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The Early Corvettes were the Toughest
The Early Corvettes were the Toughest

By Lieutenant William H. Pugsley, R.C.N.V.R.
Excerpts from Saints, Devils and Ordinary Seamen, 1945, p. 44-47, 50-51, 53-54.

Like a policeman on his beat, the corvettes spent monotonous months plodding back and forth across the trackless waste of grey seas that were never at rest. To the men who sailed in these ships came a great weariness from the relentless watches, the untempting food, and the constant, chafing motion.

Fed up? Of course, they were fed up. But there was nothing they could do about it. They had their jobs to do in the ship, and no alternative to doing them. The wonderful thing was that when they reached port, discouraged and exhausted after a particularly harrowing trip, they could find all their usual good nature again after a brief "run ashore."
All small ships' mess decks are pretty much the same. There's the seamen's mess for'ard, with the stokers usually just underneath. Other ratings' messes may be tucked away in other parts of the ship, but the seamen still live in the foc'sle, the least comfortable part, just as they have for generations past.

The mess deck is the rating's home. There's no privacy, and he only has rights in a piece of it, the area around his mess. That piece is peculiarly his. He thinks of it in exactly the same way as an officer regards his cabin.

Sailors having dinner in the seamen’s mess, HMCS Kamsack, August 1942.
Photo by William H. Pugsley. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-170292.

The general layout is the same in anything less than a cruiser. Along the inside of the hull run lockers for clothes, and above them racks for boots, attaché cases, and cap boxes. The lockers are low enough to make a settee, beside which is the mess table, firmly screwed to the deck. The table seats 10 to 12: on the other side of it there's a plain bench.

Set in the low "deckhead"—that's the ceiling, folks—are hooks for hammocks. Nearby there's a rack for stowing the 'micks in daytime, and a cabinet for the mess' cutlery, chinaware, and utensils; also staple foods like tea, butter, sugar, and tinned milk. If the boys in the mess are on good terms with the ship's L.T.O. (Leading Torpedo Operator), nothing will have been said when they hooked up a toaster or "hot plate" for between-meal snacks.

Getting up in the morning in a ship is every bit as bad as in barracks. At 0630 without fail the Quartermaster comes galloping into the mess deck shouting: "Wakey, wakey, wakey," and thumping everyone into wakefulness. With one eye open for the P.O. of the Day, you just lie there in your 'mick. You think about getting up, about how tired you still are, how awful it all is, and how you'd like to shoot the Q.M. for being so cheerful.

He announces it's a fine day outside. You don't believe him: you know it's not light enough yet to tell. Then he says there are pancakes for breakfast. You know that's a lie, so you reach out for someone else's boot and throw it at him.

Then one of your messmates walks in. He's all dressed up in the rig of the day, just back from overnight leave. He's hungry, and wants to set the table for breakfast. Now you really do have to get up. Your 'mick hangs right over the mess table. Once the table's set, you won't be able to get out without stepping, most likely, into the butter dish. Your messmates won't like that. Then to get your 'mick down, you'll have to lower it on their heads while they're eating. They won't think much of that either.

Muttering that it's a dog's life, you crawl out. The underwear shorts you slept in seem to have got twisted. You hitch them straight. You yawn: you stretch. Then, with your eyes just beginning to focus properly, you look around to see where you threw your socks and boots when you turned in the night before.

By seven o'clock the "cooks of the mess" have brought breakfast from the galley and the "gannets," in various states of undress, have assembled around the mess table. The first there grab all the cutlery—there never seems to be enough to go round—and latecomers watch ready to snatch the first piece anyone lets go. As for the conversation, well, by comparison Babel was a convention of mutes.

"Who the heck finished off the butter making toast last night? . . . Pipe down and pass the bread . . . Isn't there any more milk? . . . Where d'ya think you are, on a farm? . . I mean tinned milk, you clown . . . I said pass the bread . . . Who's finished with his cup? . . . Is there anything left in the galley for the guys on watch? . . . Drop that cup, it's mine . . . WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE PASS THE BREAD? . . . Aw, quit beatin' your gums, whad'ya want bread for? . . .Here it is, you don't have to stretch: when you want something, just ask. . .Yeah, you're not at home now. . .You can say that again . . . Hey, those punks in the next mess have swiped our jam!"

