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15 October 2014
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I was There! Where? Chapter 4 - H.M.S. Cossack (The Naval Autobiography of Alec Kellaway)

by Paul Bevand

Contributed by 
Paul Bevand
People in story: 
Alec Kellaway, Cecil De Lara, Commander Sherbrook, Captain Philip Vian
Location of story: 
Southampton, Scapa Flow Rosyth, Reykjavik
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A8421509
Contributed on: 
10 January 2006

This article, presented here in 8 chapters plus an introduction, is the naval autobiography of Alec Kellaway. Alec served in the Royal Navy from January 1936 to November 1947. His story shows what life was like training for the Navy immediately before the war as well as service in a wide variety of ships during the conflict. The book was written by Alec himself and has previously been published on the HMS Hood Association web site (www.hmshood.com) and in the HMS Cossack Association newsletters.

I was There! Where? Chapter 4 - H.M.S. Cossack

Fleet Destroyer

Launched: 1935
Commissioned: 1937
Lost at sea being hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat, 1941

Displacement: 1,870 tons
Two turbine engines producing 44,000 HP
Top speed: 36 knots plus
Fuel capacity: 500 tons

Length: 355 feet
Beam: 36 feet
Draught: 9 ft

Armament: 8 - 4.7" guns and 4 21" torpedoes

A crew of 226 plus

I joined her in April 1940 and left in April 1941

On the 30th April 1940 I was told to get a medical - drop trousers and cough — then collect my belongings as I was drafted to HMS Cossack that was arriving in Portsmouth that day. I was joined on this draft by another stoker Cecil De Lara who was to be a good mate of mine, he unfortunately was lost when the Cossack was torpedoed.

Cossack was a destroyer that had been badly damaged during the second battle of Narvik. The Cossack’s motorboat met us at the dock and conveyed Cecil and myself aboard. The first sight of the ship astounded me; about five heavy shells had hit her from German destroyers, which had damaged her steam system and with the engines temporarily out of action had run aground. However the engineering staff with the help of some Norwegians - one Olav Rothli who was later captured by the Germans I met in April 2001 - managed to get things working and the Cossack returned to Portsmouth under her own steam. Olav was sent to a prison camp for being in possession of a radio, had it been known that he had assisted the Cossack he would in all probabilities have been shot.

Cossack was lying on a buoy and was discharging her ammunition, as she had to be dry-docked for extensive repairs. I presented myself to the Chief Coxswain who handed me over to the Chief Stoker who on getting my details allocated me to number three boiler room for day work and watch keeping duties. I then found out to my good fortune that Cossack was going into the hands of J I Thorneycrofts at Southampton for repairs, which would take several weeks. This was a bonus as I lived at Eastleigh, four miles away. There is very little for a crew to do while a ship is in dockyard hands for repair, so on reaching Southampton half of the ship’s company was given leave. I being a newcomer had my leave later. It was decided that as extensive repairs had to be carried out the remaining half of the crew would be accommodated on the Sterling Castle, a Union Castle Liner being fitted out as an armed cruiser. This was excellent as the ship was very spacious and the meals were superb. One evening there were only two of us for supper and with the meal we were given a very large portion of cheese —the ration for about sixteen -, the two of us decided that as we were going out for a few beers we would take the cheese with us, this proved fortunate for us as the Landlord in the first pub gave us our beer for the evening in exchange.

In the early days at Southampton night leave was given to the non-duty watch, leave expired at 8.00am. However there were numerous ratings returning after 8.00am which meant that there were many defaulters. The commanding officer, Commander Sherbrook, who later won the V C while attacking a German cruiser while Captain of H M S Onslow a destroyer, on investigating these late arrivals realised that there were transport troubles. He cleared lower deck of the remaining crew and said he appreciated the transport difficulties, he would extend the leave until 8.30 am and God help anyone who was late. This cured the problem very well

While under repairs there was an uproar in the stokers mess, in that one of the stokers was a communist and was handing out communistic literature, this did not go down well with his mess mates for at this time there was a Russian German alliance, it so happened that feeling in the mess got to the stage where there could have been a serious incident, the stoker in question was taken before the senior officer on board and warned that he must keep his views to himself.

