World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                           Thomas Arthur Russell

                         Approach Of The Storm

 

Approach of the storm - Chapter 1

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Thomas Arthur Russell
Location of story: Sheffield, Manchester, Plymouth
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 Thomas Arthur Russell and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Approach of the storm Chapter 1
By
Thomas Arthur Russell

The year was 1938; I’d been offered a job boring the coalface and was proud of the fact that the under-manager sought me out for the job. He asked me personally, as man to man, and flattered me by saying that he knew it was a tough job, but thought I could be trusted to do my best. He helped me by first having me instructed for a shift by a surveyor who had been a very efficient borer himself, which meant colliers could fill coal more efficiently. Like all jobs, it had its bad points. The job was regular afternoons; I got my bike out and rode from home at about 11 o’clock, having first changed into my dirty work clothes, reposing at the bottom of a cupboard near the fireplace.

When I set out to work, I wore an old jacket, a waistcoat in which mother had sewn two large pockets and one in which I carried a quart bottle of water, and a snap tin with four large slices of her excellent home-baked bread, smeared with a thick covering of best butter and strawberry jam. Sometimes it was dripping, out of the Sunday joint, or sometimes I took half an onion. Simple fare, but as it was, I enjoyed it.

The job was tough and dusty. As I dragged the borer and cable along the face, the lamps of the fillers were dimmed by dust. I had to go by men who had not finished their stint. “Hello young Russell,” they’d say, “what’s it like outside?” If the weather was good, they’d try to hurry up a bit. If not, “...well, we’re bloody missin’ nowt then.” They were great men in more ways than one. Stripped to the waist, knelt there, sometimes stretched and glistening, black with sweat and coal dust, their arms moving and backs stretching out as they shovelled the coal onto the conveyor. They looked like ebony statues come to life. Their faces would turn and show teeth and eyes gleaming starkly white against the dust as they joked with me. “Who the bloody hell are tha going we toneet? We heard about thee at t’ golf links last Sunday, yer young bugger.” (Yorks dialect: Who are you going with tonight? We heard about you at the......) One or two would say, “Hey up Russ, pop another hole in my coal,” to help them. That was all right if it didn’t blow too small when the shot firer fired it. The bosses didn’t want dust or small coal and wouldn’t be long docking some money off wages.

The summer of 1938 approached and I felt, as I rode on my regular bicycle rides into the countryside, things were not right with me. I didn’t like all that dust down the pit. I could see the searchlights playing about the night sky and war was being talked about in a furtive way. You felt it was coming, but you couldn’t quite believe it really would. It was discussed occasionally over a pint, territorials drilled in civvies in the local schoolyard with Lee Enfield rifles, and I was growing restless.

I’ve always had a leaning towards the navy. As a child, I’d been nurtured on tales of German atrocities in Belgium and the glories of Jutland, the shelling of Scarborough and our mighty navy that feared nothing afloat. I mentioned to my mother and father, one day in July, the fact that I wanted to join up in the Royal Navy. They were quite upset. “You know what’s coming,” my mother said, “Stay at home until you have to go.” My dad said, “They’ll only send miners if it comes to the worst.” But after a lot of arguing, my dad said, “Look, if he ant to join, let him have a go. He’ll only live to rue it.”

My brother said, “You’re a fool.” But I remained adamant. I looked at the family, father, mother and my two young sisters and thought of what could happen if Germans ever got her. I thought it over seriously. Then I returned home one day in early August and made up my mind to go to the local post office for a pamphlet on the Royal Navy.

“You’re never going in now are you lad?” “Why not?” I said as I passed through the door and picked up my bike leaning against the kerb. Arriving home, I kicked my shoes off, lay on the sofa with my legs up over on one end and went through it at my leisure. I eventually arrived at trying to join as a stoker. It seemed a good idea at the time. The money was 2/6 (2 shillings and sixpence, 12 ½ p) a day, more than a seaman’s whose daily rate was 2/- (2 shillings).

Mother said "It's not much money.” I'd been getting about 12/6d at the pit for a shift. "Yes, but that's pocket money. I don't have to buy food." "Alright you'll see my lad!'"

The day came for me to go to Sheffield to the RN and RM recruiting Office, and after wearing a bit of shoe leather, looking around I arrived. I was greeted by a chap behind a desk. The man immediately impressed me. He seemed all dark blue, red and gold uniform, and I was surprised that he dare move at all, in case he spoilt that immaculate turn out. He showed me to a shining polished chair in the office that was as neat as himself, "Now then sir." His blue eyes gazed at me from a face which was full and about fortyish. He studied me for a second or two, then, "Well is it the Royal Navy or Marines you have come about sir?" This "sir" bit really made me feel important. "I'd like to join the Royal Navy as a stoker." "Stokers are in for twelve years." "Okay,” I said, "put me down for twelve years then.” Yes just like that. I didn't give it another thought.

He wrote on various forms. I had some simple sums to do and a sentence to write. Did I wet the bed? Had I flat feet? Had I any teeth missing? Then he fitted me up with an appointment to go to Manchester to the RN recruitment depot, and a railway warrant to get there. Mother's response: "Tha's finally done it then, tha bloody young fool."

I walked round the local beauty spot and I remember it was warm, for I took my jacket and carried it over my shoulder. Rockley that day was beautiful indeed; the southern side was framed in a backdrop of large beech trees, looking cool and green with thick trunks. Round the lake itself were rhododendrons in full leaf. The lake waters were clear and sparkling, the dam's front of stone and the back of this was earth. Over the small weir was an old stone bridge, modeled on the old packhorse style. A cottage on the island in the middle of the lake gave the place an added touch with its framing of rhododendrons and its small boats moored.

I paused on the little wooden footbridge and looked into the small stream that flowed into the lake. In its clear depths, I saw two fair sized trout.

As I watched, I thought of where I would be next year at this time. Would I be away overseas at war? Would I indeed ever hear the nightjar, which used to char char at dusk at beautiful Rockley?

Would I ever stroll on a summer evening around its shores again? Or dress up on Sunday chatting to the girls, for it was the local bunny run in summer, and the local youth used to compete for their affections in the ideal setting. I carried on home and I remember going to Manchester about a week later. I took the train from Barnsley Court House Station to Penistone, and changed then for Manchester via Guide Bridge.

It was the first tine I'd traveled on my own by rail and I felt quite independent. On my arrival at the R.N. recruiting office, I was given a seat and asked to wait by a man in civilian clothes, and then I was ushered into a dark room, for a sight test. I told of my hobbies, where I worked, my age again, then I had to strip and I walked backwards and forwards across the floor. I had to cough while one held my testicles for a second. After that I got dressed and was given a shilling for a meal, and was informed that I’d be notified.

On my return, my mother was now treating me as an equal. I’d come of age as you might say; behind her worries, she’d laugh and have her little joke. My father didn’t show any worry at all, he seemed to enjoy telling others that I was joining the navy. My brother and sisters never bothered much about it, and I kept to myself a lot then, just going out for the odd pint and a ride with my mate, Willis D. He was good fun and we had some happy times together.

The news now was getting gloomier and September came, and that fateful Sunday of September the 3rd. The German panzers and Stukas were ripping the heart out of Poland, and we at home, as we gathered round the wireless to listen to the news, knew that only a miracle would make the Germans give up their invasion. Chamberlain had warned that we would be at war if they did not stay their hand.

The ultimatum was at 11am Sunday the 3rd. I recall it was a nice morning, but the streets were quiet. Everyone was listening and we all learnt that we were at war with Germany. Immediately, the announcement was made, I looked out and saw the barrage balloons ascending in a huge circle round Sheffield, all silver in the sun.

"That's it then,” my Dad said as we sat down to dinner, “Bloody Jerries again. So now, you look like having a chance to see what war's about." Evening came and I went out. Everywhere was blacked out and people were carrying their little brown boxes with their gas masks in. We had visions of fleets of German bombers dropping bombs and gas, but nothing happened at first.

I thought people were more like burglars, furtive movements in the darkened doorways where the light of a rising moon didn't penetrate. Giggles and laughter meant the blackout was proving a boon to those with romantic inclinations.

About midnight, I was awakened by the rising and falling wail of the sirens. Everyone seemed to be up and now it was like day outside, a beautiful harvest moon hung in the night sky. I sat on the doorstep in a shirt and trousers and my mother said, "What are you doing there?" I said, "Watching to see the bombers against the moon if they are going to Sheffield." I needn't have bothered, it was a false alarm, somewhere I heard the football rattle which meant "gas" and we had a good laugh about that, probably the A.R.P. warden getting too enthusiastic. We went back to bed only to learn next morning that the liner Athenia had been sunk by a U boat in the Atlantic. Lives had been lost and suddenly we became aware it was really war.

My days in the pit were now numbered. I received notification to report to Manchester for my final examination on December 5th; this was in October, a month before the Royal Oak battleship was sunk in Scapa Flow. December arrived swiftly and I met another local lad at the recruiting office. We were sent in a party to the Salvation Army hostel for bed and breakfast, and told we had to be in by 10 pm, and sober.

Sleep did not come easily, voices were kept low and from the dark words and sentences like: “I hope I get a bloody battleship. I’d like a destroyer, give me a cruiser. Well what about a sub? I wonder what the birds are like in Plymouth, plenty of crumpet there I’ll bet." And one voice, "Plenty of pox as well, they say the seaports are rotten with it.”

Next morning, a canvas-covered lorry took us to the railway station. One of our number was put in charge and given a list of names and a combined railway warrant, to Plymouth North Road Station, and we were then all given a paper bag of buns.
I should think they were the original rock buns and an enamel mug, so we could get a mug of tea where we had to change. As it turned out, we were glad of the buns.
We got on the train amid a hissing of steam and a lot of half hearted joking. “What a poxy place Barnsley is,” someone quipped. "Never mind, we have a bloody football team who know how to play," I replied.

Passing through Wales we saw that famous station, you know the one. We had a good laugh trying to pronounce it, and we hadn't a Welsh man among us to help us pronounce it.

After what seemed hours, the train for Plymouth came and we all trooped aboard and settled our cases on the overhead racks. Some smoked, some carried on playing cards, some napped and some just looked out of the window seeing the lazy wisps of steam and smoke occasionally drift past the green fields and the reddish brown soil of the Southern countryside. Now we really felt a long way from home. Even the mystery of the wagons we passed with their various company names Like Ebbw Vale, and Carlton Main LMS LNER FYFFEES Bedwag and many others no longer interested us, for we were now becoming closer to this whole new world, and frankly, we did not know what to expect. I suspect some were even feeling a hit homesick by then. By now, it was falling dark rapidly and the ticket collector passed through checking that the blinds were drawn before the dimmed
lights were switched on. We got off on a darkened Plymouth platform, lit by one or two blue painted bulbs. A voice called, "Are you for the Navy lads? This way then." Another canvas-covered lorry, and by the faint blue light, waxen faces shone like figures from Madame Tussauds. At last, form up in threes and by the right quick march.

A figure loomed which appeared to be a sentry in naval uniform in white belt and gaiters. This was the guardroom, and we were amazed to see our P.O. turn his head to the left and salute it, then turn his head back again. He told us, “When you come in or go out of this
establishment, you always look towards that guard room and salute. It may, mean your leave might be stopped and punishment awarded if you don't, for that represents the Quarter Deck of HMS Drake.

Our apprehension increased when we were informed they were navy police and keen as mustard, and mean b********, especially to rookies who didn’t wear their uniforms properly or salute officers.

Eventually we were halted outside a barrack block and down into the basement where all were given a wonderful new experience. We placed our cases on the floor and were given a sausage shaped canvas bundle tied up with a rope. This was the navy issue bed, the hammock and a sailor’s best friend, for all his years after he was in the navy. He slept on it; he could use it in emergency for plugging holes in bulkheads and he was often buried at sea in it. First though we had to be shown the way to sling it. It was surprising how many ended up on the floor at the other side of it with the small mattress you got with it draped over you.

 

Chapter 2
 
Next morning was heralded by a bugle call and the voice of someone shouting, “WAKY WAKY, rise and shine my dears, the suns burning your bloody eyes out, on with your socks, hands off your c***s.” This was greeted by moans and groans and thumps of feet hitting the bare floor as bodies reluctantly left the canvas cocoons, and felt the early morning chill. It was its own type of bedlam with swearing and hunting round for missing items of apparel, till you eventually collected your wits, and made your shivering way down the flight of stone steps to the world’s most miserable wash place, it was obvious that the barracks were snowed under with the mobilisation.

After the stampede to the washroom we dashed back to the mess to get dressed, then back down the steps to join a veritable football crowd - seething and heaving, waiting to take their turn in the long dining hall. We who had arrived the night before were still in our ‘civvies '. The dining hall was hung with pictures of naval battles. I suppose to show us what England expected of us new recruits.

I was nearly fainting from hunger, every few minutes we shuffled a bit nearer the steps leading into the dining hall. An old looking officer assisted by a P.O. regulated the flow of humanity into the dining hall. I didn’t envy them their job, holding back this great crowd.

It didn’t help matters when someone occasionally broke wind, especially if you were in the vicinity, for you couldn’t get away. You couldn’t even lift your hand up to hold your nose. Eventually, my turn came and about forty-eight of us went into the dining hall and were led to some long empty tables, just plain wooden surfaces with wooden forms to sit on, scrubbed white and clean.

We sat down twelve to a table and helped ourselves to the eating utensils from a shallow wooden box at the end of the table. We hadn’t long to wait. A man brought a large tray of cups and saucers and plates, we passed them along, then one brought a big kettle of tea, and a tin bowl of brown sugar to sweeten it.
Then came large plates of bread and butter in reach of everyone, and then two shallow trays containing a dozen small dry looking eggs.

It made me wonder what type of fowl had laid such anaemic looking things. The other contained some bacon which was curled up and crispy, which one healthy young appetite could have eaten with ease.
Immediately the tea had been poured and everyone had grabbed his bread ration, arms and forks flashed like gladiators, and lo and behold, the bacon had vanished. I and two or three more had missed the proverbial boat and beheld the spectacle of an empty bacon dish. "Well," I thought, "I'm having some bacon." So without more ado, I rose from my seat and made my way to the galley, which was placed on the far side of the dining hall and about halfway down.

I was conscious of scores of eyes following me and apparently, it was something you didn’t lightly undertake. As I walked into the galley, the cooks gaped at me with incredulous eyes. I felt that I was walking on hallowed ground and invading their steaming, sizzling domain, but fortified by the smell of frying bacon.
I answered the P.O. cook in charge, "I want more bacon, and four of us have had none." "Why not ask the greedy buggers who scoffed the lot?" he said. Anyway he took pity on me and I got a real good helping, for we who had missed out, when I got back, I shared it out with the lads who had had none.
“What about ours?” the others said. "You can f*** off you greedy b******s, you've had yours. Fetch some if you want some." But they were lacking in courage when it came to asking for more, and facing the galley staff, I realised after that they really had to provide more if you were still hungry, for an officer used to come round asking if we’d any complaints and it wouldn’t have made a good impression if someone had jumped up and said he was still hungry.

The days went by and we were soon issued with uniforms. Behind a high counter were several WRNS. Two or three were good looking and it wasn’t long before jokes were made on their behalf. The P.O., with a stern look on his face said, “Quiet there,” but behind it lay a quiet chuckle. One asked shoe sizes and hat sizes. We tried trousers and tunics behind one screen, and we were given, well, two of everything and one seaman’s knife, a heavy metal knife containing a fold in blade and a spike. Next, we were given two boiler suits, larger than you would normally buy in Civvy Street, but of course, you needed the larger size to go over your uniform.
We stamped our name on all our items of clothing, not so it would show outwardly. Everything had to be marked, towels, blankets, kitbag, hammock everything that moved.

Next we were taken to give an oath of allegiance to King and Country, and that now meant we were really Royal Navy and were under the full vigours of Naval Law and discipline. Our civvies we packed carefully away and sent home, case and all.
We were issued with a pay and identity book. An official photographer took our photo, one at a time, and this we had to stick in the place reserved for it. This small book had to be carried on shore leave, it had to be produced on pay day and carried details of home leave, rating, travel warrants inoculations and was quite an important document.

We were also split up into watches, port and starboard, then issued with a small card, green for port and red for starboard. These were used for organizing working parties in the barracks and covered any granting of shore leave locally. If you broke any rules or regulations, this was taken off you. Your very movements were covered by the use of this little card.
Punishment was awarded through this card and the P.O. or Chief P.O. in charge collected this card and marched you for dental check-ups, haircuts, medical check ups, in fact, everything. You couldn't wangle your way out, for you were checked by that little card.

The rum issue was marked on it; if you took rum, it had a G for grog marked on it, if you were a non-drinker it had a T and under age it had UA. If you were old enough to draw your rum, you received your tot, measured out carefully by a copper measure.
Anyone not drawing their tot and being temperant received 3d (thrupence, slightly more than 1p) a day cash in lieu, the rum issue came just before the midday meal and it used to give a tremendous boost to the appetite.

Barrack life comprised a round of work routines from peeling spuds and other vegetables, and chucking them into great metal vats. Of all these jobs for the galley, the worst was peeling onions.
It made you wonder where the tears came from. A chorus of moans and groans came from the onion detail. "Oh effing hell, not that again! You poor sods'", from the more fortunate.

Polishing the floors wasn't so bad because you were inside. But your arms ached, pushing the big square polisher up and down and you felt you were banging your head against a brick wall, because by evening it was as bad again.

Dust used to pile up through the few broken pains of glass, so by evening rounds at 9 o'clock the duty watch had to tidy it up before the visit of the duty officer and his entourage. Barracks was a cold place in December 1939, and maybe it played a part in hardening us up.

We were flustering for work in the cold morning, and marching off to our various assignments with overalls rolled up and tucked under armpits. What appeared funny to me were the men going down to jobs in the Dockyard. They’d fall in maybe a hundred or so and a blue jacket band leopard skins, white gaiters and all, would march in front. The bandmaster, twirling his baton with the gleaming brass ball on it and the various P.O's in charge of parties chanting, "Left, left, left, right," to the naval airs the band played.
Probably it was good practice for the band, maybe it inspired some poor rating destined for a job cleaning bilges out, one of the dismal tasks on a sub. For when they returned from their job, they had the added job of cleaning their boiler suit.
Try cleaning an oily boiler suit with a bar of soap and elbow grease. You always seemed to miss the hot water and it was usually luke warm.

Chapter 3
 
One day, we were informed we had to put on clean no. 3 uniforms next morning. This signaled six weeks' school days aboard an old wooden ship, which had been changed into schoolrooms. Off we marched past the gunnery school. "Hear that Yorkie?" my mate said "Poor b*******. I’m glad I’m not in for gunnery." "No," someone quipped, but they have a chance to swim if you get a tin fish in the side while a stoker has b***** all.

We came up to a cruiser berthed alongside. She looked enormous. Figures worked on her decks. She was bustling with activity and I think we all secretly envied her crew.
We marched on and arrived at our school. She lay alongside, lazily creaking in the faint swell, and the old wooden ship of the line looked clean and well preserved for her years. We walked up the gangway in pairs with exercise books under our arms, and were shown into a low-ceilinged classroom, to our places, two to a desk.
Inkwells and pens were set out before us. Then an officer came into the room. He wore the green of a teacher between the rings on his cuff. He immediately ordered the issue of a book to each of us, "The Stoker's Manual".

This book was now our property and we put our names inside the front cover. This book contained all kinds of data regarding boilers, compartments and cleaning thereof. Even the use of the safety lamp, I thought I’d seen the last of it at the pit. We completed our six weeks' schooling and then we were transferred across the water to Travel Camp, that was also the rifle range. It looked more like a transit camp with its hut like buildings.

Waiting to greet us, as we lugged our gear off the boat, was a Chief Petty Officer.
He was grey haired and fresh faced with brown eyes. He was quite a man, although his eyes held a twinkle, he wasn't bad on laying the law down. He was our instructor and must have been called back to the colours to train rookies like us in the art of square bashing. He looked too old for active service. "I hate thieves and I hate liars," he said. "Do what you're told and we’ll get on alright. If you get bad news from home, or find yourself in trouble, don't hesitate to come and tell me, and I'll help whenever I can. But let the side down or harass me and you’ll get what for. I'm here to make bloody men of you and by God I will.

"Any footballers among you? anyway we’ll soon find out. Oh, a popular word in the navy I don't want my delicate ears to here is "b******'". Don't ever let me hear it from any of you while you're here or I'll be on you like a ton of bricks." Yes, Chief Petty Officer Burns was quite a man, he was fair, honest and I've never met a straighter man. He gave us the same treatment, as I'm sure he would sons of his own. Under his leadership, we played football, we drilled and he instilled pride of our class and team spirit into us.

The winter of 1939 was hard and we lost one or two friends to sickness. I remember one, a smallish boy, a Scotsman and about the best footballer of our class, who was one day on a stretcher being carried to the ambulance, dark and heavily spotted. What that was I still don't know. I remember parading and having our throats swilled, despite the cold weather. Some mornings we had to run up and down in gym shorts and shirts till we were sweating. Occasionally we tramped across a field, soap and towel rolled up under the arm to the communal bathroom. This was a small place with a homemade boiler to heat the water for the bath. This comprised a large circular tin bath, about three at a time got bathed, and as you could guess the last three got lukewarm water and a lather of scum to contend with. Still, we managed. We washed our dirty clothes in buckets and hung them near the big stores in the huts.

The days went by and then it was decided to have an inter-class boxing match. Everyone entering had to give an undertaking that they had never had boxing training, "Who wants to box for our class?" Silence reigned, then some bright spark chipped up, "Yorky Russell," "No," I said. "Come on Russell, step forward. Anyone else? Right, you're a Yorkie aren't you Lockwood?" "Yes sir," "Okay, step forward. You and Russell to represent us." So I and my chum Roy Lockwood from Denby Dale were duly elected. At Lunch we said, "Well all of you b******* and yet two Yorkies have to fight for the class, you could have tossed up for it."

Next day, Roy and I had to be checked by the doctor, and I don't know how Roy felt, but I felt like a sacrificial offering. We were passed fit. Our names were pinned up advising us, who we were matched against.
My adversary was an Albert Barber, and as he and his mates were sat at lunch, they kept having a sly look at me and chuckled. If it was psychological, it sure worked. I thought he's a bloody boxer; he'd knock my head off. Then, as day dawned, we had to weigh in again. I remember mine was 11 stone 7lbs and Lockwood weighed in very close to my weight, which had repercussions, as you will see. The ring had been erected in the target hut and around it were placed forms, which they had managed to put in tiers. The seconds marine PT instructors and the timekeeper, and the CO of the camp sat at a small table on which was a small bell and a watch. The timekeeper was the padre. We the fighters sat a bit uneasy among the shouts of encouragement and general hubbub. We, the condemned, wore gym shoes, tropical shorts and white gym shirts; each of us wore a coloured sash round the waist to identify the different fighters. Eventually to the cheers of my class, I climbed through the ropes and my second put my gloves on. I nodded to his words of advice, then the referee, a PT instructor, called us together and a hush fell as he told us the rules, ...then "touch gloves, and box on."

Immediately my opponent tore in and his gloves seemed more like lumps of lead as he thumped me on the side of my head, and I tried to keep away. I thought, "I'm due for a bloody big headache if nothing else," I was beginning to feel angry now, and I started thumping back and ignoring his punches, then I moved forward. The hours on the punch ball I’d rigged in the attic at home must have paid off now, for a good punch brought a look of surprise to his face. The padre rang the little bell for the end of the round; as I sat on the seat my second sponged my face and said, "Keep a guard up, then when you see a chance, really let one go."

Getting up again as the bell for round two went, I moved to meet him, he tried to look fierce and as he started to swing at me, I suddenly let go and it must have been a good one for I found myself standing over him and he looked sparked out. "Get up," I was saying in my excitement, till the referee shoved me back to my corner. The class were on their feet. "Good old Yorkie, Good old Russ." He was down for more than ten seconds and looked groggy as he climbed out of the ring. Now I felt sorry and went to shake his hand. "Sorry mate." "That's okay." I knew then we were no longer two opponents, but two friends, and I had a headache, it lasted two days. So I didn't get off Scot-free. I sat with the class and watched Roy win on points. Some of the other fights were little short of massacres, for it was obvious some of the fighters had been boxing before. What was amazing was the courage shown by these many outclassed men.

It came to my turn again and my opponent turned out to be my mate Roy. This was a turn up, how do you clobber your mate? It turned out our weights were about the same; well that's what we were told, and we thought we were representing our class, so why do we have to fight each other?

"Well, we want the one who wins this," we were told. We clambered into the ring and smiled at one another. The opening of the first round, we circled and sparred and put tentative jabs at one another. "Get on with it," someone yelled. The referee called us together and told us to make a fight of it. So we fought in a more serious way although I'm sure we didn't want to. At the end of the three-round contest, Roy got it on points and went on to win for our class. We were not disgraced and earned a new respect from our classmates, and of course we could now swagger a lot more, knowing we could hold our own with any of them.

 

Chapter 4

We now proceeded to learn the ins and outs of the Short Lee Enfield rifle. We marched and drilled with and without weapons, we learned to fix bayonets, the squad acting as one, till we grew so proficient, the smack of the hilts going home sounded as one. We wore khaki gaiters over the ankles, Khaki webbing belts and sometimes, the Khaki bandoleers peculiar to the navy, like a chest full of little canvas pockets, which could carry quite a large number of clips. In a way, I suppose besides being easy to get at, they themselves could afford a slight protection again enemy bullets.

The sword bayonet was much longer than the modern bayonet and rifle and bayonet together were heavy. I'll bet the Lee Enfield is still one of the best rifles for long distance shooting. One evening, C.P.O. Burns told us to get our oilskins out for next day and told us why, about four inches of snow laid on the ground and we were going to have rifle firing. The oilskins were to lie on at the butts.

We fell in next morning. It was sunny out, but cold, we were issued with a rifle, not the ones we usually used for our square bashing. We were given several clips of ammunition, five bullets in a clip, then we were marched off to the rifle range. We were halted about 250yds from a very high wall with a side wall at each end, and an earthen bank built up to the bottom of it. A bunker and a trench ran along the bottom of the bank. About three targets, maybe a yard across had been erected. A lieutenant came up to the class, "Class, shun. Are your men ready Chief?" "Yes sir." "Alright now, pay attention lads. Any Yorkshire men among you?" "Yes sir." There were about five of us. He asked us where from adding, "Well I'm Yorkshire, so I hope you can shoot. I'm a gunnery officer and my job is to advise and help you all. How many have used guns before?" I think about three of us had used air rifles and shotguns before. He showed us how to adjust the rear sight for wind. We gathered round. "Anybody want to ask questions?" All remained silent, till suddenly a voice piped up timidly, "will it make a bang sir?" "My lad have you ever heard a bloody gun that didn't?" All you have to do is aim and fire the bloody thing at the target." I remember a Scotch mate who for some reason sent the snow flying a few yards in front of his nose, then improved by getting a wildly waving red flag which denoted he could have been the first stray bullet killer of our class. He drew a storm of abuse on his head from our instructor, put in a way that only a navy instructor can, and which made us all the more keen not to fail in our performance.

My turn came and I lay down. The oilskin felt slightly slithery under me. I lay on one elbow and eased the clip of five bullets in and pressed them down with my thumb, and saw the cut off was applied and the safety pin in. "Now that's how to handle a weapon," said the instructor. "Take your turn now. Fire when you're ready. Breathe in deep and exhale slowly and a steady squeeze will help you put it in the right place."

I opened the cut off and shoved the safety catch over with my thumb, worked the bolt to slide the bullet into the breach, then aimed till the bulls eye seemed to sit on the foresight, and in the aperture of the rear sight, holding the rifle as firm as I could, I fired. A terrific "ding" racked my brain and the butt jumped against my shoulder, hitting a black and white flag, a "magpie" he called it. Again I fired, a black disc, waved inside the target denoting where the bullet had struck.


Now I thought I'll adjust the rear sight to allow for the wind, which I felt sure was putting some deflection in my shot; a slight adjustment to the left, then I tried again. This time the black disc was hardly visible, for it just about covered the bull’s eye. The next two were very near the same spot, then five rounds rapid which were not two bulls but I was told were good, and then five steady shots of which two or three were good and in the bull.
"Well, we have one bugger who can shoot," said the gunnery lieutenant. "Where have you come from?" "Near Barnsley, sir," I answered. "Well, I'm Yorkshire, near Barnsley," he said, "I thought all you chaps could do was shovel coal, but I'm glad one Yorkie showed the class how to use a rifle, now don't touch the sight again. I'll have a go with your rifle after the class has finished its shoot," which gave me a feeling of pride to say the least.

Chief P.O. Burns gave me a single rifle badge in gold to sew on my cuff for the time being, and I wore it for a while, but to get paid for it I'd have to gain my full marksman badge and shoot to qualify every year. This was impossible for a wartime sailor, so I took the badge off after a while and chucked it away.

The days of that cold winter passed, made up of constant drilling, physical training and shore leave in Devonport and Plymouth. We had, had a week's home leave at Christmas and it was an exhilarating feeling, being in uniform and going out with my brother and mates, still in "Civvy Street"'. Girls I knew seemed much easier to chat to, and some went out of their way to make my acquaintance, chances of amorous encounters cropped up, but the week passed by without me falling for those delightful pitfalls.

Father and Mother treated me with a new respect and pride. When, I came to leave I just said to father, "Well, so long," and to mother, "Don't worry mother I'll be okay and I'll probably be home again before I get a ship."

I insisted on going to the bus on my own and roe in silence back to the train up for Bristol. I enjoyed my leave though. Shore leave in Plymouth could be fraught with danger for young inexperienced matelots. We had lectures on the prevalence of VD in seaports, and when the local girls got too ambitious, you only had to think of what you had been told and it had a remarkable cooling-off effect. But in only a handful of instances did I hear of lads having caught the 'boat up', as a dose of VD used to be called in navel slang, and so the lectures must have had some steadying effect.

I remember sometimes we would indulge in fish and chips after a drink or two, odd times the cinema, and I remember one night I and a classmate paid 12/6d (12 shillings and sixpence, 62½p) which was a large sum then at the cinema. This was for the posh seats and we sat there exercising our jaws with a bag of limpets we had bought from the shellfish shop.

One day, C.P.O. Burns called the class together and told us that HMS Exeter was arriving next day from her action with the Graf Spee to be refitted and we, along with the other classes, were to march down to the shoreline to cheer her in. He showed us exactly how to take our hats off and cheer by numbers. We were excited and were only too glad to cheer this famous ship in. Would I ever see action such as her crew had seen? What would it be like? Would I be afraid? What does a shell hit, or a bomb do to a ship?

Maybe we could get a chance to see now she was coming home and I was eager to see, and wonder what we could expect in any action we became involved in. Next day we were mustered and marched down to line the shore of the estuary, facing the western side of Devonport derricks. I forgot the actual time, for forty odd years blurs such things, but I believe it was afternoon on a fine but slightly cloudy day. As we waited, we suddenly heard in the distance a kind of murmur like a distant storm carried on the breeze. "What’s that sir?" "That, my boys, is the people of Plymouth welcoming Exeter home. She won’t be long now." By now murmurs had grown into more coherent cheering intermixed by ships' sirens and hooters, and I could imagine the thrill of pride her ship's company must be feeling at this moment. The cheering grew louder as the dockyard mateys, our name for the workers, joined in with the naval personnel of HM Barracks. We could see a great grey shape just coming into view, and a slight bow wave gradually dwindled away, so she slowed up ready to berth, we were now ordered to cheer and we did our best and got quite carried away, as some cheered on after the official three cheers, but were only slightly reprimanded by a C.P.O. who I could have sworn had a slightly moist eye and who I knew would have loved to have been aboard one of His Majesty's ships, instead of putting up with us rookies. I also realised now why he treated us like a father, and a fair, just and ruthlessly efficient one at that. As the tugs busied themselves around her we were marched off to carry on our training, and a sobering thought must have lain at the back of our minds. What of the lads who had died? Glory has a price and a terrible one at that, and we knew that the death of the Captain of Graf Spec, by his own hand didn't mean he was a coward. Already we had heard of his conduct and his attitude towards his captives and realised there were good men among our enemies, among which the German captain stood out. He would have come out from Montevideo and fought no matter what his orders had been to that effect. I like to think he couldn't stand the ignominy of having to scuttle his ship. In fact, I'm sure of it. Maybe one of his crew who still survives has written a book on Graf Spee and Langsdorf. I hope so. I would like to read it.

As I pen these pages we are involved in our new conflict in The Falklands, and I hope whenever possible, humanity towards defeated enemies will prevail and I'm sure that from our side, this will be, so for real honour can only be thus achieved.
We did get a chance to visit HMS Exeter after some days, for her company had gone off on leave and had been entertained in London. She looked massive, a great grey bulk, metal clanged somewhere in her interior and the bright bluey orangey tinged glow of welding equipment showed here and there as repairs went ahead. Her two funnels loomed above us. Shrapnel had riddled them and her seaplane platform and we saw some of the damage inflicted by Graf Spee's gunfire. It gave us an idea of what to expect in a ship hit by enemy fire.

We weren't depressed though. We knew we would try our best and we knew that even the bravest all feel that tinge of fear. Our CPO constantly reminded us of the traditions of the service and of our responsibility to uphold them. Her 8" guns impressed us and were the largest we had then seen. Set in their turrets they looked very large and made us wonder what 15" and 16" guns would look like. We were still finding our way and constantly wondering at this new career we had chosen. The weeks passed by and spring came, and we managed a bit of sun bathing on a couple of nice sunny days.

It compensated for the hard winter just past. Then the day came to pass out. We were all apprehensive. We had to dress in our number three uniform, complete with webbing and gaiter. Each of us was given a canvas armband, bearing a number and each of us had to drill the squad in our turn. CPO Burns looked us over with a critical eye and seemed happy enough. A short way off, other newer classes were in the throes of their training and we felt superior to them, for we had done all that and now was our big moment. A short way off, stood a Lieutenant Commander in shining black leather leggings and although he didn't appear to be watching, we knew nothing was escaping his eyes. My mind wandered for a minute to my coal mining days and what my mates would be doing just then, but the commencement of the first means test switched me back to the job coming up. I watched attentively and it didn't seem so bad. One after the other, the lads got through and my turn eventually came. A slight feeling of butterflies in the stomach, and then as I got the squad moving a feeling of confidence. Then it was over and I got back into the ranks, ready for the next man. He was a Scot and one of my shore going "hoppoes." He made a mistake, which had us stumbling a bit, and I couldn’t help laughing at his discomfiture. Then I learnt another lesson, and a hard one. CPO Burns shouted, "Halt," and his eyes twinkled. "Out here Russell. Now that was funny wasn't it? Well, I'll show you something just as funny." The class meanwhile, looked on wondering, as I was, what was coming next. Right I want you to double the full length of the butts holding your rifle above your head all the way, and don't rest it on you head, or you'll do it again.

Away I doubled, all the classes had halted and were watching me. Their CPO kept a keen eye on me and as my aching arms tried to sneak a little bit of relief by lowering the rifle onto my head momentarily, a voice would shout, "Keep it up, up with it!" I got to the turn and came back and I never felt more relieved than when CPO Burns said, "Right, lower your rifle and back into the ranks."

My arms had ached more than they ever had in the pit. "Now, any more feel like laughing?" A loud chorus of, "No sir!" from the class. "Russell, you know I had to do that, and it did you more good than harm." "Yes sir," and somehow I admired this man all the more. We looked up to him; I suspect we wanted to be like him. The first man I've ever been privileged to know and soon to leave him forever. He taught mere lads how to be men and took many of the rough edges off us recruits. He gave us something to aim for. The day dawned to return to depot across the river. We gathered our kitbags and hammocks together down by the small jetty, when the boat chugged in and tied up alongside, we loaded our kit in, hammocks in one place, kit bags in another. Then CPO Burns addressed us and told us to remember all we'd learned and said he was sorry to see us go. Then a solemn handshake for each of us, and after we had gathered in the boat, a spontaneous three cheers for our instructor. I believe there were a few lumps in the throat as we chugged away, and we gave a last wave as we saw the figure of the man we'd come to respect turn smartly away and walk away with head erect and we knew, as he knew, that he’d done a good job.

 

Chapter 5
 

From then on, we fell into the barrack routine of duties and working parties either down in Devonport Dockyard, or in the barracks themselves. It looked a bit ludicrous for the dockyard parties to be marching at the back of a blue jacket band with all the regalia of leopard skins and drum batons being trailed around, and thrown in the air to the strains of "A Life on the ocean wave" or "Hearts of Oak", and then step all over the place.

One of the worst jobs I ever had was cleaning the bilges of a submarine. Her crew were on leave except for a few men left to keep an eye on proceedings. We had donned clean overalls and in minutes they were utterly filthy and stank of diesel oil. In the cramped spaces it was no good trying to avoid it.

We used loads of cotton waste in the dim light of the single electric bulbs on the end of long leads. When I think of that, I also remember how difficult it was to get a lather on overalls impregnated with oil, it took lots of hot water and if was hard work with the bar of purses issue soap, to even start a lather on those overalls. But eventually I managed it and got help to turn the handles of the large spinner, which was provided in the barracks command washroom block. This was organised with its own boiler house to provide the hot water and one large drying room.

Before you pushed your numbered clothing back into the interior of the heated box, the details of the washed items were entered into a book by a vigilant sentry and signed by you. On collecting your dried washing you were checked again and then crossed off, and so the routine of washing was organised to avoid theft or pilfering, and of course, your name was stamped on everything. It was cold dark and wet and although it wasn't yet time to shut up, I couldn’t get my stuff, for the sentry who controlled the book was missing and I daren't take my gear without authority.

One rating winked and said, "Try the boiler room." This aroused my curiosity, and taking him at his word, I banged on the door. I could hear grumbling and the door opened. I got a quick glimpse into the gloomy interior, for it looked as if some of the lights were off and I saw a female figure in NAAFI uniform. "Oh, oh," I said. "Don't say anything," said the sentry as he ticked the book. "I won't, you jammy bastard," for I knew now what was going on in the boiler room and envied them there bit of home comfort.

Every dinnertime, we would eagerly dash into the mess, hoping to find on the large circular table, a draft chit to a ship. These used to come in daily, sometimes one or two, sometimes three or four, just a small piece of paper with a report to D.F.D Officer on it for draft to HMS so and so, and whoever got one immediately went off to the detailed draft office for further information, to a chorus of, "Lucky b*******",” but we were not waiting long. After about two weeks, the inevitable happened. The mess was agog with a hum of conservation. As we came in, round the table we gathered a large group of men, nearly all my class. They were collecting chits, some were a draft to the carrier Glorious, some marked MED DISPOSAL, and I was in the latter category. We queued outside the DFDO and after confirmation of our draft, we were told to listen to the loud hailer and have kit bag and hammock ready for departure.

No working parties down to the dockyard now. We were kept on work near at hand, ready to go at anytime. My classmates for HMS Glorious got their call, and among excited handshakes, we said, "So Long and good Luck." We didn't know it then, but it was goodbye forever for they were to die not long after when HMS Glorious was surprised by Scharnhoust and Gniesnsnau(?) off Norway, and sunk with most of her crew, along with her escort HMS Acasta.

So we parted and now I remember why on Remembrance Day they say, "From the rising to the going down of the sun, we will remember them. They will not grow old as we who are left grow old." It must be true for I remember them as young lads, their faces come up before me often as I doze and close my eyes when tiredness overtakes me, and I don't see old faces, but young as they were when we said goodbye, and they never appear sad, but cheerful, just as they were when we used to indulge in banter or frivolity. I remember most of their names too.

Then one grey morning after breakfast, came the call we had been impatient to hear: "Will ratings on draft for Med disposal muster with kit bag and hammocks at 9.30 outside the DFDO." So in a fever of excitement and handshakes from those friends we were leaving, we quickly got our gear together and clomped off across the asphalted square to the DFDO office. We lined up and our voices were soon stilled as the regulatory CPO shouted, "QUIET." Now answer your names. When the roll call was completed, he told us to board the two khaki coloured lorries with RN in white on their sides.

We hadn't long to wait before we arrived at the railway station and were given a general railway warrant to Southampton. This in itself mystified us. It seemed a bloody funny way to get to the Med and the buzz got around we were going to join the BEF as part of a naval brigade.

On arrival at Southampton we were reloaded on to lorries and by now, it was dark and we didn't know where the hell we were as they took us through the darkened streets. Eventually we arrived at a place which we were told was an internment camp for aliens and my recollections of the place were vague, but I know I and a mate managed to climb out over a wall, poorly protected by barbed wire or glass, and into town to size up the local girls and sample its beer. We tried several pubs and ended up half drunk and in the company of two of the local girls. We walked around a while and chatted and tried to take matters a little further.

I fell behind with my "party" but it was not good. The soft curvy form my arm was around and the scent of her hair was doing my sexual inclinations no good at all, as she repeatedly said, "No, you can't," and finally I gave up and we hurried on to catch the other two up.

We left them and made our way back, feeling a trifle unsteady after the beer and now tiredness was catching up on us. "Did you get anything Yorky?" "Did I f***? Why, did you?" "No, they were a pair of mangy b*******, Never mind better luck next time, besides they might have poxed us, you never know.” On arrival back, we got in the same way as we got out; the rest of the boys were fast asleep so we never knew if anyone else had been into town and we never asked.

Next day, we were roused about 6 am. My head felt full of cotton wool after the previous evening’s escapade, my mouth tasting like a fouled-up dustbin. A good wash in cold water and a brisk use of toothbrush and toothpaste made me feel a bit better.

Breakfast didn’t appeal but I managed a few mouthfuls. My mate Eric of the night before, turned out and was promptly sick. He naturally had a pale complexion and it was like chalk now. As I tell my experiences at sea, Eric and all the others I knew, where are they now, how many still survive.

Breakfast over, we were now mustered and loaded aboard RN lorries. Our destination was the railway station. After a cup of tea, we hung about waiting for a train that never seemed to be coming. It was a grey, day but cool morning, and eventually we managed a crafty pint or two at the refreshment room and felt quite merry once again. Eventually the train appeared and amid a bit of joking and laughter we lowered our gear in the luggage van and sorted ourselves out into some semblance of order and got aboard.

The next thing we knew was we were going back to Devonport. "The bloody war must be over, they don't need us," was one response to this news. But this conception proved too good to be true. After a quick seemingly short journey, we arrived in Devonport dockyard. By now, it was evening and moving towards dusk. We saw we had pulled up opposite a low grey profile moored alongside and even as we were unloading our kit, there was a bustle of activity. Voices and orders rose above the hum of machinery, and we realised that the ship was preparing for sea.

We were met by a CPO, led up a gangway and taken below to 'stow our gear. Warm air mingled with the smell of paint, oil and humanity, peculiar to a warship.

The steady hum of ventilators and electric motors gave a feeling of vibrant life and power, We felt excited and wondered what lay ahead. All our weeks of training were coming to fruition.

We thought we were to become part of the crew of the ship, the light cruiser HMS Carlisle, not much bigger than some fleet destroyers but to us, just then she seemed very large. I managed a quick view of her from the upper deck and saw a quick puff of black smoke from her forward funnel before I was ordered below.

"Special sea duty men to your stations prepare to leave harbour." Well, that was it; we were finally on our way, but where? No one seemed to know. The next thing was the pulsing vibrations through the ship as her engines turned and manoeuvred her clear of the jetty, then you could feel her settle down more smoothly as she made her way through Plymouth Sound.

After a while, you could sense the next turn of speed as a steady smooth vibration took over, we were now out at sea and were allowed on deck for a while. Dusk was turning to darkness and the land laid a dark mass astern. The wake gleamed white in the dark and the deck heaved gently beneath my feet. Only the beam of a distant lighthouse far away to the west, illuminated the ship in flashes, darkened as she was for war. Her upper works were stark and black against the night sky and as I went down below to sling my hammock, I wondered what tomorrow would bring.

I'd to find a place to sling my hammock and my mates had managed to find places leaving me with a place under a pipe, which ran along a narrow passageway and not far from the washroom. Really it was the worst place I could have slung, for the beer was still affecting me and the pipe was warm, probably a steam pipe, for it was well lagged. I didn't sleep very well that first night on the Carlisle, I was far too warm and I hadn't yet grown accustomed to the swaying motion of the hammock, which increased hourly as we entered the area of Biscay, the ship vas rolling violently and as we turned out of our hammocks, I found it a terrific effort just to lash up my hammock. My legs felt like rubber, my mouth tasted foul and I felt really miserable as seasickness took over.

Staggering with each lurch of the ship, I managed to find the washroom and an unoccupied basin and filled it with cold water hoping to cool my fevered brow. Everything seemed to be creaking and moving and the water level in the bowl before me was constantly changing. Some slopped over, my legs ached as I braced them to counteract the motion of the ship. At times I'd to make a wild snatch at the basins or I'd have gone flying. The regular crew didn't seem a bit put out. One said the first two years are the worst. "Bloody hell I hope I get used to it, before that." Another voice said, "Dear mother, it's a b******...Dear son, so are you."

Humour of a rough kind flowed back and forth as we were shown to a mess table. "If you can't eat it you’ll save our bloody lives," one crewman said as with twinkly eyes. They took note of any spare bacon and the tiny yellow and white singed orb that passed for an egg. One kindly voice said, "Try to get a bit down, it will help you and you’ll get used to it. We’ve all been through it and you're in the roughest place on earth, the Bay of Biscay."

I tried but I'm afraid I wasn't very successful. I pushed the plate away and dashed for the upper deck where I thought I was parting with my very guts as I vomited over the side. I felt as if I had flu. My legs were like rubber; I did what many seasick men have done before. I hid myself away and kept out of the way. We were lucky for we had not been allotted any duty up to then.

A kindly leading hand brought me a bite of dinner and this I managed to get down. It's wonderful how these men seemed to be there when you needed them. Complete strangers, they'd make a joke of your seasickness, but they knew the correct psychological approach. They helped you overcome it by being tough but kind. I did overcome it and I felt more of a sailor then, but I always felt grateful to the men of the Carlisle, especially one who I can only call old Stripey, because he was a three badges stoker and was mess man for the Chief and E.R.A.S. mess, the engineers of the ship. He saw to their meals, collected and served from the galley, he cleaned and tidied up after them and drew the rum when up spirits was piped about 1130 hours.

I was appointed his helper and I enjoyed every minute of it, though I didn't draw my tot at first on the ship. He used to say, "Here Yorkie, have a sip of this, it will do you good, but don't drink the bloody lot." We refuelled at Gibraltar and left again in brilliant sunshine. Once clear of the Rock, I went on deck with an old hammock cover and lay it on the fo'castle. The wooden deck planking was warm and the radio was playing somewhere, music from Madame Butterfly. As I lay there sunbathin, I wondered what the family was doing at home right then and how soon I'd get any mail.

Soon I fell asleep and I must have been asleep about an hour, lulled by the gentle swaying of the ship. I awoke and felt sunburnt, I hoped it wouldn’t blister, I looked over the side and saw the sea, looking like blue pop. As it hissed from our passing, the sun’s rays probed right down into the clear depths. Astern lay the towering outline of the Rock, rising sharply, white out of the haze and falling steadily behind as we increased speed.

Chapter 6
 
Next day as I paced the fo'castle in between a spell of duty, I saw away on the horizon, faint and grey in the distance and well apart, two ships. I wondered what they were and of what nationality, as they drew nearer they took on the unmistakable shapes of warships and they were closing fast, their flags stood out stiffly in the breeze and it showed them to be our own destroyers.

Aldis lamps flickered between Carlisle’s bridge and theirs, then they took station on either side looking sleek and deadly as their sharp bows rose then fell, cleaning the blue waters apart in a plume of white foam. They looked to be armed with four 4.7’s and two banks of torpedo tubes. A searchlight was mounted on a platform aft of the two funnels and a set of multiple pom poms. I envied the small figures I could see passing backwards and forwards along their decks. ALL my class had longed to become destroyer men, we thought they and submarines were the elite of the navy.

The battleship’s cruisers and carriers were thought of as spit polish bullshit. Of course the bigger the ship the higher discipline is needed to keep it at maximum efficiency. The big ships' competition was keen for smartness and efficiency, both in harbour and on exercises.

This isn't to say the destroyers were in any way lax or less efficient. Competition was keen in destroyer flotillas from ship to ship, constant cleaning both down below and up top were the order of the day in harbour, in which the paint chipper and scraper and gallons of paint were used.

Bales of waste, and as it became scarcer, rags and tins of blue bell metal polish gave the ships their smart appearance. The two destroyers which had closed Carlisle, now fell in ahead and off in the port and starboard quarters. The weather was typical 'Mediterranean', blue cloudless sky and blue sea came together in a faint haze on the horizon, and by now, as we left Gib' behind, everyone was showing a bit of sun tan as we became acclimatised to the constant barrage of sunshine. We had heard rumours of Italian participation alongside the Germans being announced any day now, and realised we were not here just for a holiday.

Occasionally, action stations were practised just in case, and although a nuisance, we realised their implicat1ons. The tensions were heightened by the fact that occasionally, the two destroyers would race ahead to investigate the source of any smoke just on the horizon, and would return an hour or two later with the shutters of their Aldis lamps flickering and being answered from the light cruiser's signal platform

We carried signal flags for semaphore, besides the shuttered lamp, but the lamp seemed more convenient, also signal pennants could run up to the yard-arms for general signals. The four days from Gib. to Malta soon passed. A metallic voice over the tannoy announced we would arrive early one morning and now, all we youngsters who had never been away from home before, thought of home as a place as far away as the moon. Remember those were the days when air travel and holiday beaches were only for the few who had hefty bank balances. So lads from mine or factory with no previous experience of foreign travel were bound to feel a bit homesick for a while.

I remember being awakened by a terrific din as the anchor cable rattled down and the ship shuddered. Voices were shouting orders and feet clattered up and down ladders, deadlights and scuttles were opened up, the warm sun streamed its rays through the portholes and looking through one, I caught my first view of a floating dock.

The roadways and streets seemed to come right down to the water, and the white stone of the buildings seemed to have an Anglo-Italian flavour, the Maltese. Apparently these people were allowed aboard R.N. ships to take away any clean food not used up by the crews. They carried round tins, scrupulously clean and fitted with a strong wire handle. Some brought the well known, "grass hammock" for sale. These were hammocks, which you could roll up very small, like a net and were convenient to sling quickly if you didn't want to dig in the hammock netting for your service hammock. They were particularly handy on make and mend days when you had dinner and then could get your head down, or do your washing, sew badges on uniform or running repairs on overalls.

The day we arrived, I was lucky enough to be allowed ashore and I polished my shoes, got my white hat freshly blanched and my patent blue collar out, my No 1 suit, my tiddly suit as the sailor referred to his best walking out suit. Some had No 6's, white drill suits complete with collar sewn to the tunic and white shoes, which looked incredibly cool and smart. We fell in two rows on the quarterdeck and were inspected by the duty officer of the day and the coxswain. Passing the inspection, we were duly warned of the perils of drinking the local wine and to watch for the antics of the girls in the bars down the "Gut", which could soon part a man from his fortnightly pay. The "Gut", was one of the streets falling steeply down to Grand harbour where we were anchored, lined on each side by bars and restaurants where Jack could get pissed with a pretty girl on each knee as long as he could provide the money to buy them the coloured water they passed off as liquors, and on which they got commission. Many an unwary rating had paid no heed in the hope he’d get a pretty young thing drunk, so she'd provide an easy jump. The wise man knew it never happened and told them to "frig off.”

