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The Royal Naval Patrol Service - A Very Special Service Indeed
Eddie Sams
Leading Seaman Eddie Sams talks of his time with HMS Bretwelda some of his fellow crew members and experiencing often dangerous conditions in heavy seas.
She was an ugly blighter, but we loved her and maybe she felt the same about us!

January 1945, the ship was alongside a wharf in Belfast harbour. She flew the White Ensign at her flag mast as proudly as any Man of War, but looking at her anyone could be excused for thinking she was some sort of tramp steamer hoping to pick up a cargo that no one else wanted. She wasn’t so much sitting on the water, she just squatted there like a dark grey duck as much at home there as the swarms of fish that were waiting for the gash bucket to be emptied over the side.

To her crew, however, she was much more than just a ship, she was their home and they were the family. She was an ugly blighter, but we loved her and maybe she felt the same about us. No ship was her equal. Neither the ship nor her crew would have won any beauty contests, but together they were a team second to none.

In some ways her crew blended in perfectly and appeared to have been created for her. Their uniforms, if they could be called that, were in the main boilersuits or knocked about bell-bottoms and lord bless them sailors caps, a bit greasy of course, but never the less sailors hats - though it was difficult to read the HMS on the ribbon. Some of the crew wore hand knitted sweaters that had been sent from the “comforts pool”. They were hand knitted woolen hats, scarves, gloves that had been sent by the women at “Home Knitting for Victory”, and they were certainly a great help in winter at sea, but in harbour they just didn’t look pusser. An Officer from a destroyer moored alongside had confided to the Skipper that when he had passed over her going from the quay to his own ship he had thought the men looked more like pirates that sailors ! Not a bright remark to make to a Senior Officer who had pride in his crew’s ability (though he rarely showed it) Our Skipper, who luckily had half a gold ring more that the Lieutenant, told him that the crew were twice as efficient as his own and anyway he wouldn’t know a sailor if he saw one.

The Bretwalda was in fact a French deep sea fishing trawler that had been fishing off the Newfoundland banks in the winter before the war. She also had the World Record at that time for the largest catch. The crew believed in her anyway, when other seaman were bragging of their ships they’d say they could “do anything bar loop the loop”, well the Bret could do that too if it was needed.
HMS Bretwelda

HMS Bretwelda- Originally built in Hull England she was sold to the french before the war and re-named 'Administrateur De Bournat'. She was later seized by the Royal Navy in 1940 put into service as 'Bretwelda'

Britain didn't waste any time taking action after the French Vichy government signed a treaty with the Germans on 25 June 1940. Soon after the British seized all French ships in British ports. This was ' Operation Grab'. 3 July 1940

Her length was 180ft, her beam 20ft, she had a high forecastle head on which she carried a gun platform topped with a 4” low angled gun. Behind was the fore deck and below that the Mess deck and crew’s quarters. There was also a 50ft mast with full rigging. Amidships was the Skippers cabin, above that the wheel house and topping all was the bridge with two lookout wings that carried two20mm Oerlikon guns. Behind the bridge was a single funnel, followed by, and sheltering, twin Browning machine guns that were on top of the engine room and just in front of the Galley and Petty Officers mess. At our stern there were six ‘roll off depth’ charges with 2 thrower depth charges on each beam. We also had a steel Wale boat on the starboard beam with a Carly-float on the port.

Anyway, our trip into Belfast was a one off, a local air base had needed spares for some of their planes (mostly Barracudas) and the Fleet Air Arm base near our home port of Campbeltown had some, so we provided the transportation of the same. The crew didn’t mind, it meant that most of them had got a night out in Belfast. It was a chilly morning and at 8am the crew were having breakfast. On deck the Killick (Leading Seaman) was heading for the Seamen’s mess to roust the lads on deck as the ship would be heading out for her home base directly. It was at that moment that an R N lorry  stopped at the gang plank leading aboard. The driver hailed the Leading Hand to say that he had cargo for us to take aboard, he handed over a chit which was taken to the Skippers cabin. The Coxswain ( Chief Petty Officer who more or less ran the ship) went ashore to check the cargo. It turned out to be twenty odd crates of Whiskey and Gin which were to be delivered to our base back in Scotland, we were quite interested until the driver seeing our eagerness to get it aboard told us “there’s two Marines here to go with it”.

It was disappointing, we felt we weren’t being trusted. Mind you, I’d once read that when Nelson’s body was brought back to Britain from Trafalgar his casket was filled with alcohol to keep the body fresh, but when it arrived most of the alcohol was missing… but this was 1945 ! Well the crates were brought aboard and locked in the Asdic cabin, the Marines got two spare bunks in the mess deck and we were ready to put to sea. When I got on deck the hawsers were hauled aboard and only the spring wires were holding us in. The Skipper gave the order to let go fore and then aft, the ship’s head came round and we steamed out into Belfast Loch.

I could hear the thump thump of the engines as she ploughed her way to the main channel. There wasn’t a lot of work to be done, the deck was hosed down and everything checked and made fast, look outs were taking up their positions. The weather was cold and windy, the wintry sun was striving to brighten the day. There was a stiff, cold wind blowing off the northern hills onto the loch which was cresting the waves with white horses that raced helter skelter across the bay. The bigger ships were at anchor in the centre of the bay, so many, and so vast. Aircraft Carriers squatted in the water like vast islands of steel, County Class Destroyers dragging at their anchors like greyhounds on a leash, big ships, small ships, tankers and submarines sat there as we went trundling past.

I checked with the Leading Hand to find which trick I had on the wheel, it was the third, so I had time to check over and clean my gun, the starboard Oerlikon, before going below for it was getting near Rum up. Within 20 minutes I was taking the steps down to the mess deck. After the cold winds and spume on deck the air down below was hot and fetid. The iron stove glowed red, some of the lads were sitting at the table playing cards, Old Geordie was stretched out on the leather topped lockers near the stove. Geordie was the oldest rating aboard, both he and Old Pete who was mess deck Peggy ‘aft had been in the First World War. Oddly enough they never spoke of it, well it would show their age, wouldn’t it. The mess deck was a happy place, always warm and mostly dry, most of your time was spent there – eating, sleeping, reading or playing cards, even rowing and arguing (after Rum up there was always arguing). I had hardly settled down when the coxswain came down with the rum keg and took his place at the table. Lockers were being lifted as we all got our mugs out, then we joined the queue for our tot. My shipmate Freddie and I often saved a tot each day and put it into a clean bottle, then shared the other between us, it was neat rum so it warmed the spirits up. After a week of saving a tot between us we had a bottle to take ashore for a cheap drink – half a bottle of rum would cheer a lad up no matter how lonely he felt. The two Marines were sitting at the table and as they weren’t due rum the lads gave a little each to give them each a tot. In the Patrol Service we were given our rum neat, on the Navy ships they had to have it diluted with water. It wasn’t long after rum up that the Marines were spinning the yarns about the big battleships they had been on, they had rowing boats bigger than our ship. Well rum always loosens the tongue, so no one took offence. 

Edwin W Sams 2006