HMS MERCURY

 

 

From welcoming the Royal visit to stopping other visits!

 

 

1.     SECTION ONE - CHARLES AND DIANA   [SECTION 2 BELOW: DROXFORD ROAD KNICKER PATROL]

In July 1981, just after his engagement to Lady Diana Spencer, HRH The Prince of Wales, visited HMS Mercury.  His visit, arriving in a helicopter of the Queens Flight, which he himself piloted, was to have been private.  However, much to everyone's SHEER delight, he sat the helicopter down on the broadwalk adjacent to the wardroom's rose garden, and guess what?  Yes, he had brought Diana with him.  Mercury was on a great high anyway, but to bring his future wife really was 'icing on the top of the cake'.

Although the day went well and was a qualified success, one thing puzzled me, and does to this very day, over twenty two years later .  It had long been tradition in the Royal Navy, that when a senior officer or a VIP visited the ship/established, the Captain would trawl the ships company to find out if any of its members had previously served with the visitor. Those that  had,  would be re-introduced either in a group, or individually when being inspected or during a walk-round at their place of work/duty.  On this occasion, for some inexplicable reason it didn't happen, this, despite that Mercury had several officers and men who had served with the Prince.  I was one of them, having been with HRH in a classroom, at sea in HMS Jupiter and at Lord Mountbatten's funeral. 

The Prince and Lady Di, as she was affectionately known in the early days, had several functions to attend that day, and one of them was a visit to the Warrant Officers Mess to meet an invited audience of senior ratings and their wives.  Beryl and I attended that event which was conducted in a large square room in which the Prince walked clockwise and Lady Di anticlockwise, talking with members of the mess as they passed.  The Mess President was Leslie Murrell MBE and he was the host attending upon the Prince introducing personnel and answering the Prince's questions. Leslie had had the honour of being in charge of the coffin bearers at Lord Mountbatten's funeral when laying him to rest in his grave within Romsey Abbey, at a ceremony attended by the whole of the Royal family.  The events of those years were still very tender for us all, and in particular, for the Prince who had lost a great uncle.  I think that Leslie too, had been a little upset about the breaking of tradition on ex-ship introductions, and as the Prince came nearer to my position, Leslie leaned over to the Prince and forewarned him of my presence.  In great anticipation I awaited his presence, and whilst still a few walking paces away, the Prince uttered in a raised voice "Mr Dykes, how nice to see you again."  Whilst I was concentrating on the Prince and his questions about my service career and my on coming retirement, I was very conscious that Leslie was happy now [as I was] that we had, after all, got to meet HRH personally:  the Prince knew that, we knew that, and all around, including the officers who had broke with tradition, knew that.  HRH chatted to me and to Beryl for some time and remembered me well [how could he not?] from our previous service together.  I was extremely proud and very grateful to Leslie who had 'engineered' the meet!  Lady Di, coming her way around, also spoke with us for some minutes.  On returning home that day, Beryl wrote down the conversations to record for posterity.

Here is the visit programme. 

 

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             SECTION TWO - HMS MERCURY DROXFORD ROAD KNICKER PATROL!!!!

