World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                      James Renshaw 

The War In Norway And Sweden, Part Two

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: James Renshaw, Stanley Cook
Location of story: Norway, Sweden, Scotland and Plymouth, England
Background to story: Royal Navy

 

I was born in Sheffield. After an uneventful youth, I decided to join the Navy. My brother and I applied through the recruitment office; he failed and I was successful, so I finished up with a ticket to go up to Manchester to join the recruitment group, and I was sent down to Plymouth, in the Royal Navy. After my six months’ training, I was shipped out to the Mediterranean, to join a ship that had just been sunk. This is still actually in peacetime; it was the H.M.S. Hunter, and she was reputed to have hit a mine, but she sank down to a floating level. I joined her when she had been rebuilt.

 

The first journey that we had was to join the Spanish Revolution that was taking place. We clued up in Barcelona and took out the British Consul and all of his employees, because Barcelona was being bombed. We had one attack, which was by small Italian fighter planes. Meanwhile, the Germans were practicing their bombing technique on the poor Spaniards. After that, we did a cruise of the Mediterranean, then came home to Plymouth, and whilst we were back in Plymouth, restoring, threats from Adolph Hitler came along, and the ship finished up joining the South Atlantic Fleet to cut off two ships that were going to cut the trans-Atlantic cable. From that, we started doing convoy duty from Halifax Nova Scotia, in Canada, to Bermuda, picking up cargo ships, grouping them in Nova Scotia, for the journey across the North Atlantic.

 

During this, we got into a hurricane, and we had to be convoyed ourselves, as we were so damaged. After arriving in Plymouth again and being repaired, we went to cruise the North Atlantic again, and whilst we were doing the Iceland and Beyer Island run, we had a signal sent to us, to say that the Germans were invading Northern Norway, and would we kindly go up there and give them a thrashing? But it didn’t work out that way; being a junior member of the ship’s company, I was supplied with nothing more than an empty revolver. On querying as to what I was supposed to do with this thing, I was told that I’d be given ammunition when we arrived in Norway. Meanwhile, if I got into any trouble, I was to swing it around my neck.

 

Anyway, the boat landing never came in. Whilst we were off Lofoten Island, where we’d gone to escort four mine-laying cruisers, we heard that the Germans were in Narvik and we were asked to kindly go in and sort them out. So on the tenth of April, at 4 a.m., we dashed into Narvik harbour, where there were twelve destroyers, each one with it’s own cover behind a merchant ship. Anyway, we sank four of them, then our captains decided we’d go in for a second helping, so we went in again, and by this time, the Germans were up and about, making certain alterations to their positions, We charged in and Hardy, the sister ship of The Hunter, was driven aground. My ship, having learners aboard, was having a bit of difficulty with the smokescreen.

 

There will be no record of this anywhere, not even the Admiralty will admit it, but we had quite a few greenhorns (rookies) with us, and they were given responsible jobs such as setting off the smokescreens. Now, there were three smokescreens on the destroyer, one is on deck, one is below deck and the other is the funnels themselves. This young lad, he lit a large canister, the size of a dustbin, but he didn’t have the strength to push it overboard, thereby ending the smokescreen. So now we’re trailing around Narvik Harbour with our smokescreen coming behind us.

 

Smokescreens are produced to go into and out of, and our following destroyer went in and out of ours, but on coming out, it plunged into the Hunter, virtually cutting her in two. I was down in the shell room supplying the ammunition, when all of a sudden, a shout went out, “ABANDON SHIP!!” I was very cautious of abandoning ship in twelve degrees below freezing, because Narvik is an ice-free harbour; the tide is so strong that ice cannot form. Anyway, I got into a life raft, and that was the last I could remember until I found myself aboard a German ship. It was a whaler called the Jan Wellen.

