Remembering the Aircraft Maintenance Carrier H.M.S. PIONEER
By Telegraphist Anthony Balch
I joined HMS Pioneer at Barrow-in-Furness at the Vickers Armstrong Dockyard where she was being commissioned for sea trails. As I remember this was on Tuesday the 3rd of January 1945 following my return from embarkation leave from the Isle of Man. My warrant was made out for Barrow-in-Furness to join HMS Pioneer for sea trials, to prepare the ship for repairs and maintenance of aircraft from operational carriers at sea or overseas. We were also to receive and secure aircraft and stores to make the unit fully operational.
We did not know that at that time the ship was still under dockyard control. We had no idea of how many crew were aboard at that time. There were some, with around thirty Fleet Air Arm personnel, just a skeleton crew to locate where the main planes (wings) were to be lifted and secured to the bulkheads.
During this initial period the ship was carrying on with trials, which took place mainly in the Irish sea until around 12 Feb 1945 when I understand that the Pioneer received her Commission. This fitted in with our moving to our permanent mess deck, which was to be our new home during our commission. If I remember right most of our messmates came in one group. Hammock spaces and lockers were selected by mutual agreement, initial supplies collected from Pusser’s stores, and mess cooks arranged according to duty or non-duty watch.
PIONEER during her trials February 1945
The following morning we were designated our jobs, which could be changed from time to time to suit requirements. There were some jobs that involved all of the ship’s company. Our first call was at Belfast to collect a squadron of Barracudas, plus other items such as engines and undercarriages to start our main parts list. From there we went to Greenock for more cargo, then round Scapa Flow to Rosyth where we heard on the radio that we had been sunk on the way through Scapa. Some jokers applied for “survivors leave” but they were refused with a smile and a “not this time lads”. I’ve no idea why we went to Rosyth for by now we were approaching our sailing date. First, we had to go back to Birkenhead into dry dock for a bottom scrape before starting out for the Pacific. Our needs attended it is now April. Time to go.
Our first rendezvous was with a convoy in the north Atlantic, sail towards the USA for around three days, turn south to a predestined point, turn east and sail on to Gibraltar. There was a reported sighting of a submarine and we were alert for a while. Depth charges were dropped by the escorts and some by the Pioneer from aft of the oxygen plant. Luckily it was probably a false alarm but no chances were taken and we just sailed into Gibraltar.
On our approach to Gibraltar we had another incident when it was decided to put out a rowing crew for boat drill. While preparing to lower the cutter a shackle either broke or came loose and one end dropped. As it fell it trapped one of the crew between the transom and the seat he was sitting on. By the time he was freed he needed to be operated on and due to a medical condition had to be transferred ashore. That was the last we saw of him.
After putting our shipmate ashore the rowing duty was cancelled and we continued through the Mediterranean to Port Said, which was our first official stop. We arrived mid-morning and laid at anchor as we had missed the morning tide and the sailing schedule for the Suez Canal. We had to pick up stores and fresh fruit so we were allowed a run ashore. The non-duty watch, a Petty Officer, myself and messmate Tom Friar were sent ashore on duty at two “out of bounds” shows, which were listed as “exhibition” or “exhibish” as they were known. Why I don’t know because they were just a couple of acrobats. My mate was on duty outside a Cinema, which also fitted that category. The truth is I got a bit cheesed off and asked the PO if I could go and have a chat with him. The PO looked down the road and everything seemed calm enough so he said ”why not” but don’t stay long in case someone asks where you are. Anyway, along I went, had a chat and was returning to my post. I was strolling up the road and about 15 yards from the PO when up screams a Naval Patrol in a jeep, they order me to get in. I tried to tell them that I was on patrol and returning to my place of duty. They told me not to argue and get in so I did as I was told and they drove me the other few yards to the PO. They told me that if I had turned off down one of the side roads it would have been fatal. Had that happened they would not have ventured down there till the next day and picked up what was left. Not being conversant with Port Said I just thanked them and carried on. Anyway, it was noon then so we just went back on board off duty and watch ashore.
