- Contributed by
- Anthony Gatrell
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 December 2003
I was 13 and living with an aunt and uncle when on 3 September 1939 I heard the announcement that we were at war with Germany. This did not mean much to me at the time, except for the eventual prospect of some restrictions and food rationing.
Dig for victory
However, the opportunity to give up Wednesday afternoon’s sports at school (King Edward VI, Lichfield) in order to cultivate an allotment was certainly something I welcomed. I received more praise from the headmaster for producing good vegetables (in the Dig for Victory campaign) than I would have had from the sports master for playing cricket and rugby.
I left school at the age of 15, having completed a modest Cambridge school certificate. I’d decided I was not academically inclined, so I didn’t stay on in the sixth form. I went instead to work in a drawing office at the local Cannock Chase colliery.
The uncle I lived with was chief engineer at the colliery. He paved the way for my employment, although I had proved to be a capable draughtsman at a much earlier age, and I loved technical drawing.
A time of great loss
It was always a shock to read the newspaper headlines about how the war was creating so many casualties. In our locality, there were several mothers grieving for their sons, who had gone missing or been killed in action. There were also a lot of wives whose husbands were never to return or remained POWs for the duration of the war.
I had personal reasons for feeling sympathetic as my mother had lost my father when I was five as a result of injuries he had suffered in World War One. She had had to go back into nursing to afford to raise my brother and me. The uncle and aunt I’ve just mentioned looked after me, while my brother went to live with grandparents.
Mother was a nurse and became matron in the local cottage hospital. This was eventually the place I came to consider home while on leave from the navy.
Why the navy?
I organised dances and played the drums for a small dance band at a local village hall to raise money for Forces comforts. Little did I know this was an experience that would later stand me in good stead.
Coal mining was an occupation of national importance. Working as I did in the colliery, I could have stayed in the drawing office and made a contribution to the war effort there. But instead I decided to enlist in the navy.
Why the navy? I can not say. I lived landlocked in the middle of Staffordshire. I had never been to sea or even sailed inland, although I gather my father had sailed sometimes.
Covering the reservoir with railway sleepers
I joined air-raid precautions (ARP) as a messenger for a while and used to cycle to the local ARP post whenever there was an air-raid warning. I also learnt basic first aid.
Living relatively close to Coventry and Birmingham, our area was a prime location for jettisoned bombs. This was especially so because of the large reservoir that we lived alongside, which acted as a due north-south landmark when moonlit. The reservoir (Norton Pool, now Chasewater) was eventually covered with railway sleepers attached to hawser wires as a deterrent to enemy-seaplane landings.
Enlisting in the ATC
I enlisted in the Air Training Corps (ATC), seeing it an opportunity to gain experience of discipline, marching and rifle drill. I achieved the rank of corporal.
I never intended to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). I volunteered to join up in advance of conscription to make sure of getting into the navy rather than being placed where the need was considered greatest.
I enlisted as an Y-scheme entrant but not before undergoing special medical tests – ostensibly because of sugar discovered in the urine. A certificate was deemed necessary, even though I’d already had the first medical in the process of naval recruitment, during which the medical officer (MO) had discovered the symptoms.
My mother had to pay again for a specialist to say that, in his opinion, I was grade A1. I recall him commenting on how the Oxford and Cambridge boat crews always passed sugar in their urine immediately before a race as a result of being nervous and excited. I was not therefore to concern myself. On the subject of which, I remember some very well-built men keeling over at the thought of some of the jabs required by the MO prior to additional medicals.
Basic training begins
It was 60 years ago, in mid-August 1943, that I was posted to HMS Collingwood, Portsmouth, for basic training as an ordinary seaman and Y-scheme entrant. I remember parting from my tearful mother, the train journey from Birmingham’s Snow Hill Station and change at Reading. My eventual arrival at the shore-based ship was not as flamboyant as one recruit, who turned up in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.
As Y-scheme entrants, we were allocated three to a hut, one of us in overall charge. The two subordinates were responsible for organising activities such as cutting the grass with a jack-knife to pass the time while the inspecting officer was doing the rounds.
