Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
The Tale of a Cat
He served in the Royal Australian Navy
His name was "Pancho", short for Pancho Villa, the Mexican Bandit. Pancho was a very well built Tom Cat. His hair was dark ginger bordering on black and was the same colour all over. He knew his name too, for when anyone called "Come on Pancho" he would look up with those big brown eyes, just as if he knew.
From whence he came, no one knew, but probably on a Destroyer. He soon found out that there was no love life on a warship and, when alongside at Garden Island, either by instinct or smell, he found out that there was a harem of Lady Cats on shore. Pancho needed no second invitation and gave himself a "Pierhead Draft" to Garden Island.
The cats were very welcome on the island for, besides the signal station and a few official residences, there was Naval Stores, and where there was stores and food there were rats and mice. Therefore all the Cats were put on strength and more than encouraged.
For a cat to catch a mouse was like roast duck for lunch, and Pancho was known to bring in a dead rat, held by the scruff of the neck, and lay it at the foot of a workman as if to say: "There, I am earning my keep."
Pancho was a most loving cat and whenever a destroyer was alongside it took him about a week to learn of its presence. Usually, about 11.30, he would wend his way through the dockside and down to the wharf, over the ship's gangway and begin to walk forward. He never got far before someone on deck spotted him and calling: "Well, it's Pancho" he would stop and look up, waiting to be picked up, and would then be picked up. He would, out of habit, put his two front legs on your shoulder and squat there, hanging on. There would be a deep throated purr coming out of his throat, and he then rubbed his nice cat face along your cheek and rub his whiskers on your nose and chin, pausing occasionally to look into your face with those large brown eyes. He would then be carried on to the Mess deck and be given a drink of milk and a feed. He knew this and that is why he came.
Now it would be provident at this time to explain the period whence Pancho was around. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was in the making. Two pylons only stood out on either side of the harbour, with a little steel work starting to show. Circular Quay was as busy as ever with harbour traffic, and on the west side of the quay was a point of land called "Benelong Point". This was a covered in Tram Cabin, where the city trams came to rest up for the night. At the western base of Benelong Point was a little boat haven and a set of steps as a landing for boats. This was "Man o' War Steps". Next west of here was a large cove in the harbour. This was called "Farm Cove" and moored right in the middle was a large buoy. This was the Navy's No.1 Buoy in which the flagship, at that time H.M.A.S. Canberra, would moor to when the fleet was in harbour.
On the western side of Farm Cove was a headland jutting out a little which was called the Domain and sometimes "Lady McQuarry's Chair". There were shady trees and seats and the headland afforded a nice view of the activities around the harbour. On the Farm Cove side of the Domain and lower down were some shallow caves.
At this time, it was the depression years and there were many unfortunate people who were out of work and with no home to go to. At night they found their way to these caves in the Domain to sleep the night, covering themselves with newspapers to keep warm.
Now it so happened at this time that H.M.A.S. Canberra was in harbour and moored to No.1 buoy. Breakfast was just over and in the galley there was a surplus of left overs such as two dozen sausages, some fried onions, bubble and squeak. Instead of being thrown out this food was placed in a dispersible container and somehow half a dozen slices of buttered bread found its way into the package and this was all put into a clean tea towel and the food was then taken down to the ships pinnace. Permission was then asked from the Officer of the Watch to take the food parcel over to the poor unfortunate Dossers. Resting her nose on the deep shoreline and calling out "A parcel for you" soon brought a quick response. With much and many profuse "thanks" the bonanza was accepted, and the pinnace returned to the ship.
Next west of the Domain was the deep water entrance to Wooloomaloo Harbour. Then next west, standing out on its own, was the Royal Australian Naval establishment of Garden Island.
Now, on this occasion, the Old V. and W. destroyer "Voyager" was alongside at Garden Island. Voyager was the only destroyer in commission and then only with 60% complement. She was the emergency destroyer and general runabout for the Fleet. She was spick and span now but when she had entered Sydney Harbour, ten days before, nobody would have owned her except us, the crew, who knew her every mood.
A few months prior to this we had been down to Jervis Bay with the "Big Boys" doing manoeuvres, evolutions and exercises. We, on Voyager, towed target, chased torpedoes, delivered mail and made ourselves useful. After this it was back to Sydney for a month or so.
It was now for the Spring cruise in September or thereabouts. We looked forward to this because it took place up the Queensland coast in the Tropics. There were exercises on the way and visits into Queensland towns , but the climax came in the top end of the Barrier Reef when Canberra and Australia bombarded Lizard Island.
