World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                         Norman Seal 

The Life of a Seasick Sailor

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: The Life of a Seasick Sailor
Location of story: Warsop, Portsmouth, Atlantic, North Sea
Unit name: H.M.S. Jason
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 Norman Sea.

The Life of a Seasick Sailor

Norman Seal

When the second World War broke out I was almost nineteen years old and although I was working in a coal mine which was a reserved occupation, I volunteered for the Navy
Never having left Warsop on such a long journey before, the whole trip down to Portsmouth was magical, especially travelling on the tube through London, and rushing from side to side in the carriage to watch the bombs explode as we neared Portsmouth. This was H.M.S. Victory in August 1940.

Later on in another raid, I saw a girl running along the pavement ahead of me decapitated by a sheet of glass blown out from a shop window. There were underground shelters in Portsmouth barracks but the water came up to our ankles as we sat there, so most of us went out to "Aggie Weston’s", a cheap lodgings for sailors. During a raid I was awakened and as I looked around the chicken wire that surrounded my bed, I saw by the light of a torch little dark insects crawling about four deep up my bed. They were bugs, and even though I killed many of them, they still kept coming, so I got back into bed with them.

I passed my trade test and became an Engine-room Artificer. Eventually H.M.S. Jason, a small sloop came into harbour, and I was sent to join it, together with some stokers. It was raining as we went aboard, and this happened every time I went to another ship, after that. Anyway there was no guard on duty so we wandered along the deck lifting up these metal lids as we passed. Each was in darkness until one emitted clouds of tobacco smoke, so down we went.

Inside was dimly lit, and hair was lying where a barber was at work. This was the stokers' deck. Further along was a square hole in the deck leading to a ladder, and I was told that was my Engine-room Artificers' mess. Saving myself a journey I dropped my hammock through the hole, and to my surprise heard a roar from down below. It came from my Chief E.R.A. who was about to ascend the ladder. I could not see what all the fuss was about, it being just a roll of canvas and a blanket. I paid for it later. We were leaving harbour, and Action Stations was sounded and being keen I shot up the ladder wearing my hobnail boots. Unfortunately my chief was behind me and my boot slipped off the rung on to the one below. He was very upset when I landed on his hand, especially as I should have been in softer shoes. From then on I was given the worst jobs, like working up the ship's funnel, or on the bows of the ship especially during bad weather.

During the winter of 1941 in an Atlantic storm some sailors were injured by swinging doors. I once more slipped on the ladder, grabbing wildly at the deck I missed, falling flat on my back. Even this was not as painful as the Chief cancelling my leave. More damage ensued, a power-boat was torn from its base and thrown overboard, and our guard in the bows a thick steel wedge shape was twisted out of shape by a wave coming over the deck. On our return to port we found relatives gathered around the dockyard gates, because Lord Haw-Haw had broadcast that the Jason had been sunk in the North- Sea. I spent the first six months being seasick, and working for my promotion through various grades of E.R.A., from Leading Hand, to Petty-Officer, and Chief Petty Officer, which I became in April 1942. During this time I was on constant service crossing the Atlantic and E-Boat Alley in the North-Sea. I was awarded the Atlantic Star medal in December 1943. After that although I went on other ships and finally on Landing-Craft, I began to enjoy the motion. There was an occasion when I was sick in the seamen's tea- locker. By now I had three good friends; Ted who was put on to the cruiser H.M.S. Sheffield, because he was so ill with seasickness, but I never heard from him again. I think he was killed when the ship was going to Russia carrying gold bullion but it was sunk, and the other two disappeared after the invasion began. One of these was Jim Humphries.

Our time taken escorting convoys from mid Atlantic to Sheerness in Britain was about three years. Crossing the Wash on our return was always difficult. Sailing down the river Thames there be so many ships sunk there, their masts looked like telegraph poles both sides of the river. In the Wash, E-boats moored next to sunken ships to avoid being seen, then attacking the convoy, firing shells and torpedoes. If a cargo ship was hit, it usually broke up in the middle and bow and stern would meet and sink. If a tanker was hit (usually at night) it sent a mushroom of smoke and flames into the sky. Their crews had to swim below the flaming water until the came to a clear patch. Many had their heads burned off, but if they were not in the flames they usually died when we picked them up from oil poisoning. Out in the Atlantic we were attacked by submarines or long distance bombers. But more often when we attacked with depth-charges we collected stunned fish. I climbed on to the main deck after checking the propeller shaft, only to find a depth charge on fire. I hurriedly closed the hatch, thinking I would rather not see what happened next, there were enough gunners to deal with it. Anyway it was rolled over the side.

At times the sea was smooth like a mirror, but in contrast the sea would almost lie flat when the gale made it lie down, and dragged out white foam from what should have been the tops of waves. This was always followed by masses of water being scooped up, making long deep valleys through which ships would thunder, squealing and groaning like a human in pain. We could see for miles from the top of a wave and then next, a gleaming green sheet of water towering over us which thundered away into a dark valley. In the Pentland Skerries, even without a storm, foaming currents run in all directions.

