World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

C. Robinson

 

MY PART IN THE DOWNFALL OF A DICTATOR

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: C Robinson, Lieutenant Commander Viscount Jocelyn, Captain St John Micklethwaite, Alexandria, Egypt
Location of story: Scunthorpe, Chatham Barracks, Thurso, North Scotland, Scapa Flow, Atlantic, Gibraltar, Malta
Unit name: H.M.S. Ashanti, H.M.S. Sikh
Background to story: Royal Navy


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Marjorie Robinson.
MY PART IN THE DOWNFALL OF A DICTATOR - Part 1
by
Ex Leading Seaman C Robinson

In January 1939, 3 friends, all working in the steelworks at Scunthorpe, decided that wages of 4d (approx 1½ p) per hour was not good enough and decided that we would better ourselves by joining the Royal Navy. In early February, after passing 3 tests, intelligence and physical, I found myself on the way to Chatham Barracks. Sadly the other 2 failed the tests and I was on my own.

On February 15th 1939 I walked through the Barrack gates and became a new entrant in Duncan block. For 3 days we were treated like Royalty and had a rest room with settees and easy chairs. On the 4th day we signed on. Our life of ease was over, our training really began. About 30 of us became known as Class 30 in the care of Petty Officer Amos. We did the lot, seamanship, marching, gunnery, torpedoes, cooking, laundering, swimming, gym, rifle drill and last but not least, how to blanco belts and gaiters.

In mid August, we were marched to the dockyard where we had to ammunition H.M.S. Kelly. We knew then that it was for real and on September 3rd, war broke out. Shortly after, I was on my way to Thurso (North Scotland) in a train packed with new sailors. From Thurso to Scapa Flow on a ferry, my first time out of sight of land. We were deposited on the battleship H.M.S. Iron Duke to await our fate. The following day we drafted to the Tribal Class Destroyer H.M.S. Ashanti, which was to be my home till 1941. On that night we put to sea with the Home Fleet, searching for German surface raiders with no luck. The weather was atrocious and I was as sick as a dog for 7 days, but thankfully never again. We did many Atlantic convoys; dropped lots of depth charges but never saw a submarine although many merchant ships were sunk. One convoy I will always remember consisted of large passenger liners from the USA. There must have been thousands of servicemen on board. Thankfully they all arrived safely in the UK. We rescued a boatload of men in the Atlantic who had been adrift for a fortnight. They were starving, wet and cold, and no doubt pleased to see us.

We were in Scapa when a German submarine, which had penetrated the defences, sank H.M.S. Royal Oak and for 24 hours it was like hell let loose but the sub got away.

During my time on Ashanti, Germany invaded Norway. We did a few convoys to Norway, taking troops over and on one occasion at Aandelsness, our captain decided to put men ashore to boost the Norwegians and I found myself at the top of a mountain with a twin Lewis gun, guarding a railway line below; this was in about 6ins of snow. We were told that if we heard a train on the line, it would be German because they had taken the town further south. We did hear a train while on our way down the mountain; the Marines had taken over. I gather they were given a rough time too. Another time we and 3 other Tribals had to contain 5 German destroyers in Trondheim Fjord. We patrolled up and down for a week and every morning without fail, the Luftwaffe would come over and bomb us, always high altitude and we couldn't reach them with our 4.7's or Pom Poms, but we got quite good at taking evasive action. Eventually we left with the Germans still there.

Early one morning we left Rosyth to intercept a German convoy, steaming north along the Norwegian coast. Again 4 destroyers were led by H.M.S. Cossack; the convoy consisted of 4 merchant ships and 7 escorts. We approached them in the dark, circled them once and sank them all, then arrived back at Rosyth with no casualties.

My final voyage on Ashanti was from somewhere on the south coast to Newcastle, to screen the new battleship King George V down to Portsmouth. We never made it. Our leader H.M.S. Fame mistook a buoy and the two of us finished up on the beach at Whitburn near Sunderland. The local Home Guard thought the invasion had started and turned out in force, but a few choice words redirected their rifles. Eventually we were all taken ashore by Breeches Buoy and billeted in an old army camp, two fields up from the beach. We stayed there for 3 weeks, then took the long trail back to H.M.S. Pembroke Chatham by train.

