Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Passages: Comox Spit and Polish

From the Upper and Lower Decks

"View from barracks beach' on The Spit, Comox
Photo from Sailor Remember, pg. 92

Same view, May 2015

Officers and ratings of the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR, the Wavy Navy) and Combined Operations who underwent training or trained others in gunnery and seamanship skills at Givenchy III Navy base on Vancouver Island during WW2 very likely said many positive things about the experience.

The following excerpts from Sailor Remember by William Pugsley and "Dad, Well Done" (Naval Memoirs of Leading Seaman Coxswain Doug Harrison) are both positive and enlightening. It is unclear when Pugsley trained at the Comox Spit or his rank at the time, but I think the date may be prior to October, 1943, before the Navy base expanded to include Combined Operations training. Harrison, a member of Combined Operations - five years later he became my father - trained others (seamanship skills) beginning in January, 1944 when the base went by the name Givenchy III (as of Oct. 1943) and was a Combined Operations training camp.

Assault training at The Spit, Jan. 1944. Photo by National Film Bd.

From Sailor Remember

                    Comox, BC. Beyond Belief

   This is surely one of the most beautiful spots
   in the naval world. The scenery is beyond belief.
   The establishment there - a rifle range and seamanship
   school - was laid out on a long broad sand spit.
   There were wooden walkways between most of
   the huts but some of the minor paths were corduroy,
   laid with rusty sections of old boiler pipe from British
   warships that had put into this secluded anchorage
   to refit their boilers many, many years ago.

 Aerial view of The Spit, 1930s. Photo courtesy of Comox Museum

   The seamanship taught at Comox included many hours
   of boat pulling in whalers, and practising raising and
   lowering boats. At the order "Away Seaboat", one half
   of the class would scramble up into a whaler which was
   suspended by davits over the edge of the long wooden jetty.
   At the final order, "Slip", the boat dropped into the water,
   the crew pulled valiantly at the oars, the boat ran smack
   into the muddy beach, and everyone fell over backwards.
   This was always good for a laugh.

'Pulling cutters, at six in the morning!' Photo - Sailor Remember, pg. 94

   The sand spit we were on sloped gently into the placid
   waters of the Straits of Georgia. Directly opposite, and
   extending away in either direction as far as the eye could
   see, was a towering range of snow-capped mountains.
   Billowy clouds drawn up in martial array hung constantly
   over their peaks and the sun streaking through their
   occasionally broken ranks clothed each snowy summit
   in turn with a dazzling white splendour.
   Young Ordinary Seamen, who'd never before been
   away from their home towns. or perhaps even beyond
   their own neighbourhoods, would sit on the beach
   in the late afternoons and gaze across the still water
   at this breathtaking sight. Cradled amid the peaks
   directly before them lay a vast white glacier, and even
   the name was something to stir the imagination -
   "Forbidden Plateau"...

Painting found at viewing platform between Courtenay and Comox, 2012 

   I and my companions in disgrace worked in the galley,
   scraping all the grease in the world out of the biggest
   pots and pans in the world. When it wasn't that,
   it was dishing up after meals in the Instructors' mess.
   Any self-respecting matelot would be satisfied to use
   one plate for his dinner, eating his "duff" - desert -
   off his meat plate. This means less to wash up later.
   But do Petty Officers do this? Do even Leading Seamen do it,
   when they have a messman to wash up for them afterwards?
   They certainly don't. They use all the dishes they can think of.
   (Pages 96 - 98)

                    . . . . .

From "Dad, Well Done"

                    A Slap on the Back

   In 1944 I was stationed in barracks on a piece of land called
   “The Spit” - Givenchy III, known as Cowards Cove - at Comox
   on Vancouver Island, B.C. About a half mile of water separated
   the spit from Comox and to get ashore we had to be inspected and
   travel to Comox on a real Liberty boat. It was absolute heaven there.
   Just normal routine; I trained a few zombies on cutters,
   and I was on the navy softball and hardball teams and we
   played as many as six games a week under a good coach. 

