- Contributed by
- Jim Arnison
- People in story:
- Jim Arnison
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 March 2004
From being born in Hanky Park, Salford in 1925 the nearest I ever got to the sea prior to the Second World War was at the Docks on Trafford Road or the ‘Cut Canal’ on Frederick Road. I was called up at eighteen and trained as a Radar Operator. Thus I became a crewmember of the light cruiser “Argonaut”. A whole crew of us joined the ship’s company at Hebburn on Tyne where it was undergoing a final re-fit after returning from Philadelphia to where it had been towed across the Atlantic after being torpedoed. The work could not be carried out at its “birthplace” on Merseyside due to heavy enemy air attacks there.
After ‘training up” at Scapa Flow we eventually joined the great gathering of the Invasion Fleet before setting off for the ‘Invasion’. We spent a whole evening sailing up and down the Channel waiting for the weather to clear. Then, as we began to approach the French coast, I recall us passing by a whole collection of landing craft filled with soldiers. We lined the deck and gave them a rousing cheer as we sailed by. Later that same evening one of our pals popped into our radar office and complaining bitterly that he had been ordered to ‘go aloft’ as lookout. He had told the officer that he was afraid of heights but that excuse was a non-starter - the officer had already looked up his records and discovered that in Civvy Street he had been a steeplejack.
We took part in the shelling of the invasion coast and during our time there a number of incidents occurred which stay in the memory. There was the time when we spotted a Carley Float type of craft rushing past us and carrying some eight American soldiers in full battle gear. The craft was out of control and the GIs were frantically waving for help. A number of attempts were made to throw lines to them so that we could halt their rapid passage and pull them to safety. All attempts failed and suddenly the craft turned completely upside down and drifted on. With the weight of their kit and their weapons there was no hope of any of the men surviving.
As the invasion went on all sense of time became meaningless in the din and bustle. I recall having a break one day and there was a rush to the Mess Decks for a “brew.” I was in line with our Mess Deck’s large metal teapot waiting to fill up when we heard an outbreak of heavy gunfire coming from a nearby Yankee battleship. We dropped our vessels and ran to our Action Stations. It turned out to be a false alarm. The American guns had opened fire — some Wag on our ship said - “On a ****** seagull. One American officer had even been spotted firing a revolver into the sky. He was referred to as “Effing Buffalo Bill.”
One day I was ‘on watch” with a colleague when we felt a bump and a shudder run through the ship. About an hour later we were relieved and went down to the Mess Deck for a brew. I asked about the ‘bump’ and we were told that a shell from a shore battery had hit our quarterdeck, torn through the cabin of the Paymaster and outed through the ship’s side. The Shipwright was at that moment welding a patch repair to the damage. On hearing this my colleague swiftly went to his locker, came back with a notepad and began a letter home thus: “Dear Mother, We have been struck!” He never lived that one down.
During the invasion we got a mention on the radio News bulletin. Some of our troops were tied down by an assault by German Panzers. We lay offshore alongside the Cruiser ‘Orion’ and — to directions relayed by RAF fliers — we fired salvos which eventually broke up the Panzer attacks. This operation only involved our gunners. The rest of the crew could hear the inter-com messages from the planes and eventually came the news that the Panzer attack had been driven back. Later we heard a BBC broadcast which related the incident and announced that “…the British Cruisers Orion and Argonaut lying close inshore and firing at almost extreme range lent effective aid to our troops.”
We had a rather eerie period one day when a crew member went down with an attack of appendicitis. The Ship’s Surgeon advised that we would have to withdraw to some ‘quieter’ spot, and shut down the engines while he performed the necessary operation. It was a somewhat eerie and scary period as the ship rolled around in total silence.
Soon after this we were on our way back to Portsmouth to reload. When we arrived it was discovered that the rifling on the gun barrels had worn to such an extent that they would have to be replaced, and a more permanent repair carried out on the damage caused by the shell. Thus it was that we were given Shore Leave in two Watches. It so happened that our shelling of the Panzers had been mentioned in a radio bulletin and our families had heard this. It was therefore a great surprise for my Mum one Friday afternoon when, as she stood at our front door she spotted me coming round the corner carrying my kit bag. She almost fainted — thinking I had been shipwrecked. The first thing I did when I got home was to change into ‘civvies’. I could therefore walk around free from any obligation to salute any uniform.