The beer, "Farson’s Blue Label" was good and cheap and the meals too. Anyway as our team came, we moved down the gangway and into a dysol, one of the local bumboats, rowed by the Maltese. They rowed standing up in a peculiar effortless way. Their boats were scrupulously clean and sometimes adorned with a religious motif.

I noticed some used to wear religious trinkets round their necks. They were very devout. I've seen them cross themselves before they commenced rowing. My memories of that first trip ashore in Malta, with its aromatic flavours and its smell of the gut, cooking onions and steak, egg and chips. Not a bad smell.

In the days ahead, there wouldn’t be much steak or anything else; the German blockade had yet to come. For one who had seen only peacetime Blackpool and some east coast resorts, it was marvellous. We really enjoyed those few hours, buying a few post cards and having a bottle or two of beer. I remember buying a tablecloth with lace motif on it. I still have it. We'd made our way back down to the harbour steps, still feeling a bit tipsy and merry. We shouted for a boat, "Okay okay Jack, I’m coming," followed by the soft slurp of oars and a boat rowed by a proud figure up to the steps. "You okay Jack? Be steady in the boat or we fall in, you too much beer, Malta beer good eh? But no girls eh?" A laugh and a flash of white teeth from a dark face, formed under an old sun dried flat cap.

These Maltese were a cheerful crowd and they loved the navy, we were literally their crowd and better. They were poor but spotlessly clean, and to make it with a Maltese girl was practically impossible. Next day we sailed for Alexandria and after we had cleared harbour, I went out into the sunshine and gazed back at Malta, now dropping astern. It looked white and solid against the blue of the sea, more like a kind of huge white castle in the distance.

We had a company again in the shape of the two destroyers fell in on either beam. The sea was gentle with a slow swell and the bows of the destroyers, knifed through the blue waters with a steady heaving, throwing a plume of feathery spray into the air to gleam wetly on the metal of the ship’s side.

War seemed so far away then, so unreal, yet this was no peacetime cruise we were on, as events some three-day later were to prove. That was when the port of Alexandria hove into sight; it was morning and my first view of that land of mystery, Egypt, no tourists then. A voice called and a man pointed seawards following his directions. I got my first view of a periscope, a slender pole slid through the sea sending a faint flurry of foam behind it, then two more appeared and seemed to be going in different directions. War was very near. This was a flotilla of submarines proceeding to take up war patrol positions for when Italy did finally decide they would be ready.

Looking at the periscopes gave one an idea of how hard it would be to spot them in a choppy sea or the early dawn or dusk light, especially in the hands of a good captain who was determined to get his boat into a good position for loosing his tin fish. The buildings of Alexandria were now taking shape and all men out of the rig of the day were piped off the upper deck.

Special sea duty men were piped to fall in for entering harbour and as we went below to the mess deck, we wondered what would be our final destination now.

Soon the ship shuddered in, manoeuvring to her coming to anchor. You only seemed to notice it at such times, that peculiar judder which a sailor recognises and associated with a run ashore with all its resultant pleasure. Going bark topside, I got my first sight and smell of "Alex", that strange middle east smell slightly horsey and a kind of aromatic odour, wafting on a gentle warm breeze, the water of the harbour was a greenish colour as distinct from the blue of the outer sea. The buildings surrounding the harbour looked to be mostly warehouses with flat roofs, which carried the word MANTACHEF in huge letters, and I could see what appeared to be a large coal stock area nearby.

Across to one side in the distance was a large imposing building, I learnt later was RASEL. All the buildings had that funny brown look that long exposure to the sun must bring. Even the stonework of the more solid thoroughfares carried that certain look that I found when I finally got shore leave. Just now, my attention was drawn by the pipe we had been waiting for; all ratings on passage fall in on the quarterdeck in 20 minutes. Soon we were collecting our gear together in a sweating, bustling group intent on beating that deadline. The blue serge suit wasn't exactly cool as we humped our gear on to the quarterdeck; we finally made it and fell in.

We were ordered down the gangway and into a fair sized boat along with all our gear, then the two lines were cast off and away we went amid a faint cheer from men we had befriended on the ship. We were not long passing the other ships anchored there, which included cruisers, destroyers, a carrier and battleships, we came alongside a high sided light grey vessel, a two funnelled ship. It turned out to be a submarine depot shop, HMS Medway her gangway rose up steeply and made us sweat some more taking our gear aboard. We were shown to a spare mess where we dumped our kit and were then told to detail two men to pick a meal up and act as cooks of mess, cleaning up after.

We found our quarters comfortable and clean, but it was only for a few hours, for next day we were split up among the ships of the fleet. Eric Marsden my "townie" went to the destroyer defender and I went to the battleship, HMS Ramillies along with one or two more of the old class. As we went around her stern in the Ramillies piquet boat she looked enormous, her width of beam, accentuated by her torpedo blisters, and the great 15 turrets towering over her quarter deck really awed us. She had a singe large funnel with a searchlight platform at either side and below that twin set of multiple pom-poms of eight barrels each. Then below these, again lay the boat deck and at each corner of this was an open turret of twin 4 dual purpose making eight in all. And ranged along her sides in casemates were six guns, each side her secondary armament, at each side of the conning position just aft of Bl5 turret were quadruple machine guns. ALL this I managed to take in as we came alongside her quarterdeck gangway. Everything about her looked clean the square wooden grating we had to step onto and the gangway steps themselves looked well scrubbed.

The hand ropes were white, and any brass work we could see sparkled in the sun. I felt uneasy. She looked more like a floating barracks and I wondered if all I'd heard about the bullshit of the big ships was to be confirmed. We weren't kept long in waiting, as we stood on the wide quarterdeck. The officer of the day, telescope under armpit, and the master at arms had already given us the benefit of their examination. Grudgingly, we must have passed. Now we had to stand, while a rating resplendent in white belt and gaiters over his uniform, and wearing a long chain like a sort of watch chain hanging in two loops over his chest and ending up with a bosun's whistle at the end, eyed us disdainfully as he stood against his little desk on which lay a large book like a ledger.

Over his head was a shining ship’s bell with a fancy knotted rope attached to its tongue; beyond him a marine corporal looking the epitome of spit and polish chatted to a midshipman, white tabbed collar and chubby cheeked. He looked as if he'd be more at home playing cowboys and Indians with the other kids. "Snotty nosed little b******," I thought as I heard his cultured tones. "Some rich bastard’s throw back." Afterwards, as I became more involved in life on the great ship, and learnt more about the organisation and running of the different departments, I grew to admire these young "midis". They were the future officers and as such had plenty of work to do and were subject, I suspect, to a much harder discipline than the lower deck.

We were suddenly called to attention and were led away, kitbag on shoulder or underarm through a steel door, into the recess of the ship. I tried to remember my way as we passed steel hatchways, raised and held by large block and tackle, steel stairways led downwards to various compartments. To my left-hand side I saw the batteries great breechblocks looking solid and heavy as they reflected the dim electric lights with a steely shine. Each battery had a large curtain, which ran around a rail looking something like a large blackout curtain, and each one had what appeared to be a water tub arranged in it. Soon we who had joined as stokers were separated.

Chapter 7

By then, we must have been about amidships, and were conducted down to the stoker's mess deck. This mess deck was in two parts and connected by a cross passage. I was allotted to a mess on the starboard side of the ship and shown to the hammock netting which was below the mess deck and contained lockers for our clothes and gear from our kitbags. A large steel bin held the hammocks and I could just imagine having to hunt among that lot if they weren't stowed away tidily. We made our way back to the quarterdeck and fetched our hammocks, and then we were mustered outside the Regulation Chief Stoker’s office, which wasn't so far from our mess deck.

We were allotted jobs and liberty cards with parts of watch, which were either 1st or 2nd part of port or starboard watch, red for starboard, green for port, and G for the rum drawers, T for the non-drinkers, and UA for under age marked on one page. Then we were given the rest of that day off to get to know our way around. Frankly I thought I never would for she seemed so huge after the Carlisle. But after a few days things started dropping into shape and I was beginning to find my way around.

My place of work was down in No.1 boiler room and could be reached from the cross passage by an electric lift or down a hatchway through a system of steel ladders gratings which was the way that anyone wishing to dry his clothing took. Then you hung it on lines over the big lagging covered steam pipes overhead in the boiler room. My first impression of the boiler room was of its size, six great Babcox and Wilcox water tube boilers back to back fed into the funnel trunking, pumps and gauges, valves and small wheels on long steel rods seemed everywhere.

Brass work shone and the metal plates we stood on were polished by the liberal application of shale oil rubbed clean with waste or old rags. The Chief Stoker kept an eye over everything and made sure his beloved boiler room was kept up to scratch. Everywhere smelt of oil and steam. The great boilers were fed by oil, three small valves at each side of each boiler passed the oil through pipes direct to sprayer which sent the oil in a fine spiralling spray into the furnace, immediate and constant combustion being achieved by the pre-heated oil resulting in the terrific flame needed for the pressures required to generate the steam for the engines of the ship. The steam itself was passed through super-heaters. In harbour, only the boilers required to keep the auxiliary machinery ticking over were in use, and yet the boiler rooms were very hot then. I wondered how much hotter it would be at sea with all the boilers flashed up and going full blast. Steam turbo fans produced from high overhead, and controlled by means of the wheels on the end of the long rods from down on the boiler room floor. The amount of air passed down depended on the speed of the ship, for the more oil needed meant more forced draught, for without the extra draught, we would be making smoke anathema to a naval captain at sea in wartime, for we dare not give our position away. Mirrors set into the side of each boiler and checked regularly showed any smoke, which might appear. Smoke was a very important part of a ship's defence, for it could be used for cover of a convoy or indeed in a battle to use her. A prime example of using it as an offensive weapon by using its cover to dart in and out, was the Battle of the Plate, when lighter gunned cruisers had to take on the pocket battleship Graf Spee. The engine room telegraphs had it included in their orders, so it could immediately be signalled to boiler room and engine room from the bridge; either make smoke or stop making smoke as the case might be. It was May and our time was spent working part of ship. Shore leave was pretty generous as long as the money lasted and Alexandria wasn’t a dear place. Drinks were pretty cheap, especially at the Fleet Club, which really was a misnomer, for the Army, and Air Force also used it. It was a large building and a meal of half a chicken, green peas, chips and bread rolls and butter cost about 1/6 (1 shilling and sixpence (7 ½ p). It was brought by an Egyptian gentleman wearing a red fez and spotless white gown. On his breast, he sported a round metal badge with his number on it. If you wanted Lager he'd go and return a few minutes later with a bottle of cold Pilsner and a glass, and he'd pour it for you while the chill still put dew on the glass. They were very efficient and courteous. Of course you tipped the man and he made a point of reminding you of his number so you asked for his service on future visits. Some of the lads seemed to strike up very good friendships with them.

Tombola was played in the evenings and the lucky ones, who called a full house, won a substantial sum of money, so much in fact that to avoid the danger of being mugged, you were advised to avail yourself of the services of the shore patrol and return to the ship with it, so you could bank it or spend it as you preferred. Another thing, which Alex was renowned for, was its Sister Street with its brothels; I remember my first run ashore in Alexandria and Sister Street very well. I happened to be watch ashore and we had just been paid, so I felt flush with a fortnight’s pay in piastres or " ackers” as the lads called them.

Not knowing my way round the place and hearing dire tales of what could happen to young inexperienced sailors, I had to find a mate whom I thought could take care of me, but this problem settled itself for another Yorkshireman older than me by several years, and of a strapping build sporting a "set", as we called beard and moustache, and looking as if he could be a rough tough customer, asked me if I wished to go ashore with him. I accepted his invitation on one condition, that was we kept away from Sister Street. I'll always remember that man for his smile, it really looked secretive but I knew I’d be safe with him if trouble popped up.

We fell in on the quarter deck at 1600 hours, for I'd only my blues and I seem to remember you could only go ashore at 1300 hours if you had No. 6's. He looked smart and of course he had his stripes and leading RATE badges in gold, and I saw he'd a diving badge up as well, so he was a leading stoker and diver. "No wonder he looked tough," I thought. I know his name but he may still be alive so I'll refer to him as "R", the first letter of his surname. We passed the customary exam and made our way down the gangway to the liberty boat, which was slowly bobbing up and down and being held steady by her crew who used their boathooks to hold her into the ship's side. This was a real adventure for me. I'd never felt like this since I was a youngster looking forward to the annual Sunday School trip to Cleethorpes.

We all set down and with a throb of her engine, we were off. As we left the ship's stern and described a half circle. I looked back and wondered anew at her size, she was massive. It was hard to imagine she wasn't some sort of Steel Island with the greenish water rippling along her light grey hull. We were well up the harbour and arrived alongside the jetty after a journey of 15 minutes whereupon the "midi" in charge of the boat said, "Don't forget, last boat 2500 hours. Don't be Late." So we scrambled ashore in a fever of expectation, our piaster lined pockets ready to purchase any delights Alex had to offer and in the hubbub of voices, I realised Sister Street was high on the list. I heard the latest to my collection of naval slang, some referred to Sister Street and going for a "Bag Off", and I realised they were referring to visiting the whore houses lining that notorious street. "Back Shanties" as they called them. Now I’d heard tales of what happened to the unwary, yes and even the wary who spent a few minutes between the thighs of these dusky charms, and frankly what I’d heard about the various diseases steadied my inclinations in that direction. I didn't fancy going blind or mad, or suffering from painful swollen genitals. We walked for a while through the streets, the houses had that sun baked appearance. Here and there were shops with folding steel shutters instead of doors, a slight smell of horse manure hovered in the sunlit air. Here and there, a beer bar, with the chant of ice cold beer.

"Johnny, you drink with young girl?" Now and then from among the passing natives, we would be accosted by either a man or boy with the offer of, "Nice small boy Johnny?" We all seemed to be Johnny to them. Yorkie soon shifted them with "Yalla Yalla. F*** off you gyppo bastard," to which you got a reply after a safe distance had opened between us, something in the context of, “You English navy b******.” If you turned round they'd run off. Yorkie said never follow the bastards, they're likely to lead you into a few of their mates and they can be handy with a knife. Sometimes they'd try to sell you leather wallets and sandals, which if you bartered them down, could be good value and fruit was cheap and good.

Most beer bars provided roast peanuts with your beers if you asked, at a small charge. Some gave them free. I remember one bar not far from the dockyard which went under the name of the "First and Last", and two good looking girls waited on. You got roasted peanuts and as you sipped your beer got fondled under the table if that's what you wanted. One visit in here found them with a box with a handle on and two wires with small grips on them. "This good for you Johnny, get hold please not cost much." Yorkie R went first, taking a wire in each hand. I watched his face as the girl turned the handle, soon he yelled, "Right that's enough." She grinned and gave it a couple of fast turns. "Stop it or I'll kick your c*** up, you Gippo cow." She stopped. I couldn’t show the white feather so I had a go and she made me yell before she stopped.

Those first days with the Mediterranean Fleet were idyllic. We had hands to bathe regularly where we went swimming. Never being a diver, I entered the water by sliding down the torpedo Bluster, you got out by means of a scrambling net and walked along the boom. The motor launch and picket boat were tied up too. We had water polo teams. One of the best players came off our mess deck, a tall West Indian who was like a fish in the water.

The heads’ lavatories were situated forward, towards the bow section and to avoid inconvenience to the swimmers, one side would be shut down during the bathing period, but all this would come to an end soon. On June l0th, 1940, the Italians declared war and immediately promoted a flurry of activity as meetings were held and small boats sped backward and forward, lighters were towed alongside with ammunition and stores. Ships were refuelled as the tankers moved alongside, taking the thick black fuel oil aboard through armoured hoses. I couldn’t help marvelling at the great shells being hoisted inboard. They looked immense. Everything went like clockwork and soon we were prepared and eager to be off. Morale was high; we'd show these "spaghetti yaffling bastards" they weren't fighting a few "blackies" now. With the naivety of the young, we didn't realise then that there were brave Italians and that we'd see many human tragedies and terrible sights before this war was over.

Action Stations and Damage Control and Fire Party stations were posted up on the mess deck notice board, so every man knew his place when the call came. We were still allowed to sleep on the upper deck in harbour and my first introduction to the war was the night I was suddenly roused by a terrific crash. I remember seeing a red glare, which soon vanished over by the Jocks, and searchlights, pinning a small silver speck in their beams. Somewhere on the roof of one of the flat topped buildings, a machine gunner was pumping a stream of glowing red and white tracer whose arc was curving and falling away thousands of feet below the plane, a bloody stupid "Gyppo" with the wind up I thought.

This brief action was soon over, one or two desultory rounds had been fired, just a nuisance raid. I cursed that plane for disturbing my sleep. A total blackout was imposed at night and large black curtaining shut the ship’s interior lighting off from the upper deck. At all the large steel doors, which opened out to give access to the upper deck, blue painted bulbs were used.

We had another alarm one evening as I was returning to the dock after an evening’s liberty, I and Enoch B, a Scot had been for a drink or two and were more than a little merry. As we staggered along, we heard the sirens start wailing. It acted like a signal on the local population. Steel shutters clanged and doors shut. Some of the Gyppo barrow boys fled, leaving their wears parked at the kerb side, and from behind the doors of houses could be heard wailing and calls to "Allan" as if the end of the world was here. We seemed all alone; everyone had vanished in a rustling flash of white. The night and the streets seemed empty. The searchlights sprung to life and picked up once again, a small lone silver speck flying high. One or two guns fired from the direction of the harbour and we saw the small red flecks of anti-aircraft bursts and heard the “wop wop" of their explosions.

We took advantage of the barrow boys' departure by helping ourselves to some of the fruit they'd left behind. As we arrived back at the quay, more of our men turned up and soon there was quite a crowd, many very drunk and dishevelled. The scene was reminiscent of a film that had been sparkling white. No. 6's would now be dirty and scruffy and mixed in a heaving mass with blue and white, as each liberty boat approached, the coxswain would yell her name and the mass would surge forward amid laughing and cursing. Some simply got shoved into the drink and floundered about till hauled out by a boathook. How no one ever drowned I don't know, I've seen odd ones jump in shouting "F*** the liberty boat, I'm swimming back," till they've been hauled back out, wet through and dripping. Sometimes a fight or two would develop but never with any serious injury.

Usually the antagonists would be too drunk to do much damage to each other. You had to be careful on returning to the ship, you had to salute the quarterdeck as you stepped aboard, and as you fell in and lined up, "Returning liberty men for inspection sir."

We all tried to stand steady on our feet, as the officer of the watch and the CPO inspected us. I suspect beneath the stern eye and the bullshit, they kept tongue in cheek for it was obvious most of us were either drunk or on the borderline. Odd times, a rating would get commander's report for losing an article of clothing, then he would qualify for so many days ten A, which meant stoppage of shore leave, and be found a job in the evening, plus he had to go to the slop room and buy the article or sign for it to be stopped out of his pay. More serious cases were Captain’s report and I attained the dubious qualification ... but more of that later.

 

Chapter 8
 
France had surrendered after being stabbed in the back by Italy, and now it posed problems for us, a formidable fleet was anchored in Alexandria with us, consisting of the French battleship Lorraine, and several destroyers and a couple of submarines.

I remember seeing two ships, which could have been light cruisers or the French super destroyers, the Duguay Truin, and another one tied up together, and they were now given an option of being demilitarised or sailing with us. They couldn't be allowed to sail to French ports, being at the disposal of the Nazis, which would have had an immediate effect on the war at sea, and would have posed a serious threat.
Our offer was to leave them with anti-aircraft defensive weapons and to stay at "Alex” till the war was over, or till anytime they wanted to sail under the Free French Flag.

We issued an ultimatum and this expired at midnight when our marines were prepared to board these ships. It didn't take much imagination to know what could happen if two fleets, including battleships, opened fire at point blank range at each other. On the French battleship, they appeared to be running hoses out along the decks and it was beginning to look serious. I went down below to No. 1 boiler room at 2000 hours, and as we maintained steam pressure, in case of the need for manoeuvre, all of us were tense and prepared for the worst, but sense prevailed over pride and our terms were accepted at about 2300. It had been close though, news came through about the bombardment of the French Fleet at Oran, and we must all have felt a sense of relief that the ships wouldn’t fall into German hands. What we would have done under similar circumstances, with families in German hands, it’s hard to say now, although it seemed to inspire the Poles to fight with a fanatical hatred of all that was German.

The anti-aircraft fire their ships could throw up was tremendous and I couldn't help thinking I wouldn't want to be a German pilot forced to bale out in range of their guns. About July 1940, we made offensive sweeps into the Eastern Mediterranean, looking for an enemy fleet, which, although being more modern, seemed to have a strange reluctance to give battle. This despite Mussolini’s claim that it was Italy's sea. Several times the fleet would come under high-level bomber attacks, which although pretty accurate, scored no hits.

A couple of times I saw bomb splashes yet heard no planes, only towering white columns of water, vivid against the blue of the sea and sky and heard the muffled thud of their explosions. Once I saw the old Eagle carrier practically vanish as a number of bombs fell near her. The fleet was in line ahead and she was in front of Ramillies, her biplane fighters, although now outdated by the Italian Macchis, looked reassuring on her flight deck. We had no radar then and action stations only sounded if the look-out could see the enemy or hear them, then the alarm rattlers, a series of short noises like a big alarm clock, would go, and the bugler would sound off, repel aircraft. The same call I heard on a film about the cavalry of older days, and if you put the words to it, it would be like "there's a bomber overhead, there's a bomber overhead, ta ra."

The passageways filled with the figures of men dashing to damage control and fire party positions, feet would clank up and down hatchways, the rattle of steel block and tackle as armoured hatches were swiftly lowered, and anti-flash geared faces would be speaking into telephones, reporting the various positions closed up. Then the waiting, usually not long, ended by the hammer beat of the eight barrelled pom poms and the crash of the four-inch A-A guns.

After a while, hands to secure action stations and then the thankful removal of the face tickling anti-flash hood and the gloves, replacing them in the gas mask satchel, which had to be carried as well. Hands to cruising stations, A-A guns crews resume third degree of readiness, meant although the danger now seemed passed, a complete relaxation and dropping of the guard could not be risked. Every dawn and dusk, we closed up to action stations and remained there till full daylight or darkness. Lookouts were warned to be particularly vigilant for this was the time an enemy would stand out in silhouette and the attacker could come in from the darkest side. Submarine or aircraft could use this time of day to their advantage, especially we having no radar equipment yet.

Although the air attacks did no damage, they did pose a problem in some ways, for men coming off watch were often denied much needed sleep by having to go to their off watch action stations when they should have been getting their heads down. "Crash my bloody swede," was the term often used to describe having a nap. This interference with the need for rest produced irritation and grumbles, but generally morale was very high. Everyone wanted a damn good bash at the "Ities" and were living in the hopes of confronting the Italian Fleet. The weather was pretty good, odd times we got a warmish wind that put white crests on the blue waters, visibility was usually very good. Sometimes the horizon had a faint haze on it. The ships would throw the waves tumbling back in a welter of white spray back from the great grey sides.

Occasionally as hydraulics were tested, the great grey guns would swing round or elevate, looking sinister and powerful. I wondered what it would be like to hear the crash of these great guns, and as I looked around and saw the battlewagons, the cruisers and the screening destroyers, I felt a pride and an exhilaration to be part of this beautiful array of naval power, for it had its own beauty. Occasionally a small puff of dark smoke from the slightly raked funnel, as a sprayer was switched on for extra speed, soon dissipated in the wind, the flicker of signal lamps as shutters rattled and the admiral passed and received messages from his captains and commanders.

At times, pennants were hoisted and fluttered in the breeze, keeping signalmen on their toes, for we had this method and semaphore communications too, and over all streaming in the wind was the White Ensign. Let them come. We were ready but just then they didn't share our enthusiasm. We did conduct one operation against an Italian occupied fort on the North African coast. We and Warspite moved in at dawn one morning and I overheard a CPO say, "We will catch the bastards just getting up for breakfast."

All the ship was closed up to action stations, and for the first time, I heard the 15 turrets fire, a terrific crash, heeled the ship over to one side, I heard the noise of broken crockery and light bulbs tinkled somewhere, and the rattle of the tin hat boxes in the racks as the high explosive went on its way. Again that crash as around eight tons of high explosive went on its way. Again the noise of crockery breaking. At this rate I wondered if we would have any bloody crockery left to eat off, and all the while the destroyers were out there guarding the big ships against submarine attack.

It was all over in a matter of about 15 minutes and we left the area, at our best speed of about eighteen knots, although we had only bombarded the fort for such a short time, the fire from two battleships must have been devastating, considering the tonnage of high explosion falling on the target every few minutes. We remained at Air Defence stations for about an hour, and then secured, and all hands not on watch, went to breakfast. We were elated; we had actually struck a blow at the enemy. No one gave a thought to the carnage we must have inflicted on fellow human beings, the agony and mutilation, it was just an operation against the enemy, and such is war.

Italians boys would scream for a far off mother in the last extremities, as would British or German. We arrived back in Alex next day and steamed to our berths past the ships that had not sailed with us. As we passed each one, a bugler would sound off on the larger ships, bringing the ship’s company dressed in the rig of the day to face us at attention. The officers remained at the salute till we had passed, then sounded the secure, and back to their work. The destroyers would give their salute by the high piping of bosons pipe and the commands echoed over the water of the anchorage as the officers called the destroyer crews to face towards the incoming battleships and escorts, and render their brief tribute.

Not a man who didn't feel a surge of pride as the ships moved slowly to their berths. This was not a fleet that would shirk battle; we all had our tails up. The battle of Britain had now started and we used to listen to the radio, to the accounts of the raids on London and the scores of enemy planes shot down. The members of the crew who had relations in London must have been apprehensive. They only showed it by the odd mutter of the words: "F****** bastards," We who were more fortunate understood how they felt.

July 18th, HMA cruiser Sydney sank the Italian destroyer Bartolomeo Colleoni, which gave our morale a lift. We kept ourselves fit by swimming whenever "hands to bathe" was piped. The weather remained hot. Sometimes we went to King Farouks bathing beach at the other side of the harbour, it was a fine place to swim. The water was much clearer over at Ras El Tin. The French sailors spent a lot of time bathing over there and catching crabs for a change in diet. We thought, "What a bloody war for them, nothing but shore leave and swimming." I felt a feeling of bitterness against them, mixed up with pity for who knew how their families were feeling under the Nazis. They seemed happy enough, what I saw of them. I expect Sister Street profited from their enforced stay in harbour. Often, as my pals and I walked up and down the fo'castle, we would talk about leave and what it would be like at home now. We would always hurry eagerly down to the mess deck when mail came aboard, then I'd pop back up in the warm Mediterranean sun and sprawl out on my "corker" the matelots’ name for an old hammock or such like, used for sun-bathing or napping on the upper deck on make and mend days or off watch times, providing it caused no inconvenience to anyone’s work.

We did several sweeps with the rest of the fleet, HMS Warspite, HMS Malaya were there, and HMS Eagle, but barring the occasional high level attacks, we didn't see so much action, although we had a cruiser hit by a torpedo, one dusk action station with some casualties. I believe it was HMS Liverpool, but it made us realise dusk and dawn action stations were an important part of operational activity.

One morning, the regulating chief stoker appeared on the mess deck. He called a few names out of which mine was one, put a clean boiler suit on, bring a towel each and some soap and muster on the quarterdeck. Being of a suspicious nature where chief stokers were concerned, I wondered what the bloody hell now. Soon we were to know as the picket boat took us across the harbour. We climbed out on the jetty near a tug. It was an Egyptian tug. She looked in pretty sound fettle, but was coal fired and we wondered why we were here. It transpired her crew didn't want to take her to sea on what they thought was a risky business. That business was to tow a latticework target designed in my view, more for rambler roses to climb up. The tug was weaponless except for the service revolver carried by the WO in charge of us. My mate said, "No wonder these black buggers don't want to sail her. What if the bloody Eyties get attracted by the ships and come after us. What can we do except throw a shovel full of coal at them?"

We were split into watchers and I recall going to her boiler room. It was a bit dodgy at first, trying to hit the hole in the furnace from a heaving, rolling deck. After a bit of shovelling and raking, accomplished by a few oaths and given up rolling, we got the feel of it. Its surprising what a knowledge of the seamier side of the English vocabulary can do to let off steam. By now we were several miles out at sea, and after my turn below, I went to the stern and saw the object of our mission, the lattice work target was about the length of a good sized bungalow and looked about 14 feet high. It was yawing and dipping about a bit in a welter of foam.

Away on the horizon, looking like distant grey castles were the fleet, battlewagons and a destroyer escort as far as I could make out, the signaller we carried with us must have made contact, for next, thing we were told, the fleet will open fire on the target any time now. Lets hope the buggers have their eye, in a voice said, "If one of them projis hit this s*** bin, we'll all go west."

Suddenly dark yellowish clouds boiled around the grey castles, followed by the bright metallic glow of the muzzle flashes. The whole fleet seemed to ripple with flame and we heard the rush of the shells as they came towards us. An instant later, great white geysers of water towered up maybe 200 yards behind the target; they fell back froaming and boiling back into the blue sea. "Christ they're only practise shells. What if they were real?" The shells started straddling the target, getting nearer their mark. The object wasn't to destroy the target, but to get as near as possible with the straddles. Of course, if this had been an enemy vessel, the shells in all probability would have hit her upper works, for they would have towered so much higher than the target on tow. After about an hour or so, a flicker of distant signals, a flutter of pennants and we were on way back to harbour. We arrived back and tied up, weary, relieved and black with coal dust, it reminded me of my days down the pit, we were ordered to clean up as much as possible. Using a rope and a bucket of water and a couple of bars of pussers soap, the seawater wasn't the ideal way of sluicing down. It took some effort to gain a lather and it didn't do a man's ego any good to see the sly grins from the brown faces passing by as we stood naked with bucket in hand. Never mind, their women in Sister Street had seen it all and in some cases felt it.

Back at the ship, we reported on the quarterdeck, then had a meal and went down into the bathroom to wash boiler suits and bodies with freshwater. The Engineer Lieutenant Commander congratulated us on a job well done, but looking at the fuzz growing on my face, told me to purchase a razor and start shaving. I was finally a man. I went ashore and decided to see Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz. One of my messmates and I enjoyed the film, even now when it is shown at Christmas time, I immediately think of Alex and the friends I knew and thank God I was spared to see this day.

 

Chapter 9


 I went ashore one day and I came across the ship's Church of England chaplain and an officer. He recognised me and E.B. and bought us a Pilsner each and chattered. During that time, I noticed even a parson can harbour a hefty thirst, he could probably have seen us under the table, but he was liked and respected and would take the good natured banter of the crew in good part when he paid the occasional visit to the mess decks. Anyone in trouble, no matter from which direction, he was available to advise and help, he carried his dog collar with our respect. He wasn't only a parson, he was a friend.


One day we were ordered to scrub and air our hammocks and bedding, it was a periodical duty designed to maintain hygiene, we took out the mattress the lining of our hammocks and lashed them over the upper wire of the guard rails with the rope lashing from the hammock, till the fo'castle looked as if it had sprouted a wall of hammock mattresses. The outer canvas covers, we scrubbed down in the bathroom then found a place over the grid walkways in the auxiliary boiler room where they quickly dried.

After that, we had a kit muster where the items of clothing had to be properly marked, folded neatly with the name showing and it had to be clean. Any items missing had to be replaced and woe betide anyone who had someone else's kit mixed up with theirs, even cloths and blackening brushes had to be shown. Some men got a recommend from the inspecting officer and some got a rollicking, we hated this part of the ships routine, but I believe it helped to keep pilfering down, which did exist on a small scale. I wouldn't have liked to have been caught at that sort of thing, for the contempt we held for thieving from one's comrades was a terrible price to pay. It doesn't take much imagination to realise the risk anyone caught at it ran, after all you existed in close proximity to one another even if it was a battleship with a crew of about 900 men and officers, and news soon spread around who the culprit was.

The news of the Battle of Britain was good. Gathered round a radio on the fo'castle and listening intently, waiting for the score to be announced, when it came through we gave a cheer, "Good old RAF give the NAZI b******* some hammer." It was a bright spot in the news.

We sailed again on a sweep into the Eastern Med', but no joy. The Italians didn't show up. Apart from a stick of bombs from high level bombers well off target, it proved uneventful. Back to Alec, to swimming and a bit of shore leave. Some of the lads were yearning for the dusky charmers of Sister Street and I found it taxing on the will power not to go myself, young blood runs hot and not only stomachs grow hungry.
Tombola and a nosh up at the Fleet Club were a must. It was surprising how the same dusky face appeared with a flash of white teeth, smiling and welcoming you to your table. I found these Egyptian waiters very amiable and always faultlessly courteous and the white clothes they wore were spotlessly clean. How they remember their different customers never ceased to amaze me.

The day dawned on what was to mark my first real taste of action against the Italian fleet. These things sometimes happen in a seemingly casual way. It was November 1940 and although we did not know it, the ship had been ordered to the UK for other work. Ramillies sailed as force D, comprising the heavy cruisers HMS Berwick, mounting 8" guns, HMS Newcastle 6" guns, the AA cruiser HMS Coventry and destroyers, Defender, Greyhound, Griffin and Hereward.

We were escorting a slow convoy to Malta, and sailed, not really expecting anything out of the ordinary. What I remember of the weather was typical Mediterranean, blue sky, sea, a bit choppy but visibility good. As usual lookouts were posted and we were at third degree of readiness, eyes scanned the sky and the sea, men off watch were trying to get any chores done and a few were walking up and down the fo'castle getting a bit of exercise and fresh air. I was on the fo'castle and I noticed that the ship had increased speed. We seemed to be pulling away from the few ships we were escorting. The Berwick and a couple of destroyers had opened out to starboard. Something was happening.

You don't increase and put on speed away from a convoy no matter how small, unless something is in the wind. By now the ship was throwing the seas up in a welter of foam as she ploughed forward at her best speed. Berwick was slightly ahead and well out on the starboard quarter, going back up to the HA gun deck. I heard the Italian fleet was out and just over the horizon and had been running parallel to our course for an hour. At that time I had no idea of its composition, neither did I know that Force H with HMS Renown battle cruiser and Ark Royal aircraft carrier with Sheffield, Manchester and Southampton, three city class cruisers, a Delhi type cruiser and eight destroyers were also heading in our direction.

Suddenly the alarm rattlers went calling all hands to action stations; the metallic clatter of feet on companionways and ladders, the rattle of the chain-blocks lowering armoured hatches into place, and all the time the alarm for action, speed is the essence of preparing a warship for immediate action.

The reports would be flowing in to the bridge from all parts of the ship, of the various damage control and fire parties closed up, gun positions manned and ready, ammunition supply parties, and magazine parties, closed up boiler rooms all connected and the engine room double banked. I dashed quickly down through the hive of activity to make my way to the ford damage fire control party on the seamen’s mess deck.

All had now fallen strangely quite except for the hum of the ventilators and the subdued tone of the leading hand reporting we were closed up, we seemed strangely alone, the seamen all being at action stations. We sat below decks right under a turret.

Soon we were informed of the proximity of the enemy ships and it was a formidable force, two battleships of modern design, far faster than either Ramillies or the battle cruiser Renown. They were Gaulio Cesare and Vittario Veneto with 8" and fourteen destroyers, the only 8" cruiser we had in the force was Berwick, yet we were confident. It turned out we had tried to trap them between Force B and H and bring them into a decisive fleet action. Our Admirals were not the kind to shirk action of this kind. Somerville and Cunningham had the full confidence of us all and they had certainly trained us to a fine pitch.

Now we were expecting to show our mettle.
A shuddering as the ship altered course and then a terrific crash seeming to come from over our heads, hat boxes fell out of the racks and crockery broke in an untidy mess as it jumped out of the mess shelves under the shock of the concussion, electric light bulbs tinkled, cork flaked down from the deckhead.

We were informed from the bridge that we had opened fire on the Italian Fleet. That was why the ship had heeled over, her full broadside of 15” shells had punched her over onto her beam. Now we knew, so this was what it was like.

At the back of my mind I wondered what it would be like to be wounded or blown to bits. None of us between decks could now know what was actually happening, we had to rely on the spasmodic reports coming through.

Our next news was that our broadside had fallen several thousand yards short of a swiftly retreating enemy. The cruisers maintained contact for a while, and one of their cruisers had suffered hits causing a large fire. Berwick had suffered an 8” shell on a turret, killing all of its crew, so we hadn’t had it all our own way.

The date was 21st November and became known as the Battle of Spartivento. We pursued the Italian force for a while but the only way we were going to catch them was by following them all the way to base.

The pursuit was called off. There were the enemy mine fields to be considered and we should be at risk from aircraft operating from nearby airfields.

The danger was obvious. We had lost too many ships and personnel, every ship was needed, besides the rapidly expanding U boat fleet, The German surface fleet was comprised of some very powerful units and they posed a constant menace. The possibility of them breaking out into the Atlantic, even into the Mediterranean, couldn’t be ignored. The Rock was no absolute guarantee that it couldn’t happen.

I think every man was disappointed that the action had not led to greater things, but it brought home the fact that some had died. It had brought out feelings in men that they probably didn’t know existed. Battles are not only about bravery, they are also about that small growing fear of, "If I get hit, if I get mutilated, will death be sudden or slow? What will it be like to drown or burn like a rat in a trap?" Only a fool, they say, has no fear at all, and the bravest feels something in the pit of the stomach. Therein lies the answer to the constant training and discipline. You do your job and you overcome these feelings and once the action hots up you often forget it, till it’s all over.

It was a pleasure to strip the itchiness of the anti-flash hood off and re-pack them and the gloves in my gas-mask case. After a while, I made my way up top. The skies had greyed over and out to starboard. I saw the battlecruiser Renown, she was slightly ahead, about 21 miles away, and as several of us watched, we saw her 15” guns trained overboard suddenly light up in a ripple of lurid flame and billowing clouds of yellowish brown smoke.

The sea under the blast ruffled as if by a great wind, and the shells sounded like giant hands ripping a great canvas apart as they rushed through the air. There was no cause for alarm; the guns had been loaded and this unusual salvo was being fired to clear them. They were now retrained in the fore and at position. It was something to see and hear, 15” guns so near, something I don’t think anyone will see or hear now.

Looking back over it all, I feel that my generation have lived through so much and seen so much history and change in really a comparatively short time, that we are privileged. Not so long ago I was a scruffy-arsed kid, going to school in patched-up trousers, then a youth working down the pit drawing my first wages, till I went to work on the coalface doing "a man’s job for a man’s wage". Now I had joined the RN as a stoker and had my first taste of real action against enemy ships. So much had happened in so short a time.

We picked the slow convoy up again and carried on. The weather varied but we steamed through some weather every bit as rough as the Atlantic, and as wet, with the wind blowing rain squalls. I saw that curious phenomenon of rain clouds on the horizon, forming up and then sending pillows like tree trunks down to the sea to form water spouts. Our voyage was uneventful, we exercised action stations occasionally and closed up to first degree at dawn and dusk.

The destroyers of our screen seemed to be in exactly the same place day after day as if some strange magnetic field held us together. Were submarines really out there? It seemed more like a peacetime cruise.

We put into Gibralter to refuel and were given shore leave. Gibralter didn’t seem like much of a place to me, it was one main street, not much to excite young matelots, especially as we knew we were on our way to the UK.

Its redeeming feature was the price of the drink and the goods you could buy so much cheaper than at home. The boys used to shop specially for souvenirs and I bought a roll of silk-like material. Why, I don’t know what happened to it. I recall several of us swaggering into the Trocadero and as we watched Spanish Flamenco dancers, we drank. I’m afraid a mixture of threepence a tot of rum and beer chasers soon had me drunk! Ivy Benson’s Ladies Dance Orchestra was playing there, as I recall.

Making our way back to the ship, the realisation that I had lost or misplaced the silk came to me. We made a staggering hunt some of the way back, but I never found it.

The drunken spree ended with me being put in the cells up forward near the bows and situated on the starboard side. Some of my mess mates took it in turns to keep an eye on me. Did I get a tongue-lashing the next day! I’ll always remember that first run ashore in Gibralter.

The leading hand in the mess said, "Trying to keep a bloody Jack Russell?"- a term applied to anyone trying to drink his mates under the table. I had a long way to go to beat some of those boys. Consuming drink on such a scale is so very foolish, but looking around at today’s youth, who am I to cast a stone when we say how daft they are?

 

Chapter 10
 

The ship left Gibralter with an escort of three destroyers and a day or two later, arrived in Plymouth to be greeted by the sound of a low spitfire doing a victory roll as it made a low altitude pass over the ship. Morale was high and leave eagerly looked forward to. By now it was well into December, and we had gone alongside the “wall” in Devonport not far from our divisional home HMS Drake, RN Barracks.

What a lot had happened since I had left. I’d seen action. I’d been “foreign”. I’d known joy. I’d known fear. Now I could swagger back home, I’d earnt it. I’d known long hours without sleep. Days and hours had sometimes seemed twice as long, soon I would be home, home in my old bed. Would I miss my hammock, that great sailor’s friend? Well I would soon find out.

Leave was piped, half the ship's company were to stay behind and were due to go as the other returned. It was a meagre leave, four days each watch, but it was better than nothing. I was in the first watch to go, and had to be back for Christmas Eve. My case was packed and I had drawn my pay and my ration card. We were subject to civilian ration regulations on leave, my allotment was 80 duty free cigarettes, my “nutty” allowance from the NAFFI and the all-important blue railway warrant.

All excitement as we fell into the quarterdeck, as smart a turnout as you ever saw. Anyone would think the bloody C in C himself was going to inspect us, cases parked near well-polished shoes. We formed up into lines for inspection. Inwardly we quaked, would some snotty-nosed officer pick any one out as not being dressed correctly? To be sent back to remedy the fault could mean a missed bus and a missed bus could mean a missed train and a missed train could mean lost hours of the leave, which was so short.

But we needn’t have worried, one or two admonishments well doled out, nothing serious. A dire warning on what would happen if we outstayed our leave and then, "TENSHUN right turn, quick march," and away we went, a host of blue uniforms and bright new gold badges, to break-up outside the dockyard gates into groups of townies travelling together.

We had managed to pass the keen scrutiny of the dockyard police who stood on guard at each gate. I had a couple of tins of cigarette tobacco and Rizla papers hid among the clothing in my case, and I realised after that it could have been awkward if I had been picked out for a search, which they sometimes did, and I was told it could have meant forfeiture of leave, over the allotted smoking ration as contraband.

Going north through the wintry countryside, some whiled away the time playing cards amid a blue haze of duty free cigarette smoke, As the time passed, more and more catnapped, heads lolling against the upholstery of the compartment, and moving to the swaying motion of the train, faces some looking little more than school kids, still innocent of the fact of war.
Every time the train slowed down and stopped at a station, the voices of comrades calling their advice and farewells to friends getting off there, aroused the nappers, and sleepy voices asked, "Where the F*** are we now?" Eventually, Sheffield, and amid a chorus of "So long Russ," I stepped down onto the station platform.

It was still daylight and I had a fair walk with my case, weighted down with the clothing and the goodies it contained. The heavy naval overcoat and gas mask didn't help things. Still it was good to be home, but I was totally unprepared for what awaited me when I lefthe Midland Station. No one had said anything about an air raid and I'd listened to no news, but as I made my way to the bus station to board the bus for High Green, I came across the devastation wrought by two heavy air attacks on Sheffield a couple of days earlier.

The City shopping centre had been heavily hit, smoke and steam was still rising wispily and the smell of burning was everywhere from among the piles of masonry; here and there a girder poked through, shreds of glass glistened among the debris and I wondered what lay under the rubble.
The folks I saw looked pale and haggard, they seemed too quiet, no one seemed to have anything to say except from one old lady. She just said, "Good luck lad." By the look of it, I felt they were more in need of it than me.

I boarded my bus after a short wait and found the bus route had suffered drastic alterations. We by-passed streets which had been blocked by rubble from the bombs, which had scattered over a wide area. Years later I read a book on the history of the blitz and read that in two attacks on Sheffield, 400 bombers had taken part. Although the city centre was heavily damaged, the steel works seemed to have escaped, Jerry hadn't gained in a strategic sense what he had obviously gone after.
I saw how the roofs of houses on the outskirts along the bus route, right up to Grenoside, had suffered from the falling shrapnel of anti-aircraft shells, and even now, although roof tiles have long been replaced, I feel certain I can see where the lighter patches still show the signs of Sheffield's two nights of purgatory just before Christmas 1940.

I heard of a shelter near a pub receiving a direct hit and many people dying. People told me of folks in Sheffield on those nights, who vanished, never to be seen again. But although obviously shaken by these raids, I think that the Sheffielders' natural urge to fight back was reinforced.
I know that I felt a tremendous surge of hatred for all that the Nazi's stood for. It didn't seem long before I was alighting from the bus and looking at the old familiar village street. No sign of any damage here, it looked like we’d been lucky everything seemed the same.

The family greeted me as if I were the conquering hero. My mother had a tear in her eyes, I could imagine her anxiety while I was away, I could imagine her listening to the news as it came over the radio and wondering and thinking on what could be happening to her boy, what thoughts did the grey hair conceal, the pressures on parents must have been enormous. I could well imagine the constant nagging fear of hearing the worst.

Father was in the Home Guard and although they were grossly under armed, if he was anything to go by, they were eager to have a go. Apparently they drilled with an odd assortment of weapons, even I was told broom handles. Given some proper weapons, I think they would have given a good account of themselves, it must be remembered that many of these older men had fought and lived through the carnage of World War 1.
They knew what was involved. To some people, they might have been the basis of a good many jokes, but their courage could not be disputed. Then there was the auxiliary fire service who did great work alongside the regulars. Even the usual civilian jobs didn't excuse people from doing a stint at fire-watching, the whole home front was fully mobilised. The people at home often went without proper rest as much as we did.

The Women's Land Army was doing work often arduous and dirty, most of them never dreaming such work existed. But their efforts complimented our work of getting convoys through, their work helped, no matter how indirectly, to combat the serious menace of the U-boat.

All this became obvious to forces personnel on leave who took note and had eyes to see. This new spirit abroad was really something; we felt an affiliation, we were not just soldiers, sailors, airmen and civvies, we were one, rich and poor we had a new respect for one another, a nation moving in union. Why do we need war to bring out the best in us as a nation?

On this leave, I met the girl who was to be my wife. I was introduced to her on a visit to my uncle’s home. She had popped in from the nearby grocery store she managed on behalf of Hunters Tea Shops, a large chain of stores at that time. We took an immediate liking to each other, her lively well spoken manner and the good looks accompanying it soon had me making a date which was accepted, to my delight.

Four days leave didn't allow me much time to improve my prospects in this direction, I resolved to do something pretty desperate - I'd take the other four days as well. I knew it was wrong, I knew I was taking a big risk, it could mean "over the wall", "Chokki", the term of naval detention. The tales I'd been told of what went on in these naval prisons didn't put me off. I realised what I was doing.

We met after her work a couple of times, a few kisses and a bit of cuddling made it all worthwhile. No serious loving, the etiquette of those days where morals were of prime importance if one respected a girl who forbade going too far. I suppose it did happen occasionally, but people took these matters more seriously than now. Society in working class quarters wasn't as permissive those days. The days soon passed. I came to the end of my leave, I bade farewell to Magdalena my girl and to my family. No show of emotion on my part, just a quick, "So-long all." The quickstep on to the bus, a pretence of not seeing the tear that glistened in my mother’s eye or the gruff, "Take care lad," of my father's voice, and the bus was on its way back through the familiar village street on that grey late December day of 1940. On my way back, I felt mixed feelings of happiness and queasiness in the stomach as I pondered on my fate now that I'd broken the rules and taken twice amount of leave I'd been granted. As I got off the bus by the Dockyard gates, I was met by strange glances as I showed my identity card to the two-dockyard police on guard there. They passed me through and I walked through the dockyard workshops, passed equipment and wagons and all the paraphernalia required for the ships using Devonport. Down by the waterside, and on the ships moored alongside, the bright blue sparkle of welders and cutters torches sparkled, the smell of tar, paint and hot metal assailed my nostrils as I approached the towering grey bulk of the old Ramillies.

Some of my mates who were working nearby hailed me, what they had to say wasn’t very reassuring. "Russ, where have you been? They'll bloody shoot you. It's Chokki for you mate," and so on. My spirits sank, did they know something?

As I drew nearer, I saw the officer of the day stop in his patrolling of the quarter deck and raise his telescope to scan my approach, then he turned and exchanged a word with a marine, he vanished, next a squad of about four marines appeared on the quarterdeck. Bloody hell, it looked a real f****** reception committee and looked bad for me.

I walked up the gangway, placing my case down on the well-scrubbed woodwork. I came to attention and saluted the officer of the day. He turning a stern countenance on me, sent for the "Jonty", the naval term for the "Master at Arms", a Chief P.O. who helped to regulate discipline. He turned up along with various documents and no doubt my history sheets, and after a conference with him and glancing at the history sheets, the officer of the day ordered me to be put under close arrest for two days.

It was the weekend and my offence had gained me the dubious distinction of Captain’s report. This meant I had to fall in with the defaulters lined up before the Captain at his next session, close arrest meant having to report to the quarter deck each hour of the day and night. No matter what duty I was engaged in, I had to make arrangements to be shaken every hour by the watch keepers of the quarter deck and had to report there and have my name ticked off accordingly. In effect my punishment was already taking place by denying me the chance to get any proper sleep. No sooner would my head hit my pillow than my hammock would get a violent shake, "Time to report, Stokes."

By the time the two days was up, I was ready for anything the navy could throw at me, it would be a relief to know my fate. I prepared myself by dressing as smartly as possible, I had no real excuse, I could think of nothing acceptable to proffer mitigation, all I would say was I'd missed my bus the first night, then the second and so on and hope for the best. When I heard the pipe and Captains defaulters to muster, a quick glance in the bathroom mirror, when swiftly, I walked along the companion way back aft, the Master of Arms was there standing to one side of a tall wooden desk, several officers, the engineer, Lieutenant Commander, a marine officer all turned out impeccably. “Bloody hell,” I thought all here barring the f****** firing squad. I was marshalled into a line with about half a dozen more, though I wasn't alone in this line of miscreants, I couldn't help but feel the composition of this array of gold braid was for my benefit alone. Surely my companions in misfortune couldn’t have done anything near the magnitude of the crime I had committed. After a wait of several minutes, which seemed far longer to my apprehensive mind, I heard the sound of smartly walking feet. Suddenly, "Captain’s Defaulters, Tenshun", then "Captain’s defaulters, at ease and keep silence."

My eyes saw our judge, the man our various fates depended on. It was a new captain; well I hadn't seen him before. He looked smart but elderly to my youthful eyes, his hair from under his gold oak leaf rimmed cap was white but his face was fresh complexioned. They told me after he was Captain Read, ex HMS Liverpool and he had been promoted to command Ramillies.

Chapter 11
 

Far from being the stern featured man I had visualised, I saw before me a kindly looking man, a man I could best imagine pruning his roses in some country cottage garden. Somehow I didn't feel as scared, his overcoat covered what appeared to be a sparse frame. The Captain's epaulets stood out squarely on his shoulders, a mutter of voices, a quick scanning by the grey eyes of the men before him, his men.

