HMS Ganges was a Royal Navy Training base at Shotley, Suffolk. Ganges, in the early years was afloat in Harwich Harbour, and from 1905 until 1976 as a shore base. Life there was tough and the site included a 143 foot ships mast, which was manned during training and annually for a ceremonial mast manning with a “button boy” standing high above the parade ground. Around 150,000 boys were trained at HMS Ganges. Ipswich born Gwyn Charlton was the button boy for the ceremony in 1965. Gwyn explained to me from his home in Christchurch, Dorset, what life was like at HMS Ganges and how his long career in the Royal Navy started with a ride on an Ipswich bus. Gwyn said “I was born July 1949, at 26 Wicklow Road on the Whitehouse estate in Ipswich. I was a pupil at Whitehouse Infants and Junior schools and then Westbourne Secondary Modern. I left school at the end of the July term and entered the navy a month later at the end of August 1964.”
“Life in the Royal Navy started when I made my way by bus to Ipswich station. I felt too grown up to have mum and dad come with me. Several other boys were met by a regulating Petty Officer and we were put on another bus to the annex at HMS Ganges".
" I think the intake was about 100 boys. We were all gathered in a hall and it was explained what was happening. We were then given the chance of returning home or signing on for three years boy service or nine years man service. I don’t think anyone took the first option. The rest of that day was taken up with hair cuts, even though most of us all ready had short hair the navy decided it still needed cutting again. Our kit was then issued and we were taken to our allocated messes. Rules were laid down that had to be carried out without question or punishment would follow usually in the form of parade drill. A wooden block and letters were issued to make up a ‘John Bull’ type stamp to mark every piece of kit. This then had to be over stitched with a red silk thread in chain stitch, a real challenge for a bunch of boys most of who thought sewing was for girls. We quickly learnt different.”
“That month was taken up with learning to wash, iron and fold all sizes of kit to the size of a seamanship manual, polishing boots to a state that you could almost shave looking in the toe cap. Most of us were not ready to shave yet, but still had to do it, which was quite painful with teenage spots! Much time was spent marching, we never seemed to be good enough for the instructor training us it seemed to go on forever.” “Kit musters became a feared occurrence, we never did it to their required standard and hours of labour would end up scattered on the deck to be redone at the end of the day. Wooden decks had to be polished to a gleam with an awful tallow wax and shone with our boot brushes, galvanised dustbins had to be polished to look like mirrors.” “Sport was a large part of that month with boxing taking place between the messes. Usually the pairing was largest fought smallest. This was painful, but carefully watched by the staff so no real damage was done. That month I think was the toughest part of Ganges. The main camp was not much easier, but we had been well prepared by that harsh regime.”
“When my division were selected to do the mast manning I volunteered, partly because I had told my dad I would and partly because I enjoyed being on the button. When the mast was open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for recreation I would climb it to sit at the top and look towards Ipswich and home. That may be why I got the job having been up there so regularly.”
“Training for the mast manning ceremony was carried out twice a week for a month before the event. The mast was manned in two columns either side of the mast. It was ascended to the beat of a drum during initial practice and then with a band the button boy set off first on his own followed by one either side who would man the cow horns, the two bars below the button. The timing had to be that the last two boys manned the lower ratlines as the button boy reached the top. The descent was carried out by sliding down the stays. On the day of the ceremony the wind was the highest ever recorded for the manning and I was given the choice of not climbing. Unless I was ordered not to there was no way I was not going up there.
Too much pride was at stake, mine and the divisions; the same went for the choice of not having to stand to take the salute. I would never have lived it down. Up there on that day I don’t think I had any fear or nerves. Fifteen-year-old boys who think they are tough sailors don’t show any fear. Having been back recently I don’t think I would fancy even going to the devils elbow never mind over it! How age changes us.”
“The rest of my time at HMS Ganges passed without any great incident and although the training was tough and uncompromising I don’t think it was brutal or cruel, but a good and necessary ground base for what was then quite a hard life at sea. I left Ganges July 1965 and served on HMS Aisne, Forth, Dido, Mauritius, Mermaid, and Rhyl, finishing as a Petty Officer on HMS Antrim in the Falklands War. I left the Royal Navy in June 1983.”
Gwyn was the first Ipswich lad to be button boy at HMS Ganges. He was watched by his parents Thomas and Nell Charlton. Mrs Charlton said after the ceremony “I was shaking like a leaf; I was never so relieved as when he started to come down”. Gwyn’s father, a railway passenger guard, said back in 1965 “It was the proudest day of my life. I felt much better when he came down”.
