- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Able Seaman Hubert Eric Hancox
- Location of story:
- Scapa Flow, Mediterranean, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Australia and The Pacific, based in Sydney
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 October 2004
I am a volunteer working for the BBC's People' War Project and am writing this story on behalf of Mr Hubert Hancox.
My name is Hubert Eric Hancox. I was born in Worcester, the second child, but eldest son of James Hancox and Ada Florence Hancox (nee Cooper). I was given the name Hubert (Bert), the name of my mother's only brother who was killed as a teenager working on Stratford on Avon Railway Station before my parents were married. Very few people call me Hubert, although I have lived as Bert all my life, I prefer the former.
I suppose my lifelong enduring love affair with the Navy really dates back to about 1927. I was about 4 years old at the time, and on holiday in Weymouth with my sister, mother, grandma, and one of my aunts and a boy cousin. During that particular holiday, like many others, we took a boat trip to the Fleet Anchorage at Portland. Amongst other ships at anchor there was the "pin up" of the fleet, the mighty HMS Hood. What a magnificent ship, and what is more, we were allowed to go on board. I remember little of the occasion except that in a photograph album I am seen being held shoulder high by a sailor. To the day my mother died in 1970, a picture of HMS Hood hung on the wall of our home. From that day in 1927 it was always my ambition to be in the Navy.
My father was wounded in the First World War and eventually re-habilitated as a boot and shoe repairer. He started his own business and was quite successful, but died in 1937 when I was 14½ and I had to leave the Technical School immediately, serve a short apprenticeship and take over the family business.
I was 17 years 10 months when World War 2 broke out.
Prior to the Navy I was an Air Raid Warden for several years.
Shortly after my 18th birthday, with my age group, I registered for National Service (Conscription). Soon afterwards with many others I was called for a medical, and aptitude test to determine if I was fit enough for the forces and state a preference of which I would like, if given the option. At the same time I had to apply for a deferment of call up, as I was the only breadwinner for my mother and 5 siblings. For 2½ years every 6 months I had to appear before a local tribunal for a further extension. The last occasion they couldn't grant any more and I had to go before a tribunal in Birmingham. They said "No more", you are just the sort of chap we want in the Pioneer Corps mending boots (my trade then). I thought 'No way' so I caught the next train back to Worcester and immediately volunteered for the Navy.
Because of my deferment of call up, I was still in Worcester when my first wife (Doris)was evacuated with her Company "Reckitt @ Colman" here after the HQ offices were bombed in 1940. Thus it was that this sophisticated young lady arrived at our church one Sunday. It was months before I plucked up courage to ask her out and we became good friends. She didn't exactly tell me I was wasting my time, but she left me in no doubt she never wanted to live in a back water like Worcester. At one time she packed me up after having 2 weeks in London and eventually she was called up for the army and went away. Once, with her mother whilst on leave, they came to stay with a mutual friend, and they all called in at the shop to visit my mother. After finishing work, I washed and changed and walked them home and was reprimanded for not answering a letter she had sent me. We did correspond after that and became engaged shortly before I was called up too.
I know she was a clerk stationed at Wanham Manor, a large country house near Redhill, Surrey. What she did was top secret, but I believe was ordering supplies, ammunition, etc for the D Day landings. Doris must have been 18 or 19 when she came to Worcester, as I remember sending her a 21st birthday present after we had parted and her acknowledgement must have been the letter I failed to answer.
So it was on 18 May 1943, my ambition was realised and I reported to "HMS Collingwood" at Fareham, Hampshire for initial training.
Thus followed the usual joining routine - dentist, doctor, inoculations and the dreaded barber. Even though I had a very short back and sides cut a few days before, it didn't spare me the fate of my classmates, the razor over the top, which to add insult to injury you had to pay for. Next was the collection of uniform and the packing up of all your civilian clothes to post them home (free). Apart from the times of square bashing and daily lectures etc the time passed almost unremembered, except frequently having to climb the rigging as a race, last one down to do it again quicker. On one occasion everyone on parade had to don respirators and climb it again.