Then the ritual as each man was called forward by name, rank and official number, off caps a quick perusal of history sheets, the questioning by the Captain of each man's divisional officer on conduct, then the quiet voice awarding the punishment: stoppage of leave and pay over long periods. Each award of punishment was duly noted, then on caps, about turn, double away smartly till it came to my turn.
"Second class Stoker Russell, DKX 100469 Sir." The voice of the "Jonty" read out my crime. "Did overstay his I leave by three days, so many hours having leave from so and so till so and so, returning aboard ship on December so and so," and giving the actual time of my return. "Please give me this mans' history sheet," the quiet voice again, my hands all the while holding my hat down by my right leg seam as he scanned it. Then "Lieutenant Commander, what is his work like and his conduct otherwise than this?" I got a good word put in for me by my divisional officer, in fact, I didn't know I was so well thought of. "Now Russell what is your excuse? I understand you missed your bus on successive nights, the last bus you say, yet why didn't you take an earlier bus to the station?"
I answered him, "Well sir, I had met a girl and I had been seeing a lot of her on leave and I simply kept leaving it too late." The grey eyes looked straight into mine, did I see a twinkle of something there? Well your conduct hasn't been too bad. You have done your work well, but your offence is serious. It means you didn't think enough of your ship or shipmates to return off the leave you were privileged to receive, and leave is a privilege. In view of your youth I'll take a lenient view of your offence and warn you not to do this again."

"Master at Arms." "Sir." The Master at Arms stepped forward, "I award this man 26 days pay stopped and 26 days' stoppage of leave." "Stoker Russell on cap, about turn, quick march, then double away smartly." What a relief, no "Chokki", I felt I’d been let off the hook. I felt affection for this skipper of ours. I wouldn't do anything like that again, I wouldn't let him down from now on I'd try and do my best. As I pen these lines, I still remember this kindly man and I'm glad I was privileged to serve under him.

The lads on the mess deck greeted me with, "What you got Yorkie?" On my answer of 26 days pay and 26 days stoppage of leave, "Cor you lucky bastard we thought you were sure to get Chokki." I was lucky and I knew it.

Soon after this, amid a variety of mess deck “buzzers” the ship sailed, we left “Guzz”, the naval slang for Devonport and headed north. A short stay off Greenock in the Clyde, where a further misfortune befell me. Some of the lads had been ashore and had a skinful of beer; one of the Buzzers was to the effect we were going tropical. While looking among my tropical kit to make sure all was there and in good order, I happened to find my white sun helmet in its cloth cover was missing.
A good search of the hammock storage space revealed it hidden away in a corner and lying thrown down, the cloth cover was stained a brownish colour and was thrown on top of a heap of human excreta. It was obvious some unknown mess mate had been taken quick in the night and had used my sun hat as a toilet using the cover to wipe his backside. My wishes on this unknown covered every kind of disease, which could be caught ashore by a sailor, plus a few more unprintable oaths. I got lots of sympathy but I never did get to know who was the culprit.

The leading hand of the mess, suggested I show the Chief Stoker of the "Double Bottom Party", of which part of ship I now came under this included trimming ship, fuelling, fire main pumps, and freshwater supply, cleaning and maintenance of the many and varied compartments.

His little office was situated right in the centre amid ships a bit aft of the stokers' mess deck and a deck below, on the officer bulkhead was a ship’s plan with red and green pegs denoting fuel tanks in use on either port or starboard sides, a large brass plum bob set against a semicircular brass plate and showing degrees of list of the ship was underneath, enabling us to compensate and trim ship by switching fuel tanks from time to time.

Cheify was in his office as I arrived and was checking notes and scanning the plan. “Cheify Sir, may I have a word?” He slowly pivoted his chair round. He had a darkish, “gypsyish” face, his old oil-stained peaked cap was perched on the back of his head and he smiled as his eyes fell on the burden I held out to him. “Well, what’s this then Russell?” “Someone shit on my sun hat sir and wiped their arse on the cover.” "One of your bloody mates I expect.” “I don’t know sir, but I expect they were pissed on their return last night.” "Well, I'm sorry I can’t do anything lad.” “Well, couldn’t you give me a chit for a replacement, sir?” “Beyond my authority," he replied, "I suggest you go down to the bathroom and wash it out. Then scrub it, it should be okay." Away I went, to wash and scrub it. I could see it was so well-stained that I would be the only one with a khaki sun hat if we ever had to fall in, in tropical gear. F*** it, up top I went and on to the fo'castle carrying my sun hat before me like a sacrificial offering, it was. I was offering it to King Neptune, over the side went the stinking mess with a whispered “f*** off” and a hope that the one responsible would soon follow it.

From Greenoch, we proceeded north again to Scapa Flow, there were rumours of an imminent invasion and there seemed to be some unusual activity aboard. Launches passed to and fro from ship to ship, I saw men in smart civilian suits and my mind conjured up thoughts of evacuation. Could it be the big wigs were going to save their skins if an invasion came off?

It wasn't long before we came to an hour's notice for steam. Refuelling had been completed now, boiler room and engine room watches were pinned on the notice board, we finally sailed in the evening and not being on watch, I made my way up to the high angle gun deck. The January night was as black as the hobs of hell. A moderate sea hissed down the sides of the ship in a faint phosphorescent glow, away astern I saw the intermittent flash of a lighthouse somewhere. I mused, the only light I could see. The ship was blacked- out completely, the dark mass of the great funnel and the after tripod mast and wireless, yards swayed from side to side as she moved to the long swell of the Atlantic, the wind was shrieking through the wires and stays even now when it wasn't particularly rough, what lay ahead, out there.

Next morning dawned, cold and grey and we fell in with several merchant-men with an escort of destroyers. This convoy comprised of ships capable of a fair speed, among them some of the banana carriers built for that market and some of the fastest of the merchant fleet. They had a light pinkish paint on their hulls, much like a coat of primer, the destroyers were dazzle painted in dark and light grey to break their outline up, and I expect in snow squalls or among ice floes, it could prove important if we had to fight a surface action. About three days out the destroyers left us, strange this, but as I found out later it was a regular thing on this North Atlantic run which we and our sister ship the Revenge were on.

But destroyers were in short supply and our role was to give protection against surface raiders, therefore we had escorts for a day or two, then a gap till western approaches escorts could pick them up on the British side and Royal Canadian Navy corvettes or destroyers on the Canadian side. In between the Admiralty plotted the U boat concentrations and we would swing well to the south from bitterly cold conditions to near tropical weather to avoid them. Meanwhile we would occupy a position in the middle of the convoy to make it harder for a U boat if it did spot us, to attack the battleship, which of course would be the main target.

We by now had been informed that Halifax in Nova Scotia was our destination and it appeared we were carrying an important cabinet minister and a certain amount of gold bullion. The weather had got colder and the sea rougher but nothing to what we would see before we were through. This was to prove our fastest convoy trip and a few days later we were met by the welcome sight of a RCAF Catolina flying boat, our Aldis blinked a signal and received a reply welcoming us to Canada. This flying boat patrolled around the convoy for a couple of days in the daylight hours and it was nice to know we had eyes in the sky looking out for us. My first view of Canada was the feeling on the senses of the greyness of it all against a backdrop of snow. The ships of the convoy anchored, while we proceeded alongside the jetty. Halifax lay on the shores of a large bay and was surrounded by low undulating hills, with a covering of trees. It reminded me of pictures I'd seen of the frozen North.

The dockyard building looked drab and depressing with snow laying thickly everywhere. There was plenty of coming and going, a number of the famed Canadian Mounties and soldiers came upon the scene and a chute was swiftly rigged up from the ship's side to the jetty down which thick sided oblong wooden boxes with rope handles were slid to be transferred to military trucks. This looked like bullion and I believe there were V.I.P.'s on the jetty.
The port of Halifax spread around the bay and my memories are of one main street with smaller streets running down to the sea and some on a slope to the back, it gave an appearance of straggling a bit. To my delight, my twenty six days' stoppage of leave and pay was up and I was watch ashore next day.

The usual emotions and anticipations of visiting another foreign port were there, the usual mess deck talk of women and drink as collars were ironed and shoes polished and hats and uniforms brushed, new badges being sewn on, gold ones in preference to red, white Lanyards soaked and washed in a bowl of soapsuds and black silks carefully folded to the regulation thickness and ironed. A fever of activity usual to jack, on his preparations for shore leave. I think it represented his hopes and ambitions on finding some indefinable something on a strange shore, would it be a glamorous female, would he be befriended by some rich family or would he get well in with someone who would lash him up to lots of good food and drink and a nice bed on his shore leave.

Odd times people had been known to make a sailor at home and treat him, when his mates on the mess deck got to know, he got the old navy name of "Grippo Strangler" and on coming down the hatchway to the mess deck after shore leave, cries of "Grippo, you Grippo Strangling bastard" would arise, not with any vindictiveness but more with envy and the lucky one would smile. One or two seemed to manage to get their legs under the table wherever they went. My first run ashore in Canada ended up being roused from a drunken sleep in the snow of someone’s garden and being warned of the dangers of doing that in such a cold climate. I ended up by being escorted by a Canadian shore patrol and fixed up with a bed at one of the shore establishments for sailors with all night leave.

A number of my mates came to grief when they sampled the Canadian Whisky and Black Horse beer, but a curious fact emerged, wherever Jack first visited a strange port, he first seemed to have to sample the booze to the extreme, nearly like a ritual. After the booze, the women, and you could nearly bet on who would be the first to qualify for the C.D.A mess (caught disease ashore). I imagine the surgeon Commander used to swear to himself for the trouble he had repairing the ravages of genitally transmitted diseases. It's funny how some never learned, even to treating it more like a big joke, it meant being separated into a special mess, no shore leave 'til they were cleared, and no tot before the midday meal, then the jibes from pals. "F*** off you dirty bastard you'd put your prick in anything," and words to that effect.

They were treated with M and B tablets, penicillin not being available then, on returning to their usual duties and their mess deck "hoppoes", a great cheer would go up and much concern on the state of their health and enquiries, "Was she worth it?" and "Watch out next time, tie a knot in it before you go ashore again so you'll remember, you silly pillock." To hear this mess deck conversation was a revelation in itself, it could have made a jolly good TV programme.

The human aspect of many men thrown together, the humour in the face of misfortune, the rough concern and the little acts of kindness among men some little more than boys, the sailor was always looked on as a bit tough, rough but kind and I think some of this percolated through from the Regular Navy, down among men who had simply plumped for their service in the Navy and probably would never have considered life afloat but for the war.

Looking back over the years, I see and remember faces I knew, sometimes a face in a queue suddenly reminds you of someone you knew, a young face and yet it can't be, he'd be much older, you suddenly realise you are an old man, yet many of those phantoms of yesterday you can often give a name to.

Then you realise how lucky you are to have not only lived to tell the tale but to have such a wealth of memories to fill the declining years. Canadian cafes, juke boxes, T bone steaks the odd bottle of bootleg whisky the morning Bill T and I missed the Liberty boat and had to dash for the mail boat to make it just in time, as the ship weighed anchor and proceeded up the Halifax roads to take up her position with an outgoing convoy.

Chapter 12

 

The heat of the Canadian summer was in marked contrast to the harsh dry cold of winter. The Bon Ton restaurant was where we ordered coffee and then poured it away and came out drunk. One incident in one cafe jogs the memory. We had been approached by one of the biggest men I'd ever seen, he had only one arm but what a size, he towered over us as we sat with a cup of coffee each before us. “You boys want a quart of whisky?” “It depends on how much it is and how good it is,” was our answer. “Five dollars and its good stuff.”
We pooled our remaining money and found our finances just ran to it. Bill T, Tommy Hanlon and I were about broke then, we trusted him with the five dollars, and away he went to return a few minutes later. Carrying a bottle under his long overcoat, he glanced around and passed it so we could park it under the table at our feet.

Meanwhile, while we thought the transaction had gone unobserved, two pair of female eyes had been taking note, across the cafe floor, sat with a couple of cups and a cake apiece. One was darkish with a bandage round an ankle. It's funny how you remember details so long since passed. The other was attractive, blond with a small knitted hat on the back of her blonde hair; it was she who lurched to her feet and made her way over to our table.

I remember Tommy Hanlon said, "She's bloody pissed," and it turned out she was. "How about a drink Jack for me and my friend." Tommy immediately jumped in with, "What's it worth?" He's nudging me and I think he was living in hopes of making it with her. Her friend, the one of the bandaged ankle, came over and they both drew a chair up to the side of the table. "Give us a drink then." Blondie's pleading became desperate, Bandage Leg kept silent. "Come on, my husband's a sailor he's in f****** submarines. I've not had a letter for three weeks, he’s a b******." We didn't know whether he was or not. Maybe it was all a ploy to get a drink. Then she mentioned a tattoo she said she had her name tattooed on her thigh and would let us see it for a drink. "We all see it then?" "Okay", she said and worked her clothes up with the three of us rising up to peer over the tabletop. I remember well over the stocking top, an expanse of lovely looking thigh and she wasn't kidding, there it was: "Halifax Betsy."

I'll never forget that girl; she was a good-looking woman and was meant for something better than to be showing her thigh for a drink. We didn't have anything more to do with them, but as we left to return aboard ship, I saw her obviously propositioned and going off with a taxi driver. Tommy would have gone with her, but I was not risking my health. I had someone waiting for me at home, no matter how good she looked.

Now we were to spend long weeks at sea, long grey weeks, grey seas, grey skies and heaving monotonous periods sometimes heaving hills of water with the ships appearing on a higher plane, then sinking in a trough till only masts and funnel tip showed, and always the shrieking of the wind, oil tankers laden to the gunwales till the figures appearing on the catwalk from the fo'castle to bridge seemed to be running across a bridge crossed river, as the seas rushed, hissing and foaming, exploding in white spume against hatchways, pipes and values.

Sometimes the tankers had aircraft fuselages as deck cargo lashed down under canvas sheets. We had anything from ten to thirty ships under our protection, sometimes even more, odd times some poor old tramp would make smoke as he tried to keep up with the rest of the convoy, signal shutters would rattle as he got admonished for making smoke and we used to think, "Poor buggers," as they fell behind, "Did they make it?" We never knew, we could only hope.

Times when fog would come down and a man would be posted in the bows of each ship, he was connected up to the bridge by a telephone and his job was to watch the fog buoy, towed by the ship ahead, a series of signals had been worked out, whereby the ships maintained a zigzag course through the fog by using so many blasts on the ship's siren, so many for port, so many for starboard.

Night time was particularly hazardous and we had several narrow squeaks. Remember, we had no radar just then, so seamanship had to be of extra high order. One night, I lay on the mess deck table with a blanket folded under me, and my overcoat over me. I’d changed into a clean boiler suit ready for the morning watch and had omitted to sling my hammock. The only lights were the secondary lights and the steady rolling of the ship and its accompaniment of creaking noises soon lulled me to sleep. I was awakened by the feeling of rolling off the table and somewhere breaking crockery. The ship was keeling over at an alarming angle, in the fog. One ship hadn't turned quick enough on a leg of the zig zag and we'd nearly rammed her.

No matter what the weather we always saw the sea birds, the dark Mother Carey's chickens which used to skim over the waves, then hit the water with a splash, much like flying fish. Sometimes we would see whales, and more than one false alarm resulted from the jet of steam like spray, as they blew, which could have been a sub, venting her tanks as she prepared to dive.

The comforts provided by the unknown ladies of the Canadian W.V.S. were gratefully received; warm jumpers, and sea boot stockings and the Long Johns, made from wool and seeming an inch thick, came in very handy indeed. The look outs especially were thankful for them, the bitter cold of the North Atlantic took some keeping out, the toggle fastened duffel coat and balaclava over these, reinforced by a steaming hot mug of Ki, the thick fatty cocoa laced with tins of condensed milk, did a lot to help against the weather.

The old battleships on this run used to take a terrific battering, so just imagine what destroyers and corvettes had to put up with, especially the ex-U.S. turtle back four-funnel destroyers which were never made for the North Atlantic, and we did hear that one had actually capsized. Then the little flower class corvettes did so much sterling service and were a legend in themselves. Home and beauty seemed as far away as the moon. You nearly forgot what home was like, the whole world was composed of ocean and still more ocean, watch after watch, a world encompassed by ships and water, even the wave skimming albatross seemed suspended day after day in the watery world.

Occasionally, we exercised action stations, no matter what, we must always be prepared. Snow often fell, stinging the face in the icy blast of gales, shrieking wind whipped the spray from the tops of grey green foam streaked hills, much like a watery dust storm. The look-outs squinted through binoculars in their constant search for danger, blowing on hands that were frozen, hands that even the heavy mittens couldn't fully protect as the glasses were handed over in turns.

The good days were a relief, they didn't come so often, but it was nice to get on deck and walk and chat on the fo'castle with a mess mate, life belt slung over the shoulder we would talk of home, girls and beer, ponder on how long before home leave again, would there be mail on our return to harbour and so on?

We were under no illusion that the war would soon be over, or even if we would win just then. The news all seemed to favour Jerry. He didn't seem able to put a foot wrong, but we would carry on and do our best. Why the bloody hell had we to do this job day after day, week after week? The big 15 inch turrets seemed useless, yet maybe the German big ships would come to us and we would get our chance.

It was February 194l. Little did we know how near that chance was and German "heavies"' were out. It came one foggy day. We were somewhere off Newfoundland and two of us were taking our usual walk and chat while off watch. The ship was pretty steady so we were just forward of a turret when suddenly, the long staccato alarm rattlers for surface action sounded. Our response was immediate.
We dashed to join the efficient clatter of men going swiftly to action stations. Already, anti-flash gear was being donned.

The between deck and engine room communications to the bridge were sending in reports of the various damage and fire control parties closed up, engine room and boiler rooms double banked and ready to give maximum power. The hydraulic systems which worked the huge turrets near my damage control action station, had already pistoned away and the for'd turrets had trained round to meet some danger in the fog that we still were not aware of.
Bearing in mind we were still without radar, the ship's company on the whole, could only speculate that the bridge must have spotted something unusual from their lofty position. Now a nervous silence set in, broken occasionally by a cough or muttering, sometimes a query from the bridge to a position by phone, the anti-flash gear grew warm and itched against the skin of the face, but orders were orders and no one dared to discard it till 'secure' from action stations went.

After about an hour, we were stood down. Then the captain spoke over the ship's tannoy. We had you to action stations because a warship's super structure had been sighted through a swirl in the fog, and had been identified as a hipper class cruiser, possibly Prince Eugen(??). She appeared to be trying to get at the convoy, before the guns could be brought to bear, she had vanished. How we longed to have been able to direct our fire by radar.
Years after, I happened to pick a book up from a library shelf and saw that what we had thought was the Prince Eugen(??), was either Scharnhorst or Greiman, as both were out then. This book was wrong, it was the Hipper.

If Hitler had not ordered his big ships not to engage in convoy action, if that convoy was escorted by capital ships of the Royal Navy, we could have had a real battle on our hands and the massacre of a whole convoy at stake.

We reached port without further incident but it proved the worth of the old battleships on the North Atlantic operations. Ice was a menace in the early months. Spray froze and hung from the guns and superstructure, the poor old "dab-toes," (seamen) had a constant battle, keeping the essential parts of the armament checked and clear in case of immediate action. Ice had to be chopped from the anchor cables and shackles, as the ship prepared to enter harbour, I remember turning in fully booted and clothed, even with an overcoat on top of the mess table, lifebelt partly inflated and used as a pillow. It seemed warmer that way.

The warmth of boiler room or engine room was a relief at such times, the crews and look-outs on the 4inch gun positions which also served as the boat deck would huddle together in their hooded duffel coats. In the darkness they reminded one of monks of some mysterious order. One would be peering out from his binoculars, occasionally trying to stamp a bit of warmth into a sea booted foot.

Christ, but it was bloody cold. They said the Russian convoys were even colder, all I could say was, "Poor buggers, God help them."

I remember one dark night, lit only by the light of the stars which swung in the slight arc of the for'd tripod mast, the dark mass of superstructure and funnel, showing darker in the gloom, an exclamation from the port drew my attention.

Gazing out in his direction, I saw a red glow shimmering in the sky, it reminded me of the glow from the local blast furnace nearer home. The point of origin was below the horizon, a tragedy was being enacted out there, obviously a ship had been hit. That minute, I knew men were dying out there, drowning, trapped, roasted alive, we couldn’t do a thing about it, only think we were lucky it wasn't us. Someone's sons, someone's husbands, or fathers and we couldn’t help.

It doesn't pay to dwell too much on such things. In war, men develop a sense many think callous, but its a kind of self erasement of the mind. What would be a disaster in peace time is nothing more than an accepted happening; you are either lucky or unlucky all in the same boat. Maybe that's why we conducted ourselves ashore the way we did, drinking, sometimes a few fights developed over nothing much at all. I must stress these were never serious, they usually ended up with a few days "IOA" if picked up by the shore patrol, or a stern admonishment from the duty officer on return from liberty.

The old Revenge ran the route and I actually met one of her PO's in later years in the coal mines, Russ Shaw a typical old Navy man and proud of it.

One convoy we escorted had an unusual addition, the Free French submarine Surcouf She was big for a submarine and carried a large gun; they said 12 inch, which was big for a submarine. She was lost later in the war.

So the time went by, winter passed into Spring, the weather, though often rough, seemed to have more sunshine to it, the sun shining on this foam topped bluish green, heaving foam streaked wilderness had a dramatic beauty of its own, you'd see the suns rays shining through the wind driven spray.

The ship's sides seemed to gleam as the waves heaved them up, then let them down in a smother of foam. Water would crash over the bows, then explode in showers of spray as it raced over the gleaming decks. The scuppers would pour water back over the sides like a score of small rivers, as the ship heaved skywards before another sickening plunge into a greeny blue valley.

By now we had grown accustomed to it, through the constant weeks of convoying. We had taken some Canadian ratings aboard for some sea-going training, prior to their dispersal to ships of the R.C.N. These boys were good hearted chaps, always ready for a laugh. I remember a couple of them were of Polish origin. Frank Kareskie from Crowland Ontario Canada NA, and a big tough guy who looked more like a lumberjack.

At first some of these lads were prone to seasickness at the slightest roll. I remember one was a cowboy. We wouldn't believe it at first till he showed us a photo, chaps and all. No wonder they had a seasick problem. Some of them had probably never seen the sea, least of all the notorious North Atlantic. Still, they made out okay, and the experience they gained would serve them in good stead in their future role.

The weather was now improving dramatically. We seemed to be getting calmer water, ideal for us, and ideal for the enemy. My mates and I spent less time on the mess deck and more on the upper deck, walking and chatting in between watches, and "dohbeying"(?). Washing clothing in the bathroom, we used to practice handling the dummy practise 4 inch ammunition, a form of weight training you could say, for these dummy projectiles were heavy.

The temperatures were gradually rising and now we could spend our time off watch with a woollen jersey under our boiler suits, which kept us warm. Of course, night time was still pretty cold and gun crews and look-outs still looked forward to the steaming "ki" issue.

Things remained pretty quiet for us. We managed to skirt the U boat packs, no more sightings of enemy ships. The Admiralty intelligence must have been very good, for we lost no ships while we were escorting convoys. Let there be no illusion, we would have been easy meat if U boats had sighted us.

Then again we received that news which breaks the monotony, and it was a shock to every man on the ship's company. We had received a signal from the Admiralty that the battle cruiser HMS Hood had been in action with heavy loss of life. HMS Prince of Wales had been in action with Bismarck, but had to retire from the action after being hit. This wasn’t surprising, for she was newly commissioned and hadn’t been worked up to maximum efficiency.

Chapter 13
 

In fact we did hear after that, that she'd sailed in such a hurry that some dockyard workmen found themselves going into action. I wonder if their union applied for double time or danger money? The date was 24th May. Prior to the announcement over the tannoy, I noticed our speed had increased and we had swung on a North Easterly course.

The convoy was dropping behind rapidly; we were leaving it earlier than usual. I remember going down on watch in the boiler room. All the boilers in the three boiler rooms were coupled and on full power, every sprayer was switched on. There was a steady pulsating throb and vibration seemed to spread through the ship. The old battleship was giving of her best. If Bismarck held her course our strategy was to bring her to action at dawn action stations, when she would show up against the dawn and give us some advantage. Every man was expecting an epic battle. I saw money being carefully packed in wallets, photographs being put away along with little personal belongings. Ammunition was being supplied to the six inch casemates. A line of seamen were passing them along the special metal cradle ways, to provide a source of rapid supplementary fire power to the 15 guns, if the range could be closed. Cans of Izal disinfectant and buckets were passed down to boiler room and engine room, along with ships biscuits and corned beef.

Passing the sick bay, I saw the light shining on the instruments being laid out and ready, and I felt a qualm of uneasiness. How many of us would end up in there in the next few hours? What mutilation, what agony could we be called on to endure, young men facing the ultimate test? I was glad that my family back home didn't know then that we were sizing up to the Bismarck. Mother would have gained a few more grey hairs. I was now off watch from the boiler room and at my for'd (forward) fire and damage control station. We were ordered to put on our anti-flash gear, that's how near to the expected battle we thought we had come. Report from the bridge informed us that the sky was lightening and any moment, could bring the enemy in sight. Down between decks, I could imagine the lookouts straining their eyes for the first sight of the enemy. Our best chance lay on hitting first and accurately.

Ramillies had a good reputation for gunnery and although slow, she had more armour than the Hood, so our chances seemed a little better. We waited mostly in silence. The minutes ticked by, we were apprehensive. As time went by, I knew any advantage derived from the dawn must be slipping away, for soon it would be full daylight, and a ship that could blow the mighty Hood up with her second salvo must be a ship to be reckoned with. I'd seen Hood once when I was in the training division. She had lain alongside the wall at Devonport, and every one of us rookies had been filled with awe at her size. She was the pride of the fleet. A model of her lay in a glass case in the drill shed in Devonport Barracks. I could imagine my old instructor’s feelings, for Old Chiefy Burns had often spoken to us about her in reverent tones, and now his old "'HooHood" as he called her in his Southerly dialect, had gone.

Soon word came down to us from the bridge. Hands secure from action stations, the pipe echoed through the ship, forenoon watch-keepers to breakfast, so that was it, it was over. He now altered course and came round to a westerly bearing. Fuel oil was running low and we must return to Halifax to replenish our tanks and await a new convoy. A mixture of relief and disappointment came over one. What if we'd sunk the Bismarck? We would have been bloody heroes. "All this for sweet f*** all," was said by one or two, but under it all lay a certain relief, faces were a little brighter. Laughter and a bit of horseplay on the mess deck showed how the men felt now.

No we weren't fated to die today. We had to leave the area and the hunt to more modern and faster ships. One humorous incident stuck in my mind. During the winter months, we did have a few days in dock in St Johns, New Brunswick. We were the first ship of our size to go into this dock and it proved a pretty tight fit. From the upper boat deck some of us watched as the ship was worked in by large steel hawsers around great pulleys shackled down to the ground. The tension on these pulleys and shackles must have been enormous. Along the dockside were several workmen attending to the berthing of the ship. Suddenly one of the pulleys tore free from its shackle and the tension sent it skating along the dockside. The men saw it coming and tried to race it, and as they ran, the rope and pulley just knocked their legs from under them.

Though laughable at the time, it could have been serious. If they had been nearer to the shackle when it had first parted, it would have caught them with its full force. As it was, the injuries were light and the lads watching couldn't help laughing. It looked so funny, like a comic really.

Between listening to Vera Lynn and "We'll Meet Again", we listened avidly for news of the Bismarck chase. Men would gather round the speakers which were fixed to the deck head, and when we did hear that she'd been sunk, a cheer echoed throughout the ship, "Square headed bastards serves them right." But not everyone held this view. They were only doing their duty. Like the rest of us, they were sailors, they had done what we would have done, fought to the last. German mothers, wives and sweethearts would now weep for their dead.

They had found a grave in the Atlantic; this vast graveyard of ships and men of many nations. What thought does the tourist give as he flies over now, his few passing hours flight where men endured, burning in tankers turned into exploding crematoriums, drowning or flayed alive by super heated steam, trapped in steel water filled compartments, trying to swim for life through water covered in burning fuel oil, days, weeks, years of tragedy. Why must such endeavour and courage be wasted by war?

A word here on the men of the Red Duster, the Merchant Navy. These men, and they were men, young and old, must rank with all the others in the forces for shear courage. Some didn't survive just one sinking, but several. Many died in open boats drifting for weeks, driven mad by hunger and thirst. Some were lucky, many were not. Ships which offered targets to the wolf pack were more like a pheasant shoot in those days of 1941. Being a stoker I could imagine the feelings of dread, being down below in the boiler room and engine room of a slowly wallowing merchantman, and hearing the reverberation of a torpedo against another ship’s side, or the clang like a great hammer of the escort’s depth charges as they probed for the U boat and tried to reduce it to a water crushed steel coffin.

We were lucky, we of the Ramillies in this respect. We were routed to avoid U boats. Western approaches destroyers saw most of the U boat battle, although it didn't mean we couldn't meet one, for they could range far and wide. The war was swiftly developing and invading new territory. Allied and Free French forces advanced into Syria to prevent German occupation with Vichy French help, but the news of the German invasion of Russia was greeted with incredulity at first. The mess deck buzzed with rumours. Someone said we would be sailing soon to a Russian port. "B**** that. We want some leave and Russia's too bloody cold anyway," was the popular cry. "Poor square headed b*******, now they'll have the chance to freeze to death, they'll really get hammered. Old Joe Stalin won't be long wiping the deck with them."

Alas, their optimism was short lived. The German advance with its bombers and masses of armour tore huge gaps in the Russian defences and advanced with lightning speed. Would anything stop Jerry? Just then he seemed pretty irresistible. How long would this war last? It seemed forever. No-one on the lower deck seemed to think about losing. All they wondered was how much longer, with each German success, would it take to win? The news and Vera Lynn - good old Vera - she seemed to epitomise the feelings of the lads.

Home and family, sweethearts and friends were very much in their mind. Some of the more hardened older men would make fun of some of the younger ratings as they gathered near the loud speakers on the mess deck. "Doughy bastards, look at them," not with any malicious intent but probably trying to show a hard exterior when they were listening as well. Some of the songs of those days were very appropriate. A touch of the romantic coupled with patriotism, "Harbour Lights", "The White Cliffs of Dover", "I Threw a Kiss into the Ocean", "There'll Always be an England" and "Rose of England"! were very popular among the lower deck. As news of bombing used to come over the air, the lads from the areas affected sometimes showed in their faces, their apprehension. Sometimes a whispered, hardly audible, "f****** bastards", would fall from a man’s lips. Others of the lads would try to put a reassuring face on it. "Oh they’ll be okay, they'll be in the shelters, don't worry." What other men thought of as we stood our watches, whether from the engine room and machinery spaces to the gunnery positions and lock-out posts, is not known. I suspect we all worried about the people at home. It was another incentive to give of our best.

This steel village heaving on the face of a great ocean manned by men dedicated to war, 850 souls, officers and men working together, from a class ridden society. It’s funny how war unites a society in the face of a common foe. Some of the most beautiful sights I can remember are of an ocean whipped up into great seas with the sun shining on their crests and penetrating them in an opaque emerald green light, topped by dazzling white foam. Great ships heaving up, bows cascading in a welter of tumbling water and foam from gleaming sides, water foaming and boiling ground the dogged down hatches till it poured through the scuppers in a flurry of foam back into the sea. Uncomfortable yes, but nevertheless incredibly beautiful was this savage pitiless ocean.

One night, I remember the black mass of the ship showing up against a clear starlit night, as I walked on the 4 gun deck for a breath of fresh air. I could make out the silhouette of a lookout, binoculars raised to his hood-shrouded face. He looked like a monk from some religious order, almost eerie, for all was silent except for the creaking noises as the ship slowly rolled her ford tripod mast and fighting top, describing a slow arc against the stars. Another night of brilliant moonlight, the moon shining from the port horizon on a calm sea. Looking Like some celestial roadway over the ocean, such times you think of home. I remember wondering, "Would they be looking up at this same moon?"

The days of the North Atlantic convoys on HMS Ramillies were drawing to a close. The old ship had done her best. We all held a pride and affection for her, and she had proved her worth. The incident of February when the German warship had withdrawn on sighting Ramillies, meant a convoy and many merchant seamen had been saved from a massacre, for this is what would surely have happened if they'd been unescorted by a battleship.

Our last, convoy was a fair sized one of about thirty ships. We escorted it all the way till the escorts of Western approaches picked it up near Northern Ireland. We left the convoy and escorted by a couple of destroyers, made our way to Liverpool. The ship was due for a refit, which would take several weeks. She had an impressive steaming record over the last year or two. Boilers and condensers needed an overhaul, R.D.F. had to be fitted. The upper deck had to be fitted with armour plate, probably a lesson from the loss of the Hood, useful in any case against aerial bombs as well as plunging shellfire.

A fault had been found in the rifling of some of the 15" gun barrels after their last practise firing and so it looked like we would receive new gun barrels. Anti aircraft armament was being stepped up by the addition of a considerable number of Oerlikang 20mm cannon. The funnel was to receive a smoke cowl, giving it a more rakish look and diverting any funnel smoke from obscuring range finding from her upper range finder and bridge.

One thing they couldn’t do, that was increase her speed by very much, although the scraping and repainting of her bottom would help a bit in this respect. Accordingly the old ship entered dry dock on a greyish day in the autumn of 1941. It was Gladstone dock and the ship's company could look forward to a fairly long leave as she came into dockyard hands.

The watches were split accordingly to provide security and standard maintenance. Men were needed to guard gangways and check workmen. An effective defence and fire fighting and damage control system still had to be maintained.

Jerry had already pounded Merseyside pretty heavily, evidence from what we had heard from the dockyard "Mateys" and what shore leave had shown us. From the area near the dock, to well towards the City itself was flattened, and I wondered who was taking the most punishment the civvies or the forces. As I went with my "oppos" Bill Taylor and Tommy Hanlon into town, I think it affected us partly looking at the devastation.

Following the tales we had heard of people being buried, burnt or drowned, trapped in basement shelters as water mains were fractured and gas set alight, I wasn't at all surprised to hear Tommy mutter quietly as if in some sort of dream, "The f*****g bastards." He must have felt it more then us for this was his home town and we just sat in silence for awhile, till the damage became less evident, as we neared the city centre.

The Spanish wine bar was a favourite haunt of ours, plenty of "Julies" for the lads to chat up. The seats were imitation wine barrels and bunches of imitation grapes hung around the ceiling. It was a pleasant enough place, and I remember one incident in which we hastily vacated the place after an obviously drunken female had pestered us for a drink and we had told her to bugger off. She immediately produced a dozen or so reinforcements and things looked ugly, for they were the meanest looking women I had ever seen. For the sake of peace and quiet the drunk got her drink. A fracas would have meant our possible involvement with the shore patrol and more important could have meant damage to our leave arrangements.

I remember chatting to one girl here, she sat down with us. She was smartly dressed, fair-haired, grey eyed and well spoken. She was attractive, a bit out of place in a pub. One thing marred her looks, she had a white cast in the pupil of one- eye but she was an impressive woman for all that. She invited me to take her home and I remember going to her home at Wavertree. She was pleasant enough company but it was more of time passing exercise, and nothing more serious than that, although my mates never believed me when I answered in the negative to their enquiries regarding, "Anything doing Russ?"

Chapter 14


 All seaports, and cities have their share of prostitutes, but some of the lads seemed to think all girls should be the same. Another time I was duty watch and I managed to sneak out of the dockyard with a messmate. We were both clad in boiler suits, and on reflection, security must have been pretty lax for we were wearing our sailor's cap with the Ramillies name band on it.


We visited a pub named the Caradoc near the dockyard, and were immediately beset by a number of women. They were obviously pros. Their language and that peculiar hardness in the eyes of some gave them away. We didn't stay long. A quick pint and back to the ship before we were missed, in case a raid developed, and a part of my duty included making sure that the fire main pressure was maintained.

As we left, one girl made a particularly obscene remark and as she poked her head round the door, my mate slammed it, how he avoided her head I don't know, but I remember getting angry with him, for not only could he have caused her serious injury, but it would have showed we had been ashore and away from our posts, and in such a case we could have been in serious trouble.

Bill T and I used to save our cigarettes and chocolate ration and take them ashore to leave at Tommy’s home till we got our home leave. I left a large case there and I’d amassed tins of Canadian butter, large oblong packs of square sugar, tinned milk and several pounds of tea that I'd acquired from a large chest of pekoe tea, which I'd happened to spot.

I did a job in the stores. I guess it might look like stealing, but I'd already seen some helping themselves, so I thought, "Why not get some to take home for my old lady?" Although I'd built up a nice little stock of useful articles for the folks at home. I'd saved some "pusses" soap, that square strong soap all old sailors will remember used for "dhobeing"(???), and I'd saved a good ration of toilet soap, for these articles were all on ration.

I experienced a couple of raids on Liverpool, but not the heavy raids they had had previously. Our A.A. batteries fired a round or two, and I started an extra fireman pump up just in case extra pressure was needed. We could have been the interest, for a battleship sitting in dry dock was a prime target the Luftwaffe would loved to have bombed.

The next time Bill Taylor and I were ashore, as the sirens sounded, we saw a couple of obviously scared women hurrying through the blackout. We saw them home and hurried back to the ship in case we were needed. As we neared the dockyard, several flares floated down, lighting the surrounding area in a pale light. They seemed to drip some glowing substance, till eventually they suddenly went out, leaving the darkness more intense than ever.

We wondered why the ship hadn't opened fire, till we realised that the use of flares meant they were probably trying to find the ship and the volume of A.A. fire the ship could have put up, might have given her away.

In the distance, a few searchlights probed bouncing back and spreading out along the base of the clouds. The "thrum thrum"' of the bombers, faded, then returned again louder, then faded again. In the distance the noise of some desultory A. A. bursts, that “Wof, Wof” and small red stars that twinkled in the sky marked the path of the planes and occasionally a bright whitish flash, and the feeling underfoot of a far off hammer blow as a bomb exploded. The noise and the 'All Clear' sounded. By then we were just through the dockyard gates, all was darkness again with the huge mass of the battleship looming like a great dark shadow, relieved only by the "faint blue light" of the gangway light. The sentry’s torch and order to "Halt" greeted our approach. A swift inspection of paybooks and a quick, scan of faces in the dazzling light of the torch, then a curt, "proceed aboard", and the relief of darkness again, as his torch switched off and we went aboard. Down on the mess deck seemed a different world from the darkness ashore, the radio playing and the hubbub of men talking, playing cards, ludo, draughts or writing letters home, and the excitement of lads looking forward to seeing their loved ones again.

As you get nearer leave, you feel much like a kid feels on the approach of Christmas. You think of your girl, your parents, mates you left in civvy street, the pride of wearing the uniform of the Senior Service, the envious looks of old pit pals with their offers to pay for your drinks. Just the chance to relax and sleep in your old bed again and walk where you walked as a kid, this time with your girl on your arm.

Was it so long ago you shinned up that tree, do the rabbits still play in the meadow bottom in the moonlight? Does the wood pigeon still nest in that large hole in the old elm? Only a serviceman who has been away and knows the ways of war, can understand, maybe a bit of youth still remains in a man of twenty.

Then the meeting, shyly at first with your girl. So uncertain after the months of the dark and storm of the Atlantic cooped up with a multitude of men. You nearly forgot how to talk in this new environment, it seemed to take nearly a week to adjust, and that environment, and that feeling that the Lords of the Admiralty had only loaned you to your family for a week or two. You felt important and needed, maybe that's why I feel so angry and sorry for the youth of today who have never had the chance to feel like that, although I think there are other things a country can do short of war.

Tommy Manlon, my "scouse buddie" got home on his ordinary shore leave, so his leave wouldn't be such a novelty. "Wait till youse gets home Yorkie. The Judies(??) are starving, you'll need a case full of 'Johnnies' to keep them going." His glowing accounts of the 'Judies' only served to stoke the excitement of the coming leave. Meanwhile, we worked hard, stokers cleaning tanks, bilges re-painting engine room and boiler rooms, helping the engine room artificers on mechanical repairs and steam pipe joints, polishing and doing a terrific amount of dobeyin(??), as boiler suits were in a constant state of greasiness.

All our home going kit was ready, all clean and pressed, ready for that great day. Seamen were occupied in chipping rust off after the months of sea-time and red leading, ready for the new coat of paint.

They dangled all over the ship on stagings, only breaking off for the ten minutes’ break of “stand easy”, when a mess kettle full of hot tea was taken to each working party along with a cup for each man. It was sometimes perilously lowered down the ship’s side by a rope, and over all the smell of hot metal as the 2” armour deck plate was being fitted by the cutters and welders, with the brilliant bright blue flame of their equipment flickering everywhere and the clatter of riveters punctuated by all the shouts and sounds of the busy dockyard maties. They worked to get the ship ready for sea again. The tarry smell of calking clung in the throat. “Up spirits” was particularly looked forward to; it helped to maintain moral and appetite. After the tot of rum, you felt like you could eat the proverbial horse.

Soon, the first arrivals from leave started returning back aboard ship, some looking disconsolate, and some joking with mates preparing to take their three weeks’ leave. The mess deck seemed a welter of cases being packed, shoes being polished, chums brushing each others’ uniforms where they couldn't reach, lanyards and black silks being carefully arranged. Not a man looked shabby, all looked smart.

Then the pipe shrilled through the mess decks, “All men going on leave muster aft for payment and railway warrants.” A quick shuffling of feet, a last look in the mess deck mirror and away to join the queue before the paymaster's desk, a murmur of voices. Along the passageway and through the unlocked bulkhead door, a bevy of officers approached, led by the commander, the paymaster commander and several lower ranking officers. A short speech and then each rating stepped forward in turn to receive his pay, his right hand had to come up and take the left side of his cap as he stood at attention. His other hand placed his pay book, opened at the front showing his official number and photo on the desk, the pay was placed on it and ticked off by the ship's writer in a large ledger.

Then about turn, quick march, payment completed, each man went down to the mess deck waiting in excited expectancy till the pipe shrilled through the mess decks, "All ratings proceeding on leave, fall in with cases on the quarterdeck."

A clattering of feet went up the hatchways to the upper deck, amid a hubbub of last minute banter. A bit of advice on what to do and not to the girls. We fell in and measured off in three ranks. Divisional officers inspected their men, then the commander followed on a brief inspection, railway warrants were handed out along with the rations coupons for the duration of the leave, then, "About turn, dismiss and proceed on leave and good luck, get back on time." This was it. Three weeks' pay in the pocket; it was nice to feel rich, a case containing many things worn in Civvy Street and just enough room left for cigarettes I’d cached ashore. Chocolate for the girlfriend and so on.

My camera I’d tied to the handle of my case, half expecting to get stopped as I passed through the dockyard gate, but all went well and we boarded a tram for the city, picking up the cached cigarettes. Bill Taylor and I made our way to Lime Street Station and caught the train on the first leg of the journey to dear old Barnsley.

We had managed a quick couple of pints, which proved a bit of a discomfort, as we hadn’t reckoned for an old fashioned railway carriage. Our compartment was the single type, no corridor to the toilet. One or two lads from the Manchester area were in with us, and it wasn't long before we had to take it in turns to drop the window down and the flap of our uniform trousers and answer natures needs in the only way possible, hoping no one lower down the train was looking out from an open window, in which case they'd have wondered where the salt spray was corning from.

Then Manchester station and the incredulous exclamation from a woman as my case burst open to deposit the top layer of duty free packets of 20 Players on the platform. “You'd better hurry up Jack and get them away before you get trampled in the rush.” Swiftly, I repacked it amid envious glances from civvies waiting for the same train. Cigarettes, especially Players, were a luxury. What I had in my case was worth a small fortune in those dark days. I realised it more so when I finally arrived home. Going out with the girlfriend, I'd wonder at the queues waiting patiently in the hope of a packet of cigarettes. If a shop had received its allotment of cigs, word soon got around.

Many shops only let regular customers have them, and then only one packet per adult. Others obviously had them under the counter in a kind of black market, queues formed for fruit. If oranges, bananas or peaches turned up, people were there. Orange juice concentrates and cod liver oil were available for children and expectant mothers, also tins of special milk powder. National milk, and powdered eggs from America were on many a breakfast table.

While on this leave I got engaged. I had gone to get acquainted with her folks, and it was quite an experience to be put on show as it were. My future father-in-law had a look in is eye that filled me with foreboding. I sensed he was giving me a critical going over. The mother seemed to set me more at ease, and her meals and baking were out of this world

As, leave progressed and I got to know the family better, I was treated much like the prodigal son. My fiancé’s sister and brother seemed pleased, so all was well. My time was spent between their house and my mother’s. Walking in the countryside, my real love of nature was shared by the woman at my side.

The odd visit to town on the “Tracky” (Barnsley colloquialism for the Yorkshire Traction Bus Company), whose red painted buses had a bare look about them. The interiors had slatted wooden seats with the bare minimum of furnishing; the lights were blue painted bulbs, uncovered in many cases. It is hard now to imagine those old utility style buses, cold and draughty, with the adverts, ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases, trap the germs in your handkerchief’, an obvious exhortation to try to keep fit and help the war effort.

Pub bars often carried the poster ‘Don't help the enemy keep mum,’ with a picture of an old lady's face and a raised finger. Appeals to patriotism were everywhere. Post offices advertised war bonds and savings. I remember collections were made of old aluminium pans, newspapers, cardboard boxes and old iron things. Most iron railings were sawn down by teams of men, all needed for maximum effort to provide the materials of war.

People were encouraged to keep a few hens or rabbits; if a garden or allotment held room for a shed, a couple of pigs of which the government bought one and allowed a ration of meal to help feed them. A permit had to be sought to kill them, to try to avoid the black marketing and careful check was kept but many did evade the Government regulations.

The days passed swiftly by. Soon the time would come to return to that world of regimentation, navy blue, bolter suits, the smell of oil fuel and paint, orders and pipes, sometimes boredom and sometimes excitement, and the nearest I’d be to home would be by long days or weeks by letters.

It really was marvellous leave, so much to cram in, so much, I hardly saw my “Towny, Bill Taylor”. He was enjoying himself though. His face was always lit up by a big smile when we did meet. His girl friend was always by his side. There would be some glum faces when the time came to board the little old train to Penistone, where we would change for Guide Bridge and Manchester.

Chapter 15
 

The three weeks passed and the day came to say goodbye to my family. Mother kept a brave face although I knew she was near to tears. I never kissed my mother goodbye, I used to think it seemed too final, just, "So long Ma," then quickly through the door with a last, "so long, I’ll be seeing you," with my dad’s, "Mind tha does Lad." That was it, no dramatics, no tears, that was the way I preferred it, no hanging about.

Over to my fiancé’s by bus, past the woods I'd roamed in as a kid. Past the tip I'd slipped down with my raggy arsed bottom parked on a shovel shouting, "Watch out," as I skated down in a cloud of dust. Memories with every glance from the window. Then onto the cold Courthouse Station platform with a solitary red chocolate machine, still carrying the legend, ‘Nestlé’s Milk Chocolate, 2d a bar.’ Alas empty, never to be filled again and certainly not at that price.

Bill had gone off to one side amid a few more couples, one or two soldiers with wives or sweethearts, the inevitable gas mask, kitbag and rifle weighing them down seemed bad enough. But to be accompanied by the tears and trauma of saying goodbye amid the clouds of hissing steam, seemed an added burden. We spoke briefly and said all the little inadequate things you say at times like this, as the guard’s red flag waved, a quick kiss and, "Take care Love." Then his quick step clattering along the platform, checking the doors. A shrill of his whistle answered by the train’s own whistle, the chuff chuff of steam to the cylinders and three weeks of heaven disappeared round the bend of the track.

I waved till she was out of sight then sat down with Bill, Well that's over, but I wonder how long we'd be again before we see old Barnsley.

“If we don't stop a bloody tin fish, maybe a couple of years,” I said. That was the thing at the back of every service man's mind. The unthinkable, would he return or only a scrap of paper to announce he'd died as a result of enemy action? For myself, I was hoping the bombers wouldn’t visit Barnsley. After all, it was an important coalfield, vital to the war effort.

Strenuous efforts had been made to minimise the burning slag heaps, all too easy a mark for bombers, by equipping them with piped water from the collieries pumps and sprays it was hoped to dull their nightly glare. What I saw of them, it didn't always look a success though as flames broke through the clouds of steam in many places.

Changing at Penistone didn't take long. Silence had settled on us now and in between catnapping, I gazed at the brown and tawny colour of weeds and grass as the embankment sped past with an occasional wisp of white steam from the engine, and the monotonous tone of the wheels passing over the joints. Bopoty - Bopoty - bop and the slow rocking movement that could soon lull one to sleep.

We arrived safely back. Nothing had changed. The same old smell of heated metal, paint, tar and a slight sea weedy smell from the dock itself, the ship’s bottom had been scraped and repainted with a tarry mixture. She'd gain maybe a couple of knots now on her speed since her barnacles had disappeared. She was a mass of red leaded patches where her rust had been chipped away and it now had the rakish funnel cowl of her sister ships and her RDF gear had been fitted. Two additions to her fighting efficiency. New additions to the close range AA defence in the shape of a large number of round steel enclosures, each containing an Oerlikon cannon in a tier like formation. This gun had proved itself. Its fitting now was standard on warships and merchantmen. Its rate of fire was terrific, pouring out a stream of glowing tracer shells from a round magazine, easily reloaded in quick time by replacing the empty one, which took nothing more than seconds. The seamen gunners could soon refill the empty mags to by using a kind of key to ratchet them round.

I was to see the effectiveness of this weapon later on. I tried one myself to see how the rubber padded shoulder holders and straps worked, you could lie right back gaining a nearly vertical position. The sight was a round spider web type, and a square metal shield helped to protect the gunner. It swivelled swiftly round by leg power alone, giving a simple ease of operation. We now had to move to get the new 15" barrels fitted. They were fitted over at New Brighton, so the dry dock was flooded and with the help of tugs, we were shepherded across the Mersey. Shore leave in Liverpool now meant a trip across on the ferry to disembark at the pier head opposite the Liver Buildings. Good old Scouseland. As a Yorkie, I had grown a strange affection for the place, these down to earth people with their different slang, the Liverpool humour, after all the punishment they'd received, I felt my "scouse" mates could say with pride, I’d come from Liverpool.

They were great folks. The guns had been finished, the ship looked sparkling new under her fresh coat of light and dark battleship grey, dazzle painting, to break her outline up and confuse enemy gunners. All had been tidied up. Down below, everything in boiler rooms, and engine room spaces, had been painted and brass work sparkled in the electric light. The boilers had been cleaned, a tough, dirty, warm job we stokers didn't relish. Confined in the steam drums, we had to wire scrub them, then black lead and polish them till they practically shone. To the laymen, this might seem an unnecessary operation, but the rollers of a warship had to use water free from impurities to avoid pitting and damage, which would cause a loss in operational values. Steam was re-used and as you'd say these days recycled, from boilers to superheaters and engine room turbines. It was used in condensers and evaporators to produce a supply of distilled water, for re-use in the boilers and what could be spared could supplement the drinking and washing water we got from shore supplies, via a lighter towed alongside by tug, or if in dock, from dockside hydrants.

The density was tested regularly each hour when auxiliary machinery was running in harbour or by the men on watch at sea, or means of a draw off cock run off into a carefully swilled brass pot and then tested for salinity with an hydrometer, results being carefully logged. The working of all machinery was carefully logged hourly by stokers and ERAS to keep a general picture of the efficiency overall of the ships fitness as a fighting unit. The innards of a battleship reminded one of a large engineering factory. Soon the day dawned to leave Liverpool again and to test the new guns and AA armament. We had lost a few faces from the ship’s company, and new ones had taken their place. The testing and working up was short, and we sailed for an unknown destination. Rumours were rife, we were going to Russia, back to the Med. Some said back on the North Atlantic run.

It soon became obvious that none of these was true, for we were steaming south with a small destroyer escort and we had had a tropical kit muster. This pointed to the fact we could expect some very warm weather soon.