During my time on Ashanti, I progressed from Ord Sea to Able Seaman. I had various jobs, the first being Quarter Deck Messenger from where I had my first brush with the captain for saying, "Yes Sir" instead of "Aye Aye Sir". He was a dead ringer for Charles Laughton, Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. A complete snob (in my opinion) but a good seaman. The 1st Lieutenant was a Viscount, Lieutenant Commander Viscount Jocelyn, later to become an Admiral. My action stations were Lookout and "B" Guns crew, both cold and wet more often than not. My first and only Jankers was on board her, 7 days for being late off leave. My train was diverted because of bombing to Falmouth via Bristol instead of direct. My punishment, while at sea, was to run backwards and forwards on the iron prom deck, rucksack on my back with a cannon ball in it. With the ship rolling, it was quite interesting and tiring.

The only other foreign country visited was Iceland and they didn't like us at all, if caught talking to us the girls had all their hair cut off.

In Pembroke it was back to Duncan block but in the Barrack Guard, which meant no sleeping down the Tunnel, which was a bonus. I became a sentry at the mouth of the Admiral’s tunnel, it was an all weather job doing the normal watches; very boring but with a bonus of occasional weekend leave.

Finally I got a draft to H.M.S. Sikh and re-commissioned her in South Shields on April 2nd 1941. She had been in dock for repairs after a collision with H.M.S. Mashona. After lots of activity, like storing and ammunitioning the ship, eventually, we went to sea, to that beautiful resort of Scapa Flow. We did many Atlantic convoys and Asdic sweeps. One of the convoys involved 35,000 troops on the way to Gibraltar. During this we heard that the Bismarck was out in the Denmark Strait, then that Hood had been sunk, the Prince of Wales was damaged and she was coming our way. The following day we sighted her on the horizon. Our gun layer reported that she was being bombed because he could see flashes; a minute later we knew he was wrong because her first salvo landed in our wake. Wonderful gunnery. For some reason, she did not continue the attack, but kept in close contact. There were 4 destroyers in the escort, Cossack, Sikh, Maori and Piorun (Polish). We were ordered to do a torpedo attack, which we did with anti personnel shells exploding above us all the time we were going in, fortunately we came out unscathed. The Piorun went in close enough to open up with machine guns, came out without damage and then had to return to the UK, she was short on fuel. That night, the BBC reported the attack but failed to mention Sikh, later it was found that they thought she had been sunk. Everyone knows the story of the final sinking and how the aircraft from the Ark Royal had damaged her steering gear, but we like to think it was us. We had a grandstand seat at the sinking; we saw many of her crew in the water but daren't stop to pick them up because of the presence of U Boats. This was true but it transpired they were returning to Brest and had no torpedoes left. After all that, we carried on to Gibraltar and became part of Admiral Sommervilles Force H. That is when my war really began.

From Gibraltar, we did convoys into the Atlantic and the Med. We also escorted the carriers Ark Royal, Eagle and Argus into the Med to fly off aircraft to Malta. On one of these operations, the Ark Royal was torpedoed 25 miles from Gibraltar. While sinking, aircraft were still landing on her, with difficulty of course. We went alongside and took off the Admiral, then full speed ahead to Gibraltar, put the Admiral ashore then back to the scene. At first we thought she would get back under her own steam, but for some reason, she increased speed and her bulkheads collapsed, resulting in her sinking. Later we had to take her survivors home to the UK, along with 3 other destroyers and the battleship H.M.S. Rodney. When we left Gibraltar, the sea was flat calm and slate grey and we knew it was going to be a difficult journey. The weather got worse and worse and by the time we got well into the Bay of Biscay, we couldn’t make headway with waves 40-50 ft high. Rodney being much bigger and more powerful, signalled "Up Yours," then he left, and arrived home safely. Meanwhile we wallowed in the storm and lost everything on the upper deck, including boats, guard rails etc. How the chefs managed I don' t know, but we did get hot food. This lasted for 3 days. Eventually we got under way again arriving in Falmouth 3 days later. We were flying our pennants, which were a bit tattered, and shore base enquired about the signal we were flying and the reply was that it was seaweed, not a signal.

