Alex’s War: Chapter One The Beginning May 1939

This is the beginning of my father’s story and tells why he decided to join the Royal navy.and the first chapter of my fathers experiences in the Second World War

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.


I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.


I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


Sea fever

<em>By John Masefield</em>



It was really the dance that did it. The thought had not crossed my mind until then.  It set me thinking.

I was an indentured apprentice engineer for MacFarlane Engineering Company Ltd who made electric motors. As an indentured apprentice I spent six months in each department, learning the trade, the design office, drawing office, fitting shop, winding shop where they mad switch gear for the motors. The company was a family business and treated me very well, and indeed one of the sons lectured at the college my study nights.

The other apprentices and I had motorbikes and there was a biker who worked at MacFarlane’s whose age and experience meant he could always fix any engine faults.  His name was Mr De Vine and we all thought he was divine!   He taught us how to take 10,000<sup>th</sup> of an inch off the head, which gave more compression and made our bikes go faster. MacFarlane’s was a good company and they allowed the apprentices to use the workshop to repair and tinker with our bikes at the weekends.  We were all immensely proud of our bikes and enjoyed biking and exploring the countryside around Baillieston where I lived.

We explored the Trossacks, lured by the mystery of those mist-covered mountains.  We would ride up past fields of purple heather, past lakes and fast flowing streams. Sometimes, suddenly we would come out above the mist into bright sunlight. The scenery then took on an ethereal look. It seemed like we were on an island and the tops of other mountains were isles in a swirling grey sea.  Roaring through the wild countryside we were like a pack of young lions.  Revelling in the throaty growls their engines made as we revved them up. . And the very best thing of all was that there was not a soul around to shake a disapproving head or brandish a fist at us.  We were young and free and the world was beautiful.  Not even the gathering storm clouds of World War 2 could dampen our spirits.

One of our favourite haunts was the Argyllshire coast and we would often take tents and camping equipment to Troon or Ayr camp on one of the stretches of golden sands. . Argyllshire is a long legged peninsular running from the entrance to the Clyde and stretching towards Ireland. On a clear day you can see right across to Ireland and we overjoyed if this happened. The fine weather meant that we could spend the days swimming and lazing in the sun. In the evenings we would light a big fire and cook beans and sausages, and sit and chat till the embers died.

One particular weekend my group of friends and I had driven to Macrihannish, a small town, which is five miles across the peninsular from Campbeltown on the outside of the leg facing Ireland…  The HMS Hood was berthed in the bay and we all stopped to admire her.  There was a local dance that we planned to attend in the evening and we changed from motorbike gear into our glad rags at a local pub where the landlord knew us. The lads and I set off full of excitement and expectation.

“All the lassies I’ve seen are beautiful” the handsomest one of the group remarked.

“Och, they’ll no look at you then you ugly great bam pot” someone else bantered back.

“Weel if I’m ugly you’re hideous” was the return comment.

The good-natured teasing and joking continued as they made their way to the local dance hall.  My friends and I were happy and laughing and looking forward to an evening of dancing and meeting girls.  Little did we know that their happiness was to be short lived and their hopes for the evening were to be dashed.

We entered the hall and made our way the bar and ordered our usual half pints of “heavy”.  We looked around and took in the ambience. There was a band playing and the whole place was humming with music and conversation.  Then we noticed that the dance floor was filled with sailors from the Hood in uniforms, some in white with officer’s stripes and naval hats, and some just in the ordinary uniforms with ensign’s caps. The uniforms made them all seem handsome and gave them a certain edge, or at least the girls seemed to think so.   Faced with all the sailors in their glamorous uniforms my friends and I didn’t stand a chance. We couldn’t even get a dance.  It was then that I had remembered the old adage – “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.”

Over the next few days I considered my options. I had wanted to be a footballer just like my father before me.  Alex’s father had played for Sunderland and for Scotland and was now the physiotherapist and talent scout for Glasgow Rangers. I had attended Allengate School and had played in the school team.  Scouts used to come around regularly to the school; and I was picked for Strathclyde, a team that played in the junior league. I played mid field which meant I could influence the game and also score goals.  I knew I was good, my father knew I was good, good enough to play for Rangers, but my father still did not pick me for this prestigious team.

I remember my disappointment as at the end of the year the scouts came and took the whole of the youth team to play in various teams.   The scouts respected my father and said

“We’ll no touch you; we wouldn’t dare because your Dad is coming for you for Rangers. You’ll be playing in Ibrox by the end of the year.”

I knew differently as my two older brothers had already been there before me. In fact, my brother Jack would have definitely made it as a professional footballer and in the future was to play as an amateur in the Olympics at Helsinki. In later years Jack encouraged his own son, another Jack who was taken on by Arsenal as a junior and went on to become captain of Peterborough.


It was the very opposite with my father who positively discouraged his three sons and did not choose any of them for Glasgow Rangers as he said he did not want to be accused of nepotism. But as I was the youngest he still had a small glimmer of hope that he might relent and change his mind. But it was not to be. My father told me that he didn’t want me to be a footballer like him. A footballer’s career is short with a limited future and Alex’s father wanted him to get a trade, which would provide him with a secure future.  You have to bear in mind that in 1939, footballers did not have the kudos that they have today and even the premier league players were lucky if they earned 10 pounds a week. I was born out of my time and I know if I had been born later I would have made it as a professional footballer and had a successful and lucrative career. But instead my father paid for my apprenticeship in engineering and I consoled myself by playing for Falkirk   They were still a first division team, but did not quite have the same cachet as Glasgow Rangers. I trained for two evenings, attended night school for the other three and was an apprentice electrician by day. I earned eight pounds a week from Falkirk. In those days this made me rich in comparison to other lads of my age.


Alex could see that war was imminent and he didn’t want to be conscripted into the army.  Alex thought that if he joined the Navy he would avoid this and as a bonus he would see the world. The other consideration was that he had nearly finished his apprenticeship. Then there was his experience at the dance as he could see that being in the navy would increase his popularity with the girls. That was the clincher and Alex decided to go to the Royal Navy Recruitment office the next day,