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Lady Luck Part Three: Battle of the North Cape 1943icon for Recommended story

by terry hulbert

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terry hulbert
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terry hulbert
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23 March 2004

LADY LUCK Part Three Boxing Day, 26th December 1943, we were up in north Russia at the north cape, we were on our way to Murmansk escorting another convoy JW55B, when we were told that the German Battleship the Scharnhorst , had put to sea, and was going to attack the convoy.
In winter in Russia, it is always dark so as we were steaming towards the Scharnhorst somebody fired some star shells over our ship.
We got the order to open fire and try to shoot them down. The canvas cover was stiff with frozen sea spray that we had to break off. There had been snow flurries off and on all day.
If left on the gun the magazines froze solid, so they were kept in a steel locker with the tension taken off the spring. By the time, we got them out the locker and put 60lbs of pressure on, the star shells had burnt themselves out.
H.M.S.Norfolk , was the only ship that did not have flash less 8 inch ammunition, so every time we fired our 8 inch guns, we were lit up like day, consequently the German battleship used us to get their range and direction.
My gun platform was high up in the superstructure;
I could see both sides of the quarterdeck. The Scharnhorst fired a salvo at us, the first two 11 inch shells landed one each side of the quarter-deck, I saw two spouts of water shoot up in the air, I thought to myself , if they have straddled us with the first two shells, what’s going to happen with the next two.
I was soon to find out, the most frightening thing was to stand there, hearing those 11" shells rushing to-wards you, knowing there was not a thing you could do.
The best way I can describe an 11 inch shell coming towards you is, its like standing in the middle of a railway track with a express train thundering towards you at 150 mph, It starts off very faint, gets louder and louder and finishes in a big explosion, and shrapnel flying all over the place.
The next two shells hit the ship, one exploded about fifty yards away on “X” turret which was manned by marines, killing an officer and four rating. I saw the turret rise about two feet in the air, and then drop back on its mounting, the 8"guns slumped to the deck. The other 11" shell went directly underneath me, two decks down and exploded inside the ship killing two stokers, five other rating were seriously injured.
The blast from the shells blew me off my feet. My ears were ringing, on picking myself up in a bit of a daze; I found flames surrounded the gun platform.
There were over fifty thousand’s rounds of 2pounder Pom-Pom ammunition stored under the platform, plus thousands of 20 mm shells on the platform. So I decided to get off the as soon as possible, I could not use the outside ladder to get down because of the heat and flames, so I opened the hatch in the middle of the platform.
The hatch was just big enough for one person to get through at a time and as I had my artic clothes on, I could not get through. I was wearing a sheepskin hat, Russian style with earmuffs, gloves, coat, also, two pairs of trousers, two pairs of socks, sea boots, thick jersey, overalls, woolen scarf, plus anti-flash gear.
I could feel the heat from the flames on my face, so I stuffed my cloths down as quickly as I could and managed to get through to the after steering position.
I found it full of officers and ratings.
Also there was the padre who’s name was David Sheppard somebody said he used to play cricket for England, I don’t know if it was true or not.
I asked one chap who I new, what was going on. It seems that the shell that exploded underneath me had cut the steering gear in half and they could not steer the ship from the bridge, so they had to use the secondary position that was underneath my gun platform.
As the ship could not be steered, we had to temporary stop the engines until they had engaged the necessary equipment. We were a sitting target for any U Boats in the area. However, it was not for long, we were soon on our way again.
Chief Petty Officer Ogilvy was in charge of the four-barreled Pom-Pom. He called up the hatch to me to come down and help him to put out the fire that was coming out of the air-vents.
On reaching the snow-covered main deck, I took the fire hose off the bulkhead, unrolled it and connected it up to the fire hydrant. The main and secondary guns were still banging away, every time the eight inch guns fired a broadside the ship shook from stem to stern, the noise was terrific.
The C.P.O. picked up the nozzle and told me to turn it on, nothing happened, the same shell had also cut the sea water supply. In his frustration, he grabbed a bucket that we used to use when on watch, full of urine. He threw it down the air vent, there was a hiss and we both staggered back with the smell of ammonia choking us. The fire went out, but not by us, the stokers below decks did that.
It was then that I heard this terrible screaming; coming towards us was a marine from “X” Turret a ball of fire from head to toe.
He went to climb over the guardrail to throw himself into the sea to put out the flames, which would have been certain death. Chief Petty Officer Ogilvy ran down the deck, grabbed hold of the marine threw him down on the deck rolled him over and over, and put out the flames; he then took him down to the sick bay.
