Geoffrey Bull’s Story

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Geoffrey Bull’s Story

  1. Life before the navy.

I was born on the 25th September 1924 at Valley Farm, Offton, nr Ipswich, Suffolk the youngest of five sons. We moved to Green Farm, Clopton nr Woodbridge in 1928.

I attended Clopton village school at five years old. Miss Pansy Riddle taught the juniors. She brought cocoa, sugar and milk and for children who brought their dinners had a hot mug of cocoa. There were no school dinners then. Winston Churchill brought in the school milk scheme because so many children were malnourished. The parents paid two and a half pence per week for the daily one third pint of milk. Miss Perry taught the older children. I did fairly well and she urged me to take the exams at Woodbridge Grammar school but I had no transport and did not attend. I left Clopton school which was closed to older children in 1938. Children often had lice and ringworm. We were examined by a doctor and nurse every year. She said to my teacher “You can tell this child is very well cared for.”
My mother trained as a dairy maid and made butter and cheese. She malted barley to brew super beer and she made lots of wine and mead. When we killed a pig she smoked hams and bacon, made lard, pork cheeses and sausages. We kept lots of chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. Most people only had poultry to eat at Christmas so we were kept busy plucking and dressing the birds.
I went to the cowshed with mother to milk the cows and started milking at five years old. We kept tame rabbits. The Angoras we clipped for wool and the big Belgian hares were for meat and were sold at local weekly markets. My brothers bred ferrets which, after training, caught lots of wild rabbits.

I left Grundisburgh school at Christmas 1938. I was working at Fathers farm after leaving school at fourteen years old.

George Odam was headmaster. He had a cane on his desk and used it for all trivial mistakes. He taught us to march and change step which was useful when I joined the Royal Navy. Winston Churchill warned that Hitler would start a war. Baldwin was Prime Minister and many people were on the dole.
During the Great Depression there was mass unemployment. Men standing about with no work were ordered to dig holes beside the road. An overseer would look at the holes and tell the men to fill them in again. A week later the men were paid. A Relieving Officer called on poor families every week to pay them a small amount of money from the rates and known as ‘ being on the parish’. This was looked on as a stigma to be avoided. Some went into the Workhouse for the winter months for food and warmth.
The armed services had been run down. Chamberlain took over. It was not until Churchill was Prime Minister that things started to move. .

At eighteen I registered for National Service at Otley Post Office. Ted Grimsey, the postmaster, served on the Western Front in World War 1 and was shell-shocked. He was a real nice kindly man. The war was going badly for us. . Dunkirk had been a miracle—we still had an army but we were desperately short of ships and manpower.

I was ordered to report to the Medical Centre at St. Matthews Baths , Ipswich where I was examined by Dr Hounsfield who had attended my Mother at my birth. My hair was thick and he said “Don’t they go in for haircuts in Clopton?” (Now I am bald, if only it would grow again!)

I was passed grade A1 and fit for military service. I chose the Royal Navy. My older brother John was a sgt. In the Royal Corps of Signals, a regular soldier. After my medical a Royal Marine recruiting sergeant put his hand on my shoulder saying “ My boy, you’d make a fine Marine.” I replied that “ You are too late, I’m joining the Royal Navy.”

Shortly after my medical I received my ‘call up’ papers and was ordered to report to HMS Duke a ‘stone frigate’ or Naval barracks built at the foot of the beautiful Malvern Hills. It was a stoker training school. I said goodbye to my family and my brother George took me to Woodbridge rail station in his car. I left my civilian gas mask in the car and George ran back over the overhead footbridge to get it and handed it to me as the train pulled out.

Arriving at London Liverpool Street station I went to the Rail Transport office, ( these were located at all rail stations to direct service people to the right connections) and met up with some more boys on their way to HMS Duke. During the journey I talked to a businessman, saying I was going to Malvern. Two days later I was ashore and spoke to this gentleman who was out walking with his two daughters. He shook my hand and said “My goodness they have soon turned you into a sailor!”

  1. HMS Duke.

H.M.S. Duke was a shore establishment. It was at the foot of the

Malvern Hills. The barracks were unfinished when I arrived. Its purpose

being to train stokers. I was enrolled as a Second class Stoker, my service

number was KJX 602209. Lots of entrants were colour blind and were therefore

unable to serve as seamen. After written exams and vision tests three of

us were drafted to HMS Ganges, Shotley, Ipswich. My service number being

changed to CJX 602209.

