We were anchored off the port of St Helier, Jersey, swinging lazily around on the end of the cable that disappeared into the calm waters of the English Channel when the call to action came. It began, seemingly in the middle of the night and started out like one of those tension building scenes from a Hollywood film when, having been rudely woken from my slumber by a shot in the face from a torch, a disembodied voice in the darkness told me to get up quickly, adding, ominously, that there was a situation. As I rose from my bunk, groggy and baggy faced from sleep, it was clear that the entire gunners mess was being woken as other people were getting out of bed and all the lights were coming on. Immediately my imagination filled my head with thoughts of enemy action and approaching soviet fighters.
As I climbed out of my bunk, dragging my trousers on and looking around for my boots, I was reminded that there is a difference between a “situation” in Hollywood and a “situation” onboard a British warship, as someone round the back of the mess answered an unheard question. Sadly, there would be no soviet fighters.
“It’s Dan Dunn.” They said. “And he’s drunk.” The first part of the statement irritated me but frankly, the notion that a drunk Dan Dunn was the reason for my early rise struck terror into my heart. As I finished dressing and climbed the ladder to the next deck up, it was obvious I wasn’t the only one terrified at that notion as I was met by an unruly mob gathering at the top of the ladder. It appeared the entire watch on deck, gunners mess and Royal Marines detachment had been woken in response to an urgent call for assistance from the officer of the watch and they were all milling about, yawning, complaining and scratching in that manner that only newly wakened men with urgent business to attend to,can.
The bosun’s mate who had woken us all told us that along with the Officer of the Watch, he had been carrying out midnight rounds when they happened across Leading Seaman Dunn apparently busying himself with his duties on the quarterdeck. The officer had requested Dan to leave what he was doing, put himself to bed and go to sleep and Dan had merely ignored him, saying nothing but continuing to check over the life jackets that were stowed on the quarterdeck for use of the boats crew ferrying crewmen between the island and the ship. A second ignored request led to the officer withdrawing from the quarterdeck and ordering the bosun’s mate to go to the gunners mess and “get everyone”.
Here on the main drag, some of the marines had begun to arm themselves with fire extinguishers and samson bars which are hollow steel bars used for tightening the clips on watertight doors. Some dissenting voices pointed out how ridiculous it all was and that things were getting out of hand but they were ignored as the rest of the group “tooled up”. Eventually, the heavily armed press gang moved off en masse along the main drag towards the aft end of the ship and the quarterdeck.
I would estimate that there were perhaps twenty five people in the group and we filled the space as we moved quickly along the ship towards our hopefully unsuspecting prey.
Two compartments along, the on watch weapons engineer came down a ladder and was stopped in his tracks by the sight of the passing mob. Clearly surprised by the sight before him, he asked what was happening. By now, we were moving harmoniously as a group and like a murmuration of starlings, without verbal signals to give direction, we all stopped, abruptly, as one. “It’s Dan Dunn”. Someone replied, helpfully. “And he’s drunk” added another. The on watch weapons engineer replied gleefully “I have to see this!”. We moved off again without order and the weapons engineer slotted in at the back of the group as we headed off towards the quarterdeck. We then approached the Ship Control Centre and as we passed it, the on watch marine engineer stuck his head out into the corridor, shaking it when he saw what people were armed with and the group stopped again.
“What’s going on?” He enquired, casting his eye over the assembled, heavily armed crowd.
“It’s Dan Dunn.” Said someone at the front of the group. “He’s drunk.” The engineer apparently needed no further information and stepped out into the gathered throng. “Let’s go!” He said. “This, I gotta see”.
As we moved off again, some of the group began discussing what sort of injuries they might be inflicting on Dan once they saw him, as revenge for having them woken. Each addition to the discussion typically more fantastical and exaggerated than the previous one but as we neared the quarterdeck, the group became silent, each man quietly contemplating his existence and mortality.
At the quarterdeck airlock, just to the right of the door, there was a window for observing evolutions and it was here we encountered the officer of the watch, silently peering through the glass. In the gloom of the quarterdeck we could just make out the solitary figure of Dan Dunn, standing with his back to us, completely oblivious to the watching circus. Obstinate, overly talkative and absolutely huge in height and girth, he didn’t appear to have a neck, just a head that seemed to merge seamlessly with his barrel chest somewhere inside his thick beard. Over six feet both in height and circumference, he made Bluto look anorexic and would probably have shaken Popeye down for lunch money if he had an anti social bone in his body. Unfortunately, Dan’s bones were, if anything, overly social. I had once seen him carry on his half of a conversation with someone who got into bed, closed their curtain, turned off their bunk light and begun snoring. In short, he was a man mountain with absolutely no off button on anything. He was, in stature and personality, a combination of immovable object and unstoppable force. Unnecessarily, in my opinion, the officer of the watch pointed his finger in Dan’s direction and whispered “There he is”.
We immediately filed out as a group onto the quarterdeck where we formed a loose semi circle around the imposing figure of Dan Dunn, some of the braver ones amongst us, slapping samson bars menacingly into their open palms as a threatening gesture.
“Leading Seaman Dunn, I’m giving you one more chance to go to your bed peacefully before I am forced to take action” Barked the officer of the watch coming out of the quarterdeck door, presumably emboldened by the presence of twenty five or so vigilante sailors and marines. “Stop what you are doing, go to your messdeck and get your head down or….”
“Or what?” Dan interrupted as he turned slowly to face the group. Suddenly the atmosphere changed and it wasn’t funny any more. One of the marines told Dan he should just go to the mess and get his head down or we would make him.