If any man deserved a medal, he did, but as I was the only witness to the event, I am afraid he did not get one. As for the marine, I still do not know whether he made it or not.
Finding myself alone on the upper deck, I decided to return to the gun platform where I found the other three gun crew.
Our main 8 inch, and four inch guns were still banging away, what with the noise and flashes and vibrations of the ship every time a salvo or broadside was fired, I was in a bit of a daze, there was a smell of cordite, and burnt paint fumes everywhere, I was also scared stiff.
I looked towards where the German battleship was, as it was dark I could only see a small glow and some smoke, every ship was firing at the glow, the order was given to cease fire, then the Destroyers and cruisers went in and finished her off with torpedo’s. The next thing I heard was somebody blowing a whistle, there were survivors in the water.
We put on our searchlight to help the destroyers pick up anybody alive, not many lived in those freezing waters, thirty six rating were picked up, no officers survived, we could not keep our searchlight on to long, in case there were U- boats in the vicinity, over 1,800 men died that day, mostly German.
After the battle, we sailed across the Barents Sea to Murmansk, we were about two days sailing away, and we felt safe, as the Russians had sent two aircraft to escort us.
The day after the battle, after breakfast, I fell in for general duties. Walking along the deck to the quarterdeck I saw a strange sight, there on the deck were about eight brand new galvanized shining silver buckets full up with what looked like milk, eight brand new scrubbing brushes, eight brand new mopping up clothes .
As I got nearer I could smell the disinfectant, the Petty Officer said” grab a bucket and follow me”. We went down to the office flats where one of the 11-inch shells had exploded, blowing to bits two stokers.
The Petty Officer said to me” you start scrubbing here”, after a few minutes I realized I was cleaning up bits of skin, bone, pieces of finger nail, and blood, the disinfectant that was once white was now a milk chocolate colour, after an hour I was relieved and somebody else took over.
When we got to Murmansk, we sent our wounded ashore to a Russian hospital, that night Murmansk was being bombed again. I was on harbour defence Pom-Poms crew on the middle watch (midnight to 4am), we had orders not to open fire unless attached, so as not to draw attention to ourselves, as we were short of 4-inch shells. It was pitch black, so they probably they did not know we were there.
The next few days we spent tidying up the ship. Doing a few minor repairs, plugging a few holes etc. “X” turret was a complete wreck. The 8" guns had been blown off their mountings, and were resting on the deck. You could see two decks down through the shell hole in the office flats. It was one mass of twisted pipes and bent metal fitting.
The same 11-inch shell had gone straight though the 3/4 inch thick metal deck horizontally and curled it over like a furrow in a field, before exploding on the other side, killing the two stokers.
Before leaving Murmansk, we took on board one of our crew who had died ashore of his injuries to be buried at sea, with the two stokers. After sailing for about 36 hours, the ceremony took place. As I was the cook of the mess on that day, I made the excuse that I was to busy to attend.
About four o, clock in the afternoon I went to draw the bread ration, I went up the ladder to the main deck where the bakery was, and found myself slap bang in the middle of the burial service.
The ship had slowed to half speed; there were three planks of wood, one end resting on the guardrail. The other end held by two rating, one either side, three white canvas shrouds lay on the planks covered with the Union Jack containing the body’s or parts of body’s. Most of the bulk made up of the stoker’s hammocks each one containing a 6-inch shell that we had borrowed from one of the other cruisers as we had run out of eight-inch shells.
The Padre said a few words about “committing them to the deep”. The bugler sounded the Last Post; the rating’s slowly lifted up the planks, and one after the other the canvas bags slid from underneath the Union Jacks to land with a splash into the artic waters. We lost one Officer and eight rating killed in that battle.
In the Battle of the North Cape, as it became known, H.M.S. Norfolk was the first ship to sight the Scharnhorst, the first ship to hit the Scharnhorst, and the first ship to be hit by the Scharnhorst.
This was also to be the last big sea battle between Battle-ships, firing broadsides at each other. Its like will never be seen again, the day of the battle-ship is nearly over.
We sailed back to Newcastle for a re-fit. The crew was a bit on edge, somebody dropped a fork on the iron deck, and everybody jumped up off there seat and swore like mad, as every good sailor should. I went back to my gun position and took a good look around me.
