HMS Bulwark (1972 – 1973)


Devonport dockyard was a HUGE place at the time with HMS Drake attached for the shore based personnel. The carriers were usually berthed on an outside wall, not in a basin. This meant that I had even further to go to get to ‘my’ ship. I have no real recollections of that day, but It must have been quite awe inspiring to stand at the bottom of the gangway of this massive ship.

Leaving Grand Harbour Malta. March 1973

Joining and leaving ANY Naval ship or establishment used to involve a great deal of paperwork. Everyone had to be told that you were  joining or leaving. The Navy way of achieving this was  by means of a joining or drafting routine. This started with a visit to the dreaded regulating office where you first signed for your draft. Then you were given a piece of paper or card with a heap of boxes marked on it. Each box represented a place or person you had to visit so they were informed of your arrival or departure. Although it was always quite a formidible task, especially the joining routine when you dont know the way round, by the time you finished it, you had a much better idea of the layout of the place or the ship. The routine included, sick bay, dentist, Padre, library (to ensure no books outstanding) accomodation office of course, Sports facilities (no equipment outstanding) same for loan clothing store. Last stop was of course the bedding store on the morning of departure.

This routine had to be done on arrival on the ship also of course. From the gangway you immediately had to find your way to the regulating office. If you got away with your hair before, you probably wouldnt now! Here (After the obligatory haircut bollocking) you would be given your joining routine card and told where your messdeck was. First stop, find a bunk and get LHOM (leading hand of the mess) to sign the joining card. At least now you were rid of all the kit that had to be carted around. Place of employment and divisional officer were high up the list of priority visits, then all the other stuff, Bedding store, sick bay and dentist would all have set times of attendance for joining and drafting routines. They would probably be at different ends of the ship and all be at the same time! This involved some careful planning of course, but by the time it was all done, a newbie had a bit of an idea of what was where. Although on something as huge as the Bulwark this was a very minor part of what was to be learned.

The ‘main drag’ (Burma way) (main passageway) was on 4 deck. My mess / bunkspace / accomodation was on 5 deck. 5E1 mess. 5 decks down 5 sections aft of the bow and on the starboard side. This was the ‘greenies’ (electricians mess) I was lucky in that I had an outboard top bunk so my bunk was not in the main part of the mess used for seating and socialising. A small boot locker (drawer) and a large (ish) grey double door locker was your stowage space. There was a communal locker for hanging suits in as well though.

The bathrooms were certainly NOT en-suite! Up one deck, through the ships company dining hall and down one deck. The Heads (toilets) were positioned where the term came from. Right up forward on 4 deck. VERY uncomfortable when it was rough. Many people ended up watering their own shoes…..or worse.

My first employment was in the Telex section. Looking after telephones throughout the ship and the exchange of course. This was a fantastic job as it got me ALL over the ship, from the messdecks to the bridge,  engine rooms and boiler rooms, even the Captains cabin on a couple of occasions. Also people are always so grateful when you get their phone working. A big perk of this job was to be one of the first ashore on arrival and one of the last to get back on board as the shore lines had to be connected and disconnected.

The exchange was eight cabinets, I think, of the old electro mechanical style. You still see them featured in movies sometimes. The uni selectors clicking up and down and turning to find the right line. Fantastic bit of kit. To achieve the same now, a small corner of a desk drawer would be required. The exchange and telex workshop were on deck 5 or 6 I think about halfway along the ship. Obviously strategically placed since the main switchboard and HQ1 (main disaster headquarters) were also positioned here. That was fairly sensible, but what was NOT sensible was running the ships huge fire main right above all the electrical cabinets. This was a large bore pipe carrying salt water to be used for fire fighting which was fine until it burst one night!  Though that seems pretty terrible, I loved the event as it meant that I was chosen to work with the section petty officer on night work to make repairs. I learnt an awful lot during that period as well as becoming good friends with ‘Donkey’ Bray, the section PO.

It was usual, especially with young juniors to be moved around different sections / electrical departments of the ship to get training and experience. I think we spent 3 months in each department. Of course I hated leaving the telex section. I then spent time in hangar – flight deck- and island. (The ‘island’ being where the bridge and ops rooms are on a carrier). Also ERS & BRS (engine rooms and boiler rooms. Hated that!! Internal comms section was good. Nearly as good as telex in that it involved visiting all parts of the ship to repair speakers etc. It was while doing this job that I made a MAJOR cock up, which nobody knows about…….until now that is 😉

Bearing in mind that this was still the early ’70s and technology was huge and heavy. I was sent to carry out a repair to the comms panel on the bridge one day while we were at sea en-route to the Meditterranean. The weather was superb. The flight deck was busy with helicopters and I was loving being on the bridge. Needless to say I was not rushing my work….. The panel had two buttons at the top, one of which I was working very close to. For access, the front of the panel had to hinged downwards so the buttons were then nearest you. I was soldering a new switch in (very slowly of course) when the emergency alarm sounded! ~~*T !! What now? I buttoned the panel up as quickly as possible and went to my correct part of ship. There were all sorts of strange announcements, but the bottom line is that nobody knew who, where or why the alarm had been sounded? After some time of investigation the ship reverted to normal routine and I returned to the bridge to finish my repair. The Captain was still on the bridge and was not at all happy!