Kit inspections were the order of the day. Folding bell-bottoms so that they had the obligatory (seven) creased rings was vital. We wore white headbands as a distinction and, I suppose, to attract extra attention from the chief petty officers (CPOs) and officers.
I disliked the physical training – shinning up and vaulting over scrambling nets or raising sheer-legs, the hoisting apparatus for masts or heavy loads – although sporting activities such as sailing and rowing were enjoyable.
The kit inspections, hut cleaning and not being allowed to sweep anything under the carpet eventually came to an end. I was happy to put behind me the basic training of drill, seamanship, signals and knots as well as the case of impetigo I’d contracted and the consequent unsightly treatment with gentian violet.
Sea experience and the yellow peril
We were sent to Leith, Scotland, for sea experience. This was a revelation from the start. After a long and slow train journey, we arrived at the base very early on a Sunday morning to be greeted by a breakfast of porridge and yellow peril. I was used to my porridge being made with milk, laced with golden syrup and, as an added luxury, carnation milk. The porridge on offer was thick and, horror of horrors, made with salt. The yellow peril, to give it its proper name, was smoked haddock.
We were soon to board ship, where we would learn practical seamanship. There were three training ships – two old D-class cruisers and the SS Corinthian. Thankfully, Peter Guly, a friend from Collingwood, from the same hut and the Y scheme, was allocated the same ship as me – the SS Corinthian.
Some of the seamanship instruction was qualified by the statement, ‘This is a merchant ship and some things are different from those of a Royal Navy (RN) ship.’ In other words, what we learnt had to be re-learnt when it came to naval ships.
Learning to sleep in a hammock
I had my first experience of sleeping in a hammock. Learning how to sling it and stow it in the morning was very precise. Among the more hazardous tasks was painting the ship’s side. You were very dependent on your fellow painter, and it was vital that you worked together, lowering or raising the plank simultaneously.
There were other things to learn too. One day I was leaning over the guard rail, talking to a friend and admiring the sunset, when the captain came by and started screaming at us. This was not a cruise ship, he yelled. We should get off the rail immediately and make ourselves scarce.
Gash-chutes and coal
We used to take it in turns to collect the meal for the table then clear up and wash all the plates and utensils. One day, on tipping the waste down the gash- or refuse-chute, there was a horrible clanking sound – yes, I had disposed of all the knives, forks and spoons. I don’t recall what happened by way of reprimand, or even whether I was put on a charge.
This sea time was enjoyable, although marred somewhat at the end because of the ship being coal-fired. Before we finished our training, we had to coal the ship and clean up afterwards. Of course, this was something we were not going to be faced with on proper fleet ships.
The first short leave was a relief, though I still bore the marks of the impetigo, which was an embarrassment. There was a problem on the journey from Birmingham Snow Hill to the hospital in Hammerwich, where mother nursed. It was very late at night. There were no buses to Walsall, and a taxi was only allowed to travel a few miles.
My mother and a cook from the hospital, who came along for company, met me at the station. In our attempt to get home, we found ourselves deposited in the middle of nowhere at the end of a short taxi ride. We had to walk several miles before hitching a lift in a lorry for some of the remainder of the journey. We’d been lucky, because vehicles were more likely to stop and offer a lift to someone in service uniform than in civvies.
The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve
On leave, the first question generally posed by friends was ‘When are you going back?’
I was posted to HMS King Alfredat Hove, another land-based vessel. This was where I would complete my training as a possible Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) officer. Although there were the usual rifle drills – stripping down a bren-gun, for example – marching, Morse code (concentrating on a small blinking lamp in Lancing College, where we were based, and taking down messages), the training was more academic than before, and, might I say, we led a more civilised existence.
I was in Nelson division along with some 115 others, not all of whom would eventually make the grade. We were schooled by a CPO for seamanship, by a sub-lieutenant for drill – usually in the underground car park of the swimming baths at Hove – by a lieutenant schoolmaster for further education. Our commanding officer (CO) was an RNVR lieutenant.