That night I went along to the Houldsworth Hall in Manchester where the Trades Council was holding a Rally in support of the ‘Second Front’ — something for which the Labour Movement had campaigned for some two years. One of the speakers was Sam Wild who had commanded British Volunteers in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Seated nearby was a friend, Lily Druck. She leaned over and said, “Isn’t it exciting — the Second Front at last. I said, “Yes. I’ve just come from there.” With a look of some scorn and disappointment she replied “Oh Jim — Come off it!” What could I say to that? The action was over there in France and I was sitting there in the Houldsworth Hall — in civvies.
My weekend leave was over in a flash and I was back in Pompey aboard ship as the second batch of the crew left for their short break. It was at this time that we all realised just what the people of London were going through. The crewmembers who returned from their short break told of the carnage being wrought by the Nazi Flying Bombs. One of the lads had failed to return and his friend told the Officers that he was in fact searching for his family who had been bombed out of their home. The lad who gave this information was immediately dispatched to find his pal and bring him back; with a promise that no action would be taken against him. This he did and the stories we heard from the London lads made us realise just how close run had been the decision to, at last, open the Second Front in Europe. From the ‘Doodle Bugs’ to the more accurate Flying Bombs we all began to realise just how dangerous had been the lengthy delay in opening the Second Front in Europe. Any further delay might well have resulted in the launching of Rockets capable of reaching any part of Britain.
There was a real feeling of Internationalism among the armed forces during World War II, I recall the time during the Normandy invasion when there was some serious hold-up of the advance of the Allied Forces by Nazi Panzer Divisions. Then came news of a massive tank assault on Nazi forces on the Russian Front which had forced the Germans to switch some of their Panzers from the Western Front. When our Captain; E.W Longley Cook, announced this news over the tannoy a great cheer went up from our ship’s crew with cries of “Good Old Joe!”
Following the Normandy landings we were switched to the invasion of Southern France. This was nowhere as huge or difficult an operation as the Normandy landings. We spent some time bombarding the coast there and alongside us was the Flagship Cruiser: HMS Belfast with an Admiral on board. On one occasion a German Mobile Shore Battery was sending shells over in our direction. One of these landed in the water quite close to the Belfast. Immediately and very swiftly a small craft was launched by the Belfast which whizzed round the Flagship at great speed whilst emitting a smoke-screen as the Belfast swiftly left the scene, stern first, but not before signalling for us to fire back at the enemy battery. One of our Officers was overheard referring to the Belfast as ‘The Second Eleven.”
Our ‘break’ after the Normandy landings was the last time we were to see home until the war was ended. Following the Southern France invasion we spent some time in the Aegean and Adriatic Seas in a number of ‘mopping-up’ operations. In one of these we came across a small, tug-like ship which was filled with German troops who apparently were fleeing from the Greek Resistance fighters. As we approached this craft those onboard began to wave white flags of surrender. What happened then became a subject of much discussion and debate among our crew. One story was that somebody had spotted a movement aboard the craft towards a small gun at the stern. Our Captain gave the order to open fire. The close range weapons did so and all hell let loose. The German troops began to jump overboard and to swim towards us. Lines were dropped over the side for them to clamber aboard. There were some who just could not make it up the lines we had dangled over the ship’s side. After a while we had quite a gathering of German troops onboard, but there were still quite a lot in the water. Suddenly the Captain announced that as we were running low on fuel we would have to leave for a rendezvous with a tanker. He told us that another ship was on its way to pick up other enemy survivors. Before we left a ‘raiding party’ went aboard the stricken craft and came back with ‘booty’. Our last act at the scene was to bombard and sink the craft.
There was a great deal of debate and discussion among the crew. Some claimed the story that some other ship was on the way to pick up the remaining survivors was an excuse and that our Captain had acted on a calculation that there were too many ‘survivors’ for us to cope with. We left and our prisoners were later transferred ashore into the hands of members of the Greek Resistance.
We had a few other ‘incidents’ which involved the taking of prisoners. On one small island outpost flags of surrender were flown as soon as we arrived. A boat was launched with an armed Marine to bring the few German prisoners aboard. One of my pals was taking photographs as the boat approached on its return. The Marine was sat athwart the gunwale pointing his Lanchester Rifle at the captives. I still have copies of these pics, but the best shots were missed. It was just as the lad was re-loading the camera that the boat did a wobble and the Marine went overboard. The German prisoners rescued him — minus his weapon which went to the sea bottom. What a picture that would have made!
