Unbelievable as it may seem, HMS Daedalus 2 sailed into the Borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme 80-years ago.
However, the fact is that the Daedalus was a shore-based Royal Naval Artificer Training Establishment (RNATE) and its relocation from Lympne, Kent, was then deemed necessary under wartime emergency powers, being considered vulnerable to enemy attack. The Borough Council was given 24 hours notice to make arrangements for the reception of the ship’s crew and Fleet Air Arm apprentices.
Local people first became aware of the arrival on hearing the tramp of boots and barked orders to ‘get fell in’ at Newcastle railway station in the early hours of May 22, 1940.
Over the next two days, 600 or so personnel and 250 tons of equipment were successfully transported to the town.
In the meantime, temporary accomodation was arranged in the Municipal Hall and a number of properties requisitioned for use by the Royal Navy including Old Bank House, High Street, (for Captain and Commander and Regulatory officer); Victoria House, London Road (for officers ward room); Westland Girls School (for instructional and sporting purposes); Craft House, Pool Dam (for electrical school); Smithfield Garage (for technical school/main workshop); Burke’s Higherland Garage ( for workshops); Clayton Lodge (for Wrens’ accommodation); Municipal Hotel, Holborn (for fitters and certain ship’s company accomodation); Blackfriars School Clinic (for sick bay and dental centre); St. Giles Parish Hall (for classroom and armoury); and, most importantly, Clayton Hall, residence of the Johnson family.
Naturally, some of the buildings required major alterations to meet Admiralty requirements and these works were undertaken by a consortium of local builders. When the decision was made to quarter all apprentices at Clayton Hall, hutted accomodation was provided in the grounds together with a chapel and gymnasium. Also, the entire complex was surrounded with security fencing and sentries were deployed at various points.
The war and the arrival of the Daedalus brought to an end the rural tranquility of the village of Clayton.
In addition to being raised from their beds by the dawn chorus, residents were treated to the distinctive sound of the bugle!
Northwood Lane was used for training, in particular for the ship’s band, or buglers with the corps of drums; and they would march and counter-march along the road.
Later, when hangars, classrooms and butts were erected on the western side of Northwood Lane, residents were also subjected to other unfamiliar sounds which today might fall under the definition of noise pollution.
In addition to the bugle sound at various times during the day, live ammunition was fired. Prior to this happening, a naval rating would cycle along the lane armed with a megaphone warning ‘firing in 20 minutes’.
A number of aircraft were also housed at Northwood Lane.
Here , apprentices were trained on guns and maintaining them, whilst others worked on aircraft engines, stripping and rebuilding them and running tests.
Other sounds which local residents became accustomed to included barked orders emanating from the grounds of the hall and what appeared to be foreign language: ‘Lef ri, lef ri, lef ri’ –which accompanied the sound of marching feet.
Those joining Daedalus quickly had to appreciate that like all other RN shore establishments, it was considered to be a ship of the line.
For example, the area in front of Clayton Hall where a flag mast was erected, became the quarterdeck. Ground beyond the boundaries of the establishment, including the guard room on Clayton Road were considered to be the sea!
Apprentices leaving the establishment would wait before ‘going ashore’ and this was termed ‘the liberty boat’. In addition, newcomers were expected to become fully conversant with traditional naval terminology – the deck (ground), deckhead (ceiling), bulkheads (walls), galley (kitchen) etc.
Apprentices were trained in various specialised trades – A (Airframes), E (Engines), O (Ordnance), and L (Electrical/Radio). The training was intensive with progressive examinations.
Instructors were generally highly-experienced personnel, specialists in their field who had remained in the service having made their way up from the lower deck.
Being part of the Royal Navy, conduct and control at Daedalus was manged in accordance with King’s Regulations and the Naval Discipline Acts.
Discipline was, and had to be, strict and former apprentices described life at Clayton as ‘harsh’, ‘tough and even ‘brutal’.
For example, anyone returning late was severely disciplined, the reason being that a real ship could have been under orders to sail on the tide. Therefore those finding themselves in the position of missing their ship were considered to be AWOL – Absent Without Leave – or even deserters!
Other serious misdemeanors, such as outright insubordination, stealing, etc., were punishable by the birch.
This was a wooden rod or bamboo cane and the requisite number of strokes were administered in front of the entire ship’s company by the Master at Arms, the offender being held down over a wooden gym horse or similar.
For those off duty, social life was described as ‘pretty hectic’. The town of Newcastle boasted four cinemas, together with several venues where dances were regularly held.
Coupled with this were vast numbers of female workers in the area who were employed in munitions and other factories and living away from home.
The Municipal Hall was a particular favourite dance venue of Daedalus personnel and some also have fond memories of the ‘snoggin’ benches’ in the Queen Gardens. When the Americans entered the war and came to the area, they too organised dances with transport provided. These vehicles were often known as ‘passion wagons’.
To the young men of Britain, whether in uniform or otherwise, the Yanks were seen as a threat and when tempers flared the disagreements were generally about girls, too much alcohol, or even on occasion merely as a result of differences in the meaning of language.
The coming of peace inevitably led to the departure of HMS Daedalus 2 from the area in October 1945 with RNATE relocating to HMS Condor, Arbroath.
Subsequently, the Lords of the Admiralty wrote of the ‘cordial relations which have always existed between the Naval Establishment and the Borough’ and that ‘these contributed very materially to the efficient training which has been received’.
In addition, ‘the attitude of all owners of requisitioned buildings and grounds has always been most helpful and co-operative’.
Information released to the media in late 1945 indicates that 4,245 personnel were successfully trained at HMS Daedalus 2.
All went onto serve in ships and stations in the various theatres of war. As one former apprentice commented – “we came as boys and left as men.”
In October 2003 a bench commentorating HMS Daedalus 2 was unveiled in the refurbished garden at Clayton Hall by rear Admiral Iain Henderson CBE RN, Flag Officer Naval Aviation.
The bench was dedicated by Canon John Ridyard of Lichfield Cathedral. Among those attending the ceremony were the Mayor and Mayoress of Newcastle (Councillor and Mrs R Slater) and a number of former apprentices.
Graham Bebbington’s book about HMS Daedalus 2 ‘Ship Without Water’ is available to purchase from Churnet Valley Books.