 

We finished up as Prisoners Of War under the Germans in a schoolroom, high upon a hill overlooking Narvik Harbour. We had to join a couple of hundred Merchant Navy seamen, whose ships had been captured whilst anchored in Narvik, but that wasn’t the end of it. They decided that we were to be shipped out, because they couldn’t feed us; there was no food in northern Norway, so we were to be shipped over the border into Sweden, then into concentration. We joined a parade comprising seamen, sailors, Norwegian seamen, Norwegian fishermen on a death march from Narvik to Bejer Mountain, which is on the border between Norway and Sweden. It’s a posh ski hotel. Now, I, being who I am, decided that whilst we were in this hotel, we’d make the most of what we could, so I ventures into the bowels of the hotel, the basement. Of all things, I found a box with about a gross of unusually shaped chocolate bars.

 

A chocolate bar in Norway and Sweden in those days was finger shaped, not a slab. Anyway, I finished up with these bars, plus two oranges. I took ‘em up to what we were using as sleeping quarters and I was forced to give them out to the ship’s company. This led to me being the urchin of the gang. I finally had to entrain with the land storm from Sweden, which is the equivalent of the W.V.S., who gave us tea, cigarettes and other things. We were locked in railway coaches for a journey across Sweden. Various tactics were used to find out in which direction we were going, e.g.: if the sun is over here, the shadows will be over there, so early morning, we were heading eastwards. We arrived at a little church in a village called Gunarn.

 

I became friendly with a little girl from outside of the barbed wire; she taught me Swedish. She wished to learn English and I wanted to learn Swedish, so between the two of us, we managed to make something of it. I learnt quite a lot, but the company we had, was taken away to another camp, because even being Navy trained, as I am, we were just that little bit above the standard required. We were then kept in one block; the Merchant Navy men all disappeared, we don’t know where they went. The next move was, the church authority decided we had been there long enough. It was a brand new church, it wasn’t blessed or anything. We had to go to another camp down in Helsingmo, which is another prison camp. Now there, I met up with a young lady, a head mistress of the local school who wished to learn English. Now, some of the features of this co-operation were quite unique.

 

I was taken in, and the family that took me in, clothed me and fed me to a standard that was way above that which my shipmates were receiving. I was accepted into the family. The reason being, was that whilst we in England, buy the Christmas turkey, they purchase a suckling pig. A huge van comes round, selling these suckling pigs, and the pigs are fed on table scraps until Christmas. Come Christmas, it gets the chop. They were all leaning over the sty where the pig is kept and the owner of the pig is crying his eyes out. “The pig is dying, the pig is dying,” was all I could get out of him. The pig was over here, then over there and it was shivering and they couldn’t figure out why.

 

I found the answer; I shoved my hand into the straw and found that it was wet. So, we took out the wet straw and replaced it with dry straw, in goes the pig and there goes another medal for me. I was the hero of the village at the time. Now, I was beginning to learn how to ski and all those other things that rich people do. I was becoming a local figure, insomuch as when we had our next move to a nearer camp, I was taken away for a holiday back to the first camp. Meanwhile, the British Consulate decided that we couldn’t run around like this, we’d have to be more suitably dressed.

 

Being Englishmen, we were brought under the spotlight by the newspapers, and we were to be more suitably dresses. He never mentioned the fact that the supplies in our camp were the remnants of the 1914 – 18 situation. And you can imagine a chief stoker riding on the back of a horse, with an umbrella up and a bowler hat on; I personally had a velvet suit. But they decided that we should be measured and supplied with the necessary kit, so we all in turn received two grey shirts, a pair of grey trousers, shoes we had to provide ourselves; but we got this kit and we were beginning to look a little bit smart. That wasn’t the end of it; we knew there was something behind it. Now, 2 ½ years are going by now, and I couldn’t get home, there was no outlet, yet it was a situation where Sweden was neutral. So the British Consulate came up with a system: they’d have three high speed boats, and they would dash in through the Skagerrak, into Gothenburg, load up during the night, with butter and coffee, dash out again, loaded with ball bearings and various other hardware pieces.

