HMS ALDINGTON M1171
By Lieutenant Commander J.D.Hegarty. MNI. RN. (Rtd).
Commissioned on 10th August 1956 at HMS DILIGENCE, Hythe, Southampton.
ALDINGTON was not my first "TON". Prior to my appointment as 1st Lieutenant, I had served in HMS REDPOLE as Navigating Officer. REDPOLE was tender to the Navigation Training Establishment HMS DRYAD and during a routine training cruise in Scandinavian waters we collided with the Danish Royal Yacht DANNEBROG whilst leaving Copenhagen harbour. After an unscheduled repair, by courtesy of the Danish Navy, we duly arrived back in Portsmouth on one engine with the damaged shaft unceremoniously lashed down on our Quarterdeck!
Forgive me if I do not spend too much time on the painful memories and undue interest paid on our arrival at our homeport, or the subsequent Board of Enquiry! Suffice to say, in no way did it affect my Captain's timely promotion, nor my appointment to a spanking new ship - ALDINGTON. However, before this, whilst REDPOLE was being repaired, we continued with navigating training in a CMS loaned from the Reserve Fleet in Portsmouth, and this proved an ideal prelude for my subsequent task in ALDINGTON as First Lieutenant on commissioning. So, on a brilliant summer morning I joined ALDINGTON at Hythe, where I reported to the Commanding Officer, Lt. J.Tipping RN. The ship was berthed alongside the jetty at the M/S base HMS DILIGENCE. Nearby was HMS PENSTON, also to be commissioned, and both ships were due to join 108 M/S Squadron in Malta following the official commissioning ceremony. We were to become "Chummy" ships and our respective Ship's Companies enjoyed a long and enjoyable association. ALDINGTON had been built locally, by Camper and Nicholson, a company with a reputation for producing luxury craft. I was delighted to discover our new ship was indeed of a high standard and as "Jimmy", with an excellent Coxswain in support, our preparations looked a dawdle. All was set fair. !
It was at this point, we were informed that the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, accompanied by Countess Mountbatten, proposed to attend the commissioning ceremony. They were to be accompanied by Lady Patricia Brabourne, (Lord Mountbatten's daughter), who had launched the ship a few months earlier, (Aldington, in Kent, being the seat of the Brabourne family.) This would have been a signal honour for a major warship, but for a CMS to be so honoured, was very special. Inevitably, the ship was the focus of attention for the occasion and it involved meticulous preparations to meet the exacting and well-known standards of Admiral Mountbatten.
Fortunately, we were not allowed too much time to mull over likely problems or disasters. The Ship's Company did a great job. HMS DILIGENCE too, helped with personnel and advice, but the bottom line was down to the crew of thirty. It was very much an ALDINGTON occasion, with families and friends on board as guests. It promised to be a great day. With Earl Mountbatten attending, the event inevitably attracted Senior Officers from the Portsmouth Command, plus substantial media coverage. This required extra effort to provide appropriate facilities for our VIP's. Whatever fears I had, my doubts were groundless; ALDINGTON passed its first test, with flying colours.
That evening, now duly commissioned, ALDINGTON and PENSTON, slipped from their berths, and headed down past the Needles into grey skies and an ominous sea enroute for Gibraltar. The passage, for the first few days was rough, and at one stage we were down to the Coxswain in the wheelhouse, Chief ERA on the engines and one Officer plus a Signalman on the bridge. As we progressed South the weather improved and this allowed us to commence our work-up programme, exercising minesweeping procedures, testing and proving new equipment, as well as, boarding drills, the latter, we knew, would be required for our duties with 108 Squadron on anti-EOKA patrols in Cyprus. A week or so later, together with PENSTON, we entered Sliema Creek in Malta to join up with our mother ship, "WOODBRIDGE HAVEN" and other ships of 108 M/S Squadron. On the personal side, this appointment was considered an "accompanied " job, so, in common with other crewmembers, it was necessary to make arrangements for wives, and families, to locate in Malta. The future looked bright, morale was high! Alas, foolish thoughts, the Navy does not quite work like that. We did expect a period of operations in Cyprus and, after a brief spell in Malta, we duly left the George Cross Island on passage to Famagusta, which was the base for our intended patrols. We realised before leaving Malta, that matters in the Middle East were causing concern, this was to do with the nationalizing of the Suez Canal, on the orders of President Nasser of Egypt, and a strong Anglo French force was being formed to counter the move. Clearly, the arrival of a large number of Landing Craft supplementing the large surface fleet, together with a number of Aircraft Carriers in the area was ominous. We sailed for Cyprus in company with PENSTON, and within days arrived at Famagusta,an attractive and pleasant port. Shore leave was limited, and for security reasons, a number of areas, were "out of bounds", due to the threat from EOKA. Shopping trips were permitted, but those going ashore, had to remain in a group, with several armed guards in attendance. The King George Hotel was a favourite haunt as it was "protected" by the Army, and had the attraction of a very good beach nearby.
