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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Eric Tate and the Admiralty Cable Ships

Introduction: Eric Tate shares this story of his adventures on the British Admiralty cable ships HMS Straide, HMS Bulan, and HMS St Margarets, towards and after the end of the Second World War.

HMS Straide (built in 1917) was fitted out for cable service by Johnson & Phillips in 1940, as were HMS Bulan (built in 1924 and converted for cable use in 1942), and HMS St Margarets.

The firm equipped at least seventeen cable ships for the Admiralty during the course of the war. Many of these were commercial ships of varying ages (some dating back to the turn of the century) which were requisitioned for the war effort, although a few, like the St Margarets (launched in 1943), were built as cable ships.

--Bill Burns

I joined H.M.S. Straide in Bangor, County Down on the 16th March 1944 as an O.S., being a young 17. The Admiralty cable ships were a  “Queer Mob” (of which there were many in W.W.II): The Commissioned Officers, Captain, First Mate and Chief Engineer (a Lieutenant and two “subbies”), were all on Royal Navy rates of pay, whereas the crew-members were all on Merchant Navy rates, including our £30 a month “Danger Money”. So the wealthiest man on board was “Monk”, our Bosun.

Eric Tate in early 1944

Apart from our cable duties, which were strictly harbour defence on that huge Belfast Lough, we were used, variously, as a target tower, and that’s “hairy”—towing a target for the cruisers down to destroyers to all take potshots at (and their respective aims were NOT that accurate!). After that we crossed over to do some work based in Oban (above Glasgow) and even ran down the coast and in past Liverpool, along the Manchester Ship Canal, to Runcorn in Cheshire (where there was a Siemens Cable Manufacturer) to load fresh cable.

A couple of months after joining the Straide we realised something BIG was brewing. Even though Belfast Lough was so huge , it started to fill up with all these giant Allied warships; there were a couple of huge British battle-wagons, ditto U.S. Navy, there was a Free-French battleship, a couple of sundry other cruisers, aircraft carriers, etc. After our target-towing stint we, like all other Navy small ships, were roped in as victualling tenders, loaded down with sacks of potatoes, cabbages, frozen meat—you name it we carted it. Came June 6th, 1944, the news of D-day broke, with its initial giant barrage from the English Channel, and we knew that WE had helped supply that heavy armament!

The only ship I remember was the U.S.S. Arkansas. That was because this huge ship's Chief Bosun, who was watching us loading called down to me, "Hey, kid, when did you last taste ice-cream?" I yelled back, "I haven’t tasted it since 1939." "So; come aboard," he shouted. Nothing loath, I grabbed the next net-full going up, and stepped off once it was settled on their deck. This great guy took me along to a complete drug-store set-up built on board, and the Negro steward served me with the greatest ice-cream sundae I've ever tasted (and I'm 80 as I write this). The Negro told me two things: 1. It was called a "Knickerbocker Glory"; 2. Negroes in the U.S. Navy were used only for subservient duties. Thank the Lord that was the last war in which this was true!

We were also sent to help a Norwegian trawler just off Greenland with a broken mainshaft (and holds full of its halibut catch). We took her in tow, and brought her back safely to her (wartime) home port of Oban… I’ve often wondered since, how we did that with all those great cross-Atlantic convoys losing X percentage to the German U-Boats!

Being so young, I was the ship’s “Postie” and passed the M.N. Pool Office every time I went ashore. One day I stopped and read a notice asking “All young Seamen to sit for their E.D.H. Certificates.” Losing so many grown and efficient A.B.s in the Atlantic War, they needed to replenish with this system: All E.D.H. (Efficient Deck Hand) holders would get full A.B.s pay… So I went in and applied! I still remember the surprise of all the other entrants, and the three Skippers that tested us, that there I was, in full ROYAL NAVY uniform, especially when they declared that of the eight being tested, I had passed with the most successes in the tests!

I got my cocky come-uppance when my own Skipper learned I had forced the Admiralty’s hand, and I MUST be promoted to full A.B. (the only way the Royal Navy could pay me that rate) and he returned me to H.M.S. Ubiquity, our Headquarters in Edinburgh.

Leaving Oban, we ran right through the Caledonian Canal, with all its locks (up to Loch Ness and down beyond) to the North Sea. That was when he sent me off (on a bus) to Ubiquity.

From there I was posted to H.M.S Bulan, which was laying in Karachi. As a party of two, A.B. Eric Tate and O.S. Vic Fisher (who finished up a skipper with the old Palm Line), we were shipped on the Empress of Russia, a pre-war luxury liner now carrying some 5,000 troops, arriving in Bombay three days after VE Day, June 1945.

Shortly after that, Japan capitulated, and the old British India Company wanted their Bulan back, so we sailed her to Bombay, and en masse boarded the old “Empress of Britain” (ditto to sister-liner above). We landed at Liverpool on the 11th September 1945, all expecting a nice quick demob now the war was over… But NO! H.Q. sent me, all alone, to join the County-class cruiser H.M.S. Cumberland, which gave me a swift ride out to Egypt, where I joined the H.M.S. St. Margarets (built as a cable ship) in Alexandria on the 12th October 1945.

HMS St Margarets

So I didn’t get demobbed till 27th May 1947! In that time we worked all through the Mediterranean, repairing, replacing and re-laying cable: Malta, Iraklion (Crete), Algiers, Port Said, Alexandria (naturally). Up and down the Suez Canal, as we worked (and boy! did we work!) in the Red Sea, liasing with Cable & Wireless in Port Sudan—strangely enough, I had been a 14 year old messenger boy for them during the London blitz, working out of their head office, Electra House on the Embankment.

For most of that last 20 months, in the heat and humidity of a cable tank in the Mediterranean, Suez, and the Red Sea, we were often worked six hours on and six hours off, brought about by so many of us keeling over. When we did stop for a breather, it was to run into Alexandria to have two new sets of bunks welded into the Seamen's Mess, and four extra hands added to our number. The Skipper told all of us at the time that I was the only one who had never collapsed from the working conditions.

I only got home—and demobbed, at last!—by “Throwing a Sicky.” I was put ashore at Ismailia, on the Suez Canal, because I was complaining of being DEAF in my right ear (I forgot to mention that I was born that way). Needless to say the old Army Colonel, a peace-time ENT Specialist, knew exactly what was wrong with me: “You want to go home, don’t you, lad” “Yes, please.” “Where’s your ship now, then?” “Probably somewhere down in the Red Sea, sir. We’ve been working down there for the last three months. It’s Bloody Hot, too, down in a cable tank in those conditions.” “Well, not to worry, old son, I’m sending you in the opposite direction, back to Blighty.”

And he did. I never joined another cable ship, although I didn’t leave the sea (Port Line meat boats mainly) until April 1949.

HMS St Margarets crew (with a smart-looking steward who jumped in) helping to discharge cable scrap in Alexandria. The local is the horse-cart driver who was taking it away.
Eric Tate is the "big lad" in the back row centre.

Copyright © 2007 Eric Tate & FTL Design

Last revised: 2 October, 2007

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