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The Rim Worlds

... out on the Galactic Rim things are very iffy and if you fart really hard your're liable to blow yourself on to an Alternate Time Track.

A Bertram Chandler.






















The Mentor No: 44 - Jun 1983

The Mentor No: 44 - Jun 1983

Article

So the Young Liberals have joined the ranks of those who want to change our national flag, saying that, in their opinion, the Union Jack should be removed from it but the Southern Cross retained. Like a certain bank, which shall be nameless, they have flaunted their disregard for marry years of history. (Even my mind boggles at the thought of Ned Kelly robbing a Westpac branch - although, perhaps, he might have done so had he run short of provisions, thinking that an establishment so named would have a good stock of John West’s tinned salmon and the like.) Perhaps, if the flag is changed to something utterly characterless, the name of our country could also be changed - to Southpac.

The great majority of those people who want to change national flags are typical of those utterly insensitive to the meaning of flags and, furthermore, haven’t a clue as to what a flag should lock like. Insofar as the Liberals, young or old, are concerned, this is rather strange, as they have been sailing under false colours, ever since their Party was formed. Had they affixed the proper label to themselves, the Australian Conservative Party, I might have voted for them more often over the years.

Their Coalition partners were, at first, much more honest. The Country Party called itself what it was. Then the rot set it. First of all it became the National Country Party. Then - a prime example of false and misleading advertising - the National Party. A final change, and a return tu honesty, is long overdue. Might I suggest the Multinational Party?

Perhaps, as a master mariner (now retired), I am rather flag-sensitive. I was brought up in the Good Old Days before a radio telephone was a standard fitting on the bridge of any ship, before, even, daylight Morse lamps came into common use. Most signalling between ships and between ships and shore stations was by flag, using the International Code of Signals. Using the international Code you could say practically anything to anybody, of any nationality, using three-flag hoists. On rare occasions one was obliged to use the Spelling Table, with the alphabetical flags spelling out the word or words you wanted.

During World War Two flag signals were used in a great extent when sailing in convoy, when strict ratio silence was imposed. (For example, the use of electric shavers was banned in large troopships carrying thousands of men; the radio interference produced by many such devices being used simultaneously might have been picked up, and homed on, by an enemy subsubmarine.) The international Code of Signals was largely superseded, being replaced by ConSigs, with its flag hoists for various convoy maneuvers and the like, But it was still carried and, on occasions, used.

MatoroaI remember one such occasion. At the time I was Third-cum-Gunnery Officer of a Shaw Savill liner named Mataroa, which vessel was serving as a troopship. She was one of the ships in a large troop convoy, outbound to the Middle East by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Most of the others were putting in to Capetown but the ships making up the sixth column of the convoy were putting into Durban — the next stop, as it were. All four ships in this column were Shaw Savill liners.

The time approached for the convoy to split up, with most of the vessels shaping their course for Capetown. A flutter of flags went up to the triatic stay of the flagship. It was a ConSigs hoist and, decoded, it meant., “Use International Code”. There was another flutter of flags, International Code this time. “Use Spelling Table.” (And on our bridge - and probably on all the other bridges - the mutter, “What the hell does the Commodore think that he’s playing at?”) Finally there were more hoists. The signal read, “Detach Saville Row.”

So we detached and carried on for Durban.

Of course, no matter what means of signalling were employed - lights, flags or sound - or what Code there were the occasional balls-ups. In almost every convoy there would be one ship who could be relied upon to do some ludicrously wrong thing at any hour of the day or night. There was one such in an eastbound convoy from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Liverpool, England. The flagship of this convoy was Mataroa and the Commodore was a Rear Admiral RN (Rtd.) who had been press-ganged back into service with the rank of Commodore RNR. He carried with him his own staff - a Yeoman of Signals and a couple or three lesser bunting tossers.

Well, the fool of the convoy - I still remember her name, Orduna - was our next abeam to starboard. Ever since leaving Halifax she had been a pain in the arse, misunderstanding and misinterpreting signals, failing to maintain station, &c &c and &c. Cutting a long and sad story short, the convoy was scattered by a vicious Western Ocean gale. The weather having moderated, we were trying to reassemble. Our American escort had been lost in the wash and our British escort had yet to eventuate. Still, the convoy was getting
back into formation.

