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15 October 2014
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Part 2: Rexs' War

by edorcer

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Contributed by 
edorcer
People in story: 
Rex Houghton
Article ID: 
A7443533
Contributed on: 
01 December 2005

We stayed at Scapa for about a month and during that time the Gunnery instructor would take us ashore to practice our gunnery to keep our eye in. As before, we were firing at towed target drogues.
After the month was up we returned to the Tyne and the ships company were expecting to get some leave. Instead on the Saturday morning the ship was quarantined. Nobody could go ashore, only the postman and he had to have an escort. Then some army people came on board and began loading crates onto the decks. These were lashed down and all sorts of rumours were flying around! Then we set sail and as we got out to sea the Skipper finally told us what we were about to do. He told us we were headed for Gibraltar and that we would be on a very tight schedule. We were to lash everything down and make sure no lights were visible as we were going to make a fast passage. In fact, he told us that by the following Saturday we would be back home, and we were! The passage was fast and despite some rough weather across the Bay of Biscay we never slowed down until we finally docked in Gibraltar. The crates were off loaded and each watch got two hours leave on shore. I managed to buy Gwen some nylons and like several others I bought a bunch of very green bananas. When we got back the bananas were a big sensation as so many people hadn’t seen one for so long. After getting back we were finally given a weeks leave each watch, port and starboard having a week each. I was in the port watch and we went first. When I got home the bananas were well and truly ripe but despite this Gwen took one to work and raffled it with the money going to the Red Cross. We never did find out what we had carried so urgently to Gibraltar.
When we got back to the ship again we were issued with tropical kit so we had an idea that we were about to leave home waters. We set off and joined a big convoy, part of which was heading for South Africa, part for the far east and the rest going on to take part in the invasion of Madagascar. It was the biggest wartime convoy up to that date. Although I didn’t know it at the time , Hubert Arnold was in the same convoy on his way to what was then Rhodesia to train RAF pilots. The route the convoy took was down the coast of Africa as at this time in the war it would have been too dangerous to go into the Mediterranean to use the Suez Canal. It was on this trip that I crossed the equator for the first time and took part in a crossing the line ceremony on the ship. A large awning was strung across the foc’sule and filled with water. Then all the people who hadn’t ever crossed the Equator had to appear before Neptune. We were made to take some disgusting “pills” made of soap and salt! Then we were thrown into the water. Having survived that I got a certificate to prove that I had crossed the line, though that sadly later on, the certificate went down with the ship when we were sunk.
When the convoy reached South Africa we put into Cape Town and Durban. It was in Durban that our crew put a football team together and played some locals. They all played in bare feet and they were as tough as nails!
Eventually we reached Madagascar and our ship gave supporting fire to the army as the invasion force landed. That was May 5th 1942. Behind us further out to sea was the battleship HMS Rodney the sister ship of the Hood.
its huge shells thundered over us on their way to their targets. We stayed for a week then started to head home. When we were off Mombasa the skipper called the crew together and thanked us for the good work we had put in supporting the landings. But he also had a go about the poor reaction we had had in getting to action stations just prior to that! He was firm but fair and nothing got past him!

