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Life in the Services 1939-46, Chapter 4

by John Bartlett

Contributed by 
John Bartlett
People in story: 
John Bartlett
Location of story: 
'The Med, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Holland'
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 December 2004

Life in the Services, 1939 — 1946

Chapter 4
“Life as a Naval Officer”

After a short spell on a South African trawler, followed by weeks anxiously waiting in Naval barracks in Simons Town (Cape Town docks), my friend Ronnie Cunn and I managed to get on a Dutch ship heading for Liverpool. It was crammed full with women and children from Singapore. We had to work very hard and had a punishing routine of watch keeping. On top of all this, we were expected to help the 'toffy nosed' women with their children. To make matters worse, we had very poor food - only three meagre meals a day, which British sailors were not used to. The journey took ages because we went to the far West to the Saragossa Sea to avoid enemy submarines.

With great relief, I got home and had some leave but soon became restless. I wanted to get to H.M.S. King Alfred Hove, the Officers training establishment for R.N.V.R. Officers.

Needless to say, I was very eager to get through the course then pass the dreaded exams. The great day came. I passed out in August 1942 as an Officer. But, the fact that I was classed as an Executive Special (because of my defective colour vision) took the icing off the cake.

After some leave, I was posted to a shore base in Dunoon in Scotland. This was the centre for the A.S.F.D. (Anti Submarine Fixed Defence systems) - very much the 'Cinderella' arm of the Navy, run entirely by the R.N.V.R. (Volunteer Reserve).

The main detection system consisted of large loops of armoured cable (one and a quarter inch in diameter) being laid on the seabed of the harbour to be protected - sometimes as much as a hundred miles long! These were connected to delicate electrical equipment contained in large teak boxes - all very primitive and ungainly. In addition we had Asdic equipment on tripods, which were dropped on to the seabed and connected to shore equipment by cable.

Life was very pleasant - good food, waited on hand and foot by amiable Wren's, good drinks and warm comfortable quarters. What a change for me! This helped to offset the deep disappointment of being pushed into a backwater of Naval activities.

With this disappointment and the terror of forthcoming exams, sharpened the usual slow reactions of Sub-Lieutenant Bartlett, so that near the end of the course when a lecturer asked for a volunteer to go a secret mission, his hand shot up at lightning speed!

I was appointed to a secret mission to join a ship in Portsmouth. Once again, the long train journey down South, where I joined a beautiful Polish cruise liner which had only been built shortly before the war. The conditions were wonderful - a splendid cabin and magnificent food.

The ship was crammed largely with army troops, some RAF and about a hundred Naval ratings. In no time, I was collared by the Naval C.O., who told me, as I was the youngest it would be my job to keep the troops happy and busy. This meant getting up at 6.00 a.m. and having them running around the decks and doing P.T. Boxing was organised for the afternoon with ringside seats provided for the Brigadier and other Officers. After steaming south for some time, we were told we were heading for Algiers on the North African coast. Of course, if we had been classical scholars we would probably have guessed where we were going, as the code name for my party was Hannibal!

We were soon to learn that whilst the Navy were very well organised when afloat, they were hopeless when ashore. This we began to realise as it got hotter. We had no tropical uniform, no armaments and above all, when we landed, no food!

Fortunately, we were crammed into quarters on S.S. Scythia - an old passenger ship. It had been torpedoed, creating a hole through her bow, but somehow it had been patched up and moored alongside the jetty in Algiers. This became a floating hotel for all service, Army, RAF, Navy and Merchant Navy.

I found myself carrying out 'officer of the watch' duties, which were busy but not arduous until late at night! The first episode was dealing with about a hundred sailors from other ships who started an almighty drunken battle. Tables were ripped off the bulkheads and heavy duty cooking utensils were flattened. This was broken up by forming an armed guard of 'on duty' sailors with rifles, who were told to use rifle butts if necessary.
They arrested some who were put into cells together with two merchant seamen, who were brandishing knives.

The next day I was up before the Merchant Navy Captain who was complaining bitterly that two of his men where in the cells. As I was feeling a bit fed up with it all, I was quick to point out that at least I had restored order and prevented anybody being stabbed. No further complaint was made and I proceeded to carry out Duty Officer duties without restraint.

