Service with the Royal Navy
Prior to taking up my posting on HMS Intrepid, I had to undertake amphibious training, which was carried out in Poole, Dorset. All marines have basic amphibious training, but this was more specific to the roles on Intrepid. It was there that I met James Shanks, who was to become a lifelong friend and who I was to spend many hours with on Intrepid's forecastle drinking our mug of tea after dinner each day.
James was Irish and Protestant while my other close friend on Intrepid was Bernie McKeon who was Irish and Catholic. The three of us became good friends during a period when The Troubles in Northern Ireland were at their height. The religious differences between James and Bernie were never an issue. It was only when the time came for Bernie to get married, and James could not attend, as the guest list was determined by religion, that the stark reality of what was going on elsewhere in the world truly presented itself to us.
I attended the wedding in Northern Ireland and was Bernie’s best man. One great result of that wedding, aside from Bernie’s marriage, was my realisation that I had a real aptitude for public speaking. Getting up to speak in front of all the guests at Bernie’s wedding brought me many compliments but also made me see how easy it was for me to stand up and talk in front of large crowds – something that I would use to my advantage in later life.
In December 1968, having finished our amphibious training, we flew to Singapore to join the ship. HMS Intrepid was an assault ship, which was designed to operate landing craft and helicopters as well as provide a headquarters for amphibious forces and their heavy armour. The ship was able to lower its tailgate and flood its vehicle deck to allow landing craft to sail into the body of the ship. Once the craft were in, it would raise the tailgate and pump out the water when the craft would settle on the deck for sailing.
There was not only Royal Navy and Royal Marines but also Army personnel within the ship’s company. The Marines were part of the Amphibious Detachment whose job was to get the embarked troop from the ship and then safely off the beach. To do that they were split into two units, the Landing Craft Squadrons, who manned the small LCVPs which transported personnel or land rovers or the larger LCM or Mk 9’s, which would transport larger vehicles like 3 tonners and tanks, or the Amphibious Beach Party who were responsible for laying the tracks and getting the troops, vehicles and equipment off the beach as quickly as possible. I worked with each of the units during my time on Intrepid.
The crew of the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel). Me in the centre of the photo.
LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) Mk 9 making a beach landing
Our accommodation was far from luxurious. There were at least 30 in the mess, which served as both our living and sleeping accommodation, as the bunk beds stowed away during the day, to be pulled down at night to provide a 3-tier sleeping arrangement. I had the top bunk, which was fine, but right near the ventilation duct, so a bit noisy. I remember thinking that first night “What have I let myself in for here”.
Mess deck showing bunks and living space
During my time on HMS Intrepid, I had a disagreement with the Sargent Major, which indirectly was due to my car. When I was initially sent out to Singapore it was on Intrepid’s second Commission and, later, the ship needed to go back to the UK for a refit, so we spent some time in England. During this time, I managed to get myself detached from Intrepid and to 41 Commando. When I got there, I called to see the Motor Transport section and said that I was on detachment from Intrepid and asked if I could get on a Driving Course justifying my need as a standby driver for the Caption. I was told to come back the next day. On reporting the following day, I was informed that I had been booked on a course at Lympstone starting the next week. The good thing about military driving lessons is that you are unlikely to be put in for your test if the instructor does not feel that you will pass, so when I took the test, I was quietly confident that I would pass, and I did. At the weekend I went up to Birmingham to visit Celia and meet up with Stuart and decided to buy myself my first car, a second-hand Mini Cooper.
A few weeks later I returned to Intrepid although I was still able to get away for the weekend in Birmingham and called in at the police station and asked them to notify HM Dockyard that I had had a car accident and that I would be getting the train down in the morning. As my leave expired at 8 in the morning, I wouldn’t be back before my leave expired.
When I got down the next morning, I discovered that my message hadn’t been passed through to the ship, so I was charged with being absent without leave. Eventually they found that the message had got to the dockyard but, because there was a train in the early hours of the morning, I should have got that one. The Sergeant Major let the charge stand so I told him what I thought of him and that I wouldn’t obey any future orders that he gave me. This resulted in me spending 21 days in the Naval Detention Quarters. Many years later when I was giving talks on cruise ships a guy came up to me after one of my talks and told me that I wouldn’t remember him, but he was one of the guys who escorted me to the cells after my remonstration with the Sergeant Major. I learned a lot in those 21 days, and I certainly wouldn’t have missed them, but that is a book in itself.
When I returned to the ship, we had a new Sergeant Major, the old one was moved on, as I should never have been charged for being late back, and everyone knew it.