Our ships forged slowly ahead at about nine knots, their bows thrusting out of the water, and then their propellers thrashing in the air. At times the middle of the ships were unsupported.
Although keeping closer to the East coast in Britain kept us in quieter seas life was no easier. A destroyer called H.M.S. Vortigern often came with us, but as we were mooring in Rosyth we noticed that all their gear was still on the dockside; and when we asked where she was, we were just told, She did not come back. Only a few years ago I found that she had sunk near Cromer and only one body found.

A year after this sinking, a beautiful new ship called H.M.S. Pintail came out to join us, I think from Harwich. We plodded along over a mirror-like sea, the sun glittered and flashed from the water as she glided past us. We were so envious of her power and grace. Suddenly she speeded up, and carving white wings of water, she cut across our bows. There was a huge explosion and she heeled on to her side, still cutting through water, with a white wave curling over her decks, ripping off depth-charges, and men like cotton reels and dolls, like a dying animal, and then NOTHING! Everything vanished! There ahead of us was the mirror-like sunlit sea, but nothing else. We were stunned.
Then suddenly the scene changed, becoming macabre. Bodies came to the surface. Not exactly complete men, but parts missing, and entrails floating after some bodies. It was pitiful. It still flashes into my mind and it hurts. Time does not heal.

We guessed she had hit a mine which was in our path, but to vanish like that, seemed impossible. This was so different from picking up survivors who were coughing oil out of their lungs, hauling men who were still alive inboard- but even then a body would float past and too late, an arm would go up. At another time one of our seamen slid down a rope into the sea, and dragged a man up but got stuck so he sank his teeth into the rope whilst being dragged inboard. He had lost some teeth because he was bleeding at the mouth.

My Action-Station positions were in the engine-room, in the boiler-rooms, where we were battened down by steel hatches whist at Action Stations, only being allowed on deck if the captain gave the order to abandon ship, (and someone remembered where we were), or lying under the forward gun with a row of magazine flooding valves before me. If there was a fire I had to flood the magazines regardless of who might be down there. During one attack when I heard bullets rattling along the deck towards me, I laid flat. Then there was an explosion. Some time later I came round in darkness, and people were rushing about. My head hurt and I felt a kind of numbness in my back. Carefully I felt behind me and to my relief I felt a large book, not a hole. A bomb had exploded near the ship dislodging the book, and the deck hit my head as the ship lurched. We lost one man who was manning the open quarterdeck Twin Lewis guns.

We now had a period of damage when all the electricity failed, so that not only were we in danger from ordinary mines, and Sonar mines, but also Magnetic ones too. Living and working in those conditions where there was no way of getting clean air to any part of the ship, except by sucking it through the boilers (and even one of those was out of action), gave us all terrible headaches. We were put into the dock for repair and sent home on leave.
Whilst being back in Portsmouth barracks we heard of a new force called Combined Operations, where promotion to officer rank was pretty fast. Four of us volunteered, only to find out later it was into Landing Craft where the Marine Commandos were. They were losing a lot of men hence quick promotion. We were issued with a new badge which was made up of a Thompson sub-machine gun, a pair of wings and anchor, superimposed over one another. We were told not to fix it too well on our sleeves, so that it easily came off if we were captured, because we might not be treated very kindly. The next step was written tests and an interview with four Admirals. At this interview I overstepped the mark. One of the Admirals asked me how I would deal with an emergency in a ship's boiler room. When I told him he raised his voice and said, "You are only a damned boy." At this I felt annoyed and told him I had been in charge of not only the boiler rooms but also the engine room for two years at least. Then I walked out thinking I had made a right mess of things, but I was called back and told to get my uniform of Sub Lieutenant R.N.V.R. and I would receive my documents later! This was now October 1942.

The invasion of Europe took place after lots of practice with various Landing craft. I had about a hundred L. C.A., L. C.M., L. C. V. and Landing Craft Assult. Whilst this was taking place, we were despatched to India where we began to build up the invasion force to attack Japan. I eventually had about five hundred minor landing craft and a few swimming tanks plus miniature submarines. The idea was to leapfrog around the coast getting to Japan. This was 1943, and now I was a Lieutenant. I became Chief Engineer of Landing-Craft base Bombay. It was a bad time to be in Bombay because of the riots. The Indian Air force was in rebellion and some of the Indian navy too with their guns trained on to our base. I had to take stokers etc. to control an Air force base, and we were only armed with sticks! When the commandos appeared I was very relieved. When the Atom bombs were dropped, they stopped what would have been a very difficult task.

After helping to dispose of craft and much equipment with Brigadier Ralph Sassoon I came home and was released to Z Reserve on November 28, 1946.