Shortly afterwards I was on duty, again at night. During this watch, I was presented with seven Italian prisoners who were all of splendid physique. They were limpeteers, their job was to swim to ships and stick magnetic mines to the ships. They were put two to a cabin. They complained about the conditions - food, light, guards etc. Each visit they became more threatening and more vociferous, especially as I ordered the guards to remain outside and the open doors and no lights out. They did not attempt to escape!

At last I was attached to an A.S.F.D. group who were assigned to build an A.S.F.D. station to protect Algiers harbour. This was the job for which I was trained.

I found the C.O. (a Lt./Commander) and three other officers very friendly and easy to work with. Unfortunately, the Chief Petty Officer who was expected to set up and wire up the detection equipment fell ill. He was sent home and I was thrust into his job, as none of the others had the faintest idea what to do!

They had ensconced themselves in an old French fort perched on the cliff edge, which seemed an ideal site. The snag was the walls were seven feet thick and we needed to join the engine room where we generated our own electric power to the control room, and from there to the sea.

I decided to ask the City Surveyor of Algiers for help - he couldn't speak English, and I couldn't speak much French. His secretary was also enlisted as interpreter, but her English wasn't good either, especially as we were using technical terms.

The result, however, was successful and the next morning an Arab foreman, armed with whip, with five Arab workers, with pneumatic drills, were given the task of cutting two doorways through the seven-foot walls. They did this very efficiently, although I felt sorry for the Arab workers who were beaten if they stopped too long for a rest!

With help from the fifty sailors we installed the generators, got them working and wired up the control room. Over a hundred miles of cable was laid across the harbour by a special cable ship. In addition to the loops, we also laid three tripods on the seabed. On the tripods were mounted special remote controlled asdic detectors. The great day came when all was switched on - but none of it worked, which after working through the night for weeks on end was a little disappointing! Eventually, some of it worked and to save the day a new Petty Officer had flown out from the U.K. and came to my rescue.

We were helped in all this operation by the British Army who provided us with rations. The second in command not only scrounged from the British, but bought a jeep for a few bottles of scotch from the Americans. He also commandeered several civilian taxis, driven by Arabs!

Because the British Army were not making the advance eastward along the coastline as expected, we never really built the station in Bizarta which was the original intention. The result was we seemed to spend some time being moved eastwards to Phillipville and then, after much hanging about, we were withdrawn.

It was on these journeys that I had some unique experiences. First, I and my boss caught the train from Algiers to Phillipville but there was only one carriage, with only one compartment. We settled ourselves in, a bench seat each was fine until after two days of very slow progress we went to sleep. The next morning we looked out of the window to find we had been shunted into a siding (it was a single track line). After many hours waiting we stopped another train and finished the journey.

Early one morning, it was still dark, I found myself being told by the only white American officer to join truck number six, driven by a Negro. We set off and it seemed my driver was terrified he might lose the truck in front, because he kept so close to it, so with only screened headlights we hurtled through the winding rough mountain tracks. The pace was being set by the white Lieutenant driving the front truck. I was tired and worn out by the time we screeched to a halt in the middle of Phillipville.

I can't remember why we were shuttling back and forth from Algiers, however many of the journeys remain in my memory.

One of these incidents is especially memorable. We were being transported in three trawlers, some three or four officers and a dozen sailors in each ship.

We had been out for about a day and a half, still in sight of land. We were having lunch in the officer’s mess when suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. Being slow, I suddenly found myself on my own without a life belt. I realised it was hopeless to go back for it, so I went up on deck to see the central trawler of the line of three (we were the last) just diving nose first, with just the stern bottom up, sticking out of the water with the propeller still rotating slowly. In seconds it had disappeared!

The first trawler went to pick up survivors. We were told to circle the position, searching for the German submarine which had caused the sinking. We located the submarine with Asdic detection and gave chase, dropping depth charges. Gradually, we lost any sign of the submarine but stayed in the area not moving, to make it difficult for them to know where we were. Just gazing at the sea, expecting to see a periscope emerge from the sea was very unnerving!

A few weeks later I saw one of the warrant officers who had been rescued from the middle trawler. His hair had turned white in a week!

Sometime during this very confused period, after marching the sailors twenty miles a day to keep them fit, I was packed off with a steward to the First Army Mine and Booby Trap school somewhere in the sandy wastes. Although we had acquired battle dress, we had blue caps, and I had blue epaulettes. On the course were a mixture of Americans, British, French, Poles and others, but we were kept busy all day and manoeuvres at night. As one might expect I had my leg pulled a great deal about "where had I left my boat?" etc.