Port Said held another surprise for me. On going ashore some kid whipped a ten bob note from my back pocket. He was gone like a bat out of hell. A lesson learned the hard way. I can’t recall what we did other than have a few photos taken but we didn’t go back till the last liberty boat, which I believe was an LST.
Just as we were about to leave the jetty two or three officers and the Padre hailed the coxswain who held firm, the Padre came to the jetty and leapt on to the starboard bulkhead, ran along aft and spoke to the Cox. Next thing we pulled away from the jetty stern first for turning space, went forward towards the ship, suddenly turned in to the jetty at the rear of the Hotel. The Padre was still on the bulkhead but up at the prow. As the LST approached the jetty the Padre leapt ashore and raced across the courtyard climbed into a Jeep, raced to the point where the LST was approaching. Just as the LST touched the jetty the Jeep rolled onto the LST and we drew smartly away. Now the pioneer had an American Jeep. I believe it stayed with us for the whole of our commission. The following morning, we waited for the canal to clear. It wasn’t long before we were on our way to the Bitter lakes where we waited for clearance through the second section of the canal to Port Suez.
After laying up overnight due to missing our place we were ready and waiting to take our place in the queue through the Suez Canal. Once we set sail those who were off watch and had no duties were free to roam the ship. As most of our aircraft and all the spares were new in preparation for the setting up of the forward aircraft pool at Pityilu off Manus we had no duties and, opportunity only knocks once so we set off on a tour. On reaching the flight deck our first sight was of a Dow, which had set up shop. At the time we thought that they had climbed aboard and dragged up the Dow. We have since learned that it was common practice to load a Dow fore and aft on standby to run out the hawsers to tie up alongside when two ships were passing. They were only paid peanuts and set up shop to make a few ackers flogging “rabbits” to the crews. There were some good bargains in leather handbags.
While mooching around I looked over the desert and saw a Liner followed by a Cargo ship sailing across the skyline in a northerly direction. Talk about “ships of the desert.” We were told that they were sailing up the Nile to the Med.
We continued on to the Bitter Lakes where we disembarked the passengers who catch the next boat back to carry out the same duties. As soon as part of the canal was cleared, we continued on to Aden or thereabouts. Another short break and a run ashore. It looked a barren place but, out of nowhere, came a taxi, which took us up to a road, which appeared to have been cut through the rock. Winding its way up to the top where it opened up into a crater like area. It was like an extinct volcano and we christened it “Crater City”. Strangely enough I still don’t know its name but it was home to the local inhabitants. There was practically nothing of interest so it was a quick walk around and back on board. Luckily, we were back for “Up Spirits” and then off again through the Red Sea, over to Trincomalee with an overnight stay in the harbour.
It seems strange but I never seemed to worry about the time or date. Two days later we received a signal telling us that the war was over in Europe on the 8th May 1945. “Splice the Main brace” Happy days. We were pleased to hear that kind of news. We sailed on to Freemantle where we received a welcoming gift off the Australian people made up of fresh fruit and various other titbits. A very welcome surprise. Ironically, I thought for a brief moment. “The European war is over and here I am sailing into another one”, Strangely enough I can honestly say that I felt comfortable and contented with my life.
We were then on our way to Sydney and another welcome and enjoyed a few more days ashore to stock up on supplies and fuel. We then entered dry dock for a bottom scrape as we were expected to remain at our next station for a considerable time. We were due to set sail to the forward pool for the Fleet train, under the Commodore’s flag at Pityilu, which was an American built airstrip. We arrived on 10th June.
PIONEER in Sydney c. June 1934
Our duties there were to repair and swap wrecks at Ponam which we were told was 2 degrees south of the Equator. During our time there I have no recollection of any aircraft flying off that airstrip up to the time after the Japanese capitulated on the 15th August 1945.