And then the ship maintaining a listening watch on certain frequencies reported to us, by Aldis lamp, UBoat underwater radio transmissions and, to judge by their strength, close. With no escorts, with their Asdic and depth charges, to cope there was only one thing to do. Scatter.

The ConSigs signal to scatter was, as far as I can remember, Numeral 8 made by every possible means - flag, Morse lamp and sound. Also there was the firing of red and green Very lights in rapid succession.

So every 8 numeral pennant in our flag locker was hoisted to every available set of halyards. The Morse numeral 8 was being flashed around to every ship by two Aldis lamps and our 10” searchlight and being sounded on our steam whistle. The Yeoman of Signals, with two Very pistols, one in each hand, was having the time of his life playing Two Gun Pete. Other ships were repeating our signals and steering every which way.

And then, in the middle of all this confusion, our next abeam, Orduna, called us up by Aldis lamp. Our immediate thought was, “She must have seen something! A periscope... A torpedo track...” I grabbed an Aldis lamp from the hands of one of the signals ratings, sent T to acknowledge. We all read the message that flashed back.

“Do you want us to scatter?”

Well, I’ve read now and again and, even, heard now and again of people, goaded beyond endurance, throwing their hats to the ground and jumping on them. Only once have I seen it happen - and it was a Rear Admiral RN (Rtd.) who maltreated his gold-encrusted headgear.

“Tell him...” sputtered the Commodore as he went up and down like a Jack-in-the-box, “tell him that his signalling is… apalling!”

CopticOh, well, it’s a poor war without the occasional good laugh - and the same applies to funerals. One of my funeral good laughs - and it was during World War Two - also concerns flags. At the time I was serving in one of Shaw Savill’s cargo liners, m/v Coptic. The vessel was spending some weeks in Sydney undergoing repairs necessitated by a collision off the Australian coast. (Cutting a long and sad story short, Coptic, with no lights was proceeding from Brisbane to Newcastle NSW on what was alleged to be the southbound track and HMAS Adelaide, darkened ship, was proceeding north on the same track. Those in charge of the routing of vessels were not aware of the elementary laws of physics: Two solid bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time.)

There had been a reshuffle of officers on the Company’s vessels - a French cargo liner had been taken over by the British Ministry of War Transport and she had been given to Shaw Savill to manage and they found personnel from the various ships then in Australian ports - resulting in temporary promotions. I, for example, had started the voyage as Third Officer; I went up to Acting Second, (Our Second Officer had gone to the French ship as Acting Chief.) Our, Fourth Officer became Acting Third. The Fifth Officer from one of our passenger ships became our Acting Fourth.

In those days, in the Shaw Savill Line, the Third Officer was in charge of flags and other signaling equipment. As my promotion was only temporary I remained in charge. I should not be able to requisition for any replacements of worn-out bunting until Coptic’s return to the U.K.

One night two of the crew returned to the vessel full of beer, Somehow they missed the gangway and fell into the water between the ship’s side and the wharf. They were fished out - but for one of them it was too late. He was DOA at hospital.

The Australian Seaman’s Union, maintaining its praternal relationship with the British Shipping Union, made arrangements for the funeral. It was intimated that it would be appreciated if representatives of the ship’s officers attended the last rites, in uniform. It was beneath the Master’s dignity. The Chief Officer was too busy. The Acting Second (me) was too busy. The Acting Fourth said that he, as a good Roman Catholic, could not participate in a Protestant ceremony. And so on, and so on. Finally the Acting Third, a couple of junior engineers and the two junior radio officers were ordered by their departmental heads to go.

On the appointed morning George, the Acting Third, came to me and asked me for a nice, new, British red ensign to cover the coffin, I gave him one reluctantly - telling him, “Be sure you bring it back. It’s the only new ensign I’ve got left.” “That’s all right, Bertie,” he said. “I’ll bring it back.”

Very early - at about one thirty - the following morning there was a tapping at my door. I switched on the light. George stood there, sort of waving in the breeze, exhaling beer fumes.

“Should ha’ been there, Bertie... Bloody fine funeral... Theshe Ausshies really know how to lay on an Irish wake...”