After repairs and replacement of lost equipment, we proceeded to Londonderry where all the ammunition except that on the upper deck, was taken off and the magazines were then topped up with potatoes. From thereon the future was viewed with some trepidation and we had an idea that Malta might be our destination. Fortunately we were not attacked on the way to Gibraltar, we couldn't have spared the ammunition. At Gibraltar we re-fuelled and as previously thought, set off for Malta, along with 4 destroyers: Sikh, Maori, Legion and Isaac Sweers (Dutch). On our way we were informed that two 8ins Italian cruisers were in our way in the Pantellaria area. It was assumed that the two cruisers Alberico da Barbiano and Alberto da Guissano would reach Tripoli long before we arrived in the area. We were the lead ship with Commander Stokes in command, a brilliant tactician, but unfortunately, not in the best of health.

On arrival at Pantellaria we found that the cruisers had not gone on to Tripoli, but for some reason were now in our path. When we finally met up, it was dark but they were openly using their signal lamps. Commander Stokes took us into the lea of the land, albeit into a minefield, but although we could see them, they couldn't see us. We got to within 1 mile of them. We torpedoed the first one, the Maori and Legion the second, sinking them both. We later found they were carrying troops and aviation fuel on the upper deck. In total 14 torpedoes were fired and they lost 920 men. Then it was full speed to Malta where all the ships and St Angelo had cleared lower decks to cheer us in and for 2 days, we could do no wrong. Sikh’s name was to be seen on all the walls of Sliema and Valetta. All 4 destroyers were allowed to Splice the Mainbrace and for once we were recognised by the bigger ships and were invited to a film show on one of them. Big Deal. After this we were based at Malta for some time, doing escort duties, Asdic sweeps and bombardments.

Every day we, along with the Maltese, were bombed, every day and all day. On one of these attacks, we lost H.M.S. Maori, a bomb landed on her quarterdeck while she was secured to a buoy. About this time, Cdr Stokes had to leave us because of his continuing ill health. He did recover later on and was promoted deservedly to Admiral. Captain St John Micklethwaite, ex captain of Eskimo arrived on board with his staff and became Captain "D", which meant more red tape for us. On Sikh, my home was S Mess with Leading Sea RC Foster, known as Arsy, in charge. There was always mess savings at the end of the month, there had to be because such things as fish and chips was herring in tomato sauce to him. He later passed for P.O. and had to leave the ship. Many of my future friends were from S Mess, but sadly, now they have all crossed the Bar. I was later detailed to become a Quartermaster, there were two 1 Badgers and two 3 Badgers, lots of battles but a reasonably comfortable life, no getting soaked at sea, no scrubbing decks, chipping paint or painting etc. My action station was tray operator on Y gun, hydraulic but hard work. While in Malta the shortage of food affected us too and the staple diet was Corned Beef and Rice, with a small prize for the best concoction, but a good meal was always available down the Gut and we always said that what they served up was what they rescued from under our gash chutes.

Came the day we were transferred to Alexandria. On our arrival, Italian 2 man torpedoes crept in under us when the boom was opened, they put the battleships Valient and Queen Elizabeth on the bottom and did untold damage to tankers and other ships. They didn't bother with the French ships because they never went to sea. This action transferred sea dominance to the Italians; we were left with 2 or 3 cruisers and a few destroyers, on paper, no match for the powerful Italian Fleet. While based at Alex, we carried out bombardments of Libyan parts and Rhodes and 6 or 7 Malta convoys always with fast merchant ships carrying fuel and supplies. Always the bombing started as soon as we left harbour, we never had air protection.