Sure enough the days grew steadily warmer. The wind itself was warmer now, the sun shone steadily over a beautiful blue white capped sea. The destroyers seemed to stand out startlingly white in the sun throwing a cascade of foam from their knife edged bows, with an occasional flurry from the decks as they took an occasional sea inboard.

You looked at this with a feeling of pride, wishing the people at home could see this picture of power and beauty. A few days out and we picked a convoy up, big ships mostly, decks lined by a motley of khaki and white, troopers with some large cargo ships and a fleet auxiliary tanker. They had a good-sized escort, something was brewing, but we didn't know.

The days now were much warmer. The sea seemed to settle down too, not as much wind to cool the air. The sun shone its rays deep down in long shafts into the cool depths. I saw an array of creatures new to me, the rainbow hued sails of Portuguese Men of War, the jelly fish of those warm seas, flying fish now appeared, skimming over the surface like birds to disappear into the swell in a splash of foam. Boiler room and engine room temperatures were very hot. The mess decks themselves were very warm. Men sweated, just sat around in shorts or rolled down boiler suits. To stay very long exposed to the tropical sun was asking for trouble in more ways than one. For besides the painful effects of bad sun burn, was the threat of punishment for ignoring the warnings circulated over the ships tannoy system on mess decks and notice boards by the Surgeon Commander.
We found that a steady exposure to the sun gradually gave a tan you couldn't have got in Civvy Street without spending a lot of money. Also, one found that the good old cup of hot tea was the best drink for quenching thirst and cooling the body. In any case, iced drinks were forbidden for it could cause colic, although I knew of some ratings whose buddies were watch keeping in the for'd CO2 rooms.

The refrigerator space several decks down, and these guys used to sneak along with a mess kettle passing the small round aluminium pot and making a perilous, descent and ascent, for after all, you'd a drop of about 50 or 60ft, for all the access hatches to it were open. They'd go along in the middle watch when they thought everyone off watch was asleep. Besides the popular pre-dinner rum ration drawn about 11.30a.m., we also had a lime juice allocation It was a strange mixture of lime juice and water with a sweetening of brown Demerara sugar. We also had an issue of oatmeal to mix with our drinking water while on watch down below in the machinery spaces and engine and boiler rooms, these were all provided to keep our health intact.

The fact is that the old R class battleships were never really meant for the tropics at all. I remember at one period we were rationed to a half hour bath time and dhobeing time between, watches coming at a time when sweat sodden clothing with its peculiar ammonia-like smell had to be washed after every period down below.
We stokers suffered particularly, that very irritating prickly heat in which the skin producers a bright red heavy rash, soon accrued if you defaulted on your washing and ablutions.

I was lucky, but I saw men tormented by it who had to have medical treatment at the sick bay. It was no joke. A buzz now passed the rounds of the mess deck. We were putting in to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to refuel and to take some more stores on board. It was a chance to get ashore, for a few, to sample the dubious delights of the place. We arrived just before Christmas.

It was very hot, a humid heat, sweat ran down the body and drenched the waistband of our shorts. It dripped off nose and chin. We longed to get back out to sea. You had at least the breeze of your passage. We did enjoy a good Christmas dinner. The cooks in the ship's galley had done a great job; we had roast pork with apple sauce and the usual vegetables and roast spuds, preceded by soup, which was out of this world.

I've never tasted soup like the cooks of the old "Rami” could make, never before or since. Then came "plum-duff" with plenty of white custardy sauce. If was hot but we did justice to that meal. There were several amusing incidents during our short stay at Freetown, I remember three of the natives came out in dugout canoes; they were stripped naked except for wearing old frayed shorts. They were powerful well-muscled men, no doubt years of paddling the heavy log built canoes had built a physique the envy of many of us. In the bows of one was perched a small squat figure wearing a red fez, like the one’s I'd seen worn in the Fleet club in Alex.

As it drew nearer I saw a chimp like ape. He looked utterly miserable, for there was quite a chop on the water and he was getting a wetting every time a paddle thrust shoved the Canoe forward. A voice said, "F****** hell, look. I think it's the "'Jonty", a reference to the Provost C.P.U. not always loved by the big shipmen. Then we had dug-outs alongside with black faces upturned and pleading for us to throw a "Glasgow Tanner Johnie" or a "Liverpool penny Johnie". One of our lads obliged with the old penny, they'd let it sink and sit there looking innocent then one would pop over the side with hardly a splash. All one would see would be the pale flesh of rapidly disappearing pink soles into the depths, we'd wait and wonder where he'd gone, "Christ the poor b******* must have drowned," but he'd pop up with a big flash of grinning white teeth. Now "Johnie Glasgow Tanner me poor, lots of kids." They seemed a happy-go-lucky crowd although the odd argument would break out if someone tried to muscle in on another’s pitch.
We had a load of Maconochie's oval tins of herrings in tomato sauce, for some reason no one would eat them. The people at home would have been glad of them. It was decided to ditch them. They'd sit there, the tin flashed as it undulated lower and lower underneath. Then with a little sigh, over one would go, to appear after quite a while grinning all over. "Bloody big eats Johnie, some more. You throw more?"

The time came to put to sea again, and as we prepared to weigh two of the cooks appeared by the guardrails amidships. In a large cardboard box was a large quantity of pork crackling, it was rapidly going off and had to go over the side, two dug-outs had come up and they were just in time to see the box with its contents go over the side.

Well this was a naval battle with a difference. They lashed out at one another with paddles and fists, till it ended up with one from each canoe in the water having a tug of war with each other for the box, how it ended I don't know.

Chapter 16


 "Special sea duty men prepare for leaving harbour," had been piped and, "all men out of the rig of the day, clear the upper deck."
So, once again we were on the move. The familiar throb of engines faintly pulsated through the stoker's mess deck. "Buzzers" were rife. We were going to the Pacific to join up with the battleship Prince of Wales, the battle cruiser Repulse and the Dutch East Indies Fleet. We were going to deliver a troop convoy to Singapore and so on. We were going to help build up the Naval strength of the Americans after the damaging attack on Pearl harbour.

Japan attacked at dawn of the 8th December, 7th December British time, and Churchill had announced an immediate declaration of war on the Japanese, but the buzzers were all proved to be wrong. Now I was to experience an old Navy custom and to take my part in "Crossing The Line".

A large canvas pool had been rigged up and pumped full of water from the fire main. Some boards and steps had been arranged around it and a large stool had been placed at its edge, several old hands mostly on the burly side surrounded it while two waded up to their waists in the pool. Then a party armed with home made rope ends softened with rags, set off hunting out the uninitiated among us.

They were all dressed as pirates. They roamed around pretending to haul us to King Neptune’s court. One was sat on a chair dressed as King Neptune with trident in hand. A bit of harmless buffeting with the rags followed, then a character with a large cardboard razor pretended to give a quick shave after which a pill made of soap was popped in the mouth. Then you were tipped into the pool and ritually ducked.

Now you had been accepted into King Neptune’s domain, it was a bit of fun and the certificate we received was a source of pride to men who, a short time before, had hardly seen the sea.

My crossing the line certificate is dated the 27th day of December 1941. Longitude l1 deg 22’ W. I was to cross the line a few more times yet, it now seemed eons of time since I'd first joined the Ramillies in the Med. I'd seen the gales of the Atlantic, the large convoys, I'd been to Iceland, where Churchill had addressed us from the top of the 15inch turret, after which I visited an American battlewagon, "The New Mexico"; a great experience, for their messing arrangements made ours look primitive.

At that time you could have lain on their mess decks and I doubt if you'd have got dirty. The soda fountain was there with different colours of mineral water. We had a meal with a menu and it was served up like a restaurant.

A return visit from our opposite numbers filled me with shame. They came aboard at tea time to a meal of bread and jam and we were that short of crockery, some of us had to drink from condensed milk tins with the lid pared back, and you even had to lock it in your locker, or it could go missing.
Still, in all fairness, we had been at war a year or two and the U-boats had hammered our convoys. It was war and we had to manage best we could.

Things were now much better after our refit at Liverpool. New crockery adorned the mess deck shelves, and Captains rounds made the mess deck sparkle, with cutlery and spoons polished and tea chests and mess kettles you could use as a mirror.
The good old blue bell metal polish was applied with great effect, the days were warm, but as our tans developed, we grew into a kind of self-developed tropical routine. The bathrooms for officers and men were only opened up for half an hour at the end of each watch. We’d learnt to "dhobey"(??) our sweat soddened vests, underpants, and the white cap covers we wore as boiler room or engine room head gear, along with a quick rubout of boiler suits at the same time as we bathed.

Water for drinking and washing was strictly controlled, for we had to depend more and more on the water distilled by the evaporators. We even put nuts and bolts in the mess deck drinking tanks in the belief that this would add mineral salts to the distilled water. These tanks were locked at times too. We couldn't help but use much more water in these tropical conditions; you could use a special issue of soap, salt-water soap that was supposed to produce a lather.

Try as I could, I never found it lathered well and I think it increased the risk of prickly heat, so I soon passed that idea by.
We passed the island of St Helena. The weather was keeping good. Alarms were now very infrequent, although exercising action stations to keep us on our toes caused a few inevitable grumbles.

The transports kept station day after day as if bound by some invisible magnet. It seemed more like a peacetime cruise. The weather had lost much of its fierce heat though it was still very warm.

The whole ship's company was now looking bronzed, some more swarth were nearly black. A few pale faces still showed among the stokers on the mess deck who spent most time off watch napping on the mess deck.
These men seemed more susceptible to prickly heat. The fittest were those among us who preferred to keep a regular routine of pacing the fo'castle between resting and watching?

It wasn't long now before the weather got a good bit cooler, and the Cape came into sight, a sight unforgettable after the long days at sea. The flat top of the plateau adorned by a layer of thin wispy cloud and the land scent carrying a promise of new experiences ahead. The talk was of shore leave, beer and the illusionary delights of the South African "parties" as Jack called the women folk. We had heard tales of the South African hospitality and how generous a people they were, so we were eager and raring to go.

We were granted shore leave after the ship tied up. We had a lecture on South African law and were warned against the serious view taken of whites who fraternised with the black populace. To men who had been under the impression they were fighting for freedom, it seemed rather hard to understand, for South African servicemen were fighting in the Western desert and in the air as our allies and the newsreel pictures of Jan Smuts, their leader showed him as a decent sort of chap. Nevertheless, the main deck echoed to the bustle and noise of the lads preparing for the first run ashore in South Africa. Cigarettes and the odd bar of nutty were secreted in that triangular pocket inside the left breast side of the tunic. You never knew what these commodities would buy. Warning was given not to enter the No. 6 District - this was an out of bounds area and no whites entered there.

My first run ashore was in reality a disappointment. Three of us sampled the lager, Lion and Castle Lagers. He tried the wine and the Commando brandy produced there. The girls didn't seem particularly interesting and the place just didn't live up to what we had expected. A few cards were the only souvenirs I brought aboard at 2300 hours. The weather seemed quite cool after the warmth of the tropics; the three of us were soon in our hammocks.

Reveille next morning, and after breakfast all hands not watch keeping turned to cleaning ship. Several of the boys had claimed to have made a hit with the girls, but some of their yarns took a bit of believing. At stand easy I popped up to the upper deck with my "cuppa" and a seaman standing near, having a quick smoke before, "Out pipes, carry on working," was sounded, said, "Eh, Yorky, look at that F****** thing in the water." A round shining head looking black and slick, with two large pupil-less black eyes, had popped up and was gazing up from the water. It was a seal, something many of us had only seen in a zoo.

Shore leave found Bill, Tommy and me deciding to find out the risks of entering the out of bounds area after dark. It was an all black place on its outer fringes we came across a few Cape coloureds. They were of mixed blood and the girls we saw were really beautiful, more like Latin type women.

Our attempts to chat them up brought smiles and laughter, white teeth and dark hair enhanced their smiles and good looks, but they soon made it plain we were way off the beam and we moved on. Contact was finally established when we met up with two black women and it was touch and go whether we followed them further or went back.

I didn't relish the idea of proceeding further in this place. We had left the bright lights behind and now the lighting was dim. Furtive shapes flitted among the odd mixture of buildings which appeared to have plenty of corrugated sheeting among their composition. We heard slight shuffling noises in the darkness.
I now knew how easy it could be to vanish here, I always associated dark skins with gleaming knives, why, I wouldn't know.
Maybe the cinema of those days gave that impression. My companions didn't share my unease and so, in response to the, "You come along sailors, you no afraid," we followed them and soon came to a dwelling, if I could call it such, composed of a brick like substance and a corrugated roof.
This was their home. It had a bed in one corner and what appeared to be a home-made stove for cooking on, more like a small watchman’s fire. Even for two, it was small and I couldn't help feeling sorry for these two women.

I had never up to then seen a more miserable place, a bit of netting on the floor and a few pans hung up and one old chair, that was about it. I decided to get out and tried to communicate my feelings to my companions without causing affront to the two women whom I knew for all their quiet dignity, were two whores. My mind was finally made up when they suggested we have a bite to eat. The "bite" turned out to be something, which looked like corned beef and was kept in a large square tin from which came a few blue bottles.

Each of us said we weren't hungry. Each of us tried to pass the buck, trying to get one to take a mouthful, so as not to offend the women. I'd never been in a situation like that before, trying not to offend two whores by not partaking of their offer of putrid food, never again would I walk into such a situation.

It's now or never I decided. Rising to my feet I said, "I'm off back to the ship and you two can please yourselves." A bit of arguing and they decided to stay, the older looking of the two offered to escort me and I was glad of her company, for a tall dark shadowy figure followed us and what he was saying I couldn't understand. He was either a pimp or some type of thug.

She kept answering back in a language I couldn't understand. On a corner nearer civilisation again, I met up with another sailor and felt a sense of relief at the safety in numbers theory. "Going to the dockyard Jack?" "Yes." "So am I." With that, we made our way back together, back to the old hammock and security of the ness deck.

Bill and Tommy stayed all night and I saw them next morning when they returned aboard from their seven bells leave. "Why didn't you stay? We had a right good time." How, I can only imagine in that cramped apology for a garden shed. Significantly they hadn't a penny to their name, and a couple of days later, Bill got the wind up on noticing a slight colourless discharge when he went to urinate. He was lucky, on examination the sick bay cleared him. It was only a "gleet", a strain of some sort. Nobby wasn't so lucky and only proved what we expected. We had spotted him with a black girl who reminded one of a black doll. She had flashing dark eyes framed by cheeks, adorned by a large area of rouge, giving that impression of a doll.
Where will power was concerned, "Nobby" was deficient. Nobody would have a bet on him coming off shore leave and keeping clear of the CDA mess.

This trip proved no exception and he was soon "squeezing up," a mess deck term describing the gonorrhoea, and he was in the CDA mess again. As he packed his toilet articles to leave the stoker's mess deck, the boys derided him. "You dirty b******. You’ll learn Nobby." But you have to hand it to him, he would just laugh and retort; "Somebody's to keep the sick bay Tiffys happy." Someone said he had only to look at a "party" and he caught the boat up, I once saw a photo of his wife and I remember telling him what a bloody fool he was. She was a lovely looking woman. Nobby, where are you now. For all his faults he was a great guy.

Soon we were out at sea again and heading North in the Indian Ocean, we were back to cruising routine, interrupted by A.A. exercises, giving the recently fitted Oerlikons(??) and their gunners some training.

The weather soon warmed up again and the ship rode easily through a moderate blue sea in which her wake showed up startlingly white. Our destination was Durban and the mess deck was agog with the usual "buzzers". We were going to join the far Eastern Fleet at Singapore. Some said we were going to Ausie Land. Some of the older hands passed on their knowledge of Durban and it sounded, as it was a good deal better than the Cape. It did a lot for morale. Everyone was looking forward; collars were washed to achieve the palest blue. Lanyards were scrubbed white, white caps were blanched, everyone on the mess deck was excited and the glummest faces were those under punishment whose shore leave was stopped, and the men of the CDA mess whose chances of leave were nil till they were passed as clear of VD.

Off watch at night, I wandered at the heavens as I paced the fo’castle. The swish of our wake, the slow arc of the masts against a dark blue velvet sky, and all against the most brilliant and numerous stars, I could ever remember seeing, you could even see the heat shimmering over the funnel. It seemed a world of its own; you could even forget that under your feet below decks were hundreds of men.

I loved those walks and feel sorrow that old friends, thousands of miles away were not here, living the experiences I was living. My walks weren't always smooth though. When the ship was pitching, you sometimes walked uphill a bit and next minute you nearly broke into a trot as water foamed over the bows and round the feet leaving the deck planking, anchor chains and capstan gleaming and wet, with face smarting and damp from the spray as the wind carried it back, flying and giving a polish to the great 15 inch for’d turret and the armoured conning position.

Chapter 17
 
About this time I developed a sore heel and the lump in my groin pointed to blood poisoning. I must have got it from the rubbing of lace less working boots, in the heat of the boiler room. It was an advantage to be able to quickly slip the boot off and empty the accumulation of sweat out. Yes, it got so hot that you actually collected an amount of sweat in your boots; it saturated boiler suit and vest, trickled down the body and legs in a tickling sensation. All you drank simply bubbled out again; the sweat rag draped round the neck and used to wipe the perspiration from the face and upper parts was wrung out time and time again.

'B' boiler room was the hottest, being sandwiched between 'A' and 'C'. On full power and the turbo steam fans full on it did little to alleviate the heat of the boiler room, for the hot air from the upper deck brought down by the fans seemed cold, so you were actually chilled if you got under it. You had to take immediate advantage of the half hour in between watches, that the bathroom was unlocked to bathe and wash the stinking ammonia like smell of fresh sweat of the boiler room, ready for your next watch below. My sore heel worried me. I felt my shore leave in Durban could be in jeopardy. I reported to the sick bay where the sick bay "tiffy" cleaned and dressed it and gave me a couple of tablets to swallow, and thus I managed and kept my watches till that glorious day when we came alongside in Durban.

All was the usual, bustle, men preparing for shore leave, duty watch men taking over auxiliary watches, men preparing to refuel ship, shore telephone connected up to the ships by the communication department, armed sentries posted by the gangway.

Looking so inviting was the nearby squareness of the Durban skyline. We hadn't far to go to a subway, which took you to the waterfront road. I had to go over the gangway in the course of my duties and not far along the dock was a building selling various commodities, I made my way there and asked about antiseptics, and what they could offer for my sore heel.

Someone said Dettol was good, so I purchased a fair sized bottle and resolved I'd soak that bloody heel of mine in the stuff on a kill or cure basis, for the sick bay didn't seem to be doing me any good, and I knew if I ended up in a sick bay bed my shore leave would be up the spout.

Off watch I looked through my gear and reluctantly decided to tear one of my white fronts up, I made a pad from it and liberally soaked it in pure Dettol, then bound it round my heal with the bandage I'd been wearing over it. It stung like hell at first, but it must have done it good for next day the inflammation had subsided. I gave it no let up and soaked it again before I prepared for a run ashore next day.
The lads who had been watch ashore, returned with glowing accounts of the hospitality of the Durbanites, "Plenty of bloody Grippoes here Yorky," and the "parties girls, you couldn’t go wrong." “Bloody great cars pulling up, wanting to show you around."

The weather was glorious, the ship’s company looked fighting fit, and as we prepared for shore leave in this fantastic paradise, we preened and prepared ourselves like a party of debutantes at some coming out party. Every detail of dress was carefully scanned from the blanched white cap to the tip of the highly polished shoes, and all this without any female help.

Discipline and pride and the impression we hoped to create ashore did wonders for the crew of the old Rami and when I went ashore with stoker Phillips, a new pal, I felt seven feet tall. My heel was much better now and as we emerged out on the water front roadway, with a seven "beller" leave to kill, it was hard to resist several offers from people whose cars were ticking over there, to go with them to see the sights and be shown around, especially as there seemed plenty female company, both young and old.

Long days at sea impose a strain on men, days without seeing a woman, and yet we both stuck to our plans and decided we would see Durban on our own first. That first shore leave in Durban was marvellous; we enjoyed ice-cold lager and ate in between salads and an odd sandwich. West Street, the main thoroughfare, had an American looking flavour, but without the big skyscrapers, everything looked clean. But I found it a bit disconcerting to have the black population step off the sidewalk as we approached, I had an impression of a secret fear of us, and yet we meant them no harm at all. Was it the uniform? We hadn't much idea of the political set-up and learned as we went along that they were in fear.

It made one wonder why, as allies, South Africans and we were fighting for a thing called freedom when the black population were treated in the way they were. During all my time out there, this fact jarred on my senses. That first run ashore brought me into contact with my first South African girl. We met up with two girls and accompanied them home. But it was really a home for girls from out of the town, whose work was in Durban. We sat on seats outside and chatted in the dusk till it grew dark, I kept feeling a leg touch mine and knew then I'd made some impression. She wasn't a bad looking girl either, a brunette type, brown eyes and with a good figure. I thought things over and I made my mind up; why not arrange to see her again if she wanted to. I'd much rather see Durban with a pretty girl on my arm than hang around night after night. The only drag was the fact she had to be back at her digs by 10 p.m. Eunice Pits, for that was her name, was a great lass, as we'd say in Yorkshire. We did meet again and enjoyed our days together. When she could get off, we swam together and walked together. We grew to look forward to our meetings, but that 10 p.m. curfew spoilt things. We never went too far, although I reckon it wouldn’t have been hard, we had grown to like each other so much. She worked on the telephone switchboard, so it was no surprise when she started asking for me on the shore extension, and the telegraphist rating would come down on the stokers' mess deck: "Stoker Russell, that f****** party of yours is on the phone again," Then a chorus of, "You doughy b****** Yorky, get up and tell her to get a mate for me." I felt flattered not insulted. I knew these lads who had seen me with Eunice, envied me and it was their way of wishing me well. I remember passing a party of midshipmen and "subis" ashore and it was amusing to see their faces as I passed them with this girl, in shorts and blouse, with towels under our arms, going for a swim. I'd have loved to have heard their comments.

Durban was a place I could really have settled in. The tunes currently on the air and being played at dances then seemed to go with the place. “Begin the Beguine” and “Sand In My Shoes” were popular then, with their tropical overtones, they fitted in with the mood of the days at Durban.

I had given her my home address in the UK and she told me she had sent a small parcel of sugar and other bits, hard to get at home. Things were getting serious and I wondered if I dare chance my luck. But that old bogey came up, "What if you go away and don't come bark and anything happens?" Well, looking back, she was right, and I derided, I'd gone far enough. Reluctantly, I told her I wouldn't see her again. I remember she had a friend who had lost her boyfriend on the Barham, and I saw her tears.

I realized then that you had to look at things from her point of view and the risks she would run. She didn't want us to break the friendship up, but my next runs ashore were spent with my shipmates. It wasn't hard to get drunk, and although for a while, my thoughts were of going to see her again. I steeled myself against it. She rang the ship, time and time again, I believe mother wrote to her, but I wouldn't even answer the phone to the fury of the telegraphist who had to pass up end down and was clearly fed up.

“Tell her to get stuffed - I‘m through,” and that was it. My short friendship with Eunice was over, but even though the years have flown, I hold her memory in great respect. She was all a man could desire. I hope she's still alive and had a contented life with a family. Maybe she even remembers that sailor she met so long ago, I hope so, and wonder how many of the old wartime romances came through. I remember one incident when a party of sailors were messing about with one girl and she seemed to be lapping it up. She was draped over a table and all I could see of her was a pair of legs. Giggles and laughter rang around the building, the railway station. Then two middle-aged women came on the scene, and amid a verbal onslaught, the men retreated, looking abashed and ashamed. The girl sat up, straightening her disarranged clothing and trying to smooth her hair to some semblance of order. She looked as if she’d been dragged through the proverbial, hedge.

One night, I took to the side streets on my way back off shore leave. I'd heard an Ausie trooper had given leave to its passengers, and they were in a nasty frame of mind, having a go at anyone they fancied thumping. They had a bad name for this sort of thing. It had its sequel later though, for we escorted some ships to Colombo in Ceylon, and while we were given shore leave, they were confined aboard, no doubt to keep them out of mischief. Sadly we left Durban behind and headed out into the Indian Ocean. Deep blue seas and hot sunshine were our lot again; sweating, exercising action stations, replaced the harbour routine and shore leave.

We were to join force 'B' under Admiral Willis. We made our next landfall at Mombassa and I remember the beautiful tropical dawn breaking over the skyline of Kilindini(?) anchorage, with it’s strange earthy smell of the jungle and the shapes of palm trees and other vegetation, and the sounds so strange of this exotic place, one could nearly imagine Tarzan himself appearing on the shore. The Europeans seemed a snooty lot. We had the impression they looked down on us, I did hear many of them were family names from England who had defaulted in some way and were here out of the way of any scandal they had created, and could cause embarrassment at home. We were barred from their beach. This attitude was fairly commonplace. It was funny how it altered as the Jap conquest spread. No wonder many of the lads developed contempt for them.

We ate well here, fresh fruit was very cheap. An example was a large pineapple for tuppence. Water melons, vegetable marrows, and some vegetables I’d never heard of before, appeared on the mess table.

One morning, I was detailed with another man to start cleaning inside the torpedo blisters and painting inside them with red lead. Seamen rigged a staging for and we climbed down a rope ladder to it. We had a spanner to get the nuts off the hatch bolts, and as a precaution, the spanner and hammer we were using didn’t go into the drink, we had tied a cord round them. A bit of thumping and hard work with the spanner, and we got the hatch off to immediately secure it firmly with a rope, then he wriggled inside to perch on a small ladder and start our work.

These torpedo blisters were over the armoured 12 steel belt and I never realised how large they were; it was like working in a small narrow room, the smell of stale sea water and old red lead pervaded the atmosphere, and in the light of an electric lead, it looked shadowy and eerie out of the light.

We wire scrubbed in a halfhearted manner. What a bloody job, it was it was impossible to anywhere near complete this job. “Stand easy,” and we gratefully climbed into the hot sunshine and received the large mugs of hot tea lowered down to us. The staging was only a few inches above the water surface and I remember how easy it would be for me to topple in for an accidental swim.

But as we looked forward up the harbour, we saw something, which put that thought out of our minds. Some gulls were wheeling over the water, attracted no doubt by some floating refuse, when suddenly a large glistening greyish brown object lunged clear of the water and then slid back and could only have made a pass at the gulls.

That staging was vacated like lightening and two startled faces peered out of the hatch. “What the bloody hell was that, was it a shark or what?” We never felt safe on the staging after that.

Shore leave in Mombassa was a new experience. It had an air of its own. The blacks and Indians seemed pretty aloof from each other, but it had a certain air of prosperity. I saw my first Arab show and I could understand then how the Arab slavers of bygone days must have carried their human cargo.

We were never shown any hostility by the black folk or the Indians, and we had many a laugh and joke as we’d haggled with the fruit and vegetable vendors. The little kids had a special place in Jack’s heart. They were often cheeky faced cheerful little buggars with their, “You like nice young girl, you like small boy? You follow me sailor.” The reply was usually, “F*** off you little b*****, before I kick your arse,” without any malice, more a smile and half hearted swing with the foot at an elusive chocolate coloured juvenile who’d turned around showing a mouthful of shining white teeth, and yelled back in derision, “You f*** off Johnny yourself.”

During one run ashore, I bought a hunting knife and sheath and kept this knife in my locker. A slight touch with a wet stone and it had an edge like a razor. I never used it much except to whittle at wood or lend it to a messmate who would be doing a bit of carving.

We had occasion to take coal here for the galley fires and it was surprising the amount of coal we took aboard from a barge towed alongside by a small tug.

A team of blacks were employed on this chore, carrying wicker baskets on their heads in a continuous chain of hurrying black bodies, chanting in rhythm every now and then, and creating a feeling of wonderment in a lad far removed from the Yorkshire coalfield. I even wondered if the coal had come from there.

 Chapter 18



 Soon it was time to sail again. We had enjoyed the runs ashore in Mombassa, but curiosity overcomes regret and so, “Where to now?” was the thought in all our minds. Eager faces scanned the watch below the
lists pinned up on the mess deck notice boards, for we were shuffled around occasionally to give experience of the different jobs we could expect to be called upon to do in the event of battle casualties, no-one relished 'B' boiler room in this heat, for even the mess deck itself was hot.

The pipe rang through the mess decks again. “Special sea duty men to your stations. Prepare ship for leaving harbour.” So this was it. We were on the move again. We now joined more of the Indian Ocean Fleet and became a part of Force R, comprising more of the old battle ships, Resolution, Royal Sovereign and Revenge, all old ships, impressive and mounting 8-15, 12-6 and 8-4, but slow.

We visited Zanzibar and on to the port and capital of Ceylon, Colombo. All the while in hot, but not unpleasant weather, rig of the day being mostly white front and white tropical shorts with No. 6’s being worn as an alternative, for shore leave.

Here in Columbo, we were treated to shouts of derision from a large trooper whose men, many of whom were wearing the jungle bush hat with one side an upturned brim. What had invoked this verbal attack, we didn’t know, someone said they were Aussies who had been confined to ship for fear of causing trouble ashore, anyway we didn’t worry about that, it was their affair.

The shore leave in Colombo revealed more female beauty in one place than I’d ever seen in my life, a mixture of Eurasian and the dusky Indian types, but they were shyly aloof. I never recalled one man making it with them, and there were some who bragged they’d have a woman wherever they might dock.

Here and there, I would see a splash of bright red on the pavement and I wondered what it was, until I saw one of the population expel a stream of spit the same colour, and realised it was the beetle nut that some chewed. Here and there you’d be pursued by the same type of children who seemed so common in most of the hot countries’ ports, either begging, wanting to sell you something, or making some more unsavoury offers.

We were not long in Colombo, a few days at the most, then we sailed for Trincomalee, a large natural harbour on the North East coast round the other side of the island, when we met up with more of the fleet, we came to anchor well out in a large bay.

The old “Hermes” carrier lay there, along with cruisers and destroyers. The war seemed far away. “Trinco” was handy for swimming and, “hands to bathe” was an eagerly awaited “pipe”, nearly as good as “up spirits”.

Shore leave, although not having the female attractions of a Durban, did nevertheless offer a drink of really good beer in the little fleet canteen established there. In fact the McEwan's export beer sold there and drunk from passed around mess fanny was cold, dark and sumptuous. After the South African lager, this was a treat.

Coming back from my first liberty in Trinco, a disquieting thought occurred to me, as we strolled along the jetty to the liberty boat. I observed a steel net like structure coming right up to it, a shark net to keep the sharks away from bathers. “Bloody hell, and we have been bathing over the side.” After that, I had qualms, although I still went in the drink when it was hands to bathe. A marine lookout armed with a rifle was now posted and one with a bugle to sound off a shark alarm gave a bit of confidence. We were advised to keep together and climb out one by one if a shark was spotted.

As luck had it, we never saw one, although we did see striped fish about a foot long – groups of two or three flash through the depths. Someone said these fish denoted the presence of sharks.

The heat was such that the clear blue water had an irresistible pull, sharks or no sharks. The bathing sessions were sheer luxury. Only men who have served in those old battle wagons, especially as engine room ratings in ships designed for the North Atlantic and home waters, can realise the constant heat we had to endure.

Heat so hot you had to switch the oil sprayer valves on and off with a fistful of cotton waste. Sweat trickled down the body and soaked round the waist gathered boiler suit, down the legs, tickling the skin and trickling into the laceless boots we wore until you could hear it squelching, and you poured it out.

The restricted fresh water ration did little to alleviate conditions. Looking back, I often wonder how we had so little sickness. The old hands among the crew could be a godsend with their advice to rookies who had never been tropical before.

One of the men, Leading Stoker “Smithy”, an old hand with a ready dry wit, was drafted to the carrier “Hermes”, an older type than the “Indomitable”(??) and slower, more like a floating box. In fact the sailors affectionately called her H.M.S Ditty Box, after the square wooden box some ratings kept, with various knick knacks and their “housewives” in, “housewives” being the small navy blue cloth package in which items of sewing equipment were kept, and could be rolled out and fitted back up with two tapes.

Smithy was aboard H.M.S Hermes when it was attacked by planes from a Jap task force just off Ceylon and survived to tell the tale, although the Hermes was sunk. This was the task force we were said to be hunting and was in due course to take a further toll of men and ships.

I awoke one morning and making my way to the upper deck, I saw two Aussie destroyers were tied up alongside our starboard side, Naden and Nestor. Their crews seemed a jovial crowd. They had the same humour that most seamen appeared to have - only their dialect gave them away from their British counterparts.

I remember one incident which wouldn’t have endeared them to the RSPCA, although it caused a laugh. A monkey on board the nearest boat had appeared to aggravate someone, who was probably the cook, for he stepped out of the galley with a hot poker and touched it lightly on the bum. That monkey shot right up the for’d mast, and sulked for hours, but it was apparently unhurt, except possibly to a monkey’s pride!

About this time we heard depressing news of a battle in the Java Sea, involving Dutch, American and British ships, all sunk by superior enemy forces. At the time, I and many more couldn’t understand why we were not sailing eastwards to teach these “little yellow b******s” a lesson.

When you looked at the seeming might of the great battleships and the cruisers with their destroyer escorts, it looked a big enough fleet to tackle anything. We didn’t, in those far off days realise the problems of modern warfare.

Here was a clever ruthless enemy, trained to a high pitch of modern naval war, with carriers carrying pilots dedicated to the point of fanaticism, and flying planes capable of superb performances.

At this time, the Zero fighter could be said to be the best fighter in the air in this arena of the war, so although we were impatient to hit back, we just had to wait our turn. Meanwhile, we had the job of supporting troop convoys in the hope that the presence of battleships would keep the Japs from coming too far into the Western Indian Ocean. But this was not to be, as we were to find out to our cost.

A formidable carrier task force under Vice Admiral Chuichi (??) Neegumo, comprising five carriers, was already preparing to attack Ceylon. A battle squadron of our battleships, two heavy cruiser, a light cruiser and the first destroyer flotilla comprising nine destroyers under Vice Admiral Gusichi?? Mikawa??

Besides this move against Ceylon, a cruiser force comprising five heavy and two light cruisers with a destroyer force of eight ships under Vice Admiral Ozaiva?? was on the way to attack shipping in the Bay of Bengal. Many of these ships were modern, powerful and well trained, so the forces arranged against us were indeed powerful.

At the time, we on the lower deck had no idea of this. Our days were more frustrating than anything else. Between the troop convoys, we sailed and cruised the Indian Ocean. We sweated and toiled, day after day, blue sea, tropical heat, battened down at night with warm humid air circulating through the mess decks, and as a stoker, I didn’t think it possible a human body could produce so much liquid in the form of sweat.

Down below, especially in the boiler rooms, it was nearest to my idea of hell, with boiler suits rolled down to the waist and sweat pouring down to soak into and drench them till they were just wet rags.

The thick Trinidad oil soon carboned the furnaces up so it was a constant battle to keep the carbon at bay and the bright orange glow of the furnace fire glowing on the bodyies, as a stoker gazed through the sight flap, didn’t leave much to the imagination. He only needed a pointed beard and a pair of horns.

It didn’t help either to be rationed for water. Bathing had to be completed quickly as the bathrooms were only opened for half an hour at the end of each watch. After this, one of the men of the duty watch from the DB party opened the ejectors and pumped the bathroom sumps dry ready for the end of the next watch.

It was quite a job nipping round a ship of the size of a battlewagon. You covered a lot of deck space and went up and down a lot of hatchways. At this time I spent as much time as possible on the upper deck, it was enjoyable when the ship was at cruising stations, the passage of the ship heading through the blue seas augmented any wind there was. It was always a disappointment when the time came to go down below, down into that hellish heat.

It was a matter of pride to relieve the watch, five minutes before time and you expected your relief to act accordingly. If ever men deserved a medal for endurance, it was the stokers of the old 'R' class battleships. Ships were never built for these waters. Ships often had to refuel at sea from the fleet auxiliary tankers and sometimes refuelled the odd destroyer from their own tanks, if it was getting dangerously low.

The distances involved in the Indian Ocean needed to have fuel at hand. We had a refuelling base at a small coral atoll, a flat desolate place with a few palm trees. I remember it as a semi-circular place, the sun’s rays penetrated deep down into it’s clear blue depths, it looked very deep, it’s name was Addu Atoll and it lay in the Maldive Islands, 600 miles south west of Ceylon.

Our carriers were still training many of their pilots. I witnessed several crashes, I saw two Swordfish appear to catch the wave tops with their undercarriages and tip over nose first. Immediately a destroyer detailed off for such an eventuality raced up to pick their crews out of the water, and I remember seeing a fighter, either a Seafire or a Hurricane, heading straight for the Ramilles’ fo’castle. He appeared to leave it too late to climb the small altitude required to clear it, and so he dipped towards the sea, nose down, tail up. He lay for a few minutes as we saw a small figure scramble quickly out and jump into the sea as a destroyer tore through the water towards the rapidly disappearing plane.

These pilots, mere boys, most of them, had the respect of all. We knew our very lives depended on them if we met up with the Nips. For now, news was gradually filtering through that somewhere out here was an enemy force.

Just then, I don’t think we were sure how powerful it really was. The loss of the cruisers, De Rijter, off Java, Exeter, Perth and Houston, a mixture of Dutch, American, British and Australian ships, together with several destroyers lost in the Java Sea and Sunda Strait proved it.

Chapter 19
 
April 4th, 1942 and news had come through of an enemy carrier foresighted by a Cataliner flying boat, four battleships with a screen of cruisers and destroyers were in fact in this force, and as soon as it became known, Force 'A' was sent to intercept it with little chance of surviving a battle against such odds.

Force ‘B’, of which the old Ramilles was one ship, was ordered to sail as soon as possible, which would be April 5th 1942. We had arrived on the 4th to top up oil fuel tanks. We sailed at 0700hrs on the 5th, the old battleship ready to back up and join Force ‘A’ that would have given us five battleships, Warspite, Ramilles, Royal Sovereign, Resolution and Revenge, the carriers H.M.S. Formidable, Indomitable and the old carrier H.M.S. Hermes.
The two heavy cruisers H.M.S. Dorsetshire and Cornwall had been detached and were well on the way to Colombo for refuelling a fact, which was to cost us dear. Little did I, and my pals on the lower deck know, at this very instant of sailing that Ceylon was about to be attacked by air strikes from the Japanese carrier force.

A target also was our base of Trincomalee, "Trinco" where we had swum over the side thinking the war so far away. Its clear blue waters had refreshed our hot bodies on more than one occasion; the possible threat of shark attack had not deterred us, now Trinco was to taste war.

The Japs attacked through rainsqualls and did plenty of damage to port installations, sank two warships and set merchant shipping ablaze. Those rain squalls proved beneficial, as we cruised northward, as we ran into them, heavy and warm and as good as any shower bath.
Those that could, stood on the upper deck and with a cake of soap and availed themselves of this heaven sent unrationed shower bath. Some even caught a drop for dhobeying; Jack was always an opportunist.
”What would your F****** party think now if she saw you with a little ‘chopper’ like that?” someone shouted amid the howls of mirth, as pot bellies glistened among skinny limbs. We were like school kids. We still didn't know that Ceylon was getting hammered and the old Hermes had been sunk along with one of the old V and W destroyers of World War I vintage, the Vampire. When we did get to know, H.M.S. Cornwall and H.M.S Dorsetshire, two heavy cruisers, had been subjected to fierce air attack and sunk, things were not sounding so good, yet morale didn't sink too much, men had died who some of my mates knew and I think the main feeling was one of revenge.

Lookouts were extra alert now. The sea had gone very calm. The rain had cleared and we were being baked by a blistering sun. I remember coming off watch and going for a stroll on the fo'castle, gazing over the side and seeing a large black blanket like object under the water, it was a fish or mammal, of some kind for it was moving quickly away from our starboard bow, possibly a manta ray. I also remember seeing a large turtle. These little diversions reminded one that the wonders of nature still existed and would go along after this war had ceased, whatever the outcome. It must have been a wonderful experience for the rich in society, to cruise these seas in peacetime in air-conditioned luxury, not having to wonder what lay over the horizon or under the sea.

What we did know now as the signals came in, was a possibility of a major fleet action and we knew it world be no picnic. I didn't relish the prospect of being a prisoner of war of the Japs, we had already heard of the atrocities they had perpetrated on prisoners and civilians alike, so if we did go into action against them I hoped that rather than having to be made prisoner in the event of our sinking, that I would already be dead. It may seem defeatist to think that way, but on the other hand it is an added incentive to fight to the end if your foe is capable of such acts.

Looking at the ponderous but majestic looking battleships ploughing through the blue seas, their foam whitened wakes and seeing the great fo’castle dipping with an occasional flurry of foam as the bows broke into the waves which had now arisen on a freshening breeze, it was hard to imagine anything could stand against us. The carrier’s planes flying off occasionally as she turned away into the wind with her close destroyer escort, added an extra sense power to the fleet. Signal Lamps would flicker between the ships, sometimes pennants would be run up, each ship co-ordinating and communicating with each other. What these signals and flags were saying, we poor old stokers didn’t know, all we knew was what our Captain announced over the tannoy system.

The days passed, and though at that time, we on the lower deck did not know how near we had been to a major fleet battle. The Warspite with the force ‘A’ fleet had actually picked up a Jap scout plane up on her radar. Warspite was away to our northeast and we were hastening to join force A. We expected sighting Dorsetshire and Cornwall in the next 24 hours and were staggered to receive the signal confirming their loss.
The Japanese had now turned away on an easterly course and we were soon to return to East Africa, the old battleship to resume convoy duties against the suspected presence of Japanese commerce raiders disguised as merchantmen.

Ramilles refuelled and then was ordered to Durban a move we all relished for many of us had made acquaintances there. Shore leave was eagerly looked forward to. “Tiddley” suits were pressed, lanyards scrubbed, hats blancoed, shoes polished till they shone, and I suspect many a pocket contained a few “pussers johnnies” in anticipation of the more amorous pursuits.

I remember going ashore and hearing from the “natives”, both female and male, a rumour which most of us discounted. These people couldn’t possibly know our future zone of operations. But I was to find out how uncannily accurate they would turn out to be.
Between bursts of drinking and meeting “parties” we heard we were supposed to be going to take Madagascar off the Vichy French. Also a pointer could have been the presence of one or two large merchantmen and the comings and goings of a few Army top brass.
Soon the “Tiddley” suits were put away as shore leave ended and an air of expectancy pervaded the very atmosphere of the ship. “Roll on the Rodney, Nelson Renown this one funnelled bastard is getting me down,” summed up the disappointment of the more romantic of the crew, missed the moments with girl friends under the Durban stars.
Now a bustle of activity as we prepared to sail. New stores of all kinds came aboard. Ships’ tanks were topped with fuel and what fresh water we could take. Next duty watch notices went up on the mess decks causing a few laughs and a few grumbles at the details of various parts of ship posting. “F*** me Chiefy,” as the Chief Regulating Stoker Petty Officer pinned them up on the notice board from some disgruntled stoker, “Not b******* f****** boiler room. I’ve lost a bloody stone already,” referring to the worst job of all, watch keeping in 'B' boiler room sandwiched between 'A' and 'C', who were very hot in their own right and helped to produce nigh un-endurable temperatures in 'B' boiler room.
I noticed that the marines seemed to be paying unusual attention to their weaponry, stripping guns down and cleaning them. Rags and pull throughs were much in evidence along with the small bottles of gun oil. Something big was afoot. Could the civvies ashore be right? We would know soon enough.

We were not left long in doubt. We sailed in company with several transports, cruisers, destroyers and an oil tanker and were joined by a carrier, probably the Indomitable a large fleet carrier. This task force looked imposing as it ploughed its way through a choppy blue white-flecked sea.

Sealed orders were now opened and it became clear Madagascar was our objective as we sailed northwards. We were going to break the monotony of damage control drill and practice action stations. Soon it would be the real thing. We must have felt secure, for I remember seeing a film on the quarterdeck. I seem to remember it being the one with the Andrews sisters in it. Apple Blossom Time was one of the songs. It didn’t really seem wartime, except for the restricted lighting, but as we drew nearer to the island, things became more disciplined. We were in an atmosphere of expectancy. That old nagging thought arose, as I looked at the transports. How many of the young men sailing towards this wartime destiny would die?

Some of the destroyers were getting short on fuel and one came alongside keeping about thirty-five yards away. Both ships had reduced speed and a line had been fired across from the battleship by the special gun used for such a purpose, a heavier line was tied to this one and then the armoured refuelling hose was passed over and coupled up to the deck fitting of battleship and destroyer. The seas running between both ships had the turbulence of a river in flood, with the ships heaving but keeping station like a mother hen and its chick in a superb demonstration of seamanship.

The destroyer said, “Goodbye,” with a wave of the hand from her captain on her bridge and a quick “woop woop” from her siren. A small puff of black smoke as she increased oil to her boilers, giving her the extra power as she sheered off in a burst of speed, throwing the bow wave high as she knifed her way through the water to regain her station out on the wings of the column.

So on we sailed, the harsh clatter of the Oerlikon cannons as close range weapons were tested, then the steady hammer beat sounding hard and solid of the eight barrelled pom poms as they pumped a hail of shells into the sky exploding in a flock of small black smoke bursts and the sound of small popping noises in the air.

Turrets were tested, training up and down and starboard and to port, the great guns looked eager for the battle we half hoped would come. All the training was pitched to that end and we were ready. “S*** or bust,” as we used to say.

We arrived and landed the troops at Courier Bay, covering them with ships and naval aircraft. The troops were under command of Major General Sturges, the ship’s under Rear Admiral Slyfret. Resistance at first seemed light as the troops pressed inland to cross the Andrakaka. Isthmus?? Cutting the naval base of Diego Suarez off.

Further south they had run into stiff resistance in their efforts to take Antisirana, now the careful preparations of our marines were to pay off.

The weapons, so lovingly cleaned, were to be put to good use. Fifty marines under Captain Price were to go aboard H.M.S. Anthony, a destroyer, which took the marines from a small landing craft. I remember seeing of them a “Yorky” like myself, who I saw years later in the pit, and I believe Rogerson, an ex-miner grinning hugely as he lowered an anti-tank rifle down into the boat, we gave them a little cheer as they went to board the destroyer.

“We won’t be long lads,” someone yelled, “save any mail for us that might come aboard.” “What a f****** time to think about mail when you might get your head blown off.” Nothing like looking on the bright side. A quiet voice nearby, said, “They’ll be alright – maybe they’ll even manage a bag off with the blackie.” Then they had gone and the destroyer had gone too. Now we waited at sea off or in Diego Suarez for their return, hoping the mission they had embarked on would be a success.

The night of the 6th, the destroyer Anthony made a bold dash and crashed the boom going alongside the jetty and allowing the marines to jump over the side, and make a surprise assault against the Vichy French rear. From a marine who was later in conversation with me, I understood they had caught members of the French Command at the table and had held them at gun point while they had sampled some of the food.

If it was true, it sounded more like a banquet and the circumstances pointed to a large element of surprise by our men. They returned to Ramillies, flushed with success and with booty collected from the Vichy French offices, some beautiful French Officers’ hats, sashes, ceremonial swords and other things intended as souvenirs, found their way aboard.

We still had the batteries on the Oranges promontory to silence. This was achieved and resistance on the northern part of Madagascar ceased. We had loaded and fired one 15 (ek9) broadside deliberately aimed to cause no casualties. Once a 15 (ek9) battery was loaded, it was the only way to dispose conveniently of the 15(ek9) shells.

I heard we had flattened some latrines in the dock area. I wondered if that was so, was some poor bugger using them at the time? I hoped not. I remember seeing a plane land on the carrier, and he must have fluffed his landing, for I saw some debris flay in the air as if he had hit a plane on the upper deck.

Chapter 20
 
There was a sequel to the marine’s mission. On the surrender of the northern end of the island the French officers now wanted the belongings they had lost returned. I remember watching from the gun deck as they were brought aboard and then the marines were ordered to return all their cherished mementoes. This they did, laying the Frenchmen’s stuff out on the quarterdeck. In a way I felt sorry for them, as one or two wept as they picked the swords, sashes and kepis out. It must have been humiliating for them.

We gained possession of a German ship caught in the harbour of Diego Suarez. Its crew had tried to scuttle it. Now we had time to settle down a bit between watch keeping routine. We fished for some large tuna-like fish which used to appear when we tipped the gash down the gash chute, they apparently like the waste food.

We caught nothing although I believe a Chief Stoker did, using a proper rod and not the make shift tackle we used, some of the lads said they had seen a shark as well.

We also had to keep an eye on a kitten we had aboard ship, a large kite like bird used to come near every time the animal showed itself on the upper deck and a rumour had gone around that it had already had one off another ship. We occasionally had a film show on the upper deck, films used to be exchanged between ships.

The nights were warm and not unpleasant; when looking over the side after a promenade on the fo’castle, sometimes we notice that the sea would glow with phosphorous as a large fish swam near. The days passed, and although operations were still in progress on the island, to quell opposition from the Vichy French and complete the occupation, we were enjoying a respite. I even managed shore leave and although the French civilians treated us a bit aloofly, I enjoyed these odd visits ashore.

I remember seeing a lorry with a cage like structure on the back and a black man with what appeared to be a long hollow bamboo with a wire snare at the end. He was employed dog catching to keep down the number of strays and control rabies.

That old familiar smell of the tropics with its strangely sensuous smell of warm humidity and rotting plant life was there, much as our autumn smells, but holding a strange aromatic smell of flowers and fruit too. We had our “housey, housey” games aboard ship, besides the odd film. We did get mail when a ship arrived from Durban. Someone sent me a cake, which somewhere along the route had picked up and what appeared to be a small ant nest. That had to go over the side.

Now, unbeknown to us, the Japanese were planning a surprise for us. They had developed a small submarine capable of carrying two torpedoes, each could be carried on a normal size submarine, dropped off when in range of an enemy anchorage and being hard to detect, could possibly get within range of important targets and sink them at anchor.

We had heard tales of such submarines manned by a couple of men, but we felt very secure and safe in Diego Suarez. Our first intimation was on the evening of 28th May, 1942, when an unidentified plane - some said it looked like a seaplane - flew over the anchorage in the dusk and gave no reply to recognition signals, and flew off without a round being fired.

We immediately coupled up boilers and went to dawn action stations. We weighed anchor and moved our position, anticipating a dawn attack, possibly from the air. We needed room to manoeuvre as our best defence, however, nothing further developed, and reconnaissance revealed no enemy presence so where had this mysterious plane come from? We anchored again about half a mile from an oil tanker and I didn’t give the episode much more thought, but events were to prove that the complacency we had gone back to was soon to be shattered.

I remember coming off watch and deciding to write a letter. The mess deck was pretty quiet, some men sleeping, some talking in subdued tones. I had a small inkpot before me and had just penned a few lines when what seemed to me a stupid thing happened. The ink pot shot up in the air throwing ink all over me, then a great shattering noise between a thud and an immediate tinkling and rumbling noise, all the lights went out and the emergency police lights came on giving a dim light to the mess deck.

Figures jumped from hammocks, dragging on overalls or any clothing to hand. The harsh pungent smell of burnt out electrical installations and a first sickly smell of explosives caught in the throat, making some of us cough as it seeped along the passageways. Men were by now making their way up top, as some were trying to come down to snatch some valuables up or any money they had saved. Stupid in the circumstances, some were more bothered by these things than the fact that the first thing you found was your life belt, but I suppose men don’t always think clearly in the surprise of sudden danger.

I remember my immediate reaction was to grab my hatbox down from the metal rack about my head and to get the few photos of loved ones and the small amount of money I had, and with the lifebelt hanging by its tapes over my shoulder, made for the hatch.

By now the ship was taking a list to port and I reckoned we hadn’t much time if she kept going over like this, so imagine the consternation of men wanting to get to safety and others intent on getting down for a few paltry items.

