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Some recollections of service afloat during WW2 - Part 2

by AgeConcernShropshire

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
AgeConcernShropshire
People in story: 
Lieutenant Commander Edward Walker - VRD , RNR , Rtd .
Location of story: 
Uk , North Atlantic , Mediteranean , East Coast of India
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A8613128
Contributed on: 
17 January 2006

This story is transcribed by me , Graham Shepherd , from notes following discussions with Edward Walker , and will be added to the site with his permission . He understands the sites terms and conditions .

All good things come to an end and I left “ Altair “ in December 1942 on appointment to HMS “ Lavender “ a Flower Class Corvette , a member of B5 Escort Group on the North Atlantic Run “ . Flower Corvettes were wonderful sea boats , but my , did they move around especially in heavy weather . It has been said they could roll on a millpond . Keeping watch on an open deck in a North Atlantic gale was a matter of endurance and in less severe weather there was always the possibility of action when a “ contact “ was obtained .

A high spot in this connection was in March 1943 when B5 Group was close escort to the Eastbound Slow Convoy SC122 . Also in the area was the slightly faster Eastbound Convoy HX229 . Both convoys were attacked by a large number of U Boats situated across our line of advance . A number of ships were lost in both convoys and for the middle part of the voyage life was hectic to say the least , but for “ Lavender “ a save haven was reached .

For about two thirds of my short time in the ship I had responsibility for “ Correspondence “ — inevitable as the junior member of the Wardroom — using the portable typewriter I had bought some time previously .

My action station was i/c the Depth Charge Parties , but on returning from leave I learnt that the navigator had left for a course and that these duties were now mine . I was the first to admit that navigation was not at the top of my seamanship skills , but I was thrown in at the deep end . On being “ in all respects ready for sea “ the CO turned to me and said “ alright Sub. take her to sea “ . We were then in Albert Dock Liverpool — where the museum is now located — which entailed moving through a narrow entrance into the next dock , a 90 degree turn to port and then through the lock into the Mersey . A swift learning curve !

I was just settling down to these duties when we put into Cardiff for a refit and I was sent on leave pending re-appointment .

I took the opportunity to marry during this leave one of my fellow Officers standing as Best Man and another as a Principal Guest .

My next appointment at the end of June was to HMS “ Betony “ an improved Flower Class Corvette fitted out in Aberdeen. She carried the additional armament of a Hedgehog ahead throwing weapon of which there were high hopes at the time .For the first two of three weeks we were living ashore in digs and my wife was able to join me for a while . However , once we had Commissioned , life became hectic as the majority of the ship’s company were very green — in fact for quite a number it was their first time at sea .

We were ordered to proceed to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull where the Commodore HMS “ Western Isles “ and his team were waiting to subject us to an intense 10 days “ Working up “ period of training . ( Richard Baker’s book “ The Terror of Tobermory” gives an excellent account of what life was like during that period ) .

In due time we joined an ad hoc Escort Force to take a Convoy from the Clyde to Alexandria , calling at Gibralter on the way . The only untoward incident on this voyage was the death of our Coxwain , who , on being taken ill was transferred to a ship with medical facilities . He was buried at sea , ships in near company dipping Ensigns and stopping engines for a brief moment as a mark of respect .

On arrival at Alexandria we were berthed alongside HMS “ Caradoc “ an old C Class Cruiser doing duty as a Depot ship . We remained for several days allowing the odd run ashore , then through the Suez Canal and independently down the Red sea to Aden arriving late on Christmas Eve , with many of the ship’s company gathered around the Bridge singing carols — very nostalgic .

I had now been promoted to First Lieutenant an advancement which I found challenging , but one which I thoroughly enjoyed .

Our next task was to accompany HMS “ Woolwich “ a Destroyer Depot ship and also a floating dock which was being towed by tugs from the UK . Both were bound for Trincomalee on the East coast of Ceylon . ( the floating dock was to have a later impact on my wartime experience ) .

