An account of HMS VERNON (R)

 

 

PART TWO - LIFE AT VERNON (R)

 

Many ratings arriving at Roedean School thought the place looked gothic and creepy, as they looked up at the imposing buildings from the sentry post at the gates. Large proportions of these men were fresh out of basic training and were still wet behind the ears, while seasoned hands found Roedean a big change. The navy still used hammocks, both at sea and in many cases ashore, slung in large communal spaces, each man carried his own hammock from ship to ship as a part of his personal kit. The small rooms (three men to a room) and single ‘cabins’, all with bunks that formed the accommodation at Roedean were an unheard of luxury.

 

It is rumoured that the first batch of trainees to be billeted at Roedean received a rude awakening after eagerly pressing a small button found above every student's bed – a small label carried the legend 'Press if you need a mistress for any reason during the night'. After the bell at the other end had been rung to near destruction and the members of the duty watch had been driven mad, the only person to arrive in response to their requests was an irate Chief Petty Officer promising unmentionable consequences for touching the button ever again! The buttons were subsequently disconnected!

 

Officers attending VERNON for courses could be billeted ‘ashore’ in Brighton, Rottingdean or other local villages, some married men brought their wives down to join them.

 

Besides the Naval personnel of HMS VERNON there was a large number of civilian staff, some were hired locally to fill domestic positions, others such as Draughtsmen moved from Portsmouth with the establishment and lodged in the local area. In Portsmouth many of these men had been a part of their local Home Guard unit and they were eagerly welcomed into the ranks of the Rottingdean Home Guard by their Commanding Officer Colonel Percy Filkins, M.C., a local farmer from Ovingdean. Ratings from VERNON helped out on Colonel Filkins’ farm on occasion, including harvest time.

 

 

Colonel Percy Filkins M.C. hands out refreshments to ratings from Vernon (R) at the Vale, Ovingdean during harvesting.

Local relations - a helping hand. Ratings from VERNON help Ovingdean farmer Percy Filkins with the harvest and earn a welcome refreshment break. Photo from author's collection/

 


Sport

Games and organised sports helped VERNON (R) to keep a good liaison with the neighbouring naval establishments – HMS King Alfred at Hove and Lancing and HMS Marlborough at Eastbourne College, the Canadian and British Army units stationed around Brighton, and the National Fire Service School at Rottingdean. Hockey, cricket and tennis, saw the games fields at Roedean put to good use. Several officers took in part in hockey matches, with the Wrens fielding a team which gave them some good matches. It is not clear whether there was a VERNON (R) football team but he ratings did ‘knock about a football’ in their brief spells of spare time, usually between finishing meals and mustering to march off for instruction. Often some of the local girls who worked at VERNON joined in the kick about; 93 year old Miss Laurie Hollands of Ovingdean recalls how they would rush to finish their duties in time to join in with the lads. Roedean School also had a swimming pool which went some way to making up for the beach being off limits, being both wired and mined.

 

 

The Wardroom staff at HMS VERNON, the Officers Stewards and Cooks and general domestic staff.  C. 1943 Click on the image to enlarge it.

Photo: courtesy Mr. Nick Lade.

 

 

 

Daily routine

Instruction was given Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings, involving marching six or seven hundred men into the workshops in and around Brighton twice a day for instruction and back, some as far away as the Dreadnought Garage site in Hove. The daily routine was quite intensive, consisting of – breakfast, classes, lunch, classes, tea, classes, and dinner. There was little free time other than Saturday afternoon and Sunday. After Sunday Divisions some of the men would to go to Neville House, a family hotel at Black Rock (164 -165 Marine Parade Brighton) for tea, biscuits and a read of the Sunday papers. Other popular off duty pastimes in Brighton included ice skating, attending the Hippodrome theatre, and dances at the Dome or at the Regent Ballroom.

 

 

The Captain addresses the men & women of Vernon (R) during divisions. Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN

The Captain addresses the men & women of VERNON (R) during divisions.

Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN

 

 

A number of those who served at HMS VERNON were locals, young women recruited to fill posts in the various sites as ‘immobile Wrens’ – enlisted into the WRNS but for service only in a specified area around their home. These Wrens wore the same uniform as regular WRNS and had the same duties and responsibilities but they lived at home and could not be drafted outside their home area. Jobs filled by ‘immobile’ Wrens included cooks, stewards, typists and store clerks. Wren Steward Lois Lade (nee Price) was one such ‘immobile wren’ she enlisted in November 1941 for work in the Brighton area and was allocated to HMS VERNON the following month for duties as a Wardroom Steward. She cycled the 2 miles from her home in Mayo Road to Roedean every day. In 1945 she was promoted to Leading Wren Steward (O) and married Rifleman Christopher Lade of the Royal Sussex Regiment on VJ Day.

