There was a polite knock on the office door. The Naval Lieutenant Commander looked up from his paperwork and called out ‘Come in!’
A smartly dressed WREN opened the door and stood in the doorway.
‘Chief Petty Officer Bickerell to see you, sir.’
‘Oh yeh, ask him to come in, Janet.’ He stretched across his desk and retrieved a formal application form previously set aside.
The personal assistant retreated slightly into her own office and indicated that the Petty Officer should come forward. She pushed the Commanding Officer’s office door fully open and she announced the petty officer’s entrance.
Dan Bickerell marched in briskly, his naval hat tucked neatly under his right arm, he stamped his feet on the floor and came to an abrupt stop in front of the CO’s desk.
‘Good morning, sir.’
Lieutenant Commander Mark Winston picked up the application form and sat back in his executive chair. ‘Morning Chief, take a seat.’
The petty officer relaxed his posture and sat on the seat to the left of his commanding officer’s desk, and placed his hat on his lap.
‘Got your application, Chief. Sad to see that you want to leave us.’ The Lieutenant Commander wasn’t being entirely truthful. ‘How long have you been at Coombe Down now?’
‘It’s been almost two and a half years, sir. As you know it’s been a tough one, and I won’t be sorry to leave.’
‘And your wife, how does she feel about it?’
‘She’s already looking forward to getting back to Plymouth, sir. Although there’s still six months to serve, she’s already looking forward to me leaving the service and returning to civvy street. As you will have seen from my application, we’ve been offered the sub-post office at Cornwood. Lovely place, sir, right on the edge of Dartmoor, and only 6 nautical miles from Devonport!’
‘Indeed,’ said the commanding officer, studying Bickerell’s application, whilst also wondering what the Admiralty might think about the chief petty officer’s request to spend his last six months’ service at HMS Devonport.
The commander was only too aware that the Admiralty had its own ideas about who got posted where. Servicemen were simply told when and where they were to serve and there was no debate; you and your family upped and went, it was part of the job. OK, just very rarely the Sea Lords did consider the seaman’s personal circumstances, but then only if it was his last posting before retiring from the Navy. As Winston knew, his NCO’s posting to HMS Coombe Down had already been chosen by Bickerell as his choice for last posting; he had been due to serve three years, and retired from here. Winston thought it typical of Bickerell to have changed his mind. The Chief Petty Office was not a particularly easy man to cope with. There was always something amiss. Whilst at Coombe Down, Bickerell had complained about the high levels of work required to assess flight trial results, he had complained about weekend working, he found it over easy to blame others for his own failures. He was not a team player; generally considered to be a ‘pain in the arse’ by colleagues and supervisors alike.
Winston now quietly reviewed the CPO’s modest contribution, and asked himself if he was going to put himself out by recommending his NCO’s request to spend the last six months at Devonport, thus allowing him to take up the sub-post office offer. Six months in a new job was no time at all, and Winston had no doubt that Bickerell would find every reason to further his own interests as a sub-postman, rather than fully participate in the work at HMS Devonport. On the other hand, the Lieutenant Commander knew that Bickerell would continue to disrupt the unit’s work at Coombe Down and the chances were that things would get worst as Bickerell’s frustrations increased as the sub-post office deal began to slip away from him.
‘What the hell,’ thought Winston. ‘Let somebody else have the problem!’
The Lieutenant Commander looked up from studying the application form to find Bickerell fidgeting in his chair and showing every sign of being disgruntled should the application be turned down.
‘OK Chief, I’ve studied your application carefully and I’m prepared to recommend your posting to Devonport. I wish you well and hope that both you and your wife will be happy in Plymouth.’
‘OK sir,’ replied the Chief Petty Officer without feeling, he had no doubt that the decision would go his way. There was no reason why it shouldn’t; the Navy owned it to him.
Winston took his pen and wrote ‘Recommended’ in the comments dialog and signed it.
‘Give this to Janet as you leave. She will forward it to the MOD in London, and I guess that you should hear from them in about two weeks.’
Bickerell stood up, took the paper from his CO, replaced his cap, and saluted. He swung his body around, stamped his foot, and marched briskly to the door, and strode confidently into the personal assistance’s office. Janet knew from the NCO’s supercilious grim, that he had got what he wanted; there were times when she wondered why the Navy was so daft, and this was one of them. She was aware of Bickerell’s unpopularity.