On the return journey we came back via the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Med. We stopped at Aden for refuelling and the crew were allowed a few hours on shore. Aden was a hot place and when the lads were waiting on shore for the ship’s boat to come and take them back several decided to go for a swim. Well, when we got back on board the Skipper played steam. He said “You do know there are sharks swimming round here. The place is full of them! ” And there were! We had seen them as we sailed up to Aden but never thought they would come inshore!
We then sailed up the Suez Canal and docked in Port Said, just by the statue to Ferdinand De Lessops who of course, built the canal.
Then we were detailed off to escort a convoy to Malta. We sailed to Alexandria to pick it up and then we set off. The result was a disaster! We just couldn’t get through, the Germans and Italian planes attacked constantly and eventually the convoy had to disperse. So we came back to Port Said and from then on we supported the Eighth Army as it prepared for El Alamein. During this time we ran a few convoys up and down the Canal. One in particular is memorable. We were escorting five troop ships full of Australians who were heading back to fight the Japanese. As we got further south we left what was considered to be the war zone. So the navy decided it would be safe to give us our booster jabs there. Well! After having them the whole crew had side effects! I was shivering all the time and despite it being eighty odd degrees I was wearing my greatcoat and shivering like mad! Another time, as we headed back up to Port Said we had to wait for a south bound convoy to pass. To fill the time we played football against some locals on a pitch that was just rocks and sand. Another football match we played was an inter flotilla competition and the Skipper was keen for us to do well. So keen in fact that he had all the team into the wardroom for a bit of advice! Luckily we won the tournament and so he was well pleased!
Then the Eighth Army attacked at El Alamein on October 23rd 1942 and we spent a lot of time up and down the coast giving covering fire and support. On one occasion we supported a raid on Tobruk but that went completely wrong. The Germans were ready for us and the raiding party who were commandos were either all killed or taken prisoner whilst the navy lost the HMS Zulu and Sikh
Then we were detailed off to escort a convoy to Malta. We sailed to Alexandria to pick it up and then we set off. The result was a disaster! We just couldn’t get through, the Germans and Italian planes attacked constantly and eventually the convoy had to disperse. So we came back to Port Said and from then on we supported the Eighth Army as it prepared for El Alamein. During this time we ran a few convoys up and down the Canal. One in particular is memorable. We were escorting five troop ships full of Australians who were heading back to fight the Japanese. As we got further south we left what was considered to be the war zone. So the navy decided it would be safe to give us our booster jabs there. Well! After having them the whole crew had side effects! I was shivering all the time and despite it being eighty odd degrees I was wearing my greatcoat and shivering like mad! Another time, as we headed back up to Port Said we had to wait for a south bound convoy to pass. To fill the time we played football against some locals on a pitch that was just rocks and sand. Another football match we played was an inter flotilla competition and the Skipper was keen for us to do well. So keen in fact that he had all the team into the wardroom for a bit of advice! Luckily we won the tournament and so he was well pleased!
Then the Eighth Army attacked at El Alamein on October 23rd 1942 and we spent a lot of time up and down the coast giving covering fire and support. On one occasion we supported a raid on Tobruk but that went completely wrong. The Germans were ready for us and the raiding party who were commandos were either all killed or taken prisoner whilst the navy lost the HMS Zulu and Sikh
As the Eighth Army pushed Rommel back we had another go at taking a convoy to Malta and this time we got through so we were then able to bring empty ships back to Alexandria. As the Germans were pushed further and further back we were able to get more convoys through until finally we were able to use Malta as our base.
With Malta as our base we began what were called “Club Runs”. Every night a couple of destroyers would sail out to intercept Axis convoys trying to reach the Afrika Corps in Tunisia. If we found a convoy we would try and sink as many of them as we could. We were very effective and one week we sank fourteen ships. At the same time we did some anti submarine work and on one of these we went up to near Rhodes to hunt a U boat that had been seen on the surface by a plane charging her batteries. Our asdic operator got a contact and for the next ten hours, from twelve noon to ten at night we hunted the sub. Dropping pattern after pattern of depth charges. The asdic operator maintained contact the whole time and was awarded the DSM afterwards for it. The sub was the U599 and we finally forced it to the surface on 30th October 1942. When the sub surfaced she was near to the HMS Petard and they sent a boat out to the sub to collect documents. There were three of them , a young lad, an able seaman and an officer. I saw the young lad dive in and swim to the sub. Then when they were on board the sub went down and the young lad was the only one to get off. But one of the results of this was that though no one told us the navy had managed to get its hands on an Enigma code machine. A fact recorded I believe a Bletchworth the code breaking place. The Germans lost five crew members and the rest were shipped off to South Africa. The other sub that we sank was an Italian one that we caught on the surface. We fired at her and the crew surrendered. At that point Benny Lynch, the stern ack ack gunner wouldn’t stop firing. He had had some sort of breakdown and just kept firing. Afterwards he was taken off and we never saw or heard of him again. It was while we doing this type of work that the HMS Pakenham was hit. We had just sunk a destroyer and couple of other ships when we were hit by gunfire. The portside was hit and the engine room was badly damaged and a lot of the engine room personnel were killed or very badly scalded by escaping steam. One of the people killed was my best mate Inch. He was an Ack Ack gunner like me but his post was on the port side and mine was starboard. Inch had won the DSM before I met him but I don’t recall what for. We were very good friends and did lots together. One of the reasons we were able to identify his body was by the fact that he and I had bought identical sheepskin jackets in Port Said. When the casualties were laid out I was able to tell the PO that it was Inch because he was wearing that jacket.

