Toulon dockyard as I remember it

I’m stepping out of my comfort zone again here, I had a chat with @LawrencePearce on Twitter: he’s moving to the southwest of France on the Bay of Biscay coast and it reminded me of a time when I’d spent a couple of months in the Mediterranean and visited the South of France on a couple of occasions. I thought I’d share with you a story from approximately 1993/1994, I was in the Royal Navy, by 1993 I was a Leading Hand and serving on board HMS Herald. Herald (or the Happy H as we so lovingly called her) wasn’t one of those big grey pointy front end things with guns all over the place, it was a hydrographic survey vessel travelling the world mapping the sea bed (I don’t ever remember mapping waters off the coast of Tuscany in case anyone is wondering) and as a survey vessel it was white. It did however have two 30mm guns (one on each bridge wing) which would spray South Atlantic waters on the odd occasion just to get the juices flowing, who doesn’t love the smell of cordite in the morning ?

We were surveying Mediterranean waters, Toulon was our next port of call, we’d stopped in Sete along the coast a few weeks previously and had been at sea for a couple of weeks. We were looking forward to a good “run ashore” (a few beers, a trip around a museum or a day on the beach – you know where I’m coming from) but my first job when we came alongside in Toulon was to recce the dockyard and find out how we got in and out of the dockyard on foot. I worked closely with the Master at Arms, (the Jaunty, the ship’s policeman) and they thought I was a sensible kind of guy, well I was and I still am, mostly. So off I went with my beret tight to the outside of my head and what ever French I could muster from the ‘O’ Level oral exam I took 8 or 9 years ago – I was wondering if Madamoiselle Lafayette would be working at the boulangerie today. I seemed to walk for ages in what seemed to be the direction of the front gate and before too long (Toulon – see what I did there) I saw the gate and with my Mlle Lafayette French was able to understand that each nationality of ship that was present in the dockyard had to have a representative of that nationality on the gate 24/7. The idea was to check and authenticate ID cards – as you can imagine, security needed to be tight. I gave assurances one of us would be back later and went back to the Happy H to report my findings. In usual naval fashion we adopted a watch system, 6 hours about and lucky me, as I’d made contact and they knew my face I pulled the first evening watch (2000-0200), at least I’d then have 3 or 4 days, duty done and time to myself.

Duty calls and I’m standing at the gate to one of the largest dockyards in the world with all of my new foreign matelot friends – Pierre from France, Jan from Holland, Dietmar from Germany, Bruce from Australia, Vito from Italy, Jose from Spain and there was a guy from South Africa who kept on calling everyone “Boet” “Ya Ya Boet” – I use it still today. As the evening went by people would leave and after a couple of hours come back. All the guys (there were only men in all navies at the time apart from the Dutch navy) were coming back from their nights out, saying hello, ID checked and on they went to their ships. As the night drew on, people would come back and the later it got you could tell they’d had a few more beers than their shipmates who’d got back earlier. But every single nation was polite, coherent and chatty. I remember a couple of Germans coming back, talking to their shipmate, having a laugh with us all, telling us all about a bar they’d found that was showing the football and bragging about how much beer they’d drunk. It was at about this point when they were telling us they’d had 8 or 9 beers, I heard what sounded like singing coming from a distance. We all looked at each other and yes it definitely sounded like singing, and it was getting louder. Then just as the singing became clear I saw two of my lads, arms around each other singing what sounded like “we’re forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air” – that’ll be Nobby (Clarke) and Brackets (Browne – brackets E was the way they distinguished him from the other Able Seaman Brown (no E) on the tannoy): Nobby and Brackets were staunch West Ham supporters and I guess they thought the inhabitants of Toulon would like to hear their rendition of their favourite Saturday afternoon football terrace song, and they made themselves heard. Then, they saw the dockyard gate, and they stopped singing, they released each other from the others grip, stood up straight and walked straight(ish). We’ve all been there, normally when we were about 17 coming home from a party and see the front room curtain twitch and realise “oh shit, Dad’s awake, better look sober”. Well the dockyard gate was the curtain twitch for Nobby and Brackets – but fair play to them, apart from trying to feed me Doner Kebab (with garlic sauce – “leave the garlic sauce off next time guys”) as they walked through the gate, they pulled themselves together and “looked” fairly sober. A hundred yards inside the dockyard and around the corner “I’m forever blowing bubbles” was heard again, I looked at Pierre, Vito and Dietmar and smiled – they “smiled” back.

So there it is, not much of a story really, no-one died, the ship didn’t sink and no-one got pregnant (well not that I know of anyway – maybe there’s a young lad in Toulon wearing a West Ham shirt wondering “why the hell am I wearing this?”). I was proud of our boys that night, even though they were very drunk, very loud and put far too much garlic sauce on their kebab, they had a good time and taught Toulon a few lines of a very traditional English terrace song.

I hope you enjoyed this post, it’s a lot longer than my usual posts, thank you for getting this far. I’ve got another story, about getting shot at in Brazil, but you won’t want to hear that – will you ? 😉

Thanks for reading – coins in the hat and comments below please.

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