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22 February 2016

HMS King Alfred 1939-1945

Judy Middleton (1986, reprinted 1989, revised 2012)


copyright © J. Middleton.
 This building served as HMS King Alfred from 1939-1945
Admiral HR Stark of the US Navy described the work carried out at HMS King Alfred training RNVR officers to fill posts in the expanding wartime Navy as ‘Britain’s greatest experiment in democracy’.

This unpretentious stone frigate steered a course through the old prejudices and it was the urgency of the situation that gave her the power to do it. On the whole the Senior Service did not look kindly on the men of the RNVR and there was a widespread feeling that the Wavy Navy was second best if not second rate. This attitude can be summarised in the story of a cruiser’s captain who, on being sent his first RNVR gunnery officer, welcomed him with an anguished ‘Good God – no!’

Then there was the entrenched idea about the sort of background an officer should have and it goes without saying that public schools were heavily represented. However, the plain fact was that there were not enough Royal Navy officers to go around with so many new ships being commissioned. The net for recruiting suitable candidates for a commission had to be cast over a wider area. This is where Admiral Stark’s democratic part came in because under the White Paper Scheme potential officers were to be sought amongst the ratings of the Royal Navy (hostilities only), the RNR and the permanent RNVR. Just how important HMS King Alfred’s role was can be gauged from the fact that by 1945 out of all the Royal Navy’s commissioned personnel 88% were Volunteer Reserve Officers and the King Alfred trained 22,500 of them.

War was declared on 3rd September 1939 and HMS King Alfred was commissioned just eight days later. Such a swift action presupposes plans already drawn up by the Admiralty. Why was Hove selected? There were other RNVR centres scattered around the coasts of Britain. They were (in order of formation) London, Bristol, Mersey, Clyde, Sussex, Tay and Ulster. Factors taken into consideration included ease of access, plenty of accommodation available locally and not being near potential targets. Hove was already home to an RNVR base and next door was a large new building called Hove Marina containing swimming baths not yet opened to the public. This was taken over and never regained its original name, being known after the war as the King Alfred (with permission from the Admiralty).
copyright © J. Middleton.
East side of the former HMS King Alfred

Hove was the scene of tremendous activity in September 1939. Captain JN Pelly and a handful of CPO instructors had precisely seven days in which to design, build and launch the ship, as it were. It must have seemed a daunting task to Captain Pelly, yanked out of a peaceful retirement to take command. If the smooth running of a ship is attributable to the captain, then Captain Pelly must deserve the lion’s share of praise for creating out of nothing a stone frigate that came to be called a miracle of efficiency.

Captain Pelly entered the Royal Navy in 1903 and during World War I he served first in Queen Elizabeth and then in Ramilies. Later he was Executive Officer in the training ships Thunderer and Erebus and in 1925 he commanded the sloop Cornflower in China and on the East Indies Station. He spent some time on the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Devonport and retired in 1934. His other great love was cricket and he was reputed to be one of the Navy’s finest players. He played cricket in all sorts of places from Lord’s to far-flung corners of Empire.

At the King Alfred there were three major tasks to be done – converting the building to its new use, arranging billets and juggling with the syllabus of training. Instructor-Commander CH Howell was responsible for the latter.

Paymaster Captain JM Hodge burned the midnight oil dealing with the influx of supplies and ordering, checking and sorting out equipment. Meanwhile Commander Frai led a willing company of RNVR seamen who seemed to be everywhere at once, providing blackboards, moving furniture and doing the hundred and one things required. One lecturer was promised a vanload of collapsible chairs and tables for his classroom, which duly arrived five minutes before the class began. When the men trooped in, they found their instructor a trifle dusty and breathless but ready to face his first audience.

The underground car park designed to hold 480 cars on one level was converted to several uses. Part of it became the Mess after builder’s rubble was removed. At first officers were obliged to sit on hard green corporation chairs, which in happier times stretched in rows around the bandstand. These chairs left ‘marked, almost indelible impressions’ as one man remembered feelingly. But within seven months there was new lino on the floor and soft chairs to sit on. According to Rear-Admiral PG Sharp (who was amongst one of the first batch of arrivals) the first Mess dinner was held there on 21st September 1939. Later on the Mess was used by ratings too with the officers’ part cordoned off with loops of red rope on stanchions. This meant that the Loyal Toast had to be drunk standing up because technically there were ratings in the same room. 
copyright © C.E. Turner
King Alfred group in June 1940 - in the centre is CPO Vass. The tall man in the centre of the back row is A.T. Lennox-Boyd. In the second row, second from the right next to C.E. Turner is Pen Tennyson, the talented film director.

Another part of the car park was converted into dormitories with rows of double- decker bunks. It cannot have been the most comfortable of sleeping quarters as the concrete was still drying out and no heating was provided although it was bitterly cold that first winter. Sir Peter Scott thought it was either the dampness or the rigours of early morning PT in the sea air that caused him to suffer from colds and bronchitis during his time at Hove. But not all was gloom and one ex-KA hand wrote that he struck up a friendship with the man on the lower bunk and it was still flourishing 45 years afterwards. 

Later in the war, classrooms had more sophisticated equipment down in the car park. These included a ship handling tank, a pilotage room with a large map layout and a seamanship room complete with a ship’s boat.

The room designed to hold the largest swimming pool became the main hall. It was light and airy and was the easiest part to convert because it had been provided with removable flooring for winter use. During the winter it was one of the few places you could count on being warm.

The chaplain took up his quarters in what had been designed as a cleansing pool – a fact he found most appropriate. In 1940 it became a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors.

On the west side of the building was a restaurant cum dance floor, which became a comfortable Wardroom with ample space for chairs and tables and deep leather sofas not to mention a grand piano and two billiard tables. The small rooms fronting the Kingsway (not yet fitted with individual baths) became offices.

The first draft of men arrived while the weather was dry and warm, which was just as well because it was impossible to get everyone under cover. The huts of the RNVR depot became hotter and hotter as the long day wore on and queues of men passed through for their interviews and medicals. The next day it was back to basics with gas-mask drill and classroom instruction. In the early days candidates often had to parade in civvies because uniforms were not coming through fast enough.

All candidates met Captain Pelly and some interviews turned out to be more personal than expected. For example, Ludovic Kennedy was surprised when Captain Pelly told him he had known his father in the last war and he was glad he had been given command of the Rawalpindi. Not long afterwards it was learned that the Rawalpindi had been lost and Captain Kennedy was awarded a posthumous VC.

The King Alfred made a considerable difference to local businesses. Modest hotels used to welcoming elderly ladies or retired Army officers, were suddenly inundated with demand for their rooms. A single bedroom was made to take two or three candidates while four to six could be squashed into the larger rooms. Langfords Hotel in Third Avenue established a dormitory downstairs with a dozen beds and a wash basin in the corner. Philip Sharp occupied one of these beds, having already spent ten days at the Lawns Hotel further along the Kingsway with five other lads from Liverpool. Ludovic Kennedy found himself in a small hotel in Fourth Avenue. He had only one roommate who quickly found another berth when he discovered that Kennedy talked in his sleep, punctuated with the occasional shout.

I Elliston Near was billeted in a hotel in First Avenue and was surprised to be presented with a bill at the end of the first week. The manager assured his group that the Navy would reimburse them. But they were not keen on the idea and asked the manager to submit the bills direct to the King Alfred. Later that day Paymaster Captain Hodge (still wearing his bowler hat) addressed them and said he was disappointed they doubted the integrity of the Admiralty. Some two or three years later Captain Hodge met Near by chance at Dover and recognised him at once as one of the KA rebels. However, there was no ill-will and the Captain bought him a drink.

A consequence of there being so many potential officers about, was a rush of Naval tailors to the coast. They established themselves as close as possible to the King Alfred, like bees around a honey-pot. For example, in 1942 there was Hector Powe at 2 St Aubyn’s Gardens and Rowe’s at number 5 while round the corner in St Aubyns there were SW Silver at no 3, Packett & Son at no 7, Bernard Weatherill at no 9, Alderton & Sons at no 11, not to mention Gieves at St Catherine’s Lodge Hotel, Moss Bros at St Catherine’s Terrace and Austin Reed in Vallance Gardens. It was worth their trouble because in the first seven months alone, 1,700 officers passed through the establishment.

Combridges, the booksellers and stationers in Church Road, was another beneficiary. The firm was in the doldrums because most of the private schools had been evacuated. Then suddenly there were all these men who needed books on navigation and bought up stacks of protractors and compasses that had been hanging fire for some time. Combridges was able to become a limited company largely on account of this upsurge in business.

Clifford’s, the Brighton caterers, provided all the food for the King Alfred as well as the waitresses to serve it. According to an ex-KA hand, the young ladies must have been hand picked because they were attractive and became known as Clifford’s Cuties. After the war, Clifford Jones, who owned the firm, was able to buy English’s Oyster Bar, a famous Brighton restaurant.

Local sporting facilities were utilised to the full. Officers and cadets played against each other at the Sussex County Cricket Ground while the squash club in St Helier’s Avenue allowed officers to join at a reduced rate. Sussex Yacht Club organised races for the officers and sportingly leant them their boats. There was badminton and tennis and later rugby, hockey and bowls. Another concession was free use of the ice rink in West Street, Brighton, for an hour before the evening session started.


Amongst the earliest arrivals at HMS King Alfred were men from the Royal Naval Volunteer (Supplementary) Reserve, popularly known as the Yachtsmen’s Reserve. As this implies, these men were experienced sailors of mature years. Some of them who had passed a medical in 1936 were certainly unfit three years later and 10% were quickly weeded out. But others were so keen to do their bit in wartime that they were prepared to pay their own fares there and back and they paid for their own messing. If accepted for further training, it was valuable for older sailors to learn that helm orders had been rationalised and the old phrase ‘broad on the starboard beam’ had been replaced by ‘green nine oh’.

The initial batch of RNV(S)R men numbered 140 men and some of them travelled over 100 miles to get to Hove. Once there they joined a long queue supervised by two smartly turned-out Chief Gunner’s Mates. It took them an hour to reach the head of the queue.

One of the training staff at the King Alfred watched as this assorted group descended on Hove. Some sported top hats, there were others in bowlers or trilbies or golf caps and they wore anything from tweeds to morning suits. Some arrived on foot, others by taxi and a select few in chauffeur driven cars. But they certainly knew a thing or two about navigation and had no hesitation in standing up to correct their instructor on a technical point if necessary. Their average length of stay was just ten days.

Douglas Duff found himself sharing a single bedroom with five other potential officers, two of whom were yacht-mad undergraduates, one a stockbroker aged around 40 who owned a famous yacht and another who was a retired Colonial official.

For younger members of the RNV(S)R the training lasted the standard three months.

In October 1939 there were two classes of mid-shipman with 30 men in each and the same number of sub-Lieutenants. The rule was simple but absolute; if you were under 19 ½ half years you became a mid-shipman (and had to wear maroon tabs on the lapels of your donkey jacket) but if you were over that age you became a sub-Lieutenant. These men were the first of the HO (Hostilities Only) officers. Indeed all officers passing through the King Alfred were classed as acting or temporary. This was to avoid the repetition of the infamous Geddes axe wielded after World War I when it was realised there were too many officers for peacetime. But this did not mean there was an absolute block on a future Naval career and many a KA officer went on to join the regular Navy after the war.

John Blackmore was one of the early arrivals at KA in September 1939. Although he was RNVR, he had only recently joined and had not done any training and so his stay was more prolonged. After around four weeks of training, his class was lined up and those who possessed a uniform and two pairs of trousers were asked to step forward. Those who did were appointed to Contraband Control while those in possession of a uniform and one pair of trousers (including Blackmore) were despatched to a destroyer course at Portsmouth. Blackmore served in two destroyers, HMS Griffin and HMS Opportune, and twice his CO was Commander J Lee-Barber who was to be connected with the King Alfred at a later stage.

I Elliston Near who was in the 1939 intake remembered his group being inspected by Admiral William James, Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth. He was universally known by the nickname Bubbles because of the celebrated portrait of him as a child painted by his grandfather John Everett Millais. During the inspection the order ‘Gas’ was given, which involved a quick snatch of the gas-mask from its case. As one man did this, there was clatter of spoons and forks falling to the floor – items his friends had thoughtfully planted on him. The inspecting officers ignored it and passed on without a word.

In January 1940 the first pioneers of a new group of men arrived at the King Alfred – they were the CW candidates (Commission and Warrant) plucked from the lower deck as potential officer material and recommended by their CO. They needed to have three months of sea experience. But for a suitable candidate who already had sea experience, the procedure could move fast. To take one example, John Pickwell was interviewed on 1st February 1941 at Scapa Flow aboard HMS Phoebe. He passed the Board and proceeded to Portsmouth, arriving there on 5th February. He passed the Board held on 11th February and on 14th February arrived at HMS King Alfred (Lancing).

But the procedure did not always work so fast. Derek Langston-Jones was at sea for nine months before finally making it to the King Alfred. This was because he was serving aboard destroyers and the time spent in port was too brief for the formalities to be completed and a replacement found before the ship was obliged to set sail again.

The candidates were known as cadet ratings and not all of them had been bred for the sea. They included solicitors, schoolmasters, bank clerks, art students, newspapermen, an optician, a blacksmith, a hotel manager, and an oil seed refiner. In fact the King Alfred was a melting pot. For some of them going back to school was hard work. But Peter Bull found the instructors were aware of the difficulty and one said to him that it must be hard to learn at his age. He was 29.

copyright © Ian Hennell
Cadet ratings and the whalers at Portslade in 1940.
Methods and training at the King Alfred were under constant scrutiny by the top brass. The Boards were made tougher, the training revised, the marking system altered and instead of retired officers, sea-going officers were brought in for a six-month stint. This was to prevent the training going stale. During a ten-week course a cadet spent 52 hours studying navigation, 38 hours at seamanship, and 20 hours on pilotage. There was practical work aboard whalers at Portslade and ship handling at Newhaven aboard HMS Forward and later aboard HMS Dunlin.  

Ronald Gellatly who left the establishment in 1941 wrote ‘HMS King Alfred was without doubt the most efficiently run establishment that I met during my Naval career. Our syllabus was vast, navigation, chart-work, boat drill, deck work, signalling, code-books, knots, seamanship, gunnery, torpedoes, squad drill and administration. It was obviously impossible to become a master of each subject in such a short time, the idea was that whatever job one was drafted to afterwards, one would have a grounding’. Gellatly was also of the opinion that failure amongst cadet ratings was extremely rare as they were so carefully selected. Gellatly went on to Combined Operations and eventually became a Fleet Air Arm pilot flying in a squadron of Swordfish.

Geoffrey Ball felt differently about the quality of cadet ratings in 1944. He wrote that one division started off with 110 men but only some 60 men lasted the entire course.

copyright © Ian Hennell
HMS Forward at Newhaven in 1940
Direct entrants were another type of candidate who joined as officers under training, quite distinct from cadet ratings, who did not achieve that status until their final two weeks at Hove. Many of the direct entrants were ‘gentlemen over 30’ as EC Ealey put it. He had been managing director of a soap factory in Lagos, Nigeria, when he decided to return home to the United Kingdom to do his bit for the war effort. He was at KA in 1941 and reckoned one third of personnel under training were men of his vintage with cadet ratings making up the remaining two-thirds.