Somehow this led to me being posted to join a group of Army, Air Force, Navy (mostly Royal Marines) called 'S' Force (as booby-trap and mine expert). Our objective was to go into Tunis before the Germans had left to pick up 'people' and equipment, which could be useful to the allies.

Appointed to go with me was an old bearded officer (I say old because he admitted to me much later that he had lied about his age when joining up). He started by telling me the jeep couldn't stand the weight of all my luggage. After heated 'words' we set off - with all the luggage, but he was driving. He broke the silence after a couple of hours and said as we had got to be together we had better start talking - just as well, as we had to share a tiny tent!

Gradually, as we camped, he found I knew as much about driving, camping and cooking as he did and we became good friends. He had obviously spent his life travelling and had been to these parts in peacetime. He could speak to the Arabs and the French farmers with great confidence. One day, he stopped the jeep and said, "Come, I will show you a Roman bath". We set off through long grass and came to a wood on a hill. There was a Roman bath - almost intact.

We were all camping in small tents and after a few days the Naval C.O. (a Lt. Commander in charge of the commando - mainly Royal Marines) got the Naval Contingent together to say he was fed up with the Army Major in charge, and that he wanted us to break away from the others (Army and RAF). It was arranged we should push our jeeps and motor cycles to a small track down the hill until out of ear shot, then we would start up engines and drive towards Tunis.

As we approached Tunis, it was getting light. A few local farming folk lined the road to give us a bemused wave - not sure who we were, even though we were flying a white ensign from the truck. When we reached the centre, we pulled up at a street side café, ordered coffee, sat back and watched the German soldiers marching in platoons along the street. We also saw German soldiers walking arm in arm with Tunisian girls. None of them gave us more than a casual glance!

We set off for the outskirts of the other side of the town. When we got into the open countryside we met considerable resistance from German soldiers.

The Lt. Commander, who had his own personal rifle with telescopic sights, and knives in his socks, had seemed bored with everything, but now the bullets were flying he became really alive - lit up!

After some hours of lying in the ditches, we were rescued by British Army armoured cars. We then pressed on to La Goulette, where I found myself with a Petty Officer and two other ratings in the Arab quarter spread out on a hillside. We seemed to walk from one square via an archway to another - very disconcerting as we were, after all, in German held country, apart from the fact that naturally, the Arabs weren't very pleased to see complete strangers roaming around their domain.

Somehow we came out on top of the hill to find a magnificent villa. We boldly walked in - finding all the doors open and the meals half finished on the dining room table - the Germans had obviously just left in a great hurry! I decided this would make a splendid quarter for the commando group, so two were despatched to find the others to get them to join us - which they did.

That evening, we climbed up on the curved roof to watch and listen to the final battle of North Africa. The Eighth Army, after a long journey and many battles, had driven the Germans up from the desert westwards until their only escape was a final dash to Tunis and Bizerte in the North, but the First Army had moved in to cut off their retreat, so they were squeezed into a corner by two Armies pincer movement. In the dark we could hear the rumble of tanks and the drone of the American planes. The dropping of bombs and the firing of guns, both Artillery and tanks, lit up the whole sky in one huge firework display. It was a shame the newspaper and radio reporters were not with us.

After a couple of nights at the villa we set off to Bizerte and I can't remember how, but once again I was cut off on my own with a Petty Officer and two other sailors.

A friend of mine, who was a Bomb Safety Naval Officer, came to see me, only to find me curled up in a corner of my room with very bad stomach pains. Thanks to him, I was rushed off in an Army ambulance. After what seemed like hours, I was taken on a stretcher, put on the ground and told to keep my eyes shut. I did peep out of half closed eyes, only to find I was on my own in what seemed like the desert. I must have passed out because the next thing I knew I was in a large tent - so-called hospital!

Strangely, everybody was very friendly and we led the poor Sergeant and his medical orderlies a merry dance!

A week or so later I was released, posted to the control room of all the fixed defences (consisting of some twelve shore-based guns and searchlights) surrounding Bizerte harbour, with strict instructions to take it very quietly.

I was sad to hear that my friend who had rescued me had been killed trying to defuse a mine in the canal at Bizerte.

Two other officers and I took it in turns to be officer in charge, doing eight hours each. On the whole a rather boring time.

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