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I was a Merchant Seaman - but I never learnt to swim

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 11, 2014

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I WAS very interested in Gail Middleton's Female Focus in The Bugle (June 19 edition) about the part her father played in the 1944 Normandy landings.

Some of the Merchant Seamen were conscripts towards the latter part of the war. I was one and here is my story.

About a month before my 18th birthday I had to register my details, and shortly afterwards I had a letter from George VI.

It was brown with O.H.M.S. on it, telling me to go to Birmingham for a medical examination two days after my 18th birthday.

He enclosed a half crown postal order to cover my travelling expenses and for losing a day's pay (12½p).

My oldest sister said to put it in my pocket and go on my bike and she would draw me a route.

She worked in Birmingham but I had never ridden more than five miles before on my bike and all the road signs had been removed.

I got there and we were all in the nude with 10 doctors and one asked me for a urine sample. After riding what felt like a 100 miles I couldn't do any.

I couldn't even spit, I was so dehydrated from the 15-mile ride.

When the lads came for an examination they all went to the pub for a few pints of beer. When they started to give a sample they couldn't stop, so had to finish off in the buckets provided for the overflow.

The doctor gave me a glass of water and I managed about a tablespoon full. When I looked at my notes I expected, but was still surprised to see that I was A1.

A couple of weeks later I had another brown letter from George VI with a train ticket to go to Chatham from Dudley Port station.

Now this was a first for me, I had not been on a train before so I went to see the station master.

I arrive at Chatham and I am given a number. We have something to eat then this R.N. chap is going to show us how to sling a hammock.

The order went out to sling hammocks. All we could see in this long room were lots of scaffolding pipes going the length of the room about five feet from the floor.

It wasn't a pretty sight but our first night was soon over.

Now I am an eight stone A1 trainee gunner in uniform, a force to be reckoned with I thought.

However, things can change. After more running on the parade ground, our officer tapped 25 of us on the shoulder. I was one.

He said all those tapped on the shoulder were to move to the instructor's side.

We did and he said to go and get all our gear and go to the lorries.

We ended up in Gravesend. We are now class 4, H.M.S. General Gordon, Gravesend, Kent. No more hammocks, back to beds and we have changed from Royal Navy to R.N.R. (Royal Naval Reserve), so now it is Merchant Navy training.

If we pass out in nine weeks we are SOS (Senior Ordinary Seaman).

After six months as an SOS, I would be promoted to E.D.H. Efficient Deck Hand, equal to an able seaman in the Merchant Navy.

The wages were £14 per month and £10 per month danger money, so I was grateful to the Royal Navy.

The reason the R.N. trained a number of seamen for the M.N. was because the M.N. had lost a third of its seamen and it was getting more difficult to get new recruits. One regret I have is that I didn't learn to swim with all that water.

Don't be put off with my address, I was born and bred in Tipton, and when I married lived in Wall Heath for nearly 40 years and I am nearly 89 years old.

I've lived here since 1997.

All the best to the Black Country Bugle.

George Piggott,

21 Thoresby Drive,

Gomersal,

Cleckheaton,

West Yorks.

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