Back centre - Coach George Hobson (white T-shirt)
Front centre - Doug Harrison, Navy Team 1, 3rd base

   It was beautiful to see the snow-capped mountains
   and the contours - which had various names. 

   I also looked after Captain Windyer’s sailboat and prepared it
   when he wished to go for a sail. One day quite a wind was blowing
   and I was called by the captain to prepare the boat for sailing.
   “Isn’t it a bit windy today, sir, for sailing such a small craft?” I said.
   “I’ll be the judge of that,” he remarked. He hadn’t gone a hundred
   fathoms when the sailboat tipped over and he was bottoms up.
   We rescued him with an LCM barge, and when he came ashore -
   hair flattened and really soaked - he never even glanced my way.
   I wouldn’t have either.

   There was a government oyster breeding ground at Givenchy
   and at low tide we would get bags full of the largest ones
   and put them in the water near the barracks, so, when the tide
   came in no one saw them and when tide went out we had a feast.
   We cooked a lot, but some of the large ones we ate raw.
   They were hard to swallow, the large ones, and we often needed
   a slap on the back to be able to move it down our throat.

Navy cutters. Photo from The Land of Plenty 

   I acted as Coxswain on large navy cutters as soldiers worked
   the oars. This was fun, getting the proper stroke amongst 18
   green oarsmen. If the rhythm was wrong and an oar caught
   a crab (got stuck in the water), the effect was that nearly
   every thwart was cleared of oarsmen and bedlam prevailed.
   “Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!” I hollered, just bursting from laughter.
   The oars are about 12 feet long and are they ever heavy. To give
   the soldiers a well-earned rest I would give the order “Rest oars.”
   Then the oars would be pulled in, rested on each side of the cutter,
   and the soldiers could rest their weary arms on the looms for awhile. 
   I enjoyed giving the order to ‘toss oars’. With this the huge oars
   were brought from the water and as quickly as possible tossed up
   in the air, and of course the water came pouring down from
   the blades in a regular storm for a minute and everyone got
   soaked to the hide, including me, but on a hot day
   it was refreshing. I was longing for a swim anyway.

 Doug Harrison, Chuck Rose 1944-45

From Comox District Free Press, May 3, 1945

   At Givenchy L/Sea Rose and I took a job washing dishes,
   but we gave everyone to understand that we had to be at
   the beach at 1300 hours (1:00 p.m.). There were 150 ratings
   to start but many were shipped out. If we were going to be late
   we grabbed dishes half full and said, “you’re done”,
   because we couldn’t keep the girls waiting.*

   Then one day, the day we had been waiting for came - V.E. day -
   and what a celebration. They poured beer in my hair,
   there was no routine, but nothing untoward happened. 

Doug’s notes also say “...everything went mad and uncontrolled...” 

   The fellows were just so glad, that it gave us time
   to think back and count our blessings. No, I cannot
   recall anything unusual happening to write about.
   It had a sobering effect on most of us who had been
   in Combined Operations under the White Ensign.
   Of course, I said we were very very happy,
   but we were also very very lucky and knew it.
   Soon we went to H.M.C.S. Naden, with none of us
   volunteering for the Japanese theatre of war, although
   we were all asked by a recruiting officer. A naval
   photographer took a picture of six of us because
   we all joined the same day, went through 23 months
   overseas together and were going to be
   discharged all on the same day too.

Back (L - R) L/S Don Westbrook, L/S Chuck Rose, L/S Joe Spencer
Front (L - R) L/S Joe Watson, L/S Doug Harrison, L/S Arthur Warrick 
(L/S - Leading Seaman)

*Dot Levett, above (widow of RCNVR and Combined Ops veteran Chuck Levett), says to me, “Doug used to pick us up in a Navy barge and take us to Tree Island for picnics and a swim”. Dorothy still lives in Courtenay, BC.

Unattributed photos by G. Harrison

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