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RNVR HMS Wanderer and HMS Indomitable (1941-45) Part 2

by Robin Marie

Contributed by 
Robin Marie
People in story: 
Graham Oakes Evans (Pop)
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
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Contributed on: 
31 January 2006

HMS Indomitable: Working-up [date? January/February 1943]
The massive HMS Indomitable was completing a four-month refit, and so received an all-new crew. As Gunner A, I was responsible for a team of Fleet Air Arm Armourers and munitions, my action station was by the ammunition conveyors.
The Air Group was made up of forty Supermarine Seafire from three fighter/reconnaissance squadrons; 807 (Seafire Ib), 880 (Seafire IIc), and 899 (Seafire IIc), and fifteen Fairy Albacore forming the strike force was 829 Squadron. All of the Seafire were stowed in Indomitable's upper hangar and could only be taken below using the forward lift, as the after lift was too small for the non-folding wings. Aircraft were to be manoeuvred along the hanger deck on a trolley system, which ran on tramlines designed to maintain a clear-way through the hangar deck, but it was not always possible in these cramped confines. Armament stores were 0.303-in machine gun bullets and 20-mm cannon shells. The Albacore, whose wings folded back along the fuselage, were housed in the (smaller) lower hanger. Armament stores were 0.303-in machine gun bullets, 1,610-lb. torpedoes, Depth Charges, 250-lb. and 500-lb. bombs of various application types.
During the working-up in home waters off of Scotland a number of official photographs were taken by the Royal Marine photographer, from on-board, and in the air by hitching a ride in the TAG seat of an Albacore. I was given a number of these photographs that began a collection of my time aboard. A great occasion was recorded on film on 16th March 1943 whilst at anchor in Scapa Flow, when HMS Indomitable received his majesty the King. Upon completion of our monarch's inspection the order was given to, "Splice the main brace."
In war or peace the flight deck is a dangerous place, and a Rating was unfortunately killed as he accidentally backed into an Albacore's turning propeller on 28th April 1943. He was buried at sea with honours in his No.1 dress as is tradition, although this caused consternation to his parents who expressed they should have received his best uniform amongst his affects.
The navy's publicity department wanted to show the versatility of the carrier force and requested a night fighter photograph. The result was a shot of a Seafire pilot sat in his closed cockpit, illuminated by his instrument lights, apparently on deck and poised for another night sortie take-off. Reality was a posed rather than poised shot, taken during the day below decks in the fighter's hangar aboard HMS Indomitable, whilst working-up. The picture still being published to this day with the "official" description. Real nocturnal operations were undertaken when necessary.
Between the exercises we allowed some recreation, and fitness related activities were encouraged. I thoroughly enjoyed deck hockey, which would be played on the flight deck, and was also captured on film. I had played and taught field hockey at various levels before joining up, so I took part in deck hockey whenever possible throughout my time aboard Indomitable, from the temperate to the tropics.