EC Crane was a direct entrant in March 1940. His intake was split into three classes of the Port Division, P2 for those with deep-sea knowledge, P3 for those with coastal experience, and P4 for the rest.

Many of the older entrants were less than enchanted at the prospect of field training and drilling. Kenneth Stott’s letter to his wife written on 20th August 1942 sums up this attitude, ‘I gather they are field-training and saluting mad at Lancing for the next five weeks after which the field-training eases off a little and you can begin to learn something that might be useful to you!! Like most people here, I shall be glad when it is all over and all the pother (sic) ended. The only people who enjoy all the flannel are the young lads the 20-23s; the rest of us in my class seem to be 30-36-37 and all the fuss seems to be so remote from the war we just can’t get used to it again’.

The pros and cons of direct of direct entrants versus lower deck ratings was a favourite topic of debate in many a Wardroom. Later on, when the direct entry system lapsed, the Navy had a great number of sub-Lieutenants between the ages of 35 and 45 who had to wait a long time for the second stripe.

Charles Turner was a direct entrant and he arrived at Hove in June 1940. He was a member of Scarborough Yacht Club and had been recommended by the Harbour Master when the Admiralty made enquiries about suitable men who knew something about boats. Turner and his friend had one great advantage because out of interest they had spent the winter swotting up on navigation under the direction of this same Harbour Master who was an ex-Master mariner. They were inspired to undertake this studying after taking part in the Royal Yorkshire Club’s race to the Outer Dowsing Light, some 25 miles off the Humber Estuary. They were crewing aboard a new yacht and what with poor visibility and a difficult tide, they never did find the light vessel.

Amongst Turner’s group of 20 men were an MP and a film director. The MP was Alan Lennox-Boyd (created 1st Viscount Merton in 1960) who served with the RNVR for three years and became Lieutenant of a mine-sweeping trawler. The film director was Pen Tennyson whose last film made in 1940 was Convoy and it was the first war film of any merit to depict a realistic view of a merchant seaman’s life. Pen Tennyson arranged for the King Alfred to have a preview before it went on general release. He was a director of great promise but sadly he was killed on 7th July 1941.

There was also the Y scheme under which suitable youngsters were selected straight from school. They were sent to university for six months followed by some time in the training squadron based in the Firth of Forth where they lived as ratings aboard the old cruisers Dauntless or Diomede or the converted merchant ship Corinthian. Then there was usually three months at sea before proceeding to HMS King Alfred.

Two Y scheme entrants were the twins Norris and Ross McWhirter (later to become famous with their Guinness Book of Records). They applied to join while they were still at Marlborough and were sent to Bristol for their initial interview. Although instructed to report at 9am they sat there kicking their heels until lunchtime. There was a perfunctory interview in the afternoon and then they were dismissed. Their headmaster forwarded their letter of complaint to the Admiralty and later they learnt to their satisfaction that the officer had been replaced. After Marlborough the twins went to Trinity College for an intensive time in the Oxford University Naval Division. At the conclusion, ten of the twenty-four had failed and the survivors were sent to HMS Ganges for some tough training. The twins were nearly parted when Norris failed the colour vision test but Ross passed. The Surgeon-Commander became very interested in the case but it transpired that Norris had tried to be as accurate as possible and identified certain colours as magenta and ultra-marine, which the sick berth attendant had never heard of – red and blue would have been fine. After HMS Ganges, the twins were sent to HMS Dauntless but on 11th July 1944 they arrived at Hove. After the rigours of the training ships, they found the standard of living at KA unbelievably good. However, it was not time to relax because it was becoming increasingly difficult to become officers since demand had dropped. Needless to say the McWhirters passed but Norris noted that out of 140 highly pre-selected entrants who started out at Oxford in October 1943, only 60 passed out at the King Alfred. The McWhirters were appointed mid-shipmen but were soon parted under new Admiralty rules that did not allow brothers to serve together to avoid the tragedy of families being wiped out. On 27th November 1955 Ross McWhirter was murdered by the IRA.

The Actor Kenneth More
A number of other celebrities went through KA. Richard Baker remembered the chilling cold at Lancing and taking sextant readings on the KA terrace. Some have led such varied and interesting lives that memories of KA have been overlaid, such as Sir Edward Gardner QC, for instance. Others on the contrary saved their recollections for their autobiographies, like John Pertwee and Ludovic Kennedy although the latter had already put some memories on paper in a book published during the war. 

Sir Peter Scott and Peter Bull had warm recollections of their time at KA while Kenneth More almost left it out altogether. He was much more interested in recording what happened in his interview at Portsmouth. Apparently, the actor Robert Newton had caused a great deal of trouble there and was caught several times scaling the wall after a late night at the pub. When the Board learned that More was also a member of the acting profession, the Admiral groaned and said ‘Oh God, not another bloody actor’. However More did go to KA and received his commission. Indeed he fitted so well into Naval life that after the war it was touch and go whether he would take up the Admiralty’s offer to return to the Navy or to continue with acting.

Other actors who were at KA were Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Michael Hordern, Sir Donald Sinden (whose break came in The Cruel Sea in which one of the officers was fresh up from KA) and Donald Hewlett (Colonel Reynolds in ‘It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum’). 


There was a tendency to abbreviate expressions and titles to initial letters and all who served in HMS King Alfred referred to her as KA. Likewise nobody needed to ask what OLQ stood for because everyone knew it meant officer-like qualities. A lack of OLQ displayed at any time during training could mean the loss of the coveted white cap band and instant despatch to the barracks at Portsmouth. The opposite of OLQ was LDA (lower deck attitude) and Heaven forbid any aspiring RNVR sub-lieutenant should harbour such behaviour.

The mystique of OLQ was more than a convention, it was an obsession; perhaps because you could fail to display OLQ without realising it and the fear of being returned to the lower deck was very real. Hence OLQ loomed larger in the minds of the cadets than the ignominy of failing the academic or professional parts of the course. One Divisional Officer was never seen without his notebook to which he referred constantly. Rumour had it that each time your name was written in the book, your chances of obtaining a commission diminished. In the final passing-out examination, marks were allotted to ‘Former Service’ but this was merely a euphemism for OLQ. If all this seems like a storm in a teacup, it is worth recording that amongst the official Admiralty papers held at the Public Record Office at Kew, there is an admission that a candidate might pass all his tests with flying colours and still be failed for lack of OLQ.

To some of the direct entry officers in the early days, OLQ had never been heard of but then it was not applicable to them because since early childhood such qualities had been drummed into them. One Lieutenant-Commander RNVR remembered as a small boy being drilled by his father never to cry if he hurt himself because if he did, it showed he was a coward and ‘if you’re a coward you’ll end up being shot by your own men’. Later on he was constantly reminded to look after the comforts of his men before considering his own needs.

However, to men straight from the lower deck, becoming an officer was fraught with pitfalls. The trouble was that nobody was quite sure about the definition of OLQ. There were lurid stories that holding your knife and fork incorrectly was a major sin. Another yarn going the rounds and believed implicitly was that lighting your cigarette from another cadet’s stub-end displayed a lack of OLQ. Peter Bull enjoyed stealing up behind some of his more nervous fellow ratings and hissing ‘Got a light, chum?’ This produced such a horrified reaction you would have thought he intended to blow up the Admiralty. At length the story came to the ears of the CO who was so incensed by such nonsense that he went round deliberately lighting his cigarette from other officers’ stub-ends.

Peter Bull also recounts the story of a would-be officer who was so unnerved by his medical that ‘he lost control of his wind’ as Bull so delicately phrases it. The unfortunate man had obviously displayed a lack of OLQ and was sent back to sea straight away.

The following ‘orange’ story was recounted for me amidst much hilarity at HMS Sussex where several ex-KA officers had come to recall their memories of that time. Each division had to put on a show at Lancing College when they had finished their course and before they proceeded to Hove. Two ratings put on a very good act based on the Western Brothers who were portrayed as typical old public school types wearing evening dress and sporting a monocle. Their catch phrase was ‘Play the game, you cad’. The Western Brothers (who were actually cousins) used to insert a throwaway line between the verses of the song they were singing and the two cadet ratings decided to do the same. They wanted to be topical so they picked on an incident from that evening. Clifford’s the caterers had served oranges for dessert and as a rare commodity, the officers were given a whole orange while the cadets received a half. Thus the throwaway line became ‘Half an officer, half an orange.’ Naturally their fellow cadets thought it was absolutely hilarious but the officers were not amused. Next day the two cadet ratings were out – lack of OLQ.


It was because of the heavy bombing in Portsmouth that the initial Selection Board was moved from there to Hove. The Navy took over a private boys’ school known as Mowden in The Droveway – the boys and teachers had already been evacuated in 1940 to Northamptonshire. Not everyone was pleased with the move and thought having the Board so close to KA and indeed becoming part of the establishment, was no advantage at all. Indeed one training Commander remarked glumly that Mowden became something of a thorn in the flesh. Mowden was also used as a reception centre for all CW candidates.

copyright © Ray Davey
Morning Divisions at Mowden.
The first candidates arrived at Mowden on 8th July 1941. They had to undergo a thorough medical examination. The candidate already had a miniature x-ray of his chest taken at Portsmouth, which proved to be of great value in detecting early signs of tuberculosis. The candidate was also obliged to visit the Naval dentist. Geoffrey Ball found it rather appropriate that when his teeth were being inspected, he could hear in the distance other cadets at Divisions singing the hymn ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’.

The Admiralty Selection Board was held in the Library when there were usually three senior officers seated behind the polished table. For example, in 1942 the Board was composed of a Rear-Admiral, an Instructor Captain and a RNVR Captain. They fired searching questions on flags, navigation lights, rule of the road, magnetic compass, deviation, etc. Vice-Admiral RC Davenport was a long-standing member of the Board. He had retired from the Navy in January 1938 but when war broke out he was promptly recalled to service. He was Commodore of the Atlantic Convoys before joining the Selection Board and he became President of the Admiralty Selection Board for temporary commissions RNVR from October 1941 until July 1946. For 2 ½ years he interviewed every CW candidate. By the time he retired for the second time in 1946, he had notched up 50 years of service in the Royal Navy. Another long-serving officer was Rear-Admiral Cloete who spent three years on the Selection Board.

Geoffrey Ball, a youthful candidate of 18, was surprised to be asked ‘Have you heard the saying on the lower deck ‘one hand for yourself and one for the King?’ Fortunately, he had his wits about him and replied ‘I have heard the saying one hand for yourself and one for the Navy but if the weather is too rough both hands for yourself’. This reply produced laughter.

copyright © Ian Hennell
Cadet Rating Ian Hennell on 
guard duty in 1940.
When Bryan Cambray had his interview at Mowden, he received a nasty jolt. He was a leading telegraphist, he had done his sea time and was as keen as mustard to gain a commission. But the Board told him because the Navy was so short of W/T operators, he would be sent to Signal School and made a CPO. Cambray saw his dream of a commission and a return to sea fading away but as he was allowed to say something, he launched into an impassioned speech on the lines that he was being penalised for working hard. He was told to wait outside while the Board conferred. When he re-entered the senior officer leant his gold-braided arms on the table and said ‘I have rarely heard so much flannel in all my life. However, I take your point and if you come in the first dozen at the end of six weeks at Lancing, you may carry on’. Cambray did come in the top dozen and was told to report to the Master-at-Arms’ office in his number ones. A car then whisked him off to the King Alfred where the senior officer from the Selection Board congratulated him and asked him if he liked pink gin. Cambray replied that he had never tasted it and the officer said ‘Well, you’ll have one now and you will probably be the only rating to have been given one by an Admiral’.

Once a candidate had passed the Board at Mowden he was issued with two white cap bands and was known henceforth as a cadet rating. The cap bands were not widely recognised outside the local area and those on leave in London were often amused to overhear people speculating as to their meaning – ideas varied from VD cases to Polish seamen. But in Brighton cadets felt the cap bands shone like beacons and put them off entering shady night-spots like Sherry’s. One cadet rating caused raised eyebrows when he failed to cut his band to the right size and arrived on parade with it twisted around his cap like a loose plait.

A mast was erected on Mowden’s playing field, which served as a parade ground. It was customary for classes to be formed up for parade by reference to the hoisting of certain Naval flags. When the flags spelt ‘marker’ it was the signal for the designated marker from each class to rush out and take up station. Naturally it was a matter of pride to the class that their marker should get there first. But the instructors were anxious to stress the importance of accuracy at all times and they therefore played tricks now and again. One marker from a division of 1944 remembered his chagrin when he dashed out to take up station on reading correctly the letters for MAR only to find the following letters were TYRS. Just to rub the point home he was made to run around the field a couple of times as punishment.

The cadet ratings were grouped into divisions of 100 men but in 1943 with the pressure of entrants the number was closer to 200. Divisions had the following names – Anson, Beatty, Benbow, Cochrane, Collingwood, Drake, Effingham, Frobisher, Greynville, Hawke, Hood, Jervis, Jellicoe, Nelson and Rodney. A Divisional Officer was in charge of each Division and under him were the Field Training Officer (easily recognisable by the black gaiters he wore) the Instructor Lieutenant (who wore a blue band between the gold and was nicknamed a Schooly) and the Seamanship Officer.

The cadet ratings were billeted out in various private houses in the vicinity. Peter Bull stayed with a charming family. The only drawback was their young daughter whose favourite piece of music was The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, which she played frequently. But a little gentle bribery worked wonders and he enjoyed his stay at Mowden.

A few of the billets were at some distance from Mowden. For instance, Geoffrey Ball found himself lodging in an old boarding house in Ventnor Villas, which he reckoned was a good 20 minutes walk away. His bedroom was up in the attics and he shared with another youngster from HMS Duncan.

Kenneth Stott, who was in his fifties, wrote home to his wife Mary soon after his arrival at Mowden in August 1942. ‘I have a single room … so I can manage to do a little work in bed without having to think of anyone else. I have a funny high little bed but I have been so tired that I have not noticed really whether it is comfortable or not’. Probably he was just as tired at Lancing and Hove and his letters decrease in volume as the workload increased


Cadet ratings stayed at Mowden for two weeks and if successful moved on to the next stage of their course at Lancing College, the boys and teachers having been evacuated shortly after Dunkirk. Lancing College became part of the King Alfred establishment in late 1940 and on 27th February 1941 Rear-Admiral Harrison passed out the first Division to train there. Unlike Mowden, the cadet ratings boarded at Lancing for the six weeks.

Men who were at Lancing during the cold winters of 1940 and 1941 found the exposed position of the college something of a hardship. Indeed for Richard Baker the bitter cold was one of his most enduring memories. But all of them found their surroundings impressive while many remembered the quality and volume of hymn singing in the impressive chapel.
copyright © D.Sharp
Lancing College

K Stott was at Lancing in August 1942 and wrote to his wife ‘The food is excellent – hot served on hot plates in a very pleasant Mess that must have been the college refectory room – we sleep in dormitories that are clean and comfortable and there are enough washbasins and hot water for everyone’.

For cadets coming straight from service on the lower deck, life at Lancing was even more of a contrast. One ex-cadet particularly remembered the luxury of clean, white tablecloths and of being treated as an individual. But everyone with memories of KA (at all three sites) commented on the marvellous atmosphere at Lancing. It was compounded of eagerness, hard work, discipline and friendliness, the sense of everyone having a job to do and doing it well. An Old Etonian arriving in 1940 wrote that he was ‘a bit horrified by the atmosphere of intense keenness’.