We had lost all power and were dead in the water. The HMS Paladin tried to tow us but it wouldn’t work so in the end an order came from Malta to sink the ship. This was done using torpedoes. We abandoned ship by getting onto the HMS Paladin and we could only take what we could very quickly carry, it was the 16th April 1943. Despite losing the certificate and some photos I did manage to get away with some things that I kept in a little kit bag. These included a new number one uniform that I had had made ready for my wedding to Gwen. When we were sunk the BBC midnight news carried it and Mr Atherton, who lived in Barnton and always tuned into the midnight news heard it. He found my brother Norman first thing in the morning and told him and then Norman told my dad. Of course at that time they didn’t know if I was alive or dead. Then my telegram arrived and they knew I was alright.
When we got back to Malta the shop’s crew split up as we were detailed off to other duties. I was asked to go on a course to become an AA2. But I had second thoughts about this as by this time I had lost three good mates who had been Ack Ack gunners. Little Inch who was a real mate, a lad called Finch who was a PO and a lad called Rawlinson. We were sent down to South Africa to do the training but by the time we arrived our whole group, about fifteen of us, had decided that we didn’t want to do it. This caused a real fuss! But in the end they didn’t make us and put us all on the next boat back to the Med. Then I got sent to a Hunt class minesweeper the HMS Derby that was due to come into the Mediterranean.
I had to go down to Hiafa to join her and I had to travel on a train all the way down from Alexandria. The Minesweeper was another First World War ship and a coal burner! She had been based in Singapore but had got away before the Japanese took it. Then she had eventually been brought over to us because several minesweepers had been lost in operations. Being a coal burner meant we were often involved in the business of bunkering coal. A really messy job that all hands, except officers, had to work at.
Getting coal could be a problem and a couple of times we took coal out of ships that had been sunk in Tobruk harbour. When I joined the ship the officer the first lieutenant who met me realised I had quite a bit of experience and made me the ship’s quartermaster. Most of the crew were young lads just out of training, never been to sea before and they didn’t know much about anything! I had to do a lot of training with them. We brought the ship up from Hiafa to Alexandria and then went along to Tobruk before crossing to Malta. From there we than crossed to Taranto in Italy. From there we started our duties which was to sweep for mines all along the heel of Italy and up into the Adriatic. We often used Bari as a base and the harbour then had the Italian warships in. They had all been sunk by then though they were all still lined up and moored stern first to the dock. The only thing was they were all sitting on the bottom of the harbour. It was while we were in Bari once that I broke my wrist. We had agreed to play the Bari post office staff and they were a rough lot. I got knocked up into the air and came down with a bang. Well I was on watch that night so I didn’t say anything but during the night my wrist came up like a balloon. We didn’t have a sickbay of course just a first aider and he looked at it and said I ought to have it x-rayed. So off we went to a hospital. The x-ray operator wasn’t very pleased with me as he said the wrist was too swollen by then to x-ray properly. Anyway, they did it and found it was broken and fitted me up with a cast. So for the time it was on I was made the ship’s postman!

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