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The Life of Ethel Jenkins Chapter 5

by Peter Jenkins

Contributed by 
Peter Jenkins
People in story: 
Ethel Irene Jenkins, Edwin Jenkins and colleagues, Capt. Tothill, the Jenkins children
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 May 2005

5 Hayling Avenue

My husband, Edwin Jenkins, had joined the RN's Boy Artificers in Portsmouth in 1923. We were married in 1932. After various postings, he returned (from South Africa) in January 1939 and was stationed at Portsmouth barracks. We bought an end of terrace house in Hayling Avenue, Copnor, on the eastern side of Portsea Island, about a quarter of a mile from the sea. The massive price of £740 was more than we could afford, but we lived simply, and somehow we managed. It was to be our home for the next twelve years.

The main thing in everyone’s mind at this time was the grave international situation. When the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, returned from Munich at the end of September, 1938, with the promise of “Peace in our Time”, there was a huge general feeling of relief. Of course it was not to last. Mr. Chamberlain has been vilified for his sell-out of Czechoslavakia, but Ed always maintained that the eleven months that the Prime Minister thereby bought were vital. He always said that the level of activity and preparation that he saw undertaken by the Navy in the first nine months of 1939 was greater than all he had experienced in his fifteen previous years in the Service. He believed that without this preparation, the Navy would have been unable to effectively resist invasion by Hitler.

Ed had initially signed on for twelve years in the Navy. He would like to have left after that time, but as the prospects for him obtaining other work were not good in 1936, he decided to sign on for another ten years. He and his friend Stan Barton, who lived quite close to us in Portsmouth, were recommended to apply to become officers. Stan did so and rose to the rank of Commander. He tragically suffered the loss of his first wife early in the War, when their house took a direct hit, while Stan was away.

Ed knew that he would be worse off initially as an officer, since the upper deck were not paid married persons’ separation allowance. He decided that with a wife and two children to support he could not afford promotion and so did not apply, but remained a Chief Petty Officer. As war was on the horizon when his demobilisation date arrived, he extended his service for another six years.

Because Ed had not yet been posted to a ship, he was ashore for the birth of our third child in January 1940. It was a home birth, as I had been too late in booking a place in a maternity ward. Having two sons already, we were dearly hoping for a little girl. But it was not to be. When the midwife informed me that I had another son, in my disappointment I told her to put him in the cot next to my bed. It was a bitterly cold night, and the midwife told me not to be so ridiculous; the baby needed the warmth of his mother. So reluctantly I took him in with me. Our house was heated only by open fires, and I had run out of coal, which was, of course, rationed at this time. My mother severely upbraided me for this lapse till I explained that I had ordered the coal long ago and was awaiting delivery. She informed my family and friends, and they all brought me 9d (3¾p) bags of coalite instead of flowers. What it is to be spoilt! All, that is, except my friend, Mrs. Beaver, who brought me red tulips; how she managed to do this in the middle of January I don’t know, but the flowers brightened up my bedroom for a good two weeks.

Ed went to sea again a fortnight after Peter was born, and, apart from a short break on compassionate grounds in the autumn of 1940, he was not to see the children or me for almost three years. His ship, the destroyer HMS Janus, was newly built, and Ed travelled to Wallsend on Tyneside to join it at its launch. Ed, now aged 31, had been promoted to Chief Engine Room Artificer, the youngest in the Navy at the time, so I was given to understand. Under Captain Tothill, the Janus proved to be a very happy ship. Despite his twenty-six years of service, Ed did not enjoy being at sea, and said that the Janus was the only ship on which he was happy. As Chief ERA, Ed was able to have the ERA’s mess as he wanted it from the start. It was decorated with attractive pictures — but no pin-ups! — and no one was allowed to go into it in overalls. When a fellow CERA, Hector de Gruchy, from another ship, saw the mess, he was amazed and delighted. But when he tried to do the same on his own ship, his shipmates, used to a different regime, would not stand for the changes. Sadly, Hector went down with his ship later in the war.

The Janus was posted to the Mediterranean, and Ed was soon to renew his acquaintance with Malta, then under enormous pressure from the Axis air forces. It was dangerous for ships to stay in harbour longer than absolutely necessary. Ed later told me about one time that the port was being attacked as the Janus was berthed. He said that as he was cowering in shelter near the poop, with shore guns and those of the ship blazing upwards, Captain Tothill was standing in the open, pointing out where the various clusters of bombs had landed, many of them too close for comfort. Shortly afterwards the Janus and two sister destroyers were leaving the island line astern, the Janus in the middle. Suddenly there was an enormous explosion as the ship in front struck a mine. It sank immediately. Ed said the Janus did not deviate a fraction from its course, sailing directly over the site of its stricken companion. Ed told me how he comforted a new junior Tiffy, who was in an understandable state of terrified panic, by explaining that the course the ship was taking was undoubtedly the safest one.