The time in detention shaped my attitude to life. I also got used to my own company and learned to live with that and accept it as most of my time was spent locked in a cell. Time outside the cell was spent doing drill or PT. We had two books, the Bible and "Paddle your own Canoe" by Robert Baden-Powell, which is a roadmap to life. It was excellent and an ideal book to read in that situation. It is one of the books I would recommend to anyone. There are several pieces of literature that have influenced me and that was one. Two poems that had the same effect are "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann and "If" by Rudyard Kipling, which was to become my philosophy on life.
Returning to Intrepid, I was given the opportunity of either staying on Intrepid or being posted, I chose to stay and became involved in many of the ship’s activities, I became the Amphibious Detachments representative on the ship's committee, I joined the ship’s choir and, although I didn’t go to the religious services, I did enjoy the discussions with the chaplain. I even joined him for a number of outings to places like the home of the Franciscan Friars at Cerne Abbas, and once abroad again, to a hospital for lepers and a Buddhist monastery in Hong Kong.
One of the things that I did was to write to “Pan’s People”, a group of five extremely popular dancing girls from the hit TV show Top of the Pops, to ask if they would be our Mess mascots. We were delighted when the girls agreed and sent us some autographed photographs. We boldly invited them to visit us on Intrepid, which resulted in several of us from the Mess getting invited to attend a recording for the TV show to meet them. Afterward, the girls came to Intrepid with a film crew to film a dance sequence on the ship’s deck, which was shown on Top of the Pops. As the girls were staying overnight, we ended the day with a very pleasant dinner with them. Following their visit, I was asked to produce an article for the Globe & Laurel, the Royal Marines magazine, about the visit, which I duly did. That was to be my first published article.
Visit by Pan's People to our mess. L to R: Ken, Andrea, Louise, and me.
After the refit we went back out to Singapore and a major part of our tour was “Showing the Flag”. My friend James was the captain’s driver so whenever the ship docked in port he had to go ashore and drive around and familiarise himself with the area. He’d take me along with him, so in effect I had my own personal chauffer.
Of the places visited, a number stood out. I loved the bustling, vibrant atmosphere of Hong Kong where we had the chance to look around the shops, where you could buy expensive items for a fraction of the price back home.
I visited the Po Lin Buddhist monastery on the island of Lantau off Hong Kong. The visit was arranged by the chaplain and entailed a boat ride from Hong Kong to the island and then a coach ride to the centre of the island where the monastery is situated. That coach ride is the most hair rising journey I have ever made. The road was narrow with no room for vehicles to pass. It had a cliff face on one side and a shear drop on the other. That alone would have made most people nervous, but the driver just put his foot down on the accelerator and went for it. I had done abseiling, parachuting, rock climbing and even I was nervous. I did think about sitting on the floor, but I didn’t want to blow my image. I looked across at my companions and I could tell by the looks on their faces that they were as nervous as I was. I held on to the seat in front of me trying to look nonchalant and eventually we arrived at the monastery, fortunately without meeting anyone coming in the opposite direction.
The monastery was in a beautiful complex. I thought of it again when many years later, I visited the Forbidden City in Beijing, as its architecture was similar. On entry, we were met by one of the monks who took us into the large hall with its beautiful bronze statues of the Buddha, which represented his past, present and future. He then took us to our room, which we were to share for the night. I noted the mosquito nets hanging over each of the beds. We dropped off our overnight bags and had a look around. We knew that there wouldn’t be anything to do after dark, so we resolved to have an early night.
We enjoyed a leisurely meal and then headed for bed. Before I got into bed, I spent a good ten minutes looking for any mosquitos and ensuring my mosquito net was tightly closed around my bed. This got a bit of a snigger from the other guys who got straight into theirs, but I remembered my visits to France with my mother and Rose-Marie and how mosquitos seemed to like me. Eventually, content that I was sleeping alone, I got into bed and quickly nodded off.
The next morning, we awoke at sunrise and went to the large hall for breakfast. In time we were joined by the monk who had met us the day before and he took us on a tour of the place telling us about its history and explaining about their way of life and their religion. It fascinated me and was the foundation of an interest in Buddhism and many other world religions.
All too soon, it was time for us to leave and that was something we weren’t looking forward to, not the leaving, but the perilous coach journey back across the island. The journey back was just as hair raising, although once again we met nothing on the road. One thing I did notice on the return journey was that each of the other guys was scratching themselves. “Did you get bitten by mosquitos?” I asked. “I didn’t." I added with a snigger.
