HMS FIFE

The train journey from Portsmouth to Cardiff was fairly uneventful. I had just left Part 2 training at HMS Sultan and as a young17 year old was off to join HMS Fife, my first ship. There were 8 of us in total, all travelling in No1 uniform carrying kit bags and suitcases.

 

Arriving at Cardiff was a bit strange as we didn’t know where to find the ship or have any telephone numbers but we needn't have worried as waiting for us at the station was the Leading Hand of the Stokers Mess and he had been sent to meet us.

 

Piling us into the back of the ships Land Rover was a struggle, but soon we were off to the docks.

 

HMS Fife was a County Class Destroyer and clearly distinguishable by a sort of frame work on the quarterdeck that was the Sea Slug missile launcher. It was this that I saw first as we approached the ship for the first time

After settling into our bunks in the mess square we set off to explore the ship. We were now off duty until 0800 the following morning, when we were to muster on the ‘Iron Deck’ wherever that was.

The first morning didn't go too well. We woke up to ‘Call the Hands’ and after the usual 5 S’s (if you have to ask, you don’t want to know) went off to find the ‘Iron Deck’. We were always taught in training, that the Upper Deck was often referred to as the ‘Weather Deck’ or ‘Iron Deck’ so that’s where we went and spent an about 30 minutes searching around a deserted deck looking for a Scottish LMEM called surprisingly enough  ‘Jock’ .

We had just about given up and was walking down 2 deck Stbd passageway when a voice shouted ‘Where have yee lot been?’ We explained about our search only to be informed, that this was the ‘Iron Deck’ looking down, we saw what he meant. As we were above the Boiler Room, all the tiles had been removed and the deck was in fact bare metal

‘Jock’ was incensed and promptly sent us off for ‘Cooks’ so off we went to the Galley. The Chief Cook, asked us what we wanted, we told him and he said ‘right, scrub that deck’. 10 minutes into the job, ‘Jock’  arrived shouting at us again. This was to become a reoccurring theme. Apparently, ‘Cooks’ is short for ‘Mess Cooks’ and is an old naval term meaning to clean our mess deck. So the first day didn’t go too well.

Tragically, the roof had collapsed and many children had perished. At the tender age of 17, this was the hardest thing, I had ever done  and the memories will remain for ever.

 

Whilst on top of a collapsed roof, being handed up a sheet of corrugated iron, I gashed my leg causing it to bleed quite badly. Seeing this, the ships Doctor ordered me to jump the queue of 100’s of injured islanders to get stitched up by a rather large Dominican nurse.

Things did get better and we soon sailed off via Ponta Delgada and Bermuda before arriving at Port Canaveral in Florida just in time to see the 1st Space Shuttle (Columbia, I think)  launch.

 

Whilst boiler cleaning in Port Canaveral, I was getting a little hot and frustrated, so the Chief Stoker asked how I would like to drive a motor boat? I thought this was a wonderful idea and after sailing, I went to remind him of his offer.

The Education officer came down dressed in a ‘Robin Day’ bow tie and dear stalker hat and explained that this was just a wind up. I wasn’t having this as the hoax was far too elaborate, but after reassurance from the chaplain, I agreed to play along for the benefit of the audience. The interview started with the Education Officer saying “Welcome to another edition of Authentic Sweat, where we highlight the difficult, sometimes dangerous jobs carried out by the ships company of HMS Fife. Tonight we welcome JMEM Atkinson, JMEM Atkinson, Welcome”. I was then asked to explain some of the elaborate gear I was wearing before going back to the mess for lots of beer for being such a good sport.

 

We spent about 6 months sailing around the West Indies and just as we were about to sail for home, when the ship detected Hurricane David heading our way. Plotting it’s course, it was heading straight for Barbados, so the ship radioed the island and they battened everything down in readiness for the forthcoming storm. At the last minute, the hurricane changed direction and headed for Dominica. There was little anyone could do and Dominica got pounded for several hours by the worst hurricane on record with winds of around 150 mph.

 

After the storm had passed, we changed course and through a mountainous sea, headed for the stricken island. As a trainee and therefore, a spare hand, I formed part of ‘Light Rescue 1’ I was subsequently flown ashore in, ‘Humphrey’ the ships Wessex 3 helicopter to assist in rebuilding the islands infrastructure. 

 

Flying over the island I saw things that will remain with me forever. It was like a scene from ‘News at Ten’ and we were right in the middle of it. The islands people rushed to help us unload the helicopter before we tried to prioritise where help was needed the most.

As the hospital was out of action, ‘Light Rescue 1’ spent the morning clearing out the maternity ward of sodden bedding and wrecked furniture before scrubbing and sanitising the ward and replacing mattresses. By midday, we had the first patients coming onto the now general medical ward. Following lunch which consisted of a tin of pineapple chunks, we concentrated our efforts on the children’s ward above.

As luck would have it, they were launching the ‘Splash Target’ that very evening and I had lots of kit to collect before I could be allowed to ‘pilot’ it. So armed with a stamping chit, I was sent to see just about every department on the ship including the Captain collecting kit on route. That evening, I was dressed by my mess mates into three diving suits complete with life jacket, helmet, safety harness and radio, before I was ushered up to the ships TV studio for a live interview broadcast to the ships company.

In broad West Indian English, she informed me that as I was a big boy I wouldn't  need an anaesthetic, so through gritted teeth, I was stitched up before going  back to work. I was later informed that I was a priority casualty as I could not help the islanders if I was injured myself.

 

Over the next week or so, the ships company of HMS Fife, worked tirelessly rebuilding and clearing roads, repairing the generating station, getting the water back on, opening the airport and repairing the runway, patrolling for looters and repairing the harbour so the ship could come alongside.

 

Mr Jenner Armour, the Acting President of Dominica at that time paid tribute to the ships company of HMS Fife, by sending a telegram to Queen Elizabeth “They arrived on our ravaged shores at our darkest hour and lit the first beacon of hope. Their relief efforts were ceaseless and untiring, their devotion to duty a shining example of true friendship in our hour of need

Soon the Venezuelan Army and French Navy arrived so we handed over responsibility and sailed home, arriving on 14th September 1979  to a heroes welcome in Portsmouth. We then left the ship, but as my first sea draft it was incredibly memorable.

My ‘Splash Target Coxswain’ Fife TV Interview

Type

County Class

Primary Role

Destroyer

Pennant No

D20

Displacement

6,200 tons

Length

158.7m

Beam

16.5m

Complement

471

Propulsion

2 shafts, 2 HP & 2 LP Steam turbines, 30,000 shp, 4 G6 boost gas turbines, 30,000 shp, 30 knots

Armaments

Exocet Anti-ship  missile system, 2 x Sea Cat SAM missile system, 2 triple 12.75 inch torpedo tubes,

1 dual 114mm artillery gun,  2 x Mk 6 4.5” gun and Sea Slug SAM and Wessex 3 helicopter