Invariably we lost most of the merchant ships on the way but if one got through it was a bonus. Then, after 2 or 3 days in Malta, and the continual bombing, it was back to Alex also with continual bombing, always high level never Stukas. On one of these convoys the old battleship Centurion (now a target ship) sailed with us to attract the bombers; funnily they never went near her, I think their intelligence was better than ours. On another convoy, there were 2 cruisers (Arethusa was one of them) and 4 merchant ships in the centre, and 8 destroyers surrounding them as escorts. Near Malta we were attacked by torpedo bombers. One came in from astern and was repeatedly hit by shells and bullets, it eventually caught fire and tried to land on Arethusa’s fo’c’sle, but just failed. During this action I was hit in the small of the back with a primer from one of our own shells. The overlap on my rubber lifebelt saved me from any fractures etc., but it certainly took my breath away and I was excused all duties for 48 hours. Unbounded generosity!! I was inside the gun shield at the time and saw the primer coming, but it was faster than I was. After all this forced excitement we were occasionally sent to Cyprus for a 3-day rest. When there, we hadn't time to rest with such things as Brandy at 1 shilling (5p) a bottle and stacks of very salty peanuts to go with it. Also free transport in a pickup back to the ship when we hit the fresh air and fell over in a drunken stupor. It was a change from the bombs anyway, internal instead of external. Sometimes, during the day we drank neat orange juice. After the liquid fire it was beautiful. We could also buy a kit bag full of oranges for 5p; sadly they started to go rotten before I got to the bottom.

On our return to Alex, Rommel had started his push eventually being halted at El Alamein. The decision was made to evacuate and transfer everything to Haifa in what was then Palestine. While leaving, a tug alongside us hit a mine and we were showered with bits and pieces. Later the Depot ship was torpedoed and sunk by an Italian submarine and some sailors and wrens were killed in the water when depth charges were dropped. While at Haifa we did not do a lot of sea time. Then it happened, with Rommel still at Alamein, Tobruk had fallen and German eyes were on Alex and Cairo.

In the summer of 1942, another convoy of 4 fast merchant ships set of for Malta with 2 light cruisers and about 12 destroyers as escorts. During this operation we met the Italian fleet in the Gulf of Sirte. It consisted of 1 battleship, 2 heavy cruisers and 2 flotillas of destroyers. This had happened once before but then they ran away. The second time, now known as the Second Battle of Sirte, they stayed to fight, all the time trying to get between the convoy and Malta, but although we were heavily outgunned, we out manoeuvred them by using smoke screens and torpedoes. We were the leading ship while making smoke, so all the time, our bows were visible to the enemy and although there were no hits, salvos of 15 and Sins shells fell all around us. Those that fell ahead of us created huge holes in the sea which we seemed to fall in to.

During the action, which lasted all day, the bombers were always there and we did have casualties. The weather got worse and worse and at the end of the day, when it began to get dark and the winds increased to gale force, the Italians called off the action, they were not trained to fight in bad weather or at night. We did damage one of the cruisers and they hit two of the destroyers. Of the 4 merchant ships, one was sunk at sea and one was badly damaged and had to be beached. The other two got in to Valetta but were sunk at their mooring, all by the bombers. Our damage consisted of a few holes in the superstructure, but the force of the weather and 15ins shells had forced the messdeck stanchions in through the deckhead. On return to Alex we were undergoing repairs, a boiler clean and ammunitioning during which we had an emergency call and had to get to sea as quickly as possible. Four destroyers, Kipling, Lively, Jackal and Jervis had gone to intercept a convoy off the Libyan coast where they were attacked by 31 bombers, high level and Stukas. Three were sunk, only Jervis survived and we had to go and escort her and 63 survivors back to Alex, which we did with no further casualties.

Churchill decided that some good news was required for a change so he ordered an attempt to recapture Tobruk, using the destroyers Sikh and Zulu to carry and land 500 Marine Commandos, escorted by the old cruiser H.M.S. Coventry and a few other destroyers, MTB's and ML's. A joint operation with the army's Long Range Desert Group, the RAF and us. We did the initial training in the whaler which was stupid, and we trained with .45 revolvers, they were later changed because they were dum dum, to 1st World War Italian revolvers which were hopeless. We were given plywood boats, one powered to act as a tug, towing 2 dumb craft, all 3 loaded to the brim with marines plus 2 sailors, bow and stern men. The boats were crap and the whole plan in our opinion was impassable, although at the time we didn't know where we were going, we found out later, an Arab on the oiler told us. It was a disaster, the army did a good job and got inside Tobruk but not many got back to Alex. We were guided in to the wrong place, on to rocks instead of a sandy beach.