“Glad you had a good time, George. But where’s my Red Ensign?”

“Oh, that’sh all right, Bertie. I snatched it from the very jaws of the grave jusht before the clodsh started to fly...”

“Where is it now?”

George blinked owlishly and made searching gestures with his hands. I.. I… I musht’a left it in some pub...”
Even so, unlike the Australian Liberal Party, the star performer at the funeral made his exit under his proper colours. But twice, I am bound to admit, I sailed under false colours myself, once when I was in the employ of the Shaw Savill Line and again while in the employ of the Union Steam Ship Company. The first time it was none of my doing; the second time it was by my orders.

During the early 1950s I was Chief Officer of a ship called Waiwera. She was bound from Melbourne to Sydney. At the time we had a particularly useless Fourth Officer. We called him an II trip man - one out and one home. He had been fired by just about every liner company in the U.K. After than one voyage Shaw Savill joined the list of his ex-employers.

Well, we’d rounded Gabo early on my watch - the 4 to 8 - and I decided that it would be safe to leave the Fourth Officer in charge of the bridge while I went down for my morning shower, shave &c. I was in the throes of shaving when I heard a frantic whistle solo - the officer of the watch calling the stand-by man with his mouth whistle. I rushed up to the bridge, a bath towel about my waist and my face covered with lather, and was joined there by the Master, similarly attired and decorated.

Apparently an Australian cruiser - that bloody Adelaide again - had snuck up on us, unobserved by the semi-conscious watch officer until she was almost alongside, for a chatty exchange of signals. Merchant vessels do not wear wear their ensigns whilst at sea, hoisting them only on certain occasions, such as when falling in with a war vessel, so that the maritime
politeness of the mutual dipping of national flags may be carried out.

In his haste the Fourth Officer had scrabbled in the flag locker, finding a flag that looked right, until unfurled, from one of the wrong pigeon holes, It was one of our stock of courtesy flags. (A courtesy flag is the national flag of the country that you are visiting worn at the foremast when in one of that country’s ports.) The Old man and I looked aft. There, waving proudly from the gaff, was the Australian Red Ensign.

Unluckily we were not wearing our caps so we could not tear them off, throw them to the deck and jump on them. (It would not have been the same had we done this with our bath towels.)

Not so very long thereafter and rather to my surprise I was legally sailing under the Australian flag. This was then I entered the employ of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, most of whose vessels running around the Australian Coast were registered in Australia. There was one exception to this rule, although she was Australian manned. This was Kakapo, whose port of registry use Wellington and who, therefore, wore the New Zealand Red Ensign. Kakapo finished her days, before being sold to some Asiatic shipping company, on Time Charter to William Holyman & Sons (a Tasmanian outfit) running between Melbourne and Launceston. Although she continued to be manned by USSCo she was managed by Holyman’s. They paid our wages, supplied all our stores and so forth.

And then we learned that she had been sold and that her last voyage under USSCo colours — was to be from Launceston to Sydney. I was Chief Officer of her at the time and decided that she would enter Sydney harbour looking as smart as possible. But could I get any new flags out of Holyman’s? By this time they were reluctant to supply us even with the necessities of life - meat, fresh vegetables &c.

But not to worry. In Launceston during our last visit were two Union Steam Ship Company vessels, in both of which I had served and both with Chief Officers who were personal friends. I called first aboard Kootara and was able to scrounge a new houseflag. I discussed the impossibility of obtaining a new New Zealand ensign and then my friend remembered that there had been one such in Koonya’s locker while he was serving in that ship. So I called aboard Koonya. Yes, there had been a New Zealand ensign... Both Koonya’s Chief Officer and I made a thorough search of the locker. That flag had vanished without
trace.

So my friend handed me a new Australian ensign.

“Put this up when you enter Sydney,” he said, “Nobody will Notice.”

Nobody did.

But people do notice - some people, anyhow, people whose concern with the correct use of words as great as mine with the correct use of flags - when a major political party sails under false colours, calling itself Liberal when it should well have Mrs. Thatcher as its captain.

But that could be an improvement of the present leadership.*

A Bertram Chandler,

*Written before the Election. But I still like Maggie and still think that we should have made our contribution to the Falklands campaign.