Voyager landed the First Lieutenant, Lt. Lewis, and myself, who was the P.O. Gunners Mate of Voyager on Lizard Island, to record and report on the fall of shot. We shooed a few large bats out of a cave above the target area and settled down to spot and record.
The cruisers were only a speck in the distance but the 'boom' came and the 8" practice shells began to fall in the designated area. The bombardment was spectacular and a success and se we returned to our shop and the Spring cruise finished. The Big Boys went on their way, visiting places further north, while we, on Voyager, wended our way leisurely back to Sydney.
Our routine was to get under way about 0600 and proceed at slow economical speed till noon, then anchor at some pre-arranged spot, such as an Island or bay. The first little Island was "Snapper Island" and the go ashore party found a grove of Paw Paw trees in the middle of the isle. Some of the Paw Paw fruit at the top were showing ripe. A sharp rap on the tree trunk and down they came. This fruit was a welcome diet from what we had been having, but the next day our tummies let us know not to indulge too heavily on Paw Paw again. So we proceeded southward to Cid Harbour, Whitsunday, and about a week later we were at the southern end and anchored off Palm Island. With the ship's whaler and motor boat we had just pulled in to the nice white sandy beach, a good haul of fish with the ship's seining net, when the Voyager's siren began to "Whoop, Whoop, Whoop". This was an immediate recall.
Bundling everything into the whaler, the motor boat towed us back. Boats were hoisted and everything secured, then sturdy old Voyager worked up to 30 odd knots back to Sydney. It was reasonably calm weather until we got to the Hervey Bay area, then we ran into some bad weather for about 24 hours. With a great sigh of relief we entered Sydney Heads and into the calm waters again, passing Curl Curl beach, the Manly Ferry and, rounding the Sow and Pigs at slow speed, we approached Bradleys Head. Here we noticed, and gave a silent prayer to, the steel tripod mast of the old H.M.A.S. Sydney (of Emden fame which, when Sydney, was scrapped) which was mounted on the point of Bradleys Head. Turning to starboard, we approached Pinchgut (Fort Denison) and made our way to the destroyers' berth at Garden Island.
A welcome spell of peace and relaxation - or was it? The ship was filthy. It took us two weeks to clean ship, wash all the salt off the forward end, scraped all what was left of the paint on the blistered funnels and repaint, as well as oil, provision, and top up with ammunition. We had lost some shells from the for'd ready use rack and now the old Voyager was her clean self again.
It was a peaceful, sunny, Friday afternoon. The ship was clean and the time 11.30 a.m. The port side deck hands were killing time as they waited for lunch when one of them managed to glance into the dockyard and said: "Hey, look. Here comes Pancho". And sure enough, after a fortnight Pancho had sniffed out the ship and was on his way to pay a visit. A welcome one too. We all loved Pancho.
He would never come in a straight line but would come at an angle, first sniffing at a heap of packing cases, then to some empty oil drums, and so on till he reached the wharf. Here was a big steel bollard to which the ship breast mooring lines were attached. He had a good sniff at the bollard, then turned his rear portion to the target and began emitting a long thin stream of urine. With the pressure he was putting on, his back legs began to tremble and then left the ground. This raised a good laugh from the deck hands. Pancho's back legs then came down to earth as the performance ceased, but he turned around and had a good sniff. Satisfied, he turned and made for the Voyager's gangway. The gangway was a flat series of boards, about 8 feet long by 4 feet wide with a handrail on either side.
Pancho strolled across, as he had done many times before. As he came off the gangway on to the iron deck, he heard a slopping, sniffing sound. He looked to his right, in amidships, and became petrified with fright. For there, just two feet away, was a deadly enemy - a big flat faced Bulldog.
A Tomcat against a big hulking Bulldog was not fair odds, so Pancho turned to face the danger and crouched as he did so.
Now the Bulldog was the family pet of Sub Lieutenant Peel who, being Duty Officer that day, had brought the family pet along for an outing. The dog was a tame old fellow, wouldn't hurt a fly, but he looked the part. Pancho didn't know this and took him at his face value. The dog never moved. He was squatted with his face on his front paws. His lower jaw protruded slightly, showing two white tusker teeth. His nose was moist and his eyes were glaring like two searchlight beams onto Pancho's face. The only movement came from his eyelids which blinked occasionally. But Pancho began a crouching retreat, backing slowly as he retreated. Front foot, back foot, then the opposite side legs. Slowly back on the upper deck.