I was in one of the boats that was ordered back to the ship. On arrival I went to my action station, 'Y' gun, which was unusable because of all the equipment stacked around it. I then followed some marines into the port passageway at the same time as a blast from exploding cordite came in at the other end, blowing the marines to the deck with me underneath them. They saved my life; they were all very badly burned while just my hands and neck were burnt. The skin on my hands was hanging of like a glove but I was still alive. Meanwhile a shell had hit us in the Gearing Room, causing the lubrication system to fail and the engines to seize up. We were sitting ducks. Zulu tried to tow us out of it but a shell hit the bollard to which the tow line was attached and that was the end.

Zulu was ordered to leave and we fought on until we were like a pepper pot from the continual pounding from the shore batteries and aircraft. Eventually the order was given to abandon ship and after 3 hours in the water, we were picked up, some by the Italians, some by the Germans. Those picked up by the Germans were well treated but we, who were picked up by the Italians, didn't even get a drink of water. Naturally we all became POW's. Those uninjured went to Benghazi and from there to Camp 70 near Ancona, Italy. I was kept in hospital at Tobruk and my hands treated with Gentian Violet.

During my time in hospital the 8th army began their advance from El Alamein so we were moved back, staying in various camps like Benghazi, Derna and Ohms. This continued until we arrived in Tripoli. From there we were shipped over to Naples and deposited in Camp 66, A Transit Camp at Capua, a few miles north of Naples. I had been in the desert camps from September to December.

Life as a POW wasn't a bed of roses, the main problem being food, the shortage of. Bread bun and a small piece of cheese for breakfast, thin vegetable stew for dinner and whatever we could scrounge for tea and supper. We did get Red Cross food parcels, 1 between 2; they were good but didn't last very long. The second problem was those insect pests, crabs and lice, everyone had them. On a sunny afternoon we would sit in a row clearing the lice from the seams of our shirts. We didn't work because there was none to do. My day consisted of a brisk walk round the camp before breakfast, muster and head count by an Italian Sergeant Major who had lived in England for most of his life. Veg. stew at noon, delousing, another walk, a cup of ersatz coffee, made from acorns, then to bed and so on. I thought my war was over and life was going to be very boring until either we or Hitler won the war. Then the unheard of happened. The Italians had requested an exchange of some 700 plus sailors and I was one of the lucky ones. After weeks of rumours, we were mustered, about 20 of us, and marched all the way to Naples where we were put on to a cattle train and then to Bari on the other side of the country where once again, we met up with our other shipmates who were going home too.

We embarked on the hospital ship Gradisca and what we thought was a life of luxury began for us. Beds with clean white sheets and 2 white rolls per day and we didn't have to queue for them, they were brought to us. We weren't allowed out of bed. Then to Turkey where the exchange took place. We embarked on the S.S. Talma where we were supplied with food, warm clothing and other goodies, then set sail for Port Said where we were met by notaries and wrens with cups of tea and cakes. Then on to Alexandria and the camp, a Sidi Bishr where the process of rehabilitation commenced. First delousing and decrabbing which was heaven. We had the freedom of the camp and could go ashore at any time. Our target was always food and eventually, we began to look like spring onions. Our shore leave was limited and a sadist PTI was put in charge of us to get us fit before returning to the UK His favourite was to get us wheeling barrow loads of sand from here to there, then back from there to here. He did succeed and after 8 weeks of this, we travelled by train to Port Tewfic then on to the S.S. Isle de France starting a 26,000 mile journey home with no escort. We called at Durban, the Gold Coast and Rio de Janeiro before finally arriving at Granton on the Clyde. From there by train into Chatham dockyard to be met by those in charge, Jaunty's I think they were called. After a bit of ordering about they were politely told what to do and eventually I found myself in Duncan Block again, the start of another period of bringing a German Dictator to justice.