 

They were running back with these small motor launches across the Kattegat, then the Skagerrak, into the North Sea and back to Newcastle. So he told them of this idea that in the harbour of Norway, in the Baltic Sea, there are numerous forts in which there were English owned cargo ships with no crews because they’d been imprisoned, so, would we man them? Well, obviously, yes, we’ll man ‘em. We navy men were given a job of fitting all these appliances that the navy could supply. I had a twin Lewis gun, 14 – 18 war vintage, two large sugar boxes full of ammunition, two rocket launchers on the roof, which, at the pull of a string, would launch rockets, which would open out a parachute with dangling wires, and they were supposed to make the planes run into them, but they were a total failure. Anyway, I left that particular ship, did all the necessary alterations, and being the leader of the band, I was given the job of testing by a firm called, Trellyborne Gummy Fabriek which is Swedish for Trellyborne Rubber Factory.

 

They’d invented a survival suit. Now this survival suit consists of a boiler suit in rubber, with gloves welded on, feet welded on, and a double zip up the front, one in brass followed by another one that closed two rubber grommets together. I had to test these, so we blasted a hole in the ice, whilst we were alongside, and I had the job of getting into the 20 feet thickness of ice, getting in and testing the suits. They were remarkably good, but extremely bulky, and they had a hood. When it came to personal use, you had to take your arm out of the sleeve; if you could get your arm out of the sleeve you could get it into your trousers pockets, and you’d have a kidney shaped flask. It wasn’t to drink out of, it was for other purposes.

 

It was designed to facilitate urination. Anyway, I finished up having to take six Lascars (Indians) as passengers. Now of six Lascars in that day, five would be workmen, one would be the boss man who would be in charge of the other five. He’d be collecting their wages and sharing out, and providing for their religious beliefs and all that. I had to train them how to put the suits on in an emergency. Anyway, came the day that we had to sail, so, there were twelve ships. I have a list and a certificate signed by Sir George Binney. He ran a system from whence we get the Binney Medal. He organised all these ships to come together, of from Gothenburg, and sailed together behind the icepack. But the big ships go in first, breaking the ice. Three of the ships did manage to make it to Newcastle. The one I was in, which carried Sir George Binney, was H.M.S. Dicto, the M.V. Dicto. Several of the ships, I still have the names of them, we had a wine carrier a Charente, which is a district in France, B.P. Newton, which was an oil tanker.

 

The one I was on, H.M.S. Dicto, was a one-passage ship, she made one passage to South America, and they’d loaded the fuel carrying cargo holds with wheat, so there was wheat everywhere. There was no room at all for oil. She was imprisoned in a port much further up the harbour, in the Baltic. Anyway, we all gathered together and at four o’clock, we had the orders to sail. The unfortunate part about it was that the pilot who was to take us out to sea, had bought a local newspaper, and that paper reported the fact that the English ships were sailing. So all the Germans had to do was to come out and wait for us behind the ice. The first few ships were sunk, two or three of them got through, three of ‘em were captured and they finished up in Germany. The one I was on, because I had the chief with me, turned around in the ice, being a big ship, and finished up back in Gothenburg. The following day, there was a ruckus in the paper, “Why let these ships go?” I was called up with a friend of mine, to go to the Consul’s office.

 

Now, we were living in the Salvation Army in Stockholm, and we had to turn up every day to see the Consul. I ran out, having only two shirts and one only has two collars, so I ended up wearing a silk scarf. The Consul called us in one at a time, and queried, “Why are you wearing a scarf, where’s your collar and tie?” I explained to him that I had one collar in the wash, and the other was dirty. “Well,” he said, “this won’t do y’know, you represent England, you know. Get that muffler off, and be available at six o’clock tonight.”