And so it goes on till the scramble into working clothes for "Hands fall in" at eight o'clock. Our morning routines were much the same in port and at sea. One or two men from each mess finished the dishes and scrubbed out the mess deck, and then joined the rest working outside. After hosing down the decks they'd be chipping and painting, cleaning guns and maybe toting provisions. Halfway through the morning came "Stand Easy," and at the first tweet of the Quartermaster's pipe a line sprang from nowhere for "cokes" at the canteen.

Stoker’s mess on corvette HMCS Sherbrooke, 1941.
Photo by William H. Pugsley. National Archives of Canada, PA-200123.

We didn't have to work in the afternoons at sea (in some ships the men did have to). With watches to stand every night you needed to catch up on your sleep. Of course in harbor we worked all day. By late afternoon most of those who were not on duty watch that night had cleaned into their best uniforms and gone ashore. If it was near pay day no one had any money so they all stayed on board.

Living in the stokers' mess my first few days on board, I'd got interested in their work. Off watch I spent a lot of time in the stokehold and engine room. During his early training, a stoker has months of boiler cleaning to do. This means crawling into tight places to work, with soot working into his skin and lungs. He gets more dirt on him in a day this way than a seaman knows in a year.

A stoker has to wriggle into slimy bilges to wrestle with greasy ballast ingots; he has to climb down into fume-filled tanks and scoop out the knee-deep oil sludge. If he gets a draft to one of the old coal-burning minesweepers, well, four hours shovelling coal is great for the back muscles!

Working in confined space at the far end of the boiler, this stoker wears cap goggles.
Photo by William H. Pugsley. National Archives of Canada, PA-200112.

The stokehold is no place for a man with claustrophobia. Even in a small ship, as he stands on the footplates, he is dwarfed by the boilers that seem to crowd him back against' the bulkhead.
If the ship gets torpedoed, the boys at the boilers—and there are always some there—almost never get out. When she's hit at one end or the other, they might have a chance, but most ships, if they get hit at all, seem to catch it fairly well amidships. If the stokers on watch aren't killed by the actual explosion, they die very suddenly when water rushes in and the boilers blow up.

There they work, far below decks in a maze of hissing valves and clanking pumps. They're surrounded by pipes of live steam which in escaping can be more deadly than any bullet. They're hemmed in close on both sides by thin-skinned walls with the whole ocean outside pressing to enter. Tead.
hey have to stay there, watching and controlling their pressure gauges through their ship's duel with a submarine, through the ringing thunder of depth charges exploding. They know that if the ship comes off second best, they'll never have time to make the long awkward climb to the upper deck. This thought was with them too, on watch down below, those nights when the ship in heavy seas kept trying to roll herself right over. I still say it takes guts to be a stoker, and it's not surprising that the stokers are even more clannish than the seamen.

Corvette men were tough, even the youngest. They had to be tough. In rough weather—and any weather was rough in a corvette!—to reach the entrance to the mess deck you had to plunge through an almost continual cataract of water that poured across the foc'sle and down into the well-deck amidships. Meals arrived from the galley—when they arrived—always cold and often practically swimming.

With so much open deck, and that so close to the water level, the early corvettes were wet ships. Men, rustled out of their hammocks to "Action Stations" at night, stood by the depth charge racks and throwers, or at the four-inch gun on the foc'sle, and got drenched to the skin as heavy spray broke constantly over them. After the first real blow during a crossing no one in the foc'sle had a stitch of dry clothing left. Men just wore their clothes wet till they dried in the wind: there was nothing else they could do.

After dark, even with the heavy canvas "Darken Ship" curtains down, there was the risk of light showing. So each night at sea all the light bulbs in the mess deck were replaced by blue ones. The scene became indescribably depressing: the dim blue light, the crash of water outside, the heavy shadows cast by the swaying 'micks, the few men bent over the mess tables trying to read. Yet this was "home," where men had to live, many of them for two years and more.

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