Now I managed to gain the 6 (ek9) casemates and hurried as quickly as I could to my action station which was 'D pump' the last fire and Bilge pump for’d. My hope was that if the ship keeled over any further, I might be able to start this pump and pump water out or use it to get some sort of trim on the ship by flooding the corresponding side, by now I had the feeling it was a torpedo or mine but where from?

I came to the hatchway over the deck, below which the next deck down was a passageway, leading aft a small distance, then across the beam of the ship to the starboard side. The main hatchway had been lowered with the small oval man sized hatch in its middle still raised against its spring. Men were gathered round and as I lowered myself through the hatch finding the metal steps leading down with my feet, they asked what I was going to do and I informed them I was going to start the pump and try the compartments on the port side which that pump served, and try to establish my using the suction valve of which compartment had flooded, and use the pump accordingly.

I might as well have not bothered, for in the same gloom, I felt the water go over my knees, I carried on but it was hopeless, for the water was half way up the pump motor. To try switching it on could have been risky. I thought of the danger of electric shock through the water and it would not have worked anyway. I did give a quick check on all the valves just in case, by some reason or other, they might have sprung open letting in more water to add to what was already flooding the ship. Then I quickly waded back to the hatch, hearing a shrill boyish voice saying, “Shut that bloody hatch,” and the men answering, “Wait till Stokes gets back up, he’s gone to see if he can work his f****** pump".

I remember I shot up that hatchway and as I clambered out, I saw it was a ‘snotty’ trying to give orders to the men. “You can shut the b****** now the pump’s under water, so it’s no use,” I told him, whereupon I made my way up to the upper deck wondering if the ship had stopped listing.

I saw a remarkable sight, searchlights lit the darkness. The oil tanker had been hit and had sunk by the stern. Her siren was sounding an eerie noise over the scene, men were preparing to cut Carley rafts from their lashings, and a voice, I believe it was No. 1 the Jimmy, who was saying, “Steady lads, we are not abandoning. That’s as far as she’s going, the ship is now partly on the bottom.” His voice was steady and his words were true, the ship was now down by the bows, still listing to port but it didn’t seem as acute. If she hadn’t rested on the bottom and had carried on keeling over, my intention had been to walk down the starboard side into the water and swim, hoping that there were no sharks about, but it become obvious, as it was she had come to rest by the for’d end on the bottom.

The men on the tanker had established that it was indeed a tin fish that had struck us. I was told by a look out on the upper deck that they’d yelled, “Periscope in the water,” and one reported seeing a stream of Oerlikon traces directed at it from the tanker to pinpoint it, so it looked as if we had been lucky. From where I looked, it seemed a probability that two torpedoes could have been meant for the battleship and the tanker swinging by her anchor cable on the tide, could have swung into the angle of the first one.

The tanker sank; most of her crew being taken off safely. The Piquet boat from the Ramillies patrolled round the area trying to spot anything suspicious. She carried a couple of small depth charges on her stern. Other boats and anti-submarine vessels conducted an intensive sweep and I thought I heard the rumble of several far off charges.

How the attacker had penetrated our anti-sub defences without interference was unclear and whether it was Japanese or German at that time was uncertain. It was rather chaotic. Searchlights probed over the inky black water, wakes glowed through the darkness as boats went backwards and forwards, sometimes lit up starkly white in the powerful beams, voices shouted a blur of orders.

The Asdic on the anti-sub trawler had picked nothing up. One small entrance to the bay that we were in was still being systematically patrolled.

Daylight on the 31st May, and a search revealed it was a sub, a small one, a Japanese “fly” as they called their midget submarines. That’s why it had been so hard to detect, it could have been a large fish or small piece of nearly anything.

The two men crew were dead, apparently killed by the toxic gases generated by the batteries which had leaked, a result of the first torpedo being fired too near to the tanker and tossing their small craft around as it struck the ship. It looked as if the officer and the engineer in her had died as she surfaced, and then the sub had drifted ashore.

The result now was a big increase in security while our job was to ascertain damage. The only casualty I can remember was one man with a broken ankle who I believe got that by jumping and landing awkwardly out of his hammock, so all in all, the old Ramillies had been very lucky indeed.

We had been spared the fate of our sister H.M.S. Royal Oak and the Barham, which had been torpedoed in the Med., and had turned over, still under way as she went down and then had exploded with a colossal blast, taking 850 officers and men with her. I could only hope my luck would hold and I would see this war through to the end. The hole blown in the ship had ripped open several decks. The 12(ek9) armoured belt had been sprung outwards from its commencement, forward on the port side for several feet, the flour stores had been opened to the sea and now produced a terrible stench.

What remained of the fire main, pumping pipes and equipment, hung from the hole, which considerably interrupted the pumping out facilities of the ship, so our first obvious need was a number of emergency salvage pumps, most ships carried. Some were sent from other ships to supplement the one we had, then a destroyer was dispatched with a couple from Durban and a generator to power them.

It was heavy work swinging them inboard by our own winches and boom arms, and then dragging them along the deck to the damaged area by the sleds they were built onto. But soon they were rigged up and hoses were discharging a constant flow, at full bore, which never slackened. All we were doing with this pumping capability was circulating seawater round and round via the hole in the ship’s side, but if we could just hold the weight of water we had a chance.

Eventually the decision had to be taken, we had to try to get to the dry dock at Durban, so one fine morning we set out to limp back. Our speed had to be slow, maybe 5 or 6 knots. We must have been a source of anxiety to our destroyer escort, for we needed good weather.

The bulkheads near the damaged section had been shorn up and reinforced. A constant watch had to be kept on them, so we proceeded, bows half under water, for’d turret trained slightly off centre to try to counterbalance the slight list to port.

So it was that the old ship made her way back through seas, which were kind to her misfortune. The seas lapped up the fo’castle and if we had not been barred from the area except for the duty salvage watch, we could have paddled like kids on a beach.

We eventually made port in Durban and were manoeuvred into dry dock where the extent of the damage became fully revealed. As the waters off the dock were pumped out, a great hole was revealed like a giant cavern from which great pieces of twisted metal and pipes hung down. It was possible to see at least two decks, just as if you were looking at a cut away plan of the ships interior.

The armoured belt was sprung back from top to bottom of the ship for several feet. It was obvious that the damage controls efficiency had done much to save the ship, plus the fact we had come to rest on the seabed, otherwise out at sea the pressure would have increased more quickly and caused the collapse of bulkheads in the vicinity of the explosion.

It would have been fatal as a chain reaction would have set in with the bulkhead as the pressure increased with a possible explosion of boilers and then the magazines. We had been very lucky. Although we often joked about the old “Rami”, I think in our hearts we all respected her. We had sailed in her through the North Atlantic, we had sailed in the Med where we had put the Italian Fleet to flight at Spartiverto, and now she had taken this punch on the chin at Madagascar. We had sailed many thousands of miles through Arctic cold and Tropic heat, our steaming record was impressive and was pinned on the notice board.


Chapter 21
 
Every now and then, it was a matter of pride and showed how much every department of the ship’s company had put in efforts, especially the Engine Room in maintaining the steaming capability of the ship. Although old in comparison to the enemie’s capital ships, we felt we could give a good account of ourselves if given the chance. Short leave in Durban was eagerly taken; “parties” and beer were the main mess deck topics and the “buzz” was doing the rounds of the main mess decks, that we were going home to the U.K. after completion of the repairs. These were to take us several weeks, for fire main and pumping sections had to be re-coupled and a gigantic patch put in to repair the outer skin of the ship and the ship’s hull had to be scraped clean of an accumulation of weed and barnacles.

Black convicts were employed on this, standing on very high staging and using long scrapers, they were guarded by a couple of Khaki clad black guards, armed with assegais and knobkerries. They were burly looking men and could obviously use the tools of their trade with great effect.

One night, four of us returned to the ship after a night on the beer. Feeling quite merry we staggered towards the gangway. Suddenly we were confronted by a figure dressed in khaki sun hat and uniform. A rifle was shoved under our noses and we were obliged to show our pay books, which contained our photos and doubled as identity cards. He was an oldish white South African and must have been their equivalent of our home guard. He certainly warmed to his job, for his rifle never wavered until he had been shown each book. “Stupid old b******”; as we walked aboard, grumbling at the ignominy of having to give way to him, not realising in our befuddled state the importance of security, although when we got aboard we had to report to the quarter deck and regain our liberty cards from the watch keeper before going forward to the stoker’s mess deck and the usual greetings of endearment, “Oh oh there Jack Strops” “Pissy arsed b*******” ”What no f****** Grippos, no fancy.” All the usual naval terms from messmates who were itching to try their luck on the morrow, when it would be our turn to duty watch.

So it went on liberty and watch keeping. I was on twenty-four hour watches in “4 on, 4 off” periods. My duty again was keeping the fire main operating. I had to arrange a caller from the quarterdeck watch or the sentry in the night to change over but it was not a long job, and then back into the hammock.

We had an unfortunate mishap while in dry dock. The sea suction had to come from the ring main running round the dock bottom, which had access to the sea. Every so often, there were hose connections and valves and we drew our fire main water from these through hoses. There were also discharge pipes for pumping out bilges. The importance of these pumps cannot be over estimated. It came as a bit of a shock when I was rudely awakened one night to be informed that the large diesel generator room was flooding. I quickly dived out of my hammock, dragged my boiler suit on and made my way through the slumbering mess deck, armed with my sole item of equipment, my wheel spanner, a tool looking like a shepherd’s crook in miniature.

I went straight to the aft fire and bilge pump and immediately shut it off. It was plain this was the only source that the water could have come from. Then I made my way to the generator room. What a sight. The water was high up the ladder leading up to its hatch, a film of filthy brown creamy like oil covered its surface. Waste and a metal bucket floated on it.

It transpired that someone had been working on this section of fire main and had left an isolating valve open, which he should have reported to me, being the duty pump man. He got a rollicking and the mess deck kidded me unmercifully as the only Yorkie who could sink a battleship in dry-dock.

My luck was to hold though for now we were informed each watch was to get a one-week leave. A notice on the ships notice board gave a list of places in Natal where we could choose to go, so I and a chum by the name of Phillips, a short plumpish sort of guy, always happy and with a dry wit, decided on a place called Ballengeih near Newcastle, Natal.

We found out that many of the names of places in this part of Natal had Scotch origins and apparently, Scotch and Boers had intermarried in this area. Besides Phillips and I were two stoker P.O’s, two marines and one seaman.

The lucky part was now to come, for we were the first watch to take their leave. Meanwhile the other watch had to clean the flooded generator room and restore it to its former glory, no mean task and one I didn’t envy them. So we went and boarded the train for our seven days break.

We set off in the evening and travelled overnight, taking about eleven hours. We enjoyed a comfortable ride. Booze was available in the dining car and as night fell, a black porter came round issuing us with blankets, our beds were pull down bunks which folded back to the compartment sides.

Morning came and we were called for breakfast to the dining car. So a quick clean up and a pleasant meal, then a final brush up of uniforms, straightening of collars as we drew near our destination and the usual talk and expectations, women featuring prominently. Soon we slowed down and gradually came to a stop in the station bearing the name Newcastle. We stepped out in the cool morning air with cases in hand. Several more of the lads were going to other addresses.

Our small party had hardly looked around before we were met by a gentleman and a lady looking smart and chic in a khaki drill uniform. She was one of the South African W.V.S. She and several more escorted us to what I took to be the station buffet for breakfast and what a breakfast. We did our best to manage to get the eggs, bacon and sausage down, along with cakes of all kinds. I felt like a VIP. Everything they did was done with a desire to please.

In a way it was embarrassing, some of the lads were already assessing their chances with some of the younger women, but my memories of these people was their unstinting kindness in welcoming us strangers. I expect we were a bit of a novelty, they had probably never seen a British sailor and we were representative of a great Empire, with a fleet which had a reputation all over the world of being powerful and fearless.

Looking back it is hard for me to reconcile these people with the happenings of Soweto and Apartheid, for the people we met were so good.

The meal over, we were ushered away to meet our hosts, the people who we had been elected to stay with. A man and a woman met us and took us to a large “station wagon” estate car. Our cases were carefully deposited in the back ad another car took the rest of our party and off we went.

The village of Ballengeih was a few miles away and we were not long in arriving, and our first reaction was one of disappointment. It was more of a hamlet than a village, a few houses, bungalow style and a few “roundhovels” the small round native style houses and an area with a stockade round it. This was the native workers’ quarters where they live in a series of these “roundhovels”. I was told they worked at the carbide factory.

On alighting from the vehicles we were ushered into a small building, which served as a Post Office and wages office for the workers. A cup of tea and biscuits were provided and we were given a large box of Cape to Cairo cigarettes each, plus a bank note of about 10/- (10 shillings – 50p) each to spend, a reasonable amount in those far off days, and were told if we ran short of money, to say so.

Then we were introduced to Maurice the proprietor of a small bar. He, I remember, as a dark wavy haired man, medium sized, with a pleasant manner and a ready smile, I remember Maurice especially. His bar was to remain open all the time we were there. Drinks were available any time. We had to pay absolutely nothing. When we asked why we could not pay we were told with a smile, “Don’t worry, enjoy yourselves and liven this place up, all is taken care of.” Who could ask for more?

This meeting in the Post Office was my first meeting with someone who I still remember with a certain amount of affection. Two girls were there, girls about my age. I was in my 21st year. I noticed the two girls but didn’t give them more than the usual joking conversations that boys and girls tend to indulge in.

Now we split up and were allocated to houses. My pal and I were allocated to the Youngers, Mr. & Mrs. Bob Younger. They had a young son and daughter and I immediately became the daughter’s sailor, and the boy had Phillips as his sailor. I think we would remain as something special in their sight.

They were pleasant kids and I believe Audrey, the girl, had a hole in her heart. I hope she had successful medical treatment and has survived the years. It would be nice to go back and meet again but the passing years can be unkind and wash away friends and memories.

What a marvellous week it was to be. Our first disappointment was soon to be dispelled. We enjoyed Mr. & Mrs. Younger’s hospitality, marvellous meals, a well-stocked fridge full of all we could require, and we were told to help ourselves.

Beautiful cosy beds, uniforms cleaned and pressed every day, shoes polished and put conveniently by the side of the bed by a black servant girl who was beautifully turned out and spotlessly dressed in her uniform.

She was a very attractive girl. I remember trying to tell her not to worry over our kit, we could see to it. She only smiled, said nothing and carried on as usual.

This place was heaven. The evening got a bit chilly with a touch of frost, but later on and a steady warming up till midday, brought the heat of an English summer day. It was pleasantly located with its trees and shrubs and a smell of flowers and the constant song of birds I had never heard. It was a place I could have settled in.

A river ran nearby, supplying the works with water from a small pump house and on our numerous visits to Maurice’s bar, we came into contact with Mr. Steel. He was knocking on in years and he always seemed forever the worse for drink.

His favourite tipple was brandy. He was in charge of the pump-house and its pump and it seemed he was an expert with this particular pump, and could please himself when he drank and how much, as long as he could do his job. Yes, Mr. Steele was quite a character.

Then another old guy, slight figure with a grey moustache, caught our attention. He wore a battered old grey trilby and looked about 70 yrs old. To me he appeared to have the bearing of an old military man. When we had all met at Maurice’s and reached our state of happy drunkenness. His favourite song was “The Last Reveille”, along with “With my hand on Myself, What Have I Here” and the “Zulu Warrior” echoed round the bar, late into the nights.

I noticed the Marines were hanging round the girls like bees round a jam pot, so I and friend Phillips decided we would try our horse riding skill. I rode a couple of times as a lad on a local farm. When we informed Mr. Younger, he arranged for a young black lad to get two horses for us and had them saddled and ready to go. When this little boy of about 10yrs turned up with the horses, I eyed them. My pal fancied the smallest one. Now I knew it was lower to the floor in case it came to a fall, but it looked as round as a boiler and I said, “Phillips you can have that one.”

I was happy to have the taller one, Phillips was soon to find his mistake, I’d now donned my civvies for this ride and felt it more the rig for horse riding than a sailor’s uniform, and so I put my left foot in the stirrup and my hands on the neck, swung myself up and found it not hard at all.

The horses were mild in temperament and Phillips managed to mount after a bit of a struggle. My stirrups seemed adjusted just right but my pal’s short legs made it awkward for him. Imagine short legs trying to fit round a large barrel and how awkward that can be allied to the swaying gait of the horse.

He was content to let it amble on. I felt I’d ridden for years. I used my bit of knowledge with bridle and knee, and gained confidence with every minute, until turning back down the dirt road into the village I decided to try speeding things up.

A sharp touch of my heels against its ribs and it really went. It seemed to be galloping, my backside rising and falling in the saddle, my legs slightly stiff, till I reined it in, slowly putting pressure on the bit, then holding it back until it stopped in a flurry of dust. I was quite pleased with myself, I never really expected to stay aboard it and openly feel so confident. What gave me a bit of a fillip were the congratulations of the few village folk who had watched the proceedings, obviously in the hope of a good laugh. They did not gain one from me but “Pippi” gave us all one, for he tried to move a bit faster and gradually lost his seat and slid off.

He came to no harm and we handed the horses back to the young black lad, while we adjourned to Maurice’s and our glasses of lager. “You crafty b****** Yorkie you did not say you could ride.” I suspect the horses were so well trained they knew exactly what to do.

Chapter 22

Wednesday and we had managed to drink the bar dry of lager, and we were now on brandy. Mr. Steele was there – bleary eyed but happy and I wondered if the man ever had been sober. I suspect as a babe he’d been weaned on brandy. What a character, and yet his efficiency as a pumping engineer wasn’t impaired.

Alec McDonald, the boss of the factory said it would be difficult to replace him. Alec was a medium built man of middle age, a Scot and with a humour we grew to like, the sort of boss who didn’t appear to be one who would ignore the welfare of his workers.

His wife was fairish and slim, a very charming lady who I had the privilege to dance with. She overcame my shyness when she asked me onto the floor and soon put me at ease.

It was an occasion when they’d put on a dance for us, and that evening, cars came in from Newcastle and the surrounding areas bringing a wealth of girls and not so many men.

Just imagine, there were seven of us and just a few men of the village. It was held in the village hall, a small place where they sometimes had a bioscope show, the cinema. Music was provided by record. I knew I had had a few and didn’t want to leave the bar, but after a bit of persuasion, I went along to please my hosts. That was when I danced with Alec’s wife and I was glad I had gone. I hoped she would forgive the smell of beer. That is when I met Mary Bayne.

I had seen the two Marines hanging around her and tried to avoid her. “Pippi” said a time or two why not try your luck “Russ”, but I left the field clear for them. I remembered Mary being in the office when we arrived, and now she came up to me and soon we had arranged to meet.

By now the leave was getting on and it was Wednesday evening. Now I found myself wishing it were a month. All kinds of possibilities were opening up and even a few days had made me fond of the place. I felt more at home here than shore leave in a large port like Durban. It even got to the point where one young white man who lived a bachelor existence in a neat and tidy round hovel suggested I try desertion and staying there but this was impossible, as everyone knew where I was, even if I had contemplated such a thing.

Thursday, and we managed a football match and I came to run rings round a big burly chap who didn’t like it a bit. They said it was Mary Bayne’s day. He was blowing quite a bit I remember; I did hear rumours that he wasn’t the kindest of dads.

We were taken out driving and had places of Boer War history pointed out to us. “Leo Kopje”, and old stone stockade I remember well. One of the loveliest sights was sunset over the veldt, the tawny coloured grasses stretching away onto the distance till they changed to a purple colour to blend in with the sky.

The sun looked bigger than the sun at home as it sank with remarkable rapidity behind the horizon, leaving a purple hue to blend in with the plain, only dotted by the occasional thorn bush; a lovely place.

I saw Mary on the last few evenings and we walked and talked. She seemed a shy gentle type and although we did a bit of cuddling, we never allowed things to get out of hand. I had a great feeling of respect for her and I was torn between the memories of the girl who was waiting for me at home and who is now my wife, and this girl I’d met here, so far from home and had sought me out from my shipmates.

“Pippi” and I were invited to the P.O.’s place one evening; it seemed hard to make them hear us. We walked in and saw a sight that made us laugh.

Empty bottles everywhere, with them sat on the floor, dressed in pyjamas, canned out of their minds and droning “my hand on myself, what have I here”.

Nearby, a white enamel bucket was two thirds full of “p***”, covered with young log jammed full of cigarette ends floating on the surface. “Come in, come in, help yourself to some bottles, the f****** night’s young and soon we’ll be going back to that one funnelled b******”. I can see them now, their heads gradually sagging on to their chests, drooling like bottle-fed babies.

We stayed just long enough to drink a couple of bottles we fished out from a nest of bottles on the floor of the wardrobe, and then off we went. I’d visions of that bucket of piss ending up on the floor and didn’t fancy ending up having to mop that lot up.

The lager hadn’t run out before the new consignment had come in. They had certainly made sure of their share, next morning found the two P.O.’s chirpy as ever, not a hair out of place, uniform spic and span.

How they could recover so quickly from such a binge, I used to wonder at.

I bet they could have raised a head of steam with a bottle in each hand.

Soon the day came to say “Goodbye” to this wonderful place and its people. We had had a wonderful time. They had provided for us, had thrown open their doors and hearts to us. What they had they had freely given, unstintingly. It must have cost a bomb. On the station platform, we did try a bit of a dance, I don’t think one man was really sober. A few drinks would ease the pain of leaving.

Mrs. Younger came and found me and said, “Tommy you must say goodbye to Mary, she is crying back there.” I made my way to her and she was indeed in a it of a state. We made promises and I said I would come back on my first long weekend leave. She perked up at that. I gave her my address aboard ship so she could write, and I wrote to her c/o Mrs. Younger, Ballingeih Natal.

The train came in, kisses all round, handshakes from the men, a long hug and kiss from a tearful Mary Bayne, then the whistle and off we went. I last saw her waving as the train drew away. I never did go back. I set off once on a long weekend and got off at Pietermaritzburg, got a skin full and went back to Durban, and after a nap on the beach went back aboard ship.

Mary wrote and I wrote to her. I still have the photo she sent me, placed in an album with other wartime pictures. Forty-three years have passed since I met her and I hope she is still there; I hope sincerely she met a man worthy of her. I did contact her once again, on another ship and another day but by telephone from Durban. I remember asking her something I knew was impossible, and it was to ask her to come down by car. She hadn’t time and I should have had more sense than to ask or expect it.

So here we were back aboard, turning to port of ship and working to prepare her for what we hoped would be the trip home. Meanwhile we did manage a few trips to the coastal resort of Illover Beach, Amamizimtoti and Umkomas. One of these places had a hotel where families evacuated from Singapore were accommodated, and one day we were invited in by one of the women. The men had been left behind, probably to fall prisoner to the Japanese. The women and children were given priority in the evacuation of Singapore. They treated us like heroes and we sang with them the patriotic songs, “There’ll always be an England” and “Land of Hope and Glory”, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and such. Next the inevitable impromptu dance, I was never a dancer but I soon fell into the clutches of a woman of about thirty five who had me shuffling around with her and kidded me on that I could dance. Then someone suggested tea and sandwiches, which met with universal approval. The woman I’d danced with suggested we go to make the sandwiches and I couldn’t refuse. We went to the large kitchen, and it now being dark, she found the switch and as it flooded the place with light I heard a queer rustling noise and just caught a vision of what appeared to be hundreds of cockroaches scuttling away into dark corners.

I’d seen cockroaches aboard ship, but never in such numbers, I suspect I’d eaten them occasionally, for I’d seen them at odd times in the ship’s bread, looking like a misplaced currant.

The woman brought a large loaf from somewhere and some cold meat, so we set off, making a large oval plate up with sandwiches. Not many minutes had gone, before I heard the unmistakable noise of a siren, the same noise as I’d heard when the bombers had flown over to Merseyside while I was on leave.

But the thought crossed my mind, “Where could the bombers have come from to get here?” We seemed miles away from the war. Next the lights went out and the woman and I were alone in that dark kitchen, wondering what next could happen.

I wasn’t left long in doubt, a man starved woman of that age and a man of 21 caught in this situation inevitably ended up in an embrace, one of the things that the fateful days of war could occasionally throw up.

There used to be a saying in the Navy that a “standing cock has no conscience.” Maybe that is true, but things hadn’t gone as far as that before the lights suddenly came on again, regretfully we had to take the sandwiches in.

The knowing looks and smiles, the ribbing from my mates and the blushes of the woman indicated what they all had guessed, if the blackout had not finished quickly, anything could have happened in that kitchen.

It had been a false alarm; some vessel had reported a submarine on the surface and within shelling range of the shore, with the possibility of being a Jap sent on a nuisance raid. We left that place smothered in kisses and wishes of good luck, my bloody luck had run out when that light came back on, but at least I’d had a good chance which my mates missed.

The week passed by and the emergency repairs finished, we left the dry dock. We now had to prepare for sea again, so we were re-ammunitioned and refuelled, fresh supplies were taken aboard and we gradually came back to normal. I did receive a photograph from Mary dated 5th August, 1942. We sailed not long after for the UK via the Cape.

A short stay here and a spot of shore leave where I met a girl by the name of Barbara De-Mendonca, but we weren’t to have a very long acquaintance for we soon set sail with a few ships and a destroyer escort. The mess deck was now full of the old familiar buzzes. We were going on the “Med” back to the North Atlantic and the Russian convoys, but it must have been obvious that we were going home, for the large steel patch was really a temporary job.

We did suffer a tragic loss on our way home; 50 miles off the island of St. Helena. Part of the watch duty was to ditch waste materials, which was fastened up in sacks and would hopefully sink and not be spotted by a submarine. Sometimes a man from the engine room or stoke hold would come up after his watch had been relieved, to get a breath of fresh air and marvel at the star lit tropical sky. What occurred that night no one ever know. One man reported hearing a muffled splash but the for’d porthole H.A. crew were found all asleep with no look out. One man was missing and that was the reason they had been awakened for their turn. The ship was searched extensively from tem to stern. His mates were questioned but no answers could be found. No one knew why he’d gone over the side. Some said he was worried that he had caught the boat up, a reference to what could happen if you went with the wrong female company ashore, but no one really knows to this day.

It could have been depression or a foolhardy skylarking. It cast a shadow over the ship’s company for a few days, which gradually lifted as the ship got nearer the equator, for we knew that after our next refuelling stop we would be on the right side of our journey.

I never stopped marvelling at the beauty of the sea. Most of my off duty hours were spent on the upper deck, either walking on the focastle, having conversation with a friend and taking in the fresh sea air or gazing from the gun deck, which also served as the stowage area for the piquet boat and other boats we carried. It was high and a good vantage point to gaze at the pitching escorts, dipping bows down, then heaving up in a flurry of foam.

Odd times one would break away, its Aldis lamp flickering. As it flashed its signal across the water with a dark puff of smoke from its funnel, would increase speed to investigate a possible contact somewhere ahead, resuming its position later. It was good to know these boys were on their toes; a mistake in the war could turn to large-scale tragedy in a matter of minutes. We all know what had happened to the Barham and the Royal Oak.

One U-boat, one salvos of torpedoes and what had been a great ship could be gone along with most of its crew. No one will ever know what happened inside a ship in such circumstances, one can only guess. We made port safely.

In Freetown, with its heat and humidity, sweat was trickling greasily down suntanned bodies and drenching the shorts we wore. But we were not bothered now we were nearer home and we could brag a bit, now we had been tin-fished and survived.

What would my old folks think when I told them and my friends in Civvy Street. One incident stands out in my memory. We were refuelling and someone must have shut a valve down too early, without warning the tanker to ease her pumps and therefore decrease pressure. The build up caused a burst in the armoured hose, right over the large brass connection on the upper deck, and thick black stinking fuel oil sprayed the beautiful white, well scrubbed planking and some of the ship’s upper works in the immediate vicinity. One or two of the men gathered nearly caught a bit, but were lucky not to get drenched. Amid a panic-stricken hail of shouts, the boiler shut her pumps down, then (Jimmy the one) the officer of Commander Rank came on the scene with a face like a thundercloud. When he saw the mess created to his beloved planking, and the ship’s paintwork, his language was far from that of an officer and gentleman, more like the language of the pit: f****** hellfire who the f****** hell’s done this, it will take f****** months to clean this up. Off came his cap, gold oak leaves and all, and he actually jumped on it several times.

He must have come very near a cardiac arrest. He was livid, and what made him worse was a voice from a black in one of the bumboats, which had paddles alongside. He was obviously amused at what he saw. A black smiling face with its flashing white teeth gazed up and shouted with an appropriate gesture, and use of the forearm and clenched fist, “Up your fat arse commander,” to which the irate officer replied, “F*** off you black b******.” Thereupon the Negro replied, “You come ashore f****** commander, me show you.” With this parting shot, he paddled off leaving us with the painful job of trying to keep straight faces in case we drew No 1’s wrath down upon our own heads.

He wasn’t long in organising a cleaning party, and in a remarkably short time, and with the use of scrubbers and pumice stone, the deck resembled its previous condition. The paintwork wiped down more easily, so things were not so bad and had given us a laugh - not a bad thing in war times.


Chapter 23
 
Soon we sailed again and now we were left in no doubt that the ship was returning to the UK and leave would be given. As we drew nearer the Azores, we ran into longer periods of choppy weather. The idyllic of the tropics and the flying fish gave way to greyer waters, cooler weather and greyer skies.

Now on the mess deck was a feeling of excitement. Souvenirs purchased abroad were scrutinised, photo’s were looked at, names of girl friends at home were mentioned and what they were due to receive.

I envisaged a rise in the population if everything turned out the way much of the conversation went. Good natured banter was the order of the day and there was anew mood in the choices and the clatter of sea booted feet down the metal hatchways as the old faithful duffel coats were donned once more in the cold and heavy weather of the northern Atlantic.

We were coming home and it wasn’t long before we were being eased alongside the wall at Devonport. This last lap of our voyage had given us some streaks of rust and the old ship looked ready for a rest and a touch up and her crew were as ready as she.

No throbbing engines now, only the smell of the dockyard carried on the air and the steady murmur and flow of air through the ventilation trunking. We were home.

Then the pipe we had all been waiting for: “All liberty men going on leave, fall in for inspection on the quarter deck.” Most of the ship’s company had been granted leave while she was given over to the dockyard hands to dusk and down action stations, no alarm rattlers calling us to close up to damage control parties after a watch below the hope of an hour or two of sleep.

Inspection over with the usual warnings of the dire consequences if we were “adrift off leave”, and the best wishes for a good leave from the officer of the day. We all trooped down the gangway, a mass of blue serge and cases.

Swiftly, we walked in a column of threes through the dockyard, illuminated briefly by the flickering blue metallic light of welders repairing some item. Here and there were the grey outlines of great ships, cruisers and destroyers mostly, all in to have boilers cleaned or defects put right, refits and some replacements for crews, many who would be going through the school at Naval College and completing advancement courses. Also it was naval policy to share crews out from big ships routine to smaller ships to gain all round experience, and thus promoting a greater understanding of the problems in different aspects of the service.

Now we were at the gates. The dockyard police on duty gave me an uncomfortable feeling as they scanned the column, picking out here and there a man and inspecting his case for contraband. I had a pound of plug tobacco and a tin of ready rubbed pipe tobacco over the allowance, also several packets of duty free cigarettes besides my allowance for my month’s leave, therefore imagine my relief after passing through and gaining a position in the bus queue at the other side of the road.

It wasn’t long before we “Northerners” were lugging our cases along the station ready for our train to Bristol where I would change for Sheffield.

Time for reflection now as we waited. So much had happened since I’d first alighted at Plymouth’s North Road Station in 1939. I’d sailed in the Ramillies in the North and South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, been in the Battle of Cape Spartivento, bombarded Italian positions in North Africa, just missed action against the Bonvoyed in the Indian Ocean and covered the Madagascar landings, getting tin fished by the Japs and that wonderful leave in Ballengeih where I’d met Mary Bayne, I also thought of Eunice P, Barbara D. and now I was going home and hoped to get married. When I came back again to rejoin the ship I’d be a married man.

A 12-hour train journey was shared with soldiers, airmen and sailors and I arrived home. I was glad I wasn’t encumbered, as were many of the soldiers. They always seemed weighed down with rifle, kitbag and pack, like a human packhorse.

My case seemed heavy enough as I lugged it home in the early hours of the morning, for the buses from the station had long since ceased their daily run. How silent the blacked out streets were, I was the only thing moving. It was strange after the urgent bustle of the station. Occasionally I had to pause to wipe away a bead of sweat. It was warm work humping my case wearing the long navy overcoat with my gasmask slung over my shoulder with its waist-belt holding my coat to my body.

I had arranged to visit my fiancé’s house first, and on arriving, I wondered how I would be received. My first tentative knocks seemed to be ignored. Then suddenly a light appeared in a chink of the blackout curtain on the stairway, then a voice. The voice I’d longed to hear over the long months, Magdelina’s voice. “Whose there?” When I replied, “Just me love,” there was a sudden murmur of voices and an excited scurry of feet down the stairs.

The door opened and then the hugging and kissing. I was back indeed. Soon she had the table laid and a pleasant meal ready, all the time between mouthfuls I tried to tell her of the things that had happened since I last saw her.

I felt a pride in myself, I told her of friends I’d made and of future hopes, many never to be realised. Of tropical seas and flying fish, of the scents and sounds of Africa, the strange aromatic sensual smell of the jungle where it lined the anchorages we had visited. So strange to the ex-miner, a far different smell from the smell of the coal mine. I told her of swimming the clear blue water of the Indian Ocean as warm as my bath often was.

She prepared my bed as I washed, gave me a goodnight kiss, a promise of what was to come and soon I was asleep in the luxury of a large double bed. I loved my hammock but this was bliss.

Not a thing disturbed my sleep. I’d tried hard enough on the swaying train but all I’d done was to catnap and induce a slight headache. A marvellous time now ensued; we walked in the early Autumn woods, leaves beginning to turn to their russet and gold colours. I had faced the dangers of war while these very leaves had reached a peak of freshness, then had faded to a fast approaching fall. So much had passed in such a short time. Later years and records showed we had been luckier than we knew, for if the Japanese task force had headed a bit closer and one of their reconnaissance planes had headed South West, we could have ended up in action against a superior well equipped and well trained force. We would have needed all the luck in the world to survive such a fleet action in our ageing battleships.

I managed to pluck up courage to ask my fiancé’s parents for their permission to our marriage. I felt a bit apprehensive, but I needn’t have bothered, their permission was given, I knew that it must have entered their thoughts that a wartime marriage was a bit of a gamble. So we got married by special licence in the little Parish Church at Ardsley where my wife had worshipped and taught Sunday School.

Our celebrations were held at home and it was amazing the spread which was put on. We pooled ration coupons and were allowed a bit extra, if my memory serves me correctly, in the event of a wedding, I never knew we had so many relatives.

By now the leave had swiftly passed. The visiting, the shopping trips to Barnsley, the walks, all the happiness of a pair of newly weds would soon be at an end, then what? The news wasn’t so good on the war front, but it didn’t pay to ponder on what could happen. That last week was lived to the full, no real honeymoon away but we couldn’t have been happier and I made my mind up, no tears, no goodbyes as such, just a hug and kiss, a brief “so long love”. I didn’t like some of the goodbyes I saw. Too many ears, too much hanging on seemed to me a prolonging of the agony and was doing no one any good. We parted as if we were only going away for a day or two and I think we kept our feelings well bottled up.

As the old “push and pull” left Barnsley Court House Station, we waved to each other. Soon the curve of the track and we were both out of sight. She was on her way to get the bus home alone, and I to a future full of uncertainty, back to the ship with its routines, duty watches, shore leaves and no wife by my side.

What I did not know was that I would soon be back in Barracks, the Barracks I hated so much with its discipline and boring duties. It was the easiest thing in the world to get put in the “rattle” for forgetting a salute, cap tilted back and not work as “per pusser”. Little things like that which seemed so trivial, yet could earn a bout of “10A” which meant no shore leave, only extra duty when others were going ashore.

And the daftest thing seemed the compulsory salute of the guardhouse at the Barrack gate. We had to treat it as a king of quarterdeck and the guards on duty with their white gaiters and belts were always keenly watching for any infringement of the rules. I often wondered if these men ever went to sea. Anyway I arrived back on the old familiar mess deck, feeling a little weary and a trifle “chokka”, the good natured banter of friends did little to alleviate the anticlimax, the sudden tearing away from that brief visit into the heaven of newly married life back to the harshness of the service. The lads were all kidding me about the bed work I must have done. Some called ma a “jammy b******”, and they all wished me luck. Many of my more immediate friends offered me sippers from their totsi.

Soon I was to leave many of these friends, for I was drafted into Devonport Barracks. Most of them I never saw again, they were to be scattered through the service among other ships while the Ramillies took on replacements. I suspect many died on active service, I recall a few names. “Dusty Miller”, Ray Jarvis, John Gresham, Alex Rimmington, “Daisy Turner” and many more faces but not the names, a few Barnsley lads were among her crew. Freddie Holland, A. Seaman, Bill Taylor, Bob Lake, Dick Marsh and Tommy Farrar and our Padre the Rev. Stubbs, who I believe has relatives in Barnsley to the present day and whose death was a bit of a mystery. I recall him as a pleasant man, forever interested in the crew’s well-being and a comfort to men who had domestic and compassionate problems, a real gentleman.

Barracks seemed just as dull, grey and boring as always. Report here there and everywhere, the usual routine of bullshit that appeared so necessary to Naval discipline. I also found it at first surprisingly lonely after the comradeship of the mess deck with no new faces about that I knew.

You can be lonely in a crowd. My HMS Ramillies cap ribbon must have stood out among the ribbons with the indefinable H.M.S. on them. God, how I longed for a ship again, preferably in destroyers. The “boats” as they were called held a certain glamour, only shadowed by the submarine service, although sweepers MTB’s, MGB’s and ML’s were always eagerly looked to for drafts, especially as they were often involved in channel and North Sea patrols, often involving shoot-ups with 'E' and 'R' boats and enemy coastal escorts.

Gradually I struck up acquaintances with one or two men in barracks and fell into the patient routine of working parties, Sunday Divisions with the odd church parade and shore leave in Guz and Plymouth, and every day dashing up to the mess at lunch time for my tot and to scan the draft chits laid out on the table, hoping one lay there for me.

Then one day, it must have been towards the end of November, the draft chit I longed for arrived. My service sheet carries the date as 30th November 1942 that I received my draft to H.M.S. Quail. I reported promptly to the D.F.D.O. “Detailed For Draft Officer” along with a few more. We were an advance party and I found one of my new found chums Jack McOrmick was in the party. We had to muster sharp at 8a.m. the morning after with all our gear outside the D.F.D.O. and the senior rating in charge, Chief E.R.A. Waugh was given a railway warrant covering us all for the journey to Tyneside.

We were all happy to be leaving Barracks, especially as we were to be billeted out in private houses. With great relief we loaded our gear on the lorry and with hardly a backward glance trundled off to a few calls of “jammy b*******” and “you’ll be sorry”. Little did we know of the great events we were to take part in and little did we know that in the short space of less than a year, some were fated to die.

Chapter 24
 
The Barracks was getting on my nerves, and being newly wed, I suppose had much to do with it.

I pestered the D.F.D Office and asked for a draft to a ship. “B***** off, you’ll get one soon enough and don’t keep bothering us,” was the reply. Then one day, I got what I had been hoping for. After dinner I looked among the chits of paper on the big circular mess table along with my mates, all of them keen to go. “Here Russ, one for you,” and lo and behold, there it was: Report to D.F.D.O.

“Well lads, you must listen for the loudhailer, be ready to pack your bag and hammock anytime. No shore leave for now.”

So that was it, no name of a ship or anything. They were giving nothing away.

Evening came, we had our tea and were sat talking. It was mid-November, and got dark early, when suddenly, “Hear there, hear there,” the number of our draft came over the loudhailer and we were ordered to report at 8 o’ clock a.m., outside the D.F.D.O next morning.

From the D.F.D.O., we went for a TAB injection, typhoid and anti-bacteria, then we were told that next morning we had to muster again at 8 a.m. with all our gear outside the D.F.D.O. We were going up to Newcastle by rail.

Rumour and speculation were rife. Why Newcastle, why not a ship? What we didn’t know till we clambered aboard the lorry the next morning, was that we were going to a ship, only a handful of us, as advance party to a brand new destroyer, HMS Quail.

She wasn’t out of dockyard hands yet, and we were to go as lodgers into private digs, our board being paid by the government.

When we heard this news and I saw barracks falling rapidly astern of the long tailboards, I said to my oppo, J. McCormack, “Well, we really are bloody lucky, aren’t we Jack?” Him living at Blythe meant regular weekends at home with his wife and kid. It meant plenty of the blue label down the hatch as well, and all those Geordie birds Jack said took a special shine to the Navy. I’d have to guard against it, as I couldn’t afford to upset my wife by playing fast and loose with them.

As soon as we arrived at Plymouth’s North Road station, we unloaded our gear and piled it ready to load aboard the guard’s van. Our personal cases were kept apart.

We fraternised with a few others and one of them, a chief E.R.A., was in charge of the little party, and had a meal voucher and a railway warrant for all of us. The meal voucher covered us for one meal at Bristol - Temple Meads Station, for we had about an hour and a half to kill there.

The train came and we carefully stowed our gear. Jack and I picked a compartment on our own. We were lucky to miss the weekend rush of ratings, going on weekend leave. We chatted and napped and the stations came up, the familiar names, Dawlish, Torquay, Exeter, we had seen so many times before, then as the train came to a stop once more, we saw the sign Bristol Temple Meads.

The usual sounds of steam, whistles and shouts, interspersed with calls over the loudspeaker, and the red caps keeping a vigilant eye on the soldiers who always seemed to be staggering about with slung rifles and kitbags on shoulders. We felt sorry for the poor old “Ponges”. He seemed to take all of the hammer. The soldier always referred to the Army’s red caps as b*******, and I think they would have helped to promote riots, left and centre in today’s police force. They never bothered us though, although it was their right to inspect our documents. We had our own version of Navy police, and maintained an R.T.O. with a Chief Petty Officer in charge for information and police duties in the largest main line stations. We preferred to keep well clear of both though. We had got our kit from the train and commandeered one of the large trolleys with the swivel handle, and on it we piled all but our cases; these we never let out of our sight.

Our Chief E.R.A. handed in our meal chit, and we settled for egg, sausage and mash and steaming mugs of tea. A huge plateful of bread was placed in front of us and we cleared the lot. Afterwards, Jack and I wandered off and we were warned not to get too far away. Of course it was dark, and we were thankful of the big navy issue overcoat because it was quite chilly. We had our cases with us, and as we walked along more of the platforms, I spotted a white basket, very much like a white wicker clothes basket. It was parked on one of the trolleys and in the dark of the station I heard small clacking noises. Curiosity aroused, we went nearer. Having a quick glance round, I said, “Keep an eye open Jack, I’ll see what’s in here.”

Moving closer, I saw of all things a basket full of live crabs, claws were moving about and it was that which was responsible for the queer noise we’d heard. I loved crab, and it was some time since I’d had any, and I wondered if I could put one in my case to boil at the digs we were going to. Cautioning my mate, I tried to get one, but every time my hand ducked down, several pairs of claws rose up to meet it, and I gave it up as a bad job.

A bit further along the platform, we came across a box of rabbits and Jack said, “Yorkie, what about a rabbit?” I bent down first, undid the fasteners on my case and made as much room as I could to receive it, then swiftly, I grabbed a pair, jerked them apart, for they were tied up in pairs by the back legs, put one back, and put one in the case. It still had its fur on, but it had been gutted. I managed to squeeze the case shut and we made our way back again.

Time for our connection was rapidly approaching, and we strolled up and down near the piled gear. We had put our cases down close together where we could keep our eye on them. Two figures approached and we saw the familiar knee breaches and stockings of Women’s Land Army. The brown and khaki clad girls had the healthy glow of the outdoors on their faces. Asking us if we were waiting for the train north, we said, “Yes, why, are you?” The reply was, “Yes”! We arranged for them to get a pair of seats for us by putting their belongings on them as a reserve ticket. We chatted and joked awhile till the train came. It stopped and we pulled and pushed our load of gear into the guard’s van, saw it safely stowed and picked our cases up. A head leaned out of a window. “Quick, here, we have saved two seats,” and Jack and I swiftly got aboard and passed down the corridor till we saw the two girls. We slipped through the glass door, put our cases on the racks and sat down opposite them.

Their brown overcoats were neatly folded and placed on top of their small cases along with the wide brimmed hats. They looked more attractive in the khaki jumpers and the collar and ties. It wasn’t long before photos were being passed around. All the small talk and banter led us to more personal questions, our homes, and were we married, where we came from and so on. I felt a knee rub against mine under the small table between us, and can remember the gaze from a pair of grey eyes. It came to the time then that we were in a situation where anything could happen. I remember opening my case on the table and as they leaned over to see the surprise I had, they squealed and nearly took off when my rabbit’s head flopped out. They had probably seen their share of rabbits, but not popping out of a case before.

Then the girl opposite me took down her case and rummaged inside. She produced half a cake and offered to share it out. We ate it and then I got up, announcing I was going for a visit to the toilet. The girl looked at me and I knew she’d follow. I looked in the toilet mirror and combed my hair. Then, coming out I saw her there, she was leaning on the small brass handrail near the train window, looking out at the darkness. She looked round and I saw the pale glow of her face in the dimness, her voice murmuring softly over the rumble of the train. “I wonder if this war will ever end in victory, shall we win?” “Yes, I’m sure we shall,” I replied. “How far are you going?” I asked. “Not far now – Cheltenham,” was her reply, “I’d like to see you again.” She moved up close and I could smell her hair, her face rose up to me and we kissed. Her face felt cool, but her mouth felt warm, and I thought to myself, “Bloody fool,” as we stood together. I felt the pressure of her breasts against my chest, and knowing we were nearly at Cheltenham, and the situation was so tempting and getting out of hand, I reluctantly drew away.

“Why don’t you and your pal get off with us and you’ll be OK for the night?” she suggested. “No, we can’t do that. We have no money and we are all on one railway warrant,” I told her. We made our way back to Jack and her chum. Jack had a twinkle in his eye and her friend was flushed. I thought, “You might have got off the train with us, but Bill here says you can’t.” Jack said, “Bill,” with a slightly surprised look, but caught my wink and said, “Oh, we can’t, you’d get us bloody shot.”

Anyway, Cheltenham came and as we saw the name slowly pass, the train slowed to a stop. I helped B down with her coat, and held it for her while she slipped her arms in. I got her case down and handed her hat. I walked with her to the carriage door and gave her a quick kiss. For a fleeting moment, I felt a twinge of sadness as with a last little wave, the two girls disappeared along the dimly lit platform.

Jack said, “That’s that – and what’s this bloody Bill?” “I couldn’t tell her my real name, could I you silly b******?” I replied. As the train started again, I felt just a bit of me had walked away on that platform. Silently I thought, good luck kid. I hope your war is good to you, and you find what you are looking for. I hardly knew her name but she impressed me, and I remember her to this day. I only hope she made it.

We who survived the war and still live on have a unique experience. We learned respect, one for the other, we learned a unity and comradeship, we came I believe, nearer a classless society, discipline apart, that I have ever experienced. The girl I had known so briefly, I loved in a way without any bodily contact, except a kiss. She had filled me with all the feeling we seemed to lose in the men’s world of steel and ships.

I know I had fallen strangely silent. Later on we drew into the station at Newcastle and by now it was getting on for midnight. We had been informed we had to get on the small train for Hebburn(?) So we made a quick change, for it was already waiting. We stood the last short journey and wondered what our hosts would be like. Jack and I were taken by lorry into a council estate and dropped off outside a small gate, and were given a form to hand over to the people who had undertaken to have us in their home. We could see they were expecting us, a faint chink of light just showed through the blackout curtains. Jack gave a tentative knock on the door, a slight pause then the door opened and a tallish woman stood there. “It’s the Navy”, she replied to a question from the room. “Come in lads, and I’ll show you where to put your stuff.” We followed her up a flight of stairs. It looked neat and homely. The bedroom she showed us too was clean, and the bed looked inviting after our long journey. Catnapping on a train is no substitute for a real bed. A large wardrobe, a couple of chairs and a chest of drawers surmounted by a large oval mirror, further furnished the room.

The woman herself was a smiling, jovial sort of person, a kind face, with eyes that looked lively from behind the glasses she wore. Her voice immediately put us at our ease. We instinctively felt we were going to get along with each other. “Now while I get you some supper, you can wash and put your things away. By the way, I’m Mrs MacLachlan and my husband is in the living room, his name is Alec, and my son is there with him and he’s Alan.” It didn’t take us two minutes to put the hammocks and kitbags away. We sorted out toilet things and put them against the washbasin, washed and went into a pleasant, warm, nicely furnished living room.

A man sat there and we could see immediately he wasn’t a fit man. The skin on his features looked pale and transparent and drawn over his cheeks too tightly. He was slightly hunched as he sat in his chair and his eyes shone just a bit too brightly. But his quiet greeting was warm and the grip of his hand was clammy, but sincere. “You are welcome lads, aren’t they Alan?” This to a boy who stood slightly behind his shoulders and was gazing at us with a bit of apprehension in his eyes. “Well Mr MacLachlan, I’m Tommy, Tommy Russell, and this is my ‘oppo’ Jack McCormack – and of course you’re Alec Junior,” I said to the boy. He was at a guess about eleven. He said, “I think I’ll go in the Navy when I’m old enough,” and Jack said, “Yes, but make sure there’s no war on then!” We had supper and were soon on first name terms. This was home from home. If all Geordies are like these, I thought, I’ll settle for a Geordie anytime.

“This home is your home while you are here,” Mrs MacLachlan told us, and it certainly was. On our nightly forages into one or two of the pubs, we would come back singing and would sit and talk late into the night about our own folks and what we had seen in our side of the war.

Mrs MacLachlan’s cooking could have satisfied anyone’s capacity, both in volume and quality. She was tops with us, and all this on top of looking after a sick husband and a growing boy. Courage doesn’t only exist on a heaving deck on a wartime sea; we found it there in the quiet fortitude of that sick man and his marvellous wife.

We made many friends among the girls behind the bars. We played them off against one another, nearly like a sport, and I realised how far I’d gone when I nearly caused a fight between two of them, then I knew I must give this silly game up. For my wife used to visit me whenever possible and God knows what would occur if any of them met. What seems harmless fun might look different and it wasn’t the thing to do really. I was more than happy with the woman I’d pledged my life to.

Pat, the daughter of one of the landlords I remember well, combed her fair hair in the Veronica Lake style hanging over one eye. She was a sport and encouraged Jack and me to have beer on the slate when our fortnightly pay ran out. We paid up then ran another bill up. On our way to dinner, we’d pop in and down a pint, for our times of work were school hours. Down at Hawthorne and Leslies at 9am, dinner hour 12am until 1 ‘o’ clock and pack up at 4pm. It was ideal.

Chapter 25
 
We spent time in the boiler room and engine room, anywhere we could do a bit of cleaning up and learning, and often under the supervision of the E.R.A.S who had come up with us. They wore the rank of C.P.O.’s but they were nice chaps and didn’t pull rank with us, nor did we give them any reason to.

