwood

Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

October 12, 2003

Canadian Navy: 1963 -1968; 1969 - 1987 

 

 

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