One night an enemy bomber, en route, had a bomb spare and dropped it on the camp in the adjoining group of wooden huts next to ours. A number of lads who had joined up a week or so after us were killed, and never got to serve on a ship.
After the initial 6 weeks training at Fareham, my classmates and I moved to a holding camp, under canvas in woods outside Havant (an overflow for the Navy Barracks, Portsmouth) to await a draft to a ship. Firstly, we had a week's leave, then afterwards, were taken by coach to "HMS Excellent" the gunnery school at Whale Islands, Portsmouth for eyesight tests to determine if we were more suitable for anti-aircraft, or the bigger guns. I was selected for the latter, and shortly after arrived at Whale Island to begin another 6 weeks course. All this new class obtained good marks and we became QR3s. We were asked to stay and do a further shorter course to qualify in ordnance, ie to be able to help maintain the various types of guns on ships. Again we all passed and awaited our drafts to various ships in the fleet. Mine was to a cruiser "HMS Black Prince", but I didn't pass the medical this time as a hernia first discovered at Fareham had got worse and thus I ended up in hospital 23 December 1943 and had an operation the next day. I was moved to a large house, a temporary hospital at Horndean, Hants, near Rowlands Castle between Havant and Petersfield. A month later I went on sick leave for a month and, as I was consigned to light duties for a further 3 months, that is when Doris and I decided to get married on Easter Saturday 1944 as I expected to be around shore based for a while. Soon after returning from a 4-day honeymoon, I received another draft chit. Happily I went to see the Medical Officer again to get it cancelled, only to be told I could do light duties aboard a ship.
Thus is was, after an overnight journey to Liverpool I arrived on board, not my dream boat HMS Hood, but one of the beautiful successors to that deeply mourned ship, "HMS King George V", at that time in Gladstone dry dock. This proved to be my only ship and my home for the next 2 years.
WHERE DID I GO: The ship recommissioned after the refit in July, and shortly afterwards we sailed up to Scapa Flow, the fleet anchorage north of Scotland. This was followed with regular trips into the North Sea, turning a crowd of men into an efficient crew. Gun drills, anti-aircraft mock attacks firing at targets etc. It was at this time we encountered some of the roughest seas I ever experienced. Early November, we were ready to start our journey for the Far East, calling at Plymouth where everyone was given embarkation leave of 3 days 8 hours in 2 watches. I went to Earlsfield where fortunately my mother and youngest sister happened to be, as I wouldn't have had time to get to Worcester. As soon as the second watch returned from leave, we made a hasty return to Scapa as it was thought the German battleship "Tirpitz" was about to make a dash into the Atlantic to attack Convoys and we and other capital ships were to intercept and sink her as had happened to the "Bismark". It was a false alarm, and late one Saturday night, we anchored off Greenock (near Glasgow). Early next morning we started to ammunition ship etc before going for a late breakfast and changing into our best uniforms to welcome the King, Queen and 2 princesses aboard. We formed up by divisions to be inspected by the King, followed by 'Hands to Dinner' and change again into working rig to continue taking on stores and ammunition. The Royal Party walked around the ship talking to some of the crew whilst we worked, then in the gathering gloom left the ship. 'Splice the Mainbrace' was signalled from their launch (an extra tot of rum for each crew member).
Soon afterwards we sailed calling at Gibraltar, en route for Malta, where we stayed a week. Next we arrived at Alexandria, went out to a bombardment of the island Milos off the coast of Greece to destroy the heavy guns interfering with shipping in the narrow channel. After again returning to Alexandria, we soon passed through the Suez Canal, into the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, arriving at Colombo briefly before moving around the coast of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to Trincomalee. This was a beautiful anchorage, surrounded on 3 sides by trees down almost to the waterline. This is where we spent Christmas Day, and it was also where I received news by EFM (emergency forces message) that my son David had been born and both mother and baby were doing fine. The news was well celebrated in a suitable manner!
