Service in a Ton Class Minesweeper 1957
Memories of Midshipman Tim Sherwen who served on HMS Santon in 1957/58
Tim Sherwen, a resident of Wivenhoe until 2022
In 1957 and ’58, I was for a year one of 5 officers in a crew of 32 in HMS Santon on patrol off the coast of Cyprus. The 5 officers included the Captain, First Lieutenant, Navigating Officer and two Midshipman, of which I was one.
This was when National Service was compulsory for all young men usually at age 18 (or later for university-level students). This was an interesting time to be serving in the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. The Greeks were attempting to end British rule and were ambitious to govern the whole of Cyprus, despite the fact that the people of the North of the island were Turks. HMS Santon was stationed there towards the end of the Greek EOKA terrorist period.
The Ton class ships such as those built here in Wivenhoe (see picture right of HMS Calton), were built of wood with shallow drafts and quite high freeboard so we were very uncomfortable in short, choppy Mediterranean seas. (Note: These ships were called the Ton class because all of their names end in ‘ton’.)
Our patrols round the coast lasted 8 weeks. Each squadron of 8 ships took it in turn to patrol all round the coast of Cyprus. The fact that we were minesweepers was irrelevant as there was no threat of mines. Still for exercise purposes we often had to stream our very cumbersome ‘sweeps’ astern. These were wires charged with floats and cutters meant to cut adrift anchored mines and with pulsing electric cables to blow up magnetic ones.
Our real job was to intercept any ships heading for Cyprus and likely to enter territorial waters and then board any that might be smuggling arms.
The patrol period for each squadron was 8 weeks with a welcome 4 weeks break in Malta and, if we were lucky and favoured by the Admiral, couple of days ‘run ashore’ in Beirut.
Time was divided into watches of 4 hours on followed by 8 hours off. During each watch there were two officers on the bridge, a look-out, a signalman operating an Aldis lamp (see photo) which sent out Morse signals to other ships, and a man on the wheel in the wheelhouse one deck below.
The Captain only appeared on the bridge when something important was happening, such as stopping and searching a ship, going in or out of harbour, or sailing in formation with the other ships in the squadron. The rule was also that he must be called at any moment of emergency.
During the patrols, we watch-keeping officers were expected to:
keep watch on the bridge day and night and give orders on courses to steer and speeds to sail. These were given down the voice pipe from the bridge to the man at the wheel who was usually a man of many years experience who had much better ideas of how and where to steer the ship than we had! The most exciting moment was when a ship usually a small freighter but sometimes too a caique (a traditional Greek fishing boat), looked as though it was headed towards the coast and likely to enter British territorial waters.
At that point the signalman would tap out a message in Morse, “What ship? Where bound?”
The message which came back determined whether the ship was then allowed to proceed or whether it should be asked to heave to. Then one of us junior officers, detailed as Boarding Officer, had to go on board carrying a revolver with a Boarding Party of 4 sailors and, in theory, search the ship for arms or weapons that it might be carrying to in support of the Greek terrorists.
None of us National Service officers had any training in how to handle a revolver and I remember one of my shipmates who was so nervous about the potential risk that he actually passed it to the Greek at the top of the gangway as he came on board! It was carefully passed back to him.
As can be imagined with only 5 men, it was well nigh impossible to search a well-laden merchant ship.
Life on Board
Accommodation on board was typical of the kind of social/class divisions that existed at the time. There was a huge difference between the way we five officers lived and that of the 32 ratings. We each had a small cabin, the captain had a larger one, and we ate and drank in a small ‘wardroom’ with a steward to serve us and keep our cabins clean.
The crew lived in a crowded mess where they slept in narrow bunks and ate on tables next to the bunks. Their mess was inspected daily by the Coxswain who was a Senior Petty Officer.
Our food was all cooked in the same galley whereas in big ships it would have been in different ones for officers and men. At sea, we would eat when we were available off-watch but, in harbour, it was traditional that the crew ate their ‘tea’ at 1800 hours while we gentlemen ate the same food a little colder and calling it ‘dinner’ at 1930 following our drinks or ‘sundowners’.
My ship, HMS Stanton built in Portsmouth as well as the three built in Wivenhoe were part of a fleet of nearly 100-ton class ships which were small, manoeuvrable and used for many different purposes. There was something about their character and their various roles in the two post-war decades which made them special, so special to most of us who were lucky enough serve on them that there is now a Ton Class Association which has its own website www.ton2000.co.uk, a newsletter and a patron, none other than the heir the throne – one of its former skippers.
Wivenhoe should be proud that it made a contribution to this fleet of sturdy, adaptable, little wooden ships intimately connected by name to villages in England and with those connections in many cases strongly upheld.
I feel rather sad about the fate of my own ship, HMS Stanton which was bought by the Argentine Navy a few years before the Falklands war!