Some two weeks later, the talk in the wardroom that Janet shared with her colleagues was not about how daft the Navy had been to grant Bickerell’s request for posting. She could hardly control her mirth when she explained to her friends that Bickerell was to be posted, but not to Devonport. He was to report to the aircraft carrier HMS Arc Royal in Portsmouth! It seemed that the ship was to sail to Singapore on a training/liaison visit and immediately return to the UK; a voyage of precisely six months. The Admiralty had decided that this would be the best deployment for CPO Bickerell in the time he had remaining; he would be discharged from the Navy immediately the ship returned to Portsmouth. She went on to describe Bickerell’s second visit to the CO’s office when Lieutenant Commander Winston had been sympathetic, but had explained that the issue was well outside his span of authority. Bickerell would have to report to the ship as ordered.
Despite his acute sense of injustice, and whilst still harbouring a prodigious amount of bitterness towards the Navy, Chief Petty Officer Bickerell presented himself at Portsmouth and joined HMS Arc Royal. He much regretted the situation and spoiled to get his revenge; he had a plan and he would make the buggers pay!
It’s not always known or appreciated that the Navy has developed many traditions over the centuries as it seeks to serve and fight on behalf of Queen and country; the Navy has learnt to acknowledge its dependency on the loyalty of its officers and ratings and is mindful to look after their best interests whilst serving on-board. Its first act of commission is the practice that all crew members meet their Captain. In a frigate, where the ship’s compliment is about 170 persons, the Captain’s task of introduction is, let us say, reasonable. The crew file through his cabin in an orderly and disciplined fashion, he delivers some encouraging words of welcome, they are better off for the experience, they go on to undertake their duties and are willing to suffer the inevitable discomforts, whilst feeling that the Captain is a likeable fellow and is concerned for their welfare. But then an aircraft carrier may have a compliment of say 2500 to 3000 persons; even if the Captain meets the officers separately and the crew work a three-shift system, that’s still nearly 900 seamen to greet on three distinct occasions.
On board Arc Royal, the process was extremely well organised. ‘Red’ watch were called first, early on the first day of commissioning; to be followed in mid-afternoon by White watch and in the late-evening by Blue watch. Petty Officer Bickerell was amongst Red shift, dressed in his neatly laundered and smartly pressed naval blue ceremonial uniform, gathered from the many wardrooms, hammock cubicles, locker rooms and other accommodation lobbies, and placed by members of the ship’s Executive team in a long queue that started just outside the Captain’s cabin and snaked down the upper deck, down a staircase, back along corridors, through the mess-deck, down a second-level staircase, back again down to the engineering bays and eventually spilling out into the huge space that was the aircrafts’ hangar. At the head of the queue, the level of supervision by the executive NCOs was severe; nobody breathed let alone moved without a command from the Executive. Once into the corridors of the second deck, the level of supervision was less intense, and it disappeared altogether once through the mess-deck.
Preparations inside the Captain’s cabin were particularly precise. The Captain sat at the centre of his large oak desk, flanked to starboard by the First Executive Officer, and to port by the Senior Officer of Red Watch, behind them the Union Jack and the White Ensign were poled and hung to form a V-shape, which enclosed Arc Royal’s own fleet badge. The Captain had before him a card on which his greeting had been typed in bold print. Six senior NCOs added and contributed to the precision within the cabin. One was placed immediately on the starboard side of the entrance bulkhead. Once the door was opened, it was this NCO’s task to ensure a speedy entrance into the Captain’s cabin by each and every crew member; he would grip the entering seaman and ensure that each of the visitor’s legs was lifted to a sufficient height to overstep the fixed lower section of the entrance bulkhead. His opposite number, required to ensure an equally speedy departure, was posted immediately to the port of the entrance bulkhead. A large measure of co-ordination was required between these two to avoid clashes between those entering and those departing. A third senior NCO was placed on the starboard side of the Captain’s desk. He was required to stop the advancing sailor, grip him at the shoulders and turn him to the right. After advancing a few steps, the visitor was then checked to a holt by the forth NCO, placed at the desk mid-point. Once at the mid-point, the visitor was turned to his left, where he would face the ship’s fleet badge, whilst below eye-level, the seated Captain was to read his greeting from the ‘crib-card’. As the final word of the greeting was spoken, the mid-point NCO immediately turned the visiting sailor to the right and propelled him towards the fifth NCO standing on the port-side of the Captain’s desk. The fifth man would then re-direct the visitor and propel him towards the exit door, where he would be encouraged to depart in haste by the aforementioned door exit guard.
