It was with some trepidation I presented myself in October 1943 for a medical examination as demanded by my conscription papers. The M.O. was not flattering. I had flat feet, therefore useless for the army, the glamour boys of the forces, the R.A.F., was oversubscribed so the only hope for me was the Royal Navy. Even this was far from straightforward. I was colour blind which excluded me from being a signalman. If I couldn’t tell what the colours of the flags meant, there’s no knowing what impossible manoeuvre the other ships may be commanded to perform.

Ultimately, I boarded the small wooden minesweeper which had no name, just MMS 109 (MMS standing for Motor Mine Sweeper) based in Queenborough, Isle of Sheppey, as a fully paid up telegraphist. Along with all communication ratings I lost my true identity. I immediately became “Sparks” to my shipmates whereas signalmen were known as bunting tossers or more familiarly “Bunts”. The mission of our modest vessel along with others in this particular branch of the patrol service was to blow up magnetic mines aft (that’s at the back) hence the wooden ships, acoustic mines for’ard, and have a good go at any floating mines we may come across. If they all went off together, we’d be in a right state. Mind you, we did manage exploding a magnetic mine and an acoustic mine almost simultaneously which landed us in dry docks for extensive repairs.

In early 1945 we received orders to proceed to the River Scheldt to clear the shipping lanes to ensure supplies reaching our advancing armies on the continent. First time we were chugging along at a full 9 knots when a couple of German aircraft introduced themselves to us. Urgent signals flooded the air waves from ship to base and back again telling us to beat a hasty retreat as a small air base on one of the nearby islands was still being a nuisance.

About a month later we set off again and happily berthed in the east harbour at Terneuzen in Holland. Our arrival had all the residents of the little town gathering on the quayside to greet us. What a lovely people they turned out to be. One thin, old fellow was extremely interested, so much so that on impulse he was invited to step aboard and have a look around. Below deck dirty plates indicated we had just finished our lunch. I noticed that the old chap was giving scant attention to the words of wisdom emanating from one of the crew but was viewing the remnants of food before him with great envy. For some reason I cleared the table and took the dishes into the galley. I was messman for the day and normally I would have washed them in a bucket in the mess itself. Instead I found a clean plate and arranged all the bits and pieces of meat and vegetables as best I could into something resembling a meal. Together with knife and fork I placed the makeshift meal in front of old man signalling him to sit down and tuck in. Cold as it was, he tackled the victuals with tremendous relish. We watched in silence. As he almost scraped the pattern off the plate to ensure not a single morsel escaped, he directed an expression of joyous gratitude toward us well-fed matelots. It was one of the most humbling episodes never to be forgotten.

Bill Hutchings