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

Midshipman Tim Sherwen on board HMS Stanton in 1957
The Calton M1118 on trials, note that she is flying the red ensign denoting that she has not yet been handed over to the Royal Navy, and is still the property of Wivenhoe Shipyard Ltd.
Nottage Maritime Institute 00379


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 Patrols

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, 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!

Tim Sherwen
February 2018

This page was added on 28/02/2018.

Comments about this page

  • During the Indonesian Confrontation Santon and Hickleton were leased by the New Zealand navy and joined the large number of Tons that carried out patrols in Malaysian waters 1964 – 1966.

    By Phil Bensted (22/08/2023)
  • I served on HMS Bronington in 1984 & again in 1986, the wardroom was just another mess area to us onboard and all the officers worked closely with the crew until the captain left in 1986 and was replaced by a SD officer, total change, he really only spoke to the senior rates, hated being out of Portsmouth and could not drive a boat for is life !

    By Bond (28/06/2023)
  • I was serving in the RAF, rank SAC, at Nicosia airfield and asked by one of the officers of HMS Fenton if I would swop duties with a rating on board so as to give them a break from the boring patrol. I jumped at the chance as I love the sea. I spent only a week aboard and enjoyed every minute especially the grog.this was about 1957/8

    By Charles Holyer (12/12/2022)
  • There were two squadrons of Ton class minesweepers the 104th and the 108th based at Sliema Creek in Malta when I joined HMS FENTON I Feb 1957. Eight ships in each and all were employed on Cyprus patrols of six weeks duration. It took four days to get to Famagusta and then it was six days to circumnavigate the island, then one day back at Fama’g. We generally anchored during the day and patrolled at night. When relieved we had four weeks during which to return to Malta, do a minesweeping exercise, visit a Mediterranean port and get back to Cyprus. HMS WOODBRIDGE HAVEN was the mother ship to all the ‘sweepers in Sliema Creek. Most ships had a dog. Ours was found as a puppy on the jetty at Famagusta and named ‘Elvis’. I served as the gun maintainer for eighteen months and enjoyed every minute.

    By Dave Hessey (26/10/2022)
  • Also served on calton 1965 crew of Laleston flew out to commission her.

    By Dave Freeman.mem1 (05/08/2022)
  • Hi Tim. I did as year on Burnaston as navigator in the Persian Gulf and we brought her home around Africa in 1969. I had six years in the RN and that year was definitely the best. I was interested in your comments about the officer / lower deck dichotomy. As a working class boy i never found the officer bit easy, and to me now as an Australian in this egalitarian country the division seems totally anachronistic. I must say none of the wardroom on Burnaston were the pompous type!

    By mike ricks (05/10/2021)
  • Does anyone remember John Mander, a tall Navigation Officer on HMS FENTON, which was patrolling the coastline of Cyprus in 1955-56?

    By Peter (08/06/2021)
  • I was sent to Famagusta from Malta to maintain the Ton class minesweepers. The army put up mobile workshops on the dockside, and we were billeted in The Beach Guesthouse, right on the beach in Famagusta. It was a public beach, so after working on the docks all day we stood 2 hour guard watches through the night armed with lanchesters, and wore revolvers the whole time. Also had to put a new keel on a Patrol Boat blown up by EOKA.

    By Don Mann (14/11/2020)
  • Can’t find anything about HMS Calton during the time I served on her in Aden 1965. We used to patrol the waters around Aden searching dhows for gun runners into Aden. Regards Ben Bensley

    By ben. bensley (07/05/2020)
  • I was on HMS penston at about the same time. Also HMS Ashton which I was sent back to the UK to help commission.

    By NIC Griffin S/Lt RNR (15/02/2020)

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