The Captain’s cabin event was controlled by the most senior NCO on board, Master Warrant Officer Bill Gregory; the most important member of the executive team. It was the master sailor’s task to bark out the various orders required to launch each crew member into, around and out of the Captain’s cabin; all 900 of them!
Although the officers present would have wished to test the process with a short rehearsal, the appointed hour arrived and on the Master Warrant Officer’s insistence, the somewhat ‘miffed’ senior officers took their places, the bulkhead door was opened, and Mr Gregory ordered his supervisory NCOs to open the flood gate. Within the space of five successful circuits, in and out, those controlling movements within the Captain’s cabin had established an impressive speed of throughput, that got even quicker when the Captain himself became more familiar with his greeting and was soon delivering it without constant reference to his crib card. The front of the queue quickly disappeared, and encouraged by the deck NCOs, those behind shifted forward at a set speed causing a ripple of moving sailors that snaked down the upper deck, down a staircase, back along the corridor, through the mess-deck, down a second-level staircase, back down to the engineering bays and finally the ripple dissipated itself in the huge aircraft hangar.
Anticipating that he was on top of it, Gregory called to the Captain in a firm but condescending tone ‘Quicken it a bit! Sir!’ Not only did the Captain’s speed of delivery increase, but the NCOs inside the cabin practically handled the sailors as commodities and those outside began to force the pace by pushing the crew members into the cabin and pulling them from it. Some sort of equilibrium was achieved at the impressive throughput of eight seconds per crew member, as the Captain was forced to abbreviate his address.
‘I’m Captain Heaton-Jones. Welcome on-board HMS Arc Royal. Work hard and prosper. Any questions?’
Upon hearing the ‘any questions’ retort, Gregory immediately briefed his deck NCOs to positively ensure that no one asked any questions of the Captain, on peril of extra duties.
Not more than 27 minutes had passed when it was CPO Bickerell’s turn to appear before the Captain. Bickerell had just removed his hat and placed it under his right arm when the door guards, now acting in unison, appeared to lift him bodily over the lower bulkhead structure, and within seconds he heard the ‘any questions’ remark that terminated his time in front of the Captain. Bickerell drew breath and was prepared to tell the Captain that he had no desire to serve on HMS Arc Royal, when the forced right turn and push to starboard hit him. All that was heard from the embittered Bickerell were the words ‘…don’t want to serve on this damn ship’ as he was propelled towards the exit.
Some of his words were heard by the Captain, who taken aback that a crew member had actually spoken. He turned to his Senior Executive Officer and asked ‘What did he say?’
The slightest hesitation within the now continuous process was immediately destructive. The next sailor was already standing mid-point at the Captain’s desk and facing him ready to receive his greeting. There was a second sailor mid-stream on the port side and the next two sailors in-line had tumbled in through the bulkhead door and now lay prostrate on the cabin floor! Bickerell’s departure had also been impaired as he sought to avoid those writhing on the floor. A discontented and bunched up crowd of matlos had collided at the head of the queue and formed an unstable and noisy mob outside the door, and an angry cascading ripple of aggravated people had already been launched down the upper deck as the forward movement stalled. The ripple continued and enlarged down the upper staircase, back along the corridor, into the mess-deck, where tempers flared and the men there almost came to exchanging fists, down the second-level staircase, where one sailor was pushed backward, lost his footing and took three of his mates with him as they tumbled down the ironwork. In the engineering bays tools were grabbed and raised in threatening ways, and a near riot occurred in the aircraft hangar as the opportunity to jump the queue presented itself within the erupting chaos.
Oblivious of the chaos developing around him, the Senior Executive Officer turned to his Captain and said ‘I don’t think the Chief wants to be here, sir.’
‘We’d better have him back,’ replied Captain Heaton-Jones.
The Master Warrant Officer’s face turned pale upon hearing the Captain’s words, and then bright red, as he issued orders for the queue to be halted, for the cabin to be cleared of bodies, and for the escaped CPO Bickerell to be retrieved and brought forward into the Captain’s cabin for an unprecedented second time.
As Bickerell appeared at the cabin door, Master Warrant Officer Gregory was furious, he barked out the commands, ‘Quick march! Left, right! Left, right! Left, right! Halt! Hat off! Stand still! Your fingers are like bloody spiders! Stand still! This is CPO Bickerell, sir!’
CPO Bickerell was a little anxious about his new situation, but he nevertheless launched forward with a tirade of words directly to the Captain about his disappointment on being posted to Arc Royal, when he only had six months to serve, how he had asked to be posted to Devonport, where he had secured the prospect of operating the sub-post office at Cornwood, it was bloody unfair when others h