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Wartime memories of a young E.R.A. - Part Three

by bedfordmuseum

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
bedfordmuseum
People in story: 
Mr. Herbert J. Luscombe
Location of story: 
Plymouth, Devon, 'The South Atlantic', Gibraltar, Freetown, Sierra Leone, Bathurst, Gambia
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A8958612
Contributed on: 
29 January 2006

Part three of an edited oral history interview with Mr. Herbert J. Luscombe conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

“The Bideford was a sloop, what they called a sloop, a small escort ship. They call them Frigates now but of course they are a lot bigger now - she was only a small boat. There was only one Chief on there and four or five of us. It was tough. I went as the Third Watch Keeper but of course I wasn’t qualified I was only acting fourth but that didn’t matter in those days they just shoved you into it. We were in Portsmouth for quite a while completing repairs. Just before we went, just before we got there they give Pompey a real hammering with the bombing and all outside the dockyard - all round there was flat. We were there for a couple, three or four weeks I don’t how long we were there quite honestly. Anyway we took the ship out and took her to sea and we left with a full crew and we called into Plymouth, during that time I was away, they’d flattened Plymouth! And the place where we stayed at, Aggie Weston’s was bombed out, absolutely burnt out and if I’d l been still there Charlie my friend and I would have been in that place I’m sure. Well, actually when he used to come up with me to go home, he used to go home with me overnight and things like that and he’d met this girl up there. In fact my girlfriend had this friend, because I had a car I could use then, and we used to go out with these two girls and he was still going up when I left, to see this lady, so he was lucky he got away with that. Then we left Plymouth we were only in for about two or three days. I know I didn’t have time to go home because my girlfriend came down to see me in Plymouth. I think we were there for three days and then we left for Liverpool.

There was a terrific difference in size between the Repulse and the Bideford. Of course I liked it, I volunteered for small ships the rest of my life. I was on small ships at sea all the time that I was at sea. So we left there and went and to Liverpool and started our convoy duties. We used to come down, the first ones were running to Gibraltar but there were few escort ships then, we used to go to sea with two little Corvettes who were smaller than us and us with goodness knows how many ships. They were cargo boats you know Merchant ships. So we used to go way out in the Atlantic and go South on our own with this lot, just the Bideford. The two Corvettes used to go back because they didn’t have any food on them, they had no refrigerators so they used to go out with us for three or four days, I can’t remember exactly and then they’d go back and we’d be on our own with them. The only escort. But we used to go way over in the Atlantic so I don’t think we had any trouble on those first two or three trips. We would zig zag all the time, we went way West and then come down and come in then we’d get picked up by two more Corvettes way out from Gibraltar and go into Gibraltar. They came out to meet us. We did that for a while and then I can’t remember the date exactly I’d probably have to look that up but it doesn’t matter really but whilst we were in Liverpool I did my exam to be Confirmed into the Navy. You had to do a Confirmation exam, to pass your engineering and that. There was a chap going for his Chief’s rate at the same time as me and he went with me to Liver Buildings in Liverpool, that was the Admiralty place in those days. He took his Chief’s exam and I took my E.R.A. fourth class exam and luckily passed it!

But before I’d done that I was doing Watch Keeping on my own because the first few days I suppose a week, maybe a bit more the Chief used to come down with me when I was on Watch. And he’d wander off and come back down again and see how I was getting on and so I was Watch Keeping on my own after a couple of weeks. So I was the E.R.A. of the Watch even though I wasn’t qualified. I wasn’t even fourth class E.R.A. I was still acting fourth but that was just the way things were then, they had to push everything, so we were Watch Keeping.

One of the big jobs I was on was when the Yanks and our people invaded North Africa on the West end of Africa, it was when the German Army was retreating and Eisenhower came over and he was in charge out there. (Convoy of Troopships for Operation Torch that took place on 8th November 1942). We took the big convoy out for the Invasion of North Africa on the West end of Africa, Algiers and that sort of place. There was a huge convoy - because for ages we’d been in Londonderry waiting for orders for the next shift and all these convoys came back and all the escort ships piled up in Londonderry, there were loads of them, the jettys were all full. Then suddenly we all went out and picked up this huge convoy and took them down to Gibraltar, the Troop carriers and all the supplies. When we got into Gibraltar and started going through the Destroyers took over - we were too slow to do the Landings so we come home.

We picked up some survivors once. One particular one sticks in my mind. I think that was when we were going to Gibraltar. We picked up an aircrew, because they were Coastal Command, they got shot down and we picked them up. They stayed on board all the way Gib and all the way back. We had two in our Mess with us. That was very interesting, we used to play cards, we robbed them blind! It was good, it was a change.

Then we finished running into Gibraltar and started going to Freetown, West Africa that was a three week run. We used to go the same way, out in the Atlantic and then we began getting extra ships with us, a couple of others, three of us would do it for escorts. We went to Bathurst (Gambia) and Freetown, I think Bathurst first we used to go to and then Freetown. Oh, it was hot out there.