Clothing in the Navy is called ‘slops’. We went into the ‘slop room’ to collect our kit. Wrens were dishing out the clothes. We were told to get one size bigger in boots as our feet would swell when marching. Our first item was a kit bag which we filled as we walked through. A Wren asked my hat size. I said six and seven eights and she plonked a hat on my head. I also got 2 pairs of boots, 2 pairs of socks, 1 jersey, 2 flannels ( white cotton shirts ) 2 blue suits, 2 tropical suits, 2 sets of underclothes, 1 towel, 2 collars, 1 black silk, 1 lanyard, 1 Mae West lifebelt, 2pairs overalls, 1 housewife ( a sewing kit ) 1 overcoat, 2 boot brushes, 1 hair brush and a comb. At Ganges I received a sea-mans knife and a small attache case for writing kit etc. also a wooden kit stamp marked G F Bull to dip in paint to mark my clothes. Our bedding was 1 hammock, a set of clews ( a rope spliced onto an iron ring with cords to attach to the hammock ) 1 wool blanket and 1 horsehair mattress. The barracks were unfinished so we had to change into Navy uniform in a big tent on a sandy floor and the sand got into our clothes. We were given a sheet of brown paper and a piece of string to parcel up our ‘civvy’ clothes to send home.

We were paid sixpence per week kit up-keep allowance to replace worn, lost or stolen items.

The first night supper was boiled cod. The Chief Gunners Mate told us “Without the Navy the Air Force would never fly or the Army march.”

Every night is ‘Rounds’ at 7pm. The messes have to be swept out and tidy, galvanised spit kids ( circular and about 2 feet across ) are used to put in discarded paper etc. The Quarter Master led the party, the Duty Petty Officer and all the crew stood to attention during the inspection.

HMS Duke was very pleasant with nice staff. We went for TABT jabs. Scores of sterile needles were laid on cotton sheets. The chap in front of me had large scald scars on his arm and when the doctor gave him his jab his arm blew up like a balloon. At this I fainted but was caught by my instructor and he put my head between my knees.

We did square bashing and had written and oral exams followed by vision tests. Lots failed because they were colour blind and there was a shortage of seamen entrants who had to have good vision. Myself and three others passed the tests and handed in one pair of overalls and were rated ordinary seamen instead of second class stokers. My Mother was pleased, she thought that I would be better in the open air.

At five thirty next morning after breakfast we boarded the train for London. There was a heavy air raid and all the trains stopped. After the ‘All clear’ we crossed to liverpool street station and boarded the train to Harwich arriving in the dockyard at midnight and there was another heavy air raid. Harwich was a key naval base and was heavily defended. Searchlights swept the skies and heavy anti aircraft gunfire turned on the raiders, who fled. When the ‘All clear’ sounded we put our kit bags and cases on a trot boat to HMS Ganges pier, Shotley, Suffolk. We climbed out, walked up the to a hut at the top of the long covered way.

The commanding officer was Captain Fallowfield. My gunnery instructor was Chief Petty Officer Storkey, a kindly man. He taught me how to wash my clothes.

The food was very poor though. The supply Officer had a scam with an Ipswich butchery. I was told years later, by a boy who worked there, that loaves of bread were soaked in waterovernight, mixed with a little ground meat and made into sausages. One Sunday dinner we had beef stew. This was knacker meat and full of warble fly botts which burrow into the bullocks and are the size of acorns. We were too scared to complain but a Reverend gentleman knew of this scam. He went to this Ipswich butchery every day and demanded beef steak and he was always given it.Because of the shocking food all Ganges trainees got ‘flu. I got a bottle of Veno’s cough mixture to stave it off but had to report sick and was admitted to the sick bay down by the foreshore. The Matron gave us each a number nine pill, nobody was constipated after this! A pretty blonde nurse was attracted to me but we were not allowed to chat to the nurses. They went off duty at seven pm and posted letters for us. One evening Blondie was putting on her cloak, looking wistfully into the ward, so I beckoned her. She came smiling to my bedside saying “What now?” I replied “ Nurse would you tuck me in please?” which she did. As we chatted she stroked the top of my bedspread, the other boys were amazed.

All training was stopped and we were all confined in the huts, smoking was not allowed. A New Zealand Sub. LT. Trained at Ganges ( not with me ) was on LST (3) 3041 and had a date with nurse ‘Blondie’ and she told him that she had fancied me after tucking me up in bed.. When I went back to the barrack hut to resume training CPO Storkey and the boys were pleased to see me back. We were unable to make up the lost training time. Other conscripts were being drafted in. Swimming lessons were stopped because of a severe water shortage. Christmas was coming up and we were leaving Ganges. We were loaned P.t. kit and had to hand it in before leaving. I took my kit to wash at the laundry before handing it in. While doing this the power failed and I lost my kit. The Wren checking the kit in reported me to the Captain. My divisional came to see me and I explained what had happened, but he tipped the contents onto the floor and searched through everything. I had to repack my kitbag quick because it was being loaded with the rest for H.M.S. Pembroke Royal Naval Barracks, Chatham.

