by Bill Grice
The 14th Carrier Air Group consisting of 804 Squadron (Seafires) and 812 Squadron (Fireflies) reformed at Eglinton N. Ireland on 1st October 1946. After working up to full flying efficiency at Maydown, it was time to embark in HMS Theseus for a Far Eastern Tour. However, we first had to pick up a deck cargo of thirty Seafires from Glasgow. Scotland, earmarked for HMS Glory who was already out in the far east. After lashing down the aircraft on the flight deck, we set off in a snowstorm on the 21st February 1947, leaving behind what was to become one of the worst British winters on record. For me however, it was to be a very memorable goodwill cruise. As there was no flying, owing to the deck cargo, the daily routine was generally cleaning down and inspecting our aircraft. Everything was kept spick and span, and if as much as a spot of oil appeared in the drip-trays under the aircraft, a major investigation took place.
Gibraltar was our first port of call; we arrived there in the early morning mist on the 25th February 1947. The day started with lower decks being cleared for ‘Entering Harbour Routine’. This is traditionally a routine carried out when entering, or leaving a harbour, whereby the ship’s company line the deck of the ship, all dressed in No 1’s – best suit – a very impressive sight! A seventeen-gun salute was then fired as we approached the harbour. After dropping anchor, shore leave was granted to all the non-duty personnel. Unfortunately I was on duty whilst in Gibraltar so I was unable to go ashore. Apparently, a good time was had by all. Trouble had been anticipated, as there were a couple of United States warships already anchored in the harbour; however, this didn’t materialise, and everybody was the best of friends. We slipped anchor in Gibraltar on 26th February 1947 and set sail for Port Said passing, on the way, the entrance to Grand Harbour, Malta on 1st March.
Lower decks were cleared at 0730 hrs on the 4th March for ‘Entering Harbour’. On approaching Port Said Harbour a 21-gun salute was fired to the King of Egypt. We then dropped anchor in the outer harbour, and after waiting about an hour for a clear passage we weighed anchor and proceeded at the slow speed required for passing through the Suez Canal. Ferdinand de Lesseps, as historians will know, was responsible for the construction of the Suez Canal, which opened for navigation in 1869. A statue of Ferdinand stands overlooking the entrance.
The journey through the canal was, in the main, uneventful - not many sights to see only desert on either side. Occasionally we passed a tribe of Nomads who stood on the bank looking at us with great interest. We made a few catcalls at the first tribe we passed, and the men in the tribe promptly responded by lifting up their gowns. With great pride they displayed their manhood, I should add, much to our envy! This event was to become the ship’s topic and, from then on, as we passed each camp and shouted “Flash” the tribesmen always obliged! We also passed an occasional British Army unit travelling in their jeeps. They would stop to admire the sight, and I well remember one particular Army Officer shouting at us in a typical ‘upper crust’ accent, “I say there, you want to get your knees brown”. I’m afraid the response that he received is unprintable. About half way through, the canal opened out into what are called the Bitter Lakes, which are large enough to allow the big ships to pass.
We cleared the canal and steamed steadily south through the Red Sea towards Aden. The weather was now becoming increasingly warmer, warm enough for “tropical rig optional” to be piped. This was a big relief to everybody; we could now get into our shorts. Tropical rig (uniform) became official the next day and we, the Air Group, were accorded the privilege of being allowed to wear khaki during working hours
We arrived at Aden on the 8th March, and dropped anchor in Aden Harbour at 0600 hrs. Shortly afterwards we were followed by HMS Venerable whom we were relieving as Flagship of the Far East. Immediately the ship was surrounded by little rowing boats filled with goods of every description for sale. The natives threw up ropes with a basket on the end, and then the bartering started. Everybody was a bit suspicious at first, being reluctant to put money in the baskets before receiving the goods, and vice-versa. Surprisingly, everything seemed to work out OK, and some sales were made. Young native children also appeared on the scene, inviting us to throw coins into the sea for them to dive and retrieve. They were all very talented swimmers, and very much at home in the water. The morning was spent with the official ceremony of transferring the ‘flag’ from Venerable to Theseus, and the exchange of visits by our Admiral Creasy and Admiral Bridge of Venerable.
We were allowed ashore in the afternoon and found Aden to be a dirty, primitive place. Many areas of the city were, understandably, out of bounds to all servicemen, so we didn’t wander about alone but kept together in parties. It was my very first time abroad apart from Ireland, and I found it all very intriguing. The market places were so fascinating, and bartering was like a game. With a bit of bartering there were lots of goods that could be obtained at rock bottom prices. I bought a leather suitcase, which lasted me a very long time. ‘Totty’ Allman, one of our mates, fell for an outrageous ‘con-trick’ when he bought a monkey from a local dealer, which cost him almost a fortnight’s pay. He couldn’t understand why the dealer followed him around all afternoon. This became evident however when he was refused permission to take the monkey back on board ship. The crafty dealer was conveniently on hand to take the monkey back. The next day HMS Venerable left for home, saluted by our own Marine Guard who had paraded on the after end of the Flight Deck. After taking on supplies and fuel, we slipped anchor in Aden Harbour on 10th March and proceeded on our journey to Trincomalee, Ceylon.