A couple of days later we set sail for Hong Kong to take up armed patrol duties. While en route we were given a refresher course on arms and ammunition. Our main concentration was on sten guns and revolvers, which were carried out on the flight deck. The forward flagstaff carried targets for the pistol shooting; the sten guns were just fired over the port side of the ship. The targets were any fish that came within range. On arrival in Hong Kong we had a brief run ashore. The China Fleet Club was in a poor state but at least it was open and I was told it was an honoured temple.
Day 2 about a dozen or so, including myself, were stationed ashore. We were billeted in an annexe between the Government building and the Armoury, which was surprisingly amply stocked with brand new short Lee Enfield 303 rifles still wrapped in the manufacturer’s grease paper. We were, in effect, the armed guard until the surrender was finally signed. There were also Japanese rifles, bayonets and literally thousands of rounds of wooden bullets. During the Declaration of Peace we took them out of the armoury and sat firing them off into the air. Afterwards we were given permission to retain those same arms to take as keepsakes provided we obtained a docket, which gave permission. Some of the lads were selling them to the yanks for 75 dollars HK. The HK dollar averaged 13 to £1.00 sterling at that time.
We were later transferred to West Point in Hong Kong, which was a warehouse area. Also nearby was the future Governor’s private house. Our tour of duty was to patrol the area and occasionally the warehouses that were also close to the docks, which were the landing area for ferries and Sampans. They appeared to come from all over the region but that was not under our jurisdiction so we left well alone.
Our duties there finished on 29th November when we went back aboard, we sailed next day for Sydney. One of the dates I do remember is spending my 21st birthday on fire watch duty. Never mind it was the first stage of heading for home. Who could be sad at a time like that?
While we were on route to Sydney we received a signal to make a detour to a place called Torokia where a volcano was about to erupt and a group of ANZACS were in danger of being trapped when it erupted. We had orders to go and collect them and take them to Sydney with us. Who could refuse? When they came aboard there were camp beds everywhere. Even in the Cafeteria, which had hardly been used as we opted to have mess deck catering. There was a buzz going round the ship that the French had said we should receive the Burma star for our action. This was politely refused on the grounds that we already had the Pacific Star, which already covered the action taken.
Onwards to Sydney, to the Harbour bridge where we were first positioned, to be towed stern first into Woolloomooloo. The first picture was taken with the ships Company lining the main deck and the ANZACS were lining up on the bows heading for picture No 2 when the tide chose to go to sea complete with the tug and the Pioneer at it’s mercy. That’s when the Skipper said “Oh no we won’t, we’ve only just come in”. So, he shot a line to the shore that was in turn attached to a hawser to the forward capstan and winched the ship to shore and safely delivered a precious cargo home. Another good reason for another photograph. Hence downtown Sydney.
On reaching Sydney we set about looking for the girls we had met on our previous visit. We visited the restaurant where they worked and luckily they were there, happy to see us again so we started dating, just as friends, not knowing how long we would be staying in Sydney. Anyway, an invite to Norma’s home for Christmas was accepted.
Everything seemed all right until the 23rd December. We returned aboard on the evening liberty boat, collected our pass cards back in the Mess. I removed my cap, emptied my pockets into it along with everything else, undressed, slung my hammock and turned in, not realising that I had left my cap on the mess deck table. Next morning, I got up put on my slacks, washed and dressed, came back and slung my hammock, breakfasted, then went to my locker for my cap to report on duty.
Panic. One missing cap complete with pay book, PP card and my small change.
Everyone on the mess deck was asked if they had picked it up and stowed it by mistake. No chance. I was in trouble and I had to report my loss to the Jaunty’s office. Only one option. Captain’s Report. With it being Christmas Eve it was goodbye to any up-homers or shore leave for the foreseeable future. All I could do was take things as they came.