 

 

 

The WRNS personnel of HMS Vernon at Roedean C. summer of 1945

The WRNS personnel of HMS VERNON (R)) - 91 ratings, 14 SNCOs, and 8 Officers. C. summer of 1945

Click on the image to enlarge it. Photo: courtesy Mr. Nick Lade.

 

 


In March 1944 the establishment received a Royal visitor when Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent came to inspect the Wrens and stayed to lunch at John Howard House. Miss Tanner, the Headmistress of Roedean School, was a frequent visitor to HMS VERNON (R), for ‘tours of inspection’; she took the threats of the RN returning to visit after the war - to see if the place was as clean as a girls’ school as it was as a naval establishment - in her stride. She was a popular guest, so much so that on September 6th 1944 she was invited to take the salute at the weekly march past of divisions, Miss Tanner carried it off with great distinction.

 

 

Captain H. E. Morse, RN DSO greets HRH Princess Marina of Greece, Duchess of Kent, on her arrival at Roedean in March 1944.  She was attending  in her capacity as Chief Commandant of the W.R.N.S to inspect the Wrens. Photo: courtesy Mr. Nick Lade.

 


There were two marriages held at Roedean during the naval occupation. Electrical Artificer Jack Parsons and Leading Torpedoman Felix McClusky marrying Wrens that they had met while attending courses at VERNON (R); Felix married Dorothy in 1942 while Jack married Violet in 1943.

 

Enemy Action and Local Defence

HMS VERNON (R) made for an easy target for enemy aircraft and its proximity to the beach gave cause for concern; armed sentries patrolled the perimeter of the site day and night, whilst the duty watch manned sentry posts at entrances. The various instructional sites in the town also had sentries posted, a duty which fell to junior rates at the establishment - at least once during their time there, trainees being utilised as security manpower when not under instruction. The threats of attack from a U-Boat landing party was taken seriously, and regular exercises were held against this eventuality- luckily none ever materialised. During early 1944 the Army Divisional Commander, Lieutenant General Montgomery, visited HMS Vern on to advice on the defences; he had a few words for the VERNON civilians who he had encountered when they were on Home Guard sentry duty.

 

There were few instances of enemy action affecting HMS VERNON with the exception of ‘tip and run’ aircraft attacks, machinegun rounds and cannon shells caused some casualties. One rating was killed whilst he sat in the canteen at St. Dustan’s, hit be a single stray bullet from a machinegun, another was injured when he was hit in the knee by a cannon shell, this chap was lucky, the shell failed to detonate, he recovered in hospital. Bomb damage to Marine Gate saw two fatalities, a Sub-Lieutenant, and an officer’s wife were killed in one of many raids which damaged the block of flats; the building was eventually deemed unsafe later in the war and evacuated until repairs could be made.


May 25th 1943 – Brighton’s worst Air Raid

 

One of the VERNON (R) civilian Draughtsmen went missing early on the afternoon of May 25th 1943, he had been walking on the cliff after lunch but was never seen again; this was the day of a major air raid on Brighton and it was feared that the man was hit by enemy fire and fell into the sea. At just after noon, Captain Egerton, who was due to be relieved by Captain Harold Morse, RN DSO on June 4th, was on the Quarterdeck along with the ship’s officers gathering for a group photograph to mark his leaving. While the assembled officers were being lined up for the shot the air-raid siren went of. No one took any notice until they saw about a dozen planes flying due west, below the level of the cliff at wave top height, heading towards Brighton. The group scattered as another dozen aircraft which had approached the back of the school over the downs roared over them; these were so low that the colour of the bombs in the racks could be clearly seen. There were a few cannon shell fired as they sped past but no casualties were incurred at Roedean.

