Neal Dempsey, My Life Story


H.M.S. Vernon

I didn't know anybody in H.M.S Vernon and nobody would have any idea about me, so it was in a way, a new beginning. It had a lot of positive advantages, not least that I could reasonably look forward to 2 years living close to all my favourite haunts. My scars had almost disappeared, I had put on a few pounds but I hardly tipped the scales at 10 stone, sopping wet. I was met at the steps to the Sick Bay by the Chief Petty Officer (Michael Fitzpatrick) who had obviously been told that I was a rebel. He knew I had defied authority and discharged myself to a Civilian Hospital. He didn't know that there was no need for me to even think of it again, because apart from Cosmetic Surgery to remove the scars, there was nothing further could be done. On principle I would not undergo the surgery to remove the scars, they hardly show and I had had enough. But he breathed his alcoholic fumes all over me and told me who was boss. I almost burst out laughing. He was a small man who obviously liked his drink. He was getting near retirement and lived ashore so I didn't expect to see much of him after tot time, neither did I from that day on. One thing I must say in his favour though, he was always as smart as paint and never ever looked drunk, which he often was.

Apart from my newly acquired friend Michael Fitzpatrick! There was a Petty Officer, another leading hand like myself, plus three Sickbay men and one V.A.D (A naval Nurse). Apart from the training aspect of the establishment it was the home base for a fleet of six Coastal Minesweepers and the Naval Diving control Ship H.M.S Forth. There were also a number of Civilians working in an Admiralty administration block. The Sick Bay ran undisturbed by any outside influence except for once a month when the Captain inspected it. There were two Doctors, a Surgeon Commander and a Surgeon Lieutenant. I slept in my own cabin in the Sick Bay; two of the S.B.A's slept in one of the Mess Decks all the rest lived ashore. There were two Wards but generally only one was ever in use. I was responsible for dispensing, dealing with sick parade and medicals and generally assisting the Surgeon Lieutenant. The V.A.D assisted the Surgeon Commander and dealt with all Wren sick parades and treatments. Wiggy Bennet the V.A.D was an older lady and looked after us like a mother. She always produced milky coffee and biscuits for us at 11 0'clock sharp. It was just as well really, because if she didn't I never noticed the time fly by. I can honestly say I was very happy indeed in that place, doing what I enjoyed doing. The three S.B.A's did the duties and a weekend every third week, but I often stood in for them if they had special arrangements ashore. I didn't even mind doing the weekends for the R.A. man (Rationed Ashore), but he did try to take advantage of me and got most upset if I refused on occasion. I also had a deep suspicion that he was raiding the Dispensary when he was on duty, and complained loudly when I took to lodging the key in the guardhouse on the main gate if I went ashore while he was on duty.

I was still a loner and I have always remained so. I was highly amused to learn that there was a lot of speculation about my sexual orientation by the Wrens in the Barracks. They couldn't make up their minds because I was very shy when dealing with them. Again this will sound preposterous now, but at the time it was true. I still went dancing at Southsea and it was there that one of the Wren Dusties (Storekeepers) found me. She was called Pam Fenning, I didn't know her but she interrupted my partner in a dance and started to grill me about the Sick Bay and myself. I was very cagey but began to relax after a while and became quite amused by her interest. That night the band playing was the band of Ray Ellington. A very famous group often heard on the Radio, and always with the Goons. He was a great man for getting things moving and during one dance he stopped the music and made all the dancing partners kiss each other. I was a bit embarrassed and did not really know whether I should, but I need not have worried, Pam had no doubts along that line and soon demonstrated what I should be doing. It must have taken me nearly half a nano second to get the idea. Yes, the new lips were in excellent condition and worked like a well-oiled machine. She was delighted and told me she had won a bet at the wrens Barracks. She then explained about the speculation of the girls because I was not married and hadn't dated any girls that they were aware of, and the cooks and Jack Dusties who I met at Tot time had told them I didn't have a girl friend and certainly didn't have a reputation with men either. I was noted down as 'Ugly Nice'. I didn't know quite how to take that, but I decided to accept it as a compliment.