The Janus was nearly sunk, at the hands of the French just after France had fallen to Germany in June 1940, after which, for the next couple of weeks, to allow individual French ships the choice of coming over to the Allies, the Allied forces were instructed not to fire on French vessels unless there was clear cause to do so. 'The War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943' describes the action thus: “In Beirut were two ‘super-destroyers’ (Guépard and Valmy) together with three submarines. On the coast were Vice-Admiral King’s flagship, Phoebe, the ubiquitous Ajax and a scattered force of ten destroyers. These were initially forbidden to fire on the French but, when the latter slipped out to bombard forward Australian positions, things changed. Having let go sixty rounds, the French headed back to the north, only to run into a dispersed group of four British destroyers. Though a decade older, the French ships had twice the displacement of the British units, several knots’ advantage in speed and, importantly, five 138 mm (5.45 in) guns apiece. The British were considerably embarrassed when the French not only chose to fight but also to do so from the answerable range of 17,000yds (15,500m). The leader, Janus, was heavily hit by five shells and brought to a halt, whereupon she was covered by her sister, Jackal, which laid smoke. Keeping the range to a minimum of 11,000yds (10,000m), the French satisfied honour and loped back to Beirut with the two older British ships, Hotspur and Isis, puffing along behind. All survived the day, but it could have gone badly.” Ed never forgave the French for what he saw, perhaps unfairly, as a predatory and callous act.

After Captain Tothill had received reports of the massive damage his vessel had suffered, especially from the fire, he considered whether it might be necessary to abandon ship. I met him at a Naval dance in Portsmouth after the War. He approached the table where Ed and I were sitting, and, after we had exchanged greetings, said to me, “But for your husband’s equanimity, we could now be in Davy Jones's locker. Your husband also told me, ‘I think we can fight this fire, Sir.’ And we did.” Captain Tothill then asked me to dance. I don’t think there has ever been a time that I was more proud of anyone than I then was of my husband.

Anyway, back to the war. They got the Janus’s fire under sufficient control that she was not in immediate danger. Ed was able to raise steam with one engine, and the Janus limped to Alexandria, which had been suffering the attentions of Italian bombers for some nights, and that night was no exception. The city’s lights were blacked out, but, with the burning Janus clearly identifying the harbour for the attackers, Captain Tothill put to sea with all the speed his crippled vessel could muster. The Italian bombers at first followed their illuminated target, but happily the ship survived. On the way back to port the next morning, the Captain asked for volunteers to retrieve the bodies of sailors trapped in the magazine, which he thought might be in danger of exploding. Ed led four men and carried out this grisly task. They discovered the magazine flooded, so that there was in fact little risk. He told me that a greater danger had occurred earlier, when sounds of life were heard coming from an area of the ship that had also suffered direct attack and that the Captain had put out of bounds. Knowing that if he sought permission to go into the area it might be refused, Ed took two volunteers to investigate and found survivors, who were brought to safety. One of them needed to have a hand amputated urgently. There were no anaesthetics, as the medical supply room had been destroyed and all the surgeon’s supplies had been used up. The sailor was dosed up with rum, and Ed had the task of holding his hand while it was removed. He said that this was his worst experience in the whole of the war.

When the Janus was finally brought to port and had its fire extinguished, it was evident that the ship needed major repairs before it would be fit for active duty. It was decided that half the crew should stay and help with the refit, and the remainder be transferred to other ships. Both Ed and his fellow CERA and very good friend Jack Mintram would have preferred to stay with the Janus.

An entry in Ed's notebook, presumably referring to a time before the French attack, clearly demonstrates his admiration for his Skipper, as well as his friendship with Jack:

“Later. Commander Tothill (a paragon).

We went into Alex for a boiler clean — normally about 2 days.
The Commander sent for me and said, ‘I think you should have a couple of days off.’ I said, ‘Well yes, but with a boiler clean I’m afraid I can’t manage it.’ The Commander said, ‘I know, Jenkins, how you are dedicated, but you must take a break.’
I talked this over with the Engineer Officer, who was a first class nit, and said, ‘If I took advantage of the Commander’s offer, I would like Jack to be with me.’ This was unthinkable, because Jack & I were (we thought)…”

There the entry ends. One may conjecture that the next word should have been “indispensable”, and it would be nice to think that the parenthetical “we thought” means that nonetheless both CERA’s were somehow able to take a couple of days’ leave together, but that is no more than guesswork.