I must digress briefly here………….

There was a Chinese tailor shop on board who sold Seiko watches once the ship was at sea. They were the real deal too and it was easy to tell who had already done sea time as they all had these large metal strapped Seiko watches. I was no exception and had bought one just as soon as they were available. (My parents had given me some money towards it for my birthday)

…….Anyway, back to the comms repair on the bridge

It was when I reopened the panel and was waiting for the soldering iron to heat up again that I noticed the proximity of the contacts on the back of the emergency alarm in relation to my metal watch strap!!! Yes, it was my watch strap that sent the whole of the Bulwark ships company to emergency stations.

Needless to say, I carefully removed my nice new, metal strapped Seiko watch, stowed it in my pocket and finished the job….as quickly as possible. Getting off the bridge as soon as possible.

People on board had different jobs for different situations. I was trained to drive the port crane which was actually used to raise and lower one of the ships boats in addition to other tasks. I also drove the winch used to lift one of the landing craft, but the task I loved most was driving the bomb lift!

This was an amazing bit of kit used to transfer munitions between the magazine and the flight deck. When we were preparing for deployment we had to get all the munitions on board and while at sea before the ‘bootnecks’ (Royal Marines) went ashore we had to transfer whatever was required to the flight deck. The magazines were situated midships with a lift from about 8 deck to 4 deck where the load then had to be transferred to the flight deck lift which was on the starboard side. There was a fair amount of brass handles and levers to achieve this transfer with hydraulic flash doors and traversing gear to be operated in strictly interlocked sequences. Since the main area for controlling this was on 4 deck, with the ‘Burma way’ running past it, everyone used to take an interest in watching the bomblift being operated. It definitely made a young sailor feel very important to be watched operating such a piece of machinery.

My memory of the actual ‘time line’ is a bit sketchy around this period and I could really do with having my service certificates, which are still in the UK (I am writing this in China). So please forgive any innaccuracies and expect alterations at some stage. It will not affect the overall content though.

At some stage we went to sea and one of the first ports of call was Toulon on the French Mediterranean coast. I remember being warned before we were allowed ashore to be careful about any discussions with the French sailors. Apparently the French scuttling their fleet at Toulon in 1707 is still a sore point. I had no trouble in fact I came back with a French sailors pom-pom hat.

One place I definitely wanted to re-visit was Malta of course and it seemed to be Bulwarks second home so that was not a problem. During one extended visit there we had some memorable ‘ban yans’ (beach picnics) and I used to sail the ships dinghys quite often. Life was indeed good.

We also visited Athens, Gibraltar and Cyprus, but maybe not all on this first trip.

My first ever visit to the United States was with the Bulwark when we pulled into Charleston South Carolina in February 1973. We were the largest vessel ever to pass beneath the Cooper bridge at the harbour entrance. I am sure I was told that a portion of the mast or at least an aerial had to be removed before we could achieve this. We entered harbour on a falling tide and got alongside without incident. However, there was then a problem with getting our shore supply cables connected. (Bit of bad intel’ / research there methinks!) So we ahd to keep the generators running until it was sorted out. In the meantime, the tide continued to ebb and the ship was now close enough to the bottom for the generator intakes to start hoovering all the mud, silt and jellyfish off the sea bed. The whole crew knew of this when it got suddenly dark as the generators cut out one after another.

I was duty that first night alongside so could not take advantage of the huge line of cars on the jetty all calamouring to take a British matelot ‘up homers’. A lot of guys did go with them though and there were some fantastic stories told afterwards. Some of them were even quite believable!!

We were on tropical routine while we were here which meant that only the duty watch were required after midday. So after lunch on the second day a gang of us went for our first ‘run ashore’. I know that Phil Nisbett and Jesse James were among this group and maybe Gerald Goodwin also. We grabbed the first taxi we saw and asked him to take us somewhere we could get a drink. The driver obviously had the right idea as he took us to a country and western bar called ‘The Little Nashville’. This was good because it really was a 24 hour bar. When they cleaned up, you had to lift your feet while they mopped the floor.

They had a strange law in this state at the time, which decreed that bars could not sell spirits on a Sunday. The way round this was that all the bar staff had a full selection of bottles with their names on. They were allowed to ‘give’ customers a drink from their bottle. Since you only paid your tab when you left, this didn’t really make much difference, but it was certainly interesting watching the bar staff change shifts…..and bottle labels!