Prior to our Tobruk episode which was Sept 14th 1942, on Sept 9th on H.M.S. Cleopatra with a bit of help from a friendly signalman while doing Morse code, I passed for Leading Seaman. I didn't know whether or not I had passed until I got back to Chatham, but God bless them, their records were up to date and the back pay was there. I met up again with our old 30 Class instructor of 1939, now a Chief PO in the Barrack Guard, looking for wrong doers on the road between Duncan Block and the Main Gate. He did remember me because believe it or not, I was one of his few star pupils.
Again I got a job in the Barrack Guard, this time in charge of The Breakout Party which consisted of opening the lockers of ratings who didn't return from shore leave, collecting their gear and storing it. A cushy number but it passed the time on. I did this for 6 months, during which time I married Marjorie, as I promised, while a POW. This was during a weekend leave. Meanwhile I was drafted to a Fleet Minesweeper built at Blyth in Northumberland. A ship with a fancy name, H.M.S. Fancy. Again a trip by train up to Blyth and after many different kinds of trials we went to Tobermory to, amongst other things, learn how to sweep.

When proficient we travelled around a little and spent some time based at Harwich. Eventually we sailed into Portsmouth to prepare for D Day. We watched the build up and on 5th June, we sighed with relief, the operation was cancelled, but it was on again the next day. On 6th June we "led the way" to the French coast making it possible for the invasion. For us it was comparatively easy, but very tiring, always sweeping, always on the alert looking for aircraft, submarines and remote controlled motor boats loaded with explosives. At night we formed part of the perimeter guard. We did get back to Portsmouth occasionally but never stayed far long until Fred’s department broke down. Eventually, when things were going well, we were transferred to the Med. On our way to Gibraltar we escorted a floating dock but this later had to be sunk in the Bay of Biscay because of storm damage plus a few bumps.

We arrived at Malta and joined the 19th MSF doing sweeps around the island. Then to Italy, based at Ancona, sweeping channels to Trieste and Venice. During this time the war with Germany ended, my part I think, being well played towards the downfall of a Dictator.
On Fancy, I did various jobs, starting off as a postman, then Cox' n of the motorboat, Cox'n of the sea boats crew, Chief Quartermaster and finally i/c sweeping party. I left the ship in December 1945, spent 2 weeks in St Angelo then home to the UK. I was a short service rating 7 years on and 5 years reserve and on February 15th 1946 I completed my time. On 16th I travelled back to Doncaster to my wife and family who I had not seen since December 31st 1944.

My reward for all this was 6 medals, 4 Campaign medals plus Rosette on Atlantic Star, a minesweeping and war medal and a mention in Despatches for my services to minesweeping. Also I have the Malta medal, a Normandy medal, a Veteran’s medal supplied by Harry and also his wooden medal for being a humorist, which I value very much indeed.

I enjoyed my time on Fancy more than on the destroyers, probably because there wasn't time on them for enjoyment. The main thing being that I survived and the Dictator didn't.

Note:- The submarines that sunk the Ark Royal and the depot ship were both sunk later, one by one of our trawlers, the other by Hunt Class destroyers off Haifa. Revenge was ours.

Apologies for any errors like timing, sequences and spelling but after 58 years, my memory sometimes plays tricks on me, but I guarantee that everything I have written did happen.

Marjorie and I have been together 60 years this year, we are not quite as agile as we used to be but we have 3 sons and daughters in law who make a good job of looking after us.

Yours Aye

Ex Ldg Sea C Robinsan February 2003

PS While in the Barrack Guard the second time, I learned how to become a Fire-fighter, entering smoke filled buildings and carrying a 12 stone dummy down a 20 foot ladder. In view of the current situation, I think I missed my vocation.
Two books were written about our action at Tobruk. One of them quoting it as "organised chaos" and should never have happened.

They were:
Tobruk Commando by Gordon Landsborough
and
Massacre at Tobruk by Peter C Smith
the second title was the most appropriate.


Pr-BR