One of our ports of call was Durban, South Africa. I decided to have a walk ashore and have a look around. We had to be in uniform and while walking along the street a man approached me and started talking. He asked me if I would like to go and visit the Zulu Reserve. I must have given him a funny look as he said that he was with his family in the car, which he pointed out and they were going to see it and wondered if I, seeing as I was on my own, would like to come too. Quickly sizing up the situation and liking the look of his family, I accepted. He was a senior policeman in Durban and had with him his wife, daughter and son in-law and their baby. All welcomed me as an old friend. We drove the one-and-a-half-hour journey to the Valley of a Thousand Hills. This is an area of magnificent scenery and incorporated a living museum of Zulu life complete with ritual dance displays.
After the visit, I was invited back to their home for dinner then they drove me back to the ship, offering me accommodation if ever I found myself back in Durban. When you think of places, generally, the thing that makes the place memorable are the people that you meet there, so I liked Durban.
In the years to follow when I was travelling, I would often travel on my own and found it a great way to meet people. If you are friendly and sociable, people will always talk to you and welcome you into their group. I’ve met many people simply because I was on my own.
Another memorable visit was to Hiroshima, Japan. It was an official visit, so we were welcomed by the civic party, complete with a band. We were all keen to get ashore. James, as Captain’s driver, needed to get off as soon as we docked in order to drive around and get his bearings, so I went with him. One place that we noted was the Peace Memorial Park, which is located at the epicentre of the atomic blast that devastated the city on August 6th, 1945. It contains a museum and several monuments dedicated to those killed by the explosion. James and I resolved to return to take a look around.
On our return, we had just started to walk around the park when we were approached by two young students. We were in uniform, and they were learning English so wanted to engage with us. Consequently, we had our own personal guides to explain about the monuments and the tradition attached to them. They told us about the Children’s Peace Monument and how a 12-year-old girl had died of leukaemia 10 years after the bombing and of how she had made paper cranes, the Japanese symbol of longevity and happiness, prior to her death, in the hope of being cured. They explained about the Atomic Bomb Dome, which was one of the few buildings not completely destroyed by the blast. The other monuments we saw were the Cenotaph, with the names of those who lost their lives inscribed in the central stone vault. We also saw the Peace Bell and the Flame of Peace, which will continue to burn until the abolishment of all nuclear weapons.
James and me at the Peace park Hiroshima
After looking around the park, James and I went inside the Museum. The displays included belongings left by the victims, coins that had been fused together by the heat, and photographs of the people and their injuries, or such things as the human shaped shadow on the pavement due to someone standing there during the flash. All of these things conveyed the horror of the event. Certainly, visiting the Peace Museum brought a touch of reality to the lives of two young Marines who left the building with a lump in their throats. This experience was to resonate on a few other occasions later in my life when I visited such places as the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam; the former Nazi Concentration and Extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland, and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum which stand on the site of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.
Intrepid wasn’t all smooth sailing. Being a flat bottom ship with no stabilisers, if the sea had a bit of a swell, then the ship would be tossed around a bit. So, you can imagine what it would be like in a force nine gale, and we had one of those in the Indian Ocean. I was fortunate as I was a reasonably good sailor and didn’t suffer from sea sickness, but some of the guys did have a few problems and some of them had to retreat to their bunks.
It was at times like that, that members of the ships company were able to obtain extra ration of the tot in exchange to doing someone's duty. I should explain what the tot was. This was a ration of rum that was given on Royal Navy ships each day at mid-day. The custom existed between 1850 until it was abolished in 1970 much to the disappointment of Naval personnel, and I know as I was on intrepid at the last issue of the tot. The tot for Junior ranks consisted of one part rum and two parts water. For those who didn’t drink, they would receive a few pence a day extra. Although I didn’t drink rum, I did claim my ration as on board it could be used like a currency, and if you wanted someone to do something for you, you would invite them around to your mess for your rum ration.
One incident that certainly wasn’t smooth sailing occurred when we were on exercise in Borneo. We were along one of its rivers when our LCVP landing craft hit an unwater branch which pieced its hull. We immediately took on water which resulted in the area which would hold the troops becoming filled with water. Fortunately, we were with other craft so one of them came alongside us and we were able to tie ourselves to that which prevent us sinking. We tried to pump out the water but that was ineffective, we were stuck on the branch, and we couldn’t move it, so we were going nowhere. The only way out of our problem was to call for help from Intrepid, and that help required a diver to saw off the branch from below the craft. The incident occurred late in the afternoon. We never got any sleep that night.
LCVP filled with water
The next morning the branch had been removed and a temporary patch placed over the hole, so we were able to limp back to Intrepid. As dawn broke and the sun rose, the sky was one of the most beautiful that I had ever seen, which made the whole night worthwhile.