Our ages ranged from 18 to late 20s, and we were from all walks of life. Thankfully, I still enjoyed the friendship of Peter Guly, who became a life-long friend.
Rites of passage
This was a period that tested our leadership qualities as much as extended our knowledge of seamanship and navigation – ‘If both lights you see ahead, starboard wheel and show your red’ – and appropriate further education.
At the end of term, as a display of initiative and enterprise, the outgoing division had to entertain the newer intakes with a concert or play. The division that left before us had put on a marvellous show; its finale a brass band that marched through the audience. The blare of the sousaphone remains a vivid memory.
‘Red Sails in the Sunset’
We knew it was going to be a hard act to follow. However, having organised a dance band, I proved useful in this respect. I played the drums for part of an entertainment that included songs such as ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ and ‘The Stars at Night’. There must have been other acts that followed or preceded us, but the memory has dimmed. I do recall the CO complimenting us, so we must have passed that particular test.
We were allowed some leave at one stage but not permitted to travel far. I was able to spend one weekend with Peter, whose family lived within limits, in north London. I did take a risk on one occasion and go home to Staffordshire. But I did so with a great deal of trepidation in case I was challenged by military police during the journey.
The thrill of my new uniform
Eventually, the day of reckoning came when the lists of successful candidates were posted. To my great relief, I was promoted midshipman. I enjoyed the thrill of getting my new uniform. The RNVR midshipmen lapels were maroon as distinct from the Royal Navy (RN) midshipmen, who wore white lapels and would have been trained at Dartmouth Naval College.
I took a short leave before I was posted to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich for a short spell. This was a superb few weeks. We were called in the morning with a cup of tea, made and brought to our cabin by Wrens, and they served meals in the great Painted Hall. Not all the officers from King Alfredwere sent to Greenwich, and I am not sure what selection process was involved to grant me such a privilege.
War service at sea, April 1944 to August 1945
During leave from Greenwich I received my posting to HMS Whelp. I had to report to a dockyard at Hebburn on Tyne. At the time I didn’t know what type of vessel I’d been posted to and was relieved to discover it a newly built W-class destroyer. After sea trials the Whelp was commissioned on 17 April 1944 as R37 and assigned to the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla Home Fleet.
The captain was Commander G A F Norfolk, RN. He was very senior in rank and therefore second in command of the flotilla, and the ship had its funnel painted to denote this. He once remarked that he was the same age as the ship’s pennant R37. First lieutenant was Philip, Prince of Greece and Denmark (later Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh). There were six other officers plus a medical officer and two midshipmen. A guestimate of 135 NCOs (non-commissioned officers) and ratings made up the ship’s full complement.
In the wardroom was an original of ‘Jane’, the scantily dressed cartoon character in the Daily Express. Apparently, the ship’s captain, or his wife, knew the cartoonist. I’m sure there was a reference to Whelp, but I can not recall the caption.
Another detail I recall was that there was always a bible on the bridge as a ready reference for the quotations that, whenever it was appropriate, formed the basis of signals between ships. Competition between captains to get the best response was intense.
Exercises in Scapa Flow
We were involved in exercises in Scapa Flow to track submarines, set and drop depth charges and undertake target practice for gunnery. Both towed targets by sea, and drones towed aircraft. I was in charge of B gun deck, from where, when instructed by the gunnery officer, we fired star shells for night-time attacks.
Some modifications were made during this bedding-down period. One of my tasks was to sit and relay messages from the asdic or sonar operator (an underwater detecting device, an early form of sonar, the name derived from Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee).
I did this by way of a voice-pipe in the lower well of the bridge that conveyed information to the captain standing above. While conning the ship the captain would kick me in the backside when he wanted another reading. In due course this particular voice-pipe was extended to the binnacle, so that the captain, or officer of the watch, could simultaneously take a bearing and give instructions to the asdic operator.
An unfortunate accident
We had an unfortunate incident involving one of our destroyers. Having completed an attack with depth charges, it had come to anchor in Scapa Flow. Due to the orders fore and aft being misunderstood, the anchorage took it astern over its own depth charges.
