- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Maria Rose
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 November 2003
My Grandad was born on 11 January 1910, Gillingham, Kent. His father served in the Royal Navy as a Stoker Petty Officer and served in the Persian Gulf (1909-14), and also in WW1 (1914-18), so Grandad couldn’t have seen very much of him in his childhood years.
When Grandad left School, he worked at the Brickfields in Lower Gillingham, carting the bricks around; it was about this time that he met my Grandma, who was about 15 years old and lived in a house backing onto the Gas Works (where her father was the Foreman). After a couple of years he went to work for the Orange Coach Company as an Omnibus Driver as it was a bit better paid and easier to get to than cycling to the Brickfields. At the age of 19, disillusioned at the type of jobs available locally and the low pay, and inspired by his Father’s Career, he joined the Royal Navy on 18 March 1929 and trained as a Stoker 2nd Class. A Stoker was someone who specialised in Engine-Room duties, the name was acquired from the days when ships were coal-fuelled and Stokers were those who shifted coal. He joined initially to serve a period of 12 years (but as it turned out, due to the outbreak of WW2, he ended up serving for 17 years in total).
Grandad was trained on a Shore Establishment called HMS Pembroke, which was in the Chatham Dockyard. He served on this until 9 Sept, when he was posted to his first Ship — HMS Ramillies that was a battleship. He kept a photo album of places that he visited and sights that he saw whilst serving on the Ramillies (which I now feel lucky to own). Places he visited included Malta, Algiers, Athens and Egypt; whilst in Malta he visited his Sister Elsie, who lived out there with her husband, who was stationed there in the Army. During his time on the Ramillies, Grandad was promoted to a Stoker 1st Class (on 2 Jan 1930), and received his first Good Conduct Badge on 18 Mar 1932 (after 3 years of service), which consisted of a chevron that was sewn on the upper left arm of the uniform. According to Grandma, Grandad suffered from bouts of seasickness aboard the Ramillies, and due to this, only served on Destroyers for the rest of his Naval career, as these did not seem to affect him. He returned to Chatham — HMS Pembroke on 13 August 1932 and remained there until 21 Feb 1934. During this time, he married my Grandma at St Mary Magdeline Church, 17 Dec 1932, he was nearly 23 years old and she was 20.
The following year, their first son, Charles was born; seven months later on 22 Feb 1934, Grandad was to serve on HMS Bruce (a Destroyer) for exactly 3 years, and during this time was promoted to Acting Leading Stoker on 6 Aug 1936.
He returned to HMS Pembroke on 24 Feb 1937, and received his second Good Conduct badge on 18 Mar 1937 (after 8 years of Service), and was promoted to Leading Stoker on 6 Aug 1937. Grandma says that It was during this time that he was studying for his Petty Officer exams, but unfortunately his father became ill and Grandad spent a lot of time visiting him in hospital; so Grandma used to spend the evenings copying drawings of machinery from books for his exams (apparently he got full marks!!!!). On 21 Nov 1937, his father died in All Saint’s Hospital, Magpie Hall Road, Chatham of heart failure (cause of death — a) Myocardial Failure and b) Myocardial Degeneration & Acute Bronchitis).
Grandad found an interest in sports whilst in the Navy, and especially enjoyed boxing and football. It is likely that these contributed to cartilage trouble that he suffered with his knees, and dogged his later Naval years. He ended up having a lot of treatment and an operation to try and sort out this problem.
From 14 Jan 1938 for 18 months, Grandad served on HMS Escort (A Destroyer), during which time his daughter June was born on 9 June 1938. On 14 Jun to 24 Aug 1939 he served on HMS Walpole, which was another Destroyer, operating out of Portland.
