J.MALAN # 876 – 1936/37
To the best of my knowledge, Hugh van Eyssen, MBE, (#722 1933-34) was the first Steytlerville lad to join the Bothie and I was the second one. Steytlerville is a small dorp in the Karoo and had, in the thirties, some 600 people and Hugh and I were at school there, although he was a couple of classes my senior. My joining the Bothie was not because Hugh had set an example – it was simply that we both wanted to go to sea.
In Hugh’s days, Bothie uniform was both Fore and Aft and Square Rigged and Hugh, when on leave, delighted the local kids by walking on his hands yet being able to keep his pis pot cap on his head. Then he joined one of the Union Castle fruit ships. After my term on the Bothie I stayed on with my Grandfather in Cape Town and luckily met up with Hugh again just before the war. He took me down to this fruit ship, gave me lunch and took me on a tour of his ship mentioning on the quiet that the after deck was specially re-inforced to take a naval gun.
My grandfather was a successful wine farmer but as a young man he, too, wanted to go to sea and my father, although a medical doctor, must have had some sea water in his medical veins, because neither objected when I announced one day that I wanted to go to sea and join the Bothie. My grandfather took me for my first interview and when I was asked, “Why do you want to go to sea?” I could only reply that I had had two trips to and from the UK and a trip to and from Beira and that I loved the sea. Also, my Uncle Bill was a radio officer on a ship. And so I was accepted.
Somehow I missed the first draft on the train to Snoekie and made my way thence in the company of one of the Board of Control officials. In due course I found myself standing on the pier and was met by the motorboat and taken aboard. The instructor on duty was ‘Hands’ Goff and he took charge of me and saw to it that I was duly kitted out. For the first time in my life I actually wore long trousers.
We were instructed how to manage our hammocks and where to sling them and so we went to sleep on that first night on a gently moving ship. We were Bothie Boys. Early the next morning ‘Tallow Hands’ Goff woke us up to the realities that life was earnest and that we must get out of the hammocks and shower. A cold shower. Luckily it was summer and we survived that piece of brutality and then, when we were dressed, that introduction to one of the most wonderful of beverages – Navy cocoa. And then came breakfast. Having breathed really fresh air through open ports all night we could easily have eaten a horse.
We had about a week before our future Lords and Masters were due back and the instructors guided us and saw to our well-being. Meanwhile, we were divided into Tops and by the time the senior cadets returned we were not quite so raw. We had been taught how to salute and we learned to walk bare-footed without stubbing toes on things. We were given IQ tests and divided into classes 4, 5 and 6 and most of us learned a strange science called trigonometry. Then came the day when our elders and betters returned from leave and we stood in awe as these gentry graced us with their presence.
They saluted smartly as they stepped aboard, they looked very much like us – but they had something that we didn’t have. An air of confidence. Within a few days Wally Findlayson, our Second Officer, would mark their uniform sleeves where the three buttons of a senior cadet would be sewn on. The status symbol. It would be our turn – next year.
We New Warts (as the late C J Harris, 33/34 #686, tactfully put it) were duly informed that upon a certain whistle we were required to present ourselves chop-chop to the whistling senior and do his bidding. My first such summons resulted in my sewing on the three buttons. Not being adept at this nautical manoeuvre I was invited to accompany my elder and better to the forepeak and, as he said, ‘cock a jaw.’ This exercise requires the jaw-cocker to stand against a bulkhead with his head about an inch or so away from the bulkhead with his jaw at what might be called an inviting angle. The senior cadet then lets fly with his fist at the provocative jaw and, in turn, the back of the head meets the bulkhead. In this way we new warts learnt manners and that we had in some way or another erred in the eyes of our seniors. Let me stress at the outset that it was not sheer bloody-mindedness on the part of the seniors but perhaps that they were laying claim to seniority and, in a way, getting their own back for the suffering they had gone through with their seniors. A painful lesson, in a way, but the incidence of ‘cock a jaw’ dropped and dwindled to a welcome low fairly soon. Another method of tuition was the breaking of broom sticks across the southern aspect of one’s body. How Billy (who later became a Commodore !) managed to account to authority for so many broom sticks broken is a mystery.