All good things come to an end and soon we were back at sea, but this time as escorts to the aircraft carriers, whose planes were attacking the oilfields on Sumatra around Palenbang. Several times we had to abandon strikes as the weather was so bad the planes couldn't take off in the mountainous seas. Eventually, after several days trying, the attacks were carried out. Some of our planes did not return, but a few airman were rescued from the sea, having either run out of fuel or been damaged by enemy action. The Fleet was attacked by Japanese aircraft but were driven off by 'ack ack' fire and patrolling fighters. The same types of targets were attacked for several days. Then, instead of returning to port in Ceylon, we sailed south, crossing the Equator with the usual traditional naval ceremony for the uninitiated before arriving at Freemantle to a true Australian welcome. Every man on board received a box of goodies, mostly things we hadn't seen for a while, like fruit and Cadbury's milk chocolate etc. A few days later we sailed around the coast to another rapturous welcome in Sydney, which was to be our main base for the next year.
Soon we sailed north into the Pacific, calling at Manus (Admiralty Island), a forward supply base, we then supported the Carriers attacking Sakishima Island. After several days of similar action we were called in to do a bombardment. Every few days we would withdraw from the strike area to meet the fleet train, oilers supply ships etc. Eventually, KGV and some destroyers went to Guam, the HQ of Admiral Nimitiz (US Navy Supreme Commander Pacific) for our Admiral to be briefed on our role in future operations. A few days later we sailed to Manus to take on fuel for our return to Sydney, for rest and repair etc. This didn't last long and soon we found ourselves supporting American landings on Okinawa with the Carriers and us doing some bombardments.
Eventually we moved further north and with the American fleet started softening up the Japanese mainland with air strikes and further bombardments. We had to put back to deep waters to ride out a typhoon before returning to our task. Then, the first atom bomb was dropped, to be followed a few days later by the second. The Japanese surrendered and the was ended.
Our ships provided a platoon ready for landing parties, of which myself and Joe (my second wife (Vera)'s first husband) were members. After several days on an American landing type ship, we went ashore to occupy Yokosuka naval base, quite near Mount Fujiyama, a glorious sight from Tokyo Bay where KGV was then anchored for several weeks. The landing party returned to the ship after a week or so, and the crew often lined the guard rails to cheer the Carriers loaded with the released British and Australian prisoners of war, although some were in hospital ships.
Eventually we returned to Sydney, later took the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester (the then Governor of Australia) to Hobart, Tasmania, before we called into Melbourne for a few days. Christmas Day was spent with my adopted family in Sydney, and on 7 January 1946 we called at Freemantle, then on to Capetown to pick up bars of gold bullion to transport home. Next was Freetown, West Africa, before arriving back home in Portsmouth in March 1946.
SHIP CONDITIONS: A strong bond was formed by shipmates through shared experiences, particularly so amongst old messmates. The ships of my day were built for fighting, not for the comfort of the crew, and to get to my mess deck, we had to pass through several other seamen's messes and climb over partitions (breakwaters) about 2 feet high, installed to assist damage control. Our mess was perhaps the area of a medium house room, and was the home for 14 men. It consisted of a table fastened to the wall at one end and a bench seat each side. Some lockers helped divide it from the next mess and each man had his own locker, his only bit of privacy. A rack for cups and plates etc and a drawer for cutlery (the only furniture). There were overhead bars for slinging the hammocks, in which we slept in the cooler areas. In the tropics, hammocks were too hot and chaps slept anywhere, on the table, benches, floor or, if you were fortunate as I was, on a camp bed, which I used in a passageway. Sometimes I would sleep in the Ordnance workshop and ocasionally, like many others, would sleep on the upper deck when at anchor in the tropics.
Our ship, a battleship, had a crew of around 2,000 and one didn't know everyone, but your own messmates became close. After all you lived, ate, relaxed in off duty hours, and slept in the confined space. Several of us worked together in the gun turrets too. Unlike the Army where they had the opportunity to mix and visit the area they were in, or go for a walk to be on their own, the ship's company were your constant companions for the 3 months or so we were at sea.
It is good to meet up with your old mates, and to an extent relive the days of our youth. We had, and still enjoy a good laugh, often our wives say we thought you were supposed to be fighting a war, which of course we were.
Most of us did come home and, as in life generally, one tends to remember the good times.
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