Sometime after these incidents we docked at Athens and went ashore. Of course we paid a visit to the Acropolis. We also had a game of soccer. There were few, if any souvenirs for us to buy. Before leaving, the Nazis had flooded the country with phoney Greek currency. The Allies had been forced to introduce a temporary “Allied Military Currency”
Our next voyage was to Salonika. We took with us a party of Paratroopers who had been trained at Manchester Airport. En route to Salonika we were preceded by Mine Sweepers. The Paras were occupying our Rec Space and on the first night out they were asked to put their gear to one side while those of us who were ‘off-watch” came in to watch a Hollywood film. The Paras were much taken aback at this and wanted to know how we could possibly sit and watch a film while sailing through a mined area. To us this was somewhat strange - coming from men who jumped out of aeroplanes!
There was a ‘Victory’ Parade in Salonika in which our crew and the Paras took part. It was soon after we had left that we heard the news that these same Paras were involved in the struggle which erupted when we “Allies” set out to disarm those who had done so much to liberate their land from the Nazis. There was no doubt whatever with regard to the political attitude of we in the Forces who were fighting in this war. It was a war against Fascism and our support for the struggle of the Soviet Union was never in question. Neither was our support for the ideals of Socialism, as demonstrated by the massive Service vote for Labour at the end of the war.
We also had a somewhat dim view of our American ‘Allies’. When we paid a visit to Sicily one of the first things we spotted was a huge poster with the message “If you can’t leave it alone use a Prophylactic!” As a body of us walked along the main road we saw in a long narrow street a lengthy queue of Yankee matelots. There must have been at least a hundred of them. We then learned that they were queueing outside a ‘house’ in which there were but two prostitutes. This does not mean that we were all ‘innocents’. It seemed to us to be a matter of degree. It was once estimated that the Americans had a higher casualty list to V.D than to any other ailment or enemy action.
Our journeying also involved taking part in operations in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans and the China Seas. There were some long, extremely boring periods at sea especially in the Pacific. At one stage we were at sea for 36 days without sighting land. Our maximum fuel capacity was for eleven days and our refuelling was carried out by American oil tankers under the Lease-Lend Agreement. We would rendezvous at sea and the tanker would steam alongside us with its pipeline attached to a valve on our upper deck. It was a high quality act of seamanship by both sides.
During this lengthy period at sea we got up to all manner of acts to ease the boredom. On one occasion the Captain had the, not too bright, idea of an exercise in which we had to imagine that all the Officers had been killed. The Chief Bosun of Signals became Skipper and crewmembers took over according to their seniority. It did not last for too long. The first order we got over the tannoy was for Starboard Watch to muster for inspection for shore leave. The exercise ended with the piped instruction: ”Issue Rum every five minutes.”
The evenings were tediously boring as we ploughed slowly through the night. We got up to all manner of pranks to relieve the boredom when ‘off-watch’. On one occasion Yorkie, from Hull, spotted a shipmate who was obviously daydreaming; he had that far-away look. Slowly a small group gathered nearby and began to sing “Do you ever get that feeling in the moonlight?” Yorkie asked the lad “Do you ever get that feeling in the Moonlight? The lad looked up and said “What?” “You know” said Yorkie “That kind of feeling that you want to be kissed” The lad sighed and answered “Yes.” At this we all joined in with “Well you big Doughy B*****d!”
Yorkie was a good friend. He and I were both Rugby League fans and played for the ship’s team whenever we got ashore somewhere. That of course was at that other game, Rugby Union, where most of the ship’s team was made up of Officers. We also had another League lad. This was Eric Frodsham who after the war captained Warrington in that famous Rugby League Final replay at Odsal Stadium, Bradford. We had great fun working Rugby League moves in the matches, much to the puzzlement of the Union players. On one occasion I was ‘put through’ a gap and had a clear run to the try line of some thirty yards. I made the run with an officer’s exhortations to: “Punt man, punt!” ringing in my ears. I ‘touched down’ under the sticks and walked back to silence from all but my League mates.