I got chewed off one day because I was getting too friendly with the girl who heated the rivets. She used to look strange to us as she pumped the bellows with her feet and passed the glowing hot rivets to the riveter. She wore a bib and brace overall over a light coloured jersey, her hair tucked under the inevitable scarf and a pair of small clogs on her feet. She was having her break, a cup of tea and some sandwiches, forward below in the Asdic cabinet, and she invited me along for a sandwich. Anyway, I was kidding her along and fooling around, when her foreman showed up. Either he thought something else, or he was jealous, but he packed her off. Whenever I passed her, I’d wink and smile and she’d smile back. She looked nice with her face flushed from the fire and I can remember thinking what romances must be starting among the women on war work, especially if their men were away in the forces.

One day, some women invited us into a canteen across the road from the shipyard. When we went in, we were surrounded by girls and were enjoying a sandwich and a cup of tea, when a matronly woman came along and told us we shouldn’t be there, and told us to get out after we’d eaten. She said it was only for dockyard women workers.

If we had been single we should really have gone to town on the females of Geordie land, but they were all great fun and helped to make our work and waiting less arduous.

The accordions and sing songs in the pubs were okay, now we have discos, TVs, films and so on, but I doubt if the young of today enjoy themselves as we did then. But war brings its own stimulus to life. You wonder what tomorrow will bring and you live accordingly. Every moment with my wife was lived to the full and we knew, although we never mentioned it, that there was a good chance that she could receive the dreaded telegram that so many had already received.

The thing we’d hoped for happened and we were both very happy. She had told me she was pregnant and we didn’t mind what it turned out to be. Now I really wanted this war to end but I’m afraid it was some way off yet. One day when she was visiting me, I took her across the river on the ferryboat and we passed near the ship. “There she is love, she may look big to you, but she’s not all that big when you see a battlewagon.” As we drew away and her rakish lines came more into view, my wife said it looks like a fast ship. I felt a slight feeling of pride as I said, “Yes she should be, and she’s new. I hope she’s lucky and you’re all okay.” “We shall be love, don’t worry,” I said.

The days and weeks soon passed, and we knew our departure could not long be delayed. We had walked down to the dockyard through hail and shine, we had got to know most of the workers on the ship, the people of Tyneside had made us feel like V.I.P.’s and I only hope they knew how much we had appreciated it.

We felt as if the MacLachlans had adopted us. Leaving the family, and leaving the serving girls behind the bars, with their cheery banter, would be mingled with sadness. We knew in our hearts we would probably never meet them again, any of us, and looking back now to those days of forty odd years ago, I wonder how much of it still seems so fresh in the mind. I can lean back in my chair, close my eyes and I can see faces, young, cheerful, full of the hopes of youth, and I thank God I lived then and I knew the real Britain, the unselfish side of my race and country.

The day came and we were ordered to join the ship. I remember it was quite a nice day and we stowed our gear away in the lockers allocated to us, and our hammock netting. The stokers mess deck was through the passageway, running directly through the back of the forecastle past the heads at one side forward, past the T.S room and under the seamen’s mess deck one deck down. It was fitted with portholes, which could be opened if the weather was nice, and in harbour. We quickly became acquainted with the rest of the crew and the ship became as busy as a beehive. Our chief stoker and regulating P.O. soon sorted us out into watches and issued us with the appropriate cards, denoting our watches and parts thereof, green for port watch, red for starboard.

We took note how many drew their tot, as references for the future, birthdays, bets or favours could win sippers from your mates. The stoker’s mess deck had a large table at each side, one down on the port and one on the starboard, seating about 14 men at a time at each one. They were fastened down into brass sockets into which the folding metal legs slotted by means of a cotter pin attached to a small piece of chain.

The lockers in which our personal belongings lay, formed some of the seating, for they had upholstered lids and ran around the sides of the ship. Two wooden forms comprised the other seating, these also fastened to the deck by cotter pins. The steel-supporting stanchion which supports the deck head above us had two electric fires fitted to them and could be used for toasting bread besides giving out heat. Our hammocks were stowed in a steel box like structure on their ends and were easily available.

The steel ladder from the seamen’s mess deck above had a steel chain as a steadying agent - important in rough weather, especially if it was your turn as cook of the mess, and you’d balance the food trays while the ship was rolling or pitching in heavy weather.

Everywhere smelt of new paint and of the cork sprayed bulkheads, designed to minimise condensation. The ship was now a living thing. Ventilation fans hummed, and auxiliary machinery made its noise in boiler rooms and the engine room. The warmth from the funnel mixed with the heat and the smell of warm oil met you as you entered the air lock of the boiler room. We now became officially commissioned after a brief ceremony on the quarterdeck, and straight away, someone set off hauling the flag upside down, and got a real telling off from our captain. This was supposed to be an ill omen and didn’t augur well for the future.

Boilers were pumped up and tested for pressure, machinery and pumping equipment were tested, and so on. Soon we were ready for sea trials and we sailed down the Tyne and into the North Sea. Although it wasn’t as rough as I’ve since seen it, I felt a bit queasy and it didn’t improve things to see some being violently sick. I don’t know what it was like down below for I had managed not to be on watch in the engine room or boiler room just then, but the pitch and roll seemed alarming, especially when our skipper Lieutenant Commander Jenks, a burly ginger haired man tested her steering capabilities by swinging her round. I think he was testing his crew. Once, I thought he was trying to turn her over, for the starboard guard rail didn’t look far off the foaming, rushing water, and having been in a battle wagon, this was a new experience for me.

The sky was grey and low cloud lay over the grey water and seas and sky gradually faded into the distance to leave a barely discernible horizon. The roll and pitch of the ship had gradually settled down, or maybe we were getting our sea legs. Soon we were making our way back to come to anchor. Except for a few minor adjustments she seemed okay and we finally left dockyard hands and sailed to Scapa Flow. for working up exercises, which included gunnery and anti submarine practice, manoeuvres at speed and smoke screen cover. The real work had now begun for all of us, both engines room and seamen’s department. Among all this, the ship had to be kept scrupulously clean. There was no shore leave and nowhere to go in any case, unless you fancied yourself as a shepherd.

We did hear a tale about a hard up sailor missing the girls so much he’d managed to get ashore and was found with sheep wool down his sea boots. But whatever the situation, someone could always be forced to spin a yarn to fit it and no doubt many a tale had been invented. Scapa fitted us out okay, for we used to feel the long Atlantic swell even at anchor. The ship used to creak and roll and our stomachs were getting acclimatised and meals were more readily fancied. Down on the mess deck, we older hands used to pay particular attention for any young rating, for sometimes he didn’t fancy his rum ration, and then we used to vie with each other for a sip of it. Eventually, even that was hardly possible as they became seasoned to the sea and weather. Those days at Scapa were nearly always grey and overcast. Odd days were brilliant sunshine but very cold. The rocky shorelines looked grey and bleak, and the weighing of anchor and going out on exercise was a counter to the monotony of the cold bleak place.

One day I got a new job. I’d never heard of it before, I was appointed ventilation maintenance rating and it turned out to be a plum job. I had to check the joints in the ventilation clinking system, the square metal tools fitted with the swivelling air directors. My tools comprised of a small spanner to fit the nuts of the joints, a large ball of putty and tin of red lead powder, a ball of caulking material and a narrow bladed scraper. My work consisted of looking for leaks from the joints and then loosening the nuts off, applying the spun yarn and red lead putty in, and replacing the nuts and retightening them up again. My busiest times were when we sailed out for a shoot, practising to bring our gunners up to a good standard for the operations we knew were coming.

The crash of the 4.7-inch would fuse light bulbs and be accompanied by a tinkle of glass. The crockery would rattle and the putty in the ventilation joints would sometime be displaced, so I was kept pretty busy. We practised anti-aircraft fire from pom pom and Oerlikeons at canvas sleeves towed by plane, and 4.7’s at simulated torpedo bomber attacks coming in low. Our skipper nearly threw a fit on one such shoot, for one of the after 4.7’s fired a shell on which the fuse setting had been set too low and the shell exploded on the port side above the bridge. If it had been closer it could have caused casualties. I didn’t know up to then that our captain had such a rich vocabulary as any irate collier, and as his voice echoed over the tannoy, it gave us a good laugh and proved captains were only human after all.

These little incidents were all part of the process of welding the ship’s company into one large family. The constant weighing of anchor and sailing out into the Atlantic, sometimes riding easily through a heavy swell, sometimes pitching and yawing through waves like small hills into which the boys would crash. Then you would feel a shuddering lift as she came up, throwing the seas away in streams of spray and water pouring through the scuppers, down again with a terrific crash as if she’d break her very back. We certainly gained our sea legs then and you learnt to time the sudden lift as you went down to the mess deck and the drop as she dipped to plough through the next oncoming sea. It was nearly like being on a kind of lift that came up and just as suddenly dropped away.

During this type of weather the mess deck became a damp foggy place, with water from overturned mess kettles tipped over and mixed with the smell of damp wool from wet clothes and the smell of vomit from sea sickness, for some were still suffering. Sometimes mixed with the water swishing around was the next day’s dinner of peas and potatoes, which had been upset. In times like this, the mess deck could be a miserable place.

Imagine for a moment, a steel walled room, narrow and tapering at one end, the only light electric, and looking and speaking to each other in this constantly moving and heaving room. Sometimes, someone opposite would be on a higher plane, sometimes lower, according to the movement of the ship. The seamen’s mess deck was above us, and besides all the other smells, we sometimes got a mixture of sweaty feet, which seemed to me to be extra strong on their mess deck.

Meal times could be an important operation in themselves, for it was a hazard transporting the large flat metal dishes of hot food from the gallery, with a deck constantly trying to buckle your knees and send the whole lot flying. Going down the hatchway was the worst – the steel steps would seem to suddenly drop away when you didn’t expect it.


Chapter 26
 
We quickly learnt to help one another even if it wasn’t our turn as “cook of the mess”. Some of the older men made pastries and the odd cake to add a little touch at meal times. The P.O. cook used to have a terrible job in heavy weather. His galley was against the slightly raked funnel and his cooking range was oil fired. Even the rail surrounding his working surface was often inadequate to retain the pile of metal dishes if she gave an extra vicious roll.

I’d seen him, his hat perched on the back of his head, sweating and tears just about starting, cursing (this f****** b******, pig of a ship, why can’t it keep f****** still a bit, look at this f****** b****** lot). This, among what should have been a lovely nice hot meal of spuds, meat, gravy all mixed in with other debris. All his work gone with one big sea. Then it would be hard tack and corned beef, and of course, poor old chef got a bollocking.

“This isn’t rough. Can’t you b***** cook? It’s only rolling a bit. What if it really gets rough?” “Well, then you f****** well starve to death or eat hard tack,” would be his answer, and amid some laughter, “Well, we’d have to chuck the cook over the side and get a new b****** then!”

Yes, a cook on a destroyer in those far off days earned every penny of his pay. He also earned underneath all the kidding a large amount of respect from his shipmates, for they were good cooks and did their best against the elements and the rations available. Our cook had a roster for the egg and chip supper, for eggs and chips were a meal that Jack had a peculiar yearning for. To make sure that we were all evenly treated, we had our egg and chips on a rota basis. Each mess had a different night, whenever it was practical. Enemy action or rough weather could throw the rota out a bit, and then on return to harbour, there were a few arguments as to whose turn it was. But the cook always had his rota ticked off, so anyone trying to pull a fast one lost the argument.

On the whole, Quail was a happy ship, between the rounds of shoots and manoeuvres essential to bring the ship up to full efficiency, all hands still could find that particular brand of humour. Tiredness didn’t damp it. One thing I remember was one young leading stoker who was very sea sick, said, “Cheer up stokes, you could be dead,” to which the young lad said “How b***** lucky.”

We used to grumble at the sudden call to action stations, just when we were expecting a nice little snooze after a particularly rough day, and yet we knew in our hearts it was essential. For even at Scapa, you never knew if it was an air raid or a submarine, and it was fitting us for our own survival.

We had to answer the alarm rattlers by an immediate response, gun crews closed up, damage control and fire parties at their stations between decks, torpedo crews stood by tubes or depth charge racks, and guns would follow the director, traversing in the direction of the expected attack, anti-flash gear and steel helmets had to be worn on the upper deck and in a real attack anti-flash gear would have to be worn between decks too. Soon our preparations were completed and our programme of exercises was complete, but I remember one incident in which we were screening a mixed fleet of British and American ships, including a couple of battlewagons on a bombardment practice. We picked an echo up on our ASDIC and thought we had a submarine in the area. The fleet immediately returned to Scapa and we were ordered in with them. A rumour, which went round the ship said a U-boat was sunk.

Our own submarine exercises involved a submarine going out to a certain area whereupon we would conduct an ASDIC search, and then would drop a small charge designed to make a noise without damaging the sub on which the submarine signalled it as being near was classed as a hit.

One day our captain summoned me up to the bridge. We were at sea on a submarine exercise at the time. “Could you try and stop this bloody water getting through the windscreen Russell?” “I’ll try Sir,” I answered him. He showed where the wind was forcing the spray as it flew back over the fo’castle between the small panes, and he was catching some of it as he perched on his high chair scanning the ship. Some of his officers and a midshipman were stood around him hanging on as the ship rolled, for it was pretty rough.
I gazed with apprehension at the job in hand. I had a vision of tumbling down into one of those grey troughs and knew my chances if I did were pretty slim. He gazed at my face and probably saw the consternation there, for with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Its okay stokes, I’ll hang onto your legs, you’ll be okay. I’ll not let go.” He thereupon got hold of my legs as I lowered my body over the windscreen. One of the officers passed the putty and my knife as I required it, and I quickly did my best to stop the water getting through. It took about 15 minutes, then he said, “Now, if you are not too wet you can stay on the bridge a bit and watch the exercise from here.”

I felt quite proud for this big redheaded skipper of ours to ask me to observe the exercise, I knew the responsibility he must have on his shoulders. In this tumult of wind and water I heard the noise of the asdic, the noise steadily increased to a rapid pi-ing, pi-ing, pi-ing, and the indicator scrawling away on the round card showed the submarine’s course as she tried to evade the hunter. Somewhere down there were men like us trying their best to lose us, though they tried, we eventually came into position over her, and a grenade type charge caused her to release a flare which bobbed up to the surface acknowledging a hit.

We were excited and some gave a weak cheer. “Now that’s one of ours, and remember this is practice. Don’t expect the Jerries to be so obliging. He’ll not release a flare, it may be a b***** big tin fish if we don’t get it right.” Just after this the submarine came to the surface, her Aldis lamp blinking over the ink coloured top of her conning tower, congratulating us and wishing us good luck in the future. The exercise was over and we proceeded back to harbour, seeing the submarine again as we left her in a burst of spray, as the air hissed from her tanks as they were flooded to take her down again. Swiftly, we set our course back to Scapa; after a few days there, we were ordered to Greenock for a boiler clean. We knew it would mean a short spell of leave to each watch, so it aroused excitement on the mess deck, after these four months of Scapa where practically everything except bloody hard work was at a premium. The day we sailed was blowing really rough, the sky was grey and we set out for Greenock in a full gale.

As we left the cover of the surrounding headlands we met a destroyer returning off patrol. She was heaving and showing much of her red painted underside. Even in a following sea she seemed to be taking a battering. One destroyer off our starboard beam fell back and we were alone in a heaving world of seas. I’d never seen seas like this, it was awesome. Every shuddering climb up and the resulting shuddering crash jarred through your very body. Seasickness I suspect now became tinged with apprehension as we changed course steadily and took some of the seas on the starboard beam. Then she lay over as if she wouldn’t come back, sending mess deck crockery crashing out of the shelves, hatboxes fell from the racks and mess kettles slid about among vomit and water. One stoker who had joined the ship recently was hanging on the edge of the metal washbasins in the bathroom with one or two of the lads trying to comfort him. Poor b*****, he was vomiting a greenish bile streaked with blood and moaning. He was classed as unfit for sea duty eventually, so I was told. I’ll bet he remembered that trip.

My watch came and I watched the seas very carefully as I held the knot of rope of the safety line. This was a thin wire braided line, very strong and strung along each side of the ship. You watched for your chance then dashed along the deck. You could swing your legs up in an attempt to let any water go under you if you were a bit late. Anyway, I managed it and got to the gear room above the engine room with a quick dash along the gleaming steel deck. My mate the leading stoker arrived next. He was slightly wet and after the passing of water past the rim of the hatch, he passed down the short steel ladder, fastening the hatch down behind him.

The motion of the ship was now a rolling motion from side to side. It was an effort keeping one’s feet on the steel plates as one kept a constant watch on the reading of the gauges of the forced lubrication pumps, and as the hour came up to pass the readings over to the engine room, I didn’t relish going out on the upper deck, for the short dash to the after superstructure, leading to the shaft passages. This was necessary to check the temperatures of the shaft bearings. A thermometer was inserted in the Plummer blocks, which supported the shafts. After that came the check on the steering engine in the tiller flat.

A small party of torpedo men were posted back, taking it in turns to keep a lookout over the turbulent waste of waters from the inside of the after superstructure. They were also ready for instant action if we got an asdic contact, for they formed the depth charge crews, as well as maintaining torpedoes and the electrics of the destroyer. As I passed through them, one Scottish lad with a mop of red hair said, “I dinnae want your b***** job down there Yorky,” and gave a little cheer as I shut the hatch behind me amid a shower of spray.

I wasn’t long down there, for the sea was swishing oil and water around in the bilge giving a sickly stench off that I didn’t find was doing my queasy stomach any good. I made my way back to the gear room and read the readings over by telephone to the engine room chief E.R.A., for him to enter into the engine room log. This hazardous journey back aft had to be done four times in the four-hour watch just before the hour. The ship seemed to be settling down into an easier motion, and when my watch came to an end, I handed over to my relief and went on deck. By now it was nightfall, but the skies had cleared and a big moon was up. The seas appeared to have subsided, although it was still rough and the moonlight was shining on the white topped foaming crests. It gave the scene a wild beauty enhanced by the screeching of the wind through the yards and signal wires.

I thought now that I could discern grey shapes faintly appearing in the moonlight, we were in the Lee of the Minches off the west coast of Scotland. Our ordeal would soon be over and we would be going on a well-earned leave. Only four days each watch, but one eagerly looked forward to by all the ships company. We entered the Clyde and anchored off Greenock. Quickly the mess deck became a hive of activity as tiddly suits were donned and cases packed for the short 4 day leave which was all a boiler clean could afford us.

We were piped to fall in aft for railway warrants and pay, and our ration books for a few days leave. I got to Leeds late, and a taxi dropped me outside the door at about 1am to the delight of my wife, but four days wasn’t long, as we visited relatives and walked in the country.


Chapter 27


 Though I would have liked to have been able to have turned my back on the war, I knew more than ever we had to go on come what may.

It was early spring of 1943 and the weather was pretty good. We walked through woods and round the reservoir and fields. We crammed as much as we could into the four days. After a bit of questioning on the war, where I had been and where was I going, my parents soon gave up as they realised I was not giving anything away. Harmless enough, I suppose, but the reminder on the posters, ‘Careless talk costs lives’ meant all lit implied. I had my own ideas. I had heard a ‘buzz’ going round the ship and it mentioned an invasion somewhere.

My leave was over all too soon and amid a few kisses and deceptively cheerful wave of hands, we drew swiftly away. This was the worst time of parting, that first ten minutes of setting off was really upsetting. Then I would settle down and try to read a bit, and after a while, lean back and catnap, occasionally having a gaze at the smoke drifting past and listening to the rhythm of the train as it sped over the rails. That peculiar swaying movement and the noise which seemed to my half asleep mind to be saying, “You’ve got to go – you’ve got to go – you’ve got to go.”

Every train was a train of destiny, for many would go like I was going now and would not come back. Maybe I wouldn’t, who could tell? I saw soldiers on station platforms weighted down with kitbag, gas mask and rifle, air force personnel and sailors, and many of them looked young, fresh faced, as if they shouldn’t be away from home yet. But all, or nearly all, seemed cheerful, as if it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. No one could realise what happens to men till they have seen it, after the lurid flash and heat and the red hot searing blast of explosive and whining fragments that these boys could soon be facing. The lucky ones would come back. Men who would have learnt and often aged beyond their years would remember comrades who would not come back.

These thoughts passed through my mind as the train stopped for a short while in the station, picking up people travelling north. I was getting impatient now, ready to rejoin my ship, fed up with the train journey. I suppose the ship was home in its way. Eventually I arrived back and walking up the gangway I was greeted by one or two of the lads. “You look as if you enjoyed your leave Russ. Plenty of the other then eh? Left the missus okay have you, you lucky bastard?”

This sort of thing wasn’t upsetting at all, it was a rough sort of affection and as near as brothers. You were destroyer men. You were trained as near as could be to give all for the ship and these lads. Soon, the next leave returned, the boiler clean was completed, an old tank, which had been ruptured in the heavy weather on our way down from Scapa, had been repaired and now we were ready for sea.

We were full of ammunition and refuelled and when the call came ‘Special sea duty men to your stations, prepare to leave harbour,’ we knew this was it. Now all our months of training and preparing would be put to the test. We sailed confident in our skipper, the number 1, all our officers and ourselves. We sailed down the Clyde and out into the Irish Sea and changed onto a southerly heading; we were to join a convoy. As yet we had no idea where this convoy was going or its composition. We would be told when our captain opened his sealed orders. We were kept on our toes practising action stations, anti-submarine and repel aircraft mostly. Sometimes the torpedo men would practise training the tubes or draw a torpedo out with block and tackle and check it over, nothing was left to chance. Life belts had to be carried at all times and you could wear them with no inconvenience for they were deflated. You simply slung the neck tape over your head and round the neck, and two tapes tied it round the waist. Inflation was by mouth and was quick and easy. Later on, small red bulbs, which would light on contact with the seawater, were issued. These clipped onto the lifebelt and would show up in the dark if you were unlucky enough to be sunk.

We picked the convoy up a day or two later. A couple of the ships looked to be passenger liners. We say they were carrying troops. It wasn’t a large convoy, maybe about ten ships but it was faster than the convoys the old Ramillies had escorted in the North Atlantic. It must have been an important convoy for it had an escort of four destroyers. The weather was a mixture of cloud and rain and most of the time the seas were rough. It was still early Spring. Day followed uneventful day, each dawn showed the ships still in station, lookouts scanned the sea and sky and the constant Asdic watch revealed nothing.

After a while the weather improved and grew much warmer. The sun began to blaze down and the men appeared in various scanty articles of attire, vying to be the first to acquire a suntan. The sea took on that remarkable deep blue of the tropics with the suns rays penetrating deep down into the depths.

I remember wondering, when I saw the first flying fish skimming the water until it disappeared in a flurry of spray into the side of a wave, what predator was chasing them. I had visions of great fish hunting somewhere down there, no wonder the ancient mariners had an awe of the sea and respected it. One day, as I leaned over the guardrail looking at a destroyer far off on our starboard beam, I was suddenly reminded of a hymn from my Sunday School days. The scene was one of oceanic beauty. There was this ship seeming to throw herself forward like some whitish racehorse in a half gliding, hurdling, movement through the blue sea, showing much of her forefoot one instant, then disappearing until only her masts and funnel showed. The sky was a cloudless blue and some of the words came back: ‘Summer suns are shining over land and sea,’ and to me it looked wonderful, exhilarating. Though I never kept a diary, I remember these things so vividly.

Although the watches below were hot, provided you washed your sweat sodden clothes regularly and bathed and you got your share of exercise on the upper deck you could keep clear of the dreaded ‘prickly heat’. I saw a few of my shipmates get it - a course red rash in a scaly looking patch would appear and they said the itching sensation was terrible. The liberal application of talcum and coatings from the sick bay took a while to be effective. I was lucky though, all my service I kept clear of this scourge. The sea appeared one day in an oily calm and the weather was very hot. Three or four of us off watch were looking at an area of sea full of Portuguese-men-of-war. They looked beautiful with their rainbow hued sails sticking up. I remember one passed close down the side of the ship and a destroyer’s deck isn’t so far above the surface of the sea, so I had a good look.

I saw a great dark shape and to this day I’m convinced he half rolled and eyed us, I would not have fancied going into the water where these fish were at any price, never mind the theories that they seldom attack men. I had heard of ships being sunk and sharks attacking the survivors, one with a large consignment of women forces personnel aboard.

By now we were well south, and on the day we crossed the line, we had a large canvas bath rigged up, hoses had been rigged to the fire main and the canvas pool was pumped full. The attendants of Neptune dressed up as pirates, roamed through the ship dragging protesting initiates to the bathing pool, they to be ceremoniously shaved with a large wooden razor, and a soap pill of large dimensions was forced into the mouth and then they were tipped from the chair into the bath and ducked under, two or three times by two men standing in the water. It wasn’t so bad and the cool seawater was a relief. The soap pill you simply spit out. We all got a crossing the line certificate designed and produced on the ship herself. I believe the ship’s writer produced it and it was certainly an artistic effort. I have it before me now, date 16th March 1943, so long ago and yet so fresh in the mind.

We sailed on and occasionally visited ports on the West African coast to refuel. Every time we neared the African coast we could smell that strange smell peculiar to the tropics, a warm, dank fragrance hung in the air.

Freetown, Dakar, Lagos, and Takoradi.

One day at about 1400 hours, the alarm rattlers went for submarine action stations and we increased speed outwards on the port side of the convoy, and as we closed the contact, which must have been a definite submarine contact, our depth charge crews stood by in a tense silence. By now the ship had steadied down, marking the unseen enemy like a terrier at a rat hole. Suddenly we surged forward, and then, as we passed over the contact, came the order to fire a full pattern, some set shallow, some intermediate and some at maximum settings, designed to try and catch him at any depth.

After a few seconds the first explosions of the shallow settings sent huge columns of water heaving up that time, then the maximum set charge, giving a luminous green whiplash under the surface of the ocean, and everyone was producing a noise on the ship’s hull like gigantic hammer blows clanging against the sides. The depth charge crews had reloaded and were waiting as we circled and went in once again, the speeding up and the clang of the explosives, but we saw no debris or oil. The contact had vanished from the plot and could not be regained. We rejoined the convoy and took our position up again. Signal lamps flickered and from the troop ships we heard cheering from the figures on the upper deck.

We were disappointed we could not claim a kill. It could have after all, been a large shoal of fish, or a denser patch of seawater, but chances could not be taken with so many lives depending on us, a clear echo must be attached on the assumption it is a ‘U’ boat. Our skipper, Lieutenant Commander Jenks, congratulated the ship’s company on their performance and warned that we must never relax our vigilance. At cruising stations, a constant Asdic watch was kept and lookouts were posted at various vantage points around the ship. Our destination was now revealed as Durban.

The weather continued fine, but the sun was not as hot now and its warmth didn’t burn so much, everyone was tanned from a golden brown to a swarthy dark colour. The sea wasn’t so rough but was choppy in a fresh breeze, it was getting to be more of a cruise now, except the hidden menace of submarine attack still remained. When we finally arrived at Durban, I marvelled at its modern white blocks. Was it only yesterday I had been here on the Ramillies. Nothing had changed except I was now a married man soon to be a father. I was watch ashore, I was in luck for we were sailing again next day.

I went ashore with a Geordie mate and showed him as much as I could of Durban. My first job had been to find a telephone kiosk and phone Ballengeih in the slender hope Mary B could get down, really it was impossible. I imagined she could get down quickly by car, but the distance ruled a short meeting with her out. I did manage to speak to her, she was surprised to know I was back in Durban and asked if I could make it to Ballengeih. On explaining the situation she sounded disappointed. It was nice to hear her voice again and now I dropped her the double six. I told her I had married and to thank her for the pleasant week and memories of Ballengeih. As I said goodbye over the phone, I realised I had been cruel to a very sweet and pleasant girl. I never heard or saw her again, but on occasion, as I nap before the fire, I remember and am thankful to her. I still have a snap she gave me, and my wife with a smile, would refer to her as my South African fancy woman. I know she understands.

Geordie and I met up with some RAF boys in a pub and were immediately greeted with “Good old Navy, you looked after us.” They were from off one of the troopers we had escorted. Our depth charging of that echo had convinced them we had sunk a ‘U’ boat and maybe it was the drink they had consumed, but we couldn’t convince them otherwise. They were a happy crowd and soon we were being overwhelmed by drinks. Beer and brandy flowed freely and by now, more Navy had arrived. It was one of the best good-natured binges I had ever had and these lads would not let the Navy buy a drink. We felt like heroes. Somewhere I’d like to think there is an ex RAF man who remembers like me.

In a third world war, would the missiles leave any memories for anyone? We left the pub amid a chorus of ‘Good Luck’ and hand shakes.

Chapter 28
 
We sailed next day down to Port Elizabeth and spent a short while there. I will remember a short patrol off the South African coast, apparently a ‘U’ boar was suspected in the area and we sailed out to conduct a search. The day was clear with a choppy sea and we had secured from dusk, action stations on what appeared to be a wild goose chase. I was topside peering over the rail and suddenly, I was startled to see several streaks of phosphorescent, greenish light appear, glowing through the darkness which had now fallen and seeming to be going at the same speed as the ship. As I watched and saw the strange perambulations of the streaks, it suddenly became clear, it was a school of porpoises in their undulating movement through the water, leaving a trail of phosphorescence as they swam and leapt near the bows. I suppose their sudden appearance to a vigilant lookout could have aroused alarm and might have been interpreted as torpedo tracks. These sub-tropical waters seemed to hold a lot of phosphorescence.

By now I had been joined by several more of the crew and we were musing on the behaviour of the porpoises when suddenly, the alarm rattlers sounded to submarine action stations. We dashed off and heard over the tannoy, all hands to clear the forward mess decks and go amidships and hang on to anything we could. The radar had picked up a contact on the surface, which appeared to be the submarine we were hunting.

Gun crews had closed up, Oerlikon gunners were closed up ready to sweep the sub’s decks with cannon fire and depth charge crews were at the ready. Suddenly the skipper’s voice, “Prepare to ram.” It sounded so cool, so nonchalant over the tannoy, the vibration of the engines increased and the deck shuddered under their power, and wake boiled and glowed as the destroyer surged forward and we braced ourselves for the impact. But it wasn’t to be, for the ship keeled over. As she swung to starboard, her deck cantered at an alarming angle, some of the sea actually foamed through the scuppers as the guardrails dipped towards the madly rushing water and the dark shape loomed upon the port quarter. It was a ship, not the ‘U’ boat we were seeking. A flurry of blue signal lights flickered and we got our answer, she was a Free French Corvette, probably on the same errand as we were.

Somewhere, a mistake must have occurred which could have resulted in tragedy, for we should have had intelligence to the effect that she was in the search area. It must have caused some embarrassment, for our skipper and I could imagine his anger. His officers with him on the bridge would probably have been treated to a few un-gentlemanly oaths.

The incident had its sequel, for it caused a few fights ashore, resulting in little harm being done. In fact a couple of days later, several of the Quail’s crew, including yours truly, was in the Fleet Canteen, we met lads from the Corvette, had drinks together and a jolly evening, rounded off by the singing of the ‘Internationale’ and the ‘Red Flag’. Some of our officers heard us and didn’t look pleased. Maybe they thought it had political implications. Anyway, it helped to undo any damage the near ramming may have caused and we restored a new comradeship between our ships’ companies.

My first and last view of the Queen Mary occurred about this time. Captain Jenks sailed around he as she lay off Cape Town, playing the latest hits over our tannoy and I marvelled at the size. She loomed up, huge and beautiful. Figures waved to us from the decks. She towered way above us, her sides looking like great steel cliffs. This giant had ploughed over and sunk an accompanying light cruiser in the dark of an Atlantic night and now she relied on her speed to keep her out of trouble. The routes would be carefully plotted.

Eventually, we sailed for the UK and I think this was the worst voyage weather wise, and for such a long period, that I had endured up to now. It was a relief to visit a couple of ports on the West African coast to refuel. Day after day at sea with decks gleaming wet, the ship rolling and heaving with salt spray stinging the face as soon as you tried to find a sheltered spot to get a breath of fresh air on the upper deck. The waves towered greenish blue, topped by white with the sun turning their summits an opaque greenish colour. We had them on the beam most of the time; down below on the mess deck we existed in a damp fog.

The grog issue was a godsend now. It helped to settle the stomach and kept the appetite going. By now the small store of flour was low and in any case, baking bread was out of the question. The difficulties were too obvious, cookie being only human; his resources had been taxed to the limit in his tiny galley below the funnel. Now we were put on hard tack, the large square biscuit, something like a large cream cracker but harder, some found soaking them in tea aided jaws. I found them nourishing enough and had no difficulty being fortunate to have my own teeth in healthy condition. Corned beef was issued along with the biscuits and a jar or two of pickled onions to add a bit of taste. Grumbles were few, for we expected leave on our arrival in the UK, so we put up with our discomfort in a happy frame of mind.

The voyage was uneventful, no sub alarms this time. We did go to action stations two or three times, but it was only exercise to keep us on our toes. Day followed day, the ship rolling and lunging. All this we had come to get used to, it seemed perfectly natural for the feet to walk on the heaving deck. Eventually we arrived back at the UK. I remember visiting the Isle of Mull on anti submarine exercises and dropping depth, charged to supplement our diet by killing fish for the galley.

We had a short period at Scapa and escorted some British and American battleships out for a shoot. The practice shells they used carried a coloured dye and it was quite something to see the various coloured plumes of water, tower into the air marking the fall of shot of the various ships. Someone got what was presumed to be a submarine contact and the ships made all haste to clear the danger zone. The battleships could not get back to their anchorage fast enough, leaving one destroyer to hunt the sub. Whether anything was confirmed, I never knew, although rumour was rife that a ‘U’ boat had been sunk.

Not long after this we practised gunnery against simulated shore targets and AA gunnery exercises. At the time, we didn’t realise the significance of this and our role in the future. The exercises completed, we went South again to Devonport and leave, where I gave most of my cigarette ration away down at the pub.

The leave passed quickly, every moment savoured and lived as if there was no tomorrow. The child my wife was carrying was moving around a bit and I used to put my hand against her tummy and wonder, would I see the child grow up, would I even live to see it at all? Everything was so uncertain. I think some of us learnt to switch off a bit once the station had disappeared and our next contact was by the written word. Mail was something I always had plenty of; my wife especially kept me up to date with all that went on. Some of the lads didn’t do so well, though and my sympathies went out to them.

Some unfeeling bastards would probably be enjoying themselves while they had deceived these lads. To see a glum face suddenly light up when the mail was dumped on the mess deck table, and a name was called, was really something. Sometimes though it meant a frown, sometimes it meant a finished romance, or home troubles but as much help or cheer as possible would always be forthcoming. The mess deck was another home and in a way another family.

The ship was now a close knit community of about 120 offices and men, trained to a fine pitch, from the engine room to the lookouts and gun-crews, the administrative and canteen staff, were small but all important both in action and the running of the ship. Our Skipper Lieutenant, Commander Jenks had been tough on us, but had worked us hard and we felt an added confidence. All he felt we should know, he would immediately announce over the ship's tannoy system. Jimmy was the one who used to refer to us as ‘Quails’, ‘Quails shun’ or ‘Quails, stand at ease!’

Bill Rice, a Liverpudlian, sometimes used to hum under his breath the song, ‘All through the night there’s a little brown bird singing’. Ricey was quite a lad, a randy bugger, after the girls but a great guy to know. Then Mickey Keenan the happy go lucky Irish leading stoker, Mickey of the Indian Rope trick, who would sit on the mess deck table with a towel round his head for a turban, and blowing through a tissue paper and comb, as he drew a hammock lashing slowly up to the bar. It was to swing on. A simple little trick but the way he performed it had us in fits of laughter. A simple little trick, but the way he performed, it had us in fits of laughter. Engineer Commander Dixon informed me later that Mickey had died when the Laforay was torpedoed. I honour his memory.

Chapter 29
 
Leave was now over and the final striking down of fresh ammunition and the taking onboard of all kinds of supplies was completed. New lists for watch keeping duties were posted on the notice boards and I found myself changing from the engine room to the gear room. It was only manned by two of us but our duties were important, for it included checking hourly, the temperatures of the gears and bearings, oil pressure through the forced lubrication pumps and filters, Plummer block shaft bearings and the tiller flat and steering engine hydraulic pressures.

Prior to leaving harbour, we came under ‘Special Sea duty men’ and whoever happened to have the gear room watch then, would send one man over to the tiller flat to check the degrees of rudder as it was worked from the bridge, making sure it was working efficiently and the hydraulic system was free from leakage. I also found my action station changed from damage control to ammunition supply. First off watch, I was to supply ‘B 4.7’ gun and ‘Y gun’ longest off watch. Well, if we got into any action now I’d certainly get a grandstand view from the gun deck. My anti-flash gear and steel helmet would have to be kept very handy now.

We came to short notice for steam and left Greenock, and headed for Gibraltar at a fair speed together with some more of our sister ships. We all exercised A.A. defence and anti-submarine exercises, and significantly more 4.7inch drill than usual. The future would prove how significant it was. Gibraltar was a short stay. The weather was good and we enjoyed shore leave. The usual drunks came aboard, some had not yet tasted the potency of the duty free spirits or beer. One amusing incident stuck in my mind. Two of my Townies, Cedric Simpson and Wilf Harrison, both good friends, had managed to find something to argue about in their drink blurred minds, and to the amusement of a few onlookers were chasing one another round and round the torpedo tubes, occasionally delivering a smart slap on the cheeks as they got within range of each other.

The Officer of the day came on the scene and ordered them to get themselves cleaned up and to report back to him, no doubt they got a warning on future conduct and to lay off the booze. Cedric had the ability to find booze anywhere. I think he would even unearth it in the desert, but he was a good gunner and knew plenty about the ordinance side of things. He used to help to maintain the ship's armament, together with a P.O. ordnance artificer, they got on well together. Now Cedric is no longer with us. He died of a heart attack a few years ago. He would have been about 64 now; if anyone in those days had said he would go like that he would have laughed at them. Well who wouldn’t in the arrogance of youth?

Wilf went back to the pit, then he did the rounds of the clubs as a singer. He was quite a singer in his Navy days and used to give the boys some light entertainment. Now his wife tells me he spends much of his time in his allotment; strange how we settle into our own quiet corner.

War is never left behind and forgotten completely, its stamp must remain, the sights, the sounds that shocked the mind can only be erased by death. The ears can only lay a film of dust so easily blown away.

Now we left Gibraltar in brilliant sunshine, typical Mediterranean weather. The ship was spotless, her paintwork fresh, her decks hosed down and down below, any brass work polished until it sparkled in the bright electric lights. Morale was high; we got a suspected submarine contact, not far out in the Straits and the few eagerly closed up to action stations. We circled the area and made several runs over the spot, dropping a couple of full patterns. It proved inconclusive, producing nothing more than some flaking of cork from the deck head as we shook to the hammer blow of the explosions. The trip to Malta was uneventful. We had expected some enemy air activity but allied air power had built up to such a pitch, that we now had the edge on the Luftwaffa and Regia Aeronotica.

It was obvious from the number of ships in Malta’s Grand Harbour and Sliema Creek that something big was afoot. The sirens did go a few times and the barrage did open up but nothing big developed, just a couple of highflying enemy reconnaissance planes. Our own were busy now and Sicilian targets and airfields were being attacked. We were allowed over the side in Sliema Creek and swimming there, the water was lovely and warm. You could swim ashore from our anchorage and the roadside wasn’t very high above the water. You could pull yourself out like the side of a swimming bath. If you were nippy, it was possible to go and swallow a quick bottle of beer. I remember a nearby seaman saying, "Look Stokes, Mount Etna," and following his pointing finger, sure enough there was the far distant snow covered cone seeming to float above the haze, Sicily and the enemy seemed very near just then. Soon they would be very much nearer. The ship was now in a state of readiness. Jimmy was eager to hear his beloved guns in real action, as if he needed to prove his dedication to his work and his chums. We would soon depend on those guns for our very lives.

The speed of closing up to action stations, the speed of coming on bearing, the speed of rate of fire, everyone working like a well oiled machine, it was as if a central brain controlled every department of the ship with an immediate response. Speed and efficiency was the very essence of action. To see a destroyer in action was really something, from the high plume of her bow wave and the trough along her side, as the sea slid past, all speed and spray. Her guns swivelled and deviated to erupt in bright flame and dark yellowish smoke, to be immediately torn away by the speed of her passing. Flash after flash followed by the crash of noise, beautiful but deadly, a speeding battering of guns, a result of man's training and ingenuity to destroy his enemy, his kind. So futile, yet in this war so necessary.

The time has arrived, sealed orders come aboard, and the buzz goes round the mess decks. The invasion of Sicily was on; a last flurry of writing to loved ones, careful that the censoring officer could find nothing to cut out. There wouldn’t be much time for writing for a while.

July 10th was the landing date, with landings made before dawn. Bridgeheads had been swiftly established with the Canadians making quick gains. Syracuse fell quickly without much damage. I remember one incident about this time and it affected me deeply. A heavy cruiser off our port beam suddenly ran into a mine or was struck by a torpedo. A dull thud echoed across the water and smoke seemed to linger amid the ship's hull, her speed fell away but she appeared to remain underway. I borrowed a pair of glasses from a lookout and saw figures on her fo’castle. They appeared to be laying victims of the stricken ship out on deck and covering them with blankets. A strange ritual seemed to be taking place. Two men seemed to kneel momentarily by each still form and as I watched, I realised that they were tying something to the feet protruding from the blankets. I handed the glasses back and as we closed in on her, it became apparent that those whose feet we had seen, were dead. The feet reminded me of children in bed, frightened of the dark with blankets pulled over their heads and the feet uncovered. We have now confirmed the ship was the A.A. Cruiser, HMS Cleopatra torpedoed by a ‘U’ boat 23rd July 1943, (so my memory was correct).

The weather was good now, all sunshine and very warm. Our operational role now, along with other ships of the flotilla, was bombardments of enemy communications and escorting the 15” monitors, those strange-looking ships, mounting a twin 15” turret high up on its barbette capable of accurately shooting into the mountain positions of the enemy. I used to watch the sudden scurry of small ant-like figures across the lava-beds, as the civilians took fright at the choking reverberations from the hills. It amused us to see them like insects crossing a greyish roadway, from out at sea, the old lava flows from Mount Etna appeared like that. We had now occupied the large anchorage of Augusta, along with other destroyers of our flotilla. It was also full of landing craft and merchant shipping. We were under constant danger from air attacks. The weather was very warm and under normal conditions we would have been pleased to have the chance to bathe over the side, as the water looked so cool and inviting.

A system had been devised against the sudden appearance of the German fighter-bombers. The ships hoisted a white flag for raid passed, a yellow flag for raid imminent and a red one for raid in progress. How they knew could only have been from a ground observer out in the field, or from our own aircraft, which often stooped above to try to catch them. The system was not wholly efficient, for the radar could not pick them up as they streaked in low and usually in threes, which broke up and attacked from different directions, coming in under air cover provided by Spitfires.

Often the red flags had gone down, then the yellow, and as the white flag fluttered up, a new attack would come in. By a miracle, I never saw a ship hit in the crowded bay. Streams of different coloured tracers from Oerlikan cannon, machine guns, Bofars and Pom Poms streaked into the air. Red, green and white lines crossed over the ships, till it seemed nothing could live in that maelstrom of noise and fire. Those Jerry pilots certainly had courage to press on with their attacks through that lot. Some of it seemed to pass right through them. Sometimes we would be going on a night shoot somewhere up the coast. As dusk fell, as we steamed away, we would see over far away Augusta the marvellous firework display as the ships barrage opened up.

One morning, at about eight o’ clock, I had the eerie feeling of actually seeing a plane come in and no one realised until too late that it was a German plane. I was following my usual routine of pacing the fo’castle, getting a taste of the cool morning air and exercising my legs. I just stopped and watched it, wondering what it was going to do. It looked like an ME 109. Then I saw the bomb fall. It seemed to be gliding towards the ship and specifically towards me. The thought crossed my mind as to where it was going to hit. Should I run after it or should I stay where I was? If I’d been on terra firma, I would probably have made a beeline for the nearest bit of cover, but here I had no time to find cover. Then it hit the water, about two hundred yards away, exploding and throwing a small hillock of water up, foaming and smoking, until it fell away leaving a circle of soot among the dying turbulence. By now he had attracted the usual hail of fire but he was long gone streaking away over the sea, after giving me the jitters. It isn’t every day one survives a bomb that appears to be deliberately aimed your way.

Chapter 30
 
The days passed by and air activity died down. Now came an opportunity to go ashore on a motor launch.

Weapons were carried in the shape of one or two rifles with the petty officer’s pistol. Stokers had to provide anything they could find. I armed myself with the hunting knife I had bought some time ago in Mombassa, although what I’d really do with it if it came to the crunch, I didn’t know. I never fancied sticking it in anyone and in any case, it wouldn’t do much good against a struggling sniper.

The party fell in. Rig was optional, from shorts or boiler suits to bathing trunks. It was a motley bunch that clambered aboard the launch and the Carley Raft, which it was to tow.
“Don’t forget, take any green stuff you can lay your hands on chaps and lets have some fresh fruit and vegetables aboard. Okay foraging party away.” And with a smile, the captain waved us off. “Christ, we look more like old Jenk’s pirates than British sailors,” a seaman said. “He might as well have brought the f****** cutlasses out and done the job properly.”

We ran to the beach and clambered ashore, splashing in with just a feeling of apprehension. Leaving two men with the launch and the raft, we made our way inland. It was easy to see how fiercely the battle had gone. Here and there, behind low stonewalls, bullets still in belts lay scattered around, along with little pieces of empty cartridge case. Here and there were small craters made by shell or mortar. We soon made contact with the natives as we came across a Sicilian farmhouse. After a cautious approach a woman came out looking like a gypsy of uncertain age. She could have been 60; then again, she could have been 40, as her sun-wrinkled skin gave nothing away. She beckoned us and, speaking in Italian, she took us into the house.

It was a lowly structure, with rough wooden furniture. Some of us sat down where we could. The woman turned away and called again. From behind what looked like a bedroom door, a girl of about sixteen appeared. The woman spoke and the girl left to come back with a large green glass container of red wine, placing large glasses and mugs on the table. The girl poured the wine and we drank. The rough, vinegary wine seemed remarkably refreshing and the coolness of the humble interior was welcome after the heat of outside. With gestures and a few halting words of English, we managed to conduct what seemed a precarious conversation. We didn’t want to upset these people.

After a while, the woman of the house showed us an oldish man. He looked to have a strange pallor and he seemed weak. It didn’t take long for her to explain to us that he was a victim of malaria, a disease I had never seen before, not even in my African service. The poor old guy looked rough. We were asked if we could provide medical help. We gave him a couple of Mepacrin tablets. The sick man took them grudgingly. We promised him more, if we could get ashore again.

Then the woman offered us possession of the girl in return for tobacco, cigarettes, matches, tea or coffee. Under the dirt the girl was attractive and I remember thinking that a good bath and a clean dress might produce a butterfly from the black cocoon she wore. Although as young men we were frustrated at the lack of female company, I doubt that we would have taken her offer up even if we had brought the items she asked for. No one would have dared, for fear of antagonising the more decent-minded lads. Some would have had kids of their own. War can bring out some strange behaviour; a rough, tough guy can become the gentlest of men, whereas a seemingly kind, inoffensive type can become just the opposite.

The woman sent us out to a lemon grove and left us to gather the unripe fruit. More of us gathered grapes and we managed some vegetable marrows. We didn’t have much of a selection but we were happy with what we had got and the ‘vino’ had started working. It had become more of a frolic now. We came across an area where the fighting must have been particularly heavy –spent cartridge cases and small craters pointed to the fact. I saw no crosses and surmised any dead must have been gathered up for internment in an official area. We began finding small-unexploded shells and even handled some which really was a stupid thing to do.

The potency of the vino could have proved tragic. It had driven commonsense away. I remember carrying a shell I intended to keep as a souvenir. It had a couple of wires dangling from a little round object on the nose. The P.O. saw it and ordered me to dump it immediately, ‘some of you silly bastards are going to get us all blown up’ he said. With a mixture of laughter and grumbles, we re-embarked and the launch out-putted its way back with the Carley Raft, see-sawing slightly from side to side giving us a welcome shower from the slap of the wash, created by the boat.

The skipper watched our approach through his glasses, probably wondering on the luck his crew had had. As he watched we drew alongside the gangway. The three sacks were passed up. Juice from the weight of grapes had stained through the sides of a couple of the bags. “What no chickens?” he said. The loot was piled on the deck and sorted out for issue to mess decks and wardroom, it didn’t really amount to much but it would prove a valuable change, a supplement to our diet! The skipper got permission for hands over the side to bathe, now that enemy air activity had fallen off, a concession very welcome.

The hot sun beat down and the hour’s swimming gave us a chance of cooling off and exercising lungs and limbs but I and a pal of mine, Geordie Pringle did a foolish thing, it cost us four days stoppage of bathing. Quite a distance down the anchorage and looking small, were two Italian seaplanes. Geordie and I decided we would attempt to swim to the planes and try to get aboard to see if we could get some sort of souvenirs. We reckoned we could do it easily in an hour by swimming them floating on our backs for a while and so on till we got to them.

The next time we heard the pipe ‘hands to bathe over the side’, away we went. It worked perfectly and easily. As we got nearer to our objectives, we saw they were getting larger and larger and it soon became obvious we had no way of getting to the cockpits. We carried on and eventually managed to clamber aboard a float. We decided to rest and then make our way back again, for no way could we get into the cockpit. There we sat resting in the hot Sicilian sun, pondering the long swim back and squinting at its glare as we gazed across the sparkling water to where the ship rode at anchor. As we looked we saw a figure clad only in a bath towel round him and as his arms rose up, we realised it was the skipper and he was training his binoculars on us.

We realised we were for it and we slipped back into the water and struck out. On our way back, the ship’s motor launch left the boom where she had been tied up and made her way at her best speed towards us. They were not long in easing alongside and giving us a lift aboard. “Who do you think you are, f****** Captain Webb or what? Old Jenks is doing his nut. You’ve got it to come, you silly b*******.” I felt a feeling of apprehension as we drew back alongside. The regulating C.P.O. stood with a half smile on his face as the captain, looking stern glowered at us.

As we came to attention before him I felt like a little kid, but instead of shorts, we were clad in swimming trunks. “Hands to bathe doesn’t mean hands to b**** off and swim to bloody China. It means hands to stay in the near vicinity of the ship where you can quickly clear the water. Air attack is still possible although unlikely and you two silly b****** have to take advantage of this privilege. In future use your heads and don’t abuse this privilege.” Turning to the Chief P.O., he said four days’ stoppage of swimming and with a final glower at us, he turned on his heel – while we made our way to the mess deck feeling very lucky we had got off so easily.

This captain of ours never failed to arouse a great feeling of respect in us. As we had stood before him, I’d studied his features from his ginger hair and his broad bluff face with the eyebrows tending to bushiness, and his slightly florid face, looking much like the face on a jug I’d seen and I’m certain I had caught a glint of a smile as he had turned away. This big figure and broad shoulders carried more responsibility than we youngsters realised, a good man albeit a stern one.

The battlefront had moved ahead now and our operations consisted of patrolling and shelling the enemy lines of communication ahead of the Eighth Army. The enemy were making a fighting retread, in some places putting up a bitter resistance using the Sicilian terrain to good advantage, with its orange and lemon groves, sub-tropical vegetation and hilly areas, with Mount Etna a big obstacle.

One day my attention was drawn to the notice board. It announced the death in action of Captain Verity on the Plain of Catania, a great cricketer and if my memory serves me well a Yorkie too. So, I wasn’t too upset when one day we picked up two German airmen. It was a sunny day with a moderate sea running, and I felt the ship losing way as it drew as near as possible to the men in the sea. A boat was swiftly lowered, and was swiftly recovered. You didn’t dally long in such waters. I saw one, a blonde youth, smiling and quite cocky, a lad of about twenty. His ‘oppo’ lay dead on the steel plating of the deck and looked about thirty or more. They were dressed in a kind of dark blue overall with plenty of zips on them with their wings over the swastika; the dead one was swarthy looking. It transpired a Beaufighter of the R.A.F. had shot them down into the sea as they had tried to hug the water in their effort to escape.