Pam started to come down to the Sick Bay when she was on duty for a cup of tea and a chat before going off duty, and we dated a few times to go dancing. I learnt from the men at Tot time that she had a 'reputation' and I was teased a lot about her coming to visit me. There couldn't have been anything sinister about it at the time, because there were always other men and patients in the Sick Bay. Too many witnesses to tell tales if anything untoward went on. But as I did the odd weekend it was unusual for any other S.B.A to stay on she would call in on a Sunday if she was on duty and I would go to collect my Tot and then fetch the dinners up to the Sick Bay. On occasion when there were no patients I would fetch her a dinner as well and we would talk away until it was time for her to go off duty. At that time there was absolutely no indiscretion. I honestly enjoyed the company and quite looked forward to her coming around if she was on duty. On one occasion when she was on duty on a Saturday she came up to the Sick Bay as usual when one of the Cooks got a telephone call. When he returned to the Mess he just said that Pam had just called him from Duchess of Kent (Barracks) to go out with him that afternoon. Knowing she was in the Sick Bay I was surprised. The same Cook served up the two meals for me, which I took to the Sick Bay, and Pam and I enjoyed our lunch and she finally left at 4.30.p.m. The next day the Cook regaled us with the treatment he had received from Pam all that previous afternoon, which was absolutely scandalous, particularly as I knew it to be a flagrant lie because she had been with me the whole time.

Pam told me over the weeks that she was an adopted child, and even though she was loved and cared for by her adoptive parents she was anxious to find her natural mother. She wanted to know why she was adopted. Eventually she found her mother and a meeting was arranged. She said that on the day of the meeting she was very nervous indeed and when she actually met her mother she was startled to be looking at what she thought would be an older version of herself. She learnt that her mother had never married, but that she was a result of a liaison between her mother and her boss. The boss was apparently not married either, but they travelled a lot together and were still in a partnership. Pam said at the time she had no intention of getting married and felt she was not the marrying type. However she had no inhibitions about relationships despite that and here I learnt all about Hanky Panky. It is good isn't it!

Portsmouth and life in 1957 was very busy and interesting and several things spring to mind. There was one of the most beautiful ships I have ever seen moored in the middle of the harbour, being fitted out by 'Vospers', which could be seen from the fleet moorings in the barracks. It was the 'Pamir'; a German Navy Officer square rigged Training ship. It had four masts and a long sleek hull. Every time I saw it I thought how superb it would be to sail on her. I saw her under sail doing trials and it was so graceful just about everyone who saw it fell in love with it. Sadly it had a tragic end a few years later it was sailing off Valparaiso in Chile on the West Coast of South America, with a full complement of Officer Cadets on board when it was caught in a giant whirlpool and sank with all but two lifeboats and their occupants.

The second involved the visit of a group of Russian Ships to Portsmouth in May and June. The flagship was a large Battleship the 'Ordzonikidze', (I am pretty sure that's how it was spelt) a retired naval Commander and diver (well known inside the naval diving school as a little bit of a mad adventurer). He allegedly had decided to investigate under the hull of the flagship. He was never seen again until his headless body was found a few weeks later. There was a lot of speculation as to whether he was acting for military Intelligence but the consensus of opinion was that if he was under the warship he was there on his own initiative. As H.M.S. Vernon was the Mecca of the Diving World and I came into contact with the Divers every day, it was of real interest to me. Because of my professional closeness to them I was considered to be one of them and therefore talk was not restrained in my presence.

The last abiding memory of that year was the incidence of what became known as the Asian flu. It went through the Country like a biblical plague and H.M Ships were just as vulnerable as anywhere else. Men were dropping like flies all over the place. The training wings closed down and several large mess decks were taken over as wards. The Sick Berth Staff and Doctors were just snowed under, patients were confined to the mess deck wards and as they recovered they were kept to help nurse the other men still infected. We never lost anybody, as we were fortunate in so far as all the Sailors were fit and healthy men prior to the infections and had the resistance to recover. The same could not be said outside in the wider community unfortunately. Eventually I became infected myself and as I had been in the thick of it for so long, the Doctor thought it best I went home out of the seat of infection. I went around to Portsmouth Harbour Station in a daze. I cannot recall ever having felt so ill before or since. I don't remember the train journey to Waterloo except a porter shook me awake there and told me to get off the train. I got a Taxi home to Peabody Avenue and went to bed. My Mother found me there, and the next few days were lost to me. I was afterwards told that Michael and my Mother nursed me and were for ever changing my pyjamas and the bedclothes. My mother was constantly trying to get some soup into me to get some nourishment somehow. I recall nothing of it. As soon as I was well enough I returned to Vernon and the tail end of the epidemic, although I think Pandemic would be a better word to use.

