edited: Monday, August 09, 2004
By Reginald Stanley Birch
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Saturday, May 29, 2004
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A trip to the USSR
HMS Triumph - River Niva Leningrad 1955
I joined the ships company on 2nd September 1955 as a stoker, and expecting to be going to the Med for nine months. All I seemed to do was clean and paint every thing in sight. An old three badger kept complaining he’d never known this fuss for a trip to the Mediterranean.
I did have a break from the spring clean when I was selected to play cricket for the Royal Navy against the Army at Plymouth Cricket Club. Our team consisted of all officers apart from me and another chap, to be frank we were among the better players in the team but not really wanted, at the end of play told we couldn’t use the club house it was for officers only, and told to wait outside for a lift back to our ships. Back on board I told my PO that I wouldn’t play for the Royal Navy again, he replied, if selected I wouldn’t have a choice, anyway it was the end of the season. By the way none of the officers that took part were from the Triumph being some consolation and the Navy did win the match.
Eventually we sailed from home base Devonport, and out of Plymouth Sound but not heading for the Med. She rounded the top of Scotland to Rosyth, there two Marine Bands came on board then immediately we left and sailed into the North Sea where HMS’s Apollo, Diana and Decoy and another ship (I’ve forgotten her name) were waiting. They were to be our escort into Baltic Sea, but then to where? nobody seemed to know.
The Captain announced over the tannoy, the ship was heading for Leningrad on a goodwill visit, we were to be the first British warship to visit Leningrad since the war. Also there was to be no number 8’s or overalls on the weather decks only full uniform to be worn at all times on all decks whether working or not. So with the Marine Bands practising in the hangers we headed for Leningrad.
Don’t know exact date the Triumph with her escorts sailed into Leningrad but I do know we were there on the 14th October 1955 and we did stay a few days. The ship I have forgotten the name of didn’t enter Soviet waters, she waited for us in the Baltic Sea. The crowds of people waiting for us were tremendous, I have never seen anything like it. We moored in the middle of the River Niva the banks on both sides also the Shmit Bridge were full of people, ferries also full of people made trips round the ships, when darkness fell all the British ships had their floodlights on so the crowds stayed day and night, right round the clock, it was amazing.
When the Marine Bands marched up and down the jetty playing the Russians favourite tunes (the bands had done their home work) the crowds clapped and cheered and wouldn’t let them finish, playing twice as long as they intended.
On sight seeing trips ashore, you couldn’t move for people, wherever you went crowds were all around you. Couldn’t change pounds notes as they didn’t know the exchange rate, but you didn’t need money whatever you wanted it was just pushed into your hand. Probably because the amount of people you fetched with you, I went for a drink in a type of bar as it looked quiet and peaceful, the hole crowd that was with me out in the street came in as well, the place was packed in no time at all. As a young man it was a strange experience, people touching you just to see if you are real, it had never happened to me before nor has it happened since.
The ships company was invited to a reception organised by the Armed Forces of the USSR, it was held in some civic hall the building was like a palace, marble and statues everywhere, on each table there were two British and two Russians all from the armed forces. I was given a badge that represented the three armed forces of The Soviet Union. Stalin had died a couple of years earlier 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev had taken over, he made all this possible, I’m sure it would never have happened under Stalin.
The crowds were still on the banks of the river when we sailed out, waving us goodbye it was a heart warming sight, one I have never forgotten. The ship headed for England calling in at Sheerness so that the Marine Bands could disembark then on towards the Mediterranean.
Visited Vigo Portugal, again the people very friendly. Onto Gibraltar and then to meet up with HMS Ark Royal to do naval exercises. The Ark Royal had the latest planes while we still had only old planes but on its tour of the Med the Ark lost 2 planes with the pilots. One was when on exercises with the Triumph and I’m sorry to say I witnessed, the two ships were sailing close to each other, I was on the weather deck watching the planes take off the Ark, one took off then just seemed to dip sideways and hit the water between the two ships you could see its lights waving from side to side as it sank. Straight away planes took off the Ark one after another, I thought they were going back to look for the pilot but told later he wouldn’t have stood a chance and if they lose a plane they all have to get up in the air, maybe something to do with losing their nerve. All I know, I wish I hadn’t witness it, as it haunted me for a long time.
