Extract from Leonard Harris's unpublished
book on his navy life entitled 'Without Regret' A full copy is held in the Navy museum in
H.M.S. Skipjack 30th October 1934 - 13th January 1937
30th October 1934
was on my own when joining the ship, being a relief for a leading
seaman time-expired who had already left for Pembroke and Civvy
Taking stock of my new ship and shipmates, I realised that I would be
serving with two old ships, both leading seamen. The other old
ship - Jack Hodge - had only served with me in barracks, a one time
messmate in the field gun mess. There was one other leading seaman in
the complement, a Leading Seaman R.N.V.R., originally an Edinburgh
tram conductor, but having now volunteered for one years’ active
Before sailing for Portland I was able to spend one weekend with my
wife, who, like me, was not very happy at the coming separation,
especially as we had been hoping that some period of time in barracks
would enable me to take advantage of the three week end leaves out of
four which was a feature of life at Pembroke. Normally, drafting
allowed for such a spell after a man had returned from a foreign
commission; but it wasn’t to be so for me.
The minesweeping flotilla did not carry out any fleet operations, but
proceeded to sea on three days each week in order to carry out
minesweeping exercises in West Bay; returning to harbour in time for
tea and night leave.
was coxswain of the ship’s motorboat, but as the ship usually tied up
alongside the wall each evening, the boat was put to very little use
whilst the ship was at Portland.
Two different routines were worked aboard the ships of the flotilla;
one, when they were not bound for West Bay and exercises would be
normal daily routine, but on exercise days a special mine sweeping
routine was worked; the men not going to breakfast until the ship had
got under way and the necessary preparations been made. This breakfast
usually coincided with the ship’s arrival in the Races, a turbulent
stretch of water off Portland Bill, this rather tending to make
the meal somewhat of a hazard.
Then it was “Hands to Sweeping Stations,” all available men busying
themselves with such things as Sweep Wires, Oropesas, Kites, Otter
Boards and Dan Buoys.
Suffice it to say that this was the gear necessary for bringing mines
to the surface - this being what mine sweeping was all about - the
mooring wire being severed by means of the serrations on the sweep
wire or the cutters which were attached to the Oropesa; the mine then
floating to the surface to be disposed of by gunfire.
theory a floating mine is not dangerous because the activating
mechanism, held open by the strain on the mooring wire, closes when
the strain has been taken off with the severing of this wire. It would
not do to take chances on this however; for long immersion, and the
marine incrustations resulting there from, might very well cause the
mechanism to seize up and remain open, thus making it just as lethal
as one moored below the surface.
All the time that the sweeps were out they had to be tended, the men
not having a proper dinner hour, but taking their mid-day meal a few
at a time. We were compensated for this by not having to work any
early morning routine, being allowed to lie in until well after the
usual “Guard and Steerage.
few weeks of exercises and it was back to Chatham and Christmas 
leave, when I saw my wife of three and a half months more than pleased
to see me, but feeling so lonely and deserted. We had taken an
unfurnished flat in Enfield for which the rent was thirteen shillings
per week. This had been furnished without the aid of hire purchase,
the furniture having been paid for with money saved during my foreign
things turned out, this had really been a wrong decision, for after my
Christmas leave the furniture spent more time in store than it did in
a home. Several of my shipmates had their wives staying in digs at
Portland, and having put the proposition to my wife, she being in
agreement, we decided to emulate them.
was able to obtain a bed sitting room with use of kitchen, the rent
for which was twelve shillings and sixpence per week. It was
impossible to pay both this and the rent of our flat, so the furniture
had to be put into store and the flat given up, a further outlay of
four shillings each week for the storage, and that much less for the
family exchequer; but it did mean that we were together for most
evenings and weekends.
Our arrangements still had to meet with a snag, for on the day that my
wife was to arrive, Skipjack was ordered to Portsmouth, there
to be attached to the Torpedo School for four days exercises. My wife
was met at Weymouth station by my new landlady, keeping her company
until the four days had elapsed and our plans at last
help my finances a little I decided to stop my tot and draw the three
pence per day instead: a sad wrench, but the blow softened a little by
the fact the navigating officer - a sub lieutenant - was presenting me
with a bottle of beer a day in appreciation of my doing his chart
corrections; a job which he himself should have done, but which I
apparently, could do better. Hurrah for Advanced Class!
This happy state of affairs lasted until we had been married for a
year. I was now a fully fledged leading seaman, having been confirmed
in the rating, and to lift us a little further above the bread line,
my wife had taken a job as a daily help, for which she was given her
mid-day meal and paid ten shillings per week, thus enabling us to
afford an occasional visit to the cinema at Weymouth.
Then Mussolini threw a spanner in the works, for not knowing what the
outcome of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia might be, units of the
fleet had been ordered to Alexandria, the Portland Minesweeping
Flotilla also, there being no minesweepers active with the
Having learned just a few weeks earlier that I could expect to
become a father in March I was by no means pleased at the move, but it
was the navy’s job to be mobile, and I, like many others, thought that
we would be home again long before my happy event took place.
But what a disillusionment. Eight months away, and practically the
whole of the time spent anchored in sight of the Ras-el Tin
lighthouse, which had been taken over as a signal station.