After about four weeks the repairs were getting near completion, the crew returned to the ship for accommodation and storing and general cleaning was started. Eventually all repairs were completed and after trials Cossack proceeded to Scapa Flow. Cossack being a Fleet Destroyer was normally found escorting ships of the main battle fleet. At times there were convoy escorts to be done; this was a vital duty protecting merchant ships from German U-boats. It was not long after returning to the fleet that Cossack took over leadership of the flotilla. Captain Philip Vian who had previously taken Cossack into a fjord and rescued the British Merchant Sailors imprisoned on the German supply ship Altmark relieved our commander. Captain Vian had just lost his destroyer the Afridi sunk by German dive-bombers.

On one operation Cossack in company with two cruisers and other destroyers left Scapa to try and assist one of our submarines, which was in difficulty having been attacked by German escorts. As we neared the rescue area two Bristol Blenheim aircraft that were giving us air cover were shot down, the crews managing to land in the sea. A rescue operation was made and the airforce men were recovered. I was told that during the rescue two German fighter planes circled the area and did not come into attack until the airmen were safely on board. After a while the Germans left the scene, perhaps out of ammunition or short of fuel.

It was realised that we could not save the submarine. The ships returned to Scapa. On our arrival Scapa was fog bound; the Admiral decided to carry out fog exercises. During this exercise HMS Imogen, a destroyer, was rammed by a cruiser, eventually sank with several of her crew. Search was made for survivors and after several hours the ships entered Scapa after a very unsuccessful operation.

Operating out of Scapa the Cossack seemed to run into foul weather, some of the most mountainous seas possible. This proved a boom to the crew as the ship was at times severely damaged and had to be dry-docked for repairs, which in turn gave us a few days home leave.

These mountainous seas could prove fatal to some crewmembers. On one occasion a small motorboat stowed on deck broke loose. Three Seamen POs ran to secure it, at the same time a heavy sea hit them and they were washed overboard. Two of the POs were swept away but the third was washed back in board. A search was made for the two POs in the sea, but alas the heavy seas made this impossible and the two were lost. On another occasion the Captain’s steward was taking a meal to the Captain — who had a small cabin on the ship’s bridge, as the ship’s captain never left the bridge while at sea during war time — when the ship had to alter course and turned the lee side of the ship into the weather side. A huge wave swept into the ship and unfortunately the steward was lost over board.

Shortly after joining Cossack I was to be promoted and had to attend Captain’s request men. On being called to the table the Coxswain read out that First Class Stoker E. A. Kellaway was to be rated Temporary Acting Leading Stoker. Our Captain had not heard of a temporary rate, it was explained to him that the temporary rate was a war time measure and I could be reverted to Ist Class if the war ended before my permanent rate came through. Captain Vian on hearing this said ‘That’s pretty disgusting, request granted.’ I was rated up.

I now took on new duties mainly in the engine room, day work and watch keeping. Watch keeping in harbour consisted of looking after the turbine generators, evaporating plant and the auxiliary condenser system. Watch keeping at sea meant looking after the above and assisting the Engine Room Artificer in operating the controls to the main turbines driving the propellers. A continuous log of events had to be maintained during heavy manoeuvring leaving harbour and during action stations, the Chief ERA would man one throttle and the duty ERA would man the other. I would record every order that came from the bridge telegraph to the split second. In a destroyer these telegraph movements could be numerous.

Returning to heavy seas, at Christmas 1940 Cossack was ordered to leave Scapa and carry out some task. As we cleared Scapa we ran into some very severe weather. On the day before we sailed we had taken on some new Second Class Stokers for their first ship.

Now on destroyers provision for meals was the canteen mess system. The food and ingredients were issued by the ship’s supply ratings. This consisted of dry tea, sugar and evaporated milk. Rations of butter, bread, potatoes and fresh veg when available were purchased through the stores and NAAFI for which an allowance of money per man was supplied by the Navy. From these purchases and supplies each mess would prepare its own meals and the ship’s cook would do the necessary cooking.
On the day we left Scapa it was decided that steak and kidney was the main meal, after breakfast the Stokers off watch would peel the potatoes and prepare the pie with pastry top, this was presented to the ship’s cooks for cooking. At half past eleven the meal was brought from the galley, plates were laid to enable the twelve o’clock watchmen to get their meal on time. On cutting into the pastry a terrible smell escaped from the dish; this was caused by the kidneys on being prepared and cut into diced pieces had not been washed and still contained traces of urine. The new Stokers had never been involved in canteen messing and really did not have experience of providing meals. What with the heavy seas running and the smell from the pie there were more seasick stokers than usual.

It is surprising that seasickness will always be with some people and yet they endure it and carry out their duties, I raise my hat to them. Anyway after a day at sea the Cossack was recalled to Scapa it appears that a cruiser should have been sent on the operation and not a destroyer.