Commander Hugh Maclean was the CO in charge of Lancing. Rumour had it that he was a clan chief or something to do with the toothpaste manufacturer (or both). He owned a black retriever called Ben who accompanied him on parade. He would order ‘Division ‘shun’ and in an aside ‘Sit down Ben’. The day Commander Maclean was married at St George’s Church, Hanover Square was clearly remembered. He invited a small contingent of Dominion ratings to perform the traditional drawing of the bridal carriage – in this case a gleaming Rolls Royce. The bride wearing rarely seen white satin was thus hauled to the church door. Cadet ratings from Lancing did a repeat performance after the ceremony but once around the corner they were bundled into waiting taxis in order to overtake the bridal party and pull them to the Dorchester in style. Inside the Dorchester a splendid major-domo clad in scarlet announced the guests and when he caught sight of the cadets he said sotto voce  ‘Just get in round the corner, Jack’. Once the champagne began to flow even the most senior brass hat became friendly towards them.

When Wren Cleverley was posted to Lancing in March 1942, she found one of her duties was to exercise the ship’s mascot, a truculent bulldog by the name of Bill. He was controlled by a lead made out of a long rope and this was necessary because Bill’s great delight was to chase horses or cows if he got half a chance. Later, when she was moved to different duties, she heard that a cow had kicked Bill and the padre had forcibly retired him by carrying him off to his mother’s house to be looked after.

Morning Divisions were held in the Tower Quad. By 1943 it was something of a squash when there were five Divisions of 100 men each. This added to the nervousness of the cadet chosen to be in charge of the parade. Fortunately there was always a petty officer on hand, which was just as well on one occasion when the cadet forgot to give the final ‘Right turn’ and one hundred men came within a whisker of attempting to climb the steep bank behind the saluting base.

There were lectures on the usual subjects plus one marked on the timetable as GOOT. This signified ‘getting out of trouble’. It was useful to know what to do if for instance you heaved up the anchor and found a telephone line attached. Navigation and signalling were taught in novel fashion. The Admiralty had requisitioned some 18 tricycles used by Wall’s ice cream salesmen (stop me and buy one) and despatched them to Lancing. They were painted battle-ship grey, fitted with a compass and a short mast to which flags could be attached. In navigation exercises the engineer rode the tricycle while the plotting officer walked beside him giving directions. When about to execute a manoeuvre such as turning to port or starboard, the cadet rang the tricycle’s bell as a substitute for a ship’s siren. Cadets learnt to signal by clipping the relevant flags to the mast. Despite the in-built hilarity of using such a training device, it proved to be far more effective than sitting still in a classroom.

The instructors knew that it could be boring on sentry duty at night and they liked to keep the men on their toes by occasionally creeping up on them The instructor would then attempt to disarm the cadet and if he succeeded, the cadet was in serious trouble. One cadet who went on to become a Lieutenant and was Mentioned in Despatches, remembered the night he was the intended victim. But he spotted the dark shape in time, demanded the password (changed hourly) and when he said ‘Advance and be recognised’ he saw it was an instructor. But it was a dangerous exercise because men on guard duty were issued with live ammunition.

Ray Bentley remembered a stint of guard duty from 2am to 4am one bitterly cold night in 1942. Before being marched to his beat, he had been issued with a rifle and one round of live ammunition in the guardroom as usual. His beat was the perimeter road south of the chapel from some point near the pub called the Sussex Pad. He was keen to do well at KA and with snow on the ground he decided to keep active by marching and turning as if on a parade ground, pausing every so often to listen and work his rifle-bolt to ensure it would be effective if required. By the time the relief sentry arrived he was more than ready for a hot drink and a smoke in the guardroom before catching a few hours of sleep and the day’s routine started. Imagine his horror when in the handover, the breech was withdrawn and it was seen the bullet was missing. The Duty Officer left him in no doubt that if the bullet were not produced by 8am, his name would appear in the Commander’s report. Back he went to his beat with a heavy heart thinking his dream of a commission was at an end but for once he was glad there was snow on the ground because he spotted a small black hole and there was the missing bullet.

When Lancing College was vacated in 1945, one particular FTO who had been there long enough to pass out 11 Divisions decided the event must be celebrated in style. He managed to locate a couple of chamber pots with great difficulty and proposed to hoist them to the roof of the chapel – a height of 150 feet. It had to be done at night but the sentry on guard duty with bayonet fixed and live ammunition heard something and shouted ‘Halt! Who goes there?’ the answer was ‘The Archangel Gabriel’. Daylight revealed a chamber pot safely resting on top of the lightning conductors at either end of the chapel roof.

A feature of life at Lancing was the Divisional Concert held on a Thursday evening at the end of the six weeks training course and before the men moved on to Hove. For some ratings the occasion was more taxing than the Admiralty Board but for others it was a chance to let off steam. Naturally the programme was heavy with parodies and witticisms about the permanent staff. Two of the instructors were blessed with the surnames of Sunshine and Heaven, which of course provided the raw material for many a joke.

Peter Bull was at Lancing in 1941. He was known to have a theatrical background and so he was a natural choice to produce the Anson Division’s Concert. His contribution to the festivities was his own version of a striptease. He emerged on stage in a sailor’s uniform complete with webbing equipment and gas-mask. While the pianist softly played ‘She’s my Lovely’ he produced cartridges and threw them gracefully to the officers in the front row one by one. When he was down to his underpants, he nipped behind a screen and re-emerged in officer’s rig. His act brought the house down. The finale featured a choir composed of all the good Welsh voices. Bull’s Divisional Officer somehow detected qualities of leadership and sent him off to Hove with the highest recommendation.

Peter Bull was not the only man with theatrical connections and indeed Maurice Fitzgerald (Divisional Officer, Lancing 1941/1942) stated his principal recollection of those days as the interesting theatrical folk he met when they too were instructor officers. They were Lieutenant Donald Yarranton who became actor Howard Lang and became famous for his portrayal of Captain Baines in the TV series The Onedin Line; Roger Furse, the noted designer and painter who was temporarily released from the Navy in order to design the costumes and armour for the film Henry V produced in 1944; and Peter Dearing, actor and producer.

Fitzgerald also remembered Surgeon-Lieutenant Kenneth Cranston who, as well as being a good dental officer, was also a fine cricketer. He captained Lancashire in 1948 and played for England in eight test matches, captaining England for one match in the 1947/48 tour.   

Later on Lancing received a permanent reminder of its links with the Navy in the shape of a stained glass window from the chapel at the King Alfred. It was the gift of KA’s principal MO, Surgeon-Captain Reade and depicted St Nicholas in cope and mitre blessing three mid-shipmen, one dressed in 16th century uniform, another wearing 18th century uniform, plus a present day mid-shipman. It was similar in design to the one in the chapel of HMS Repulse. Reade had intimated that when KA closed down the window should go to Lancing College. There it remains although it is not clear if people are aware of its origin.


When the cadet ratings arrived at Hove, they knew they were on the last lap of their course although they could still be ‘dipped’ at any time. If that happened the man would be sent back to Portsmouth so quickly that there was no time to say goodbyes. He would not be required to pay for the new officer’s uniform he had been measured for either. Some of the men who were dipped had the consolation of being given a ‘hook’ that is being made a leading seaman.

Some cadets took up residence in the notoriously cold dormitories created in the underground car park. Others, and especially the direct entrants, were billeted in nearby houses or hotels, while a few fortunate ones managed to arrange for their families to come to Hove. One of the latter group remembered very comfortable lodgings in Walsingham Terrace that he shared with his wife and baby daughter.

Not quite so fortunate were three cadets who shared one billet. The landlady used to dish up the most appalling breakfasts and invariably asked ‘Have you had enough, gentlemen?’ To which one of them with heavy irony would reply ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’. The landlady recognised the Scriptural origin of the remark but obviously she did not understand the implication for she would reply ‘It’s very nice of you to say so, I’m sure’.

EC Ealey, a direct entry officer, must have enjoyed one of the most comfortable billets in town because he stayed at the Princes Hotel, overlooking the sea-front and a place famed for its luxury. Later in the war, the Admiralty took over the building and it became HMS Lizard while today it is called King’s House and is the HQ of Brighton & Hove City Council. One afternoon Eales was with a group of KA men on the lawns near the King Alfred. They were practising manoeuvres with the aid of flags when there was a tremendous explosion. An unexploded bomb had been dropped near the Princes Hotel some ten days previously and when a bomb disposal group tried to extricate it, the bomb exploded killing the men and shattering every window in the hotel.

The day began with the sound of a bugle blasting out reveille over the tannoy. Ten minutes was all the time allotted to dress in singlet and shorts, make the bed and be ready for PT on the seafront, come wet or shine. The Royal Marine instructors took great delight in putting the men through a rigorous 30-minute drill and were the most unpopular people at KA. But the men had to grin and bear it in case the authorities detected a lack of enthusiasm or OLQ. But in 1942 one Division certainly got its own back after being commissioned and before leaving KA

It happened in the main lecture hall when some Marines were giving a demonstration of unarmed combat on stage. They demonstrated how to react in the event of being taken prisoner and marched off at gunpoint. If you knew what to do it was possible to overcome the captor without being shot first. The Marines had a 45-Colt revolver loaded with blanks and it all looked beautifully simple. But for the manoeuvre to be successful, the prisoner had to know in which hand the captor held his gun. In due course volunteers were asked to get up on stage. At first there were no takers but at last a young mid-shipman in the front row volunteered. He was assigned the part of guard and instructed not to hesitate to fire when the ‘prisoner’ turned to attack. The mid-shipman took the gun in his right hand but as soon as the PT instructor turned and marched across the stage with his hands up, the mid-shipman quickly transferred the gun to his left hand. When the ‘prisoner’ attacked the mid-shipman calmly poked the gun barrel under the instructor’s singlet and fired. The flame from the blank was trapped under the singlet and caused a nasty burn from waist to shoulder. The instructor shrieked and collapsed on the floor and had to be carted off on a stretcher. Regrettably, such was the antipathy towards PT instructors that instead of a shocked silence, the audience rose as one man and cheered.

Morning Divisions included a smart march along the promenade with frequent practice in the art of scattering should enemy aircraft appear unexpectedly. One day this became a reality and they were fired upon but everyone knew the drill and nobody was hurt. The promenade was also used for flag drill when upon the orders of an instructor the cadets raised arms holding various flags, and carried out manoeuvres as if they were ships. Unfortunately the whole exercise was visible to the public at large who showed a keen interest in the doings of the cadets, causing some acutely self-conscious cadets to make mistakes.

One of the requirements of a candidate chosen to be Duty Officer was to report ‘Ship darkened, Captain’ after nightfall. It was not the easiest task as there were many windows at KA that must be properly blacked-out; you might be unfamiliar with the building and therefore might miss a little window lurking around a corner. But having ascertained all was in order it was equally difficult to find the Captain and report.

In addition to daytime instruction, revision PT, field training etc there were guard duty and fire-watching duties at night. For many men the overriding memory of being on sentry-go was the sheer boredom of it. The hands of one’s watch hardly seemed to move. However, being on guard was a serious matter and it was supposed to help the cadet practice alertness, vigilance and to display initiative. All challenges were made at bayonet point and the man challenged had to produce a pay-book or ID card. One alert rating spotted two men walking towards him and when challenged, they did not stop. It was fortunate that the cadet was not an accurate shot for live bullet went whizzing past a visiting Admiral and his chauffeur. There was a huge rumpus.

By 1942 it was the practice to inform cadets that unless their pay-books were stamped as having passed the swimming test, they would be failed the course. At least twice a week a class for backward swimmers was held at the old Medina Baths. A PT instructor was in charge but he did not make much attempt to do any practical teaching. The favoured method was to throw back those struggling to the sides, shades of HMS Ganges indeed. As a result some men improvised some very unorthodox swimming strokes while others just stood around in the water and watched. It appears the swimming test was only a threat because nobody failed to gain a commission through lack of prowess in the swimming baths.

Part of the instruction at KA was ship handling and this took place at Aldrington Basin and in the canal at Portslade. At first there was only one requisitioned boat but by 1942 there were six converted motor launches. They had been fitted with a bridge, compass and voice pipe on top of the wheel-house. Handling these small craft with engines in such a confined space was no easy task. Indeed the venerable instructor, Lieutenant-Commander Noakes, used to say ‘it’s easier to sail a windjammer backwards down the Amazon’. Initially the cadets were trained aboard a single screw vessel, later graduating to a twin-screw boat. Each cadet took turns to be First Lieutenant or Captain. 

The motor launches would proceed in procession down the canal. The tricky part was a shallow stretch near the Gas Works and more than one cadet experienced the indignity of looking over the side and spotting his screw on the mud. Ship-handling proved to be the last test for one candidate. He had been deafened by gun blast at sea but had managed to bluff his way through the medical. However, while doing his stint at the wheel, he failed to hear a wheel order and the little ship hit the mud and stuck hard and fast. When hauled up to the bridge and accused of being deaf, he could not deny it. He was not allowed to go to sea again and spent the rest of the war at a shore base. Another task was learning to manoeuvre alongside a jetty, which not surprisingly acquired a dent or two.

Several ex-cadet ratings remembered the story of KA’s pigeons. The idea originated in the mind of a man called Stegman who had painted a portrait of Commander Head. Stegman posed a question to Captain Pelly.

‘Have you thought sir, of what we should do in the event of an enemy landing and our being unable to get a message to Whitehall? I suggest sir, we have some pigeons’.

Captain Pelly told him to go ahead and get some. In due course some crates arrived emitting a clucking noise. Stegman had decided the pigeons should live on KA’s roof housed in an old lion’s cage he had purchased from a small zoo at Shoreham. The cage arrived on the back of a lorry and was hoisted to the roof, making such a clatter that Captain Pelly poked his head out and enquired ‘What the hell goes on?’

The story goes that Stegman once took the pigeons to London by train in order to accustom them to the journey as he explained. But it seems Stegman had little idea of how to train them and when he let them out on a trial flight, they flew off and were never seen again. An interesting aside to the story is that the lion’s cage was still in situ on the roof in 1960 when a nostalgic ex-cadet rating went to check on it.

A story that belongs to the height of the invasion scare in June 1940 concerns a night-time alert. The cadets were roused at 3am, issued with rifles and five rounds of live ammunition, and bundled into trucks. There were driven to a farm somewhere on the Downs and ordered to defend it against all comers. It was of course pitch black and the bewildered cadets had not the faintest idea in which direction they were facing, let alone from which direction the enemy might be expected to advance. It turned out to be a false alarm and eventually the cadets returned to their beds.

A direct entry officer who was at KA during this same tense time remembered an anecdote at complete variance with the one just related. His group were informed that if an invasion occurred, they were too valuable to stay and fight and they must make their way over the Downs to Steyning and eventually they would be evacuated to Canada.

He also remembered that some of his classmates had difficulty in joining the King Alfred at all. There they were, three young men in strange uniforms studying a map in their car; they were mistaken for enemy parachutists.

