Neal Dempsey, My Life Story


R.N.H. Stonehouse

On the Monday six of us were put on a train a sent to Plymouth via London, lugging our kit bags, Hammocks and small suit case to join 'Royal Naval Hospital Stonehouse' there to begin our training as Sick Berth Attendants. A Sick Berth Chief Petty Officer who was one of the new instructors we were to get to know quite well over the next six months met us at Plymouth railway station. There was a mini bus waiting to take us to 'Stonehouse' and we were soon bundled into it with our kit and taken off.

Stonehouse Hospital was a large series of buildings, built at the end of the 18th and earl 19th century by French prisoners or war, from the Napoleonic Wars. The main blocks were built around a square green, which was out of bounds to all nursing staff. To get from one side to the other you had to walk round it. The rooms and wards were wide, tall and airy, one of the ward blocks had been turned into the training school and comprised of Dormitories "Mess decks", Classrooms, training wards and offices. {Now discovered another reason why we had one pair of boots without studs}. The Officer in charge of the training was a 'Wardmaster Lieutenant' with the name of 'Bligh'. We were led to believe he was some obscure, far removed relation to the infamous 'Bligh of the Bounty' but I didn't know if we were being teased or not, and I never did bother to find out. I don't think I particularly liked the man, but I don't really know why. He had his favourites and I certainly was not one of them, but that wasn't the reason for my antipathy toward him. I just felt uncomfortable in his presence.

Our reception at Stonehouse was totally different affair to that of Victoria Barracks. It was taken for granted that we were already trained and disciplined in the Naval Tradition. Here discipline was just as strict, but this was a Hospital and we were expected to exercise more self-discipline and scrupulousness in our personal habits and appearance. We paraded every morning in front of the training block and had what was called a Penguin Parade. This included inspection of the hands back and front, nails trim and clean. Kit musters but more importantly kit inspections were frequent and haphazard. We could be called on at the most inappropriate time to open our lockers and have all our clothing inspected and it had to be spotless. If not, we could expect to have more rigorous and frequent inspections. If that didn't work we would be hauled up before the Divisional Officer and eventually up to the Surgeon Rear Admiral for who knows what punishment. I only knew of one man who suffered that extreme humiliation and he was eventually dismissed the service. He was not in my class; I think everybody took a personal pride in their appearance and the condition of their personal effects. The Petty Officers' took a more benign approach to discipline but it was still there all the time.

The routine differed enormously, early morning ablutions comprised cleaning the mess and wash area, breakfast and parade in front of the training block by 9.a.m. Our rooms were inspected and one or two would be picked at random to have their kit inspected, then we would be marched off to our classrooms. We were surprised to find that we had inherited four girls (V.A.D's) into the class. I was totally ignorant of all things medical. It was a relief to learn as time progressed that I was not alone in my total naivete as half the class including two of the girls were as green as I was. I had done Biology at school, but the relationship between an amoeba, a flower and a dissected frog didn't seem to have much bearing on what I was about to learn. I sat entranced and soaked up the lessons. I thoroughly enjoyed what we were being taut and felt totally at home. I worked hard with my exercise book, which I intended to keep as a working manual. I kept it throughout my service and updated it as I went through my career, but it was stolen just before I left the Navy 9 years later, much to my annoyance.

Our duty days were spent working on various wards for an hour or two in the evening. During our training which comprised Nursing, Surgical, Medical and Tropical. First Aid, Service afloat, Dispensing, Minor Surgery, Venereal Diseases, Landing Parties, stores and book keeping etc., we were obliged to attend at least three Post Mortems during our training during which the Pathologist would grill us on our anatomy and physiology. Usually by throwing an internal organ at us then asking us to identify it and explain all we knew about it. Heaven help us if we got it wrong. The Pathologist was a spectacular character, a Surgeon Captain who owned a large open topped vintage Bentley with its bonnet held down by leather straps, in which he used to like flying around appearing to be standing on the accelerator and shouting at everybody to get out of his way, everybody did. It amused me to find after a post mortem, our next meal always seemed to comprise stuffed hearts, kidney or liver. There was a very black humour there, which I found amusing in its way, but I think we were being prepared for things to come.

At this time I met two men who created a very marked influence on me, the first was the Leading Sick Berth Attendant who had been on H.M.S. Amethyst when the Chinese Communists trapped it in the Yangtze River. He was obliged to escape from the ship and travel overland with the casualties of the action when the ship was shelled originally. He had aged and become completely grey almost overnight and had lost most of his hair. He was a sincere man and very modest about his exploits. I wondered how I could cope with that type of experience. The second was a very smart Leading Sick Berth Attendant who marched in one day to collect stores. He was in his best suit (Tiddly Suit) with gold badges including Royal Navy Commando shoulder flashes, Parachute wings and a Divers Helmet on his arm. He was serving with a Royal Marine Commando unit. I was most impressed by him and his appearance. If nothing else both these men stimulated me into wanting to emulate them in some way.

I enjoyed being at Stonehouse, and never once during the whole time I was there did anyone make the slightest comment in my hearing about my facial or vocal impediment. The only trouble I had in that direction was when I was having a routine Dental Inspection. The Dentist, a Surgeon Commander, decided that a tooth in my right upper jaw was a bit abnormal. My eye tooth appeared to have two crowns'. Unfortunately it was growing at an awkward angle out of the scar in my palate. It did not bother me, but in his wisdom he decided to take it out. Because of its location he decided that I should be admitted to the hospital and take the tooth out by general anaesthetic. He did just that, but unfortunately tore the scar open, which meant at some time I would have to get the damage repaired, but there was no way I was going to let a Naval Surgeon do it; it was going to be done by the Surgeons at Oxford or not at all. I had to wait three years before I could get it done.

I went ashore to the N.A.A.F.I. in Plymouth every week. Where there was the usual Ballroom Dancing. I became the envy of a lot of my Opo's (Friends) who envied me the skill, I think mainly because a lot of the girls would ask me to dance when they didn't get a look in, but still I remained very much a loner. I got on well with the rest of them, but I was quite used to being on my own and never felt really comfortable with a group of other men. I was always thought to be older than I was by the girls and one particular Leading Wren Steward attached herself to me in the dance hall. She smoked and I often gave her a packet of cigarettes. She almost always paid for the refreshments in the intervals, refreshment usually comprised tea and biscuits. I didn't drink at that time. She became a source of embarrassment to me at a later time. I can't remember her name, but she was considered a bit stuck up by her colleagues because she was a girl who had been to public school and her uncle was a serving Rear Admiral. You just do not want to know what ribald comments this evoked from my Opo's. The N.A.A.F.I. Club in Plymouth at that time comprised two very large Nissan Huts joined together. The Naafi were building a larger modern club, which they finished just before I left. Princess Margaret opened this early in 1953. It had a very large posh dance hall, which I enjoyed using very much. A group of us would go swimming in the Lido by the Hoe every Sunday even in November when the water was absolutely freezing. I never knew whether I was being very brave or stupid; but we did have fun and that was what it was all about, after all it was free. All the training division got Christmas off, so I was able to enjoy the holiday at home including the New Year.

All good things must come to an end I suppose. I had thoroughly enjoyed the training and was convinced in my own mind I had done the right thing by joining up. I had won a medal in the sports tug of war event and a prize in the greasy pole fighting (Over a large tank of water kept as a reservoir for fire fighting.) in the March of 1953 I qualified as a Sick Berth attendant and the class were divided up and sent to their various depots. I was sent to R.N.H. Haslar

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