The seniors did, however, fight fair – if I can put it that way. The reading and writing room was neutral territory and we warts were left in peace while there. The forepeak was senior country as was the starboard main deck. C J Harris’ 1966 article in Personality (re-printed in Wilhelm Grutter’s ‘A Name among Seafaring Men’) is certainly worth reading and fully correct with regard to his period on the Bothie. Things had tamed down somewhat during my tenure (although not without its moments!) and our seniors stated without blushing that their year was a real hell. Be that as it may. The Bothie was never intended to be a kindergarten and let it be said here and now that the Bothie was NEVER repeat NEVER a reformatory as some people suggested. The lot of us wanted to be Bothie Boys – and we were proud of it. Nuff said.
The tuition was superb, seawise or academicwise. Legend had it that our Navigation fundi, ‘Bows’ Bennett, who taught the two senior classes, 1 and 4 ( the latter being Warts), while in the Merchant Navy way back when, was on a vessel that had either met up with pirates or had had a mutiny. To confuse the issue, the baddies stripped the compass of its Flinder’s Bar and correcting magnets. Bows, the legend went, not only ‘swung’ the vessel astronomically to correct the compass but returned it to a state with less magnetic deviation than hithertofore. Another legend was our then (1937) Chief Officer St John who had seen 1914-18 wartime service in submarines. When he took prayers at night as OOD, he’d always glance up at the sky-light on the after deck as though checking his conning tower hatch.
Oh, we had them. Superb officers. My old friend Group Captain Angus Macmillan (ex Worcester) was kind enough to write a piece for our Newsletter when he was Third to our Capt. Yardley’s Second on one of the P & O Liners prior to his joining the RAF. ‘Lugs’ Yardley was a man of integrity and highly respected by all. Even the ‘Birds’ (those who had been found guilty of misdemeanours and duly punished) made a point of buying him a special present upon his departure. Capt. Pennington, ex Conway, took over from Lugs. Wally Findlayson took over as second and he was the Nav. Fundi for the other classes. In the academic line we had Messrs Frame, (Head), Joubert (Afrikaans) and Gwade who filled in the bits and pieces while the Rev. Flack taught English. Mr Joubert also taught science. I don’t know what degree he took, but he taught science that must have taken many quite happily through their Mates and Masters tickets. Our instructors were the salt of the earth (or should that be the sea?). Bob Mercer (Chief) and Bert Costick (signals), ‘Tallow’ Goff and our PTI Chick Chapman. They were all ex RN and in their day must have been the cream of that superb Service. Bert Costick used to like to pull one’s leg signalwise and he’d say, seriously, that during the war the RN used to use black light to signal in daylight ! Then he’d smile. But he worked me up to a very good degree that to this day I can read Morse easily. Chick Chapman used to give Class 1 all whatsit on Wednesdays but it certainly was to our benefit. When I joined the SAAF (having been turned down by the RNVR on account of not-so-good eyesight) our PT chap said that I was pretty fit for a ‘civvie’ but when I said I was ex-Bothie he just nodded and said, “Ja.”
When the war started I shot for the RNVR although I was accepted by the Clan Line (should I pass my BOT) but an eyesight test before due date put an end to a sea career. However, I did enjoy a few months on the old ‘Mac’ under Phil Harding before I accepted things. As an amateur photographer I was able to join the SAAF at eight bob a day and was taught enough (both SAAF and RAF) to qualify for advanced diplomas. Throughout the war I found that my Bothie training stood me in good stead, especially when my promotion was such that I took charge of technical sections and later in civvie life after the war when I jointed the Civil Service in a specialist capacity.
While on leave in Alexandria, Egypt, during the war I met up with two Bothie Obies in a pub. When they started to natter I knew. I gave the old whistle and there was a pregnant silence for a few moments and the game was ON. We decided to go to the Grand Trianon and while there Jerry started an air raid. Most of the locals ducked down to the shelter while we topped up our glasses from full or fullish bottles. When we went outside in search of an operative bar we walked into apparent daylight because Jerry had dropped flares and we lit cigarettes. A panicky ARP type shouted to us to put out the cigarettes before the Germans saw us and, it being as bright as day anybluttyway we told him to imshi yalla. The Bothie boys were both uncertificated officers and we duly ended the night pleasantly. I cannot remember their names, but I do hope they made it back safely.
There is much that can be written about the Bothie and also its progeny. There were times in my first year when I could have wished upon better days because as I’ve said it was no kindergarten and never meant to be. How else do you train Merchant Navy Officers ? At the end of my second year I sat on Snoekie Station and reflected that two years was not a blutty lifetime as I looked at the after aspect of that wonderful old ship. Its training came through to me then when I fully realised that the Bothie had virtually given me a lifetime of experience within two years.