The King Alfred was never short of important visitors and there was a never-ending stream of VIPs not only from this country but also from abroad. A real red-letter day occurred on 29th May 1941. G Halliday (ex-Lieutenant RNVR) wrote this personal reminiscence.
‘Class Drake C had taken its written exams and we were due to commission on the following day. On the afternoon of 28th May 1941 all ratings under training and their officers were summoned to fall in at the drill shed, which was under the main deck. One of the senior officers briefed as follows.
‘Tomorrow King Alfred is to be visited by a very senior officer. It is his particular wish to see the establishment under normal working conditions. You will wear your normal rig of the day. Those of you who are passing out tomorrow will have time to change for your interview with the Vice-Admiral after our guest has departed. If you are going ashore tonight, it is most important that you breathe no word of the senior officer’s visit. Careless talk and all that. We do not want the day to be complicated by the attentions of the Luftwaffe! Classes will proceed as normal tomorrow with Divisions and inspections in the afternoon. Remember – no word of this ashore’.

Shortly afterwards Halliday went ashore and visited a newsagent within 200 yards of KA only to be greeted with the words ‘I hear the King is coming to see you tomorrow’.

copyright © Mrs Joan Bourne nee Feast.
The visit of  King George VI to the King Alfred on 29 May 1941. He is followed by Wren Officer Stonham
 and Captain Pelly. CPO Vass stands on the left.
On 29th May 1941 King George VI arrived at KA wearing the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet. Halliday was in Drake C’s first class of the day, the subject being chart plotting, and the instructor gave out parallel rulers and compasses together with a typewritten question giving the bearings to chart a trans-Atlantic convoy to Plymouth.  Halliday’s friend had seen a great deal of service in defensively equipped merchant ships but found the academic work difficult. He therefore decided to tuck himself away in the seat just inside the door, feeling certain the King would take notice of the bright sparks in the front row. Instead, the King made a bee-line for him, asked to see the question, studied it, then took up the parallel rulers and pencil, drew half a dozen lines on the chart and said ‘I think that is the course for your convoy.’ This anecdote helps to explain the respect the King commanded amongst serving officers of the Fleet.

If chart-work was the bugbear of some, reading Morse code with a lamp was the chief difficulty of others. At KA it was discovered that around five cadets in every 100 had a visual defect that meant they could not read messages at the required speed. A good signalman read not just the letters as they were sent but the whole word. All the unfortunates could see was a confused blur although they were able to send messages at the required speed quite accurately. In one Division in 1942 six men received their commission but were kept back for additional training with the dreaded Aldis lamp. After several gruelling days the Chief Yeoman realised he would never get their message reading up to the required standard and so one afternoon he sent a 20-word message at a slower speed and they all got it down correctly. They were given a pass-mark and sent on leave.

In July 1946 Surgeon-Captain AGL Reade wrote some interesting comments about the medical fitness of the cadets. He found the cadets who had been to sea for three months lost their natural immunity to catarrhal infections and when they came ashore to the crowded conditions at KA, they were more than usually susceptible to colds, catarrh and bronchitis. There was also some evidence of stress although that word was not used, but conscientious cadets were found to be extremely worried and over anxious. After the final examination, there would be a sense of anti-climax and often symptoms of illness would be reported that had been suppressed during exam time.

 But it was not hard work all the time at Hove and many remembered with affection the Thursday night concerts. Peter Scott was the first Liaison Officer between the regular staff and the officers under training and it was one of his tasks to organise the concerts, a task he thoroughly enjoyed. There was plenty of talent. Mid-shipman Ludovic Kennedy did a burlesque of a political speech that was rated superb. Peter Scott’s party piece was an American railroad song entitled Frankie and Johnny. On one occasion he had the unnerving experience of losing his place and finding himself back on the verse he had just sung. Sensibly he stopped and explained the situation but the audience roared with laughter, thinking it was all part of his act. Dick Addis was a good friend of Scott’s and he composed and sang comic songs for the weekly concert – he was killed later in the war. His composition The Wavy Navy was written especially for KA. One verse went.

‘As soon as the war is over
They tell us our services cease,
But as long as they are slaying us
They have to go on paying us
So it looks like an early peace.
Doing our bit, serving the state
(Our stripes may be crooked
But our characters straight);
We have the effrontery
To think we serve our country
The Wavy Navy is all at sea.’

Plenty of professional artists were glad to come aboard to entertain, amongst them were Stanley Holloway, Vera Lynn and Elsie and Doris Walters. Noel Coward arrived for dinner on 7th August 1941 and delighted everyone by appearing on stage afterwards. On that occasion the top brass included Admiral Sir Dudley North, Rear- Admiral Vivien and Rear-Admiral Harrison.

copyright © Harold Prestage.
The Main Hall (once the Large Bath) of the King Alfred at Hove in use as a cadet rating's Recreation Room.
On another evening in 1941 it was the pianist Irene Scharer who gave a Chopin recital. Charles Seyd was so carried away by the music he quite forgot he was supposed to be on sentry duty. Fortunately the CO was also a Chopin fan.  The well-known comedian Tubby Edlin owned the Sussex Hotel across the road from KA and he also helped to arrange the Thursday night concerts while his wife brought in fresh flowers from the garden to adorn the chapel.

As an alternative to concerts, there were several pubs close to KA with the St Aubyns and the Neptune being just a few steps away. Both pubs were kept very busy during the war years. At Brighton Maxim’s at the side of the Grand Hotel was a popular venue and further east was the notorious Sherry’s in West Street. It was supposed to be off-limits to cadets but more adventurous souls did venture inside and grumbled they could not understand what all the fuss was about.

At Brighton there were cinemas, theatres and a concert hall. Philip Sharp remembered one evening at the Theatre Royal very well. Evelyn Laye was appearing and during the show she asked for a volunteer to come up on stage. She spotted Sharp sitting near the front and invited him. So he rose to the occasion and sang Little Sir Echo with her to the great delight of his shipmates.

copyright © E. Walker.
Dinner to celebrate the passing-out of Nelson Division at the Dudley Hotel 28 March 1941.
By some neat twist of fate, Philip Sharp, who was amongst the first intake of men at KA, was also at the King Alfred at the end. Sharp had served with destroyers after leaving Hove and spent some time as a prisoner of war in Italy. In 1943 he was returning home when he was re-directed to HMS Good Hope at Port Elizabeth. This was the King Alfred’s sister establishment in South Africa. HMS Good Hope had been set up as the war developed in the East because it became too wasteful of resources to send suitable candidates all the way back to Hove. Commander JS Head, who had helped Captain Pelly to launch KA, left early in 1942 to take command of HMS Good Hope. Philip Sharp was on the staff as a Divisional Commander for some three months teaching pilotage and seamanship.

In January 1946 Sharp was appointed senior Divisional Officer at KA, which by this time was no longer at Hove. The final handing out of commissions at Hove took place in December 1945 and the previous months had seen the final winding down of the establishment. The King Alfred’s next home was Exbury House in the New Forest, home of the late Lionel de Rothschild. The house stood in an estate of over 200 acres of woodland containing hundreds of different specimens of rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias, many of them planted by Rothschild himself. Forty Years on, those who were at Exbury in the spring of 1946 can still recollect the breathtaking sight of all those flowers. Small boat training was carried out from Buckler’s Hard and sometimes the boats would take off-duty Wrens and wives of some of the staff for a trip to the Isle of Wight. The Salvation Army van was a welcome visitor to Exbury twice a week, especially when there was some rare chocolate on board.

The establishment at Exbury was far smaller than the one at Hove. It was kept going to give the last of the Y Scheme entrants a chance to finish their course and earn a commission. These last cadets nearly all became mid-shipmen – a sub-Lieutenant at that stage was rare. Meanwhile a new Division was introduced called Sturdee for officers who were training for the supply and secretariat department.

There was an epidemic of mumps at the time of the finals but fortunately all candidates passed. On 11th July 1946 the final passing-out parade took place on a day of brilliant sunshine. Vice-Admiral Davenport, president of the Admiralty Selection Board, handed out the certificates. It was something of a milestone for him too as he was making his final appearance in uniform after 50 years in the Royal Navy. The last 25 mid-shipman to be KA trained marched past the Admiral with Captain Coppinger, Commander Grey Skipwith and Lieutenant-Commander Philip Sharp in attendance.


Once a cadet rating had finished his course and passed, he became an OUT (officer under training) and remained at KA for a while. But it was goodbye to bellbottoms and kit bags and time to don the uniform of an officer and a gentleman, for which he had been measured upon first arrival at Hove. The clothing allowance was £40 but you could purchase a top quality greatcoat made of heavy pilot cloth from Gieves for just over £12. If you wanted to push the boat out, you could buy a beaver greatcoat from Gieves for £14-3-3d or if you wanted a more competitive price, it only cost £13-16-8d from Aldertons. K Stott writing home to his wife Mary in August 1942 reckoned he could get a working suit for around nine guineas, number one’s for ten guineas and an overcoat for £11.

The most difficult part was getting used to wearing a stiff white collar and tie and never mind the hassle of trying to put the collar studs in correctly. The swear words accompanying many a first performance displayed a distinct lack of OLQ.  For weeks a cadet’s neck had been comfortable in normal sailor’s rig but many necks seemed to acquire middle-aged spread during training and a larger size collar was often required. One new officer had such a struggle with his collar and tie that he managed to tear his tie in half. He had only bought one, thinking to save money, and had to quickly borrow another in time for parade. Then came the novelty of accepting a salute.

Thomas Stuart always remembered how he was introduced to his new officer’s uniform. After passing out at KA he was told to report immediately to Mrs Chapham’s lodgings in Nevill Road, Hove and he was transported there in a Navy vehicle. Mrs Chapham greeted him warmly and showed him his room where to his surprise all his new uniform was neatly laid out on the bed with the shoes tucked tidily underneath. He only spent one night there but he never forgot this act of kindness in the hurly burly of war, arranged between Mrs Chapham, KA and Gieves. Stuart joined Combined Operations and later commanded LCT 618 in the invasion of Sicily.

copyright © Harold Prestage.
The Pilotage Room showing some youthful cadet ratings. Note the sleeves of the RNR Instruction Officer. Due to
wartime shortage his gold braid only went half-way round.
When stepping forth for the first time resplendent in an officer’s uniform, an unaccustomed bashfulness would descend and the new officer tried his best not to be noticed. But cadet ratings were not to done out of the pleasure of saluting smartly those who had been their companions a short time ago. Peter Bull recorded that his Division literally chased men of a newly commissioned Division around the building in order to embarrass them into accepting a salute.

One officer remembered his first salutes with mixed feelings. He fell asleep during a lecture worn out by studying, guard duty and an air-raid alert. He was punished by being made to double along the promenade carrying his rifle as far as the West Pier. The indignity was bad enough but suddenly the route seemed lined with cadet ratings insisting on a smart salute as he charged past with his rifle.

Some newly commissioned officers became very touchy on the question of seniority. Peter Bull was once walking along the sea-front when he returned the salute of a cadet rating who had taken note of the gleaming ring on his sleeve. He was in the company of another newly minted officer who became indignant because he felt as the senior officer he should have returned the salute. He had been commissioned one week before Bull.

copyright © R.A. Butler.
A Final Board at the King Alfred in 1943. From right to left:- Commander J.G. Aitchison, Captain J.N. Pelly and
Vice - Admiral R.C. Davenport
A story in a similar vein concerns two young ratings aboard HMS King George V, who shared the same mess-deck before being selected to go to KA. One was commissioned a week ahead of the other, and on being congratulated, responded by telling off his erstwhile mess-mate for not saluting and calling him sir.

As an officer you would even receive a salute from CPO Vass, which was surely an experience to be cherished but his expression would indicate your saluting was not up to scratch – yet. You would also sit in a different place at mealtimes. A red and white silken chord divided symbolically the underground Mess at Hove. On one side up to 300 cadet ratings sat at long tables but the other side belonged to officers. 

Officers Under Training also said goodbye to the car park dormitory and instead were billeted out in nearby houses or hotels – there was even a possibility of a single room. Naturally enough being awarded a commission was a cause for celebration. In 1940 a group of new officers went to the Sussex Hotel and enjoyed a convivial time. Unfortunately one of them had to go on watch that night but was rather the worse for wear. His fellow officers bundled him up to the roof for his stint and left him there. It was the height of the invasion scare and the sub-Lieutenant was supposed to be vigilant and keep his binoculars trained on the sea. But he fell asleep with his elbow jammed on the alarm bell. The next thing he knew the place was bristling with men in steel helmets while an officer demanded ‘Where are they?’


Captain Pelly died suddenly on 6th June 1945 whilst going about his duties at KA. Almost the whole ship’s company took part in his funeral, either marching with the gun carriage or drawn up outside, and the KA Wrens led the procession. ‘Guns’ Corby organised the event and all went smoothly except for some anxious moments when the RAF contingent arrived late. Among the mourners were Captain Petelenz (representing the Polish Navy) and Colonel Parsons (representing the South African Forces in Brighton). The Times obituary hit the nail on the head when it wrote ‘He was ideally fitted by temperament for this onerous task, being gifted with a genial and strong personality and a constant thoughtfulness for the welfare of others, for which example he will be honoured and loved by the many thousands of temporary officers who were trained and led by him’. The new commanding officer was Captain C Coppinger with Commander J Lee-Barber as his second in command.

By contrast with Captain Pelly’s long service, Commander FA Worsley was at KA only from April to June 1942. But he may be taken as representative of the sort of experienced officer who served a three-month stint. Commander Worsley went to sea at the age of fourteen in a ship belonging to the Shaw Savill Line. In 1916 he was Captain of the Endurance on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole and after the ship had been crushed by ice, he guided the ship’s boats 1,800 miles to South Georgia without losing a single man. He was popular in the Wardroom and his vast experience helped many officers.

The Torpedo Instructor in July 1940 was CPO Albert van de Cort who had been born into Sanger’s Circus and stayed with them until joining the Navy. As a result of his upbringing he could play the banjo, trombone, saxophone and guitar and he could also do some conjuring. On concert nights he sang his own composition The Silent Navy. He brought a little light relief into the hard working lives of the cadet ratings because being an ex-clown he was a great comic. He also taught them how to play the bosun’s call in their spare time.

Quite a different character was CPO Silver, Chief Gunner’s Mate, who taught gunnery drill in 1940. The training took place in the RNVR battery that housed one 6-inch, two 4-inch, and two 12-pounder guns. The 6-inch shell weighed 100lbs and the aim was to reach a loading rate of six rounds a minute. Silver kept the cadets relentlessly to the task and sometimes teased them. After the order ‘Still’ cadets were not supposed to move a muscle until the order ‘Carry on’. But sometimes after ‘Still’ Silver would shout in quick succession ‘Change round’, ‘Fall out’, ‘Fall in’ or ‘Load’ until the raw cadets were running around in a mêlée instead of standing still. At one session a cadet dropped a 100lb practice projectile on Silver’s toe, breaking a toe, but whether it was a genuine accident or not was never established.

In 1940 Lieutenant-Commander Tennant was one of the Instructor-Officers. He had been mined while in command of HMS Duchess. He was popular at KA and after the war he achieved flag rank.

One navigation instructor was memorable for the frequent use of his favourite word ‘geoid’ (something to do with the earth’s mean sea-level surface). Once this instructor was returning on the train from leave when he fell into conversation with two Instructor-Officers from the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. One Greenwich officer said ‘We keep getting these young chaps straight up from the King Alfred and they all go on about a geoid – never heard of the word myself – what on earth are they teaching them down there?’