Suddenly his hind legs encountered only thin air and the momentum was carrying him backwards. The upper deck had finished and ship's sides began. The front claws came out, but to no avail on the iron deck, and Pancho disappeared into the briny down below.
Now to keep the ship's sides away from the wharf, a distance of about three feet, were a series of pontoons and trapped in-between was the debris. In this case about 2 inches of furnace oil from a spill, some empty tins, a bottle and other rubbish. Pancho fell into this and sank about 6 inches. With a thrashing of his four legs, Pancho surfaced. The four deck hands rushed to the ship's side, in anguish, to see that the little cat face, covered in oil, had come to the surface. Barely able to see, Pancho spotted the pontoon just two feet away and cat paddled his way to it. With Herculean effort, and a grip with the front claws, he pulled his way onto the pontoon. There he crouched, shivering, either from fright or cold - a poor little half drowned cat!
One of the bare footed lads lowered himself through the guardrails over the side and onto the pontoon. He reached down and squeezed Pancho from head to tail. This got rid of some salt water and oil. He then lifted Pancho by the belly up to willing hands on deck. Pancho was stood on deck and he seemed to know that he was safe as he gazed at his helpers. A deck bucket was then produced and filled with fresh water, and the steam line put in to heat it. The cleaning rags bag produced the cloth and the cat cleaning process began. After two buckets of fairly warm water not much progress had been made against the oil. Then a cake of Palmolive soap was introduced. The soap started to have some effect and the oil started to dissolve. It had to be done by sections - first his face and the front part, then that was washed with warm water. More hot water was then produced and the soaping-washing process continued. One pair of hands held Pancho while the process of soaping and washing was done.
At long last, the cat cleaning process was completed and, while his fur was wet, he was as clean as the day that he was born - not a flea or a grain of sand. Our Pancho was then stood in a dry spot on the iron deck. A saucer was placed in front of Pancho and filled with Lifeguard milk. Pancho knew what this was and knew how to deal with it. The little face went down, then the pink tongue got to work with the end of the tongue bending backwards to ladle the milk into his mouth.
Meanwhile, in the galley, the two chefs had just removed the four baked dinners from the oven. Roast beef and baked potatoes and cabbage. A knife was produced and what was supposed to be an unwanted piece of beef was removed from each piece of meat as well as a surplus baked potato. All this was cut up small, then some of the delicious 'Gravox' gravy added to the meal and it was put on one side to await our guest. The upper deck was then cleaned up from all traces of the oil. With a couple of pauses and a sneeze in between laps to clear his nose, Pancho drank the last of the milk, and then licked the saucer clean. One of the boys remarked: "The saucer is so clean it doesn't have to be washed". Pancho was then picked up and, with the usual claws on the shoulder, he rubbed face against his carrier's face. He was carried into the mess deck and stood on a clean piece of cleaning rag on the wooden grating which surrounds the Capstan Engine. His meal was then placed before him and the saucer replenished with milk and he was left to his own devices while the hands went to dinner.
When the crew went to work at 1300, Pancho had cleaned up the meal and was preparing for a well earned Cat Nap.
At 1600, when the working day finished, Pancho was taken in hand again. His coat was brushed and dried and our dear little cat was back to normal. He was then picked up and clung on in the usual manner on the shoulder and carried down the deck, past the Bulldog, over the gangway and out into the dockyard. He was sat on a box or crate where he rubbed his whiskers and looked up at his helper as if to say "Thank you very much". He was left then to go about his lawful occasions. He never came onto the ship when we were in port for a long time but was seen a few times in the distance, and was once carried on board and give a meal.
Many years have now passed since this near loss of our dear Pancho. In the passing of hears a war has come and gone. In thinking back of our dear Pancho us oldies, who knew him, reckoned that he should have been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his work in keeping don the rat and mouse population on Garden Island. After all, who else could have done it? It would have been nice to see a little collar around his neck with a bronze medal attached saying: "Pancho Villa, for distinguished service". It is too late now. Pancho is up in Cats' Heaven with his original harem. But there is still a way that the Naval powers that be can "In their wisdom" commemorate the activities of our wonderful little feline and that way is to name a warship after him. Maybe a small shop. Just imagine H.M.A.S. Pancho and the ship's crest depicting a full frontal of Pancho's face with the mouth slightly open, showing the fangs, ready for action, and on each side his front legs with the fighting claws exposed and the figure surrounded by these Latin words:
Thus ends the true story of an almost human cat which served in that great service - the Royal Australian Navy.