V.E. Day in H.M.C.S. NIOBE

The end of the Second World War in Europe found Acting Warrant Stores Officer Randolph Vickers (1917-2008), Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, on staff at H.M.C.S. NIOBE. This was a shore establishment situated in the misty hills above Greenock, Scotland. Its primary mission was the manning of Canadian ships in the European theatre. It was housed mainly in a collection of brick and stone buildings which pre-War had been a poorhouse and insane asylum, a fact which gave rise to many bad jokes about the inhabitants' having only changed uniforms. After the Navy took it over, a small hospital was built, as well as an annex barracks of Army-supplied Nissan huts which were known unofficially as "boomtown".

Writing home to wife Margaret in an Airletter dated Sunday, 13th May, 1945, Mister Vickers described the events of the previous week:

"All in all, the past few days have been very eventful, in fact downright hectic. Let's see if I can square things around to some coherence. Monday (7th) was marked by a sudden upsurge in the buzzes which had been going round for the previous fortnight. In the evening, the RCAF show "All Clear" played in the Drill Hall to a crowded house. They were a very smart outfit and had some jokes I fully in tended to repeat to you, but all got lost in the following shambles. The show was late starting, and it wasn't until after 2200 that they played God Save the King, and the Captain came out on the stage. When the yelling had died down (Captain Hunter is extremely popular) he thanked the show for appearing, and then announced that it had just come over the radio that tomorrow would be VE day.

Ye Gods, what a turmoil! Hats flew through the air like bees disturbed in a hive, and the roof went up and down with the blast! After a few minutes the noise died down a bit, and the X.O. came out and said there would be no work done tomorrow but the necessary cleaning and the setting up of a stage on the Bowling Green; there would be free beer in the evening for the whole Ship's Company, the Band would be in attendance, and everyone who couldn't bring his best girl was to bring his second-best and have themselves a time.

I got out of there and hiked down to R.C.N. Hospital to whin a cup of coffee and talk over the news with the night-duty Sisters. From there, I walked down to the Main Gate. It was nigh on midnight; Greenock was off the blackout and lit up like a carnival, and you could hear the yelling and hollering clear up to NIOBE.

Figuring I might have a long day coming up, I went to the Stores Office to knock off some necessary signatures and clean up a few odds-and-ends before retiring. I'd only been there about two minutes when some members of the Band started getting together on a march tune not fifty feet away. When I left fifteen minutes later, they were not only still going strong but had been joined by four or five other instruments. I was crossing the courtyard towards the gateway when there was a rising crunch of gravel underfoot and roar of voices, and most of the Band plus half the complement of NIOBE boiled in through the gate and nearly ran me down. They milled around the courtyard for a few minutes singing "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here" with vast elan, and had hardly stopped to draw a breath thereafter, when there was a sudden surge and boil on the far side of the crowd, and the Captain and XO popped up, borne on the shoulders of several seamen.

The din of the Drill Hall was immediately repeated, worse than ever. Then the Band struck up a march and away went the whole darn crowd down the main road of NIOBE, singing and whooping like a bunch of nuts. By this time Greenock was really hitting its stride: ships in the harbour were firing off flares and rockets all over the sky, and searchlights were whipping all over the shop or spelling out ...- ...- ...- !! On low-scudding clouds.

The mob came to the Hospital entrance, turned smart left and paraded right through the East Ward, gathering up several up-patients and Sisters enroute, and headed for the football field, where they played "O Canada" and "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and "Loch Lomond" and one or two others I disremember. What a night! Well, this packing up at about 0200 and the ships in the harbour having packed up the fireworks, the mob dispersed and I returned anew to RCNH to scrounge another cup of coffee from the duty cook, and so to bed and surprisingly enough, to sleep.

Tuesday, we had a quiet day to begin with. Probably everyone was feeling the after-effects of the 2 a.m. jamboree. We did some desultory work in the morning (or perhaps more accurately, we were in the office) and secured at noon. I made a brief foray to Greenock with a couple of other people. There was bunting everywhere and the streets were crowded, but the people were very quiet and subdued. We walked down the main street a few blocks on one side, crossed over and returned on the other side, just moving with the crowd, and caught the Largs bus back to NIOBE gate, getting there in time for early supper. Then I went to my cabin for a couple of hours' sack time, arising at 2100 to look over the festivities.

All the tables from the huts in Boomtown were set out on the football field. There were nine or ten casks of beer sitting on them, together with boxes of bread and buns, and people were taking beer in mugs, tin cans, fire buckets and anything else that would contain it. In the middle of the field was a huge pile of dead bushes, tree stumps and old lumber, which the Outside Working Party must have been quietly collecting for weeks. The pile was topped with a V-shape made of two-by-fours and paper, with a sad-looking wood-and-cardboard swastika hanging between the arms. The Band was holding forth on the stage on the Bowling Green, which was having big turfs ripped away right and left by jitterbugging couples.