Exercises over the Triumph left Ark Royal and headed for Sardinia for a sailing Regatta, the two teams being The Officers v The Crew in rowing and sailing, the officers didn’t stand a chance they were whitewashed in both events. To be fair the crew had far more hands to select from and to give the officers their due, they did pay for all the drink even though it was only the cheap local plonk, there was gallons of the stuff, so naturally causing plenty of sore heads next morning.
Visited Malta can’t remember if it was before we meet up with Ark Royal or after, anyway the RAF ran the airport and challenged Triumph to a cricket match that was willingly accepted. The RAF I think had the only grass on the whole island at their airfield and had produced a fairly good wicket being it was the start of winter. A lot of good it did us though, we were well beaten.
I am told we visited the usual places on Med tours like Nice etc, by then it was well into winter and having the worst one for thirty years the snow was weighing the palms down all along the sea front at Nice. And then some unusual places like Pollensa Majorca and Barcelona no warship had been there since before the war as Spain was neutral during the Second World War.
On the way to Barcelona we ran into a hurricane and had to turn into the storm, for three days the ship was dipping like a destroyer, waves going right over the flight deck, nobody was allowed on the weather decks. When the stern lifted out of the water the props with 40,000hp spinning in fresh air, making the whole ship shuddered until the props landed back in the water. The mess and everywhere had about two foot of water sloshing around, when you slung your hammock to turn in you, needed a towel to dry your feet. Eventually the storm eased and we headed for Barcelona, even then they had to send out three tugs to hold us and finally get us into port, it was some storm.
The people of Barcelona were very friendly just like most places the ship had visited, everything was laid on for us, trips to all the sights, they even wanted to put a bull fight on but had to scrub that idea as it was out of season, I didn’t know there was seasons for killing bulls, they treated bull fights just as we would treat a cricket match.
Back to Gibraltar then it was time to head for England, I don’t know the date we arrived back in Devonport but it must have been well into January as I still have the ticket for the Triumph’s New Year Ball dated Friday 20th January 1956 held at the Devonport Guildhall.
Stayed on Triumph until 10th April 1956 then I was transferred to HMS Orion in the reserve fleet there I stayed until 2nd July 1956 when I was transferred back to HMS Triumph as part of the skeleton crew that was to take her to Scotland.
Triumph was to be towed, what a pity she couldn’t have gone under her own steam. Leaving Devonport through Plymouth Sound and heading for Scotland the tugs gently pulling her along, it was that quiet you could hear the cook rattling his pans about in the galley. The food was excellent and as much as you wanted. For power there was just an auxiliary boiler that I was looking after. We had plenty of time on our hands played football on the flight deck most days, the weather could not have been better, it was like a holiday cruise not that I been on one to know but it just felt like it.
Eventually reaching the Clyde and into the Gare Loch took her right to the top at Garelochhead there the Triumph moored, I transferred to HMS Jupiter but worked on Triumph daily until the Suez crisis started and that ended my spell with HMS Triumph.
I had only a short period of time in the ships company of HMS Triumph but in that short time, she had made history in the Soviet Union and Spain, which many a ship cannot claim, and I am proud to have been a small part of the ships history.
Reginald Stanley Birch.
PS-Early in the 50’s before I joined HMS Triumph, she did trials for the angled flight decks. The carrier’s flight deck landing line was repainted at an angle 10% to port, but the arrester wires were left in their original position so it was a bit “hit or miss” on landing.
The boffins thought the trials a success, which lead to HMS Centaur in 1953 to become the first British ship to be fitted with an angled flight deck. Then in 1955 HMS Ark Royal was the first Royal Navy aircraft carrier to enter service with an angled flight deck already fitted.
Copyright © Reginald Stanley Birch 2003