It was a very cold foggy morning as we left our hut to go to the main gate.

A class of boys were taking their mast climbing test., those who failed were said to be cowards. I painted the main masts on both my ships. At the main gate the other boys got on the liberty bus for Ipswich rail station on their way home. Three of us who had lost P.T. kit were Commanders defaulters and waited in the cold while the Commander had his breakfast. When he arrived the ‘jaunty’ or Master at Arms barked “Attention, off caps!” The Commander asked me to explain how I had lost the P.T. kit. As I started to speak the jaunty barked “Shut up!” The Commander said “Alright chief, let the boy speak.” So I explained the blackout in the laundry. The Commander said it was a reasonable explanation and the money would not be deducted from my three shillings pay. (fifteen pence in todays money.) The other two boys were too scared to speak and the cost of the replacement clothing was deducted from their pay.

One boy had sideburns. We had to shave level with the tops of our ears, the Commander told him “We don’t have Italian waiters in the navy!” We walked out of the main gate. Buses were few and far between because fuel was very short. We waited two hours in the cold before getting a bus. I got off at Ipswich Buttermarket, no buses were running to Clopton so I walked ten miles home.

  1. Joining up.

Sailors uniforms were very important and steeped in tradition. The black silk was folded to about one and a half inches wide, stitched together to form a halfer. The collars were dark blue when new so we cut a slit under the collar, put it over a hot tap to remove some of the dye and achieve a nice light blue colour. The collars had three white stripes to commemorate Nelsons three great battles. The black silk was in mourning for Nelson. We wore white lanyards round our necks and long blue tapes to secure the silk. During the war cap ribbons for security reasons were not allowed to show the ships name. It was an art to tie a cap ribbon bow to show over your forehead with H.M.S. showing on the side. After being issued with standard uniforms on joining up we were given 6d per week clothing allowance to maintain our clothes. My last suit had 14inch bell-bottom trousers. I was on duty on the gangway in Valletta Naval Base when a Maltese tailor came on board to sell bespoke suits. When I came off duty he measured me up and next day came back with my suit. It cost me £1-50. The reason for having bell-bottom trousers was to enable you to kick them off if you were shipwrecked. After coming back from shore leave we turned our trousers inside out, put them on the mess deck table and folded them with seven horizontal pleats denoting the seven seas. I used to put my folded trousers under the pillow in my hammock so they were smart for my next shore leave. We were inspected to see that we were clean and tidy before we were allowed to leave the ship. I always took a pride in my appearance and was told by civilians that I was the smartest sailor they had seen. That was the reason I was always able to find a girlfriend to the dismay of my shipmates. Everybody on a ship had a nickname. Mine was 'Chiefy' after the Red Indian warrior chief 'Big Chief Sitting Bull' My shipmates used to say "If you want a girlfriend go ashore with 'Chiefy’.

  1. Hedgehog Mortar Battery

The hedgehog mortar battery was a secret weapon and kept covered by tarpaulin. Dockyard workers refused to work on the ship when they were in place. These mortar bombs could never be defused and would explode on impact on steel. We had to demount the mortars and place them in wooden boxes and stow them in the magazine. The only time you were allowed to sit down at work was when arming the firing pistols for depth charges. The pistols were in small wooden boxes, the detonators were fulmanite of mercury the highest explosive made. They came in small cork lined tins. When we entered harbour we had to fit harbour bars to prevent the depth charges being accidently dropped. At sea the charges were always ready to fire. During Action Stations the ships cooks left the galley to pull the lanyards to fire the side throwing charges. Thick cordite covered the cooks white suits and they looked like chimney sweeps.

  1. Ganges --Training to be a seaman

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------When I was at Ganges the first of Hitlers secret weapons were dropped on Harwich. They were carpet bombs. A hand grenade with flapping wings and exploded when moved so lots of people were killed and injured. It was so great a threat that the government stopped all news about it. Hitler thought that if it was not mentioned in the British media the bombs were ineffective so they stopped dropping them. Harwich was a very important Naval base. The C. O. came over the river to Ganges to lecture us about the new threat. He told us never to touch the bombs and to deal with them by tying cod line to a cardboard box, place it over the bomb, take cover round a corner and pull the cod line to explode it. A butterfly bomb dropped at Helmingham, the near tractor wheel exploded, the bomb blowing the wheel up and the farmers foot.