I was amazed to find that the funnel that I leant against for a bit of warmth looked like a pepper pot. There were hundreds of shrapnel holes in it, the funnel was holed everywhere except at the place where I stood.
I assume that with the noise of the exploding shells, and the broadsides of the eight-inch guns, I never heard the whistle and clang of the shrapnel hitting the funnel.
Lady luck was certainly smiling at me that day.
On 31 December 1943, I was promoted to Able seaman, which meant another three pence a day, a total of twenty-eight shilling and four pence, (about 142p per week).

We sailed around the north coast of Scotland to the river Tyne. As we were steaming up the river, there were hundreds and hundreds of people along both sides of the bank, cheering and waving. There were dockyard workers, office girls, housewives, wrens, sailors, soldiers, you name it they were there, all the ships on the river were sounding their sirens, it was absolute bedlam.
We tied up along side the jetty. The place was full of people, newspaper reporters, photographers, dignitaries. As soon as we lowered the gang plank the press dashed on board, taking photos of the damage and interviewing the crew. All the big newspapers were there, Daily Express, The Daily Sketch, The Daily Mirror, there was also some provisional newspapers, with the reporters running about shouting” anyone from Manchester”, “anyone from Coventry”, it was quite a hectic day.
After a few days in Tyneside, the powers that be decided it was going to take months to repair the ship, so it was thought best to split the crew up, a very sad day, we had been together for about six months.
I was sent to a rest camp somewhere in Devon; for two weeks I didn’t have to do anything, no parades, no drilling, no work, have your meals when you wanted them, within reason, get up when you felt like it, all I did was play football, cricket, cards, darts etc.
We made tea and toast on the coal fire in the centre of the Nissan hut, it was cold outside, being April 1944.
In March I was drafted to another three funneled 8” cruiser H.M.S Devonshire, once on board I reported to the gunnery Officer, who put me in charge of a twin barreled 20 mm hydraulically operated Oerlikon machine gun, and a loader.
To operate the gun you sat in a seat on the gun, in front of you was a joystick, similar to what a pilot has in a cockpit of a plane, with a trigger on the stick.
On board our ship we had some marines, now, there was no love lost between marines and matlots. Some of them were all right, one used to play Boogie- Woogie on a lashed down piano in the game's room, the marines thought they were a cut above us. So who did I get for a loader, yes, you’ve guessed it, a marine.
He was about the same age as me, and he was trouble right from the start. He had signed on as a boy marine, and was not going to take orders from a mere H.O. sailor (Hostility's only).
I tried to show him how to load a magazine. Incendiary first, high explosive second (H.E.), ordinary solid bullet last, then 60 pounds of spring pressure.
It was important that the last shell in was a solid one, as this one had to split the condom open that we put over the end of the barrels to stop the sea water corroding the inside.
If the first one out was a H.E., it would have blown the barrel to bits injuring the gun crew
I tried my best to teach the marine but he just would not listen, and he was not the least bit interested.
The next time we had a gun drill I’m glad to say he never turned up, I should have told the gunnery Officer but I did not want to get him into trouble, so, for the next two years I did my own loading and unloading.
Once when firing at a German plane, one of my guns jammed, I climbed out of my seat, and tried to free the magazine. It would not budge, after whacking it a few times it came loose.
I removed the magazine, and found a shell jammed in the breech, with the gun in the firing position. I got the cocking lever and re-cocked the gun; this action threw the shell out of the gun, on to the deck.
The shell was bent up like a letter "V", I also noticed it was painted red, a High Explosive one. I turned my face away and very carefully and quickly, I picked up the shell, and tried to throw it over-board. It hit the guardrail, and fell in the scuppers.
I went to the guardrail, White Sea foam was rushing by, once more, I picked up the shell, this time I put my hand through the rail, and dropped it in the sea.
The loader should have done all this.
It was early in the year that we escorted the Queen Mary back from the Azores, with Winston Churchill on board, the Captain of the Queen Mary always went at full speed ahead and zig-zagged all the time to out run the U-boats, and if you could not keep up to bad.
After the Azores run, it was back to Russian convoys, we were heading towards Archangel when three Junkers 88s, torpedo-carrying planes, attached us.
One of the easiest planes to hit was one flying straight towards you, all you had to allow for was a bit of wind and ships speed and just point the gun at the plane. The first one came in, I opened fire at about one thousand yards, and so did another seven machine guns down the port side.
The Pom-Poms were already firing, the plane had dropped its torpedo, suddenly there was smoke coming from the cockpit, the plane banked sharply and crashed right into the icy cold sea, a few hundred yards from the ship.