The whole place was over-run by the most amazing assortment of people old NIOBE has ever seen. Apart from seemingly a thousand of our own ratings and Wrens, there were a large number of R.N. Wrens and several hundred civvy girls. Nine or ten American sailors (where'd they come from?) wandered around holding beer mugs and looking dazed. An unexplained Merchant Navy officer held up one corner of the bandstand, while an equally unexplained Land Girl in brown-and-green uniform except for a Chief's cap danced with one of the Dental Corps sergeants in the centre of the Green.

Through it all wandered a resplendent personage in matelot's uniform embellished with deck-mops for epaulettes and concentric rings of yellow braid sewn on both arms from cuff to shoulder, together with an enormous (cardboard) cocked hat. He claimed to be Admiral Nelson, come back to buck up the present-day Navy. He was followed by an off-duty ship's bugler clad in full uniform but with a Wren officer's hat, plus thirty or forty hangers-on. Whenever they met an officer they grabbed him and "ran him on the Q-patch" for any and all misdemeanors. The First Lieutenant was caught with his shoes dusty and standing at "off caps" was sentenced to join the RCN forthwith. Nursing Sister Molyneux, found chewing gum, was given a sentence of "a fate worse than death". There were others that I didn't see, as I was prudently staying in the background.

Wrens were wearing ratings' hats and vice versa. A couple of Wrens on fiendishness bent seized our shy and retiring Lt. Shatford and smeared lipstick all over his face. As the evening wore on, ships in the Clyde from Glasgow to Gourock started to let loose with rockets and star-shells; steam-sirens rent the night with wild screams; search-lights blinked and swept across the sky; bells tolled wildly in Greenock while the Band fairly rocked the stage. The bonfire was lit and flung flames and sparks a hundred feet into the air, and soon empty mugs, buckets, benches and mess tables were tossed on the fire. Suffering Pete, what a night! And all the Wardroom and C. and P.O.'s Mess under strict orders to stay sober and maintain good order and Naval discipline. Well at least we stayed sober and got it half right!

About 2230 something happened to the power cable feeding the coloured lights around the Bowling Green, and the Band and dancers perforce adjoined to the Drill Hall. Despite the merry spirits of the crowd, there seems to have been only one fight all evening, and that was speedily broken up. A few revelers stayed around the embers of the bonfire till the bitter end, most in quiet talk. Busses collected the Wrens at midnight, and at about one a.m. NIOBE's trucks assembled and took home all the civvy girls who had not already departed. That is, they did so in theory. A few black sheep had slipped in with the white ones: feminine giggles near our block of cabins woke me around five in the morning, and I hear there were one or two girls who did not leave until a couple of hours later. This led one Wardroom humourist to propose that Tuesday May 8th be re-named to "VD Day".

And that was V.E. day in NIOBE. Next letter will be all about the "R.N." parade through Greenock next day with NIOBE providing three-quarters of the men and half the Wrens, and about the tremendous bash when the Wardroom bar was re-opened on the evening of the day following. I didn't participate in that one, being completely peed off because we had been told that everyone on staff would have to remain until the place had been closed down and all transients had gone home. Since it is now two years since I saw you and Bubbles, I want to get back to Victoria so bad I can taste it. So it looks like all I can do is wind up my part of the closing-down as fast as I can - starting with writing off the furniture that went up in the bonfire. No doubt Naval Service Headquarters will be less than happy with that lot, but wot the heck? It could have been worse.

For now, sweetheart, wait for me and God bless."

UPDATE

Sixty years on Mister Vickers, who returned to his civvy job with H.M.C. Dockyard after the war, is now living in a retirement home in Victoria; his beloved Margaret passed away in 1989 and awaits him in the old family plot in Ross Bay Cemetery; and Bubbles the baby, by now herself a grandmother, is putting this on the Internet with the thought that it will be a matter of nostalgia to Veterans and of interest to their descendants.

Pertinent Links

H.M.C.S. NIOBE: The Week After VE Day: In a second letter home to his wife dated May 16, 1945, Randy Vickers describes the events of the week after VE Day.

The Unique Sense: Orginally appearing in the Sentinel, this article on Service members' unique sense of humour was written by Alfred Lincoln, a long-time friend of Randy Vickers.