Practically everyone who passed through KA remembered CPO Vass who was described by Ronald Gellatly as a ‘short, stocky man with a face burned a deep nut brown and he had a voice like a bull’. Vass was at KA throughout the duration of the war. He was a good instructor because he had the knack of making men remember what he taught and as the course was necessarily condensed, this was important. But newcomers found him intimidating. One group of new arrivals was marching into the underground car park for inspection and some officers were walking by when they heard Vass roar above them ‘What are those officers doing WALKING along the Parade Ground – DOUBLE’. They wondered what was in store for them if officers were shouted at like that.

Vass greeted another newly arrived Division by speaking in a deceptively quiet voice. ‘In five minutes time you are going to hate me’. Then in a bellow ‘I HATE YOU ALREADY’. But Gellatly thought his bark was worse than his bite and as the course progressed, Vass’s attitude mellowed and he became quite popular. Many years later Gellatyly saw Vass serving drinks at the RNVR Club in London. Such was Vass’s personality that Gellatly had great difficulty in not snapping to attention and then leaving the room at a smart double.

Vass was felt to be a typical example of a Whale Island gunnery instructor. One of his regular tasks was instructing cadet ratings in the art of stripping and re-assembling an Oerlikon, an anti-aircraft gun. The breech mechanism contained several springs and if you were not careful they would leap out and roll about the floor. At such a juncture Vass would lean on the bench and enquire ‘Having trouble, lad?’ while at the same time depositing an extra spring. Of course the cadet would be unable to fit all the parts in when it was time to re-assemble the gun and he would have to strip it down again. Occasionally Vass would vary the treatment by removing one or two springs that had been allowed to roll around. However, an important lesson was driven home about stripping a gun in a methodical manner, lining up the parts neatly and counting them.  

Another well-remembered lesson was gas-mask drill as undertaken by Vass. His way of making sure they carried gas-masks at all times and knew how to put them on correctly was to shut the cadets in a shed full of gas saying ‘Gentlemen, we shall now see if these bloody gas-masks work properly’ and leaving them there. He also had the cadets wearing gas-masks playing leap-frog or racing up and down with fixed bayonets. If it was a hot day the close-fitting mask caused sweat to pour down the face while breath came wheezingly from the rubber nose and mouthpieces. Not surprisingly when ‘Tiny’ Taylor (weighing 18 stone) arrived at KA in 1940 as a direct entry officer, he was excused gas-mask drill for fear he would drop dead from heart failure.

I Elliston Near remembered his group being drilled on the promenade by Vass, watched by a crowd of interested spectators, mostly female. After telling them to stand easy, Vass remarked in a loud voice that it was a pity those so-and-so bitches had nothing better to do at which a cadet piped up ‘Go easy chief, one of them is my wife’.

copyright © Phyliss Jones Hoad.
CPO Vass inspecting cadets
A vivid memory for another officer was of Vass taking bayonet drill on a stiflingly hot afternoon in June 1940. What with the heat and the exercise and Vass enthusiastically bawling out all the gory details of the results of a bayonet’s thrust, some cadets began to turn a shade of green. Vass was in charge of pistol shooting too. A cadet won his group’s sweepstake and expected to collect a jackpot but found instead his class had chosen him to have a shoot-out with Vass. The result was a foregone conclusion but they all enjoyed the drama, especially CPO Vass.

In the KA Magazine there was a humorous item entitled ‘Things one seldom hears’ with remarks such as ‘What marvellous fishcakes’ and ‘There’s one thing I like about field training.’ But right at the top of the list was ‘Who is CPO Vass?’

Vass’s immediate superior was Lieutenant-Commander ‘Guns’ Corby who was described as the backbone of KA and like Vass was around a long time. He was a stickler for discipline and a smart turnout and he was one of the chief upholders of the mystical OLQ. He was regarded as a regular old salt and most probably had marlinspikes instead of fingers. He was never seen out of uniform and he could not abide anybody whistling. He would demand of the offender if he thought of himself as a butcher boy or a mutineer (shades of Invergordon). Vass and Corby both had parade-ground voices and it was claimed their stentorian commands could be heard all over Hove. 

Another instructor known as a ‘hoary old chief’ was blessed with a photographic memory. He had learnt his seamanship manual off by heart and it was his Gospel; there could be no deviation from what was laid down. His devotion to ‘A Joining Tackle’ caused much amusement. He referred to it as ‘an adjoining tackle’ and when asked politely to what it adjoined, he replied crossly ‘ it joins two lengths of cable, you silly b…..s’. The seamanship manual was illustrated and parts were captioned without benefit of a definite or indefinite article – all that is except our friend ‘A Joining Tackle’. Therefore the cadets had to learn it as ‘An A Joining Tackle’.

In the autumn of 1942 the officer in charge of seamanship instruction was a dour ex-Merchant Service Lieutenant-Commander RNR. He began his first lecture as follows ‘Gentlemen, there are two ways of doing a job at sea – the correct way and the Royal Navy way. Unfortunately it is my duty to teach you the Royal Navy way.’

In 1943 there was an innovative instructor taking cadets through a short navigation course lasting three weeks. There were around fifteen men in the class. The instructor wanted to introduce a bit of realism into their chart-work and so the desks were balanced in such a way that when he rushed to the front of the class to explain a point, he set all the desks wobbling about. The cadets then had to prevent their compasses and dividers from sliding off.

Cyril Elles was at KA in 1939 and remembered a lecture on First Aid. In his own words ‘The Surgeon-Lieutenant spoke with some relish on blood and said half of this class can expect to die of arterial bleeding whereupon a small part of it fainted.’


The Wrens arrived at the King Alfred in November 1939. At first there was a select band of eight girls but as the establishment grew, so did the number of Wrens. By March 1943 there were 58 and by 1944 there were 70 based at Hove sea-front with seven at Mowden and 45 at Lancing College.

In the early days, the issue of uniform was somewhat haphazard and you had to accept whatever was currently available in store. Wren Joan Feast started at KA in 1939 and remained for 2 ½ years. She was pleased as punch with her new uniform even though her coat was so huge the hem literally swept the pavement. But it was possible to have uniforms altered to fit and there was an obliging little tailor in Victoria Terrace, conveniently close to KA. Wren Feast could hardly believe her eyes when she first visited his shop and found him sitting cross-legged on a bench. Whatever alterations you asked him to do, he invariably replied ‘It shall be done’ uttered with a guttural accent and a long-drawn out ‘done’. Naturally enough, Wren officers took themselves off to a recognised Naval tailor like their male counterparts.

copyright © Mrs S. Llewellyn.
From left to right:- King Alfred Wrens Joan Morris, Marjorie Lane, Sylvia Smith, Pat Smeath, Betty Bates,
and Daisy Ennis. Hove seafront 1945.
Working headgear for torpedo or mechanic Wrens was a navy-blue headscarf tied up turban-style. This was the headgear worn by one Wren when King George VI cam to visit the establishment in May 1941 but then he had asked to see KA at its normal routine. The standard issue hat was the dreaded ‘pudding-basin’ style. The more attractive and familiar sailor-style cap owes its genesis to KA – a fact not generally known. Wren Gander got hold of a beret, turned down the lining and tied a ribbon inscribed ‘HMS King Alfred’ around it. Commander Head was so taken with this fetching creation that he sent Wren Gander to Charles, a popular photographer in Palmeira Square, Hove. Commander Head then despatched the photograph and his personal recommendation to the Admiralty. In 1942 the new cap was issued to Wrens although for security reasons the ship’s name was not allowed to appear on the ribbon. From 1946 there was a variation for summer wear when a white cover was pulled over the top of the cap.

Amongst the first few Wrens at Hove were Wren Ridsdale who was Baldwin’s niece, and Wren Frances Harrington whose family was connected with the firm of Harrington Motors and she drove Paymaster Captain Hodge about. Wren drivers wore a navy-blue shirt as opposed to the majority of Wrens who were issued with white shirts.  Wrens were employed as writers in the account office or records department, or as telephonists or messengers.

There was a certain cachet about joining the Wrens because it was not an easy task to be accepted. It helped if you had a relative in the Navy. Some of the early arrivals had the odd definition ‘immobile Wrens’. It meant they lived locally and travelled to work and so did not need billets. Likewise such a Wren could not be despatched outside her area. Sometimes immobile Wrens had compassionate grounds for remaining close to home, such as an aged dependent mother for instance. But with the huge influx of Wrens from all over the country, official Wren quarters had to be found. It was decided to take over San Remo, two large houses fronting the Kingsway near the Sackville Hotel. Previously, San Remo had been the KA sick quarters. In the summer of 1941 new sick quarters were established at St Helen’s and Adelaide Lodge, which both had gardens where convalescent could enjoy the sun.

Wrens at San Remo had to pay their own Mess bills but they were not as fortunate as the men in respect of hot food because by the time it had been trundled along the road from KA, it had become tepid. The back of San Remo overlooked the garden of a house, which in 1945 was used to accommodate South African POWs newly released from Germany. Wren Phyllis Jones who shared an attic bedroom with other Wrens, was startled one morning on getting up and stretching in front of the window to be greeted by a chorus of ‘Good Mornings’ from the ex-POWs grinning away in next door’s garden.

Some of the old salts, particularly those who had served in sea-going ships, did not know quite what to make of the Wrens and of course they had only been ‘resuscitated’ in 1938. Captain Pelly was patently ill at ease with Wrens. There is a formal group photograph of a galaxy of KA Wrens with Captain Pelly seated in the place of honour in the front row looking decidedly glum. Although there was one occasion when he had witnessed some officer cadets marching in a most untidy fashion and he remarked ‘Why, the Wrens can march more smartly than that’.

But Pelly’s successor Captain Coppinger with Commander Lee-Barber, his second in command, had a different attitude and were at ease with the female contingent, charming every Wren in sight.

At first there was a ‘no fraternisation rule between cadet ratings, officers and Wrens and those wishing to pass messages to each other used the gun barrels of the RNVR Battery as a romantic post-box. Later, the rule was quietly dropped.

The Wrens attended Divisions every morning and had marching drill every Wednesday. It was just as well they did because as the most junior members of the Navy, they were obliged to lead formal parades. This happened at Captain Pelly’s funeral and also at the Victory Parade when they headed the large Naval contingent marching through Hove.

Victoria Terrace has already been mentioned in connection with the little tailor’s shop. Another important shop in the Terrace was Mumford’s the chemist. Makeup was scarce in those days but the obliging chemist would let Wrens know whenever face powder or lipstick became available. The KA Wrens must have been the best made-up ladies on the south coast.

Wren Phyllis Jones worked in the KA records department in 1944 under the supervision of Lieutenant Alan Grant. It was strictly confidential work because details of all candidates passed through her hands. She remembered the Admiralty Boards and having to take down details as to why certain hopeful candidates were ‘dipped’. It was a sad task because they were very upset at being returned to the lower deck.

Preparing the Joining Lists containing the service particulars of each candidate involved a great deal of hard work. Thirty copies were needed for each man so that the information could be districted around the various departments. When Wren Jones arrived at KA there was no Gestetner to assist in producing copies quickly. The old-fashioned procedure involved typing details on to a bright mauve hectograph carbon. Then a special jelly-like substance was made up in a long shallow tin in the kitchen. Great care had to be taken to ensure it was of the right consistency and that there were no bubbles on the surface. When the jelly was properly set, the carbon was pressed firmly face down upon it and thus copies could be obtained. They were serviceable but the lettering was always prone to a slight fuzziness. Redundant documents were incinerated in the basement.


Little did the struggling editors realise what a valuable task they were performing in issuing the King Alfred magazine. To them it was probably no more than a house magazine with the constant headache of obtaining enough contributions to fill the pages, firms to pay for advertisements, a reliable printer and people to buy copies. But today the magazines can be viewed as an invaluable and unique source of information. Indeed, they are in a class of their own with names, photographs, cartoons, dates and facts, as well as the unmistakable flavour of the time issuing from their yellowing pages. Much of the flavour is enshrined in skits, parodies and (let’s face it) appalling verse, the sort of stuff that brightened up many a school magazine. In fact, this is just what early copies remind one of; later editions became more sedate and full of worthy Naval reminiscences as the editors were bent on improving the image and making the product more up-market.

After the war ended and the frenzy of tidying-up began, much valuable material was lost, mislaid or destroyed. A few items relating to HMS King Alfred were dispersed at random amongst a mass of Admiralty papers, which were lodged eventually at the Public Record Office. The only complete set of the KA magazine in the entire country is to be found in Hove Reference Library although there might be a few stray copies in the National Maritime Museum.

In May 1940 the first issue of the magazine appeared and it cost 3d. The fact it came out at all was largely due to the efforts of the chaplain and Lieutenant-Commander EA Crick. The difficulty of obtaining good copy was summed up in the first editorial with heavy irony. ‘Unheralded, unadvertised, practically unnoticed the King Alfred magazine bursts like a charge of sodden gunpowder upon an indifferent world… The response to our request for contributions was so immediate and overwhelming that we were in the fortunate position of being able to fill up 1¾ pages with the material obtained’.

The editorial team had just about got into its stride when at the end of 1940 some of its key men were wafted away elsewhere. These were Commander Frai, the Revd L Fleming and Lieutenant Hardy ‘co-editor, talent-scout and stopper-of-rat-‘oles’, which left Lieutenant-Commander Crick holding the baby. AR Thompson put in many hours of work to assist in the production of the June and July issues of that year but frequent changes of editor was to be a feature of the magazine’s short life. Lieutenant B van Bosch was editor in 1941 and he handed over the chair to Eric Todd in 1942.

In many ways Eric Todd was the most colourful name associated with the magazine. We first hear of Cadet Rating Todd suffering from concussion in late 1940, the injury having been caused by a rugby scrum. Whether it was just the knock on the head or something else as well, he spent some time at San Remo, KA’s sick-bay. Indeed he spent such a long time there he earned the nickname of San Remo Todd. He occupied his time by writing humorous verse to be printed in the magazine and by August 1941 he was signing himself as Lieutenant (San Remo) Todd. As well as a wide-ranging taste in literature, Todd was apparently the life and soul of many a Guest Night Concert. One of Todd’s contributions to the magazine was The Last Board (after Adelaide Proctor – a long way after).

‘Standing one day at King Alfred
I was weary and ill at ease
The Final Board were sitting
I was shaking at the knees.

I know not what they were saying
Or what they were thinking then,
But a ‘two and a halfer’ said ‘You’re next’
So I went in and faced three men.
They linked all perplexing phrases
Into one perfect piece
Then rumbled their way into silence
As if they were loth to cease.

I sought, but I sought it vainly,
One word of comfort true
I was just on the point of weeping
When the Admiral said ‘You’re through!’

Todd became editor in 1942 and he was better qualified than most for the post because he had been on the staff of a Lancashire daily newspaper before joining the RNVR. There was some discussion as to whether it was worth continuing with the magazine because it was expensive to produce and not enough interest was shown in it; there was even the opinion that it was all rubbish anyway.