Grandad was shore based again at HMS Pembroke when Britain declared War on Germany on 3rd Sep 1939. He was soon allocated to HMS Vivien on 6 Oct 1939, which had been in Chatham Dockyard for a refit in Sep 1939 and was commissioned for service in the Rosyth Escort Force for East Coast convoy defence, deployed for North Sea convoy escort and patrol. He was part of the crew on this duty for three months, when he was transferred back to HMS Pembroke on 5 Jan 1940. On 26 Jan he was promoted again to a Temp Acting Stoker Petty Officer, and remained on the Pembroke until 10 April 1940.
His next posting was to be a memorable one, for quite tragic reasons. On 11 April 1940, Grandad joined the 128 strong crew on the ‘V’ Class Destroyer - HMS Versatile. The command of the seas was essential to Britain’s survival during the War, and one of the tasks of the Royal Navy was to ensure that the Country’s merchant fleet could sail with safety over the world’s seas and oceans. The majority of Britain’s raw materials, all her petrol and much of her food came from abroad. Without these supplies, her armed forces could not operate and the country would have been starved into submission. This was the main purpose of the Versatile during the War, escorting convoys of Merchant ships; along with investigating allegations of U-boat activity in our waters.
By May 1940, the enemy was established on the Channel coast — and after Convoy OB144 Versatile was sailed to Plymouth for refuelling, she was attached to the Nore Command. On 12 May she grounded on the Dutch coast and had to be towed off by HMS Walpole, but her need for dockyard attention was increased the following evening. This was because, early on the 13th she, HMS Malcolm and HMS Vivien commenced operating off the Hook of Holland, and HMS Versatile escorted HMS Hereward who was carrying Queen Wilhelmina (Queen of the Netherlands) from the Hook to the Breskens. That evening, at 8.45pm HMS Versatile was attacked by enemy aircraft. A bomb hit the upper deck over the Engine Room, causing minor structural damage, and flooding to the Engine Room. Splinters from this bomb and other near misses, caused damage from ‘A’ gun to quarterdeck and the auxiliary machinery suffered minor damage. The steam pipe was damaged to the extent that it was unable to steam and the ship was immobilised. Nine of Grandad’s colleagues were killed in the attack, with one dying later of his wounds. Thirteen wounded men were transferred to HMS Janus, but the total wounded in the attack amounted to a third of the crew. Apparently, Grandad had only just walked from the section of the ship that took the direct hit having just finished his watch duties. HMS Janus towed HMS Versatile to Sheerness on 14 May where she underwent repairs over the following few weeks. A couple of days later, on 16 May, Grandad was promoted to Acting Stoker Petty Officer.
Grandma remembers that she was aware at the time of the Versatile having been damaged in some way, via the “Haw Haw”, which was Lord “Haw Haw” broadcasting propaganda over the radio waves. He used to broadcast the successes of the enemy by naming the “Number” of the Ship(s) that had been damaged. Grandma knew the official number of the Versatile and therefore knew that there had been an incident involving her. She found out for definite what had happened when Grandad docked at Sheerness; as he used to send her Telegrams when he was coming into dock which would say “Don’t forget xxxxx’s birthday on xx date”, this would be the date that he was due to dock, and therefore a cue for Grandma to go and meet him there.
The crew that died in this tragedy are buried in the “War Graves” Section of Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham; and according to Grandma, Grandad never really got over that terrible night for the rest of his life;
Back at home, Winston Churchill had become Prime Minister (succeeding Neville Chamberlain) and Gillingham was suffering its fair share of raids. At one time, Grandma, Uncle Charlie and Aunty June spent every night for three months down the Air Raid shelter that was buried in their back garden. Grandma’s father built bunk beds in it. Grandma doesn’t remember feeling particularly cold or scared in there, and when the Air Raid siren sounded, the first to enter the shelter was the cat!!! Grandma remembers looking out and seeing the Barrage Balloons that were released on chains to prevent the enemy from flying too low over potential targets (as they would get tangled in the chains), and also hearing the “pom pom” guns. Bombs were occasionally dropped on the railway behind their back garden, which would send dirt flying over their Shelter. When Grandad came home during an occasion during the War, the Air Raid siren sounded, but he didn’t think they should go down to the shelter; when all of a sudden they heard the enemy flying overhead — they threw themselves on the floor under the table, and Grandad exclaimed “I wish I was back on the Ship now!” presumably, he felt he would have been a lot safer!