H.M.C.S NIOBE Wardroom

Niobe Staff Photo

Front row left to right:
Com Cook A.E. Goodyer R.C.N. (Halifax)
Surg. Lieut.-Cdr. C.J. Treffrey R.C.N.V.R. (Norwich Ont)
Chaplain J.C. Lauzon R.C.N. (Montreal)
Surg. Lieut.-Cdr. W.G. Breckenbridge RCNVR (Peterborough Ont)
Pay Lieut.-Cdr. C.P.G. Dodwell RCNVR (Sydney NS)
Lieut.-Cdr. (SB) H.G. Cuthbert RCNVR (Victoria)
Pay Lieut. P.H. Powers RCNVR (Edmonton)
Matron O. Wilson RCN (Medicine Hat)
Lieut.-Cdr. (E) F.R. Sadd RCNVR (Vancouver)
Cdr E.M. Detchon Executive Officer (Winnipeg and Montreal)
Capt. J.R. Hunter RCNVR Commanding Officer (London Ont)
Lieut. G. Crawford RCNVR First Lieut. (Edmonton)
Pay Cdr. D.T. R. Dawson RCNVR Accountant Officer (Moncton)
Lieut. W. Poole RCNVR Drafting Officer (Neepawa Man)
Major R.S. Freele C.D.C. (Parkhill Ont)
Chaplain I. Edwards RCN (Chatham Ont)
Surg. Lieut. F.M. Young RCNVR (Kingston Ont)
Sub Lieut. R. Irwin RCNVR (St. John's Nfld)
Wt. M.A.A. N. Evonic RCN (Victoria)
Comm. Mech. A.E. Chalk RCN (Victoria)

Second row left to right:
Capt. A. Grennon C.D.C. (Quebec)
Surg. Lieut. J.D.L. Fitzgerald RCNVR (Toronto)
Surg. Lieut. M.D.J. McCausland RCNVR (Toronto)
N/S E. Preston RCN (Stratford Ont)
Sub Lieut. (SB) A. Chalmers RCNVR (St. Lamberts P.Q.)
N/S J. Russell RCN (Kelowna B.C.)
N/S E. Teetor RCN (Ottawa)
N/S M. Lightfoot RCN (Montreal)
N/S A. Ridley RCN (Toronto)
N/S L. Corriveau RCN (Penetanguishene Ont)
Mrs. F. Hoose. Canadian Red Cross (Port Arthur)
N/S M. Coote RCN (Montreal)
N/S R. Gouinlock RCN (Toronto)
N/S E. Wilson RCN (Owen Sound Ont)
S/Lieut. E. Doe (SB) RCN (Chatham Ont)
N/S A White RCN (Tenelon Falls Ont)
N/S V. Knight RCN (Victoria)
N/S H.F. Ulrichsen RCN (Penetanguishene Ont)
Sub Lieut. (SB) M Gray RCN (Greenock Scotland)
Surg. Lieut. N.B. G Taylor RCNVR (Toronto)
Surg. Lieut. D.G. Florendine RCNVR (Calgary)
Capt. W.R. Upton C.D.C. (Calgary)

Back row left to right:
Capt. M.P. Warshawski C.D.C. (Mundare Alta)
Instr. Lieut. G. Dalsin (SB) RCNVR (Edmonton)
Pay Lieut. H. Bell RCNVR (Saskatoon)
Lieut. (SB) C. Dodds RCNVR (Toronto)
Lieut. C. Aharan RCNVR (Charlottetown)
Lieut. A.J. Peppard RCNVR (Port Home N.S.)
Wt. Wrtr. W.G.S. George RCNVR (Calgary)
Pay Sub Lieut. B.V. Crosby RCNVR (Vancouver)
Instr. Lieut. W.C. McRoberts RCNVR (Calgary)
Lieut. (SB) H. Aikman RCNVR (Ottawa)
Wt. Wrtr. L. Langstaff RCN (Yorkton Sask)
Pay Sub Lieut. J. Berton RCNVR (Ladysmith B.C.)
Pay Lieut. W.J. O'Brien RCNVR (London Ont)
Pay Lieut. D.J. Magee RCNVR (Eureka N.D.)
Ward Lieut. P.A.R. Gleave RCN (Victoria)
Pay Lieut. W. Wallace RCNVR (Toronto)
Pay Lieut. R.C. Shatford RCNVR (Saint John)
Wt.S.O. N.M. Webster RCNVR (Calgary)
Pay Lieut. L. Parry RCNVR (Hamilton Ont)
Sub Lieut. M.W. Farrel RCNVR (Ripley Ont)
Sub Lieut. G.M. Thompson RCNVR (Toronto)
Sub Lieut. (SB) K.H. Linder RCNVR (Toronto)
Wt. S.O. R.S. Vickers RCNVR (Victoria)
Lieut. (E) J.A.C. Armstrong RCNVR (Sarnia Ont)
Capt. J.E. Hallett C.D.C. (Liverpool N.S.)

Margaret (Marg) Vickers died on May 8th, 1989, six weeks before her 69th birthday.
Randolph (Randy) Vickers died on November 6, 2008, two months before his 92nd birthday.

You can send comments and questions to their daughter "Bubbles" better known as Vicky Vickers


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