Mr F Garrett from South Shields, Tyne and Wear said “I joined the Royal Navy in 1949 as an ordinary seaman for 12 years. Although I was never stationed at Ganges I had to go there for my first medical, travelling from Ipswich, my home town. I was there for several hours and underwent a very rigorous medical. At 12 noon I was led to the sick bay for my dinner. In the sick bay were three boys in bed and looking thoroughly miserable".
"My dinner arrived and compared to mum’s cooking it was very much like pig swill. I pushed it to one side in disgust and like a shot the boys jumped out of bed and devoured it in seconds. I guess they must have been starving.”
“Several years later I was once again back at Ganges for an eye test when my ship HMS Rinaldo, a minesweeper, was operating from there. The sick bay and its atmosphere hadn’t changed a bit, very intimidating.”
Mr R Whitman of Tissington, Ashbourne added “We were taught that bullying and lying were not an option. I was proud to serve in the royal navy and proud to be a Ganges Boy. There are still over 50 thousand around the world and the majority I’m sure feel the same. Most of the boys who were at Shotley during 1949-50 went on to serve in Korea and into the cold war. Several shipmates who were at Ganges at this time are still in touch.”‘Dusty’ Miller in Marton, New Zealand said
“I joined HMS Ganges as a 15 year old in January 1950. I joined the Annexe at Shotley in January 1950 arriving via London. We were given a meal of fish and chips which were cold and greasy, but being young hungry lads we ate the lot. We were led to the different mess decks and stopped at the bottom of the beds where we were given a card which had our number on it. We were then told to strip off, to some this was a very embarrassing moment, we then wrapped a towel round us and, armed with a bar of “Pussers Hard” soap we had to dash across the parade ground to the showers, I remember one side was almost boiling and the other freezing. When we went out the door, the Chief P.O. inspected us ‘very closely’ if you know what I mean! Some did not pass the first inspection. One poor lad from a coal mining town in the north was eventually scrubbed down with a hard scrubber. He ran away three times in his pyjamas and was discharged after about four weeks. One day the physical training instructor came into the mess, blew his whistle and then announced, “You've all volunteered for the boxing, good luck” we were all condemned to three minutes of beating the hell out of each other, like it or not. After hours and hours of squad drill, we had aptitude tests and I was nominated as a telegraphist. Then came the big day, we marched to the main establishment to become real sailors.”
“I went to Collingwood Division which was situated right next to the parade ground straight opposite the drill hall. The parquet floor, or deck, as I soon learned to say, and the dining area deck were snow white. It was not long before I knew why. Each morning before breakfast we had to polish the deck and scrub the dining area, no fancy floor polishers for us, just elbow grease. Breakfast usually consisted of porridge, and “train smash”, which was what we called bacon in tomatoes or sausage in tomatoes; I can’t remember what we called that one. Then we all fell in and marched onto the parade ground before leaving for our classes, always at the double.”
“As a boy telegraphist our main instruction was based around the Morse code, which we eventually became very proficient at thanks to our instructor Jack ‘Buzz’ Waspe, who was one of the less ruthless instructors around at the time.”
“The gunnery instructors were ruthless and some were masochistic. As a boy telegrapher, we did less squad drill; consequently we were quite often picked on by these guys. For an hour each night during dinner we were not allowed talk to each other, but had to communicate with “dits and dahs” anyone caught not doing that was made to read extra Morse tests during time off. Signalmen had to talk to each other via a flashing light rigged up in the dining area. Lights out was 9 pm and anyone caught talking after this time was dealt with severely. Two of the boys in our mess were caught talking about 10.30 pm by a night patrol heard through the open window. All of a sudden the lights went on, the rubbish bins were banged loudly until everyone was awake, then we all had to go outside in pyjamas, boots, oilskins and double march to the quarter deck where we stood to attention for about an hour while the officer of the day decided what should be done. It was decided that at 5am we would all muster at the mast with shorts and singlets, but no shoes and go up the mast. When we came down we had to frog march round the parade ground for about half an hour, it was a cold frosty morning. This was before we did our normal cleaning etcetera before breakfast, happy days!”
“When we spent our three shillings and sixpence pocket money it was normally on bars of chocolate or other such luxuries. We were not allowed to smoke and some of the boys would go up the mast so they did not have to share with others.”
“We passed out at the required Morse code speed of twenty five words per minute. My first ship was in dry dock in Chatham dockyard, a bit disappointing but we eventually made it to sea and I am forever grateful for my stint at Ganges preparing me for life in the real Navy. The old Ganges camaraderie still exists.” (‘Pussers hard’ is naval slang for carbolic soap.)