We patrolled the coast nightly, usually taking up station in a specified patrol area during the hours of darkness, our task - to investigate, and board, suspicious vessels in the area, searching for illegal arms destined for EOKA personnel. Sometimes these arms were dropped close to the shore in buoyancy containers and again, our task was to inspect, and recover these containers. This meant the Ship's boarding party had to be at standby throughout the night, plus sufficient hands available, to lower, and subsequently recover, the ship's boat. Invariably, it required the guns crew at their station. By virtue of the operation, there was a continuous call on the entire ship's company. Once daylight came, we were able to anchor for the day at some suitable anchorage, usually with a safe beach within reasonable distance, it provided the Ship's Company with recreational facilities during the afternoon. Forenoons, were used, to carry out the usual round of maintenance and cleaning duties. Our routine allowed us back to Famagusta on completion of each patrol period. This provided the opportunity to store ship, top up with fuel, and carry out tasks, necessary for the next patrol. Support was available from the small RN staff, based at the port. This routine carried us into the October period and we were now looking forward to returning to Malta where, hopefully, our families would have arrived from UK and would be settled in to shore accommodation. It was whilst we were in the middle of this routine, the "expected" happened. "The Suez Crisis", had materialised and orders for OPERATION MUSKETEER came through. 108 Minesweeping Squadron, was to combine with 104 Squadron, (which had arrived in Malta, from Harwich), for operations to support the landings at Port Said. The HQ Ship, HMS WOODBRIDGE HAVEN, would co-ordinate our efforts in this role. The Minelayer, HMS MANXMAN, was a vital element in the overall operation. "L" (landing Day) was to be 6th November 1956. MUSKETEER, was a major invasion of the Egyptian mainland, essentially to regain control of the Suez Canal, and ensure continued safe navigation for international maritime trade, through this strategic waterway. It involved British, French and Israeli forces and comprised an airborne assault, plus a shore landing in the strategic area of Port Said. Not contained in our orders, was a synchronised attack by Israeli forces on the Sinai area, to the East of the canal. The USSR supported Egypt in their actions and we could expect strong resistance from Egyptian Forces. To make matters more serious, our usual allies in the United States, were not supportive; in fact, they had expressed strong disapproval of the proposed action. The minesweeping task, was to clear the approaches to the canal at Port Said. Intelligence had suggested, Egyptian Forces had access to sophisticated mines, that, if deployed, would be a major threat to all craft approaching the entrance to the canal. It was also obvious to us; minesweepers would be required to lead the landings, sweeping the approaches, thus safeguarding surface vessels carrying troops and equipment, from such a threat. Mines of Russian origin were extremely difficult to sweep, and we could expect casualties during clearance operations. It is not my intention to describe in detail the operation; this is well documented elsewhere, it records the whole scenario more accurately than I can recall, some 45 years on. ALDINGTON duly took part in MUSKETEER, and remained in the Canal Zone over the complete period of occupation. Thankfully, the threat from mines did not materialize, and we sustained no casualties in that part of the operation.
Once the landings had been successfully completed, our tasks were more mundane, performing a variety of duties. It was necessary to recover the numerous Dan Buoy markers etc., laid to mark out the cleared approaches. This developed into somewhat of a competition between ships, as when the daily quotas allocated to each ship were achieved, the ship concerned, was free to return to Port Said. ALDINGTON did not do too well with this task in the early stages, until my Coxswain suggested, that the answer could be seen on the sweep decks of the other ships taking part. Investigating, I found, to my surprise, their decks were surprisingly clear, whilst our deck, used for stowing recovered Dan Buoys etc., contained enough concrete sinkers to ground the proverbial battleship! It took time and effort to recover those sinkers, attached as they were to fathoms of wire rope, whereas, if left in the mud off Port Said, they would not in any way, affect safe navigation, or the environment. The Coxswain explained; following this procedure would cost the taxpayer less, and the consequential saving in fuel oil and man-hours, would be of benefit to all. The point was taken, and without admitting to any sharp practice, we managed a number of early RTB's, during subsequent sorties! The main threat now, was sabotage; having successfully secured the canal it was imperative to make sure it remained navigable, pending it's opening to normal traffic. For this duty, the TONs proved ideal, Our size and draft, allowed us to manoeuvre in the confined space of the canal and we were able to patrol the area without difficulty, protecting equipment and installations, from untoward attention. We were also available to Army units, for liaison purposes, as they continued