The second came in, dropped his torpedo and sheered off, but there was smoke and flames coming from his tail, whether he made it home or not I do not know.
I was banging away at the third one that went right over the top of my head. There was an almighty bang, and I thought the plane had crashed into the ship. I felt what I thought were pieces of a plane clanging on top of my steel helmet, and then I found I could not move.
I felt something warm at the back of my neck and I thought I was paralysised. Fearing the worst I put my hand up to my neck expecting to find blood, instead I found an empty Oerlikon shell case that was still warm lodged in the collar of my sheepskin coat. I still could not move, I managed to wriggle my legs, but my shoulders were heavy, I looked around, there were hundreds of empty shell cases everywhere,
I had only fired about a hundred, I couldn’t make out where all the others came from, with a struggle I managed to get out of the cockpit and check myself over, I’m glad to say I didn’t have any injuries.
Lady Luck was looking after me.
What happened?, well, my gun was on the main deck, above me about twenty feet up in the superstructure there was a single barreled Oerlikon.
Above him was the wireless aerial, consisting of five heavy duty copper wires connected each end of the mast by a single wire.
When the plane went overhead, the gunner should have stopped firing. Instead, he continued to fire even though the plane was going away from the ship, hence all his empty shell cases falling on my head.
One of his shells cut through the wireless aerial bringing the whole lot down on my shoulders pinning me in the gun cockpit, I am glad to say all the torpedoes missed.
The next day, I was called to the Gunnery Office to give my version of what happened, I claimed to have shot down the first plane and hit the second, so did seven other machine gunners and the Pom-Poms crew, but at least we definitely had one destroyed and one possible. The third Junkers 88 flew over the top of the ship and disappeared over the horizon...
May 1944, I was twenty years old and I was now entitled to a daily Pussers rum ration, you had two choices, one was to have the rum the other was to take three pence a day in lieu; I chose to have the rum.
At midday the bugle sounded rum call, this had to be collected by the leading hand, he also had to measure it out in cups, and the rum was watered down 3to1 to stop people from bottling it. When it was your birthday you had sippers from everybody's cup, and you finished paralytic drunk.
If we were in harbour and you had to go ashore you could cancel the midday issue and collect it at 6 o'clock at night, and then you got neat rum. You were supposed to drink it in front of the duty Officer, but most of them did not bother, so you could bottle it and smuggle it out when you went on leave.
I took my dad a bottle home once, but he said it was to strong for him, so I stopped doing it; well that is my story anyway.
Every gun on board has a number, mine was number 11, one day coming back from Russia I was walking up and down trying to keep warm when I saw three torpedo tracks heading towards the ship.
I got on the radio and called the A.D.P (Air Defence Position) on the bridge, “ number eleven Oerlikon to A.D.P,” a Officer answered “what do you want number 11,” “three torpedo tracks on the port quarter sir, “ Officer, “don’t worry number eleven we can see them.” Even as he was speaking, I could feel the ship heel over and start shuddering as she went hard to port steering towards the torpedoes.
The first missed by about two hundred yards, the second by 100 yards, the third by 25 yards; to this day, I swear I could hear the electric motor as the last one went by.
We dropped several depth charges, with no results, but at least it kept the U- boat submerged.
Hitler always thought the invasion would take place in Norway. Three days before D- Day, we went out with several other ships as a decoy, to patrol up and down the Norwegian coast making ourself's a nuisance, shooting off a few guns and generally causing havoc.
Whether it made any difference or not, I do not know, but I suppose it tied up a few troops, we never saw one German U-boat or plane; in fact, it was a quiet voyage.
Every night at nine o’clock, you have Officers rounds. The duty officer walks around all the messes to see if everything is clean and tidy. Half an hour before, this the bugle sounds for the duty watch to fall in to tidy up.
This night I was on duty, normally more duty crew turn up than is necessary, and half are dismissed. This time I thought I would give it a miss, so did nearly everyone else. Instead of thirty people turning up only six did.
The next thing I heard was my name called over the tannoy, to fall in on the quarterdeck, I was told to appear at Captains Defaulters in the morning.
The Captain gave me 14 days jankers (Punishment), it consisted of peeling spuds at the galley for two hours every night. Getting up half an hour before everybody else and stowing the hammocks. And worst of all, running around the ship with a rifle above your head for an hour, first with the right arm, then the left arm, then with both arms, it was absolute purgatory.

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