 

I’d had 2 ½ years in Sweden now, no sign or sight of anybody doing anything for me. We waited until six o’clock, then suddenly there’s a knock on the door. So we opened the door and there was a fellow in a chauffeur’s uniform. So we gathered what few belongings we had; I was in a trilby hat, burgundy raincoat, silk scarf and collars in my pocket, and any toiletries that I had. He said, “Jump in the car.” So we jumped into the car. It was absolutely black, we didn’t know where we were, we didn’t know where we were going, all we knew was that we were in the taxi. So we finally pulled up outside a door, so we rushed in and when we got in, there were two Norwegian gentlemen, young seamen, and we all got chatting. We didn’t know what we were there for. The fellow came back again and said, “Right, go in there and sit yourself down.”

 

Now, in there, was a Pilots’ dressing Room. There was everything from helmets, to flying boots to jackets. So, what do we do with all that? Well, we got rigged up in all this lot and his last words were, “Watch out there, and when you see a flashing light, run, and run like you’ve never run before.” So we’re all sitting around waiting, and all of a sudden, a light flashed, and we all rushed across the tarmac, and we came to a Wellington Bomber with its side door open. We were virtually pulled in by an airman, and he said, “Sit there, sit there, sit there. That’s your seat and that’s your toilet, there’s a pack of sandwiches and there’s your coffee.

 

When I go like this, pull your masks down and put them on.” So, we’re all sitting there, locked in, not knowing what to do. I wasn’t going to move off my seat for that toilet anyway. So, we could hear a rumbling and we knew we were under way; we knew we were going north. We flew up and finally climbed above the height of the German fighter planes from northern Norway, up towards the North Pole and came down into Scotland, where we landed. In the meantime, I was ‘took short’ because cold weather is a natural laxative.

 

Anyway, we arrived at an airport in Scotland, and I jumped out and opened my bowels right there on Scottish soil. We were then shepherded again, into the Officers’ mess, but they couldn’t accommodate us lying down, but we could use the lounge. Come next morning, someone decided we should have breakfast. Now, we found it very peculiar that a fighter pilot should have to pay for his breakfast; all the pilots from the fighter squad had to go in and buy their food.

 

Anyway, we had a jolly good breakfast, y’know, we had not seen eggs and anything like that. So, a young fellow came round and wanted money. We’d no money, we’d just been in Sweden, so he said, “Somebody will have to sign for it.” So I signed my name for four breakfasts and four railway tickets from Scotland. By dawn, we’d both decided, Stanley and I, that we’d both go back and report to the navy. We were kept incarcerated for a couple of hours until the big navy boss came. He took me to one side and he said, “Who won the cricket match at Lords this year?”

 

We had been in contact with nothing, absolutely nothing. “Who won the cup then? Who won the Derby race meeting? “ I said, “I know nothing about any of that.” “Alright,” he said, “who’s that other bloke outside?” I said, “That’s my mate, Stanley Cooke, a seaman wi’ me. He’s been wi’ me for the last 2 ½ years.” “OK,” he said, “now you go out through that door there.” So I went out through that door there, then he called Stanley in and asked him the same questions, the final one being, “Who’s that bloke in that room there?” “That’s Jim Renshaw,” he said, “I’ve been with him for 2 ½ years.” So they finally decided that, yes, we are English, yes we are navy men.

 

“Oh, by the way,” he said, “don’t forget to report back down to barracks.” Now, we’d got to go from Scotland, on a wartime train down to Plymouth. It took us 24 hours to get to Plymouth. I obviously went to my fiancée’s house, much to her surprise Well, we decided that we’d report in at 9 o’clock in the morning, so I went to see the bloke, I went in on my own. He said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Jim Renshaw.” “What’s yer number?” I gave him my number, my service number. “What ship?” and I told him. “Are you sure?” “Yes!” “Who’s that fella out there?” I said, “That’s Stanley Cook. He’s been wi’ me for the last 2 ½ years. “Alright,” he said, “Oh,” he said, “before you go, come back Monday,” he said, “and have yer bloody hair cut.”