As senior CERA on the Janus, Ed had the right to choose to stay with the injured ship, but, aware of Jack’s similar wish, Ed suggested that they toss a coin to decide who would leave. Jack guessed wrongly and transferred to the HMS Jersey. She was sunk by a mine in the entrance to Valletta harbour, Malta, in May 1942. Thirty-four of her crew perished, including Jack.

Ed was able to have a couple of weeks’ compassionate leave in the late summer of 1940, while the Janus was being repaired. With three boys to look after and the stress of the air raids, I was feeling very depressed, and a WREN officer had come to assess my situation. I think she was surprised at the spick and span condition of my home, but she must have recommended that Ed be given leave, and I was overjoyed to have him back, even for such a short time.

One of the actions the restored Janus was involved in is described in 'The War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943': “At about noon on 15 April [1941] aerial reconnaissance reported a loaded, southbound convoy near Cape Bon [in Tunisia]. It comprised five merchantmen (four of them German), escorted by the large destroyer Luca Tarigo and two torpedo boats . Known as Force ‘K’, the four British destroyers (Jervis, Janus, Nubian and Mohawk), under the command of Captain P. J. Mack, sailed immediately. By dint of hard steaming they intercepted the enemy off Sfax in the small hours. Three of the cargo ships were sunk by close-range gunfire, the remaining pair being run on to the Kerkenah Bank. Outnumbered, the escort fought back, Tarigo catching Mohawk with two torpedoes: a third passed beneath Jervis. Daylight found Mohawk bottomed aft in seven fathoms but with her forecastle still buoyant. The torpedo boat Baleno was sinking in deep water and her sister Lampo was on the bottom in the shallows. A convoy had been effectively annihilated and over 1,750 of 3,000 embarked troops drowned.” A number of the crew of the Janus were decorated for the part the ship played in the sinking of the Tarigo. Ed was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. While he was proud to have been honoured in this way, he disclaimed any special credit in the action concerned, and said there were many more events of particular danger that he had been involved in. I also remember him describing how they took survivors of the action, both British and Italian, on board. One Italian had no shoes, and Ed went off and found him a pair. When a colleague asked where he had got them, Ed replied, “From one of the stiffs laid out in the mess.” Gruesome!

In 1943, nearly two years later, Ed received the card below. I still have it in my possession.

C.E.R.A. E. Jenkins,
R.N. (handwritten)

(Official seal)

You are expected to attend a Presentation of
Medals at Buckingham Palace at 10.15 a.m.
on Tuesday, 23rd February, 1943.

Presentation of
Medals, 11 a.m. Service Dress

Ed let me know that members of his immediate family were also able to attend. Excited more at the opportunity of seeing Ed than of visiting the Palace, I booked two nights’ accommodation at the Union Jack Club in London. Leaving Geoff and Peter with friends, I took nine-year-old Alan with me to the Palace. It was a wonderful occasion in a beautiful reception room, with all the servicemen resplendent in their dress uniforms and medals. As I recall it, Queen Elizabeth presented the medals, with King George VI at her side. To my very great disappointment, Ed did not appear.

It transpired that the ship on which he was then serving, HMS Glasgow, which I think was involved in escort duty with convoys across the north of Russia, was in port at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands at the time. An officer due to receive an award was taken to the mainland, but Ed was not released. He may have been “expected to attend”, but his skipper had other expectations of him! Ed was understandably bitter about there being one rule for the Upper Deck and another for the Lower, and said that if the powers that be considered him worthy of the decoration, they could damned well send it to him through the post! And that’s what happened. The award that he received, the Distinguished Service Medal, carried with it a monetary benefit, either £100 immediately or 3/6d (17½p) a week for life. Ed chose the latter, reckoning that it would at least provide his family with a loaf of bread a day. Clearly he wasn’t allowing for inflation! While he was proud to have been chosen to receive the honour, he always said that he had done nothing in particular to deserve it; that the Janus had been allocated a number of awards for its part in the action, and that it had just been a matter of luck that he had been one of the crew selected.

Ed continued to serve with the Janus until August 1942, when he was given a few weeks’ home leave. He was then posted to the cruiser HMS Glasgow. While with the Glasgow, he learned with much sorrow that his beloved Janus had been lost, blown up when hit in the magazine in an attack by German aircraft at the landing at Anzio, Italy, in January 1944.

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