We spent Christmas 1944 in the Pacific. The Mess decks were decorated up for the occasion and our Mess was fully curtained off when the Captain made his Christmas Rounds. At each Mess he gave his greeting and when he got to ours we opened the curtain for him to see all ten of us standing there with clenched fists and the cry “Merry Christmas Comrade Captain!” He never even blinked but returned our greeting and carried on. On New Years Day we docked at Perth in Australia where we had a run ashore before going on to Sydney. We were greeted with wonderful hospitality by the Aussies. We got the impression that this was partly because they had just about had enough of the Americans who had been there previously. There were many invitations from people who wanted to meet us which included accommodation at their homes. There was however some consternation within the community at Sydney with regard to the actions of most of our lads at the Cinemas. Unlike at home the Cinemas in Sydney used to break for an interval with the playing of the National Anthem which at that time was the same as ours. Whenever this was played there was a stampede of Matelots for the exits; they thought the show was over.
On one occasion the Ship’s Padre came to me as “One man I know I can trust.” He had an invitation from a family in Sydney who wanted a group of British sailors to attend a “Surprise Anniversary Party” for their parents. The Padre, who of course knew all about my political outlook, made it clear that he had asked my help knowing that I would not choose any ‘undesirable’ elements. I went down to the Mess Deck and asked; “Anyone interested in a Surprise Anniversary Party?” Eventually I gathered a group of ‘volunteers’ and two nights later we were on our way to an address in the suburbs of Sydney where we met with the family organising the surprise. At their house we were loaded up with items of food to carry over to the venue and with several bottles and a large jug of beer. This we gave to an Able Seaman Shard who hailed from Widnes. He was a grand lad but a bit clumsy at times, as we learned on the way to the house. On the approach to the bungalow and up the garden pathway Shard managed to catch the bottom of the beer jug on one of the steps. He managed to do this just as the family were shouting “Surprise! Surprise!” at their parents who had just opened the door. What we were shouting was something like; ‘You clumsy b******d! That’s the beer gone!” All was forgiven however as we recovered some degree of decorum.
The Parents who were celebrating their anniversary were a grand old couple and delighted to see us. Then they introduced us to some other guests. This was a group of brand new Fleet Air Arm Pilots who had only just arrived in Sydney and had never been on an Operation. They plied us with questions about the ‘Ops’ we had been on, and especially about the flying side. We were somewhat cruel at first with stories of us having heard the alarmed voices of pilots returning at dusk and having some difficulty in judging how to land back on the Carriers. One of the lads advised; “The best thing to do as you take-off is stall the engine and drop in the sea. You’ll have a little rubber dinghy and paddles to get back to the Carrier. Learn how to paddle — that’s the big thing.” It was somewhat cruel but by this time we had all become somewhat cynically hardened. We had a saying “You shouldn’t have joined if you can’t take a joke!”
In the event everything went well and the two recipients of the ‘Surprise Party’ were delighted. Two days later the Padre came to me saying “Well Red (this was my nickname on the ship) I am proud of you all.” He had been sent a ‘Thank You’ message from the family saying how good we had been.
The Operations at sea involved long, boring days and nights. On one occasion we were happy to learn that we would be going back to Sydney for a break. Before we left the Fleet we had a number of ‘Passengers’ transferred to us who were locked up and a Marine Guard placed at their doorway. It took no time at all for us to discover that in fact they were Crew members from one of the Carriers who had staged a ‘strike’ over bad food and conditions. They were dropped off for incarceration at Darwin.
On our return to the Fleet we all noticed a distinct change of atmosphere. At one island port we saw a massive US Merchant Ship unloading commercial goods- not weapons. The name of this huge merchant ship was “American Victory” — we didn’t yet know it but this was a forerunner of the US domination of the world.
At sea all was quiet - then - we heard the news. Our captain announced that the Americans had dropped a new type of weapon (believed to be a Magnesium Bomb) on Hiroshima. Later came news of the Nagasaki Bomb and confirmation that the weapons had in fact been Nuclear Bombs. It was in February 1946 that we paid a visit to the Port of Kure and, in different groups over several days, we went ashore and travelled by rail to the carnage that had once been the city of Hiroshima. The effect on us all was horrendous. We simply wandered around amid the rubble and the terrible destruction that had been visited on that city and its people. At one point several of us came across a small dug-out from which we saw some smoke rising. It was all that was left of what had been a home. As we approached three children came out followed by an old man who bowed and said “Welcome American Gentlemen.” Quickly — and guiltily we responded “No! Not American - English — British!” It was on that day that I and my shipmates became Campaigners for Nuclear Disarmament.
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