Next day I was up and about, not very happy with things. I didn’t know then but lady luck was on my side. The lads had decided to make me rum bosun to soften up the day. Came “up spirits” I went for my Mess issue of 9 tots, 2 temp and 2 UA. [9 eligible to take the tot, 2 temperance & 2 under age]
As each shipmate collected his tot, all except one, which was mine, had a sip and then tipped the rest of his tot back into the rum fanny. I thanked everyone and proceeded to demolish two half pints from a mess cup. The rum bosun from the next mess gave me another cup and half went down as sweet as a nut. Then a Brummie from the next mess asked me if I wanted more. I said” hang on Brum I’ll get a cup” He replied “you don’t need a cup, drink it out of the fanny”.
By then I was getting the taste so I stood in the middle of the mess deck and they clapped and cheered while I drank another inch of rum. “Merry Christmas to everyone” I was still singing when the Killock of the mess came in and told me that he had my cap and documents. I found e few prime words to say and call him. All he said was “Forget it. Never mind the compliments, let’s get up to the Jaunty’s office and get the charges scrubbed. The Jaunty’s RPO took me straight up to the Wardroom, asked to see the Duty Officer who immediately scrubbed all charges. Looking at his watch he said, “You’ve missed the liberty boat”, “Yes Sir”. He then said, “Can you get washed and changed in half an hour. “Yes sir”, “Right be back here washed and dressed at 1300 hrs I will allow you ashore on the Officers Liberty boat. “ Thank you Sir”.
I went below washed and changed in record time and returned to the Quarter Deck where he scanned me, told me to “ Pull your collar tidy, tie your ribbons, square your cap, Wait here till the Officers are aboard, get aboard in the after end and no smoking”. The Cox said, “Don’t worry about that”. He swung the wheel to port and did a U turn round the stern and said “Up pipes and away to the Man-o-war steps
Although I was still inebriated I was free of all charges and once ashore made my way to Wyndhurst Station, which was close to Circular Quay, got my train and was on my way to Burwood, my first step to Concord. I was in an empty apartment so I put my cap on the bench seat and went out like a light. Fortunately, I woke up as the train pulled in to Burwood Station. I got up, walked out of the station crossed the road, jumped on a bus and five minutes later my hosts were greeting me for Christmas dinner. On my return aboard the next day no animosity had spilled over. We just carried on our duties. In my case no harm had been done to anyone.
We didn’t get to see the girls again as we were making ready to sail to Melbourne on the start of our voyage back home.
At Melbourne we picked up a valuable cargo of Gold waiting for us to take home to Britain. I’ve no idea of the weight or value but it was stored in the hanger just aft of the forward aircraft lift and took up an area of around about 100 square feet in one layer.
The members of 37 mess HMS PIONEER: Albert is middle row far right
The following morning a photographer was allowed on board to take photographs of groups of Messmates as groups set up on the jetty, about amidships. We were allowed to purchase copies. Someone has asked about photos but these were the only ones that I know of.
We were allowed ashore and Roddy, a messmate of mine had been told that he had relatives in Melbourne. We looked through all of the telephone directories for his name and also rang some of them to no avail. Later on in the evening one of them rang and said that, although they were not related, would we care to go and have a drink with them out of courtesy? Roddy and I had a chat with them but couldn’t find a link. We thanked them and went back on board.
Next morning we were on our way to Singapore where we docked in the Straights Settlement. I received a letter from my sister saying that her husband was on board the HMS Assistance, which was said to be in the Straights. I made a request to visit the ship. No luck so it was just a “Pee up” in an army canteen.
Sometime in that region we had a “Crossing the Line” ceremony. Then on to the Red Sea, through Suez and the Med to Gibraltar for a last run ashore.
There was apparently a bit of a ruckus between some of our lads and some Yanks due to a misunderstanding over a cap and we were sent out with the Liberty boat to escort our lads back on board. On our last leg to Liverpool one rating was caught smuggling a few fags. Sadly, this was my last task on Pioneer, as shortly after that I went with a baggage party to Leeds for my demob suit, a warrant back to Brum, and home to Civvy Street.
Fare ye well Shipmates.
ALBERT E TUCKER
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