But Todd was quick to defend the magazine. He stressed it was easy enough to moan but why didn’t the moaners do something constructive and send in some decent contributions? The magazine was reprieved but there were changes, the most important of which was that there would be one issue every three months instead of one a month, which it was hoped would lead to better quality. The title was changed too – no longer was it simply KA, it was re-named The Wave. The new format appeared in October 1942 with a brand new cover designed by Sub-Lieutenant BJ Etherington. The simple design showing a few rippling waves was liked as a whole although one uncharitable reader said it reminded him of an undertaker’s advertisement. Nor was the design the only problem. The usual printers had been busy and so they had sub-contracted the printing to another firm. The cover was a lovely dark blue but female readers were upset when they found the colour spreading itself to their hands and frocks.

copyright © R.A. Butler.
A cadet rating receiving instruction aboard a motor
launch at Portslade in 1943. 
Other problems are best summarised in Todd’s own words. ‘There were quite a few mistakes in that first number, as those of you who tried to solve the Crossword puzzle, for instance, will have found. An oversight in reading the proofs – the original was in order – caused chaos in at least one corner of the square but we have published the solution if only to show you what we were driving at. Then the use of the word ‘beds’ instead of ‘bends’ in one article was due to a similar oversight rather than any desire to cause blushes among the female of the species. For those and other mistakes we apologise, hiding our shame behind the old tag errare est humanum, which besides illustrating some abstruse rule in the Latin grammar, means (in this case) ‘You can’t expect everything for 6d’.

From October 1942 the magazine began to include solid Naval reminiscences. It is ironic this should have happened under the auspices of Lieutenant Eric Todd who had been the arch contributor of light verse. However, a few light touches were permitted to remain, one of them being a regular contribution from Wren Heynes. Her efforts were so popular that she was persuaded to continue to submit copy after she had been posted away from KA. Wren Heynes had a double-page spread consisting of her drawings with appropriate rhyming captions on the hazards of a Wren’s life. One of her best efforts showed an officer reclining in the manner of a pharaoh, attended on all sides by Wrens. The caption read

‘We always treat our officers
With reverence and tact
They think we think they merit it
Which shows how well we act’.     

In the summer of 1943 Todd was called to higher things when he was appointed to the Admiralty Press Division. The editor of The Wave wrote a glowing piece about him but when he re-read the editorial, he thought it sounded more like an obituary than anything else. But this was not the last of Eric Todd and he was invited to see the final edition of The Wave to bed and this appeared in December 1945.

Lieutenant Dye succeeded Todd in the editorial chair but he only managed to oversee two numbers before he too left. The next editor was Lieutenant Etherington who had designed the notorious too-blue cover. But he too soon departed. Considering the frequent changes it is remarkable the magazine kept going.

In August 1940 some pages took on a sombre note when the names of the fallen were printed. From the magazine for July 1941 we learn that when HMS Hood sank, she took with her twelve officers who trained at KA, the majority of them being young mid-shipmen. The most senior ex-KA man lost was Lieutenant-Commander ART Batley. It was he who called Chief Yeoman Carne to his side at the binnacle and asked him to send a signal to the Admiralty telling them one battleship and one heavy cruiser had been sighted. They were the Bismark and the Prinz Eugen. HMS Hood was a stupendous loss with 94 officers and 1,324 men drowned. Only three men survived out of the entire ship’s crew. But the luckiest man must surely have been sub-Lieutenant RG Robinson (ex-KA) who was taken off the Hood just before she sailed for the last time because he was suffering from a perforated duodenal ulcer.

Anyone wishing to know at a quick glance if the RNVR played a useful role in World War II need only look at the lengthening lists in the magazine. For example in the number issued in April 1945 there were 37 names on the Roll of Honour, 187 officers had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, 293 officers had been mentioned in Despatches and 19 officers had been awarded a Second Bar to the Distinguished Service Cross including Lieutenant DC Beatty, formerly Divisional Officer at KA.


copyright © J. Middleton.
The bell was presented by an old shipmate to
commemorate all men and women who served in
 HMS King Alfred
The idea was that an RNVR club should be established in London so that officers needing accommodation or passing through could have rooms and meals at a reasonable cost. It seems a harmless enough proposal but at the time it was opposed by many senior officers, both RN and RNVR, who apparently felt a club might develop into a sort of RNVR trade union. Fortunately, Lieutenant Nesbitt, one of the instigators of the scheme, found an influential supporter in Lieutenant the Hon WW Astor RNVR while Lieutenant Albertini RNVR offered financial backing. At last a committee could be formed and the idea began to make headway.

The chosen premises were those formerly occupied by the Marlborough Club at 52 Pall Mall right opposite St James’s Palace. The venture had the full moral support of the Admiralty but that was not quite enough. In October 1943 Lieutenant TT Best-Dalison RNVR wrote to GJ Jarrett, private secretary to the First Sea Lord, asking for a letter of support, either from himself or the First Sea Lord. Armed with such a letter, Best-Dalison could show it to the Ministry of Supply who would then authorise the supply of necessary equipment.

The First Sea Lord expressed his full support in a letter dated 1st November 1943. There then follows an admirably quick exchange of letters between Best-Dalison and Jarrett. On 26th November Best-Dalison wrote to ask if the First Sea Lord, the Rt Hon AV Alexander, would like to become one of the vice-presidents of the club (others were Lord Louis Mountbatten, Lord Chatfield, Viscount Bearsted and the Admiral Commanding Reserves). On 3rd December Jarrett replied ‘no;’ nothing daunted on 4th December Best-Dalison wrote to ask if the First Sea Lord would like to become the first honorary member; on the 6th December the First Sea Lord said ‘yes’ and on 7th December Best-Dalison said ‘thank you’.

In February 1944 Best-Dalison wrote to Winston Churchill because he wanted to know the club met with his approval. The request puzzled Churchill’s secretary who did not see how a prime minister could approve of a club or not. Concurrently, Earl Howe was writing to Churchill to ask him if he would like to open the club some time after 24th March and reminding him that Astor and Lennox-Boyd (ex-KA) were on the committee.

However, not long after Earl Howe’s letter was written, the Pall Mall building was hit ‘fore and aft’ by enemy action and seven months of strenuous repair work was necessary. In the event it was the First Sea Lord himself who opened the King Alfred Club on 20th September 1944.

The club boasted enough accommodation for 50 officers at a time and the subscription was only £1 a year. Bed, bath and breakfast cost 5/6d and there was a choice over where you ate your luncheon; in the snack bar it cost 1/6d or if you opted for the dining room it cost 3/6d.

At the end of the war the King Alfred Club amalgamated with Commander Harry Vandervell’s Auxiliary Patrol Club and became the RNVR Officers’ Association and Club. In 1946 it moved to premises in Hill Street.

Charles Seyd, an ex-KA officer, stayed at the club many years later. He was lying on his bed, idly wondering whether or not he ought to get up, when he became aware of a picture hanging over the bed that seemed vaguely familiar. Upon closer inspection he found it was a group photograph of KA candidates, one of them his youthful self. 


In the minds of most people the word Dunkirk conjures up a picture of an armada of small boats rescuing the marooned British Expeditionary Force from the encircling Germans. Small boats were important because they were able to go close inshore and ferry soldiers out to the larger vessels waiting in deeper waters. But it was the carrying capacity of the larger ships that transported so many men back to England and it was the co-operation of all vessels that made such a feat possible.

The variety of rescue ships at Dunkirk was astonishing, ranging from destroyers, paddle-steamers and trawlers to cockle boats, Thames barges, Dutch scoots, dockyard launches, lifeboats, lighters and tugs. It is also as well to note that the Dunkirk evacuation was not a spontaneous response but a controlled and planned operation. Altogether, some 338,226 men were plucked from the beaches and brought home.

The King Alfred too played its small part in the drama. In a couple of books the impression given was that the establishment was virtually emptied of men and that everyone, bar a few essential staff, set off for Dunkirk.

The reality was somewhat different. The Admiralty sent a signal to KA asking for volunteers. The cadets first heard about it in the middle of a Guest Night Concert but of course Dunkirk was not mentioned. What happened was that between turns, the President of the Mess stood up and rapped the table for silence. He huffed into the microphone in an almost apologetic way and asked all those with a knowledge of internal combustion engines to muster in number 1 classroom. One hundred and fifty men, not knowing for what they might be volunteering, filed out. The Chief of Staff then had the difficult task of selecting sixteen officers and sixteen cadet ratings. These few, having asked their friends to look after the guests, set off in a coach. Commander JS Head waved them off and described it as one of his most vivid and unforgettable moments. Meanwhile, the disappointed volunteers crept back into the concert and wondered what it was all about.

The KA volunteers arrived at Tilbury at 9am and were fitted out with steel helmets and gas-masks. The Naval Regulations were read out to them and they signed on in the Royal Navy for a maximum of one month. The KA officers were put in charge of tows of small boats that were loaded with 2-gallon petrol cans of water, crates of bully beef and some biscuits. At 4.30am they reached Southend Pier where additional supplies were taken on. Twin Lewis guns were fitted up on the bridge of the tugs, giving the men some sense of security. On sailing south from the Thames, one of the first vessels they encountered was HMS Golden Eagle laden with troops rescued from Dunkirk. On the way to the rendezvous at Margate the sea became choppy and some of the small boats broke away; extra tow-lines then had to be secured to all boats.

The tows set out from Ramsgate at 3pm and at most the men had managed to snatch an hour’s sleep. There were 24 Naval vessels to keep them company including destroyers and minesweepers. As the ships headed out into the Channel, the small boats pitched about and some of the KA men were very seasick. At 7.15pm all the destroyers opened fire when 52 German warplanes were spotted. After seven minutes of continuous firing, 25 British planes appeared and the enemy formation was broken up. At 8pm there was a second air attack. By this time Dunkirk could be seen ablaze in the distance. One of the small boats capsized throwing two men overboard and only one could be rescued. The flotilla anchored while another bombardment of Dunkirk was taking place and repeated loud explosions shook everything. It was now 10pm and a launch towed the small boats inshore.

One of the KA volunteers was told to stand by at forward and break out the anchor; in reality the ‘anchor’ consisted of six fire bars tied together. He could clearly see German shells being fired from guns around 12 to 15 miles away. Voices were heard coming from a beached wreck and the officer lowered himself into the water and went to investigate. He returned with 24 French soldiers who had taken refuge on the wreck. They managed to wade towards the boat but were too exhausted to climb aboard and had to be hauled in.

At 11.15pm the Frenchmen were transferred to a coaster bound for Ramsgate and the small boat returned to shore for second load. This time 45 British soldiers came aboard from the beach. There was no panic and they waded through the water as if they were on parade. They were taken aboard a tug where later their sodden uniforms would be dried off in the engine room. Meanwhile, the launch had caught a tow-line in her propeller. Our gallant volunteer went overboard armed with a knife to try and sort it out but the rope was 3 ½ inches thick and time was short. It was decided to try and start up a nearby motor launch instead but that proved impossible because the vessel had been heavily machine-gunned. Our volunteer, by now very cold and exhausted, returned to the tug where his clothes joined the uniforms being dried off.

Ramsgate was reached at 1.5pm and the soldiers disembarked, giving the sailors three cheers as they left. At Ramsgate the sailors were given a wonderful welcome with cake, tea and cigarettes and by 10pm they had signed off at Tilbury and received some unexpected pay. A last memory of that eventful time for our volunteer was having breakfast at 3.30am and falling asleep over the table.

This brief account of one man’s experience of the evacuation of Dunkirk is taken from the KA’s magazine. As it was printed not long after the event, no names were given. But sub-Lieutenant Long wrote another account that appeared in a later number. Long went across the Channel to Dunkirk aboard Thames river-boat Tigris One (a converted ML). She had a civilian crew with a coxswain, engineer and deck hand. At Dunkirk Long was dubious at first of taking the risk of beaching Tigris One and transhipped soldiers by means of a small boat with an outboard engine. But this proved to be too time consuming and so he took a line from the Southampton Queen and grounded his vessel. Then he went ashore to persuade troops to wade out. Some of them were reluctant to start off with but soon Long was in danger of being swamped. He collected 130 men on each trip and when Tigris One was full, the Southampton Queen winched her alongside.           

Meanwhile, the air bombardment had started up. After six trips the Tigris One had to be abandoned, leaking badly, the propeller damaged and the pump out of action. Long then transhipped himself and his crew aboard the destroyer Amazon. But he was not finished yet. He hailed a motorboat with a CPO in charge, took command and continued to transport troops as before. Long estimated that he and his crew were responsible for rescuing between 1,100 and 1,200 men of the British Expeditionary Force. He was fortunate in reaching home safely himself. Whilst going to the assistance of HMS Keith, the Amazon suffered two direct hits from the same dive-bombers attacking Keith. Long was in the water for a considerable time before being picked up by SS Hilda, which then stood by the carriers Scotia and Brighton Belle, both of them sinking.

One of KA’s anonymous volunteers sailed Thames tugboat Sun XV to Dunkirk towing a string of ship’s lifeboats. He worked all night under fire with one motor lifeboat towing two ordinary ones and he managed to rescue 150 men a trip. On Sunday morning the wash from a destroyer swamped all his boats. He tried to swim out and fetch other boats from Sun VIII but the tide was too strong. After a 2-mile swim, a minesweeper eventually picked him up.

David James was another volunteer from KA. It would have been difficult to leave such an adventurous character behind. He loved a challenge and sailed around Cape Horn in a square-rigger. He was reported missing at Dunkirk but later turned up safe and sound at Portsmouth aboard a sailing barge. After leaving KA he became a dashing Lieutenant in Coastal Forces. But his most famous exploit was his escape from a German prisoner of war camp. He crossed Germany twice with enormous effrontery wearing his RNVR uniform with a shoulder flash of the Bulgarian Navy and papers made out in the name of Lieutenant Bugerov.

Sub-Lieutenant Phillip Thompson was injured at Dunkirk but it was reported in the KA magazine of September 1940 that he wanted to return to KA for a refresher course as soon as he had been fitted up with a new leg at Roehampton. Out of the 32 King Alfred volunteers, three were killed and around six were injured.

Lieutenant EV Ruck from HMS Ross had already passed through KA and he was at Dunkirk too. He did sterling work bringing men back in his whaler time after time. His main trouble was trying to prevent French soldiers from rushing his boat. This he did by means of bad French and, what was probably more telling, by brandishing his revolver.

There were of course other RNVR personnel at Dunkirk and some incidents spring to mind. Lieutenant SF Harmer-Elliott RNVR was Captain of the Waverley, a paddle minesweeper. She was loaded with 600 troops but was attacked and sunk off Dunkirk. The Captain went down with his ship but he managed to kick his way clear of underwater obstructions and rose to the surface. After three-quarters of an hour in the water, he was rescued, but over half of the troops and many of the ship’s company were drowned.

In the same flotilla as the Waverley was the Oriole. Lieutenant EL Davies RNVR was in charge of the latter vessel and with him was sub-Lieutenant John Crosby RNVR. The Captain realised the difficulty of getting soldiers off the beach with inadequate boats and so he took the decision to run the Oriole onto the beach deliberately. It was a gamble that paid off because when the tide ebbed, soldiers were able to use his ship as a pier and some 3,000 troops passed over the Oriole to safety despite repeated enemy attacks on the ship. The Captain took Oriole off the beach safely with 700 soldiers and some nurses from the last of the field hospitals aboard. It was a serious matter to ground your ship deliberately but in submitting his official report Davies explained the circumstances and added the rider that he would do the same thing again if necessary. Oriole returned home safely and the Admiralty sent the reply ‘Your action fully approved’.

