Saturday, 2 May 2015

Cyril Tawney - I Was Walking Through the Dockyard in a Panic

Another Anzac day, and I sunk a few schooners with Lofty, Jim and Bob down at the Swansea RSL.  We crapped on about how we were mistreated at Nirimba and we recounted all the mean pricks we had ever come across in the Navy – remember Lefty Mort, or was it Larry?  And remember the time I got stoppage of leave because I was only two packets over on the cigarette allowance.  Those were the days – the people who seemed to get the dream run; the others who were always hard done by!  It made me think of one of my favourite Cyril Tawney songs, I Was Walking Through the Dockyard in a Panic.  This is a catchy tune about one of those characters you come across who for some reason manages to avoid getting posted to sea - always land based in a naval depot or dockyard.  They earned themselves the name, “depot stanchion” from sea-going sailors – not a flattering name because the sea-going sailor felt he was the one having to do the ‘hard yards’, putting in the arduous duty, while the “depot stanchion” got to go home every night.  He had the luxury of drinking in the local every weekend and did not have to suffer the discomfort and hardship of being on a ship at sea.

I Was Walking Through the Dockyard in a Panic
            (Cyril Tawney 1930 -2005)
I was walking through the dockyard in a panic,
When I met a matelot old and grey,
Upon his back he had his bag and hammock,
And this is what I heard him say.
I wonder, yes I wonder,
Has the Jaunty made a blunder,
When he served this draft chit out for me.
For years I’ve been a stanchion,
I’m the pride of Jago’s mansion,
It’s a shame to send me off to sea.
I like my ‘Pride of Keyham’ and I like my weekend leave,
And I always bring the Western to the Chief,
Oh, I wonder, yes I wonder,
Has the Jaunty made a blunder,
When he served this draft chit out for me.
Shall I wander out to sunny straits in glory,
On a trooper that is chocker block,
If I speak to shipmates who have gone before me,
They are sure to double up with shock.
I wonder, yes I wonder,
Has the Jaunty made a blunder,
When he served this draft chit out for me.
For though we’ve lots of funnels,
We’re never rolling gunnels,
And I’m always home in time for tea.
I’ve gazed upon the ocean while walking on the Hoe,
Though I own that that was very long ago,
But t’ain’t no use to holler,
I’ll have to raise a dollar,
And wangle back to R.N.B.

My link to Cyril Tawney’s ‘bleat’ coming from “a matelot, old and grey”, is an imagined matelot’s ‘beef’ I have written.  As is the custom, a more senior rating listens patiently to a sailor’s whinging (“ain’t it awful, ain’t it awful”), and then addresses it with a bigger ‘hard done by’ story to make it seem the sailor’s concerns are insignificant.  In this case, overshadowed by how the loss and subsequent treatment of HMAS Yarra’s crew played itself out in WWII.  HMAS Yarra was a little warship, a Grimsby class sloop built in Australia.  In August 1940, not long after the outbreak of war with Germany, ‘Yarra’ was sent as an attachment to the RN Red Sea force and took part in a number of actions to secure that part of the Middle East for the Allies.  She then deployed to the Mediterranean acting as an escort for shipping between Alexandria and Tobruk.  In need of maintenance and repair, ‘Yarra’ was on her way back to Australia when the Japanese invaded Malaya (late 1941).  The ship found herself diverted to take up escort duties for shipping coming in and out of Singapore.  That duty continued up until the fall of Singapore.  Then in early 1942, south of Java in the escort of a merchant convoy HMAS Yarra encountered a Japanese cruiser squadron.  ‘Yarra’ valiantly sacrificed herself in a futile attempt to protect the convoy (only 13 members of her crew survived).  In spite of HMAS Yarra’s heroic action (considered to be the bravest act in Australian naval history), not one of her crew were recommended for nor ever received a medal.  A young gunner, Leading Seaman Taylor was reported to have remained at his action station when abandon ship was called and kept firing at the enemy to the time he went down with his ship.
2015.  I set out to research and write an historical poem about the loss of HMAS Yarra in world war two.  In reflecting on ‘Yarra’s’ story I can’t help but feel injustice – injustice that men were separated from their families for almost two years and then killed, never to return; injustice that their bravery and sacrifice has never been acknowledged.

The Getting of Medals
they don’t give you bloody medals
for doing your duty mate!
just ask the boys off the Yarra,
why don’t cha!?
that’s right, ya can’t, cos
they’re all bloody dead!
but that being said,
I bet they don’t bleat,
half as much as you! What,
‘cos you happen to be duty,
one in three!
when here we are mate,
alive, still sucking air,
stepping ashore everywhere,
while back on Yarra!
two years away, two bloody years!
keeping the Red Sea clear,
can you believe it!
four months, mate,
with never a day’s leave,
and then a lousy Bombay refit,
on bully beef and biscuits,
when excuse me, you get your duff
every night and still arc up.
Oh, can’t go to sleep!
‘cos it’s too cold in the mess deck?
now that takes the cake,
try being on the Yarra, mate,
running bloody air attacks,
in and out of Tobruk and back,
you don’t know flogged on your feet,
you don’t know hot,
not ‘til you’ve served on a sloop
in the Mediterranean,
then follow that up,
with being told,
you’re going home, mate,
to oh,
there’s been a change of plan,
you’re now acting convoy escort,
Sunda Strait to Singapore.
How do you feel? How do ya feel!
Just doing your duty, mate!
the wife and family can wait.
Well, they’re waiting a bloody long time.
You can’t taunt three Jap cruisers,
and not expect a bruising,
Yarra, or anyone else afloat!
Yeah, medals……….
if they were handing out medals
for doing your duty, mate,
I’d swim down there to Yarra’s wreck,
and pin one on Squizzy Taylor’s chest.
Nah, if it’s medals and bloody life
you’re after, then better play safe,
and get yourself posted, mate,
side-boy to an admiral’s wife!
                                                         J. O. White

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