Just before midnight on Tuesday 27th August 1940, German Bombers scored a direct hit on the Nelson Road bus station. This created numerous fires and extensive blast damage; the entire area was completely gutted, leaving little more than a few collapsed girders and the remains of fifty useless buses. That night, bombing throughout Gillingham had reached its peak, with numerous shops and houses having been destroyed. Incendiary bombs fell upon both the Co-op and a local theatre.
According to my Uncle Roger (Grandad’s Nephew) During the War, Grandma’s father became a local hero, when an unexploded incendiary bomb fell onto one of the Gas Storage Units, and he climbed up and retrieved it! Although neither Grandma, Uncle Charlie or Dad were aware of this story, Uncle Charlie remembers the device taking pride of place on his Nan and Grandad’s Mantlepiece and my Dad remembers playing with it during his childhood after the war!!!
Grandma says that they decided that Uncle Charlie and Aunt June shouldn’t been evacuated during the War, the reason being that Grandad was risking his life everyday in the Navy and if the children were evacuated, Grandma would have been required to work in the Munitions (dangerous work in itself), this combination could have been very risky and potentially leave two orphaned children.
Grandad continued on HMS Versatile until 29 Sep 1942. During this time he saw a lot of activity, including; on 27 June when she was searching for a U-boat and the survivors of the Merchant Ship — Prunella, 118 miles south west off Lands End; then she reverted to the Nore Command to be bombed again (but this time undamaged) on 3rd July. She was then boiler cleaned at Chatham before taking part in the Sheerness Force, Group 6 for Operation ‘Purge’ (anti-invasion measures). When she was with a Channel convoy on 10 July aircraft off Dungeness sank one ship, but luckily Versatile was not hit.
Through most of August, she continued in her anti-invasion role, witnessing and surviving numerous incidents, which were usually caused by enemy aircraft, which bombed, strafed and laid mines. On 25 August, she and the Vimy were ordered to join the Home Fleet at Scapa, and on the 31st both ships were ordered to ‘raise steam as enemy force is reported to have shelled Eastbourne’. Early in September, operating in Scotland, HMS Versatile escorted Convoy BAS3 from the Clyde to Iceland, altering her course en route because of a possible German invasion force approaching Iceland. On 11 Sep she and Jackal and others escorted a mine laying force on a sortie called Operation ‘SN41’ and the Versatile spent the rest of the month engaged on escort duties in Scottish waters. On the 30th she and an Anson aircraft searched for a U-board whose periscope had been reported by the merchant ship Fort George. Early in October, Versatile was escorting Convoy WS3 when she and Harvester screened the Liner ‘Highland Brigade’, and during this interlude her Asdic and degaussing coil became defective. The following day, in addition to this defect, there were serious oil fuel leaks into living spaces. HMS Versatile had temporary repairs at Londonderry on 10 October, and then she sailed round to the Tyne for refit and repairs.
Grandma remembers travelling up to Newcastle early in the War (which could have been at this time) with Uncle Charlie and a very young Aunty June, to be with Grandad whilst he was up there. She says that after a couple of weeks, one evening, she decided that she had had enough, and her and Grandad agreed that she should return home. She caught the train with the children, which had to travel during a blackout, so it was in total darkness, as were the passing towns and countryside. She remembers the train being busy and Sailors sleeping in the luggage racks!! They arrived back in Gillingham during a heavy raid, and a kind lady who lived by Gillingham Station invited them in for a cup of tea, until they could walk back home to relative safety.
