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15 October 2014
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The Story of a War Hero

by ageconcernbradford

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Richard "Dick" Key
Location of story: 
On board HMS Birmingham and H.M. Submarines
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
09 August 2004

HMS Birmingham & Richard "Dick" Key

This story was submitted to the People`s War site by Alan Magson of Age Concern Bradford and District on behalf of Georgina Key and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site`s terms and conditions.

His name was Richard, known as "Dick" Key, and I was married to him for almost 51 years.
He joined the Royal Navy in 1937, and at the tender age of 16, he was sent to a shore-based establishment, known as HMS Ganges. In 1938 he was overseas, serving in Hong Kong.
He was "mobilised for hostilities", as it states in his service papers, on 18th September 1939, two weeks after war was declared on Germany.
He joined HMS Birmingham on 18th August 1940 and served aboard her until 30th September 1942, when he attained the rank of Petty Officer.
One can imagine how he and his fellow sailors (and airmen and soldiers) lived from day to day in a state of high tension, nerves and total apprehension of the terrors they would undoubtedly be facing in the near future as they went to war!
I met him in 1949, when I was 17 years old and he was aged 28. There was an instant attraction between us - the age difference did not seem to be an issue at all.
He seemed to be reluctant to talk about his war experiences in the Navy during those awful war years. Gradually he "opened up" and told me of his war experiences.
Once, when I suggested that we should go swimming he replied, "no thanks, I have had to swim for my life"! One could sense that the horrific memories of being sunk and struggling for his life in the oil-covered ocean, hanging onto the edge of a life-raft, waiting for one of his fellow sailors to die so that he could take his place on the life-raft, after being dive-bombed had left a terrifying impression on him. He talked of the awesome sight of the stern of his stricken ship stuck up in the air, just before the vessel vanished from sight under the waves.
He lived with the awful sight of his friend "Soapy Hudson " being shot and killed alongside him, whilst they were manning the machine guns on HMS Birmingham!
It is not surprising that the servicemen appeared to be hard and cynical, when one remembers the terrible events through which they were forced to live during these war years.
I told him on several occasions that I considered he and his fellow sailors were very brave, but he merely replied that they were doing their job!
He served in submarines during one stage of the war. He remarked in a jocular manner that he and his fellow submariners should have been issued with "brown underpants". By this I assumed he meant that the extremely scary sensation of being shut up in a metal box on the seabed, whilst being depth-charged, must have been the most terrifying experience that one could imagine and would probably have had a certain adverse effect on one's bowels! He spoke of having to undergo training on how to escape from a submarine in an emergency, trying to stand on one's tiptoes, with a clip on his nose, as the water rose inexorably.
On a holiday with him in 1997 to Gosport, Hampshire, he and I went aboard HM S Dolphin. I could not wait to get back on deck, because of an overwhelming claustrophobic feeling! Imagine living on one of the vessels - submerged for about 21 hours per day! He was in charge of the batteries, which powered the submarine and supplied oxygen to enable the personnel to breathe. The submarine had to surface at night to recharge these batteries, with all the submariners no doubt hoping and praying that there wasn't an enemy ship waiting to spot them and to attack them.
Later he was transferred to Buckie in Scotland, being trained in the correct, safe way to blow up mines etc…
From there he was seconded into the Royal Naval Commando unit and subsequently went ashore at Ver Sur Mer on `D` Day, 6th June,1944, before the main expeditionary forces.
Britain should be rightly proud of this marvellous, brave, group of men, British and American, during World War II. Without their valiant efforts we would all be under the yoke of nazism.
My husband died on 5th January 2004 after a protracted illness, at the age of 82 years old.
My final act of gratitude and love to the person whom I fondly remember as a war hero, and also as my husband, will be when I undertake the journey down to Portsmouth in October 2004. I shall be going there at the invitation of Gordon, the partner of my long-time friend, Mary. Gordon is the captain of "TS Royalist", which is a two-masted brig taking sea-cadets on voyages, training them hi seamanship and all things nautical. Gordon, Mary and myself will go aboard and also present will be a Royal Naval chaplain, who will conduct a service, which in essence will be equal to a burial at sea. In his memory, my husband's ashes will be scattered at sea. This is deemed to be a great honour for my husband, as a serving officer of the Royal Navy!
No doubt tears will flow, but I feel that I must undertake this task as a final salute to a good Christian husband and war hero! This auspicious occasion will close the final chapter on my late husband's life and will be an act of which I like to think he would have been very proud.

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