There were but two bits of excitement during this period: one when an
Italian liner caught fire in the harbour and, was gutted, the other
when a destroyer moving about the harbour was in collision with a
Sunderland flying boat which was building up speed for a take off.
Fortunately there was no loss of life, although, as can be imagined,
the flying boat was a write off.
The formation of a Fleet Club did much to relieve the monotony, and
one must be grateful to the members of the European community who gave
up their time to run it.
The club did not go down too well with the local bar owners however,
for the majority of the libertymen preferred its atmosphere to that of
the local establishments, a quiet drink and a game of tombola being
available without having to be pestered by purveyors of dirty
postcards and pornographic books; or touts offering a guided tour of
Sister Street and the brothels.
Chief and petty officers were offered a chance to visit Cairo and the
Pyramids, at their own expense of course, and had the invitation been
extended to junior ratings, it would have been beyond my pocket.
Fishing over the ship’s side became an additional pastime, there being
one type of fish, similar to a mackerel in appearance, which seemed
intent on committing suicide. All that one required was a length of
cane, a short line fitted with a hook and a supply of cigarette
papers: one of these papers was attached to the nook which was then
trailed along the surface of the water. Soon there was a bite, a
snatch, and one more fish had given up without a struggle, this doing
much to augment the supper ration.
Invitations to attend their cinema performances were extended to us by
the larger ships in company, and what with this, an occasional visit
to the Fleet Club, and the inevitable soccer matches, time moved on
without boredom becoming too apparent. As soon as my wife realised
that there was to be no early return, she had gone to stay with her
mother, and arrangements had been put in hand for her to remain there
until the birth of our baby, giving up the accommodation in Portland.
the February  I was given a scare when I received a cablegram
via Ras-el-Tin lighthouse. This was from my sister and it read -
Elsie seriously ill. Temperature 103º. Come at if humanly possible.
urgent request to be sent home on compassionate grounds did not meet
with much success, as the following dialogue will show.
First the coxswain. “Leading Seaman Harris, sir. Request to return
to U.K. on compassionate grounds - Documentary proof.”
“What proof,” asked the Captain.
“Cablegram Sir.” I replied, handing it to him.
“This is not from a doctor - Who is Florrie’?
“My sister Sir.”
“Well,” said the Captain, “Cable your sister and tell her that we
must hear from the doctor before any action can be taken - Can you
afford to fly?”
“If we hear from the doctor, the Canteen Fund might lend you the
fare - Stand Over.”
A cable to my sister brought the following reply. Elsie greatly
improved. No further cause for alarm. Florrie.
The reason for the first cable as I later found out, was that
inflammation of the bladder, together with the nearness of our baby’s
arrival had given rise to complications, and there had been a crisis.
It was the doctor who had told my sister to send for me, but by the
time the cables had been sent and received, the crisis had passed.
So, things sorted themselves out. I did not get into debt with the
canteen fund, neither did I miss the examining board for higher
rating, which would have been the case if my request had been granted
and, happy ending, I passed professionally for petty officer.
few weeks later, working in the motorboat with my crew, the duty
signalman called to me and said - “Cablegram for you at Ras-el-Tin.”
Without more ado I cast off and got the boat underway to collect it.
The First Lieutenant, choosing that moment to come up on to the upper
deck saw the boat on it’s way inshore, and turning to the
quartermaster asked, “Where is the motor boat going?”
don’t know,” he replied, “I never called it away.”
“Tell the coxswain to report to me as soon as he gets back,” he
ordered. This I did, only to be asked why I had taken the boat away
look at my cablegram was the only answer necessary. It read,
Daughter born to Elsie 7- 30 a.m. Weight 7 1bs. Both doing well.
“Congratulations,” he said. The date? Friday 13th March.
Another two months were to elapse before I saw the new arrival for the
first time. In the interim, leaving mother,” my wife had taken our
bits and pieces out of store and installed herself once again in
unfurnished rooms; actually the top half of a house which was more or
less self-contained. The rent was twelve shillings and six pence per
week and the accommodation was within easy reach of her family home.
The increase in our family also brought an increase in our income, the
Admiralty paying an allowance of five shillings per week for young
return to the U.K. saw us first at Chatham for leave, and then back to
Portland to continue where we had left off when Mussolini had
interrupted the proceedings.
The one difference was that my wife would not this time be with me,
mother and daughter staying put; although they did, on several
occasions during the following six months, spend a couple of weeks at
Portland; once, all three of us living, eating and sleeping in a
fisherman’s cottage at Chiswell, with a paraffin stove for cooking and
candles for illumination; the washing being put out to dry on Chiswell
return to Chatham for Christmas  leave saw me leaving
Skipjack, the advancement roster having improved to such an
extent, that after only nine months passed in the rating I was
promoted to Acting Petty Officer, this putting me in excess of
[13th January 1937]
So, once again I left a ship to be domiciled in Chatham Barracks; but
this time with a few extra privileges such as not having to double
across the parade ground, being allowed to proceed ashore until 2100,
entitled to an extra half hour’s leave in the morning, and having my
kit-bag and hammock humped for me.