Several days into our journey we suffered a mechanical breakdown which left us without propulsive power and initially we were left to our own devices while the engine room staff tackled the problem . A somewhat eerie experience for we were a sitting target had there been enemy around , which of course was a possibility . Some hours later “ Woolwich “ took pity and came back , taking us in tow by means of an excellent piece of seamanship . We laid out a shackle of cable with the anchor attached to act as a “spring” , but some time later the tow parted and we were left with the task of recovering the anchor and cable before the tow could be passed again .

This was easier said than done for our windlass was defective and kept slipping so that we would haul in — say 6 links of cable and loose three . However the job was done some hours later , meanwhile the erring mechanical parts had been dealt with in “ Woolwich’s “ workshops . WE went on our way rejoicing and in due course reached our destination and base , Colombo .

The next few months are something of a jumble in my mind , for small convoys up and down the East Coast of India were interrupted with two short spells in hospital and a few days leave in a rest camp in the hills at Diyatalawa ( first used as a POW camp for Boers and then used as an Army Training Camp — it is still in use ) . This leave also included a visit to a tea plantation .

During one of my spells in hospital I was accommodated in a four bedded side ward and on night duty we found that we were looked after by a very attractive VAD . Each night we required of her a Fairy Story before she turned out the lights . ( Her wedding photo after the war was given some prominence in the “ Tatler “ )

During one of our Convoy trips we put into Viskhapatnam for stores . These were brought to us by a British Army Officer ( probably RASC ) who told us he was seconded to the Indian Army and further seconded to the RIN . He was invited to dine but said that his wife was with him . The invitation was immediately extended to her as well . As the appointed hour approached we learnt that he was attired in full Mess dress and she in full evening dress . We just had time to change and match their appearance . ( I cannot remember another occasion on which I wore Mess dress while serving in Corvettes . The evening was a great success .

On one discharge from hospital I was told that “ Betony “ was at sea but would call in at Bombay where I was ordered to rejoin her by taking passage in an Austrailian Sloop . On enquiring what duties I would undertake , the CO said he would be very glad if I would sort out the Wardroom Wine books ! a task which kept me fully occupied during the voyage . Several days followed with routine duties in RN Barracks — mainly reading Punishment Warrants and watching what was to all intents and purposes , first class cricket at the Cricket Club of India . ( I still have the scorecard which features inter alia Major Jardine and Sgt. Hardstaff ) .

I learnt that “ Betony “ was nowhere near Bombay but had returned to Base at Colombo where I rejoined her by means of a four day train journey via Madras which I found interesting .

I have said that during the first months of 1944 my memory of exact detail is hazy , but , checking records it must have been sometime between 27th January and !st February that I had my first sight of a Battlecruiser HMS “ Renown “ in Colombo Harbour and on her way to join the strengthened Eastern Fleet and wearing the Flag of the Vice-Admiral Sir John Power . The ship that was to give me my happiest two years afloat .

I was seated in the stern sheets of a harbour launch returning from shore to “ Betony “ . The launch passed down the length of “ Renown “ and at once I became entranced with her elegance and grace . Early in May the Medical people decided that I should leave “ Betony “ and be appointed to a ship carrying a doctor and I was told that there was a shortage of watch keeping Officers in the Fleet Destroyers — which after my previous service as an Officer I found somewhat daunting . By the end of the month I had received an appointment to “ Renown “ and I was horrified . However a Master at Arms who was present reassured me “ Don’t worry Sir , I served in her in 1927 , she was a happy ship then and will be a happy ship now “ . How correct he was .

The history of HMS “ Renown “ is recorded in the book “ Hit first Hit hard HMS “ Renown “ 1916-1948 by Peter C Smith — William Kimber & Co . Ltd . 1979 . The Commission during my time had commenced on 28th August 1939 and was continuous until de — commissioned for disposal on 1st June 1948 . Several of her ships company had served in her for the whole period .

On arrival on board I was received by the Officer of the Watch , a Lieut RM , was handed over to the Captain’s Secretary from whom I gathered that I was a replacement ( of sorts ) for a Lieut. RN who had left the ship on promotion to that rank . This rate of exchange was not immediately apparent to the Commander into whose presence I was ushered . After doubts had been cast as to my probable usefulness I was dismissed and made my way disconsolately to the Wardroom . The first Officer I encountered turned out to be a fellow ex- Cadet Rating from “ KA “ days , in fact we had sat at the same table for meals . We became firm friends — a friendship which continued until his death a few years ago .

