How I finally conquered Devil’s Elbow

EVERYTHING at HMS Ganges, the Royal Navy training base at Shotley, had to be kept either polished, cleaned or painted. A speck of dirt on a uniform during parade would bring severe punishment to the young boys who were often reduced to tears by tough instructors.

David Kindred

EVERYTHING at HMS Ganges, the Royal Navy training base at Shotley, had to be kept either polished, cleaned or painted.

A speck of dirt on a uniform during parade would bring severe punishment to the young boys who were often reduced to tears by tough instructors. Anybody who was trained there until closure in 1976 will remember how tough and strict life was.

William Arscott was a Ganges boy who arrived in May 1960. William recently returned to Suffolk while on a break from his work in Junail, Saudi Arabia, where he runs a crane hire company. Like many others, he was saddened to see the state of the former HMS Ganges.

William said: “During a recent visit to East Anglia my wife and I visited the HMS Ganges site. As we entered Shotley, I first noticed the mast through the trees and Nelson Hall. As we turned left into Caledonia Road I didn't know what to expect, but soon felt saddened to see the main gates bare of crests, lights and figureheads and now rusty, chained and covered in barbed wire. On the left was the former home of 'culinary delights', central messing galley now derelict with broken windows. The NAAFI was sad and shuttered, Nelson Hall, the senior rates' mess and the swimming pool are still standing, but looking forlorn and grey.

“The mast, the focal point of Ganges, stands with broken rigging and obvious signs of decay even from our closest point at the gates. On leaving we turned right into School Road and turned the car in the old school car park. At least the school had been preserved, albeit as flats.

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“This was all very different from my first visit on May 3, 1960, as part of 31 recruitment. On that day we didn't turn left into the main establishment, but right to The Annex.

“We were met by our instructor, CPO Potten, and two junior instructors, who only one year previously had been 'nozzers' like us.

“Now they strutted and gave us the impression that they had sailed the seven seas and done whatever in the eighth.

“Their job was to knock us into shape, issue us with our kit, teach us how to march, after a fashion and accept that as 'nozzers' we were the lowest form of life.

“One night we were told to roll back our mattresses, stand on the bed springs, hold a pair of boots in each hand and extend our arms. After a few minutes this is very painful, even for young fit boys, and more than one of us soon had tears rolling down our cheeks.

“If someone lowered an arm, the whole process was repeated until the whole mess managed two minutes without dropping an arm. All this because someone was talking after 'pipe down'.

“One of the few high points of The Annex was being allowed to have my confiscated radio returned so the whole recruitment could listen to the cup final. I had to give it back after the match and then send it home, as at Ganges there were no radios or TVs for boys!”

“The lowest point of Annex training came when we went to the main establishment to climb the mast. The task was to climb to The Devil's Elbow, climb out around it, then up to the half moon and then down. I started well, but when it came to the elbow, try as I might I could not go around it.

“Instead, I went through the hole, much to the disgust of the junior instructor who was posted there to stop us doing so. I then

carried on to the half moon, over it and then down, where I received a lot of stick for my cowardly act of not going around the elbow. I did however conquer The Elbow

during one of the weekends when the mast was open to all. I did not enjoy the experience, but at least I proved to myself that I could do it.

“After a few weeks we joined the main establishment, this time greeted by our divisional officer, his assistant and our instructors, PO GI Pete Gausden and PO Bosun 'Mo' Morris. These two, although harsh at times, were the best people we could have had as instructors.

“My first big mistake took place at my first visit to the central messing galley when I spotted a friend from my home town.

“He was further up the queue than me, so I walked forward to speak to him. Wrong! 'Nozzers' did not queue jump, as this was something reserved for juniors who merited getting a first-class star after 16 weeks' training.

“It was a sort of unwritten Ganges' law, no matter how big the person in front of you, the star gives you the right to queue jump.

“The art was not to get spotted, and of course if you were caught by the duty instructor, you went to the back of the queue and started all over again.

“Time was taken up with parade, ground drill, schooling, specialist training, in my case Gunner, gym, sailing and general seamanship.

“There were daily divisions and Sunday divisions when up to 2,000 boys were on parade. This was

followed by church, following which Sunday was our own, although it was mainly taken up with ironing and boot polishing. Nothing was easy.

“We doubled (ran) everywhere, called everybody 'sir', learned how to clean, scrub, polish and sew, mainly our names on our kit. Even if you didn't smoke, you soon did as everybody else smoked.

“I found it very hard at first, as I had come from a reasonably sheltered life, but in time it all became routine and at times enjoyable.

“Considering the amount of boys, all living in very close quarters, fighting and bullying were minimal and quickly quashed.

“Fighters who were caught had to have a grudge fight, where both were put in a ring with gloves and left to their own devices until one gave in or both had had enough. It was generally the latter.

“There were breaks in the routine, two weeks leave, three times a year. No one slept the night before as we were too excited.

“Sea training was another break, two weeks on HMS Petard who had distinguished herself in the Second World War, her crew having been credited with stealing the German Enigma codes.

“Our sea trip was to Barry Island in Wales in extremely rough seas, which saw even some of the very tough suffering.

“One unscheduled break of 1960, was The Ganges flu epidemic, which saw RNSQ, the Royal Navy sick quarters, full to capacity and necessitating the opening of wards that had been shut since the war.

“Even going sick at Ganges had its own routine. You were to report to the medical treatment room in 'the long covered way' where you were screened by a sick berth attendant who determined if you were sick enough to be seen by a doctor.

“Ganges was tough, it was meant to be. Some boys ran away and when caught they were sentenced to a very harsh punishment routine, plus cuts. This entailed being beaten on the bum with a thick cane, offenders' bottoms resembling corrugated iron afterwards.

“How many times have I heard people say, if only we had a version of Ganges today we would not have so many youth problems. True, but in this day and age, Ganges' routine would not be allowed, as someone in the EU would stop it!

“There were good times as well, as 1960 was only 15 years after the war, so wartime tales from our seamanship instructor, Mo Morris, were listened to with great awe.

“On our last day we were assembled on the quarter deck, hallowed ground for the previous year. Maybe it was a way of saying now that we were fully-fledged juniors we could stand on it instead of

running across it.

“Of all the boys of 31 Recruitment, I think I have only come across a dozen or so since. On that final day we all went our separate ways for further training and then later to join our various ships.

“Did I ever regret Ganges? No. Whenever asked if I was a Ganges' boy, I am always proud to say 'yes, I was one of the 150,000 boys that passed through those once majestic gates'.”

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