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The View from the Captain's Cabin

 Admiral Sir Derek Reffell, Sirius's first captain


  The first Flight Commander, Brian Skinner, was a big man, too tall, one might have thought, to fit into a Wasp helicopter – which he did manage – but certainly too tall for the bunk originally designed for the Flight Commander’s cabin! Luckily, this was discovered in good time, so that Portsmouth Dockyard could lengthen the bunk. There are two deductions from this: firstly Sirius Wasp had the shortest endurance in the Fleet because, with the pilot’s weight, it could take less fuel; and secondly, the Flight Commander expected to spend plenty of time in his bunk! 

There are other disadvantages for a large pilot too - during one exercise crash on deck in the Indian Ocean the slightly-built fireman, dressed in a fearnought suit, bravely fought through the pretend flames, cut the pilot out of his harness, pulled the pilot out of the "wreck", and promptly collapsed under his weight. The flight deck crew was treated to the sight of the flight commander crawling on hands and knees to the safety of the hangar, with the fireman crawling along underneath him! Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a photograph of the occasion.

 Having just about finished our Acceptance trials and part IV programme, we spent a night alongside South Railway Jetty before going to Portland for work-up. As I sat having breakfast next morning, I heard a terrific bang, and the whole hull twanged like a Jew’s harp! It was HMS Minerva, manoeuvring to go alongside HMS Phoebe ahead of us, which had struck our port quarter with significant way on. The result was a long gash in the ship’s side in, I think, the Mortar Handling Room. It took several weeks to repair, weeks of extreme frustration at being prevented at the very last moment from becoming operational. My opinion of Minerva was unprintable – and was not improved during our Portland time when she fouled the range for a Seacat firing just as everything was falling into place after many delays!

 On our way to the Far East, we crossed the line before taking up the Beira Patrol. The Ceremony went very well, under the direction of King Neptune, otherwise Brian Skinner. The Gunnery Officer, Peter Goodman, organised all the Crossing the Line Certificates which he brought to me for signature in batches. After seven or eight batches – and probably not in a good mood for some reason – I grumpily said to him ‘I seem to spend my time signing Certificates for everybody else, but no --- has signed one for me!’ To my shame, next day he brought me my Certificate, signed by every member of the Ship’s Company! It remains a treasured possession and I see it every day – framed and hanging in our downstairs ‘loo’!!

 Everyone will remember our visit to Tonga for the King’s Coronation and that the Duke and Duchess of Kent were there as the Queen’s representatives. They were to come on board in the evening after the big firework display and I tried to produce a programme for them which would allow as many as possible of the Ship’s Company to meet, or at least see, them. But their time was short. The Wardroom could dine them (on Chinese chow, since we had Chinese Cooks and they had recently left Hong Kong), the Senior Rates could have drinks with them on the Flight Deck before dinner, but the best I could dream up for Junior Rates was to parade a volunteer Guard, which the Duke agreed to inspect, even though it was well outside the approved hours for Guards. The firework display, given by Sirius and an Australian destroyer, was a great success, punctuated by audible Oohs and Aahs from crowds watching from the shore a mile or so away. The Duke and Duchess arrived very quickly after the display was over. Unfortunately, fall-out from the fireworks had set fire to the Flight Deck awning, only extinguished by soaking it with a hose from the fire main. Hence Their Royal Highnesses, the Guard and the Chiefs’ and POs’ drinks party were subjected to a near monsoon of drips from the soaked awning! Nobody seemed to mind terribly, and I think everybody concerned enjoyed the visit.

 We acquired lots of brownie points in Wellington by agreeing to give Miss New Zealand a flight in our helicopter, the RNZAF and RNZN having reneged on a similar undertaking. Unwittingly, we scored extra points by ruling that she must not wear nylon next to the skin – because of its disastrous effect if burnt. As she was also Miss Wool, this went down very well and the whole thing was a PR coup. Unfortunately, this did not escape the notice of Comfef, who sent for me on our return to Singapore. Giving flights to unauthorised people, and especially women, was specifically forbidden and I therefore incurred the Admiral’s displeasure, succinctly expressed on paper! However, as I left his office, he took most of the sting out of the reproof by saying that he thought he would have done the same himself!

 When we arrived in Portland for work-up, FOST, Admiral Crawford, told me how important a first commission was because it seemed to set the tone which tended to persist for the whole future of the ship. I think he was right, though goodness knows why, except that perhaps people due to join hear about it and are therefore in the right frame of mind when arriving. I thought we achieved a pretty happy ship – I would think that, though, wouldn’t I? – but I am reassured because some other old ‘Dog Stars’ seem to think the same. I was very lucky to have such a good Ship’s Company: ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’! I have many happy memories of that Commission, and will always be delighted to meet and chat with anybody from the first Commission.

 By coincidence, I twice had the pleasure of assessing the ship later: in the Falklands, after the war, when I took passage from Illustrious to Stanley and flew my flag in her in 1982; and again ten years later, when she called at Gibraltar and I was invited to visit her. Of course, materially she had changed considerably, but I felt that those on board were worthy successors to those of us in the first Commission.

Surrey, December 2003



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