The vessel’s stern was broken, and it was out of commission for some months. Eventually, however, it did join the British Pacific Fleet. I believe it was the HMS Wrangler, which arrived in the Far East in June 1945 and then took part in the re-occupation of Hong Kong.
On 12 May we left Scapa Flow to escort and screen a battleship (I think it was HMS Renown) for Operation Brown. This was an unsuccessful attempt to attack the German battleship Tirpitz.
Later, in early June, still in Scapa Flow, we witnessed a huge fleet being assembled prior to the D-Day landings, though we were not aware of its significance until very early on 6 June.
Scapa Flow was deserted but for us – a lone destroyer ‘to protect the northern approaches’, or so we were told – and a few boom defence ships that were permanently on station. A disgruntled ship’s company was none too pleased at not being able to take part in the landings at Normandy.
Crossing the Arctic Circle
In mid-June we left Scapa Flow in the company of the cruiser HMS Belfast and one other destroyer in Operation DB. We were to relieve the garrison in Spitsbergen, Norway. This was Norwegian territory that had been occupied by the Germans, and we were assisting by taking stores and personnel.
I was in charge of a motor boat, ferrying stores back and forth to a jetty. Although I didn’t land as such, the operation to reach Spitsbergen meant that we crossed the Arctic Circle. As a result, the ship’s company was presented with a commemorative Blue Nose certificate. Sadly, I have lost mine.
Subsequently, we also received a certificate for crossing the equator – along with the appropriate ducking for the first time across. But, once more, I’ve misplaced my certificate.
Aboard the Altmark
In Scapa Flow we had the opportunity to board the German supply ship Altmark. This was the vessel in which many merchant seamen were imprisoned as a result of their ships being sunk by the Graf Spee. It had been rescued from a Norwegian fjord in early 1940. The officers’ quarters were quite palatial, and the wide staircase to the upper deck was reminiscent of a transatlantic liner.
We were intended to join the Eastern Fleet. On the way east through the Mediterranean we covered US Army landings in Provence. We escorted capital ships (perhaps the HMS Ramilles) through the Strait of Gibraltar at night to avoid spying eyes on Spanish territory.
En routewe called at Algiers then Malta for a brief shore leave, where the famous oil tanker Ohio was berthed. It was this oil tanker that was heavily bombed in the convoy bringing desperately needed fuel for aircraft involved in defence of the island. It had achieved its mission but was badly damaged and had had to be towed into harbour.
Based at Trincomalee
We called at Alexandria en routeto the Suez Canal, then the Red Sea with a brief stop in Aden before proceeding to Bombay and Colombo (Ceylon, now Sri Lanka). On 26 August 1944 we were assigned to the 27th Destroyer Flotilla, Eastern Fleet, based at Trincomalee.
A captain (D) in Kempenfelt led this flotilla, but all the other destroyers had names beginning with W – Wager, Whirlwind, Wessex, Wrangler and Wakefuland, of course, us – Whelp. We had a brief shore leave in Trincomalee, in what could be described as a holiday camp with sheltered accommodation on the beach. The climate was sub-tropical, and it was a welcome opportunity to relax. Other officers went up to Kandy for a short leave, but either I declined or wasn’t permitted or simply couldn’t afford to go.
Lord Louis Mountbatten (Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia) visited the ship when we were in either Colombo or Trincomalee, presumably to see Prince Philip.
On being introduced he remarked to me that I was lucky to be in a destroyer as opposed to a battleship, where, in his experience, there were many midshipmen aboard in the gun room.
My other brush with fame, on a subsequent occasion, was returning from a day’s shore leave. Sea conditions were too bad to get a Liberty boat back, so I spent the night in Nelson’s cabin on board HMS Victory.
Operations Millet, Outflank, Robson and Lentil
In October 1944 we took part in Operation Millet, an intended diversion for the US landings on Leyte in the Philippines. A task force attacked the Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. In mid-November we escorted the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Wave King, an oil tanker for refuelling ships and aircraft fuel, in Operation Outflank, an air attack on Pangkalan Brandan in north-west Sumatra.
