World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                            George Lee 

George Lee's War in the Royal Navy

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: George Lee, Dennis Dronfield
Location of story: World Wide
Background to story: Royal Navy

       George Lee in the middle of the three standing sailors pictured in New York whilst waiting for repairs to ship in New York's Brooklyn Navy Yard


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Marion Graham.

George’s War

Marion Graham

Wartime memories of George Lee who was born in 1919 and lived in Carwood Terrace and later on Petre Street. where his wife ran a grocery shop.

I grew up in Carwood Terrace and went to All Saints School - although I really wanted to go to Carlisle Street School because they had a good football team. After I left school at 14 I went to work as an errand-boy for the chemist on Firvale opposite what used to be the old entrance to the City General Hospital. I was paid 7 shillings a week but I was very keen to get into the steelworks because the wages would be better and my brother-in-law managed to get me a job at George Turton Platts where I was paid 10 shillings a week. When I was 16 my Dad got me a job at Jonas & Colver, where he worked himself, and there I was learning a trade. It was a sort of apprentice kind of set-up - each machine had a man and a lad who was learning to operate the machine. I never got to operate the machine because you had to be 20 years old to do that, and when I was 20 the war started and I was called-up. After the war all servicemen had to be given their jobs back and I returned to Jonas & Colver so I got to follow my trade after all and I carried on doing that same job for 40 years until I retired.

When I joined the Royal Navy on January 2 1940 I reported to Butlins at Skegness! Not for a holiday though! Butlins had become "HMS Royal Arthur" and was the kitting-out centre for the new recruits. We got our uniforms etc and were given a bit of an idea of what it was going to be like to be in the Navy. I remember that I got put on a discipline charge in the first week because I was caught smoking. After a couple of weeks we were all sent to various barracks and I went to Chatham Barracks - I was number CJX1076054 - and the Navy system is that wherever you go and whatever you do whilst you are in the service, you still always belong to your original barracks. And so from Chatham I became involved in the war and to begin with our jobs where quite varied because we were just sent to wherever there was a need - we were involved in evacuations from France and we were part of the TMP which transported mine parts to where the mines were made. We took some parts to a place just near Paris but the war was pretty bad around there at that time and by the time we got through it was too late - everyone was moving west to get away from the German advance and the Army was going north to Dunkirk - there were lots of other pickup points along that coast. The roads were absolutely jammed with people in both directions. We went west and finally got to St Malo and got on an old railway boat there - at that time the railway ran the cross channel boats. The boat was packed full of people. We were very lucky because most of the German bombing was concentrated on the Dunkirk area where the troops were - but one liner full of people being evacuated got hit and sank, somewhere near Brest I think.

We finally got back to England and to Chatham and then I was sent to join the East Mediterranean Fleet - but we could not get in through the Mediterranean because it was too dangerous, so we went by a P&O liner (it was called Stratheden) which was operating on the Australia line and took us to Bombay where we had to wait for a troop ship through the Red Sea to Port Suez and then went by train to Cairo and on to Alexandria naval base. Here I got my first Navy warship - HMS Malaya. We were involved in evacuations from Crete and transporting troops and provisions to and from Italy and Africa. Then we transferred from the East Med Fleet to the West Med Fleet in what was called the "H Force" at Gibraltar. We bombarded Genoa and then went out to the South Atlantic. We got hit by a torpedo which did some damage to the ship but we were in no danger of sinking. However we had to go to America for repairs. The USA were not in the war at that time but through the Lend-Lease Scheme they could do repairs for us. Ours was actually the first ship to go in to the States under that scheme. We called at Trinidad and Bermuda and then on to New York's Brooklyn Navy Yard. We were there for 3 months while the repairs were done. We were still on duty but we did get some nights off. We didn't have much money and we had to rely on local people buying us a meal or a drink. One American wanted to take us to see Joe Louis fight but we could not get the time off. When the repairs to the ship were done we went up to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and picked up a convoy there to come home to England. We actually docked in Scotland and paid-off that ship there (ie left that ship). I was in Barracks then for a little bit and did a Gunnery Course and then got another ship, a cruiser, HMS Liverpool , a sister ship to HMS Sheffield and they were really good ships. We did a couple of convoys with the Home Fleet from Scapa Flow to Russia where we saw people living in very poor conditions - they had money but practically no provisions at all, they would offer us a fistful of money for any food that we might have. It was so cold up there that we had to chop away ice from the decks all the time.