My Mum has told me that during the War, Grandma was up Gillingham High Street one day when a raid started; she quickly ran into the nearest shop and threw herself onto the floor. When it was over, she got up and realised that she was in a Funeral Parlour!! (If things had turned out differently, she wouldn’t have had to go far!). Uncle Charlie also recalls being in Gillingham High Street during a raid. He remembers being dragged into the doorway of the General Post Office, looking up and seeing a German Aircraft really close overhead, and he watched the doors opening and bombs being dropped!! He thinks that they fell over the dockyard.
Grandma says that although Rationing affected them during the War, they actually ate well. Grandad used to save up his chocolate ration on the Ships, hide it in his gas mask case and bring it home for the family, when he was on leave. He wasn’t allowed to leave the Docks where his ship had come in during the War, so that is why Grandma used to travel around to see him. Often, if he wasn’t allowed to leave the ship, Grandma and the children used to go on board and have tea with him. Although Grandad used to be searched when he left the ships, to ensure that he wasn’t carrying food ashore, occasionally, according to my Dad, he did succeed. Although Grandma remembers one occasion at Sheerness, where he was searched and the Police confiscated a big piece of ham that he was concealing, Grandma thinks that the Policeman probably had it for dinner that night, and she hopes that he choked on it!! She feels that they should have turned a blind eye, considering what the Crew were risking their lives for.
Uncle Charlie told me that he remembers Aunty Beat (Grandma’s sister) getting hold of some banana’s (bearing in mind that Banana’s were not imported during the War as the boats were needed for more important shipments) and she cut one in half and gave half to Aunty June and half to Uncle Charlie. Uncle Charlie peeled the skin off of his one and turned around to see Aunty June eating the whole of her half, skin and all! This was an easy mistake to make, as she had never seen a banana in her life before!
Once HMS Versatile had been refitted at Tyne, she sailed to rejoin the Rosyth Escort force. Among the many convoys she escorted on the East Coast were Convoys FN45, FN70, FS70; nearly all the convoys were heavily bombed. Grandad continued his duties on this ship, and was promoted to a Stoker Petty Officer on 26 Jan 1941. The following day, Versatile’s steering engine failed, which would have been a most uncomfortable situation, being alongside unwieldy merchant ships in rough channel waters with no room to manoeuvre! Attacks by enemy aircraft and E-boats were now becoming the rule rather than exception and Mines were also proving a serious hazard.
On 16 and 14 March respectively, HMS Versatile reported that the Mexico and Hereport were mined and she took eleven survivors off the latter ship to Sheerness. On 13 March she attacked a U-boat contact, and on the night of the 14th, she herself was unsuccessfully attacked with torpedoes by an E-boat off Cromer.
The “Times” National Daily newspaper on 27th March 1941 reported the following incident: “A further Admiralty Communiqué stated: - A German Aircraft was shot down yesterday while attempting to attack a convoy in the North Sea. The German, a Messerschmitt 110, was hit full in the nose by the guns of the HMS Versatile (Commander J H Jauncey, RN). No damage or casualties were sustained either by HMS Versatile or by the Merchantment to which she was acting as Escort”.
The convoys and bombings continued throughout the remainder of 1941, with the Versatile visiting Rosyth in July, where she had platforms for Oerlikon cannon fitted. The USA joined the War in December 1941.
1942 started off as gloomy year, on 12 Feb the Versatile was among the ships especially deployed when the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen broke out of Brest and escaped up-Channel. On 18th Mar, after 13 years of loyal service, Grandad was granted his third Good Conduct badge. Gradually, as 1942 went on, Britain became more hopeful as the Allies were gaining strength, this was partly due to the breaking of the “Enigma” code, following the discovery of a German Enigma machine in a sunken U-boat in May 1941; which enabled our Forces to intercept and decode German messages containing information about U-boat routes.
Grandad left HMS Versatile on 29 Sep 1942, and notably did not go to sea again for the remainder of his Service; but instead served on Shore Establishments and Ships that were docked for short periods. Grandma says that this was due to his increasing knee cartilage problems, which meant he was unable to climb up and down ladders efficiently.