For a couple of trips we come out of Liverpool and then we moved to Londonderry and we were based in Londonderry (shore base HMS Ferret) and then of course the escorts began building up. I mean there became more and more Frigates, they were building ships. We had some old Destroyers there as well but then the Frigates began to come through and we had more ships and we finished up with about, I think it was six of us in a group. You’d have a senior officer and all the others. We used to do these trips, it used to take us three weeks to get down there and three weeks to get back. We used to stay in about a week while the convoy gathered up. We’d bring one convoy back and take one convoy out, bringing back the Merchant ships and the oilers, the tankers. When the oilers blew up it was terrible! Oh, we lost a lot of ships, you’d loose more than half of them sometimes. It used to go on for hours. They used to pick some survivors up but usually one of the other ships, not the escorts, not very often anyway. I think in the end they used to have a sort of a tug in the convoy and that used to be Rescue Ship as well and used to pick up as many as they could but when a tanker went up nobody got away with it. I suppose they had ammunition ships as well.

Of course we used to work three Watches all the time, four on and eight off all the time at sea of course. We had to have ASDIC because that’s the only way and our only defence was depth charges you see I mean we had a couple of guns but they were only poky things, Lewis guns and that sort of things.

We were on that for quite a while on the Atlantic convoys and then — I’m just trying to think of the date — 1942 — I know I went on leave — I can’t remember. I got married! Well it was all arranged by her or her family. I think I had seven days leave. We used to get seven days leave almost every other time we came back because they used to clean the boilers every time we came back and one lot used to do the cleaning and the other lot used to go on leave.

They were only little things to what I’d been used to of course. The main engines on the Bideford were hardly as big as the generators on the Repulse. All the machinery was there but small amounts, we had one evaporator, two generators and things like that and only two boilers of course and they were little tots of course, everything was small, everything was smaller. I mean it was a big difference. The Watch, we did four on and eight off and in the evening, but we split what was called the ‘Dog Watch’ so that you didn’t stay on the same Watches all the time. Every day you went on a different Watch because otherwise somebody would be on the middle Watch which was 12 ‘til 4 everyday, that sort of thing so we used to swop round, so you knew your next Watch. In the Merchant Navy they did the same Watch. I mean the Junior Engineer always had the middle Watch and the First Senior one always used to have from four to eight which was the easy one, also he’d be the senior one so he’d have to run the ship as well. Watch Keeping was OK, you get used to it. But once you became Chief E.R.A. on a small ship you didn’t Watch Keep you were Senior Engineer like the Officers were but you still had an Officer. On the Repulse we had a Commander E and then you had a Senior Engineer Lieutenant Commander - but on the small ships the Chief E.R.A. was in the Lieutenant Commander’s position because the Engineer was the senior one on board in the Engine Room Department, whatever rate he was. Then the Chief took over, he run the job. The Engineering Officer was there of course and then there were a lot of Stokers and Stoker P.O.s and Chief Stoker. But of course one of the jobs that the E.R.A.s did as well was the flooding thing. All the magazines had flood valves in them so if you had a fire in a magazine you had to flood them, didn’t matter who was down there, you open the floods. Luckily I never had to do that. But on the Repulse they must have done it because they did. My pal, Frank who had joined the Service with me, he was in the Training Division with me, he was still on the Repulse when she went down but he got away from her. He was in a lower workshop and how he got out I don’t know because that was down half way where they had the explosion. I never met him again but I knew he got away because he was on Singapore and he got away on the last ship out before … he was lucky!

On the Bideford we had what they called ‘Canteen Messing’ were the Mess Man, we always had a Mess Man to look after us and we had an old boy to look after us, he was over 50 and he was a good cook. So he used to prepare the meals and take them up to the Galley and of course they supply you with — you got your meat free I think and your vegetables and that but you had to buy any extra’s like bacon and eggs and things like that. But you had an allowance for the Mess to pay for your food, what we called Canteen Catering and one of you in the Mess was the caterer. Stripey would have to go up and down the ladders with the food. He came down it one Christmas Day with a turkey and all! You get used to it you walk up and down these ladders just like that. But Stripey was a good bloke except when we were in harbour and you never saw him then - he was ashore all the time.

We had the upper deck to walk on because on a small ship there were no restrictions really where you could go. I mean on the big ship the Quarter Deck was the Officer’s and that sort of thing like we had our own deck and the men used to walk on the other ones. But on the small ship it was different altogether, it was like a big family really, everybody knew each other. A lot of the chaps were very good really, you had to be, you had to get on otherwise on a small ship it wouldn’t work. Oh, yes we were all pretty well friends, I mean you get the odd one that didn’t fit but you had to live together. I mean we were living in a place smaller than this room, you had room to sling your hammocks over the top. And that was something they used to do was to leave their hammocks up in some ships but I never allowed it when I was Chief, they had to take them down. But it was a very small place you know.”

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