I have just tweaked the plan of Mercury [last picture above] - see tweaked picture below -  to add in a few details of the 'old days' at Leydene.  My tweaking goes back to the late 1950's and adds [or complicates whatever your view] to this plan which omits the SCU buildings [behind the drill shed] possibly for security reasons. It is interesting to note that when I did my petty officers course in the late 1950's, south camp, i.e., all below the main Droxford Road, was almost barren having just the following buildings of substance: Mountbatten Block/Bungalow/Old Garage block with training classrooms and the Main House.  Over to the right of the picture where the 'new garage block' is was South Camp training area, a collection of Nissan huts stretching from Droxford Road to where I have put "civilian bits", to the Church, and down into the area between Droxford Road and Main Drive Road heading towards the Main Gate Sentry Post.  Even in 1969 when I did my Radio Communications Instructor [RCI] course, we were instructed in Automatic Telegraphy [AT] in a Nissan hut adjacent to the 'old' Sentry Box, which by that time had been pulled down. Nissan huts were very basic and so were the amenities within - seats, tables etc. They were products of utility manifest in the shortages caused by the second world war which touched our daily lives in almost every way.  They were unheated but had a stove and chimney.  The policy of whether they were lit or not was left to each Section [cryptography, organisation, wireless telegraphy procedure, AT etc] and their instructors.  However, I can remember being detailed to light them and to fetch and thereafter maintain, a stock of fuel [coke] but it was a great [and dirty] effort for little reward.  Mercury seemed to attract cold weather and the stoves were inefficient and virtually useless - they achieved their maximum heat output just as instructions were finishing.  Fortunately, our messes were in the newer blocks sited along the Crescent Road and they were centrally heated.  In harsh winters, we used to race back to our mess just to get warm.  Incidentally, as I have stated below, Crescent Road blocks have been used to accommodate all types of personnel over the years, with, at one time, seniors rates, albeit for a short period.   They were essentially messes for ships company male junior rates, and the New Entry trainees lived in blocks where the supply block is now. That same little area housed the camps post office.  The post mistress, an elderly civilian lady, was an oracle and knew everybody in the Clanfield/East Meon areas, including all the admirals and captains.  It was well known in the camp that there were certain people who you didn't upset, service and non-service, and she was one of them.  The plan of the camp below, for ease of reference only, assumes that the top of the picture in north.  The plan is complete to its northern, western and southerly borders [except for the captain's house and its supporting sites [it had its own sewage farm], but is incomplete to the east.  The land area where I have marked "Old OOW" became narrower and narrower the further east one travelled, until it virtually disappeared and the Droxford Road met the Main Drive Road, at which point, the main gate to HMS Mercury was sited.  Just across the road from the Main Gate and to the right, was the Hyden Wood complex .  In this area there was a large sports pitch area which was boxed-in by the Droxford Road, the Hambledon Road [to the famous cricketing pub the Bat and Ball] and the main road running between Clanfield and East Meon.  Behind it, and neatly tucked-in underneath a clump of trees, was Hyden Wood married quarters, the MQ's for senior officers.  Other officers lived in MQ's distant from the camp, and the nearby village of Lovedean provided MQ's for ratings.  However, towards the end of my career in 1983, the vast majority of officers and senior ratings where living ashore in their own homes in local areas, thereby, taking the pressure off our MQ's Officer, dear old Arthur Shreeves, an erstwhile communicator.  Before I finish, I want you to look at Dreadnought Block, which was the 'modern' area for training sparkers whilst North Camp was the 'less modern'.  To build it, they knocked down a WRNS junior rates block which ran parallel with Droxford Road, and which together with the Bungalow to its immediate south [WRNS senior rates], and a live-in floor on which  WRNS stewards [junior and senior rates] plus WRNS sick bay staff lived to the 'deep' south in the Main House/wardroom mess, formed Mercury's WRNS quarters. These were ships company WRNS [cooks, stewards, writers, drivers etc] and not communicators, who lived in the village of Soberton [Soberton Towers].  They were bused to and from Mercury each working day, a round trip of about 10 miles.  After Soberton Block commissioned, all WRNS came to live in Mercury or if already in Mercury were re-messed; the Bungalow was decommissioned and reassigned, and Soberton Towers was shut down, sadly for the proprietor of The Pinky, the pet name for the pub across the road from the Towers, who for many years, had profited from the many matelots who had come-a-courting!  It was a long walk between Mercury and Soberton, and I have to admit that I did it more than once. Now I am not a man given to be crude especially in print, but I want you to remember [those of you who are my age] and to believe [if you are younger] that young ladies of those far off days didn't do what [I am told] young ladies of today do so willingly, and therefore a walk to and from Soberton from East Meon [approximately 10 miles] got you a necking session, or, at best, a grope of the upper body only.  How we have all grown up since?  Click here to see a map and distance of the treck  Click to enlarge.  Anyway, back to the reason I started to mention  all this, namely what stood where Dreadnought block was erected.  The WRNS junior rates mess was so close to Droxford Road, that when their windows were open, a person innocently walking in the road, could not but fail to see inside the building.  This became a source or annoyance to some of the girls, but to others, it became a tease.  On more than one occasion, the windows of their drying room, bedecked with knickers and bra's, were opened to their maximum, the hinges straining against the wall of the building.  Whilst Droxford Road was always a public road and regularly used by vehicles transiting between the local villages, it was equally used by sailors marching across it [north camp to south camp] or along it [south/north camps to messes] where "eyes left or right", depending upon direction of travel was ordered when adjacent to the drying room windows.  Pedestrian traffic increased many fold along this road where other routes around the establishment were quicker, easier and certainly less boring than Droxford Road, not to mention less dangerous because of the road traffic.  Men from the accommodation blocks in Crescent Road, especially from the nearest blocks like Kempenfelt etc., took 'recreational' walks along the road from roughly where I have shown OOW [at road side of the Admin Block]  to the beginning of Mountbatten block, failing in their duty to walk on the side of the road facing the oncoming traffic, slowing their pace, and increasing the zoom function of their eyes, to stare upon those scanty panties on passing the windows.  Clearly they couldn't be so audacious and overtly stop to have a better than average view: or could they?

As time went by, the authorities started to clamp down on this behaviour, where it could be argued that the girls, or some of them, were the protagonists, egging the men on with the big tease.  The windows were still opened, but were mechanically restricted to about 45, and the hedging plant planted between the grass verge and the side of the building proper, was allowed to grow.  All was now under control, though the men's minds were not necessarily so, and the road returned to its former role as a boring non entity.  Then one night, a sailor, or a group of sailors, decided to revisit the now slightly open windows of the proverbial drying room, to reach in and to take as many pieces of lingerie as time would allow, and then make off with them as trophies.  Whilst the plan was probably conceived with fun in mind, its execution put the fear of God into the minds of the WRNS because if a hand could come through a window into a common area, surely one could come through into a bedroom,  bathroom or other private area, and any where in their block, even away from the road side.  The idea of having personal clothing paraded as spoils of war was also non too pleasing, and joking apart, did much to offend our fellow female sailors, damaging their morale.  Something had to be done once and for all.  As so many pranks do back-fire, so too, did this one. The authorities decided that there would be a DROXFORD ROAD PATROL, and set about creating an unpopular extra duty watch task which would see a sailor patrolling part of the road outside instructional times Monday to Friday, and during Saturday and Sunday, and in all weathers.  That patrol was maintained right up to the girls being re-housed in their new mess, Soberton Block, and it became known as KNICKER PATROL throughout the camp.  Why Soberton Block changed things remains a query.  I do remember quite vividly the effect of having Soberton Block on the men, many of whom were in my division.  It did their morale a power of good.  Mercury was a 'normal' place during the working week because it had lots of young females going about their business be it under training or in support services. But at teatimes and for the whole of each weekend, they disappeared, visibly affecting the men's attitude to the camp.  Without a car, they were very restricted.  Men liked the former but hated the latter. The former, whilst they couldn't touch, was natural and pleasing: the latter was unnatural, unpleasant and made them want more than ever, to touch!  Me and my type were what the men called "good kids" because we were at home with our families. So, having girls around twenty four hours a day, touch or not touch, pleased the men and Mercury 'came to life'.