Operation Husky, (Rear Admiral Lumley Lyster's Flagship HMS Indomitable), the Sicily Landings July 1943
At around a quarter past midnight on 16th July I had come off Damage Control Watch below, and just got into my cabin when there was a great thud. I picked myself up and opened the cabin door into the corridor just as a naked man rushed past, followed by another. We made eye contact and the fellow (I think it was Engineering Officer, Lieutenant Tolfree?) stopped in his tracks, "My wallet!" he exclaimed, turned around and rushed back to his cabin to get himself sorted out. There was a lot of damage to control now, so I dashed to my action station as the ship began to list. I got to my action station at the top of the magazine near the conveyors to the forward guns to see a small steward already wrestling open a hatch to pass ammunition by hand. We had been torpedoed by an aircraft, and there maybe more attacks. We listed very seriously, because water got into compartments of the ship of course, and the more she listed the more water she took, and the more water she took the more she listed, but it just happened to stop, for some reason or another. She was then able to slowly right herself again, and we just steamed back to Malta. I was told that Captain Grantham took the calculated risk of counter-flooding to get the ship on an even keel, in doing so he had flagrantly disobeyed the Admiralty who believed that "letting water into the ship is exactly what the enemy intended," but saved Indomitable from the fate that befell Ark Royal in 1941. Indomitable had been torpedoed by a German [Ju88] aircraft during the Fleet's own airborne attack, and so had appeared to the guard ships to be a returning friendly aircraft, you see. The torpedo struck roughly mid-ships on the portside, below my cabin, it tore a 30-ft. (9m) hole on the waterline stretching aft, it should have been a mortal blow.
We went into Grand Harbour, Malta's primary port surrounded by the capital city, Valetta, which had suffered a most ferocious blitz by German and Italian forces. We dropped the anchor and I think almost everybody just seemed to sort of sit down and drop off to sleep wherever they were, from the strain of it! I couldn't, my team's next task started immediately.
In order to reduce hazards whilst emergency hull repair work was undertaken, Indomitable's munitions stores had to be unloaded into a lighter (barge). I was required to supervise the unloading from aboard the lighter. We knew that it was just a question of when the enemy would try to finish us off, and we were making good progress, then the air raid sirens wailed. I looked up to see Captain Grantham peer over the side of HMS Indomitable at the lighter alongside and give one clear order;
"Cast off!"
The lines were immediately slipped and the lighter given a hefty shove-off. In an instant I received my first Royal Navy "command", which just happened to be the most unpopular, un-powered, and highly volatile vessel afloat. Sat atop the pile of approximately 300 tons of high explosive, aimlessly wallowing around the harbour in indifference to other traffic and the full scale air raid above. Every ship in Grand Harbour cursed the presence of both, but were thankfully only firing at the latter. I assessed my situation, with shrapnel dropping in the surrounding water, reaching the definite conclusion that if I didn't "get-it" now, I would certainly see out this war. Despite some hairy moments, neither the lighter or the Indomitable were hit.
Between raids Grand Harbour bustled about its business despite being littered with shipwrecks, their shattered superstructures and masts jutting out of the water all around. Amongst the earnest supply chains, bomb damage and other battle stains, the Maltese children could be seen playing on the quayside engaged in their version of tag. The game had few boundaries, with frequent excursions into the harbour water. The children would come running along the quay, and without breaking stride, some would leap into the air and tuck into a perfect dive, before hitting the water around the various craft. I remember the children were happy and laughing as they played, delighting onlookers with their resilience to the situation and their amazing diving exploits. It was a simple illustration of why we had to carry on.
Going ashore across the harbour in a Dhjisia [?] one day, my seasoned companion demonstrated the custom of tipping the Maltese boatman once at the destination. The boatman looked at the coinage in his open hand, but did not clasp the contents or pass comment. Stood in his boat alongside the quay, he majestically swung round, without adjusting the attitude of his arm, and gently rotated his wrist to allow the coins to slide from his hand and drop into the water. Without a word the boatman then made to depart. We suddenly realised that the pre-war amount that had been tendered was now frankly insulting. In the midst of the harbour devastation this was such a dignified repose by the boatman, but we managed to satisfactorily remedy the error before he left the quayside.
Malta is still hot and dry, but was much less developed in the 1940's and supplies were very low. The people were friendly and resilient. I recall that traditional Maltese dress was still widely worn, particularly, though sadly, the black dresses and distinctive headgear of the widows[?]. The Fort of St. Elmo, overlooking Grand Harbour, was the Royal Naval Hospital.
The enforced visit was to be as brief as possible. Once the main damage had been patched it clear HMS Indomitable had to go to dry dock to receive more extensive repairs. It was I think, decided we were going to go to America, [chuckle] so we went. We sneaked across to America with a skeleton crew. I don't know if we went alone or not, there must have been a couple of destroyers that came across with us, but I don't recall.

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