The Sailor Dad I Never Knew

S&C Contributing Editor John Oke Bartlett never really knew his father, who served in the Royal Navy in World War II. Now, some years after her death, he’s compelled to record as much as he can to put some substance around the weathered gravestone in the naval cemetery in Gosport that marks Reginald’s final resting place.

I don’t know much about my father because he died before I was three years old. And even when he was alive, for quite a lot of that time he was at sea. I have no recollection of him at all apart from a vague memory of being hoisted up to peer over an ancient gun port somewhere around the Round Tower in Old Portsmouth, to wave goodbye to the long grey ship he was serving on.

But even this recollection could be false. I have since discovered that my father’s last ship was the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, which would not match the description of the boat in my memory. Furthermore, much of the area from where I watched my father set sail was strictly out of bounds to the public and surrounded with rusty barbed wire left over from World War II.

When I got older I plied my mother with questions about him and, whilst always forthcoming, she could never quite quench my thirst for knowledge with her hazy memories about where exactly he came from and what he was like as a person. My mother was infuriatingly vague about my father’s family, saying only that ‘he was brought up by friends of the family’ in the coastal village of Teignmouth in Devon. Whenever I questioned her about his upbringing she even said that there was something odd about his birth certificate and that ‘it had been lost’ or ‘there was a problem with it and he didn’t have one.’

She thought he might have been orphaned because my parents’ marriage certificate states that his parents were deceased at the time of their wedding. He was supposed to have had a sister but who she was or what happened to her is again maddeningly unclear, other than that my father had a terrible family row over something and he never spoke about her. My mother seemed to think that she was a nun, which was fairly typical of my mother as nothing was ever straightforward or ordinary for her! I don’t suppose what the actual row was about will ever come to light; an interesting family skeleton that is unlikely to be resolved. What I do know is that Bartlett is a name very common in Devon and, whether true or not, I have always believed that is where my father’s family originated from. Certainly the old creased and folded parchment that constitutes the family tree and one of the few personal possessions that have come down to me, bear this out.

As far as I have been able to find out, my father had run away to sea as a boy sailor at the age of fourteen. He gradually worked his way up through the ranks until he finally became a commissioned boatswain, which was no mean feat in those days and virtually unheard of. It is a rank that no longer exists in the Royal Navy. For fun in his spare time he sometimes helped splice metal hawsers in the dockyard, a hazardous task fraught with danger if the cable parted. His sole job was to make sure that the ship was seaworthy and fit for purpose, a role he did not take lightly.

On a holiday to Ireland, he embarrassed my mother by demanding to see the captain of the ferry to remonstrate with him, concerning, amongst other things that offended his trained eye, the condition of the davits for the lifeboats, which were corroded and in severe need of attention. During his brief illness in Haslar hospital, he received a letter from the Admiralty stating that his rank was to be changed and he was to be promoted to sub-lieutenant, about which he said to my mother, ‘Well it’s a bit late now!’ It was true; he died a few days later from cancer of the liver.

I can hardly imagine the distress my mother must have felt during this time. I understand my father was a religious man who remained stoic until the end. However I don’t believe he was in any way fanatical but, as many seamen do, he had a quiet faith in the Almighty that probably helped him through many a violent storm or during lonely watches on cold winter nights whilst shepherding numerous convoys across the Atlantic and Baltic seas during World War II.

Some time before I was born he was posted to HMS Ganges as an instructor. He had a great sense of fairness and was very popular with the men who respected and liked him enormously. I suppose coming from the ranks himself he had a better understanding than most of how the Royal Navy functioned from the men’s point of view. On one occasion whilst working in an office, one of the ratings accidentally “passed wind”. This was accepted with no comment by my father who was the senior officer at the time. A few moments later, the poor sailor did it again, which of course could not go without severe remonstration from my father. ‘This is disgusting and not to be tolerated,’ said my father. The sailor collapsed into fits of laughter. It turned out that he was sitting on a homemade device consisting of something to do with a small piece of candle, elastic bands and some matchsticks which, if you sat on and shifted your weight a little, the whirring matchstick created the offensive but desired sound effect upon the seat of the trousers! My father, who had a good sense of humour, soon saw the funny side and roared with laughter asking the rating if he could borrow the device so that he could try it out in the wardroom himself later that evening.

Moored up in an estuary near Ipswich, HMS Ganges was, at one time, a remnant of the “old wooden walls of England”. When technology overtook her, she ended her days as a training ship. Gradually huts and buildings were added to the shoreline and the naval base grew in size, becoming the first land base to which the title His Majesty’s Ship was awarded. My newly married father and mother set up home in Shotley and, not long after that, I came into the world. These early days were happy times for my parents. Later my mother would regale me with the anecdote about her and Reginald going to a fancy dress party dressed as two trees and a washing line. I remember as a child seeing a hilarious photograph of their arrival. I am sure their get-up didn’t last the evening.

On another occasion, I had been put to bed and much later, when the party was in full swing, I was woken up and clambered out of my cot. ‘What’s going on here then?’ I announced in a cross manner. At a more formal naval dinner dance, my father left my mother to circulate, which was the last she saw of him for some considerable time. When she did finally catch up with him he was a little worse for wear and on his once pristine starched shirtfront, in a variety of shades of pink, were an impressive collection of the imprints of ladies lips. ‘I’ve left a space for you,’ he announced triumphantly, ‘right here!’ I’m glad I wasn’t there to see the look on my mother’s face.