When we crossed the equator on our way back to Britain for our refit, there was a ceremony on board, which involved those who hadn’t previously crossed the line being initiated into King Neptune’s Court. This involved a number of the crew taking on the roles of people from the court. We had King Neptune himself who presided over the ceremony, and he would have his ‘Police’, who were charged with ensuring that all those needing initiating were brought to the pool that had been erected on the flight deck in order to dunk them as part of the initiating ceremony.
Crossing the line ceremony
It was many years later, when speaking on a cruise ship that I received a certificate confirming that I had crossed the line when that ship went across the equator, but the one on Intrepid was certainly one to remember.
One life changing experience was to come during my time on Intrepid. In November 1970 when everyone on board Intrepid was excitedly looking forward to setting sail to Australia only to find out that, due to a cyclone hitting the Ganges Delta in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), the trip had been cancelled. HMS Intrepid was being sent to assist in relief operation caused by the Bhola cyclone.
The cyclone struck on November 11th, 1970, and it remains the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded and one of the world's deadliest natural disasters. At least 500,000 people lost their lives in the storm, primarily as a result of the storm surge and tidal wave that flooded much of the low-lying islands of the Ganges Delta. Our job was to take supplies by landing craft to the offshore islands.
The landing craft were ideal for this as being flat-bottomed craft they could navigate in shallow water and get right up to the land yet could carry a considerable number of stores. They also had the benefit of being able to lower their ramp at the front of the craft, which meant that people could walk on and carry the stores off easily.
The British aid naval response consisted of HMS Intrepid, HMS Triumph, HMS Hydra and the Landing Ship Logistic (LSL) Sir Galahad. The closest that these ships could get to shore was 35 miles and it was a further 40 miles to the main supply dump and headquarters which meant that all our craft and personnel would have to be detached and work permanently ashore.
The craft we took included the four LCMs, and four LCVPs, two naval store tenders, two Launchers, 15 Assault boats and 10 Geminis. I was on one of the LCVPs. Leaving Intrepid, we had hoped to get to our location by nightfall, but due to the sand bars and mud flats, progress proved difficult so it was decided that we would anchor for the night. It was then that the seriousness of the situation hit us as we inhaled the smell of rotting flesh from the carcasses and bodies. We had our meal but there wasn’t the normal jovial conversation. Ken Murgatroyd was our coxswain, and he drew up a watch list and we found a spot amongst the stores for our beds. I closed my eyes to try to get some sleep as the silence and the smell intensified.
The next morning, after an uncomfortable night, we reached our destination. We weren’t needed there so we were to move on to a new location, where we were to stay for nine days. Each day we would be loaded with relief goods and head off under the supervision of a Pakistani soldier and a guide and return each night.
Despite the long hours we worked and the harsh conditions, I never heard anyone complain. There were television news crews with us, and I remember thinking that I hope this will make people in the UK realise how fortunate we are there and what I witnessed at that time subsequently made me regularly focus on the many privileges we often take for granted.
On top of the lives lost in the disaster were the ongoing ramifications. The people eked out a meagre living as small-scale farmers and fishermen. Their homes had been destroyed; most of their cattle, sheep and goats were killed. The rice crop was ruined, and the fishing boats were destroyed. We knew that whatever we could do was not even a quick fix, but it was only going to keep them alive temporarily.
It was a monumental experience and one that has stayed with me from that time. I wrote about it while in the Delta in my poem, Ode to the Ganges Delta, which epitomised my feelings. This was also published in The Globe & Laurel.
ODE TO THE GANGES DELTA
by Marine Ron Gatepain
To sail the Ganges Delta
Today’s no pretty sight
For no matter where you wander
There are bodies left and right.
Floating in the water
Lying on the bank
Face up in a rice field
Stretched out on the track.
The smell of death around you
You have to wonder why
What caused this move of nature
To make these people die.
You have no time to ponder
For there’s a job to do
To take food to survivors
To help to see them through.
To take them warmth and shelter
A glimmering of hope
To help them face the future
And enable them to cope.
A body floats on by you
You glance then turn away
For that was like yourself once
Where now it’s part decay.
You must have time to wonder
A little time to think
Though make it when their water’s through
And they’ve had a chance to drink.
Survivors rush to meet you
With such a hopeful stare
A look that seems to cry to you
I’ve come to beg my share.
The sun descends so quickly
And night then fills the air
The moon it spreads a silver veil
Of glimmer everywhere.
Left alone just with your thoughts
The world now seems so still
Not like the day that nature sent
Her waters in to kill.
Following the completion of the relief operations we returned to Singapore and our normal routine. December 1971 marked the end Intrepid’s second commission and our time on the ship. Prior to completing its tour I and another guy were asked if we would produce a book to be given to all of those who had served on the ship during that commission as a memento of where we had been and what we had done. That was to be my first editing job.
Chapter 6 - Return to Civilian Life