southwards to consolidate the security of the area. Militarily, OPERATION MUSKETEER appeared a success !. Meanwhile, in political circles, the "war of words " went on apace. Russia, and the British/French Governments, were at loggerheads. Threats of a major conflict between the super-Powers, loomed ominously on the horizon. The USA, was insistent that we should cease the occupation and withdraw. Inevitably, without the tacit support of America, the die was cast and in due course, orders came through to suspend operations and withdraw from Egypt. It was a period of intense frustration for all, but in due course, the operation went into reverse and the evacuation from Suez began. Troops and equipment, soon converged on Port Said for re-embarkation. Landing craft, ferried the men and materiel to the waiting ships in the outer harbour. To us, it appeared to go on forever, and French troops seemed to be taking away far more than they had landed with, I cannot swear to it, but I am sure we saw some rather smart Mercedes cars, being taken out on the landing craft. They were not in military colours either! Spoils of war? Perhaps! The withdrawal proceeded smoothly and on December 20th, with a final farewell to the statue of DeLesseps (soon to be destroyed ), ALDINGTON headed seawards and in company with other ships of the Task Force, headed for Malta. On Christmas Day, we secured the ship at Sliema Creek in Malta, alongside other ships of 108 M/S Squadron. For those of us with families in Malta, it was a timely arrival, and of course, it proved a very special Christmas for us all. Unexpectedly, my time in ALDINGTON was drawing to a close; orders came through, requiring me to take a specialist course in the UK. But, I was not to break my association with the TON's right away. HMS BLAXTON was to return to Hythe and I was appointed First Lieutenant for the passage home. Sadly, I said farewell to ALDINGTON, and joined BLAXTON, commanded by Lt.Cdr F.Willis RN. In due course, we sailed for Gibraltar and the UK, in company with another minesweeper, which had mechanical problems, and needed an escort. Our speed was restricted somewhat, but we arrived back in Hythe, without further incident. It seemed very appropriate, that BLAXTON should secure at the same berth as ALDINGTON had used on commissioning. Sadly, my last duty, was to take BLAXTON to a buoy off Hythe, where she would await disposal. Fortunately, I did meet up with BLAXTON again, when, some years later, enjoying a sailing holiday in Ireland, my sloop was moored for the night in Cork harbour, whilst I stayed with family ashore. Next morning, we discovered the boat had broken her moorings during a gale. Luckily, the boat had been found drifting in the harbour, by a launch of the Irish Navy, and had been towed to the local base. We quickly went to recover the boat, which was unharmed, and to thank those concerned for her recovery. I mentioned my RN connections, and soon we were enjoying warm Irish hospitality. There were a number of Coastal Minesweepers at the base, which were being used as Fishery Protection Vessels by the Irish Navy. When I mentioned my connection with ALDINGTON and BLAXTON, our host looked surprised, pointed to one of the craft, now flying the Irish Tricolour, and said "Sure that's Blaxton, she is being well looked after"! Judging from her appearance, there was no doubt in my mind about that! Her new name - L.E.FOLA .
Following ALDINGTON, my next ship was marginally larger; the Fleet carrier HMS EAGLE with a complement of over 2000 men. During the commission we were honoured by a visit from H.M.The Queen accompanied by Prince Charles. The Queen had, as Princess Elizabeth, launched the ship at Belfast in 1946 and subsequently had always taken a great interest in the ship. Picture shows the writer being introduced to the Queen by Captain J.B.Frewen, Captain of EAGLE. (Later Admiral Sir John Frewen). Also in the picture is Rear-Admiral C.L.G. Evans CB CBE DSO DSC, Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers. Admiral Evans had a distinguished career in Naval Aviation during WW2, in particular the attack on the Italian Fleet at Taranto with Swordfish aircraft from HMS Illustrious.
EAGLE received the following signal from Her Majesty after she and Prince Charles disembarked in Weymouth Bay.
"I greatly enjoyed visiting Eagle with my son the Prince of Wales, at the end of what has been a happy and highly successful commission. I was much impressed by the fine bearing of Eagles ship's company and by the high standard of flying. Please convey my congratulations to all officers and ratings under your command.
SPLICE THE MAINBRACE "
This rather rambling account of my brief service in Coastal Minesweepers, is essentially intended to correct omissions, which I have noticed in some websites dealing with the Suez and Cyprus operations. Scant mention is made of their participation. Another omission, concerns the mine clearing operations conducted around the UK, of WW2 mines, which continued post war through to the 1950's. A hazardous and thankless task.! Many "TON" readers, will have done more, served longer, and have experiences far more deserving of mention. I would be delighted to see such contributions recorded.
Lieutenant Commander J.D.Hegarty. MNI. RN. (Rtd).
We're very grateful to Lieutenant Commander Hegarty for allowing us to publish his story about his time aboard H.M.S. Aldington.