1958 came in without much fuss, work progressed and I was still enjoying it. Runs ashore were so much easier, and holidays were all spent at home mostly riding around London on my bicycle to the various parks and grandstands where there was a military or brass band playing a concert. I had no particular friends and still preferred to be on my own. There was a dance club in Strutton Ground in Victoria quite close to Caxton Hall just off Victoria Street. It was open on Friday evenings and I went on a semi regular basis. I had in fact been going for a couple of years and on one occasion I had gone with Pad and there he had met Margaret known to us now as 'Muff'. At that time he Goons were meeting two doors away in the local Pub' to write their scripts. I was never reluctant to go back to Vernon.

My night leave from Vernon didn't alter and on one occasion I was as usual at the Dance hall on my own when I was approached by a very attractive lady who was considerably older that myself and asked me to dance. We did one dance and she kept talking to me until the next dance started so I asked her to dance and we seemed to stay together for the rest of the evening. She told me she owned a ladies hairdressing saloon near the Town Centre and as I had to go that way back I walked back with her to her place, which was as she said, I left her at the front door. Her name was Kaye, and she reminded me very much of Kaye Kendall the film star. She was similar in build and appearance, her dress sense was very expensive in appearance and she looked good all round. She wanted to know when I would be at the dance hall next time and I told her. She was there when I arrived and she had bought me a drink already. Until that moment I hadn't seen her, we partnered each other all evening and again I walked her home. I was very flattered but a bit embarrassed that such a lady obviously older than me should be paying me so much attention. She told me she was single, separated from her husband. On parting I mentioned that I would be at the dance hall the following week, and left it at that. End of story so I thought, if she was there good, as she was a very good dancer and pleasant company. I did the duty weekend in the Sick Bay and on the Sunday morning I was in my cabin looking out of the window in a pause while reading a book when I was staggered to see her walking down the road in the Barracks toward the Sick Bay. Apart from myself, the Sick Bay was empty. When she arrived she told me she had seen one of the Sickbay men at the dance in Southsea and when she asked him if he knew me, he had told her he knew me and that I was working in the Sickbay over the weekend. She had decided to pay me a visit, and stayed all day! A very convivial relationship developed over several months, until a Royal Marine Sergeant from the Marine Barracks at Eastnor discovered her. She played me off against him for a while until he began to get very threatening and offering me out. There is an old Irish saying, which goes. -

He who fights and runs away - Lives to fight another day

As I was only half Irish by birth and on my Fathers side I decided I would only use half the saying; I just ran away. We parted on very friendly terms.

The last incident I can recall that is noteworthy is that I was often invited onboard the Inshore Minesweeper-Diving Boats at Tot Time. One Sunday I was on one of the boats enjoying a glass, there had been a wedding the day before between a Seaman and a Wren, Beer had flowed and needless to say it was the topic of conversation. One of the Seamen had given me his whole Tot and said he didn't feel too bright. He didn't look well either. I accepted his Tot, but had hardly touched it when he started to lapse into unconsciousness. I asked someone to contact the Officer of the Watch to get Transport to get him to the Sick Bay, but the Officer Said Church Parade was in progress and we would have to wait. I insisted we would have to get him to the Sick Bay. By now he was unconscious and not responding. His breathing was barely perceptible and pulse very thin. We loaded him onto a stretcher and carried him at the trot to the Sick Bay through all the people coming out of the Church. At the Sick Bay I asked a petty Officer to get the Officer of the Watch to get the Medical Guard at once urgently. We were again told to wait until after Church Parade. I tried everything but it was obvious to me the man was dying, I think at that stage he was dead with a massive heart attack probably brought on by alcoholic poisoning. I then phoned the Officer of the Watch myself and as soon as I got him on the line and told him who I was he immediately told me I should learn to obey orders and wait, he had everything in hand. I apologised for inconveniencing him and asked him if he would now change the request and inform the Officer of the Day that the man was dead, but I still needed the Duty Medical Officer to confirm my opinion. There was a silence and then the Officer came across as a different and very helpful man. Things moved like magic all of a sudden. I felt so fed up, this was the second time I had had to deal with death at such close quarters, and it was very distressing. I don't know what more I could have done for him; the answer is of course nothing. Even had a doctor been immediately available the result would have been exactly the same.

Paddy and Muff weddingIn June of that year Pad married Muff and I was privileged to be best man at their wedding. It was a very happy occasion, and both families mixed very well together.

My time at Vernon was drawing to a close; I had a few more brief months of shore life before I was drafted to H.M.S. Palliser in Scottish Command. H.M.S. Palliser was an A.S (Anti Submarine) Frigate attached to the Arctic Squadron Fishery Protection.

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