At the pinnacle of his two year National Service in the Royal Navy, David Canning was given standing watch at sea on his own – a position of great responsibility.
This was on board HMS Striker, ‘a fighting unit of 3500 tons’, in the Mediterranean with David responsible for decisions that had to be made.
“The Captain was of course at the end of a telephone and significant decisions were always communicated to him, but it felt very much that for four hours each day at sea, the ship was mine,” he says.
“I suppose in a sense that I had graduated.”
This achievement was all the more impressive considering David failed his navigation tests on the first sitting.
“I was a man of languages, I’m not a very good mathematician.
“But the Navy then did a very un-naval thing and gave us a second chance.”
Despite the second chance, he felt somewhat out of his depth when he was appointed to Navigating Officer.
Usually, National Service was completed in the Army, but David had gone to great lengths to serve his in the Navy.
His father was an Army man, indeed it was during his father’s posting to Alexandria in Egypt that David was born on 17th December 1930.
His younger brother Hugh also joined the Army, but significantly his twin brother Bill joined the Navy straight after school and that’s where David’s loyalties therefore lay.
It had been a different start in life for David, compared to his twin. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the knee when he was a toddler and had to spend more than two years in hospital with his leg in traction while his family was posted to Malta.
While he was perfectly happy during that time, he says he missed out on vital social training that being with his family would have provided and he thanks the great mentors at his Yorkshire boarding school, Sedbergh, for reining in his anti-social urges!
He became head boy and won a place at Oxford University to study Modern Languages, which is why he wanted to finish his degree before completing National Service.
David in 1951 aboard HMS Striker which was used as part of the Amphibious Warfare Squadron in Malta.
He volunteered for the Navy Reserves during the long summer breaks to ensure his spot in the Navy and he was accepted and soon found himself at the Royal Naval Barracks in Portsmouth in September 1952 for basic training.
“National Service was a great social leveller which threw together the butcher’s boy and Lord so-and-so from a great estate in Scotland, both in the rank of a Very Ordinary Seaman and dressed accordingly.
“We were all matelots of the lowest level, scrubbing decks at dawn, but it was all good and necessary,” he says.
His superiors obviously spotted David’s potential, despite him failing his seamanship test, he was appointed to HMS Reggio, part of the Amphibious Warfare Squadron in Malta.
While many ships returned to England to mark the Queen’s coronation, David’s ship stayed back at Port Said since troubles were flaring up in Egypt and a presence was needed to ensure the safe passage of British ships through the Suez Canal.
“It was known that frogmen were active in Port Said so we primed grenades in readiness for dropping over the side while at anchor.
“It was little more than moral support for the British vessels but it gave a touch of purpose to the job, and Reggio duly returned to base with no shot fired in anger.”
But then became his biggest challenge, with his appointment to Navigating Officer aboard HMS Striker which required absolute precision and certainty with the use of the sextant.
This was needed to successfully plot the ship onto the target and calculate the critical moment that the stern anchor needed to be dropped, often on a moonless night while on a blacked out ship.
It was his success with this, albeit feeling like a ‘special kind of nightmare’ that led to David’s watch responsibilities and later, an invitation to stay on in the Navy.
However, he turned it down, leaving success with the Navy to his brother Bill, and turning instead to education and using the amazing mentoring he’d experienced to pass on to his charges as housemaster at King’s College when he later moved to New Zealand.
He continued to volunteer for the Navy reserves for a few years in his new country and to this day takes an active role in Anzac commemorations, most recently in the village.