 

Fire crews and rescue workers assess the damage to the Marine Gate block of flats after it was damaged by enemy bombing. Image reproduced courtesy of Royal Pavilion, Libraries & Museums, Brighton & Hove

 

The daylight raid by 25 enemy aircraft was over in just six minutes - twenty four people died and over 130 were injured in Brighton’s worst bombing raid of the war. The nearest bombs to Roedean School hit the Black Rock gasworks setting gas attenuators ablaze. Preston Park Pullman Workshops were damaged and London Road viaduct was also hit bringing south coast rail traffic to a halt and several residential areas were hit by bombs. One attacker, a Focke-Wulf 190 was shot down by 8 Battery, 2 Canadian Heavy Anti Aircraft Regiment sited on the Roedean golf course just west of Roedean School, the aircraft crashed into the sea at 12:22 pm. There was one fatality from amongst HMS VERNON's personnel when Mr. Percy Shakespeare, a celebrated artist from Dudley working for the RN as a civilian draughtsman, disappeared. Percy was walking alone on the cliffs at the time of the attack and never returned, it was presumed that he had fallen into the sea in a freak accident and drowned.



‘Doodle bugs’

The other airborne threat to approach from the sea was the V1 “Doodle bugs” or “Buzz bombs” which began to fly over from northern France beginning on June 13th 1944. Although none fell to earth at any HMS VERNON site (one did fall on Saltdean, 2 miles up the coast) they were often observed flying overhead on their way inland. Many naval ratings saw their first V1 through the windows of the St. Dunstan’s Building which offered an exceptional vantage point from its glass fronted ‘cockpit’. A Lewis machine gun was mounted on top of St. Dunstan’s and manned when V1s were heard in the hope of a lucky hit knocking one off course or destroying it.

 


D-Day

On June 6th 1944, D-Day, the flagstaff flew a No.1 White Ensign (a 9 x 11 ft flag) in honour of the men about to land on the Normandy beaches, those who were there on that day remember seeing wave after wave of ships going down the Channel on their way to France. Captain Norman Grace, who took over command of VERNON 1n September 1944, presented the Ensign to the Head Mistress of Roedean School when VERNON moved back to Portsmouth, and this was hung in the School’s chapel in a place of honour.

 

The Quarterdeck and flagstaff at Roedean with the quadrangle/parade ground in the foreground and the English Channel in the background. Photo:Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN

The Quarterdeck and flagstaff at Roedean with the quadrangle/parade ground in the foreground and the English Channel in the background. Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN

 

 

Victory in Europe – HMS VERNON returns to Portsmouth

May 8th 1945 marked the end of the war in Europe and both Roedean School and HMS VERNON turned their attention to returning to normality. The need for dispersed military bases and schools and children evacuated from the densely populated areas of war-time Britain had come to an end; June 7th 1945, was the last day of naval instruction at Roedean.

HMS VERNON began the move back to Portsmouth the next day; the operation involved ninety-two 5 ton lorry loads and was completed in just over a month. By mid July the various sites occupied around Brighton and Sussex were being cleaned up and prepared for return to heir civilian owners. Roedean was reopened as a girls' school in January 1946.

 

 



Commanding Officers
Captain Brian Egerton, RN 01.12.1939
Captain Harold Edward Morse, RN DSO 04.06.1943
Captain Norman Vere Grace, RN 19.09.1944

 

Captain Egerton and Captain Morse both retired in the 1930s with the rank of Rear Admiral and returned to active service at the outbreak of war with the reduced rank of Captain. All three officers were to hold the position of Naval ADC to King George VI.

 

-:-

 

 

The White Ensign still proudly hangs in the school chapel, the Ensign was presented to the Headmistress when the Admiralty returned the buildings to the control of the school,

Photo: Courtesy of Tony Mould,  My Brighton and Hove Community Website

 

-:-


Sources:

 

 The History Centre, Royal Pavilion, Libraries & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Thanks to Mr. Kevin Bacon, Curator of Photographs

 

Mine warfare & Clearance Diving Officers' Association www.mcdoa.org.uk

Thanks to Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN, Vice Chairman & Webmaster

 

A history of Marine Gate, Brighton www.marinegatebrighton.com

 

The wardroom mess committee of HMS VERNON (1956) 'HMS VERNON 1930-1955' Portsmouth

War Diary, 2nd Canadian Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, May 1943,. printed in The Times, LONDON, 26 May 43

 

Moore, J. (1998) ‘Memories of Roedean, the first 100 years’ Seaford, S.B. Publications

 

Rowland, D. (2003) 'Out of the Blue: The story of Brighton's worst air raid ' Brighton, Finsbury Publishing

 

Warlow, B. (2000) Shore Establishments of the Royal Navy (Second Edition) Liskeard, Maritime Books

 

| TOP | PAGE 1 |

Copyright  Tony Drury 2005


Comments

No comments yet.

Add Comment

  Click to refresh the page after posting your comment or to hide the form