At Ganges machine guns were mounted on the drill hall roof to stop us being straffed on the parade ground. A marine was killed when part of an anti aircraft shell hit his steel helmet. Barrage balloons were up round the perimeter manned by A.T.S girls.

After leaving Ganges
When I was on sick leave I took Fathers shotgun and went up the park to shoot a rabbit. The parson was a Special Constable, he came driving his car with the village Policeman as passenger. The parson drove his car round the corner and thought that I could not see it. The parson ran back to me and asked if I had a gun licence, my service number, mess number, ships name and other questions. I told him I was on sick leave. My Dad helped to bring in the petrol for their car and food to put on their tables. They would have done more good in the services instead of slinking about watching me. Young boys were conscripted, but grown men stayed at home, they did not like the smell of Hitler.

When I was at Ganges the Duke of Gloucester came to inspect the establishment. We were all lined up on the parade ground ready for inspection. But the Duke had been in the Officers Wardroom, he was as drunk as a handcart. He was staggering about so the officers escorted him away and ate parade was dismissed.

One Saturday morning I was near the Main Gate when a big van drove in. It was Henry Telfers Ticky Snacks. I was first in the queue, took off my hat, and told the van driver to fill it up with sausage rolls. The van soon sold out of stock. With a cap full of sausage rolls I had suddenly become very popular. I let my mates have most of them. The food was very poor and we were always hungry.

We had to have injections and our arms became so swollen that we were excused duty for a day. We went to the canteen and for the first time ever they had tins of fish cakes. We took them back to the Mess but we had no means of heating them so we ate them raw. To cheer our spirits up we started singing bawdy songs. The Church of England padre had his office at the end wall of our mess with only a matchboard wall between. The padre came into our mess saying can you turn it down a bit boys, my Wrens secretary is in my office next door.

After leaving LST (3) 3041 I returned to Chatham. I got a job as Petty Officers messman. The P.O. used to swing round the buoy and sit down to two meals every time. Having this job meant that I could get away on weekend leave, starting at two o’clock Friday instead of the four o’clock rush. Customs officers searched your case to see if you had too much tobacco. The trains were packed, you got a seat if you were lucky. Eastern Counties buses had two wheel trailers in with a saw dust and coke burning fire, the smoke was pumped into the bus engine. It ran well on level roads, but it was a struggle to get up the hills. No doubt it saved a lot of diesel. Girls were conductors and I used to chat them up. They would say “Don’t bother to pay the fare Jack, it will be alright.” Sailors were always popular with ladies of all ages. It was lucky to touch a sailors collar. I was treated to lots of cups of tea at railway stations. It was difficult to put on your overcoat as your collar got in the way. When I went out with a young lady I would ask her to put her hands under my arms and hold my collar and I would steal a little kiss!

The underground stations platforms were fitted with wooden bunks with wirenetting bottoms. Mothers ,children and elderly people with their few belongings in bags, huddled down there away from the bombers flying up above. In a very small cubicle close to London Bridge station an elderly Jewish gentleman and his wife made cups of tea for service people. He infused the leaves in a large cup to brew before pouring it into cups. It was very nice. Him and his wife were talking in Yiddish. The price was one penny a cup, a real bargain with lots of sugar in it!

After leaving HMS Stockham

When I was in the Barrack guard three of us collected rifles and bayonets from the armoury. A truck came along with two Paymaster officers in the cab with the driver. We climbed into the back. The truck drove out through the main gate and turned through the dockyard gate and stopped in front of the bank vaults. We got out and loaded eight kit bags into the truck and drove back to the pay office in the barracks. We took the kit bags inside. They were full of bank notes worth £250,000 which was in French francs, German deuchsmarks and Dutch gilders to pay for the British forces. The bank notes were double checked to make sure that we had not stolen any. All was correct and we took our weapons back to the armoury.

Before joining LST (3) 3041 I was sent to the RN Anti Aircraft Gunnery Training school at Sheerness to study bofors gun circuits.
The Royal Netherlands Navy consisted of eight men dressed in Royal Netherlands Navy uniforms with Royal netherlands Navy shoulder flashes. They lived in a Nissan hut at the Royal Navy Anti Aircraft school, Sheerness. The commander in Chief of the navy was an English Petty Officer. His headquarters were behind hanging blankets at the end of the hut. This was a morale booster to make believe we had allies, but we were on our own.

The Greek navy consisted of waiters from London. They took over as crew on an ex R.N. destroyer which they wrecked in two weeks.