Now I took part in an impromptu and swift burial service. The skipper sent for the man who doubled as sail maker to bring a hammock cover and his thread and needle, one man was sent for a dummy shell, the dead man was searched for any belongings that might give us some information on him and his operational role, then he was sewn into the hammock cover. The dummy shell was placed and secured at his feet; the guardrail was opened with the body facing outboard feet first. The skipper then fished a bible out from somewhere, a quick little extract from it, then, “May God have mercy on his soul, ditch him.”

The body fell with a muted splash leaving only a trail of small bubbles as it disappeared into the blue depths, so long ago, yet so vivid. I wonder how many men, so young, stand on the seabed with a weight on their feet. I never knew what had happened to the skipper in the war before I knew him, but I seemed to sense a profound hatred of the Germans. Maybe it could have had something to do with the bombing of London. The skipper’s father was the Lord Mayor and a good man too. He tried his best to keep our families informed within the censor’s limits. I still have the treasured telegrams he sent my wife on those far off days.

The advance proceeded; our patrolling drew nearer and nearer each day to Messina. The flotilla penetrated up the eastern seaboard on night patrols, off the Italian mainland, nights filled with the strange aromatic smell of the land. I remember the stars overhead, the dark figures talking in whispers as they stood by the guns, tin hats and anti-flash gear at hand. They talked as if the enemy was in a position to hear them, but besides the binoculars of the lookouts, ears also had to be tuned for the throb of engines. ‘E’ boats were always a possibility or even a submarine on the surface, or a scouting plane.

These quieter moments arouse strange thoughts. I used to think of home, and my wife and what it would be like to be on a peaceful cruise with a millionaire’s bank account. How wonderful the peacetime cruises must have been, no watches to keep, no hands to part of ship, or action stations. Then the sudden staccato of the alarm rattlers to drive all sentiment away, booted feet clattering up steel steps to action stations, gun crews closing up, the clatter of tin hats as they were hurriedly snatched up to be perched on the white ghostly masks of anti-flash gear, the voices of gun crews numbering off and reporting to the bridge. ‘A gun closed up sir’, ‘B gun closed up sir’, ‘Y gun closed up sir’, and soon reports flowing into the bridge from damage control and fire parties, all parts of ship closed up in the space of a few minutes, speed the essential element, speed could save the ship and life. Then the message to stand down and resume third degree of readiness, the muttered profanity of muffled oaths, “Another f****** exercise, doesn’t the old bastard think of nothing else?” Yet the old bastard was really respected by all, just a naval word of endearment. We all know it was to keep us on our toes.

The Eighth Army was pushing on, sometimes against bitter opposition and soon the Germans evacuated Sicily and crossed the Straits of Messina. One night I saw what someone said was the Eighth Army barrage, on the Messina side. It just looked as if a rippling wave of white fireflies were hovering and a dull thunder, like a far off storm, drifted on the breeze. Red blotches on the Italian side of the Strait showed where the shellfire was falling. I wondered how many were dying out there and hoping all the civilians were out of the way.

Daylight dawned on an amazing scene. The sun shone on what looked like a gigantic washday. As we cruised warily offshore the houses across the Strait of Messina on the Italian mainland looked as if every housewife had hung all her whites out to dry. We quickly realised they were there as a sign of surrender. The Germans appeared to have retreated north but they must have left a rear guard, for I remember a gun had been casing some annoyance. It must have been a self-propelled gun. It would trundle from around a bath of hills fire and retreat again. Our flotilla was sent in to circle and try to draw his fire, while a Lysander spotter plane marked his position, he must have been very brave or very foolish, for he must have seen the battleship lying off shore out his range.

The ship was either the Rodney or Nelson mounting nine 16 inch guns, and as she received the co-ordinates from the plane, we saw the great guns move onto the bearing and elevate, then a great billow of thick yellowish orange smoke and a brilliant orange flash, the surface of the sea ruffled as if by a big wind and the noise was of tearing canvas as the shells rushed to their mark. That particular gun must have been blown to oblivion along with much of the terrain he’d been sheltering in. The invasion actually took place on the 3rd September 1943 under cover of the artillery and naval bombardment. The odd looking Monitors Abercrombie and Lord Roberts used their 15-inch batteries in the softening up process.


Chapter 31


We learned that the Italian police had fought the Germans because they had looted the city of Reggio and had commandeered all the motor vehicles. Everywhere, the population showed more interest in getting hold of food. Our war correspondent said that the Italian soldiers had not been able to draw rations for three months and had lived on any vegetables and fruit that they could find. The towns were practically devoid of food and any fresh fruit now ripening was preventing a famine. It looked as if the Italians had had enough. Hundreds of Italian soldiers, some of them crack troops, were voluntarily surrendering. The forts were found still to be stocked with ammunition and food, enough to hold out for a month.

While we were occupied in patrolling the crest of Reggio Di Calabria, Marauders of the 8th U.S.A.F. swept over Belgium, bombing the great railway marshalling yards at Ghent. R.A.F. Bostons attacked airfields in Holland at Woensdrecht. Spitfires were covering bomber formations, Typhoon bombers with Typhoon fighter escort raided an airfield at Moerdijk and enemy aircraft were few and far between.

New heartening news came of great Russian victories on sectors of their front in advances of up to 9 miles. The Red Army was on the offensive on a front of nearly 600 miles from Dorogobush, east north east of Smolensk to the shores of the Sea of Azov. The war seemed to be going well, although no one aboard believed the Germans were licked. September, and we had a new experience. We had been ordered to patrol the coast, north east of Cape Spartivento to see what would happen. It was still behind the battle lines. We went right up to the entrance of the Gulf of Squillace, seeing smashed trains and unroofed buildings.

The coast was mountainous and beautiful, no signs of movement, just an occasional parked tank, but occasionally we heard heavy explosions inland. On the way back from a sweep, and about half a mile offshore near the mouth of a dried up river bed, the skipper noticed what appeared to be someone waving from a farmhouse. Closer observation and the waving took a coherent pattern. The skipper ordered the “Yeoman of Signals” to try to establish contact by semaphore with the unknown flag waver and drew an immediate response. “Five of us have cleared this place. Two hundred disarmed Italians are in a railway tunnel and want to surrender. Can you send a boat?” “I can’t take 200 ‘Ities,’” said the commander. Then signalled back, “Do you want a boat?” The unknown man replied that they had been there over a week and wished to report. Lieutenant Commander Jenks looked at his watch “3.30pm. Let’s bring them off for a cup of tea, its nearly tea time and they are probably British Commandoes.”

I have a newspaper cutting of the incident, and I remember very well a commando by the name of Sam Leyland was one of them. The ship came to a stop, gently rolling off the enemy shore. A boat was swiftly lowered with eleven men, armed with pistols and a Lewis gun. All wore steel helmets and were fully aware of the possibility of an ambush. The beach landing party was under the command of Sub-lieutenant Geoffrey Gillott of Hertfordshire. As the boat arrived at the beach, a party of helmeted Italian Soldiers, still carrying weapons and packs, rushed down to the water’s edge. The Lewis gun was trained on them – you do not trust enemy troops still carrying rifles to a large degree, one shot and the Lewis gun would have wrecked carnage among them and the ship’s armament might have been used. The landing party was relieved to see five weary figures in khaki battledress wearing green commando berets, walk down from the bushed fringing the beach. Two herded the Italians into line, while two knelt behind the dunes covering the road nearby with automatic rifles. The fifth man was an officer in charge, Major Young.
The boat returned with a few Italians and an Italian nurse who was quite pretty but looked ready for a good bath and a tidy up. She was wearing a stained khaki drill shirt and trousers and to men who had been denied female company for a long while, she was more than just something of idle curiosity.

The Italians, I was told were of Sicilian origin, so we would discharge them back at our base in Sicily. One, with a long moustache, said that he had a large family, a wife and eight kids. He looked a mild sort of man of about forty years of age and to me he looked out of place in the Italian Army uniform. We heard of the Army pressing on, our Italians had been quickly taken back. The mess deck had come to the general hope that all the Italian parties were like the nurse and were anticipating already, shore leave in Italy with its wine and women. The allied armies were now pushing north as fast as the build up of supplies would allow. We carried on patrols up both sides of the Italian coast in company with Queenboro, Quality and Quentin, but there seemed a scarcity of enemy shipping. We returned to Malta and I remember the Italian Battle Fleet steaming there to anchor.

So the clock had come full circle for me. I’d been in the first fleet action off Cape Spartivento and now I had seen their fleet surrender. They had lost one battleship, sunk by a bomb when they had been attacked in the Strait between Corsica and Sardinia. The ship was the “Roma” an oldish battleship, a direct hit split her in two but heavy and accurate A.A fire drove the Stukas and torpedo bombers off. The Italian ships picked up some survivors.

It was 11th September. A buzz was going round the ship regarding a new and deadly weapon, it was said that the Germans had produced a small pilot less plane which could be radio controlled and it was carried by a “Mother” plane. When over the target area it could be detached and guided to its target by another plane, which carried the controlling radio equipment. Soon we were to have dramatic evidence of its effects. Some said one had hit the Roma. The flotilla was ordered to sail and our objective was to meet and escort HMS Warspite which had been damaged by one of these remote controlled planes on the 28th September. She had been using her 15in support in support of the army advance.

I, at this time, was ammunition supply and my job was to pass the 4.7 shell, after it was passed up the skid rails from below to the member of the gun crew who had then passed it to the fuse setter. He sat on a little seat and adjusted it with a circular shaped key on the nose-end. Only being a stoker, I couldn’t remember all the little details. I knew he had a luminous dial about plate size in front of him, which showed, up plain at night. I nearly envied him perched there in action as he rode round in the gun shield as it trained around. I relished the action station, for I could see much of what was happening. I felt more involved to be handling the shell that was aimed at the enemy.

Now I had gone to my action station, it was dark. The tin hat on my head felt heavy, its strap under my chin chaffed against the anti flash hood and seemed to intensify its itchiness. I wore my cleanest boiler suit and over the sleeves, I’d pulled the long gloves of my anti-flash gear. We were due to meet the Warspite later that night. The other ships stood out as dark shapes in the gloom, with an occasional flurry of white from the foam of their wakes. Everything seemed eerie. Muffled voices drifted from the bridge and the steady swish of a moderate sea, with the faint whirr of the searching radar as it circled. The lookouts on the bridge wings were straining their eyes in short spells for the possibility of ‘E’ boats or submarines, looking for the same objective as us, so everyone was on full alert.

I had a feeling that the alarm rattlers would go any time, but everything remained quiet for a while, then suddenly a muffled voice from the gloom, “There she is, sir,” and there, away on the port bow was a larger dark bulk, it was the Warspite, she loomed larger, a sudden flicker of blue Aldis signals flickering across the waters and her escorts ploughing past in the darkness, sinister dark shapes low in the water. Suddenly, something happened, one of the inexplicable things that do occur at war. A short burst of tracer curved towards us and appeared to come from the Warspite. On ‘B’ deck, we looked overhead. Curses of, “What the f****** hell do they think we are?” An immediate flicker of fresh signalling and then an apology. “ We thought you were enemy aircraft.” No damage or causalities but how a two thousand ton destroyer could look like enemy aircraft, I don’t know! It was probably a nervous gunner.

Chapter 32

We completed our mission successfully and the old warrior went on to further glory. Every man in the “Andrew” had a soft spot for the Warspite, her very name inspired confidence. I remember another mission escorting supply ships off Salerno when the flotilla, along with other destroyers, had a hectic night. I was just off watch and snatched a quick meal, when the alarm went for A.A. action stations. On ‘B’ deck the clatter of boots on the steel decks had died away and only the voices of damage control and fire parties from various parts of the ship as they reported to the bridge, could be heard. We could see ‘A’ gun down below us all ready for action, its mechanism turning. The ready use racks we had already filled with shells and the cordite lockers were ready. All we had to do now was wait. Radar had picked up large formations of aircraft, which could only be enemy planes. They were headed in our direction.

Then, the unmistakable drone somewhere outside the destroyer screen, resulting in that funny feeling in the pit of the stomach at the prospect of imminent action. A brilliant flash, which left the eyes momentarily blinded, lit up the superstructure and bridge, then a terrific detonation seemed like a punch on the bridge of the nose. The other ships had opened fire, noise and flashes rumbled across the sea. The great breach block swung open and spewed the empty brass cordite case across the decks. The 4.7s were putting a continued barrage up now. I felt a kind of exhilaration, nearly intoxication, after the first few rounds; I no longer felt any discomfort. My main concern now was the speed at which I could take the ammunition and pass it on, while at the same time, dodging the brass cartridges as they clattered across the deck. The guardrails had been dropped and we were told to kick some of the cartridges into the sea so that they would not interfere with me, and the working of the gun. Now the planes went away and suddenly, the order to cease-fire was given, the moon had risen and its brilliance lit up a beautiful calm night now that the action was over. No damage or causalities so far.

The moon couldn’t light the outer fringes of the screen. We seemed to be in the middle of a brightly lit bowl with edges fading into blue-black darkness and a brilliant path sparkling across its centre. Suddenly, there was the murmur of voices. “Aircraft approaching in Area ‘D’, range 20 miles, numbers 20 plus aircraft at 15 then 10. Aircraft closing Red 050 all gun follow director, load, open, fire.”

Again, the night was torn asunder by noise and flashes. This time they must have been a more determined team. A star shell exploded; its eerie chandeliers slowly descended out behind the moonlight, giving brightness that flickered over the scene. The planes were very near, their droning fading, then rising again as they pressed their attack home. The steady solid “Bong, bong, bong” of Bofers and Pom Poms, the staccato of the Oerlikons, a sky crossed by the red, green and white streams of tracer, some of it so low, ricocheted off the surface of the sea, threatening to inflict causalities and damage on our own ships. Loading and firing, passing ammunition had got me into a sweat - the anti-flash hood itched more than ever - then the aircraft noise subsided and finally ceased. Two kills were claimed although I never knew if they were substantiated

Suddenly, A.A. Action stations again. Again the noise of aero engines and the tracer streams into the sky. As the noise gets louder a star shell illuminates brief dark shapes, torpedo planes, low down to the sea coming low and fast. Our guns fire, then cease for fear of putting a 4.7 into one of our own ships, but the close range Oerlikons started hammering away as they pick up a target, a crescendo of noise and bright tracer, tracer ricocheting all around. The clatter of empty Oerlikons pans as they are dropped to the deck, while new ones are clipped on, then a louder roar and suddenly in the moonlight’s path, I see a great big plane and a towering splash of white water behind him as he came in from the starboard side on the stern quarter

The ship started turning at full speed to starboard, keeling right over with her deck guardrails nearly in the water until it seemed that she would roll over. The splash was from a torpedo and we had avoided it by a few feet. The plane carried on over the ship and I’m sure that I could have hit it with a catapult - a great, big, black object.
I half expected a machine gun burst from him, but no. Some of our close-range weapons, which should have riddled him right along his belly, seemed remarkably quiet; they must have thought it more prudent to keep their heads down. The skipper played merry hell, “That bastard should have been ours,” and on reflection I’m sure that he should. Maybe a merciful God spared us and also spared the plane and it’s crew. If that tin fish had hit, I’m sure I wouldn’t be around to write these recollections.

The ships appeared to have a faint pink glow in the east as the rising sun gradually rose, and as it became brighter, tired faces showed relief. They wouldn’t be back now. How good that first cigarette tasted. It was good to draw the cool tobacco smoke down into the lungs, nothing quite like it for settling the nerves, I was never a great smoker, but in times like these, I could enjoy a “tickler” with the most avid smoker there was.

I remember the voices murmuring as if we’d be overheard. I remember the faces so well, of young boys who not so long ago had been school kids, who had been called upon to be men before their youth had run out. I still feel, after all these years and I’m now in my late sixties, a great affection for them. I never knew such comradeship. We were a crew of about 120 officers and men, we could kid each other, disagree among ourselves on some things, even have an occasional scrap ashore after a “piss up”, but every one knew that he would stand by his ship and his crewmates.

Now as the early morning sun lit up the faces that peered out from the anti-flash hoods, I felt tired but I felt good. We had fought and we had fought well, as the expended cordite cases that still littered the gun positions showed. We were not long before we had handed our supply convoy over, then we turned south again, increasing to full speed. I had now gone below but I had to check the steering engine temperatures in the tiller flat every hour, to log and to phone over to the engine room. Such times, I would sit for five minutes on top of the tiller flat hatch, enjoying the cool wind that the speed of about 32 knots created and looking back at the wake just a few feet away. When at full speed, it was exhilarating to do this and you felt more secure, the stern would look lower in the water and looking along the length of the ship, you could see the slope from stem to stern as her bows lifted to send the water hissing along her sides.

A flotilla of destroyers, each creating a creamy white wake against an incredible blue sea, is something that you never forget. On a wild winter’s day or a hot summer evening, when walking in the woods, weeding the garden or fishing, my favourite sport, or anytime on my own at all, my thoughts often are of such a scene or my lost comrades. When I look at my kids or grandchildren, I hope that they never see the stupidity or horror of war and I hope that their friends are the sorts of friends I served with. We were still all a happy crowd on our way back to Malta and the “Gut” where we could feed on steak, eggs and chips, get drunk on Farson’s Blue Label bitter and try to forget for a while and refresh body and soul.
We were not to have many days for all this. We did manage an A.A.’s shoot at a sleeve target off Malta, probably to bring our gunners up to a high peak performance. I had a feeling that the skipper still wasn’t satisfied and wanted to be able to make some operational claims for the Quail.

I remember that it wasn’t long after that, that several of the flotillas headed out of Grand Harbour and sailed in a more northerly direction. It wasn’t long before we passed off the eastward coast of Sicily and carried on in a north-easterly course. It was obvious that our objective was Italy and so it turned out. We were to commence operations from Bari, the port on the east coast of Italy, our duties were to make offensive sweeps, hunting for enemy shipping and bombarding in support of partisans who were harassing German shore installations. At the other side of Italy, the Salerno beachhead had led to fierce fighting. The Germans had tried hard to throw the landing back into the sea. Naval gunfire had broken the large enemy armoured thrusts, no wonder they’d made a go at the Warspite, for battleship, cruiser and destroyer fire can combine to inflict enormous damage and casualties on such forces within their range. This period would be about the middle of September, 12th to 19th. Naples fell to the fifth Army on October 1st. 1943. By now the Germans had evacuated their Foggia airfield so we felt more secure using Bari as a naval base.

Bari was a fair size harbour, ideally suited to receive the large amount of supplies that the allied forces needed. Its sea frontage was modern and clean looking and the Lungomare Nararcio sauro and promenade that ran right along must have been a source of pride to its citizens. It was lines with large squarish solid buildings. In peacetime, much of its length had been lit up by a system of electric lights set in globes like inverted chandeliers with four globes as big as footballs to each one. It must have been a grand sight from seaward. We had refuelled as soon as we arrived, each ship topping her tanks up ready for any eventuality.

Everyone was eager for shore leave; the reputation of the Italian “signorinas” had infected the lads with an air of curiosity and anticipation. It was noticeable that there was an extra try to be that bit smarter. The mess deck was more like a crowd of debutantes getting ready for a garden party. The boys were really going to town, or so they hoped!
Cigarettes, which were as good a currency as any, were carefully tucked away along with any chocolate ration, even some small tins of action rations, barley sugar, chewing gum and a couple of Horlicks tablets. In fact, anything that might induce an Italian girl to surrender to the wishes of the men, who hadn’t seen a girl friend or had a woman for months. All the warnings of “clap” or ??? Vino had probably gone in one ear and out the other. I remember that I was on watch aboard and heard that I’d get a chance of liberty on the morrow if we weren’t ordered out on patrol.

Chapter 33
 
Leave was until 23.00 hours and what a state some came back in. The vino had taken it’s toll. Many of the watch ashore were in various stages of drunkenness. The tidy, clean looking men, who had gone ashore, returned looking just as if they’d been hauled out of the “scum bag”, which is a large sack containing lost odds and ends, which we emptied out periodically. Some tales of the marvellous sexual encounters they’d had with all the lurid details of how they’d screwed the arse off some “ Italian Party”. “Wait while you squeeze up, you silly young bastards,” came from the older hands that had seen it all before. What I saw, made me resolve to watch my step, I’d too much to look forward to at home to take any chances now. That’s if I survived!

The kids we used to see on our shore leave seemed a cheerful, cheeky lot with their offers reminiscent of Alex. “You want a nice girl, English mariner? Very prettee signorina. You got chocolatee, you got chewlinger?” I came to the conclusion that these little Italian ragamuffins had never tasted chocolate and might have only had the odd piece of chewing gum from the Yanks. Geordie and I did disposed of what we could among them, a very difficult thing to do among such large groups. We usually gave to the youngest and poorest looking of them, or those who looked in poor physical shape. You had to deal firmly with them and stand and watch the kids eat what we gave them, for they had their bully boys who would snatch it and run off or forcibly tear it from the weaker or timid kids. Theirs was literally a fight for survival.

I remember one blonde Italian woman who unashamedly offered herself in exchange for 250 liras (12/6 (now 60p)) or two packets of cigarettes. She was attractive and I asked her why she did this. I was made to understand that the Germans had taken most of the food with them and she wanted money or cigarettes to exchange for food. I offered her a packet of cigarettes, for what came so easy to me could mean a lot to her. She took them and insisted, with tears in her eyes, that she paid in kind, I resisted her offer but hated what I was seeing. War is a dirty business in more ways than one. I knew this woman was being driven into a corner by hunger until she had to sell herself. Of course there was the usual hard core of prostitutes like in any other seaport the world over.

Our sweeps up the Adriatic now intensified. Two or three would go out, while other ships would be in harbour, putting defects right and taking their turn to patrol or carry out bombardment operations against the enemy communication and supply lines. We were having things pretty much our own way; we didn’t know then that fate had already cast the die for HMS Quail and many of her crew. The horror and tragedy, on a scale that I hadn’t seen before, would soon sear my mind and would leave an indelible stamp over the years to the present day and beyond to the grave.

The weather, at this time, was a mixture of grey English type days with rain and wind, sometimes sunny with calm or moderate seas; never the seas we had endured off northern Scotland and in the Atlantic. Liberty was becoming sparser, some of the flotilla visited Brindisie to the south of Bari. My birthday fell whilst we were there, November 11th my 23rd year, the lads on the mess deck were very generous in their offers of, “Have a sip of mine, Yorky, you old bastard,” and some in a joking mood said, “Not too f****** deep though.” I became well and truly drunk and to crown it all, we sailed that day so, I had the movement of the boat to put up with. My watch was kept by one of my mates, that unwritten law of the mess deck.

One operation, from Brindise, caught many of the ship’s company ashore, the Blue Peter, the recall flag, was flown not only for the liberty men from the Quail but for other ships as well. I remember, some of the lads had been caught with some “easy” women and returned in a disgruntled mood, the shore patrol must have known where to look for them from the speed that the crews were rounded up. It was an operation designed to catch a small enemy convoy, some of which had survived an Allied air attack. The dark funnel smoke marked the urgency of the situation. When the mess deck received the news over the intercom, everyone was eager to get underway, here was a chance to have a go and get our teeth into some surface action. Soon, special sea duty men were piped, engine room telegraphs tinkled, a bit of manoeuvring to ease off, wires and stays from the buoys, then with just the odd faint wisp of smoke as extra sprayers were turned on to generate the steam for a high speed chase, we were off. Slowly at first down the harbour in line ahead, then as we cleared the entrance, we built up to “full ahead” with the shudder of the revolving shafts throughout the ship, as the screws bit deep into the blue water churning up a hillock of white water astern, as the bows lifted to our speed.

It wasn’t particularly rough, just a moderate sea and we made good speed. I had done a watch below in the gear room and now darkness had fallen as we arrived in the area to be searched and had gone to second degree of readiness. I recall the night being particularly black and then, after a short while, from my position on 'B' gun deck, first of all, we smelled that odd land scent so peculiar to those Mediterranean days, so scenty, like old flowers and then we saw land lay to the east, just shear blackness of mountains rising in the gloom. Suddenly, a sharp red glow somewhere over there, not a gun flash, it flickered in the sky for a brief moment; men spoke in whispers, wondering what it was. It could have been a far shell, a grenade or a fire flaring up then down. Now the ship was at cruising speed, the radar’s dark shadow moving round and round, it’s slight whirring hardly disturbing the silence for we had been forbidden to make any noise or to smoke. Everyone was tense, waiting, waiting for some drama to happen. There was a possibility that this was a trap, boats could be in the area, eyes were straining to all points of the compass, the steady swish and glow of the phosphorescence of the waves in the wake. Then from the sea itself a foreign voice was calling, and calling in desperation, “Alto, Alto,” from a faint dark shape falling astern. As it bobbed in the wake, the murmurings of voices, then the flickering of blue light as Aldis lamps passed messages to Captain D. requesting permission to pick up survivors. This was flatly refused as this would have put the ship and it’s crew in danger if we hove to. There were E boats out there.

Poor b****** was the general feeling and although many of us would have chanced it, Captain D was absolutely right, it was a situation where your head mustn’t be ruled by your heart. I’ve often thought of that poor lonely man even now; of that voice calling for help from what would have been his watery grave; that lone figure rapidly fading into the dark, still feebly and faintly calling for a helping hand from an ignoring enemy. It transpired that some of the ships had been sunk and he was one of the survivors, he was so unlucky to have survived a shipwreck, only to be left in the sea by an enemy ship. None of us felt happy about it, it is one thing to go into action; it is another to leave a man floundering in a merciless sea. We were subdued now; even the whispers seemed to die away.

Some while after this, the ship gave a sharp change of course, then voices on the bridge, the old eagerness back; go to stand by search light; a bright, white glare as the long solid looking beam probed out straight onto the strangest looking scene that I have ever witnessed, like a spotlight on a stage, the bright beam lit up a ship, which had beached itself on the shore near some houses, to be nearly perched on a structure which might have been a church, and all of it looked like some creation in icing sugar in the searchlight glare. We expected the command to open fire to destroy it and it’s cargo; the command did not come; the searchlight was switched off, the ship wasn’t going any where. Anyway the partisans might have got to it as well and they would make good use of the cargo. Our search continues. I remember about this period of time that we did capture a prize and put a boarding party on it; a tribute to the efficiency of these furtive night operations. I was told that she was carrying bombs and special canned foods for the German Luftwaffe to the figure of about 800 tons.

At this time, we realised that we were having a marked effect on the Germans’ morale by the way “Lord Haw Haw” promised that we would suffer for our predatory activities in the Adriatic Sea. One afternoon, the flotilla sailed carrying a man dressed in khaki with a peculiar shaped forage hat, in the old fore and aft ship bag style, on his head. The hat had a red star badge on its front. Mess deck talk was of a big operation somewhere up the Adriatic, which was to involve the destroyers’ gunfire, and the R.A.F. They were supposed to illuminate the target for us, as our approach was made under cover of darkness. The night was really dark and we arrived in the area about early morning. I was in luck again, I was first off watch, so making my action station B gun supply, giving me a grand stand view of the whole bombardment.

Now I really felt some importance as I saw the shellfire streaking home. Each ship cruised behind the flotilla leader in a large circle offshore at a slow speed. Each ship had one gun firing star shells for the R.A.F. had not yet put in its appearance. The target was kept illuminated by this means. The other guns fire HE and I expected some SAP for strengthened positions. This was the sort of action men dream of before the recognition of what war really is, no matter what torn bodies and smashed buildings lie at the other end of the shellfire, the vivid white of the gun flashes dazzling against the fall of night, the clang of the breech blocks as we reloaded and fired, reloaded and fired, the big brass cartridge cases flying out and piling up until we had to kick them out of the way. Suddenly flames shot up and quickly spread. Each minute they grew larger and spread wider, I saw what looked to be shells ricocheted upward, glowing red hot before plunging in the maelstrom of fire we created. There was a terrific explosion and a series of lurid flashed as shells hit what must have been a power station. What a sight and what a night! Still the guns thundered, still the white flashes shot out from the clouds of smoke rising from circling black low slung shapes. Men were killing men and were enjoying it. We only knew that they were enemy and they’d do the same to us if they got the chance. Now looking back, I knew it was right, it had to be done and the regime, which had brought it about, had to go; or the world would be a very dark place indeed.

Suddenly, it was over. We breathed a sigh of relief as the flotilla formed into a line ahead and headed south. “Congratulations on a bloody good shoot, boys, we appear to have left the enemy, a bloody good fire to warm himself on, now we are returning to base, thank you all.” After the skipper had ceased speaking, a new voice came over the tannoy, “Send one man from each action station for a treat.” My days in the Atlantic had usually meant no bread after a day or two, more likely to be hard biscuits and corn beef. The beauty of these short operations meant meals were better as you had faster access to replenish supplies.

The meal came hot and steaming pussers cocoa, with a generous lacing of tinned milk, a bread roll each, a thick slice of corn beef and even a jar of pickle, to stick our grimy fingers into. We were very hungry and this was heaven. “The old b****** must love us,” said someone, referring to the skipper in an oddly affectionate way. That was the way it was, we were not only a unit, and we felt a family feeling, especially after an action in which each had done his best.

Now a word about our engineer officer, he was a tall slim man, smart, dark wavy hair with just a touch of grey. He had a quiet assurance and a deep knowledge of his department. We stokers and ERAs were made to keep on our toes but Lieutenant Dixon was firm and fair, and I suspect under his hard shell that he was kind. I suffered a few rollickings from him; yet, I never disliked him for it. He could put you in your place in a manner that made you feel ashamed, but I never knew him to harbour a grudge against anyone. They told me that he had come up from the ranks. We, of the Quail’s engine room branch, admired him. Besides being an officer, he was a friend. He was one of the first to congratulate me on the birth of my daughter.

I hope that old “Dixy” is still around. The last time that I saw him was at La Maddlana, where he took over as Naval Officer in charge. He had been promoted to engineer commander. He had stepped out of the big staff can, walked across to me and shook my hand and said that he hoped I was enjoying my shore-based job. Then I saw the gold oak leaves on his cap and the three thick wings on his cuff. After congratulations he informed me of the loss of an old pal from the Quail who had died when a U-boat had sunk the destroyer Laferey. The friend that I had lost was a leading stoker, “Mick Keen“, an Irish lad, a great comedian. He had a way of sitting on the mess table with a towel wrapped turban fashion around his head, a piece of thread and a hammock lashing, doing the Indian rope trick, puffing his cheeks out and looking for all the world like a white edition of an Indian fakir. And now Mickey was gone; Mickey, so hard to ruffle or upset, who could make a joke of anything from an exceptional big wave to a falling bomb. I thank my God for my knowing men like these.

Now we were returning to base at a fast speed, we were elated at a job well done. The shuddering deck beneath our feet reflected confidence through the deck plates to our very souls as we felt the surge of the increase in speed of the turbine. Get in quick, take the enemy by surprise, blast away under his nose, out again and full speed for home. The smiles through the smoke, from grimed faces from under anti-flash hoods, from beneath helmeted, spoke volumes. This was real comradeship.

Bari and shore leave, the wine and the signorinas for the watch ashore and hoping there would be no recall, so Blue Peter flying at the yardarm and another action to store away in memory.

Now all the elation, all the confidence of a top line crew was to be put to the test. The flotilla had been on patrol hunting for any enemy still afloat, we had found nothing and were returning to port. The flotilla had been formed up in line ahead and the Quail was last in line. The three ahead proceeded slowly to navigate the harbour entrance. I had just completed my final check and returned to the gear room to telephone my report to the engine room.

 

Chapter 34
 
Suddenly a terrific shattering crash, the whole ship seemed to lift; a sudden silence and then shouts, voices and somewhere the noise of spurting water. The lights had faltered and dimmed but were okay again now, a quick check of the F.L. pumps, which had tripped out. The ship had stopped, the shafts were not turning, so I dashed up to the upper deck and back aft. The shambles I saw was my first experience of being on the receiving end. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The stern gun had gone, ripped out of its moorings and blasted over the side, and a 4.7 is a gun of several tons weight, very heavy to have been thrown into the sea. The quarterdeck men, who had been fallen in, in two rows and were smartly turned out in full uniform, lay now as if on some steel shod hillside, such had been the force of the explosion. The stern had lifted and buckled.

There lay my friends, heaped untidily, as if asleep, the bluish tinge on waxen faces, the thin trickle of blood from ears, nose and mouth and that new odour so strong to me, a sickly sweet smell, the smell of violent death, overhung it all. War at such close quarters is a foul business. This was different from doling out punishment at long range from a barrel of a gun when you passed a joke at the expense of the enemy, and never cared who would suffer at the explosion of the projectile that you had passed to the gun crew. I could see the lads lying there were beyond help, so I made my way to the waist of the ship and came across a body lying there. The red hair and the figure came as a shock. It was the Scottish lad I used to pass a minute with, from the stern depth charge crew. He must have been blown over the after superstructure and had come to rest here, quite a distance down the ship’s waist. I knelt by him, his face like the others with its bluish tinge. I heard one word as I tried to lift him, it was, “Mother,” and then he must have died. One of the lads helped me as I carried him forward into the forward mess deck that had now been turned into a temporary mortuary.
There were not many wounded. The dead lay on the tables. There, between decks, was a sickly sweet smell of blood again. Nothing here for me now, I was glad to get into the fresh air again and was recruited into a party, manhandling a salvage pump along the deck. It was hard going but the sledge that it was on was a big help. I noticed then that over the engine room, the ½” armoured deck had crumpled up right across the beam of the ship, further proof of the force of the explosion. The mine must have been a big one to have done this.

Now the realisation that just previous to the explosion, I had been over to the tiller flat for the last steering engine readings to phone over for the engine room log. It meant that I had missed being killed by minutes and just missed the fate of the men killed down in the spirit room, who had been drawing the midday grog issue, which would have been about 11.30am. Not much remained of them, for they were near the source of the impact.
I remember a cardboard box with what looked like entrails in it. Someone said it was all that was left of Jock; how they knew I wouldn’t know. A tug had come out and was slowly shepherding the Quail into the harbour. The ship, once so full of life, now battered and heavily damaged in her stern. Not much chance of her ever recovering without some very major dockyard repairs.

A full role call by the yeoman of the signals, revealed 32 deaths. We, who had survived, were informed that our next of kin would be informed that we were o.k. My wife, still has that telegram. All hands were now turned to cleaning the ship. The bodies were taken off, the silent salute of ensigns dipped to half-mast as we said goodbye to our mates. Sadness fell over the ship. The work was being done efficiently but quietly, not as many laughs, not as many jokes; the family of the Quail had lost many of its members. We knew that we would be split up to go to other ships of other establishments; our eleven months together would soon be over. Soon, I’d leave Geordie Pringle, Jack McCormick, Wilf Harrison and Cedric Simpson (two younger Barnsleyites), and go with Bill Rice to a shore base. Before this, the Quail would suffer a further trial, even while moored alongside the mole in the harbour of Bari, an episode even with the side effects today in 1986.

About a week after the mining of HMS Quail, another dull boom from seaward, HMS Hebe had struck a mine, rolled over and sank. Bari was really getting dangerous for shipping. Up until now, our patrols and shoot-ups of enemy targets had been pretty tame. Now the war had taken a more serious turn. We were on the receiving end. The incident, at this time, stuck in my mind. We were not sure whether we would all be together for Christmas, so the skipper decided we would have some sort of Christmas party before we broke up. From somewhere and by devious means, a pig turned up. The only drawback was who would slaughter it. I remember a Scotsman, Robert Parks, who must have had some knowledge of butchery, volunteered to do this job. The pig was reluctant to join in the fun and was finally held in position for the task. The method was simple; Rob applied a seven-pound hammer with considerate force and there was a dull thud on the pig’s head. It, immediately, subsided into a quivering quietness and was then dispatched by having it’s throat cut.

The shipmates, whom we had lost, were remembered in a short service. Many eyes showed the grief of losing messmates. The few trips ashore, now, were not quite the laughing, joking affairs that they had been. The wine that we drank in large quantities didn’t do the trick of making us forget; instead, I’m sure, some of it did just the opposite, for I saw men cry for their lost mates. Slowly the realisation came that things must go on.
I received the news of the birth of our daughter and was looking forward to more mail and a photograph that my wife had promised to send to me. Of course, I was very happy. It offset some of the events of recent days and Cedric’s invitation to celebrate in ‘B’ gun barbette was accepted eagerly. He, quickly, produced a flagon of wine, just like a magician, for no one knew he had it and regulations frowned on anything other than the daily grog issue. We toasted the baby’s health and everyone else’s we could think of until we had seen off the lot. When a tipsy seaman and a tipsy stoker staggered on to our respective mess decks to the amazement of the men who couldn’t understand where and how we had got drunk. Cedric was a wizard at procuring a drink no matter where we were.

Now December came and with it a new ordeal, although the true story will never be told for years. We were tied up alongside one of the jetties and I remember it was on the 2nd of December, in the afternoon, a plane flying so high that he only left a vapour trail. No sirens went, so we assumed it to be friendly. Not a gun fired or any other plane appeared. The lone plane had flown over in a semicircle from seaward, then after passing over the harbour, flew away to the northwest.

A convoy of 17 ships had arrived and the harbour was becoming crowded. Work was in progress, unloading supplies for the allied armies who were advancing up the Italian mainland. These supplies included a large number of 500lb bombs that where laid out like a carpet round the area of the harbour. Foggia airfield had fallen to the Allies and everyone felt secure, so much so that the ships had been unloading at night with lights all over the place; it looked like Blackpool on a late summer’s evening. Now the price was to be paid for this lax security, although I didn’t know it, as I watched the plane disappear. The evening meal had been served, cleared away and the welcome mail call had followed. It must have been carried in on one of the convoys.

The eagerly awaited letters and photograph had arrived and I had held it up and passed it around to my mates; there were calls of, “Jammy bastard Yorky,” and pats on the back. This is the usual Navy banter with a few good-natured references to the opposite sex thrown in. I had just settled down to read my letter at about 1900 hours, when there was a dull thud and then a flicker of the lights; then, a shrill whistle and more thuds. No mistaking it, by now we knew it was an air raid. The mess deck was a mad scramble of men grabbing anti-flash gear and tin hats. Some were ashore and we were nowhere near a full crew aboard. In any case, after the great damage to the ship we were practically disarmed, stripped of most of our defence, we were virtually a sitting duck.

I buttoned the photograph and letter into my boiler suit and dashed up to the upper deck, to the scene I never dreamed of. Ships were burning all over the place. Great clouds of smoke were pouring skywards. Everything was tinged a lurid red by the glow of the flames and seemed to be on fire. Over it all hung the heavy smell of fuel oil as it spread and burned.

Shouts and screams pierced the inferno as faint shadows of figures dashed around the decks; I dashed to the companionway leading to the bridge. I got halfway up to the bridge when a sudden pink glow and then I was lying face down at the bottom, my steel hat still on my head. I remember looking round in a daze and I wasn’t alone. The torpedo gunner’s mate lay there too. There was a roar of diving planes, more whistling of falling bombs as we tried our best to cram all of our body under our steel hats; no way, but at a time like this you wish that you could take the form of a mouse; every nerve stands on end.
I wasn’t noted for being particularly religious, but I prayed unashamedly, “Please God, make the bastards go away,” as I tried to draw my feet in under that small protective circle of steel which I wore on my head.

Loud thunderous crashes and the sound of falling water. The Quail heaved and rocked about as if we were caught in a violent storm. The PO by my side took a packet of cigarettes from his pocket. “Want a smoke, Stokes?” I have never been a heavy smoker but I gratefully accepted the cigarette and a light from his trembling hand. That cigarette was a gift from heaven.

The planes seemed to have gone now, so I went onto the upper deck and gazed at the holocaust. Oil was spreading on the surface of the harbour from the ships to the north west of our position and flames were spreading along it. Men were swimming in the sea and the flames were catching up to them. The men screamed as they burned and the worst thing was not being able to help. I experienced a mixture of emotion, pity, horror, anger and also relief that I was still alive. I remember going to the Italian tug alongside and as I made my way to her, being amazed at the filth and sludge that was littering the deck. It had been thrown up by the bombs, which must have exploded on the harbour bed and must have been very close to us. No wonder the ship had bounced so much.
I must see if they had any wine aboard, a drink to two might help to drown the sounds from out there in the burning oil. I had just got aboard when a ship, across the other side of the harbour, exploded. The whole world seemed to stand still and a hush seemed to fall for a split second. A pink glow hovered over everything, then a terrific roar; what had been a ship and home to many poor seamen, were now fragmented white steel plates flying high up in the sky. The poor b****** aboard her must have felt nothing.

Some ships had managed to move outside the harbour to try to escape the fires and some of them had fires on board. Ammunition was exploding on them even as they anchored outside and would do so for a couple of days yet. All that could be done now was being done. Damage was being addressed and tackled. I was feeling exhausted for it was now early morning and some of us were split up in watches, and I was able to snatch some sleep. Daylight revealed a scene that fully reflected the horror and carnage of the attack. Ships were still burning and billowing smoke drifted in dark clouds across the harbour; every now and then everything was lit up by tongues of flames bursting through the smoke. Corpses drifted everywhere, many already bloated to twice their size. Some were just torsos minus one or more limbs and all coated in a black slimy fuel oil, some half naked, some fully naked, some in uniform and outside the harbour every now and again, a ship would send a burst of crackling incendiary rounds into the sky as it burned.
The Quail was coated in dirty dark mud from the harbour bed, the bombs had burst so close. I remember that some soldiers I’d seen dashing to ignite the smoke pots around the harbour to screen the ships, and particularly one team I’d seen, vanish after one explosion. There’d been a flash and they were no longer there. Bombs had fallen among the 1500lb bombs, which had been laid in a carpet around much of the harbour and destined for the new American bomber force, which had been brought into being.
Amazingly these bombs hadn’t exploded, they were laid half buried in craters and men were digging them out

The smell of death, the smell of oil that was floating in a sickly mess on the surface of the water etched on my mind even to this day, as it lay before my eyes and I felt the full impact of the obscenity of war. The human mind has a capacity to absorb so much and then it becomes numb. Recently I was searching on a second-hand bookstall in the market, trying to find a book called the “Corfu Incident”, regarding another disaster that I was involved in, when instead, a book caught my eye. It’s title was, “Disaster at Bari”, written by an ex- major in the United States air force. He apparently went back to Bari, I, instantly, purchased the book and I only found out after forty years that the ship I’d seen blow up with that terrific explosion, was the USS John Harvey which had been carrying two hundred tons of mustard gas bombs, ready for use if the German forces, who were now falling back, used chemical weapons as rumour had mentioned. The strong smell of garlic that I’d put down to some kind of heavy fuel oil, now seems to have been the mustard mixing with smoke and oil floating on the surface of the harbour. Apparently, many civilians died along with forces personnel from the effects of the mustard gas inhaled from the smoke or splashed with it in the water.

The day finally came for some of us to depart. We travelled overland by train and I saw the Italian countryside very much the same as Sicily and we marvelled at the way the population crowded on the running boards of the train, some with bags tied over their shoulders; my first actual glimpse of refugees. We grew used to the constant cry of, “Cigarereti engleesi.” Some of the lads gave the odd cigarette away but they didn’t give so many away, for they didn’t know when they would get another issue.


Chapter 35

We, eventually, arrived at the Italian naval base of Taranto where we spent a short while, long enough for a day out where I tried an Italian restaurant and had my first taste of octopus and lemon juice. Then we had to embark on a L.C.I “Landing Craft Infantry”. a narrow flat bottomed craft with a small covered box like bridge; I noticed with some trepidation, a marked lack of A.A. defence. We had a hectic journey of about 14 hours in dirty grey weather with a strong wind piling the waves up. The steel box we were travelling in heaved and pitched, lifting and crashing down until it seemed she would break her back in the short steep seas. We were fed a few bread rolls and biscuits with tins of corned beef and we had hot strong tea. I was quite hungry in spite of the rough weather but years at sea had fitted me for this. The poor old Tommies- I shudder to think how they fared; I’d heard it said by some that they’d sooner be shot at than suffer the dreadful onslaught of sea sickness.

We eventually arrived in Malta and were driven with our gear to Verdala transit camp. I’ve never seen a place like it before or since. The nearest thing to it would be a series of windowless stone fronted caves with stone flagged floors and bar electric light bulbs. The messing arrangements were wooden benches and tables, although there were hammock bars fitted for sleeping. The food was pretty good and we were allowed a ration of Canadian Black Horse beer, a good strong brew. I remember one of our mess mates getting a load on and he was staggering around the place and shouting, in the darkness to all and sundry in that dimly lit mess, “Bring out your dead, bring out your dead.” This caused a chorus of laughs and shouts of “f*** off stupid bastard.”

Once settled in, it wasn’t as bad as it first appeared. Duties were well organised, shore leave was generous and the threat of air raids was long gone, although Malta scars would remain for many years. Rumours of a return to the UK proved groundless. One morning, several of us received orders to have our kit ready for leaving on the following day. At the time, we didn’t know for sure whether it was for replacements for other ships or taking passage to join the Far Eastern Fleet in the Pacific area of conflict against the Japs. Although I didn’t know it, some of my Quail friends had already gone out there to be distributed throughout the fleet and would see some Kamikaze attacks made by the Japanese in a desperate attempt to stop the Allied advance in that area. We ended up being taken by lorry to the harbour and embarking on a fleet mine sweeper. Next day found us through the Straits of Mesina and heading north. We were on the upper deck enjoying the trip when the air alert alarm rattlers sounded. It shook us out of our complacency; memories of Bari still haunted Bill Rice and me, one of my Quail shipmates, who were with me. We gazed upward looking for enemy planes. Then we saw a swarm of planes, a steady throbbing of engines as they slowly passed overhead, glinting in the sunlight and making an impressive sight. They were low enough to make out their shapes and to me, they looked like American Liberator bombers. They passed over on some mission and I wondered who was going to be their target, I know there was a big attack on the Rumanian oilfields of Ploesti at about that time. They could have been on their way there. We were relieved that they were allied planes and the tension passed as the drone of their engines faded.

The sweeper arrived at Maddalena on 19th December 1943, after threading her way through a narrow channel between scrubby barren looking hills. The ship tied up in this ex-Italian naval base. On land, Geordie who was our lorry driver and a good one too, albeit a bit mad at times. A khaki clad petty officer told us to get on board the lorry taking all of our gear. He seemed a decent sort but I got the impression that he wouldn’t stand any skylarking around. His name was Hurst and he was our NCO. The lorry drove out of the dockyard as if we were trying to break some speed record; we had to hold onto its sides with one hand and our hats with the other, meanwhile, our backsides took a beating as we bounced over potholes while the dust behind us marked our trail.

I wondered how we would fit into a shore base, more so when we arrived at our destination, a small one-storey villa that was set aside for our group of eight or so who all appeared to be stokers. We had two sleeping rooms fitted up with a small table and bunk beds placed one over the other in a tier. Our kitbags were stowed away and a few small items went into a drawer, we had a flush toilet and a wash place. We had our bathing over at the “Hospidaldi Garibaldi”, an old 45-gallon oil drum that had been set up to form a type of stove and boiler for heating water to use for washing clothes, or sometimes for using as a bath. We, the newcomers, found the best way to get our washing done was to buy a small bag of flour and we gave this to some Italian lady to do it.

I wasn’t long in befriending one of the Italian workmen, a man of about 45 years, a stocky man, blue eyed and always carrying a fair amount of grey stubble on his face. This man, I’ll always remember, although his name escapes me. I grew to admire him. He was a hard worker, loved his wife “Pasqua”, his son and daughter. He was a gruff man and even though we had acquired some of the local vocabulary, I was hard pressed to understand him, but he was one of the kindest and finest men that I was ever privileged to meet. With his tattered work clothes, neatly patched and his old cap, he was always a gentleman. It became a regular walk down to their casa with my washing and the flour. I also, used to keep the old boy fixed up with a few cigarettes and tobacco. I respected these people and I’m sure that they did me. I remember sitting down to a meal of sardine like fish cooked in oil and black bread, washing it down with a couple of glasses of rough red wine. I was happy to sit down with them and quite literally break bread with them.

The shore base wasn’t such a bad place after all. Discipline was lax; nobody bothered you as long as you did a good job. Food in the dining hall was good; we got crayfish and chickens by simply swapping flour. One summer evening, it was dusk and quite peaceful, no sign of movement. Over the hill, a purple haze began to form as the sun began to set, then the informal noise of the residential donkey as he set off braying. Suddenly, Taffy shot out of our villa, his rifle in his hand, he worked the bolt sending a round into the breach and before anyone could do anything about it, he swung the barrel in the general direction of the donkey and the American tents, and he fired. “That’ll fix you, you b******,” he muttered to himself. We immediately grabbed him, disarmed him and quickly bundled him inside. Some of the lads and I looked round the corner of the building and saw the Yanks with rifles in their hands. We heard shouts and I’m sure one of them was pointing to the top of the tent. We kept mum on what had happened and were thankful that no one was killed by Taffy’s attempt to silence the donkey.

We gradually built up a relationship with some of the families of La Maddalena and were often invited to sample a glass of wine. I learned the merits of vermouth, marsala, different “vinos” and the very Aqua vita, a drink looking like water but there the resemblance ended.

The cold, dull weather changed to summer, it was very warm with the heat haze shimmering over the low stonewalls. Off duty, we would wear khaki drill shorts and sometimes a shirt over a white front sometimes bare to the waist. We, now, had the privilege of a quick dip in the sea whenever we had the chance. Some of the girls were real Italian beauties. One, in particular, had stolen the heart of one of the lads and he was drawn like a fly to the honey pot. I believe that he was married at home. She resembled some dusky Indian queen and the lads nicknamed her the “Squaw”. Her sister, no less pretty but younger, was the young “Squaw”. He became very jealous and he alone was allowed to supply her home with anything he could get hold of and, of course, they played along with him, but the girl was always closely chaperoned.

There was the “Villa Rosa” with it’s white painted walls and rooms fully equipped for action and its bevy of beauties ready to sell their favours for cigarettes or five bob (25p in today’s money) I remember being on duty watch and having the job, one evening, of going down to the brothel to clear it all of all American and British personnel. P.O. Hurst and I drew a Smith and Weston 38 revolver each from the N.O.I.C headquarters and we each had a small stick. We were issued with four bullets and we loaded the weapons, leaving two chambers under the hammer of the trigger clear; this was done under the watchful eye of the Master at Arms. We were warned that on no account must we use these weapons unless absolutely forced and were ourselves in danger. Then, we were issues with white webbing belts and gaiters plus a canvas armband, which was decorated with a crown and the letters N.P. Thus equipped, we had to do a short patrol, then make our way to the “Villa Rosa” and clear it by nine o’clock. What a job that turned out to be.

Everyone in the place was pleading for a few minutes more. They knew the rules but anyone would have thought it was their last chance on earth to have a bang. The whores would still be there tomorrow. I wondered how many had wives at home; many were worse for drink, some even offered money for us to turn a blind eye. We went through each door, finding some on the job, in various stages of undress. We offered them an extra few minutes and then, to loud protests, we ordered them out. Strangely, I didn’t note any aggressiveness whether it was the sight of the stick and pistol, I don’t know. Steadily we got rid of them amid a chorus of lewd jokes and promises to be “back tomorrow, honey” from some of the yanks.