On one occasion the Cossack in company with other destroyers was escorting a battleship into the Atlantic when during the hours of darkness action stations was sounded. Every one went to their respective action stations. It was reported to us that two large ships had been contacted and we were to intercept and attack if necessary. There was quite a heavy sea running and the destroyers with Cossack in the lead made as much speed as possible towards the two unidentified ships. All the time we were approaching these ships the Captain was giving the crew a report of events over the tannoy system, such as speed of approach, distance from unidentified ships, challenge by lights identify yourselves, challenge again, no answer, prepare to fire torpedoes and stop action. The two ships were the battlecruiser Hood and the battleship Barham. How close they were from a torpedo attack and how near we were from being blown out of the water; all things returned to normal.

During one period at sea the Cossack developed an electrical problem and while the artificers were rectifying this it was left to the Engineer Commander and myself to man the engine room. This we carried out extremely well considering there was no ventilation owing to the electrical fault. The Commander and I stayed at this until the electrics were repaired. We were then relieved and were very thankful after the heat we had endured which was very intense. On reaching the upper deck we stood gasping in the fresh air with a sigh of relief. The Commander said to me that was a job well done ‘B-------‘, come to the Wardroom for a drink, which I gladly accepted. Many months later in Naval Orders, ‘B……’ was mentioned in dispatches.

Once while at sea which was exceedingly rough with the ship being thrown all over the place, I had gone to the stores to collect the dry stores for the mess, tea, sugar and tins of milk. These commodities were put into a tin chest for safe storage. As I carried this chest along to the mess I had a job to stay on my feet because of the erratic movement of the ship. On reaching the mess deck hatch I lowered myself onto the ladder and called to the men below to steady me down. I then progressed about two rungs down when the ship gave a violent jump, which threw me off the ladder, and the tin chest passed me by after slicing my nose. Apart from having three stitches in my nose no other damage was done.

The Cossack was transferred from Scapa to Rossyth for operational duties. On one operation we left Rossyth on a mission using secret intelligence reports from the admiralty. Cossack with three other destroyers sailed from Rossyth under the Forth Bridge on this assignment but as we cleared the bridge on line ahead the last ship was damaged by an acoustic mine and had to return to Rossyth. The three remaining destroyers with Cossack in the lead proceeded towards Norway reaching a channel that had been swept by German mine sweepers and at about twenty minutes to midnight we went to action stations, as we expected that about midnight we would meet a German convoy of about three transports and two escorts.

Now my action stations as a Leading Stoker was on watch in the engine room, off watch with the air compressor number one boiler room, longest off watch in the tiller flap for emergency steering control. When action stations were called I went to the tiller flat as I was the longest off watch. The Cossack and her companions were steaming in line ahead and then turned to fire torpedoes. The Cossack heeled over so much that the first torpedo struck the ship’s side followed a course aft of the ship and hit our rudder putting the steering out of action — a self hit — lucky only minor damage was done. Our main armament of 4.7 guns were engaging the convoy when my relief Leading Stoker Slinger Woods took over in the tiller flap. I left through the bulkhead door and slinger reported by phone to the bridge that he had taken over from me. As he held the phones to his head a piece of shrapnel struck his upper arm and sliced it through to the bone. By this time the destroyers had rounded the German convoy and escorts, finally sunk them and at 00.21 the three destroyers were on their way back to Rosyth without further incident. It had taken twenty minutes from the start to finish, the action over giving us a buckled rudder, self inflicted and one injured Leading Stoker who after several weeks in hospital returned to the Cossack. Slinger had only been back a few days when I was recalled to Portsmouth to go to Coastal forces.

At one time in harbour Captain Vian did a crew inspection and on looking over the stokers department tapped me on the shoulder saying “get your hair cut I do not like woolly bears on my ship” it was lucky for me that the inspection was informal, on a formal inspection I would have been put on a charge.

During my time on the Cossack I had only visited Portsmouth, Southampton, Scapaflow, Rossyth and Reykjavik in Iceland. Not many places for nearly a year on board although I did endure many stormy seas and my experience was gained although my boiler room work had not advance at all. I had been recalled to RNB to join coastal forces because earlier I had volunteered for service in motor torpedo boats. I left Cossack on 17th April 1941. While in transit to RNB my confirmation to permanent Leading Stoker had come through. So I had not only lost my temporary but my acting rate, I was now a full-blown Leading Stoker.

Alec's Story continues in Chapter 5 - Coastal Forces

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