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
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
having dinner in the seamen’s
mess, HMCS Kamsack, August 1942.
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
"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.
mess on corvette HMCS Sherbrooke,
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
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!
in confined space at the far end
of the boiler, this stoker wears
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
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