We still had one room upstairs to clear. The noises coming from it made it obvious that more than one man and woman were in there. The door was being held closed by someone and we were told to wait a while. On informing whoever it was that we were shore patrol, the door was opened. What a sight met our eyes! I didn’t know whether to burst out laughing or be sick. Surrounding a double bed, some standing, some sitting on chairs were some American soldiers. On the bed was a well made woman of about thirty years with nothing on except the Italian caretaker; for the life of me, I couldn’t understand men paying to look at this. We cleared the room amid protestations that they’d paid five dollars each for this dubious entertainment.

We continued our easy life of occasional swimming, drinking and visiting Italian friends. The duties were more boring than hard. Monthly, we had our bartering sessions with the black marketers who knew when our slop issue was due. We would display our wares and argue the price until we settled for the highest that we could get. One guy did it on them, he slit the fine tin foil top which sealed the cigarette tobacco in, put some cotton waste back in, braised it back up and then replaced the primary lid after topping the waste with a fine layer of tobacco, to overcome the suspicious inspection of the contents. We said that he would end up with a knife in his ribs but he didn’t. They always had the top off after that.

The signorinas made smart looking coats from the blankets that we sold to them and they set off their dark looks of to perfection. We had plenty of money. We had the wine and the women were available, if you wanted to take a chance, for about five shillings. I never heard of any one “catching the boat up”, so the “Villa Rosa” must have been a well-kept establishment. Not only the Villa Rosa provided women. One evening, I was all on my own and writing a letter home. As I sat at the small table, pen in hand and concentrating on my letter, I heard a small timid kind of knock on the door. I went to the door, expecting to be confronted by one of the local children; instead I found three young women facing me. I’d never noticed these girls around the place before. They looked respectable and well dressed. I wasn’t long in finding out what they wanted. They were offering themselves for money or anything else they could get. I asked them in and I remember telling them to wait until the lads got back. In my heart I knew that some of the lads would be happy to oblige, for they would be feeling good on the vino they had drunk. One of the girls picked up the letter that I had been writing and seeing the photograph she said, “Marito, felio and bambino,” meaning wife and baby. I replied “Si Si” and she said “Bella, bella.” They were polite and well mannered and asked if they could sit and wait. I didn’t see any point in kicking them out, so I carried on writing as they talked among themselves.

It was going on for dark when the sound of voices and singing drew close; some of the boys were back and the other wouldn’t be long after. I realised my folly at not turning the women away, for my bed was the bottom bed of one of the bunks and I was kept awake by noises all night. The next morning the girls tidied themselves up and then came the crunch. They demanded their payment, arguments started, developing over the price and eventually they ended up with a couple of packets of biscuits, which were each only worth three pence, a packet. They played merry hell and things were looking nasty, eventually, they were thrown out. A couple of men came and they went off with them amidst a chorus of Italian curses.

One young girl of about fourteen years, a good looking girl, dark haired, dark eyed and a slightly sallow complexion, used to look at us in a way that made me feel slightly angry. You would speak and she would completely ignore you and give you such a look. Having to pass her home and offering a word of friendship seemed the proper thing to do, yet she just gave you that stare. Jeanetta, for that was her name, had good reason. We found out that her brother had been serving in the Italian navy on a destroyer and he had been killed by a British plane in a strafing attack. I could now understand why; she was so unfriendly.
What struck me was that the locals liked black clothing. The men’s headgear was mostly a black beret or trilby and you could imagine them being members of the Sicilian mafia. For all that, I liked their rough, down to earth attitude. They weren’t without a sense of humour. We acquired a dog, it had been given to one of the London lads and we had picked a name for him. We had a confab on what to call him. Geordio, one of the natives, mentioned Fray Bentos and the name stuck. He was a small smooth haired black and white terrier; a likeable little dog. Alas, poor Fray Bentos hadn’t long to live, for when his master was recalled, he decided against handing him over to a Sardinian family, so Fray Bentos was condemned to death. He was put in a weighted sack and dropped off the jetty. I noticed tears in the workmen’s eyes as the deed took place and I’m sure that they longed to look after him.

 

Chapter 36
 

One day, I noticed a build up of merchant shipping in the bay and heard the news of the invasion of Europe. It was a time of year when the weather was rather warm and it coincided with my being appointed to a plum job up in the hills. It was a job of vital importance for the ships amassing for the invasion of southern France. It entailed the manning of a newly built pumping station and our job was to see to its running and the correct feeding into the system of pipelines of the correct amount of chloride and lime.
I got lucky in another way. An Italian soldier started to visit me in my lonely vigil at the pumping house and I used to show him how to carry on looking after it. He grew to be quite a pal and told me that he came from Trieste, and he showed me pictures of his family. I’d leave him in charge while I went down to a piece of sandy beach, not far away, so that I’d be on call if I were needed. Here the water was crystal clear, the sand very fine and white. I could swim and look down at the small fish deep down below me. This was the life. One day, he brought his carbine and some ammo and we shut the pump down and practiced firing at some tin cans that he had brought along. I could always make some tale up if anyone wanted to know what was up.


I had sometimes had blockages in the pump and had stripped it down to fine large eels from the reservoir in the pipe. My friend found these an extra addition to his diet, which seemed to be nothing more than tomato soup and bread. I helped him by filling a large tin every dinner time from the mess leavings and, on my return at 1 o’clock, he would tuck in and very seldom left any. One day, I returned after dinner with the usual tin full, but he was nowhere to be seen. This seemed strange; he wasn’t in the habit of leaving these meals that he looked forward to so much. I decided to go up to the Italian water engineer’s house, which was higher up the hill. He was there, sat on a chair holding his stomach and groaning. They had given him a whole cheese and a bottle of wine and he’d practically downed the lot. He’d recovered by the next morning after, which says a lot for his constitution. His brown smiling face, with the crinkle round his blue eyes and his words “So Stupido” brought a laugh that we both shared in. I couldn’t visualise this as my enemy, he was such a gentle man. We often talked of our families and he said many times that my wife and I should visit his casa in Trieste when the war was over.


One day, my peace was shattered when “Ricy” came into the billet and announced quietly, “Russ, I’ve heard that Pasqua is dead.” I couldn’t believe it. I had given her some of my washing a week or so previously and I’d no inkling that anything was wrong. I felt particularly sad about the young girl and boy, who would be without this marvellous mother, and her husband, so kind with his gruff voice and his love for her and the kids.
Taffy B nearly got me killed. One evening, he drew me to one side “ Russ, old boy, how about going with me to a casa where there’s some very nice wine and a piano.” Knowing Taffy, I guessed that he had something thought out and he claimed that he would play the piano, so I thought okay. The place was only a few minutes away and when we arrived, Taffy knocked on the door and a middle-aged lady opened the door. We stumbled across a low step into a room lit by a very bright single bulb, a few chairs and a table were its only furnishings except for a very battered looking piano. Seated there was a Maltese Royal Navy man and an Italian sailor. They greeted us and we were served a large flagon of wine. The wine soon gained its hold, especially on Taffy, for he hardly every dried out from one session to another. He had a go at the piano but only succeeded in a noise that no-one could call a tune. He then, got himself into an argument with the Italian sailor over the wine and he was getting nasty, calling the Italian all kinds of b*******.


I could see trouble was boiling up and realised that something had to be done quickly, so I said, “Come on, lets go.” The woman, herself, was frightened, after all it was her home and members of the occupying forces getting into trouble there, could have meant an investigation and interrogation. I grabbed hold of Taffy and steered him through the door out of the bright light of the unshaded bulb into the dark street. Suddenly I felt a blow over my right eye and a noise of running feet. I swung a wild punch with my right fist and felt it thud somewhere against a body, then I was alone in the dark. I shouted for Taffy but got no reply, no wonder, Taffy, who had caused the trouble, had scarpered and I copped for it. I’d only tried to protect the silly b****** from his folly.


I now felt a dull ache down my right side and felt warmth down that side. It was only when I’d made my way back to the villa where we lived, that I found out that I had been stabbed. It must have been a very fine stiletto type blade, for the wound was only a slit of under ½ inch wide. P.O. Hurst looked at it and swabbed my right eyebrow and sent me off to the hospital where I had three or four stitches over my right eye and a small plaster over the small stab wound.


I got a good telling off for getting into trouble; I didn’t mention Taffy. I kept a sense of loyalty to him but I made up my mind that I’d never go out with him anymore.
Mail came pretty regularly and my wife made sure that I knew all about our daughter. I was transferred back to the dockyard in charge of fuel stocks, both coal and petrol. Some men had been sent home. One day I received news that I was longing for, I was ordered to have my kit bag and hammock ready for the next morning and I was to take passage aboard an armed trawler, which would take me to Naples. My heart leapt when I was informed of this because this was to be the first stage of my journey home. Years later, I saw La Maddalena on the TV in a top town programme and was astonished at the alterations; it was much more modern than the place that I remembered.


While residing in Naples, I took advantage of an organised trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum and I’ve never felt such a sense of amazement as we walked around those historical places. Soon I received orders to join an Italian cruiser running between Naples and Malta, carrying mail and passengers. In Malta the next day, and I was quickly taken off the launch with all my gear and taken to a transit camp. It looked like some sort of ruined barracks made of whitish stone. I reported to the guardroom and was escorted to a large room that contained a mess table; stools and a place had been made to sling our hammocks. It looked a pretty austere place but clean; of course whatever naval discipline was in operation, cleanliness was paramount. I shared this place with six more ratings and was soon on good terms with them. Beer was in short supply and so we made do with the Maltese wine. I was restless and longing for home; the past year and a half, the tragedy of the Quail and Bari had faded and leaving Maddalena, my mates and Italian friends that I had made, all seemed insignificant now; nothing seemed to matter any more. My Magdalena was all that I was bothered about. When she wrote and told me that they had to take shelter one night as the buzz bomb passed over; it did me no good at all, it worried me a lot. That bomb hit Manchester and she described it after that it was like a two stroke motorbike going across the sky.


The day did finally arrive when I was shipped out aboard the liner Franconia along with some of Churchill’s staff from the Malta conference. I travelled along with one or two R.A.F. men who were travelling in steerage, it seemed that we were in accommodation near the shaft passages by the rumble that we could hear and feel. I didn’t mind a bit. The food was good and we were allowed a beer ration and a jolly fine drink it was; McEwans export ale as I remember.


We were sailing at full speed and well lit up as U boat activity had virtually ceased. I made a few pals among the R.A.F. men. We finally docked in the UK and I made my way to Devonport where I reported and was granted a month’s leave. A month’s leave seemed like heaven. I won’t ever forget that feeling as I drew my railway warrant, had my pay book stamped and collected my pay. I was handed a ration card by a Wren clerk and was sweetly told, “Enjoy your leave Jack.” I didn’t need any telling, I’d already collected my cigarette and chocolate substance with bits of pussers Ki that I had managed to save, the thick chocolate substance with bits of white that looked like sugar mixed in it. I’d, also, made sure that my wife’s Grandpa would get his plug of pipe tobacco which I’d made up from leaf tobacco and given a generous sprinkling of rum; old John Adcock’s eyes would sparkle when we called to see him and her grandma Anna. Anna would have to settle for some of my “nutty “ ration. I managed to get away eventually, making sure that I gave the guardhouse a smart salute, I didn’t want to trip up now by not saluting, although I thought it a load of bull****. I had things for my parents too. I was pretty well weighed down and the long naval overcoat that I wore over my uniform didn’t make me anymore comfortable either.


I calculated that with luck, in 12 hours more, I’d be receiving that hug and kiss that I’d only been able to dream about for two years or so. I changed trains at Sheffield and arrived at Cudworth station in the early hours of the morning; this still left me about two and a half miles from home. I asked a porter when the buses started running and from his reply, realised that I would have a couple of hours to wait. I weighed things up and decided to walk even though I was weighed down by all of my luggage. Finally, aching all over and lathered in sweat, I arrived outside our blessed door. A moment’s pause, a moment of anticipation, then, I knocked. All my dreams lay behind that door. The light came on and I heard that beautiful exciting voice. “It’s Bill, he is home,” my wife shouted to her parents. The hall light came on and the door opened. There she stood, in her dressing gown and nightie, looking as lovely as I’d imagined. I took my cases in, looked without speaking and we just fell into each other’s arms. The kisses were sweet. A month with her would be paradise.


When we finally fell apart, she said, “You’ll be hungry, I’ll do bacon and eggs.” My meal finished, I decided on a good wash but before I did, she went upstairs and came back down with our daughter in her arms. She was smiling at me and asked if I wanted to hold her. Of course, this fair-haired child of mine, immediately started to cry. I felt like a stranger to her and she probably wondered whom this strange looking guy in a uniform could be. Magdalena tried to comfort her with the words “It’s your daddy my love,” but it made no impression, she bawled her head off and finally fell asleep in my arms, the fair head cradles against the rough blue serge of my tunic. My wife took her from me and took her back to her cot. This was what it was all about.


The days that followed on that full month’s leave were truly golden ones. We shopped, we visited, we walked in the countryside, we loved as only a pair of long parted lovers could. The time came for last goodbyes to parents and child; then, Madge accompanied me to the station.


After weeks of waiting back at the barracks, my luck took a turn for the better and I eagerly scanned the small white slip of paper with my name on. I had to report to the D.F.D.O. office. I had been put on draft to H.M.S. Venomous, a destroyer. It was April 1945. It wasn’t a new destroyer like the Quail but an old V and W class of World War II vintage, I believe. Still, it was a destroyer and it would be a relief to leave the routine of R.N. Barracks, Devonport.
When I finally arrived at the ship, she looked ancient. I didn’t realise at the time but she was used mostly as a target ship for the Barracuda torpedo bombers to practice on. She was slightly turtle backed and seemed far narrower in the beam. She had two funnels, one thin, the “woodbine” type and one a bit wider with a single set of tubes. The stokers’ mess deck seemed smaller than the Quail’s. You could tell she was aged by the thickness of the paint below decks, the rivets didn’t stand out as sharply as on a ship of younger years. Down below, the stokers’ mess deck was far narrower; we were more crowded together. Her paintwork and overhead corking was tinged a dirty yellow from the thousands of cigarettes that must have stained it over the years of service. It smelled of a certain amount of dampness and paint.


I got to know my messmates over the days ahead and I found them a great crew. It was April and the days were often cold and grey. We would go down the Forth to the practice range and then afterwards, the exercise came alongside. Sometimes, the torpedoes fired would take some spotting and at times they must have given our captain a lot of anxiety, for to lose a “fish” entailed the loss of around a £1000, a large sum in those days. The sea boat’s crew and the cutters would curse at the time taken to spot the nose of the torpedo as it bobbed in the troughs, especially if rain had set in. I marvelled at the men who would risk their necks in such a small steel tube that they had a cheek to call a submarine.

 

Chapter 37
 
When we got ashore on our usual beer laced binges, I found a substitute for my mother’s bread. As we arrived back outside the naval base, we found women selling paper bags containing bread rolls, six for a shilling. The boys went mad for them and if your chums went ashore, you usually got someone to bring a bag back for you.

I did manage to get a bit of cod fishing when we anchored off Grantham. It helped the cook vary the diet. One day we sailed out further than usual, in fact, we ended up off the most northern tip of Scotland and a bout of some of the worst weather that I’ve ever experienced. The signs came as the ship’s company was ordered to secure everything that was loose and make ready for heavy weather that was imminent. It wasn’t long coming and it was said to be of hurricane force. The old ship heaved her fore foot up, rearing up like a startled horse, then came crashing down her bows, to be buried under an oncoming wave. One whaler was smashed to matchwood in the davits and I was told that even the for’d gun shield had been sprained. Items of food and vomit sloshed on the deck, we had reached the depths of misery. I don’t think we would have cared if she had sunk. The ship showed her age more, it had made the rust streaks more obvious, it needed a lot paint and the chipping hammers would have to work overtime to restore the ship to something of naval tidiness.

We carried out our usual routine until one day a buzz originated that we were sailing on some unknown mission; this was early in May 1945 and we were all eager to know what it was we were going to do. The Germans surrendered in Europe and some wit said that we were going to join the Pacific Fleet against Japan. We saw a uniformed officer who was wearing the regalia of the German Navy. He was accompanied to the wardroom by one of our officers and the German was carrying a large briefcase. It eventually transpired that we were going to Norway and our destination was Kristian Sands, where we were to accept the surrender of the German forces in Norway. The German officer had come aboard to act as a pilot through the German minefields. To make doubly sure, we were accompanied by a couple of minesweepers.

I felt very uneasy; I remembered the Quail and the causalities and damage that we had suffered. There was a crackle of small arm fire and an occasional oerlikon burst. Mines had been swept and the sweepers were firing at them to sink or to explode them. I heard no heavy explosions but I did see on one occasion, a mine coated in red lead bobbing up and down in the choppy sea. This did nothing for my peace of mind.. Soon I saw another amazing sight; small craft that I can only describe as smaller than cobbles which used to take anglers out of the east coast ports. They were Norwegian fishing boats and I noticed that in them were kids looking about nine or ten years of age and they were fishing with hand lines.

The Norwegian coast came into view and the usual talk of getting ashore and wondering what the “Norwegian” parties would be like. Everyone seemed to be expecting to be swamped by a lot of busty blondes. It is funny how fantasy can build a picture in one’s mind of different races and how they should look. We came to anchor in Kristian Sands; to starboard was a large building that someone said was a brewery. It was unmarked. Then I saw some hills with German AA batteries situated on the crest and sides. It would have been sticky if they thought they wouldn’t surrender after all but I need not have worried. We were piped ashore leave and my leave would be next day so I was eager to hear what it was like when the boys came back aboard. Not one drunk came aboard. Apparently there was a beer of a sort but the boys said that it tasted like onion water and if you ‘d drunk gallon, you couldn’t get drunk.

I did get ashore eventually after we had tied up alongside a sweeper. I got a surprise when the bosom’s mate shouted down the mess deck hatch, “Anyone here by the name of Bill Russell?” A chorus of voices shouted, “There’s a stoker called Tommy Russell, maybe its him.” “Well tell him there’s a stoker, Tony Harding off the sweeper here.” What a surprise, Tony is the wife’s brother. I knew that he had joined the navy as an H.O. but never knew he was on the sweeper alongside; my wife must have told him that I was aboard the Venomous. I went aboard the sweeper and sampled his tot and wished him well. They had swept the mines up and had been firing at them, and here he was now. I’d have to write home to Magdalena; she would be surprised that her husband and her brother had met like that. In a way he was helping to keep me safe; such is fate.

I got ashore next day and wasn’t impressed at all. The people seemed few and far between and not so talkative either. They seemed in a state of shock, as they couldn’t believe that they had been liberated. Then to be fair, they had never had the chance of seeing many of the goods in the shops that even we in rationed Britain had seen. The kids had never seen chocolate and I expect fruit like oranges and bananas either.
What struck me was a squad of German sailors marching past, still armed and we had not so much as a knife between us. Maybe they were happy that the war was over, maybe they were having a little joke at our expense. We went back aboard early, an hour or two was long enough in that lifeless place. While there, I suffered a bit of embarrassment. My pal and I decided to have a bath down in the narrow washroom situated just below the mess deck. This compartment had only one hatch into it and you had to bath in a large round bowl. There were only two of these bowls and you didn’t always have enough hot water anyway to fill the two.

This day we were in luck; we took our washing down and with it, the usual bar of pusser’s soap and a knife to shave some onto the washing. I had got one of the metal tubs and as I was filling it, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and I would wash my clothes and bathe in the same water; my mate decided that it was a good idea. There we were both in the nude, perched with our buttocks on the edge of our respective tubs, rubbing our washing in the lather the soap shavings had created. My back was towards the washroom entrance and I was concentrating on the job in hand. Suddenly, I heard a clattering of feet on the hatchway’s steel ladder, nothing wrong with that but then I heard the unmistakeable sound of female laughter. “Cor Yorkie,” my mate said, “Look behind you.” I turned and it must have been one of the few times that a sailor has blushed. There, laughing and pointing, were several Norwegian girls; what do you do in such a situation? We just carried on with our washing. I’d never felt so embarrassed. The b******s on the mess deck had actually directed the girls down to the bathroom and had had a good laugh at our expense. The girls had been invited aboard on a good will trip; they certainly had something to tell their folks. The boys on the mess deck, said, “Did you give them a flash, Yorkie?” But as luck had it, my back was towards them.

One day as some of the boys were returning aboard, they came across a stranger in a uniform that they had never seen before. He wasn’t German and he had only a very slight knowledge of English. He managed to get across that he was very hungry, doing this mostly by sign, pointing to his mouth and to his stomach. His uniform was a green shade, nearly the so-called Lincoln green of Robin Hood. He was escorted off the dockside, down to the mess deck and was seated while someone went off and brewed the mess deck tea urn to the half way mark. A large tin of baked beans was opened and half a large loaf was cut up into thick slices and liberally coated with butter. This repast was placed in front of him as he literally drooled at the sight. I think he would have kissed us all if we had let him. His thanks were embarrassing; I’d never seen anyone starving like this man. He wolfed the food down and we just sat and watched him. His words were Russian sounding and he did claim that he was a Russian prisoner of the Germans and said that the Germans had shot some of his mates before we arrived. We made sure that he had his fill and then we packed him off before any officers arrived on the scene and kicked a stink up. We had after all, managed to get him aboard unbeknown to the officer of the day. I often wonder about this man and his eventual fate, for since the war, we have heard reports that the Soviets didn’t treat returned prisoners of war very well, saying that they should have fought to the death and they looked on the prisoners as traitors.

After this, we sailed soon for Grangemouth, Scotland where we expected a shore leave would bring us a chance of some celebrating and maybe a pint or two of free beer. We need not have bothered. You might have thought that the war was still on. I reckon we could have been in a better place than this. The Scottish seemed to be tight fisted as was often said. Still, the war in Europe was over now and everyone hoped that the Pacific war with Japan wouldn’t be long. I stayed with Venomous a few more months, just the usual exercises with the Fleet Air Arm and a few training patrols. I returned to barracks on July 7th and I got seven days’ leave granted. I was in heaven back with my wife and daughter again looking as beautiful as ever.

I was then drafted again, this time to Belfast, to a brand new L.S.T. so different from a destroyer. She seemed like one big roomy box. She was still in her final stages of completion. Although new, I didn’t like her. I bet this flat-bottomed boat would roll and pitch, and on a trip to the Far East, we would certainly hit some heavy weather, for I assumed that we would be going to the Pacific.

I struck up a friendship with an Irishman; he was one of the dockyard’s ”Mateys” and was well into middle age. He used to slip me many a bottle of Guinness in my locker and I eventually met his family. They lived in a terraced street not far from Harland and Wolfe’s. They were nice folks; I had regular shore leave from my job as assistant storekeeper.
One pub we went to seemed to be full of elderly and middle aged women who swore like an irate miner. They embarrassed even us who were used to bad language. They sang and I‘d bet that everyone was an IRA supporter. When a drunken argument started amongst them, we decided that it was time to leave. It didn’t seem a safe place for two sailors of the Royal Navy. Belfast seemed to have its quota of beggars, usually it was, “Have you sixpence, Jack, for a man to get a bed?” or it was. “for something to eat.” and we obliged until we actually watched one who had taken our sixpence and immediately dived into the nearest pub.

It wasn’t long before I was recalled to Barracks TF11, fitted out and sailed to the Isle of Mull for some exercises off Lambash and I ended up on my way back to Devonport. My recall seemed strange after this short stay on a new L.S.T. on my arrival; I wasn’t left long in doubt. I was sent on seven days’ leave for which I was grateful. I don’t know if it was the Admiralty’s was of bribing me but on my return, I’d to report to the engineer commander’s office of the depot as a matter of urgency. I was really surprised and I knew it must be important.

I knocked on the door and announced my name and rank. Immediately, a pleasant sounding voice told me to enter. I entered and saluted a medium sized individual in the uniform of a commander. He told me to take a seat and took out a sheaf of papers from a large envelope. I was now wondering what was going to happen. I realised that the Jap war was still not over and I had visions of some specialist mission to do with this. I didn’t want to be a hero; being a hero had too many risks for a man with a wife and young child. Imagine my surprise when he looked up from the papers that he had been studying and said, “Stoker Russell, I have your record here, a good record and you are a continuous service rating. As you know, we have hostilities going on in the Pacific water and in view of your record; we would like you to consider joining the Submarine Service. We have a new submarine sown in the dockyard which will soon be commissioned and we thought that you would be an ideal member of her crew.”

So this was it, I knew it meant extra money as he quickly pointed out to me. I would have loved to say yes, to have joined the elite of the navy. It would have been wonderful. I asked for time as I had a young wife and child; he said that he would not like anyone to think that they were forced in. He did appreciate my concern for my family and said that it would not go against me if I decided to refuse the offer and he gave me four hours to think it over. I finally turned it down and said that I would sooner be drafted to my old love, destroyers. It was not to be; I was back into the dated Barracks routine. It did have the benefits of long weekend leaves and a couple of seven-day leaves. I was in Barracks for about four and a half months. The Jap war had now finished and signs of peace were all around. The Barracks were cleaned and seemed to improve; I met a few old pals who had been called up for the hostilities – only ratings early on in the war and who were now in the process of being demobbed. I found myself envying them. They’d be home for good with their families and I still had a few years to do. I could not think that I’d be signing on for my pension, not now; I loved that little family of mine too much.

All this time I had been longing for a destroyer. I started haunting the D.F.D.O. office much to their annoyance. “You will get a ship soon enough,” they would say. I knew that I would also get leave if I got drafted to a ship, and so would get home again. Eventually, in came the draft chit that I’d longed for; it said that I had to report to the D.F.D.O. draft for H.M.S. Saumarez. She was a destroyer who had the North Cape on her Battle Honours. She had been in the torpedo attacks against the Battle Cruiser Scharnhost and had suffered causalities and damage, as she pressed home her attack against the Germans. I could not have wished for a better draft. I would be proud to wear the cap ribbon of H.M.S. Saumarez.

Chapter 38
 

I joined HMS Saumarez in February 1946 after constantly haunting the vicinity of the Detailed for Draft Office (DFDO), much to the annoyance of the staff employed there. She turned out to be all I wanted, sleek and fast looking, her single slightly raked funnel with its broad black painted top, informed me she was the flotilla leader, the number three on her light grey side told me of the 3rd destroyer flotilla. Indeed a ship to be proud of for she was awarded the following Battle Honours;

North Cape 1943
Arctic 1943-44
Normandy 1944
Malaya 1945
Burma 1945

My wife would be proud to know all about my new ship; soon we were to sail for the Mediterranean to join the fleet. Of particular interest to me and more of the older veterans of the stokers’ mess deck was the fact that we were carrying some new National Service hands, we wondered how they would stand up to crossing the bay. We soon knew; pale faces and heads retching into buckets or quick dashes in a groggy manner for the upper deck, to heave anything still left in aching guts over the side. Sea sickness was something we had all suffered in our time and we sympathised with these new lads, some very young, although the manner in which it was offered did not always show it, words such as, “Eh I could eat a nice fat bacon sandwich with the fat dripping out,” then, “The first two years are the worst,” or, “Wait till it gets rough,” and from the sea sick one, “For f***s’ sake shut up I’m f****** dying.” But soon they got used to the moving deck beneath their feet, the steel room called a mess deck with its creaking, changing plane, first your mates were tilted below you then on a higher level, we had seen it all before and indeed had to fight in all sorts of conditions.

The younger lads used to look up to us veterans, for I was indeed a veteran of six years of war and not yet 26, I was proud of the six red war service chevrons worn on my right forearm, they were good for a few drinks off the younger lads when the watch was ashore.
We put into Villefranche in the south of France on a beautiful day in May, it wasn’t all that beautiful, for as the anchor shackles were struck and the chain went rattling down in a shower of rust and vibrating through the for-d mess decks, the ship was immediately besieged by more beautiful women in all shapes and sizes of small craft, than I had ever dreamed of. They came out in inflatables, canoes and boats, I had never seen this before.
Not only the younger lads were goggle-eyed; the promises from these people had ‘Jack’ wondering and hoping his watch was the first ashore.

When shore leave was piped, there was a queue outside the sick bay for an issue of “Pussers Johnnies” as the issue condoms were called. I recall I was watch aboard, auxiliary watch, keeping with a Jack Hammond in the engine room. As a staid married man I envied these boys. I would have to be patient, the woman and child I loved were many miles away.

I did manage a couple of runs ashore, one took me to Nice, women were everywhere and mostly good looking, I stuck to the wine and something they called beer. Temptation all the time, but memories and what waited for me at home helped to overcome it.
The time came to sail for Malta, with trips ashore to the sailors’ well known haunt, the notorious ‘Gut’, a steeply rising street near Grand Harbour, noted for good cheap meals, beer and hostesses, who had an uncanny knack of parting a new young sailor from his pay, by perching on his lap and asking, “You buy pretty girl drink Jack?” If you were young and foolish you did just that, what the drink was I never knew, I only knew that I never saw one of the girls drunk, they worked on a commission basis and I never knew a sailor who had it off with one of them.

We indulged in fleet exercises, in which I saw a near ramming incident. We were dashing all over the place one dark night with star shell being fired. Suddenly, in the eerie white light of one of these a cruiser loomed up and seemed to be bearing down on the Saumarez, she was moving very fast as the luminous white of her bow wave showed. The helm of Saumarez was put hard over and as she heeled over, her guard rails were nearly washed by the sea. Just one little incident but a bit scary.

One day, the flotilla indulged in a high speed race. We had opened out the line abreast and from the hatch stern over the tiller flat. I has a grandstand view of three destroyers looking white against the blue of the Mediterranean, they made a magnificent picture, as they threw a large wave up in a slightly surging sea and leaving a snowy wake behind them, they had all turned and heeled over as one; at such moments, you feel a strange little feeling of pride. The wind of our passing threw salt spray into one’s face, making it smart and leaving a faint deposit on sun tanned cheeks.
Eventually we reached our final destination, Haifa, a part of Palestine. This was to be our operational base, and our duty was the interception and arrest of ships carrying illegal Jewish immigrants. At this time the Jews were laying claim to Palestine, and although terrorism was rampant in the shape of three organisations, we did manage some shore leave in Haifa. The Haganah, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, and the Stern Gang were the organisations responsible for bombings, shootings, and land mines, indeed our feelings were inflamed by the hanging of two British Army Sergeants in an orange grove, men who had probably fought to free their compatriots.

Then they blew the King David Hotel up, causing many casualties. We used to take it in turns to operate out of Haifa, acting on intelligence reports of suspicious sailings from several Mediterranean ports. It seemed so strange to us older hands that these people who we had fought to liberate, now had become our enemies, I recall two incidents where they called us Nazis and shouted insults across to us. Boarding parties were sent abroad armed with pistols and Lancaster sub machine guns.

According to reports from boarding parties, these heavily laden crowded ships, which ranged from Greek caiques to French Schooners or ex trawlers, used to stink for the sanitary arrangements were never meant for such a cargo. We never had any trouble with them even after the insults, in fact they cooperated once they were boarded, we often provided what medical assistance we were capable of, for many of the more elderly people were in poor shape. Our feelings ranged between anger at being sometimes called Nazis, to sympathy, a situation we had never expected to be caught up in. Such was the politics of the early port war years. Even now we still see the repercussions, the Palestinian problem and the Lebanon civil war, and the spread of post-war terrorism for it apparently worked for the Jews and has since spread.

I remember a visit from the commander Lionel Crabbe, an expert in underwater warfare. We soon realised we were at risk from limpet mines that could be fixed to our hull while at anchor. To underline this risk the deportee ship Empire Rival was damaged by an explosion under her stern, tearing a hole three feet by eight in her hull. Three men swimming near her had been fired on by military guards, but were not hit. This ship and the Empire Heywood, they were ex liberty ships, used to transfer illegal immigrants to Cyprus.

About this time I remember we sailed and were informed over our tannoy system that we were attempting to intercept a French schooner with her cargo of Jewish people. I remember darkness falling over a calm sea and my duty watch now was Chief and E.R.A.’s mess man, so I could sleep all night unless we were needed for other duty. The air was balmy and warm, we were at a slow cruising speed and I decided to sling my hammock back aft on the upper deck, I attached it to the guard rails and the depth charge davit used for lifting the charges onto the throwers. I remember a clear night, a velvet sky, stars so brilliant and large they appeared to be near, the steady swaying of the boat and the after mast swaying from side to side in a semi circular movement soon lulled me into a deep sleep.

Meanwhile the ship’s radar was constantly searching in the dark for the schooner, it must be remembered that the ship was darkened as in war time. What happened is not fully clear to me to this day, how she came up to us in the dark I don’t know, I only knew a terrific crash overhead and I lay on the deck. As I gazed up from sleep fuzzed eyes, I saw what appeared to be a large black shadow pass overhead, in fact it was the schooner’s bow sprit, she had apparently tried to ram us. The davit was slightly bent, another lucky escape for me, I could possibly have been crushed. We did arrest her and escort her in; an old shipmate of mine was on the wheel at the time this happened, a Dan Mulcahy, now a firm friend on the Committee of the Corfu Incident Association.

Sometimes we hove to at sea if conditions allowed and indulged in ‘Hands to Bathe’. At such times I’d don swimming trunks and clamber over the guard rails to jump into the clear blue sea, I’d hold my nose and open my eyes underwater to see a fizzy world of bubbles and suns rays piercing the depths, then suddenly I’d pop up to the surface as if catapulted upwards. The Mediterranean always seemed so buoyant to me. I’d lie spread-eagled on the swell looking up at the blue sky being rocked by the sea and feeling relaxed and cool. These ‘Hands to Bathe’ times did morale good and helped to keep the crew fit. I was switched from E.R.A. and Chief’s mess man and was gear room watch keeper with a young stoker with me, for I once again had to keep a check on the plummer block temperatures and the steering engine and tiller flat, besides the forced lubrication system. The exhaust fan repeatedly broke down, so making the gear room uncomfortably hot. I looked to be losing a lot of weight by constantly running with sweat, so much so that our skipper, old ‘Joe’ Selby cleared lower deck and in a speech, he thanked us and asked us to tolerate it till we had the chance to really put it right.

We had a rest under canvas near Beirut in the Lebanon and I remember an incident in which the Jews murdered some sleeping ‘air borne’ men when they got into and machine-gunned a dormitory. I still feel the anger of these acts, and wonder if I ever did fight on the right side. Some good news came, but the good news was to prove in the near future a death sentence on many of my comrades, we were to proceed to take part in a Fleet Regatta. These Regattas meant water sports and competitions between ships, so we were all looking forward to this. Meanwhile events had taken a sinister turn, events no one had expected.

The Lost Son:

I was your son and now many fathoms deep, I sleep not in earth but in the quiet deep,
Below the oceans surge in slumber undisturbed I sleep, so mother do not weep for me.

Remember me for what I was, the infant you first held in firelights glow across your knee,
The schoolboy you took by the hand and the love you gave to me, and now my mother do not weep for me.

My land, and all you are I am, hillside and mountain grey against the green,
Shepherds whistle echoing across the valley deep, echo of the barking of dog across the screen,
Remember me and mother do not weep for me.

Clogged feet clatter in the early morn towards the mine so dark and deep,
Through damp and murky dawn while the world lies asleep,
This was me, my mother and in the deep I now do sleep,
For me my mother do not weep.

I was the boy who answered the factory whistle shrill, the errand boy who shoved his bicycle up the hill,
I answered the call to arms with willing feet, I pledged my faith to my land to keep, and now in the ocean deep to sleep,
For me my mother do not weep.

I was the youth who as a sailor was born to die, among that highway of shattered ships under a grey Atlantic sky,
I gave all for you my mother, and for my land, to sleep in honour in the deep,
For me my mother do not weep.

Chapter 39
 So here I was again, down below in charge of Saumarez’s gear room with a young H.O. for my companion. Saumarez was now doing a moderate cruising speed and holding station astern of Mauritius and slightly stood in the Albanian shore. I had seen our position from a quick look from the upper deck. The young lad sitting by my side on the gear casing said, “Yorkie, what will it be like if they open fire?” I replied, “Well, you’ll probably see a dirty great shell come through the ship’s side and pass out the other, for its only thin.” “Bloody hell, are you f****** sure or are you kidding?” I told him that I was kidding. Nothing will happen now. Those b******* will have more sense than to fire on us, do you think those ships are just bloody stamps?

As we listened to the steady low whine of the turbines and the murmur of the exhaust fan, I indeed felt confident. We had received mail a couple of days before we sailed and, as usual, I had received my large amount.

One leading stoker often used to collar me as I’d pace the fo’castle and he’d fall in step with me. He loved his wife so very much, but never seemed to receive any letters. He was very apprehensive. I used to try to comfort him with all kinds of excuses for her. We were, I suppose, a kind of brotherhood. HMS Saumarez had been bloodied at the Battle of the North Cape, against the German battle cruiser Scharmhorst, where she had taken part in torpedo attacks against the German ship with the destroyers Savage, Scorpion and the Norwegian destroyer Stord. She had suffered damage and casualties, so we had a noble tradition to uphold.

The ship had now been steaming steadily on, no sign of life from the Albanian shore lying off our starboard side. Then suddenly, a burst of machine gun fire hit Volage in the bows. No one realized its significance; looking back I believe it was some kind of warning. Not long after, a terrific shattering crash seemed to lift the destroyer clear of the water. My companion and I were jarred off our seat on the gear casing by a bone-jarring shock. I realized we had been hit and I remember saying, “A mine?” but my pal had gone. My first instincts were to check the pumps. They had tripped out and the ship was developing a list to port and the shafts were slowing down as she lost way. I rang the engine room and informed them that I’d go to see what help I could give topside. I could see nothing could be gained by staying in the gear room gazing at the impeller pumps, now not needed. I grabbed my lifebelt, put it on and handed my crewmate his lifebelt.

An enormous volume of thick yellow smoke was pouring over the for’d part of the ship and it didn’t take much to see HMS Saumarez had taken a mortal blow. It was indeed a mine, I knew it. I’d been mined before, on the destroyer Quail, and had been tin fished on the battleship Ramillies. It didn’t take much to know what had happened. Putting two and two together, that’s what warning burst had come.

The full horror of what had happened was now apparent, as I saw men with their skins hanging from them and I hardly realized that it wasn’t their clothing. Horribly burned and in excruciating pain, some just moaned, while some just stumbled with arms held wide in a desperate effort to relieve the pain. The ship’s surgeon moved among them. I knew that he would be administering morphine. Other men were being led amidships, some not burnt but injured internally. Some were sat up and were asking for cigarettes. This is one of the great luxuries an injured man will ask for and it seemed to remind one of a film where the heroes light cigarettes for wounded comrades.

One incident I remember very vividly was of one man. He was pleading for someone to shoot him. He died very shortly after, but his agony would have seemed much longer than those few minutes.

Going forward to help run a firemain hose out, I came across a body lying near the fo’castle. The only thing left on it was the man’s belt. His hair had all gone. I took hold of an arm to pull him to one side and felt my fingers dig into the flesh. He must have been caught in the spout of water near the explosion and as a result, was partly boiled. He might never have suffered any pain at all. The navigator had been hurled across the bridge, suffering a broken arm. By now efforts were being made to check the for’d mess deck for survivors. I understood one had been found alive and been recovered with his face pressed-up against the deck-head. This was the only place some air was still available, for the mess deck had been flooded, along with the cable locker and paint-store.

I manned a hose and played it onto the fire, now spreading from the starboard side, inside the fo’castle where the ship’s writer’s office was situated. I was positioned not far from where the mine had struck, directly under the bridge and near the boiler room. I knew all my chums in No. 1 Boiler room had gone. One did survive, for he had just come topside to fetch a small mess kettle of water to provide a drink for his mates and himself. This kettle chore saved his life.

The deck plates over No. 1 Boiler room were red-hot, for it must have had blazing oil floating in the flooded place. My heavy boots were becoming uncomfortably hot, so, to ease my feet, I untied the laces. Then a chap came up to me and offered to take over from me with the hose, saying, “Have a smoke and a minute, Yorkie, I’ll take over.” I remember peering over the guard rail and saying, “I wonder how many more are down there.”

All the while I was wondering how much damage and flooding had occurred, for at the back of my mind was the thought of the magazine being near the fire. I remembered an explosion three years earlier, at Bari. I knew if the magazine went, we all went.

I turned and looked aft and saw that our captain, Selby, had taken to the mid-ship’s steering position, taking reports and calmly assessing the situation. He was an inspiration, he was bare-headed and I remember thinking, “What’s going through his mind?” As I looked, I saw something else. Our sister ship Volage, under Commander Paul, was easing forward and I understand she was to take our tow. Then suddenly, I saw a towering column of water and spray spring up where HMS Volage’s bows were, and a dull thud echoed across the water. As it collapsed back into the sea, I saw that the ship’s bows appeared to have simply evaporated away. They had gone right up to “A” gun turret. The for’d mess decks had practically gone and one could see right into what was left.

I knew my worst fears were realized. We were in a minefield. Nobody and nowhere was safe. It was peacetime and these things were not supposed to happen, yet here I was caught up in the smell of burnt flesh, burning paintwork, the keen smell of fuel oil leaking from ruptured tanks and a deck that had been turned into a morgue. We were lying under the guns of the unseen shore batteries, the heavy cruisers’ comforting grey shapes lay out near the Corfu shore and I wondered why we hadn’t opened fire. Maybe they were holding off until we were clear. By now the ship was drifting near to shallower water. Meanwhile, HMS Volage was moving slowly forward. Gingerly, she approached, her speed had to be low, or her bulkheads could have collapsed under the pressure of the sea and no one knew for sure if there were any more mines. Her commander hailed our captain and informed him of his intention to take our tow. A light line was fired from what was left of her bows and this was bent onto the stout, steel hawser.

Now we were to see British seamanship at its best. The towline was secured and Volage, ever so slowly, took the strain. This was the most delicate part of the operation, for a sudden snatch would have broken the hawser. Saumarez was being weighed down by what must have been a few hundred tons of water and she had to be got moving by a ship that was badly damaged herself. Once moving, things became easier for Saumarez, her list had evened out and she was now on a more even keel. The fire that had been burning on the sea was by now gradually subsiding and the ready-use shells and ammo on B gun deck had been ditched, for fire had caught up there, too. By now the horror of what had happened became even more apparent. Some men had been trapped in the T.S. room when the steel bulkhead door had buckled. The fire had incinerated them and it had been impossible to get them out in time.

A small launch had put out from the port off our starboard beam and contained two or three men in uniform. They appeared to be officers and hailed us. They wanted to know why we were there. Commander Paul told them, in no uncertain terms, to get out of it. I forget what he said for sure, but I did hear that he had threatened to blow them out of the water with his Bofors.

Searching as far as possible in the for’d quarters had been concluded, no further survivors were there. Meanwhile, fire-fighting was going on and we were getting weary. Shock and the need for rest was becoming apparent, men and officers had done their best and would do so until they dropped. I had felt this action weariness before, sometimes a cigarette and a mug of “Ki” would bring a new liveliness to a jaded spirit.

Soon help came from other ships. The Ocean’s launch came alongside and the wounded were lowered as tenderly as possible into Ocean’s boat. Now Ocean’s fire-fighters took over, they were a well-led, efficient crew.

Most of the ship’s company, not needed, were now taken off. Several of us volunteered to stay aboard with our skipper and we were given the biggest tot of rum I’d ever seen, as well as several blankets. We lay down near the blanket-shrouded forms of some men who had died, while all the time Volage was slowly towing us back to Corfu. Some officers had gone to help organize things on the carrier and all who were not needed rested or co-operated with the Ocean’s fire-fighters.

Our “Jimmy”, Commander Gueritz, was a good and efficient organizer and his insistence on a smart and well-trained crew had been a godsend that had stood the ship’s company in good stead.

Chapter 40
 
I awoke to full daylight back in Corfu anchorage, and the ship was soon tied-up to the repair ship. The Yeoman of Signals came round now and a quick roll call of all who were safe and well was taken. I wondered if the tragedy of the Corfu channel had been announced on the BBC news bulletins.

Forty-four men were to be the final tally of deaths, most in Saumarez. I remember feeling sorry for the relatives who would get the telegram announcing the loss of loved ones. My wife saved all kinds of documents and among them are the telegrams from the war and the Corfu incident. I often look at them, more so now that she’s gone.

Many of us fully expected our guns to have flattened the shore batteries, once we were towed out of range, but it was not to be. Men trained to action and the ability to hit back had to suffer the frustration of silent guns, because the politicians had not the stomach to give the order to open fire and avenge the boys who died. To think of it still fills me with bitterness. The service I had loved had to suffer this humility.

A boat approached Saumarez. It was the Admiral come to thank us for our work. Tired men, bleary-eyed and scruffy in stained and damp boiler suits came to attention in salute to their Admiral. The Admiral immediately ordered us to stand at ease, and I recall the concern in his eyes and voice as he passed down the small, ragged line, shaking hands with all and giving a few kind words as he looked his men full in the eyes. In a way I felt sorry for him, too. Two of his ships had been seriously damaged, with heavy casualties, many of them conscripts. Really, no one could have foreseen that any country could have indulged in such treachery as the mining of an international waterway during peacetime, yet his masters at the country’s helm could not allow him to use his power in return. Only he could know his feelings.

After the Admiral’s visit, a boat came and took us over to the carrier Ocean. We were given a hammock, new boiler suit, towel, soap, toothpaste and some underwear- the navy always made sure of your toilet requirements. The hospital ship Maine arrived at Corfu to take our wounded under her professional and specialised care. Some of the badly burned injured had a black crust on their skin and they said some even had a maggot or two under it, saying it was beneficial to the healing process. About then, I heard Bill S. and Taffy B. had died. Bill, of the “no mail” problems and Taffy, my sparring partner had gone, only then did I realize how very lucky I’d been once again.

We had a service aboard HMS Saumarez, led by a Padre and Captain. Officers and men mingled like a large family, most in their working fatigues, it was in memory of the boys whose bodies would never be recovered and who had no known grave. A few tears showed on cheeks showing a greyness of the events of the last few days, so it was that we left our ship and somewhere down below our shipmates. I also attended a funeral in Corfu cemetery of men who had died and whose bodies were recovered.

We were now transported to Malta after wishing the lads on the Maine a quick recovery; we were billeted in old stone barracks. Morning used to bring us a treat in the form of the Royal Marine Band who would play a stirring march after colours we felt like V.I.P.’s.

We heard that 25 mines had been swept up by an escorted flotilla of mine sweepers and on examination were found to be a powerful type of ex German mine, still new with their mooring cables still coated with grease. It proved without any shadow of doubt it was a new and deliberately laid minefield, laid by Enver Hoxhas’s Albanian Government. What seemed strange at this time was that we hardly heard much on the news about this tragedy and I spoke to people including ex-navy men who never heard of it even today.

HMS Saumarez eventually ended up towed to Malta. Someone said they were going to rebuild her for’d half, they’d blown half of her away by placing a necklace of charges round the end of the damaged area, her picture in the Malta Times looked as if they’d done a good clean job of it but she was scrapped. Eventually we travelled by sea to Toulon and overland to Calais first; they omitted this.

We survivors eventually travelled by ship to Dover and onto our respective depots. I arrived in Plymouth and barracks and leave. It was about this time, a man showed me a trick for getting extra leave. It involved using a type of erasing ink, and French chalk the pay book. I’ll go no further, only to say my wife wondered why I was getting all this leave for I had a week or two extra.

The Winter of 1947 was one of heavy snow and a keen frost and caused me my last bout of naval punishment. Through late trains and frozen points, I was 14 hours 45 minutes adrift and suffered stoppage of leave and pay. I remember spending three hours before a roaring fire with the shunters at Cudworth station waiting for a connection. It was a bit galling knowing I could have spent it at home.

I joined the battle cruiser Renown on 14th January. She was laid up in reserve at Devonport and anchored out in the stream. I was appointed to take charge of the firemain pumping system and see to the fresh water supplies for the ship’s company. I worked on a 24hr on and 24hr off system. It gave me ample scope for shore leave and writing home, mail was now more frequent and regular, I had a newfound friend aboard, a Geordie by name of Andy Cooke, a stoker mechanic like myself.

We had fun with the Chinese nationalists who were aboard for training, sometimes in off duty hours we would take an old sock onto the upper deck and stuff it with waste to be used as a football and two or three of us would play a game of football on the fo’castle. We used to play in our heavy boots while they had a fad for playing in plimsolls. We used to get howls of laughter as they hopped about if a heavy boot came up against the vigorous tackle of a Chinese plimsoll.

One day after returning from a week’s leave, I happened to pop into a sailor’s meeting establishment in Devonport. “Aggie Westons” and one of my shipmates happened across me. He had news that filled me with optimism; he informed me he had seen an A.F.O. saying Regular Navy ratings could apply for release to coal mining if they had previous experience. Back aboard ship I made immediate enquiries and what should have been pinned up on the notice board somehow was mysteriously produced. I knew the Navy was short of regulars and suspect it had been conveniently mislaid. This was my chance. I thought it over again and decided to put a request in to leave the service for the coalmines. I thought how nice it would be to live a real civilian family life away from the risks of active life in the service, for I had the feeling I could get in some more sticky situations. I wrote to my wife and she seemed a bit lukewarm about me being a miner again and I think she didn’t fancy me walking up the street covered in coal dust, and thought I should stay on, for we used to fancy living in Plymouth where I might get a job on a tug or in the dockyard.

The tragedy of the Corfu Channel certainly upset my future plans, for I might have stayed on in the navy and who knows to what heights I might have soared, but then my luck might have seen me aboard Amethyst up the Yangtze, for she was a Devonport ship if I remember rightly. I duly put my request in for release to coal mining and it was soon granted.

One day as I was taking in water from the water lighter which had moored alongside, and was having a chat with the tug man before he cast off. I was interrupted by a voice by my side. It was the engineer commander of HMS Renown and he said, “Fancy Russell, giving all this up to go down a coal mine.” It was a lovely sunny day and he must have been wanting me to change my mind and I remember pointing out to him my experiences and telling him I was a family man now, and nothing could change my mind.

The Navy was very short of regulars, due to war losses and men’s time being up after the war, and if they could, they would have kept hold of me. I was given a date for release and I had a last binge ashore in Devonport, getting drunk and regretting it next morning. My shipmates helped me to get my gear down to the boat amid wishes of good luck and a few jokes, a more serious handshake with Andy.

Two days were to pass before I eventually arrived in Pompey and went through the task of trying suits on and shirts and a trilby hat. I looked at myself in the mirror and looked more like a Yankee mobster than an ex-sailor. I packed them away in my case and travelled home in my navy uniform. I had a month’s leave and pay before I started my mining career again, and was allowed to wear Navy uniform till the end of the leave. I wore civvies some days but I didn’t care for that damned rig out and often wore my uniform while I could.

So here I was now a civvy again, I felt a tinge of regret, especially when I finished my first shift at Mitchell’s Main mine, a very dusty warm pit. My job was with the fitters and I had to check on the greasing of the machinery. This was all powered by compressed air due to its gassiness and dust. I worked weekends to make a decent wage and bought a bicycle to go to work on. I was embarrassed to ride on the bus in dirty clothes among passengers dressed up. There were no baths there, so I bathed at home.

I was excited, we were expecting our second child, we were both hoping for a boy and we got our wish in October, so the clock had turned full circle. This youth who had left the dust of the mines to join the navy had gone through a war, had seen lands, peoples oceans, sights, smells, seen fun, and found my dream girl, married, had a family and experienced all the emotions of the human mind: happiness, anger, elation, pride and at times fear and revulsion at some sights I had seen and will never forget.

To some is given the privilege of experiencing and living history, a history which, as I look at my kids and their kids, I hope they don’t have to live through.


Pr-BR