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Height of dread for Ganges boys

PUBLISHED: 08:31 22 August 2007 | UPDATED: 09:35 02 March 2010

I took this sequence of photographs of the button boy making his frightening climb
to the button on top of the 143ft mast at HMS Ganges in July 1966

I took this sequence of photographs of the button boy making his frightening climb to the button on top of the 143ft mast at HMS Ganges in July 1966

STANDING on a wooden disc about a foot in diameter, and saluting, does not sound too much of a challenge, unless it is 143feet above the ground and you only have a lightning conductor to grip between your knees.

Ken Smith in 1963

STANDING on a wooden disc about a foot in diameter, and saluting, does not sound too much of a challenge, unless it is 143feet above the ground and you only have a lightning conductor to grip between your knees.

This was the job of the button boy at HMS Ganges who had to shin up the last fifteen feet or so to climb on the button during ceremonial parades. The mast has been a local landmark since it was erected a century ago this year at the end of the Shotley peninsular. Sailors' uniforms were a familiar sight in our area until HMS Ganges closed in June 1976.

Crowds of boys from HMS Ganges would visit Ipswich when they were given a day off from the harsh naval discipline at Shotley. The Cattlemarket area of Ipswich would be busy at weekends with boys in full naval uniform. The cinemas would be packed with rows of Ganges boys in uniform and the café at the corner of St Stephen's Lane would sell them many cups of tea as they waited for their bus back to Shotley. Life at Ganges was recalled recently in The Evening Star when a book about the base by Alan Peck was published. HMS Ganges had a reputation for its harsh discipline. Even by naval training standards life there was controlled by a very strict regime.

Ken Smith, who now lives in Brighton, sent me memories of arriving at HMS Ganges in the severe winter of 1963 and his fear of the dreaded mast. Ken said: “It was a dreadful winter. It began snowing on Boxing Day. In the first week of January it was snowed even harder and it snowed until March. The previous evening I'd arrived at HMS Ganges training annexe, with an assortment of other would-be-sailors, and was placed in the capable hands of a spotty-faced junior instructor and a bullet-proof gunnery instructor who wore crossed guns on both lapels.

the mast
manning ceremony
at HMS Ganges
with the button boy
standing on top

The only thing I can remember of that awesome night, apart from collecting a kit bag and filling it to capacity with kit, was sobbing myself to sleep and that I ate the biggest meal I'd ever eaten in my entire 15 years of life. The kindly chef asked me whether I intended to eat the mountain of food I'd heaped on my plate or climb it!

“Looking pretty in candy-striped pyjama bottoms and naked chests, we were ordered across the parade ground, through the snow and ice, to the 'heads', that grown-up potty land, which had neither doors nor partitions around the bowls for privacy, to partake in our morning ablutions, a most embarrassing experience.

“For breakfast porridge was on offer, that salt-coated gruel I'd been forced to eat every morning of my schoolboy days. I took a bowl and ate the lot. For spite I think, because it wasn't compulsory. Some 100 boy-sailors were in the canteen, chewing and chattering; clattering knives forks and spoons against plates and bowls. The noise was excruciating.

“I had thought that our group were the only sailors, if we dared call ourselves that, in this annexe, but I was soon to discover there was a continuous rotation of faces, each at various stages of initiation, a small factory taking in baby civilians at one end and throwing out almost sailors into the real HMS Ganges at the other.

Former Evening Star staff photographer Peter Warren climbed to the button on top of the Ganges mast during a rehearsal of the manning ceremony to take this fantastic photograph

“It was easy to spot those who had been here the longest. They looked smarter, more confident, or even downright dejected. They looked like what we didn't, sailors.

“It was as we crossed the parade ground the whole bunch of us suddenly froze and spun to face a huge aircraft-hanger-of-a-building running along its length. From it came bloodcurdling cries of command, so frightening that I most surely would have obeyed them myself, if had I understood what they meant. It would seem those boy-sailors who were seconds ago shoving sausages into smiling faces, had all disappeared into that terrifying building, and by the cries belching from its belly were being eaten alive.

“Back in the mess, this safe haven shielding us from those torturous sounds, the junior instructors' suspiciously cheerful faces greeted us. It was a facade hiding unknown treasures unknown tricks for us to perform, the first of which was to mark our kit with our names. Each of us was required to construct a printing block using letters carved in wood. 'Letters back to front, remember!' they said. Yes, I got it wrong!

“The white letters would then be transformed, by our nimble fingers, into red with silk thread using the chain stitch. It had to be a joke! After sewing on a tag and sporting a proud smile as I offered it up for inspection to that gorilla-of-gunner, I was sent scurrying away, ears ringing from slaps and vehement words, asking myself, 'How the hell did I mange to sew the tag on upside-down?'