Captain RP Pim RNVR was another Dunkirk volunteer. He was Keeper of Winston Churchill’s Map Room but was on leave at the time of the evacuation. As soon as he heard about it, he volunteered and joined one of the tows. Taking command he towed a string of nineteen boats across the Channel and he was aboard HM skoot Hilda when she picked up 50 survivors from HMS Keith. Captain Pim went ashore to help organise soldiers for evacuation and 5,000 men were ferried out to waiting ships by the fleet of small boats he had collected. Pim has left one of the best accounts of the abandonment of La Panne.

Lieutenant Moran Caplet was a member of the Yachtsmen Reserve and spent five days at KA in the early part of the war. Like Captain Pim, he too was on leave when he heard about the evacuation. He volunteered immediately and joined the Isle of Wight paddle steamer Portsdown as First Lieutenant under Lieutenant RH Church RNR. The paddle steamer was still painted in her peacetime colours, she was unarmed and she had not been degaussed (a protective measure against mines) but still she set off with a crew of volunteers. The crew endeavoured to disguise the vessel as best they could as she sailed towards Dunkirk and even rigged up a dummy gun. The Portsdown encountered heavy fire but managed to bring several hundred soldiers back to Margate.

Commander SP Herival RNVR was in command of the Queen of Thanet and he took over most of the 2,000 troops from the Prague, which was sinking. He returned the troops safely to Margate.

On 2nd June a white motorboat ran aground on the beach near Dunkirk. Sub-Lieutenant JW Pratt RNVR was in charge and he refused to abandon her. Luckily he managed to re-float her on a rising tide and he left with three French officers. On the way he picked up two British soldiers who were apparently just floating around. He reached England safely but not before his engine had broken down and his motorboat was taken in tow by the Kitcat.   
copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
The King Alfred building c1950


One of the most difficult tasks assigned to the Instructor Commander at the King Alfred was deciding what sort of ship or establishment the newly fledged sub-Lieutenant or mid-shipman should go. Ideally of course they would be asked about their preferences and that would be that. In wartime it was not so simple. It all depended on where the current great need lay. For example, at the beginning of the war, the Admiralty was crying out for officers to man the trawler-minesweepers. Then there came a steady demand for offices to be assigned to Coastal Forces or landing craft or submarines not to mention the constant call for volunteers for new and specialised tasks. By 1942 at least 50% of each Division passing out at KA were destined for Combined Operations.

Cadets were usually asked to state their preferences as standard procedure although mostly it was purely academic. Peter Bull gave Coastal Forces as his first choice, then destroyers but was told he was too old for either at the age of 29. He was happy to leave whatever choice was left to the Commander and in the event had a successful career in landing craft.

Some cadets felt superstitious about putting down their real first choice on the grounds that you never got what you asked for anyway. The precaution did not always work. John Pickwell put down his preferences as motor launches, motor torpedo boats and corvettes, the latter being his real first choice. All were ignored and he found himself serving under the RAF on dry land as a fighter controller.

Another cadet who was a good seaman with extensive sailing experience, wanted to serve in corvettes. But he was never even sent to sea. He was posted first to Sunderland Pier to take charge of torpedo tubes and after the fall of Italy, he was sent to another harbour appointment out there.

Commander Head told Geoffrey Hobday, a New Zealander, he was to be assigned as an RAF liaison officer. Hobday was horrified at the prospect and pleaded for a sea-going appointment. Fortunately, the Commander managed to find him one. Later in his career, Hobday came back to Commander head for further assistance in another posting.

KA officers who had done particularly well went on to the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Others were despatched to various working-up bases scattered around the country. The minesweeper base was located in the Firth of Forth, the coastal craft base was at Portland (later transferred to Fort William) Combined Operations Craft base was at Troon or Oban while Tobermory catered for frigates, corvettes, armed A/S trawlers and ships up to the size of destroyers.

In some spheres RNVR officers were able to turn their lack of a rigid Royal Navy background to good advantage. Such a case was the landing craft where an unorthodox approach was required. RNVR officers learned to handle these awkward vessels superbly. For men steeped in the ways of the Royal Navy the handling of such a craft was more difficult than to an officer straight out of KA. For example, landing craft had no gyro-compasses and both screws turned the same way and these were but two of the problems. The RN officer was used to the services of a navigator, a signal officer, a gunnery officer etc but in landing craft the CO looked after the lot. Living quarters were cramped and uncomfortable, a fact recognised by a special allowance called ‘hard lying money’. In short landing craft in all their various guises were a success story for the RNVR. Some new sub-Lieutenants were sent to the United States to bring back LCIs (landing-craft infantry) built there. It was a journey across the Atlantic of some 3,000 miles and it was a feat that earned the praise of experienced sailors such as Alan Villiers. Such officers certainly made an impression on Commander-in-Chief Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham when on 9th July 1943 he watched them thrashing out to sea from Malta on their way to the invasion of Sicily. He knew RNVR officers commanded the majority of the vessels and most of them had never been to sea prior to 1939.

Conditions were equally cramped in corvettes and they became something of a RNVR preserve too. Indeed Volunteer Reservists entirely commanded and officered one of them, HMS Sheldrake, with the exception of the CO Lieutenant TC Harrison. On the whole, the feeling among ex-KA men was that they were happier serving aboard smaller types of vessel, such as corvettes, rather than larger ones like destroyers. They thought the latter would be rigidly RN and they might find it difficult to fit in.

Submarines, formerly exclusively RN, were another success story. Sir Max Horton, (Flag Officer, Submarines) foresaw a possible shortage of officers in this branch and insisted some officers should be recruited from the RNVR and RNR. Thus, early in 1940 the Admiralty sent a signal to KA requesting two volunteers. A likely candidate seemed to be a young man with some diving experience who enrolled a close friend as the other volunteer. Edward Young was envious of them because they would be promoted to a higher navigation class and he had hoped at the very least to get a knowledge of celestial navigation from his war service. He asked the Instructor Commander if he might join them. As it happened the other two dropped out and Edward Young became the first Reserve Executive Officer to serve in a submarine in World War II. He rose to the rank of Commander and collected a DSO and DSC and later published a vivid account of his wartime experiences in submarines.

Lieutenant Oran Caplat, who assisted at Dunkirk, served as a navigator in HM submarine Tempest. The Italians sunk this submarine and Caplat was one of the few survivors. He returned to submarines after a spell as a prisoner of war.

HM submarine Unswerving was the first submarine to have an all RNVR Wardroom. By the time Sir George Creasey took over command of the Submarine Branch in 1944 more than half of all submarine officers were from the RNVR or RNR and a dozen submarines were commanded by RNVRs.

The popular notion of submarines being the most hazardous branch of the Royal Navy was not a view held by the submariners themselves. They much preferred being submerged than to be shelled like a sitting duck on the surface. However, the real danger in one part of the submarine service could not be denied by anybody. Midget submarines were only 50 feet in length and it required a special kind of courage to ride one of these weapons. The RNVR was well represented here too and out of the 39 men who were killed, 19 of them were Volunteer Reservists.

Coastal Forces was another venture for the RNVR. The vessels were high-speed craft and needed young men with quick reflexes. The Admiralty publicised their exploits and several officers became well-known to the public at large. Robert Hichens, a former Falmouth solicitor and yachting enthusiast, became one of the most famous commanders. He joined Coastal Forces early on and became the first RNVR officer to command a flotilla of small ships. He took part in 150 operations and fought in 14 actions. He was killed in 1943.

Peter Scott had a notable career in Coastal Forces after service in destroyers. His artistic knowledge was of great benefit because he devised a very successful camouflage composed of a mixture of green, duck-egg blue and off-white. Indeed it was too much of a success on one occasion when two ships collided in mid-ocean because they failed to spot each other in time.

Although minesweepers did not have the dashing image of Coastal Forces, it was a vital job and service in minesweepers was one of the first tasks to be assigned to KA men. Here again it was an inroad into what had previously been an exclusively Royal Navy responsibility. In 1939 the Navy had just 36 such vessels but by 1945 there were 1,350 and 89% of the officers were RNVR. There was a famous and oft-quoted signal sent by an RNVR-officered minesweeper to a major war vessel commanded by the RN. It read ‘Channel now clear for straight-stripers’.

Another branch of the Navy looked after mines on dry land. It rejoiced in the cumbersome title ‘Land Incident Section, Admiralty’. In 1940 the Admiralty invited the King Alfred to provide twelve new sub-Lieutenants who were willing to volunteer for what they sportingly described as a secret mission. Soon the volunteers found themselves at HMS Vernon learning all about mines. It was dangerous work that seemed to appeal to quiet, thoughtful types such as schoolmasters or authors. Their bravery was well recognised and out of the nineteen George Crosses won by the Navy, fourteen were awarded for mine disposal.

As well as physical action, the war conjured up all manner of ideas and inventions, which probably would not have received a second look in peacetime. A RNVR man with bad eyesight but an agile brain might find himself assigned to the Wheezers and Dodgers as the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapon Development was popularly known. Or perhaps he would be sent to the Special Branch known as the green-stripers.

Many of the men who ended up in the latter were highly original characters. For example there was the Honourable Ewen Montagu who was a barrister when he joined the RNVR. His eyesight was found to be faulty and he was appointed to Intelligence. He masterminded Operation Mincemeat where a supposedly drowned staff officer was washed up on the Spanish Coast in 1943 and whose pockets contained false information about the proposed Allied invasion in the Mediterranean. The aim of this operation was to draw attention away from the real site of the invasion (Sicily) and it was a ruse that succeeded. After the war Montagu wrote a book about it entitled The Man Who Never Was and it sold two million copies. He died in July 1985.

One specialist task that became virtually a RNVR creation and service was the fighter-direction branch. It was top secret and the results were amazing. The first fighter-director officer was appointed to HMS Illustrious whose fighters were able to intercept and shoot down 75 enemy aircraft with his direction. It was described as a sort of Asdic of the air.

It is interesting to note that before the war the Sussex Division of the RNVR based at Hove had been instructed to specialise in Asdic (a device for detecting the presence of submarines). But then war broke out and the Asdic equipment was still sitting in packing cases in a Naval Dockyard. Meanwhile, the CO, Captain the Earl Howe, was trying to pull every string he could think of to get hold of the stuff. It is fitting therefore, that two officers of the Sussex Division, Lieutenant-Commander TD Manning and Lieutenant Commander RK Spencer, became the first RNVR officers allowed to learn about Asdic and later they both commanded Asdic-fitted vessels.

Some ex-KA men went on to serve in shore bases or other training establishments. Captain Pelly interviewed G Halliday, who received his commission on the day of the King’s visit, and three others from the same class. They were told to report to HMS Royal Arthur at Skegness (the erstwhile Butlin’s Holiday Camp). They were to take up duties as sub-divisional officers and Captain Pelly sent them off with a final injunction ‘There is no more important job in the Navy than starting these new entries on the right foot and that’s what you will be doing’.

The question of promotion was a thorny one. Officers in the Royal Navy were still held back by the old regulations, that is, a man had to serve for up to three years as a sub-Lieutenant, then eight years as a Lieutenant before further promotion. They therefore felt ill-used when no such rules applied to temporary officers whose careers seemed to zoom ahead and some even attained senior rank within a year or two. On the other hand some temporary officers had given up important well-paid careers in order to do their bit and the Admiralty wanted to encourage men of such calibre. Indeed a Fleet Order issued in September 1942 was designed specifically to encourage the promotion of reserve and temporary officers to acting Lieutenant Commander. By July 1943 over 1,000 had been promoted under that Order.

The rapid advancement of temporary officers also caused dismay among men of the RNR. Their grievance was given a thorough airing when a letter from a senior captain RNR eventually came to the attention of the First Sea Lord, the Right Hon AV Alexander. The letter was dated 18th May 1944 and ran as follows.

‘To the majority of the old RNR officers, if the Admiralty doesn’t do something about it, they will find themselves with no Regular Naval Reserves after the war is over because there is no inducement for a Mercantile Marine Officer to join the Naval Reserve in peacetime and go through all the drills, involving, amongst other things, a year’s training at sea, a 3-month gunnery course, and a 3-month torpedo course. In order to meet these requirements, he has to ask some seventeen months leave from the company which employs him and then to cap it all, when war does break out temporary commissioners are handed out very often in a higher rank to people who have no previous Naval experience and naturally the Reserve Officer feels he would have been better off if he had never joined and had come in as a temporary officer’.

As a curious footnote to the grumbles, Robert Boothby MP wrote to the First Sea Lord on 2nd August 1944 putting the opposite point of view. But it seems his sentiments were somewhat out of date; they might have been apt early in the war but not by 1944. He wrote.

‘It is perhaps unavoidable that the promotion of RNVR officers compares very unfavourably with that of temporary officers in the Army … but I have heard of a number of cases recently in which RNVR officers with several years sea experience in destroyers and/or light craft, have been strongly recommended for promotion to Lieutenant Commander and nothing has happened’.

The First Sea Lord replied promptly that the notion of RNVR officers having a raw deal over promotion was not in accordance with the facts. The promotion of RNVR officers up to the rank of Lieutenant was governed by the time factor but for outstanding junior officers there was a scheme of accelerated promotion whereby they could obtain the rank of Lieutenant (provided they were 22 years old) after they had served for a year in the lower rank. There was another scheme for the rank of Lieutenant Commander whereby a given number of Lieutenants who were considered to be sufficiently outstanding to merit higher rank and who were employed on duties for which it would be justified, might be promoted every half year.

It is obvious that whatever schemes were devised, there would always be some who felt their interests were neglected. It was a problem without a solution. In 1939 nobody could visualise what parts of the Navy would need to expand rapidly or the type of specialists needed. It really was a case of adaptability as the war progressed.


Commander EA Brock’s letter was printed in the King Alfred magazine for October 1940. ‘Here, gathered together under one roof and under one banner, are men of a great variety of age, outlook, creed, education and so forth, yet all with one common aim and determination which is to make each his own full contribution to the Empire’s stupendous effort. New Zealand, Australia, India, South Africa, Canada (both French and English Canada) as well as every section of the British Isles including Eire, are represented here… They have come in their thousands of their own free will’.

At the start of the war New Zealand did not have her own Navy; it was still known as the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy and remained so until 1941. Many volunteers came forward to join the RNVR under the New Zealand Scheme B for potential officers. Sometimes they had to wait several months before accommodation aboard a vessel became available. They came to Britain in large numbers and upon arrival were deployed in smaller groups. By the time they made it to KA, the New Zealanders were usually in groups of from four to six men in one Division.   

Here is one man’s experience. HA Nation volunteered in 1940 and a Naval Selection Board interviewed him. After several months of kicking his heels he left New Zealand aboard RMS Tamaroa still wearing civilian clothes and in a draft of 39 other volunteers with ages ranging from twenty to forty. He arrived in Scotland in May 1941, was sent to HMS Ganges for a 12-week course, then to Chatham Barracks to await drafting. Next he was sent with three other New Zealanders to join HMS Black Swan on escort duties. Later, while the ship was being repaired at Liverpool, they heard they had been passed as CW candidates. The fact that the Royal New Zealand Navy had just come into being had a direct bearing on their status as the minimum lower deck tome for Scheme B candidates was reduced from three to two months.