“Go on then” challenged Dan. “Make me”. He stood before the group, defiant and certainly not about to comply with any direction given to him. The members of the group looked at Dan and then at each other, after all the bravado during the short trip, now unsure of themselves or what action to take. One of the marines began to approach Dan cautiously and this action was the catalyst that spurred everyone else on. The group slowly and apprehensively began to close the circle around Dan until, finally, someone shouted “get him” and like a rugby scrum, the group jumped onto Dan, attempting to take him down. Almost immediately, the group was thrown back again and in a move reminiscent of a low budget ninja movie, Dan was up and away displaying a speed of movement heretofore not seen and certainly not evinced by his stature. As he showed the group a clean pair of heels, he slammed the quarterdeck door behind him, spinning the securing wheel which closed the clips and we heard the dull thuds of other doors being slammed as Dan made good his escape along main drag away from the quarterdeck.
“After him” yelled the officer of the watch, like a Hollywood villain to his loyal minions. Our gang of henchmen immediately complied. The quarterdeck door was flung open and the group sprang through the door and into the airlock in pursuit of Dan Dunn, stopping briefly and bunching up as we opened the door into the ship. The next door was similarly opened and as we surged through, it became quickly apparent that no more doors had been closed and the chase came to an unexpected halt. We could see all the way along the main drag and there was no sight of Dan Dunn nor any more closed doors. At once a hush descended as the officer of the watch forced his way to the front of the group and everyone slowly looked to their right and the not quite closed door to the aft heads. As we swarmed into the corridor, packing it out, it seemed the enclosed nature of our environment that had formerly given us strength now became our weakness as it occurred to me that there was no escape and as a group we had become quite vulnerable in it’s uninviting confines. This thought had definitely crossed the minds of those closest to the door who now began attempting to back their way into the unyielding crowd who, understandably under the circumstances, began to push back.
An atmosphere of fear and dread now fell down amongst the jostling scrum and the bulkheads of the narrow corridor seemed to close around us, mixing with the sudden expectant silence to make the scene even more claustrophobic and terrifying. In the compartment behind the door, it seemed there was a sound, a squeak or perhaps a creak on the deck although it was also possible someone at the back was letting their fear get to them. Seeing that we were losing momentum, the officer of the watch yelled out in the silence, his aggressive tones echoing off the bulkheads and startling the group.
“You! Get in there and tell Leading Seaman Dunn to get out here now!” He ensured he had yelled it loud enough for Dan to hear, presumably hoping that Dan would accept he was surrounded and surrender to the terrified crowd filling the space outside the door. Unfortunately, he had also ordered what was probably the youngest, smallest and weakest looking individual among us to carry out the task. As the uniformed stick man reached out to push the door, all eyes were focused on the handle and the silence became oppressive. The thin bony hand of junior seaman twig pushed reluctantly at the door and as it cracked slowly open he spoke softly and deferentially.
“Leading Seaman Dunn?” As if he didn’t know he was in there, probably hoping he wasn’t. ”Leading Seaman Dunn? I think the officer of the watch wants you out here”. He enquired, obviously attempting to distance himself from the proceedings. He might well have added “It’s not me it’s them. I don’t want any trouble”. As soon as he finished speaking, he pulled back slightly from the door and this was enough to cause an overreaction amongst the waiting gang of cowards behind him. The group began to push and shove as they attempted to back away from the door. The suspense was almost hitchcockian and I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear someone quietly sobbing amongst the safety of the back row.
The silence was becoming too overbearing and it felt like something had to give as the young sailor began, tentatively, to reach out to the door a second time. The lack of response seemed to release some of the tension in the crowd and people began to lean forward again when there was a very sudden and very loud bang as the door was smashed open by what appeared to be a trapped brown bear in the after heads with one of the angriest faces I have ever seen. The bang was enough to make the group spring back with some degree of surprise and self preservation and as someone fell backwards through the open door behind us, a minor stampede was definitely in it’s embryonic stages.
“ RAAAAGGGGHHHHHH!” screamed Dan Dunn, throwing his arms up like a cat trying to make itself look bigger. It was, I thought, a redundant tactic. Some of the members of the group seemed to be joining in the screaming as Dan now pounced with cat like reflexes, forward and out of the heads, knocking people out of the way like tenpins and he was away again like Alf Tupper, making distance between us and him. There was a palpable feeling of relief that he had done so but this was quickly followed by a determination to finish the chase and so, although we appeared to have lost a few members to fear and exhaustion, the main body of the group took off after Leading Seaman Dunn who could be seen further forward, leaping the hatch thresholds like a thoroughbred enjoying a day at Aintree. Then, in the distance, a quick right turn and Dan was lost to view.
The loud clattering of boots along the deck was swiftly followed by the hollow clanging of boots on ladders as the group charged down and into the gunners mess. On arrival there was no sign of Dan and we made our way round to Dan’s bunk where we found his curtain closed and the sound of comedy snoring coming from the other side. Nobody dared to open the curtain and Dan didn’t respond to calls to confirm it was him but the officer of the watch came round, dabbing a handkerchief on his sweating brow. He looked ill but he also looked relieved to see that Dan was turned in for the night. The “situation” was declared officially over as he ordered the leading hand of the gunners mess to make sure Leading Seaman Dunn remained in his bunk and was monitored throughout the night because, as if we needed telling, Leading Seaman Dunn was drunk.