In December there was an unsuccessful attack in Operation Robson – Task Force 67 – on Belawan Deli (north Sumatra) and Medan. Then, in early January 1945, we escorted the task force that attacked the Pangkalan Brandan oil refineries code named Operation Lentil.
Swimming at night in heavy seas
The rescue of one of the submarines (HM Sub Shakespeare) in January 1945 was memorable. This sub had been badly damaged by gunfire off the Malacca Strait, and its fellow sub (HM Sub. Stygian) stood by until we took it in tow some 320km (200 miles) east of Trincomalee on 3 January.
We picked up the sub in darkness and fairly heavy seas, but the real problem was securing a tow, because all her crew either wounded or too exhausted to make a line fast on deck. It was too hazardous to launch a motorboat.
A leading seaman volunteered to swim to the sub with a line attached, then haul on board a stronger line and secure a towing hawser. The volunteer was Leading Seaman Shreeves, who, for this exploit and his evident courage, was eventually awarded the BEM (British Empire Medal) and promoted petty officer.
Task Force 63
We arrived back in Trincomalee on 8 January. On 16 January we left again with Task Force 63 and transferred to the British Pacific Fleet as Operation Meridian, which was to continue attacks on the Japanese oil refineries on Sumatra.
Thereafter we were transferred to the Pacific and routed to Australia, calling at Fremantle en routeto Sydney. We had shore leave in Sydney, where some alterations were made to the ship.
There was one period – I think during the journey from Trincomalee to Sydney – when we took on board several specialist officers: medical, engineering and radar. I had to give up my shared cabin for them and sleep on a camp bed in one of the cabin flats. The engineering officer usefully discovered that one of the ventilating fans in my cabin was operating in reverse.
A new assignment and identification
On 18 February we were assigned to the combined US and British Task Force CTF 113. Our identification was changed to US pennant D33.
We took on board an American lieutenant (Junior Grade or JG) United States Navy (USN), who was a signals officer. He had to interpret US Fleet signals, both visual and radio, since the RN and USN systems were different. He was a most jovial officer, not averse to slapping the captain on his shoulder with a ‘Good morning, Cap’n.’
We left Sydney for Manus in the Admiralty Islands with the battleship HMS Howe. In March we took part in Operation Iceberg (attacks against Formosa and Sakishima Gunto islands), which precluded the attack on Okinawa in support of landings by the USA.
This task force sailed in a large circular formation, with destroyers screening the outer perimeter and carriers in the centre, which, in turn, were surrounded by battleships and cruisers. Often our radar was suspect. We were detailed to station ourselves astern of the carriers – the actual centre of the fleet – and pick up aircrews that ditched on landing or were injured and couldn’t make the flight deck.
Rescues at sea
In an earlier operation we rescued Sub-lieutenant (A) RNVR Roy ‘Gus’ Halliday from HMS Victorious, who had been shot down after a second strike on the Palembang refinery. He eventually became a Vice Admiral, KBE, DSC, and commanded the British Naval Staff in Washington, DC. He was subsequently appointed Deputy Chief Defence Staff of Intelligence.
Sadly, on one occasion, we rescued a pilot who was so badly injured that, in spite of very good medical attention, he died on board later. We buried him at sea. This was our first and only experience of such a tragedy. I’ll never forget the vivid green of the water surrounding him, a result, I understood, of the shark repellent that was released by ditched aircrews on entering the sea.
We developed faults (with radar) on 25 March 1945 and rejoined the Task Force on 30 March. On 1 April we witnessed the kamikaze (divine wind) attacks on aircraft carriers. On Easter Sunday, while I was operating the plot for incoming bandits, I saw a kamikaze hit one of the carriers.
It was remarkable how the aircraft were able to fly on and off again in such a short time and maintain their position in the operational line. In contrast, when a kamikaze damaged the flight deck of the American carriers it put them out of action for a considerable time.
