The rigorous training of the Western Approaches Command

Vice-Admiral Sir Gilbert Stephenson KBE, CB, CMG

Commencing in 1940 a special training school was set up by Admiral Sir Percy Noble as part of the Independant Western Approaches Command. Opperating from the small fishing town of Tobermory on the Island of Mull in Scotland, its purpose was to train the newly formed crews of Covettes, frigates, sloops and Patrol Service trawlers, in an intensive 2 to 3 week course on the methods of Anti-Submarine warfare. The man given the job of being in command, was a very efficient, strict and energetic man in his mid-sixties who's fierce and controversal methods became much talked about by all those who were under him.

'Let 'em Learn!' - by Jimmy Brown

The Pusser Royal Navy always regarded the activities of the Royal Naval Patrol Service with a sort of fascinated horror. These stiff-upper-lip products of the Royal Navy's training school at Dartmouth had encountered nothing to prepare them for this motley fleet of mainly fishing trawlers and drifters manned by scruffily rigged unshaven individuals who looked more like Captain Henry Morgan's pirates than the regular RN ratings they were used to. Were they expected to take seriously this rag-tag and bob-tail lot that were drafted beside them to sweep up the mines and even sink Hitler's U-boats? The truth is that we had nothing else to offer but these requisitioned fishing vessels and their men, most of whom were already in the Royal Naval Reserve. As the war ground on, wartime conscripts diluted the crews of the trawlers but Harry Tate's Navy never did conform to full-blooded Royal Naval discipline and it remained independent and bloody-minded to the end.
This is not to say that the Admiralty did not try to instil a modicum of discipline into the officers and men of the Patrol Service. They did, setting up a Training School at Tobermory under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir Gilbert Stephenson KBE,CB,CMG. His headquarters were an old horse boat which was dignified by the title *HMS Western Isles" and in it Commodore Stephenson, or 'Monkey Brand" as he was more familiarly known, set to work. Born in 1878, the Admiral had a long and distinguished career in the Royal Navy - too long to be detailed here - and he was in his sixties when the Second World War started so he could have been excused for taking a back seat - but no danger. He was in there from the start and his famous foghorn of a voice was heard loud and clear wherever he was. He was on the beach at Dunkirk and when he finally turned up at London's Victoria Station, scruffy and unkempt, and without even a vestige of uniform, the people there took him to be a refugee. It is perhaps just as well that the Admiral had lost his powerful voice at Dunkirk otherwise he might well have lifted the roof off Victoria Station.
After Dunkirk he moved to Tobermory. His remit was to organise a fourteen-day course that would smarten up the converted trawlers and turn them into something approaching warships. His methods were unorthodox, to say the least. If he thought an officer was not up to his job he would remove him forthwith and if Their Lordships down in Whitehall didn't like it, they could lump it! He had a habit of cruising about the anchorage in his Admiral's Barge, boarding unsuspecting travrlers and roaring out various alarming; orders such as: "I'here's a bomb just gone down your funnel - what are you going to do about it!" or "I'hat's a U-boat on your port bow - what are you going to do?" And so on. One day he boarded a trawler without being seen, crept up behind the unsuspecting quartermaster, and whispered in his ear: " There's a fire in the mess-deck!" "Oh yes sir," replied the quartermaster. "We always keep a good fire on down there." The Admiral's reactions were not recorded.
But he didn't always get things his own way. Another time he was creeping up on an old trawler at anchor when he was spotted by the crew who managed to get lined up on deck before he climbed over the gunwale. But the Admiral wasn't to be beat that easy. Without any preliminaries he took off his gold-braided cap and threw it down on the deck before the quarternaster, shouting: "that is a small unexploded bomb dropped by an enemy plane - what are you going to do about it! The sailor, who had heard about the admiral and his unconventional methods, promptly took a step forward and kicked the cap into the sea Everyone waited for the expected roar of protest from the admiral but not at all. He warmly commended the lad on his initiative, before pointing to his cap bouncing about on the waves shouting: "that's a man overboard - what are you going to do about that!" So they had to jump over the side to rescue his cap. This man overboard ploy was one of his favourite tricks but he definitely met his match one day when he climbed aboard a trawler, grabbed a lifebuoy that was lying on the deck, chucked it overboard and came his 'man overboard' lark. But the skipper corrected him gently, saying: "I'm afraid you are mistaken sir, there is no man overboard, only a lifebuoy." In a great rage the admiral tore off his uniform jacket and cap and jumped in himself, coming up to splutter: "I'here's a man overboard nowl"

(Above)The important lesson of team work and the counter- attack of the U-boat taught by the Commodore and encapsulated in cartoons by Captain J. Broome. These illustrations were used in the revised Instruction Manual and issued to Escort Groups.

But the list of anecdotes is endless. They could fill a book. In fact they did fill a book. TV personality Richard Baker served under the Commodore and he produced a very readable account of this great man back in 1972 entitled The Terror of Tobermory (W.H. Alien) to which I am indebted for checking my facts. Apparently Richard was skylarking at a party aboard his ship one night which got out of hand to the extent that he woke up next morning covered all over with gentian violet. He does not say how this came about but the important thing is that gentian violet takes months to fade and Richard thought his luck was out next morning when his captain gave him a message to deliver to the Commodore. He was a young midshipman in the RNVR at the time and was naturally dreading appearing before the commodore with his bright mauve features. The old man didn"t bat an eyelid at Richard's purple countenance as he delivered his message but as he turned to leave with much relief he asked :'What's your name, sonny!" Richard told him. "And what's your job on board? "I'm Assistant Gunnery Control Officer, sir, and Entertainments Officer." "Oh I see, said the commodore. "Well I see you take the second part of your job very seriouslyl" Richard reckons he was lucky to escape with his life.


TV Personality Richard Baker served under the Commodore and wrote the book 'The Terror of Tobermory' (W.H. Allen) thus committing Vice-Admiral Stephenson to something of Royal Naval Legend and notoriety!


(left) The Western Isles Crest: Motto 'Let 'em Learn!'


Very much a loose cannon, Admiral Stephenson ignored Their Lordships and went his own way regardless. But he got results and that was the main thing. He applied for a rum ration for his men but the Admiralty turned him down, saying his was not a sea-going command. Nothing daunted, Admiral Stephenson up-anchored and took his ancient horse-boat to sea, returning to send a signal to the Admiralty renewing his request and mentioning casually that he had just returned from a cruise round the Hebrides. He got his nun ration.
Post war Admiral Stephenson was for many years Honourary Commodore of the Sea Cadets. He held regular reunions for his old boys which were well-attended and lived a happy and active life well, into his nineties. He once made headlines in his later years when it was discovered that he always slept with a loaded pistol by his bed, secured to his bedside by a lanyard. Charged with keeping an offensive weapon, he appeared in court to say: "What is the point of having a gun at your bedside if it isn't loaded? Do you think an intruder will wait while I load it! The magistrate demurred, wondering what would happen if someone else got a hold of the gun but was assured there was no danger of that happening, his lawyer asserting that the admiral wouldn"t part with his gun to anyone, "not even to Jesus Christ himself!" The admiral got to keep his gun.
In view of recent cases in the press about poor burglars being molested by vicious householders impudent enough to want to protect their property, it is perhaps a matter for regret that we don't have more people going about nowadays of the calibre of Admiral Sir Gilbert Stephenson, MBE, CB,CMG. We salute his memory