The owner stated one day that he wanted ” to see just how much us limeys could drink” so the beer was on the house. Bloody stupid move that was since American beer is not renowned for its strength. I think it cost him a lot more than he was expecting before we decided that we needed some shorts to supplement it. No hard feelings though, he took us to his home one day for a meal and yet more beer. I have never been dissapointed by the hospitality of the Americans to us Brits. Its not just to servicemen either as I have been equally well looked after during visits to the US since I left the service also.

The weather in Charleston is semi-tropical which meant that even in Febrauary, it was warm enough to go ashore in short sleeved ‘white fronts’ and still be warm enough after sunset. However, having returned onboard, when we got up the following morning about 6″ or 7″ of snow had fallen overnight. This was extremely rare and is in fact quoted as a 1 in 3000 chance of it happening.  There was a HUGE Anglo / US snowball fight that morning and some of the Chinese that we had onboard found it to be quite a novelty also making slides on the flight deck.

When we left Charleston we were then to take part in exercise Rum Punch in the Caribean. All I can remember of this was the visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The beaches were fantastic to loungs on with a bacardi and coke or if the coke ran out, then fresh coconut milk, since the coke cost more than the bacardi.

From what I can find out we went directly from the caribean to the Med where we we picked up 41 commando in Malta to then go to the Arctic Circle for an Anglo / US exercise. It was an ‘interesting’ experience having the ‘booties’ (Royal Marines) onboard. For most of the time they were bored stiff. Once they had finished their PT on the flight deck and cleaned their guns they had nothing to do except wander round the ship. If a matelot so much as paused in the passageway to look at a notice board, there would probably be half a dozen booties forming a queue to see what is interesting enough to look at! They certainly NEVER missed a mealtime or a canteen opening, causing some extremely long queues for the rest of us.

Once the Booties had finished making snowmen and having snowball fights………..or whatever they did while ashore, we then went around the top of Scotland to visit Rosyth.

During my time onboard, my parents had moved to Faslane, Helensburgh, Scotland where my Father was now ship manager for HMS/M Revenge, one of the four Polaris submarines. Since I now knew I was due to leave the Bulwark when we arrived back in Plymouth and take some leave, it didnt seem to make much sense to spned another few days onboard just to have to travel the length of the country again to get home. Strangely, the Navy agreed with me and I was allowed to leave the ship in Rosyth for the short journey across Scotland to spend my holiday with my parents in Helensburgh.

I was due to join HMS Defiance in Devenport after my leave. HMS Defiance was the Fleet maintenance group headquarters,so I was joining it to assist the Devonport based ships with their alongside maintenance periods. HMS Defiance was actually a submarine depot ship and actually used to be called HMS Forth. The same HMS Forth that my Father served on in Malta when we were all living out there when I was 2 years old……How spooky is that!

The work my Father was doing as Ship Manage, mainly for HMSubmarine Revenge was interesting and during my time there, he managed to organise a visit for me to see this mighty vessel. At the time Revenge was only about 4 years old and to me, absolutely state of the art cutting edge technology. Bearing in mind that I had just left an old DC ship which had been launched in 1948, this was like Sc-fi to me. That visit was to have a profound effect on my long term Naval career as you will see.

Many thanks to Gerald Goodwin for the pictures. He was on the ‘Rusty ‘B” at the same time I was and we have got back in touch via friends reunited.


9 thoughts on “HMS Bulwark (1972 – 1973)

    Gerald Goodwin ( Goody) said:
    March 20, 2012 at 19:58

    Hi Phil,
    Just to let you know, the first night in at Charleston, the clubs on the shore base gave us a free night. They usually had a strict issue of alcohol per month, and were up against it the second day we were in as had supped 3 months issue that first night and still had another 9 days to go.

    All the best,


    stokes said:
    April 9, 2015 at 03:20

    Great story I rememember it like yesterday, I was a stoker in 5c2 just below the cable deck great ship great mates and was sorry to leave.k

      Philip Bamfield responded:
      April 9, 2015 at 14:17

      Thanks for your comments. Much appreciated. Glad you enjoyed it. Philip

    John said:
    October 1, 2015 at 04:01

    Thanks for the memories , I too was on the bulwark at the time in 5c2 great ship great mates and a great time

      Philip Bamfield responded:
      October 16, 2015 at 20:50

      Glad you enjoyed the blog. Many thanks for taking the time to comment.

    naiad333 said:
    March 14, 2016 at 22:29

    Paul BRIFFA LMEM and ships barber It was nice to read about the time I served on bulwark RUSTY B I now live in MALTA Good luck to all the old

      Philip Bamfield responded:
      March 15, 2016 at 14:47

      Thanks for reading my blog. Glad it brought some memories for you.

      Regards. Philip

    Dave 'Buck' Taylor said:
    December 13, 2016 at 03:33

    I was “24 about” A boiler room watch keeping POMEM during that trip and remember it well “Buck Taylor”…. along with “Jock” Ingram, “Slix’ Gamlin and George Clough

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