Reg was apparently always “up for a laugh” and, when called upon to do so, during some particularly drunken evening, was one of the first to answer the call of ‘over the mast!’ This request entailed the officers of the mess climbing up one side of an old ship’s mast that had been erected on the parade ground and then climbing back down the other side to continue the evening’s liquid entertainment in the wardroom.

He could not abide being called a cheat. It offended his moral code and was guaranteed to make him see red. My mother said that he was so frightened of his temper that he very rarely lost it. The only cross word that passed between them that I know of was when my mother, hose in hand, managed to spray a powerful jet of water into the seed box he had just painstakingly planted. Of course, seed and compost parted company with the tray.

‘You stupid girl!’ my father shouted.

My mother took umbrage at being spoken to in such a fashion. When the evening came, my mother retired to the spare room and waited. Hearing him potter about downstairs she thought that he would soon be in to say sorry and make up. A moment or so later she heard his familiar footfall upon the stair, followed by the sound of their bedroom door opening and closing. Shortly after that, it was evident that he was at peace with the world and fast asleep. With considerable indignation, my mother spent an uncomfortable night in the spare room on her own.

Although as a child I hardly knew my father, I do feel I have come to know him a little through my mother’s stories and anecdotes. I can recognize much of his character in my own; he did not suffer fools easily, had a good sense of humour and rarely lost his temper. Once, on a visit to Westbourne Avenue, Emsworth to spend time with my grandparents, he offered to take me out to give my mother a rest. An hour later it was evident by the screams of rage that I was returning from my outing. My mother said I could be heard long before I could be seen. When I did come into view I was covered in chocolate, screaming at the top of my voice, arms attempting to grasp everything and anything within my reach, all this whilst my father with outstretched arms solemnly advanced down the street, dangling me on the end of the restricting reins.

My mother was much younger than my father and I have the impression that, whilst the marriage was a happy one, she was not quite ready for married life at the beginning. They originally met in the Still and West, an old atmospheric pub overlooking the harbour entrance in Old Portsmouth. At the time she was on a date with another naval officer, having made it a personal rule that she would only go out with naval officers; the army or air force would not do for her, it was the navy or nothing! On this occasion, her date was ignoring her and seemed much more interested in a group of his friends who just happened to be in the pub at the time.

My father took the opportunity to tell her that her date must be mad not to pay her more attention. This was the magic chat-up line and one thing led to another, as they say. After being engaged for a brief time they were walking home one night from Emsworth train station and my mother said she didn’t think that she could marry Reginald after all. My father was so incensed that he pushed her in the hedge and left her there whilst stomping off in the other direction.

They must have resolved their difficulties as they were married in St James’ Church, Emsworth. There is a fine photograph of them outside the church walking beneath an avenue of raised ceremonial dress swords. There are further pictures of the reception held on board HMS Redpole – by kind permission of the Captain – with the newlywed Mr and Mrs Bartlett cutting the cake with my father’s sword. I still have the sword and vividly remember as a youngster trying to proudly lift it up with both hands and only just succeeding. Throughout her life, amongst my mother’s cherished possessions, was a silver salver with facsimiles of the signatures of all of the officers and the inscription: Presented by the Captain and Officer’s of H.M.S. Redpole November 15th 1952

This plate remained with my mother all her life apart from a short interlude when she thought I should have it. Not long after she asked for it back saying she was not ready to part with it just yet. Of course I have it now as a treasured memento of their happy but brief marriage together.

Their honeymoon took them to Jersey but was cut short by a message that my father must return to his ship at once. He was furious at his loss of leave, but no doubt partially consoled on rejoining his ship by the somewhat jovial retort: ‘We’ve orders to sail and we couldn’t leave without you Barts!’

Well Dad set sail a long time ago now and I only wish I had known him better. As a little boy I could never quite come to terms with his death and used to imagine that he had only gone away to sea and one day he would return.

Many years later, in a funny kind of way perhaps he did just that. I was in my early thirties and married myself. For a number of weeks I had felt what I can only describe as a kind of gentle pressure on my left shoulder. The more I ignored it the more the sensation grew stronger; I can’t say how or why but somehow I knew it was my father. Eventually I remember stopping in the street and in exasperation saying out loud ‘What do you want?’ I said to my wife that I had a powerful urge to visit my father’s grave.

I cycled down to the Gosport ferry, crossed the busy harbour and found myself at the cemetery gates being received by a very polite rating. He consulted a large book and gave me the appropriate directions. I made my way through the immaculately kept graves and found myself standing in front of my father’s crumbling tombstone. After a few quiet moments of contemplation and thought, I was once again on my way home. It was left to my Canadian uncle John to explain that it was merely time for him to move on and he was just saying goodbye.

A nice thought if you believe in that sort of thing and if not, well it doesn’t matter, all I know is that the pressure was lifted and has never returned.

Reginald Oke Bartlett (1917 – 8th Feb 1956)