Then we were sent full speed to Gibraltar to take up a convoy for Malta which was the big June convoy ( I think it was called Pedestal). Things were getting really desperate in Malta, nearly all H Force from Gibraltar were taking 5 big transports in an effort to get as many through as possible - I think only 2 out of the 5 got through. We were hit by a torpedo again - but not sunk. We had no power for a couple of days and had to have a destroyer tow us away from the main danger area back towards Gibraltar. Eventually we got back to Gibraltar and were then sent back to England and that ship was "paid-off'.

My next ship was HMS Melbrake, a Hunt class destroyer - the ships in this class were all named after hunts in the country (I think ours was named after the hunt in Cockermouth in Cumbria). We were sent to Plymouth Base where there were about half-a-dozen of these ships, and we just had to keep everyone out of the Channel and keep going across to France and the fighting did get a bit naughty then. We had a near miss when a shrapnel bomb (an anti-personnel bomb) left holes all down the side of the ship but did not do a great deal of damage - but one man, a cook down in the galley, was killed by the shrapnel. When we were going back and heading towards Portsmouth there was a ship heading the other way and it signalled to ask if we were OK and then after we had answered that we were alright, there was another signal asking if I myself was alright! It turned out to be from Dennis Dronfield who was a neighbour from Carwood Terrace and I did not even know that he was in the Navy. He had obviously been told which ship I was on before he had left home! I sent a signal back to say I was OK and arranged to meet him in Portsmouth if possible. But I did not manage to see him and in fact 1 only saw him again years after the war in Hillsborough Park when our kids were playing football!

Eventually we had a bad direct hit on our ship. The bridge and the wheelhouse were completely destroyed. On a ship that size in some situations all of the officers would be involved either on the bridge or in the wheelhouse and practically every one of our officers were put out of action that day. There was only an Engineer Officer and a Gunnery Officer left, and the Doctor was OK too. We went back to port for repairs and new officers and then it was D-Day and we were escorting the Yanks across to Omaha Beach and when we got through our position was just outside a little fishing village (Port-en-Beston) and we had to see that no-one went in or out of there. We had never seen a sight like it - it could never happen again. The sea was absolutely packed full of ships but I am certain that the Germans did not know we were there until it got light in the morning and we saw them coming out of a pill-box on the sea-wall and they started running about like mad when they saw us all there. The Yanks ran into a lot of trouble at Omaha, they were great but nothing went right for them and they lost an awful lot of men, but we were out of the trouble. Say what you like but without the Yanks we would probably never have won the war. If they had not come in when they did the war would have gone on and on and we would probably not have had enough men or equipment to keep on going. From then everything started moving east and the Channel was clear and we started getting ready to go out east too. But the war with Japan ended and we were sent back to Chatham and got demobbed from there.

Sometimes conditions were really bad. When people talk now about a rough crossing on the ferry to France it always makes me think of the time that we had to take our ship's doctor across to another ship which had a crewman with appendicitis. Six of us were in a rowing boat and the sea was so rough that our boat was being lifted on the waves so high that we were literally almost reaching the deck of the other ship - which was very high indeed. When we had managed to get the doctor on board we had to just wait there until he had examined the patient and we were going up and down like a yoyo. Even without such bad conditions, there were some men in the navy who were always very seasick - one chap actually started being ill every time we left port and was unable to eat anything hardly until we got back!

I feel that I personally had more than a bit of luck during the war. I had seen people nearby get killed or injured. Two of my mates were buried at sea - one of them was wrapped up in my hammock.

My service with the Navy officially ended on Christmas Day 1945 - there could not have been a better Christmas present - it was good to be home.

As told to Marion Graham, his niece, April 2004.