This resilience was an aspect of the British-constructed armoured flight decks that so impressed the Americans. In the light of it they requested Task Force 57 to strike at airfields on Formosa, where the most effective suicide units were thought to be based.
Manual and digital dexterity
At action stations I was responsible for maintaining the plot of aircraft from radio reports and for relaying the information to the gunnery officer. I always remember an Admiralty directive instructing that this task should be given to a young officer ‘who displayed manual and digital dexterity’.
In early May 1945, we left Leyte for Sydney to be refitted. However, on the way, we were re-routed to Melbourne, where we stayed until July. On shore leave there was the opportunity to meet Australian families. I remember escorting a young Australian girl around a suburb of Melbourne, wearing long ‘whites’ with the midshipman’s lapel on the tunic collar. Someone asked me if I was in the Fire Brigade. This odd remark has stayed with me 60 years.
Up the Great Barrier Reef
Later I was commissioned as sub-lieutenant RNVR and gained a full watch-keeping certificate, though there were always two officers on watch on the bridge. I recall the effort of the concentration of having to change course, in both direction and time, of having to create the zigzag patterns selected at random and agreed with other ships in the formation.
We left Melbourne for Sydney and Darwin, travelling up the Great Barrier Reef. We were to join HMS King George V (Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser) and screen her (with Wager) en route to Tokyo Bay to witness the surrender of the Japanese.
The fleet train
We oiled from KG5at one stage, at the same time as Wager. I have a photograph of this, showing the way ships oiled at sea, generally from a tanker of the fleet train.
The fleet train was vital for replenishing ships with food, ammunitions, spares, oil and, not least, mail. It was a triumph of improvisation that stretched thousands of miles from Australia to wherever the fleet was operating. It existed for only a year before the end of the war with Japan, but it was fitting that it was present in Tokyo Bay to witness the surrender.
Sinking a junk
After the war ended we came home via Sydney, Melbourne, Fremantle and Hong Kong, where we spent a spell patrolling the harbour for Japanese pirates, thought to be operating under the guise of Chinese junk fishermen.
We sank one accidentally. Thankfully, I was not on watch, so couldn’t be blamed. I heard the awful crunch, however, as I was relaxing in the wardroom, on a break after having been on the bridge for my watch.
At sea or in harbour, apart from during action stations, I always kept the afternoon and middle watches. This meant that I never had any long period of unbroken sleep.
Dinner in the wardroom was usually after 8pm, when the captain joined his officers for a social drink beforehand. After the meal I had to try and get some sleep before the middle watch (12 midnight to 4am). By 8am I was expected to undertake other responsibilities – chart corrections and so on. I was on watch again from 12 noon to 4pm, when others could relax. I once complained about all this to the first lieutenant, but my complaint was just dismissed for some reason or other.
Enjoying life on board
Life on board ship had its high points, especially in harbour or alongside replenishment ships. This was when we were able to hire films, shown to the ship’s company on the forecastle. I also enjoyed the wardroom food and was introduced to savouries instead of pudding. The issue of lime juice was always very welcome. During midnight watch I became adept at making good cocoa.
I was the youngest officer on board, but eventually I reached the age at which I could have a mess account for drinks other than soft ones. After the loyal toast – traditionally given sitting down in the navy – ‘To our wives and sweethearts’, invariably, the response was, ‘May they never meet’.
One of the Forgotten Fleets
Our home coming, flying the paying-off pennant, was emotional. We arrived in Portsmouth, from Gibraltar, on 17 January 1946 – one of the Forgotten Fleets.
I finished post-war naval service in HMS Fencer, a converted US-built Woolworth escort carrier. Our task was to ferry colonials, including Belgian White Fathers, to Mombassa, East Africa, and then proceed to Ceylon to pick up personnel for demob and homecoming.
I left the ship and was demobbed before it was crewed to return to the USA. I did have the opportunity of sailing to America. It is of some regret that I did not do so, because the return journey was on one of the Queens.
I was commended for a medal. To this day, I don’t know what it was. Ultimately, it was changed to a mention in despatches, published in the London Gazette on 11 June 1946, of which I am immensely proud.
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