Grandad was back home on HMS Pembroke from 30 Sep 1942 to 30 Jun 1943; then spent a year (1 Jul 1943— 9 Jul 1944) on HMS Beaver, a Shore Establishment in Hull, where he was awarded a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal on 18 Mar 1944. It was during his time on HMS Beaver, that Grandma gave birth to my Dad on 3 May 1944 in the Royal Naval and Marine Maternity Nursing Home. The cost of the nursing fees for the two weeks that Grandma spent in there amounted to £5 6s 6d, which was a lot of money, but Grandma says that they really looked after you.
The following month, on 6 June 1944 Britain was involved in the invasion of France, codename Operation Overlord. This followed months of planning, between America’s “Eisenhower” (Supreme Allied Commander) and Britain’s General Montgomery, who was to lead the forces on the ground. British, American and Canadian troops landed on five beaches in Normandy, northwest France, from the sea and from the air on this day that was to be known from then on as “D-Day”. Careful planning, courageous fighting and a disinformation campaign, which persuaded the Germans that an invasion was planned to land near Calais, not in Normandy, made Operation Overlord a success. On 16 August, Hitler ordered his troops to retreat and the Allies moved across Northern France. Britain believed now that Victory was in sight.
During the summer on 1944, Grandad spent a week (10 Jul — 18 Jul) on HMS Faulknor (A Destroyer) that was docked at Grimsby. He then went back to the Beaver in Hull from 19 Jul 1944 to 7 May 1945, the day that the War was declared over. As Britain was celebrating its victory, he went to work briefly for a few days on the HMS Bootle (A Minesweeper) that was docked in Harwich; then was transferred back to HMS Beaver from 7 Sep to 13 October.
Grandad then went to HMS Royal Arthur, which was a Shore Establishment that had taken over the Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Skegness during the war. It was used for training up new Naval recruits and Grandad served there as an Instructor until he was invalided to shore, permanently unfit for Naval Service on 24 Jan 1946, aged 36; after being awarded 3 War medals — The 1939-45 Star, The Atlantic Star and the War Medal 1939-45. Whilst Grandad was at Skegness, Grandma went up there and stayed in a Guest House with the children. Uncle Charlie remembers that he and Aunty June went to School up there. The owners of the Guest House were so impressed by how easily the children went to bed, that they used to look after them so that Grandma and Grandad could go out to the NAAFI social activities.
Grandad returned to Civvy Street and was employed by the MOD in the Royal Engineers at Brompton in the Boiler House until 22 Aug 1948, when he transferred to the Royal Naval Torpedo Depot in Chatham Dockyard in the position of a Skilled Labourer. He stayed there until his retirement at 60 years on 11 Jan 1970.
My Grandad died on 27 Aug 1971 of a heart attack, aged 61. He was taken by God prematurely and deserved to enjoy a long retirement after giving his best years to serving for his country. He died 10 months before I was born, so I never had the opportunity to know him. However I consider myself fortunate in that my Grandma has so far survived him by 32 years, and she has been able to give me an excellent insight into the lives lived by her generation.
Yesterday, on the 32nd anniversary of my Grandad’s death, I visited the Crematorium where his ashes were scattered; his name has been entered into the book of remembrance, with a crest of a crown and anchor with gold leaves around it. Part of the inscription under his name read “Courageous in life and death…”. From the memories that my family have shared with me about him and the information that I have discovered about his life and experiences, I think that this inscription is very apt.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography:
Grandma, Dad, Mum, Uncle Charlie and Uncle Roger
Ministry of Defence
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Times Newspaper
Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency (Medal Entitlement Section)
“The Second World War 1939-45” by Christine Hart
“Old Gillingham” by Philip MacDougall
“The Battle of the Atlantic” by Roy Conyers Nesbit
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