 

That was my greeting. And Stanley had to go through the whole lot too. Anyway, I rejoined the navy, and they were gathering the remainders of 45 survivors. They got them out from Sweden one way, and they got them out in other different ways and they got the whole 45 seamen there, doing one particular job. The job was cleaning out female gas masks. Of course, females used gasmasks as handbags as well, and what we turned out of those handbags was nobody’s business. A lot of rude stuff there was. We were there for weeks, following the same routine, doing nothing, because we’d signed the treaty. We signed that, declaring that we would not fight any more Germans. They’d taken our fingerprints, and if we were caught again, we’d be shot.

 

We finally finished up back in the navy and there was so little that they could do with us, that they had to discharge us. So I was one of the few discharged. Unfortunately, one of my other shipmates was on one of the other craft that was captured and he finished his time in Germany as a prisoner of war. I never saw Germany as a prisoner of war, I saw it in Norway. It’s an experience you have to live through to understand it. I eventually got married and I then joined the dockyard navy, a tug section of the Royal Navy; I join all the tugs in the dockyard.

 

I served there for forty odd years, losing half my hand in the process. I received the Queen’s Medal. But, you know, looking back, it was amazing how we learnt to live in such cramped conditions. 45 people in a cattle truck, a real filthy environment. We did it sleeping, standing up using one corner of the truck as a toilet. Then we were marching through twenty feet of snow, from this blasted hotel, it was on a border station between Sweden and Norway and it caters for the highfaluting skiing fraternity that we had in those days. We had Norwegians with us, and we asked, “How much further?”

 

With their limited English, they’d say, “Four miles.” Now four miles is 6 ½ kilometres, which is a considerably longer. It was actually somewhere in the region of 25 miles and it took us the best part of a week to cover it. It’s important to note that the men were naked, absolutely naked. They swam naked from the ship; they were picked up naked, taken to a school naked, then over the border naked. They had to be told to get onto a train. This was April the tenth in 1943; the sea temperature in Narvik was averaging 12 degrees below freezing. But due to the speed of the tide, it cannot form any ice. I can recall the ship going down and I know she’s still down there. The Norwegians have made a museum of a couple of them.

 

I’ve never managed to get back up there to, shall we say, have a look at it all? I lost every possession I had, including my bankbook, all my kit, everything went, and I finished up……….what did I finish up in? I was naked when I woke up. I was on a bunk with the chief stoker nursing me and I managed to scrounge a pair of canvas trousers, and a jersey of sorts, and in the next cabin to me was a civilian. They wouldn’t give him any leeway, but we got rumours that he was a relative of Winston Churchill. I became friendly with him, and all of a sudden, he disappeared and left his cabin open, and he left a pair of fisherman’s Wellingtons, so I nabbed them, but they were much too big. He was never heard of again.

 

Of the Officers that were salvaged, we had one of them dead, and they made us carry him; I didn’t carry him, four lads carried him. He was dead and his entire bowel was hanging out, so I stopped the four of them and shoved it under his life jacket. Then they finally decided to cover his face and turn him over and take him away, and away he went. The Germans took him and they took the only living officer we had. I’ve never seen him since. From close on 200 seamen on the ship, only 45 of us survived. Most of ‘em, being like me, we put up with 2 ½ years of it.

 

I make a point to my own children, that it they go to foreign places, then they must learn a little of the language. My learning of a little of the language has stood me in jolly good stead, insomuch as they permitted me to leave the camp and go and live privately, 200 miles away with a little family. And they fed and clothed me, in fact, the son of the family (they had sons and daughters), deferred his father’s Will, he didn’t want his father’s property. Somewhere in the woods, they own a portion of land, which they have turned over to me. They made it in my name, so, somewhere in Sweden is a plot of land that I can legally claim, but I’d rather not go back, no, I’d rather not go back............................................ Pr-BR