Nation remembered practical ship handling for KA men at Newhaven, and one day in particular. It was a special day for their group because not only were they emerging into fresh air and sunlight after days of gruelling work they had also just earned their single stripe of gold braid. At Newhaven HMS Dunlin was a former luxury yacht that had been converted to carry some light AA armaments and young RN ratings manned her. She never headed more than two or three miles out to sea so that new sub-Lieutenants could take fixes on familiar landmarks. After lunch they spread out on deck for some relaxation when three Messerschmitts suddenly appeared flying low from the direction of France. Two of the RN crew were killed and HMS Dunlin was in a sorry state with a hole aft letting in water rapidly and a mass of splintered glass and woodwork. But one ME109 was shot down. This was the closest the Germans came to sinking HMS King Alfred, a feat they claimed apparently. After the King Alfred, Nation served aboard two Isles Class minesweepers – HMS Stronsay in 1942 and HMS Unst in 1943. Between the two appointments, his friends managed to arrange a surprise dinner for him at Savoy to celebrate his 21st birthday.

Frank O’Brien heard the news about the Royal New Zealand Navy at Devonport Barracks when he and other New Zealanders were paraded before the Prime Minister Peter Fraser to hear the announcement. O’Brien’s route to KA was circuitous and he was not a Scheme B candidate. He was a trained Post Office telegraphist and when he heard a Government appeal for men in this category, he volunteered. It was not only the Navy that was short of telegraphists and the Union Steamship Co of New Zealand was also feeling the draught. O’Brien had the odd experience of being ‘lent’ to the company by the Navy for three months and he served on ships plying between New Zealand and Australia. Indeed most of his classmates from HMS Philomel, the training ship at Auckland, were also seconded to various ships of the company. Finally in May 1941, he arrived at Cardiff aboard RMS Rimatuka and was sent to HMS Drake at Devonport. While he was there he volunteered for Coastal Forces and was sent to HMS St Christopher at Fort William. It was only a 3-week course, followed by a stint at HMS Attack at Portland. But while he was at Fort William, O’Brien heard that some raw recruits (as he thought of them) were applying to be considered for commissions. He thought if they could do it, why not put in application himself, which he did at Portland. The CO did not know quite what questions to ask him as he was applying for the Special Branch RNVR. He boiled it down to one important question ‘Are you strong in Maths?’ Actually he was not but he duly arrived at KA in November 1942.

Miles Maginnity also travelled to Britain aboard RMS Rimatuka but at a later date than O’Brien. On the voyage, although still in civilian clothes, Maginnity and other volunteers were allotted tasks such as look-out, manning the guns etc. After basic training at HMS Ganges, The draft of around 25 volunteers was split into groups of two or three and Maginnity and Russell Lloyd, another New Zealander, were sent to do their sea time aboard HMS Salisbury before proceeding to KA. HMS Salisbury was a United States Lease Lend World War I destroyer.

When Maginnity and the other New Zealanders first arrived, at Scotland as it happens, SR Skinner, the New Zealand High Commissioner’s chief clerk was on hand to greet them. Skinner was English-born but was intensely interested in the training of all New Zealand cadet ratings. After the war, he went on a trip to New Zealand, making sure he met as many ex-KA men as possible. Bill Jordan, the High Commissioner, was also very concerned for the New Zealanders’ welfare. He visited the King Alfred with Skinner on at least two occasions. Once Jordan had the misfortune to address a restless group of New Zealanders at mid-day when their liberty train to London was due to leave at 12.25. At last they could bear the suspense no longer and drew Jordan’s attention to the fact it was to be their first weekend’s leave for six weeks. Jordan understood at once and shut up. But many New Zealanders had reason to be grateful for Jordan’s benevolent sway at New Zealand House in London because they knew it was possible to borrow money against their pay if they ran short during leave. Of course the correct form had to be observed and you filled in a chit saying you needed the money to return to your ship and not at any time did you intimate you wanted some cash to buy a few extra drinks.

When Dennis Glover was enjoying his leave in London, he decided to remove his conspicuous white cap band and revert to being an able seaman while he indulged in a riotous time in a pub with some new companions. After a while he became aware of an officer staring at him intently and at length he was called over. It turned out Glover had been recognised as a KA cadet rating because the officer was an instructor there as well. But he was also a New Zealander and all he said was ‘Good Luck’.

DL Williams originally volunteered to be a pilot but there was only limited training available under the Canadian Air Training Scheme. He left New Zealand in April 1941 hoping to join the Fleet Air Arm but it was discovered his hearing was not good enough and he was transferred to Scheme B. Initial training took place at HMS Raleigh, followed by nine months at sea aboard HMS Lewes before going on to KA.

Many of the New Zealanders got off to a head start at KA because military training was compulsory for young men and consequently field training held no terrors for them. They enjoyed sport too although some of them were too energetic in that respect. Jim Cartwright, a brilliant three-quarter, played his last game at KA when he was carried off halfway through a game of rugby with an injury to the same kneecap that had been shattered at HMS Ganges. They also had a reputation for brains and at one Final Board the Admiral could not understand how one New Zealander was bottom at everything while his compatriots were top of the class. However, he was not dipped because the Admiral felt there must have been some mistake.

But even the New Zealanders found the pace at KA daunting. As Dennis Glover put it rather neatly ‘It was the nearest I have ever seen of the English in a ferocious hurry to defeat the enemy’. The continual pressure of work took its toll. Miles Maginnity was supposed to muster for an identity card photograph at the mid-day break. Instead he dozed off and completely missed the photographer’s visit. Instead he had to go ashore and have one done at his own expense. The firm he chose had the wonderful sounding name of Elfreda Osborn and Bertram Stodgell of Hove.

There was a general feeling among the British that their comrades from the Antipodes could get away with murder. Not that there was any resentment towards them – after all they had travelled thousands of miles from their homes to volunteer and so good luck to them. When Don Claydon (British) was at KA in 1941 he had three friends from down under and he thought it would be a good idea to join them and see what they could get away with. There had lately been an airing of petty grievances at a high level and it was rumoured it was no longer mandatory to attend church after Sunday Divisions. One freezing Sunday there were these four men, cosily sitting in front of the gas fire in the ante-room, reading the newspapers. But a prowling Gunner’s Mate discovered them and barked ‘Who are you then?’ which being interpreted meant ‘What are you sitting there for when all the others are in church or on parade or hanging about dodging the snow?’ Claydon’s comrades explained they could not attend a church service, as there was none to suit them seeing as they belonged to the Church of Turkey. The next day found the four men on parade with full pack, gas-masks on, rifle and bayonet at the ready, and then they were double-marched, turning about with a clash of bayonets, until the end of the first dog watch. They did not skip church again.

The night before leaving KA, Miles Maginnity thought it would be a good time to turn out his kitbag. It was full not of rubbish but of coveted tins of foodstuffs despatched in patriotic parcels from the folk back home. Amongst them were several tins of oysters, which were eagerly seized by a very young sub-Lieutenant by the name of LG Carr. Carr had arrived at KA via a spell at HMS Ganges and service aboard a Hunt Class destroyer. He was a Scheme B candidate and a shining example of what these youngsters could achieve. After the war he joined the regular RNZN and ended his career as a Rear-Admiral and Chief of Naval Staff. Another eminent New Zealander who passed through KA in around 1945 was Sir David Beattie, Governor General whose term of office expired in 1985.

After leaving KA New Zealanders were sent to various posts. Some went to Greenwich for what was nicknamed a ‘knife and fork’ course. Amongst these was Miles Maginnity who met sub-Lieutenant Prince Philip of Greece downing a gin in the sub-Lieutenants ante-room. Maginnity was despatched to a minesweeping course on the River Forth, before being appointed as 1st Lieutenant of HMS Kennet on the Nile station. DL Williams was also at Greenwich before being posted to HMS Paynter, an Asdic convoy escort trawler based at Belfast that accompanied vessels to and from Reykjavik.

John Tinney started his working life as an employee of the Union Bank of Australia. He came to KA as a Scheme B entrant and his first appointment was to HMS Jeannie Deans, Thames Local Defence Force. Then he was sent to HMS St Angelo, Malta for training as a hard master. In August 1943 he was appointed to HMS Hannibal, Algiers as duty officer.

Men from the Dominions were particularly active in the Naval Air Branch of the RNVR. For some obscure reason, this force was composed largely of New Zealanders, Australians and Scotsmen.

The contributions made by men from overseas can only be pinpointed here and there. For example, in the submarine branch of the service, Australian RNVRs commanded three of them, Canadian RNVRs were in charge of two and a New Zealand RNVR and a South African RNVR commanded one each. The Navy won nineteen George Crosses and four them were awarded to Australian Volunteer Reservists.

copyright © Ray Davey.
Paying-off party outside the front entrance to the King Alfred in 1945. In the front row CPO Jones is standing second from left, A.W. Saunders, Administrative Officer is third from the left and Ray Davey FTO is fourth from the right.
Not only the Dominions and Colonies were represented at KA, as there was also a sizeable British Latin American presence. A typical example was John Haddock who was born on a sheep estancia in Patagonia and brought up ‘practically in the saddle’. He was sent to an English prep school at Hurlingham, Buenos Aires and continued his education in England. Before war service, he was an apprentice on an estancia running 45,000 head of cattle and 25,000 sheep. In February 1942 he arrived at KA and was commissioned as a sub-Lieutenant in May the same year. Haddock thought the wide variety in the backgrounds of RNVR officers could be well illustrated in his own case. In 1943 he shared a dormitory with other officers at the Britannia Royal Naval College; on one side was a man who specialised in catching poisonous snakes for zoos and on the other a man whose firm manufactured ladies underwear. After the war Haddock transferred to the Royal Navy and became a Lieutenant Commander.

If this chapter has been heavily weighted towards New Zealand, it is only because a wealth of information was forthcoming from that country, whereas, regrettably, appeals for contacts and information in Australia, Canada and South Africa were met with silence. Suffice it to say that men from many countries added to the variety of life at HMS King Alfred and helped to make it a very special place.


So how many men passed through HMS King Alfred? The Daily Graphic (12th July 1946) put the figure as high as 30,000 (including the Exbury officers) while Kerr & Granville’s book gives it as 22,508. The official plaque at the King Alfred reads

‘During the Second World War this building was used as a Naval Officers’ Training Establishment and commissioned as HMS King Alfred.
22,500 Officers of the Royal Naval Reserve from all parts of the British Empire received their training here.
This tablet was unveiled on 5 September 1945 by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew B Cunningham Bart KT GCB DSO First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff’.


Thanks are due to Rear-Admiral PG Sharp and Lt-Cdr NBJ Stapleton RD RNR for help and advice, and all members of the Sussex RNVR and RNR Officers’ Association especially the Hon Sec Harold Prestage (Lt RNVR) and Cdr Warwick Child VRD**RN, Peter Court (Cdr VRD RNR) WE Cutts (Lt RNVR) Ray Davey (Lt RNVR) John Dickson (Lt-Cdr VRD*RNR) AE Humphries (Lt RNVR) Cdr Philip ‘Pip’ Noel VRD RNR, Philip W Ratcliffe (lr-Cdr RNVR) Dave Watkins (Lt-Cdr VRD RNVR) RJ Wilder (Lt-Cdr VRD*RNR)

Thanks to all those who wrote to me – Ray Bentley (Lt RNVR) John Blackmore (Lt-Cdr RNVR) RA Butler (Lt RNVR) Bryan C Cambray (Lt RNVR) Don Claydon (Lt RNVR) Rear-Admiral DL Davenport CB OBE, JTJ Dobie (Lt DSC RNVR) Cyril Elles (Lt DSC RNVR) M O’B Fitzgerald (Lt RN) JV Haddock (Lt-Cdr RN) G Halliday (Lt RNVR)Ian Hennell (Lt-Cdr RNR) John H Jones (Lt RNVR) TB Lewis (Lt RNVR) Leonard B Knight (Lt RNVR) Peter Mallett (Lt-Cdr RNR) AS Martin (Lt-Cdr MBE RD RNR) Donald Mills (Lt RNVR) BL Moir (Lt-Cdr RNVR) Jack Morgan (Sub-Lt RNVR) I Elliston Near (Lt-Cdr RNR) John Pickwell (Lt-Cdr RNVR) Thomas Stuart (Lt DSC RNVR) CE Turner (Lt-Cdr RNVR) CH Tyers (Cdr RN) Edward Walker (Lt-Cdr VRD RNR)

Thanks to the New Zealanders who wrote to me – Rear-Admiral LG Carr CB DSC, Miles Maginnity (Lt RNZVR) HA Nation (Lt RNZVR) Frank O’Brien (Lt RNZVR) John Tinney (Lt RNZVR) DL William (RNZVR)

Thanks too for help from ex-KA Wrens – Mrs Bourne (Admin PO Joan Feast) Mrs Hoad (Wren Phyllis Jones) Mrs Llewellyn (Leading Wren Sylvia Herbert) Mrs Moody (PO Rhona Cleverley)

Thanks are also due to Richard Baker OBE, Norris McWhirter, Sir Peter Scott CBE, Tony Curtis (Project Officer King Alfred Leisure Centre) C Snell (Headmaster, Mowden) Lancing College; Public Record Office; RWA Suddaby (Keeper, Dept of Documents, Imperial War Museum) Mrs Mary Stott for permission to quote from her husband’s letters; Dennis Glover for permission to quote from Hot Water Sailor and Landlubber Ho (1982) Collins, New Zealand, Richard Literary Agency PO Box 31240 Milford Auckland 9 NZ


King Alfred Magazine called KA then The Wave, Complete run Hove Library
HMS King Alfred Syllabuses, Ministry of Defence, Naval Historical Branch
Hove Council Agenda and Minutes 1936-7, 1939, 1944-1945
Imperial War Museum, Dept of Documents. Letters/Memoirs deposited by GV Ball (Lr-Cdr RNR) ER Crane (Lt-Cdr DSC RNVR) GH Dormer (Lt-Cdr RNVR) EC Ealey (Lt RNVR) RS Gellatly (Lt RNVR) K Stott (Lt RNVR)
Public Record Office ADM 1 /9544 / 12709 / 14004 / 14015 / 16001 / 17109 / 18698

Bull (P) To Sea in a Sieve (1956)
Cherry (AH) Yankee RN (1951)
Coles (A) & Briggs (F) Flagship Hood (1985)
Dingwall (RH) & Bailey (RE) Sussex Sunday Sailors by the Sea (1977)
Divine (D) Nine Days of Dunkirk (1959)
Duff (D) On Swallowing the Anchor (1954)
Glover (D) Hot Water Sailor and Landlubber Ho (1982)
Hobday (G) In Harm’s Way (1985)
Hornby (Lt-Cdr) My Starboard Watch (1984)
Kennedy (L) Sub-Lieutenant (1842) 
Kerr (JL) & Granville (W) The RNVR (1957)
McWhirter (N) Ross (1976)
Montagu (E) The Man Who Never Was (1953)
More (K) More or Less (1978)
Scott (P) Eye of the Wind (1961)
Stapleton (NBJ) Steam Picket Boats (1980)
Taylor (G) London’s Navy (1983)
Thornton (WM) 75th Anniversary of the RNVR and RNR (1978)
Young (E) One of our Submarines (1952)
Copyright © J.Middleton 2012
page layout by D.Sharp