We were then joined by the Commander who , in a very relaxed manner told me the story of his own joining of “ Renown “ towards the end of WW1 . The ice was broken and I felt at home .

Before I was allocated to particular duties I had the experience of being in the gunhouse of “A” turret of 15” guns during a full calibre practice shoot and a place on the Air Defence Position on the after end of the bridge structure . Very shortly I was allocated my duties . First , as Second officer of “ The Top “ Seamen’s Division , a duty Officer of the Watch while in harbour and responsibility for the sailing boats of which we carried a number . I found my experience in “ Adventure “ useful as regards these last two .

Then as Officer of the Quarters for the forward battery of 4.5 HA/LA guns sited in six twin turrets and forming part of the Secondary Armament . There appeared before me an apparition dressed ( I am sure after all these years ) in a starched Boiler suit bearing the insignia of a Petty Officer , Gunners Mate . He introduced himself as “ My” Gunner’s Mate and asked if I knew anything about “ Twin 4.5’s “ . On pleading ignorance I was invited to put on my boiler suit and join him when instruction would commence . Some time later — it could have been three weeks — he again drew himself up and , saluting , said thank you Sir , you now know enough to give me orders . Needless to say I held him in great respect — he was great .

In the succeeding months there was much activity in harbour and at sea with a view to keeping the fleet up to maximum efficiency in order to carry out a number of operations . While quite often at Action stations , the Secondary Armament was seldom engaged , although when this happened life was hectic , so watch keeping at sea meant being in and around the turrets to ensure all was well .

When the fleet was at sea with the C- in — C embarked “ Queen Elizabeth “ was Flagship , but in harbour the C — in — C had his HQ ashore and the duties of Flagship fell to “ Renown “ . As duty OOW , one was responsible for the running of the routine ( as laid down in orders , standing and special ) and there was much Ceremonial , with the RM band and Guard for Colours and the comings and goings of Squadron Admirals and ship’s Captains . The sailing boats gave the opportunity of pleasant relaxation and whenever circumstances allowed there was a steady flow of applications to “ take one of the boats away “ .

In the old days Trincomalee had been an important coaling station , but there was little by recreation for the Fleet . Among” renown “’s RNVR Officers , one was a Civil Engineering Contractor and another a Quantity Surveyor and in concert from other experts within the Fleet and working parties provided the various ships companies a Lido and Rest Centre was soon established . In those days all the Capital ships carried RM bands and they provided the musical elements of the Concert Parties set up to provide further entertainment not only for the big ships themselves but also for the Destroyers and small ships in the Company .

As a routine in harbour the Padre — a wonderful man — organised “ Pardre’s Half Hour on each Sunday . This was soon extended to the “ Pardre ‘ s Hour “ . He also organised a weekday show where the humour tended to be broader , but “ Smutty gags “ were definitely out on “ Renown “ . During the summer and autumn of 1944 , “ Renown Entertainments “ mounted two major productions , with rehearsals and so on taking place during intervals in the ship’s real purpose . The first , produced by the Padre , was a full length variety show somewhat on the lines adopted by “ The Black and White Minstrel Show “ in that the curtain only came down at the Interval and at the Finale .

I acted as Stage Manager and also took part in one or two sketches and in the Finale . With the band the company must have been twenty strong and the show ran for a week . The other show was “ Tons of Money “ one of the original Aldwych Farces and was produced by John Barron , a Lieut. RNVR who also took the Principle part . I took that originally portrayed by Tom Walls . This production was immensely popular for somehow permission had been given for Wrens to “ Come off “ and take the female parts .

Both productions travelled around the Fleet and was great fun . ( The Padre finished his Ministry as Dean of Truro Cathedral , John Barron was notable for his part as the Dean in “ All gas and gaiters “ . Both sadly are no more )

My story continues in part 3.

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