“Our kit was stowed in small silver lockers that we polished daily, but not like any normal person would stow their clothes. It had to be neatly folded and stacked, each item one above the other, with each item measuring exactly nine inches wide and one inch flat. Every letter of our names had to be perfectly in line. Should one of letters be a millimetre out, you found the lot on the deck when you returned to the mess. During the third disastrous week, it spent so much time on the deck I thought I might as well leave it there!

“Each evening after we had cleaned the mess, we took everything out of the locker rolled each item into a nine-inch sausage, tied white tape around both ends, and then placed every item on a blanket. Every letter, every strip of tape had to be in a perfect line. If not, you would do it repeatedly, until you dropped dead if necessary. When the Gunnery Instructor was finally satisfied, you put the lot back in your locker as before.

“Other things we had to do included, clean a toilet with a toothbrush, polish a hundred square feet of block-wood flooring with a boot brush every night before going to bed, paint the inside of a dustbin white before putting your rubbish into it. I recall watching a boy, who had been thrown in the deep end of the swimming pool, struggling in the water while a sadistic instructor smiled, saying, 'Look what happens if you can't bloody well swim?' These were all regular happenings at Ganges.

“I had already taught myself to swim. However lessons, culminating in a test, were much more difficult. The test consisted of two lengths of the pool while wearing a boiler suit, then floating for five minutes. This was followed by a leap from the diving board, as high as any tree I'd ever climbed, wearing the waterlogged boiler suit and a lifejacket.

“On the parade ground the order went something like “On the command fix!” The left hand went behind the cheek of your left buttock and twisted the bayonet and scabbard upward. On the remainder of the command 'Bayonets' the left hand pulled the bayonet from the scabbard, placed it on the barrel of the rifle and, with a quick twist of the wrist, secured it in place. Each time I let it go off it popped, falling to the deck with a clatter. Even if it amazingly stayed put, as soon as I slammed the rifle onto the parade ground off it popped again.

“There was one hell to come, the Ganges mast! Every new recruit was required to climb it, not to the very top but to the half moon, about thirty-feet from the top. At about 60 feet was the Devil's Elbow, the most dangerous and frightening part. This was where the roped rigging jutted out some ten feet - above it, the platform. To get to the platform you would climb out over the Devil's Elbow, legs dangling in the air, only your grip keeping you from certain death. There was a way to bypass it for cowards like me, but God help you if you tried using it. I was so fearful of that oncoming event I was becoming a nervous wreck, each night reading the next day's daily orders, wondering if tomorrow would be the day I crapped my pants in public.

“Rumour had it many years ago a boy did fall, bouncing off the safety net and through the Post Office roof. Was anything in this navy free from fear? I wondered, sewing, perhaps!

“After initial training we were marched from the training camp. Down the road we proudly thundered, the first time any of us had seen the outside words since the day of our arrival. Within ten minutes, a second pair of gates appeared, the gates of the real HMS Ganges. Reaching high into the sunlit sky stood the mast; its yardarms spread wide like a giant crucifix. From the annexe, I had sometimes seen it, partly hidden by snowy skies as it towered above the buildings, and it looked frightening then, but now, marching beneath its cobweb rigging, it looked truly awesome. I allowed my head to tilt backward, sending my gaze to the very top, to the lightning conductor where the Button Boy stood on ceremonial occasions. I shuddered to the bone, as I'm sure did other boys. My heart sank and my elation evaporated as I desperately tried to quash all fears of my body falling from the Devil's Elbow.

“I knew that once the weather was respectable, when it was no longer dangerous, my skinny little skeleton would be transported, step by trembling step, up that perilous rigging. No way would the Royal Navy let the opportunity to instill fear into a young boy pass them by”

“So began another nine months of laughter and tears, disaster and joy. I knew only when it was over would I then be able to call myself a true Ganges Boy and, some years later, a real sailor. I did climb that mast. Not to the required half-moon, but to the first platform, where, when authoritative eyes were averted, I dashed to the other side and climbed back down.”

Were you at HMS Ganges? Were you a 'button boy'? Write to Dave Kindred, Kindred Spirits, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN.

1903. HMS Ganges moved moorings from Harwich to Shotley.

1905. October, new Shore Establishment created and commissioned as Royal Navy Training Establishment, Shotley.

1906. July 5 The old HMS Ganges sails out of Harwich Harbour.

1907. Mast erected using the foremast of HMS Cordelia, which was broken up 1904.

1914. Outbreak of World War One. HMS Ganges 2 in the harbour put all boys ashore and was then used as Naval Operations Ship, Harwich.

1927. The Admiralty decided that the shore base should bear the name of the original training ship, HMS Ganges.

1937. Coronation Day of George VI. Boys were permitted to march through the streets of Ipswich with bayonets fixed.

1971. July 27, Awarded the Freedom of Ipswich.

1976. HMS Ganges closed on June 6. On October 28 the White Ensign was lowered for the last time and the ships figurehead was transferred to Royal Hospital School, Holbrook.

1905 to 1976 saw 150,000 recruits pass through HMS Ganges.

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