Plymouth was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. Streets were burnt out and empty, shopkeepers put up chicken huts for shops. Every night the army put up heavy smoke screens to blot the city out. When the US navy arrived they bulldozed the burnt out houses, put down shingle and erected Nissan huts to make a naval barracks.GI’s and their armour came in thousands to load onto ships which we escorted to the Normandy beaches. We did not use navigation lights. One night we weighed anchor to take another convoy. As I stood by the anchor looking up I saw this huge supply ship bearing down on us. I cupped my hands, shouting at the top of my voice “Ship ahoy on the starboard side!” My loud shouting alerted both ships, our ship turned to port, we were missed by inches!

The largest ship in every convoy is under the command of a senior Royal Navy Officer. He gives orders to all the ships. After this very near miss he sent a signal to our ship stating “You need to keep a good look out, I had to put my engines into emergency full speed astern in order to avoid you.” This ship would have cut us in half if I had not raised the alarm.

We escorted seventeen convoys to Normandy

Our boilers had to be cleaned and we had four days leave. On arriving at Plymouth rail station a hospital train came in. Fleets of ambulances brought in young school boys of the Hitler Youth Soldiers. They were a sorry sight having lost arms and legs, heavily bandaged and crippled for life. One day I looked across to Plymouth Hoe. A huge digger had dug a mass grave, scores of white coffins were being buried. After the war the US sent coffin ships to take them back to the US.

The war in Eorope was going well. I spoke to the chief yeoman of signals, who was in charge of all communications, saying “Hello Yeo, What you know?” He replied, “ Don’t say anything to anybody, we are going to Belfast to tie up in Pollock Dock.” I woke in the night because the turbines were going full belt. I thought there might be a U boat around. Our new 1st LT had served on submarines and returned to surface ships for a break. His sweetheart lived in Belfast so he piled on the revs to arrive sooner!

On a frigate near us an officer had been jilted by his sweetheart on his return. He filled his duffle coat pockets with weights and jumped from the bridge and committed suicide. His body was recovered days later by Stockhams crew.

I joined HMS Stockham at Plymouth. As I awaited her arrival I volunteered to join a working party in the dockyard. We stowed ammunition in the magazine of a Polish destroyer in Plymouth, it was a fine ship with an eager crew. The seamens cap ribbons had MARY NARKA WOGENA on them. When HMS Stockham arrived I went on a boat to join her. Torpedo Cox’n List made me bosuns mate. My duties in port were to make announcements on the ships loud speakers, keep a lookout for approaching boats and report same to the officer of the day. I had to search workers boarding and leaving the ship, pipe the captain over the side and take note of all officers leaving and returning. I handed out station cards to crew returning from shore leave, reporting any crew who were adrift and not returned. When on watch I had to call the hands at 6am and make sure they were out of their hammocks and make announcements of the ships routine. Before making announcements I blew the bosuns call to get the crews attention and I repeated the announcement so all understood. The most popular call was for shore leave. The 1st LT told me to state the time leave expired and an engine room artificer asked me if the ship was ‘under sailing orders’. I replied ‘the ship is always under sailing orders’. The 1st LT said ‘Always say that when you announce’ , it became the port order throughout the fleet. Before leaving I would pipe what clothes the seamen were to wear ????overalls or blue suits. The call was special sea duty men to muster. The Foxlmen to muster on the forecastle (bows), Quarterdeck men to muster on the quarterdeck (stern) and Top men in the port or starboard waist (middle). I would take the log book to the wheelhouse and join the quartermaster and the coxswain there. My job there was engine room telegraphs man. As the captain ordered I moved the indicators for each engine -–slow or fast ahead or astern, also the rev counter. I watched Cox’n List intently thinking ‘ I could do that!’ He always took the wheel when we left or entered port. One day he said “Take that flaming wheel boy, but remember this ship cost half a million pounds and if you crash the bugger it will be deducted from your pay” My pay was £1 per week so I had to be careful! I called up the voice pipe to the bridge stating my name, compass position, speed and engine revs. I held the compass point bang on course. After lots of compass changes Cox’n List took the wheel. The Captain, a tall man with a ginger beard, came down from the bridge, shook my hand and said “ Congratulations, you are a natural helmsman.” When I joined LST (3) 3041 I was made chief quartermaster and steered the ship on its maiden voyage down the River Clyde to join Admiral Lord Mountbattens South East Asia Command. (SEAC)

When we were at anchor in Plymouth a new U.S. destroyer tied up alongside us. The torpedo deck was piled high with boxes of oranges, ,grapefruit and bananas. A sailor chewing gum and with a rifle over his shoulder was guarding the fruit. The ship had come from Florida.

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