- Contributed by
- People in story:
- See Part One
- Location of story:
- South Atlantic Station 1939-41
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 31 August 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Brian Armstrong, and has been added to the site with his permission. Mr. Armstrong fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
When I returned on board and studied the chart to see where we had been, I had a shock. We had escaped all kinds of horrible obstacles and obstructions, and landed on a sewer outfall some distance away from our objective. However it all ended up without effects and after a hot meal no one was any the worse. The episode passed into the records as the Battle of Portland Harbour.
It was a full week after the boat trip before we got away. Day after day, either too rough for the targets to go outside or no visibility and my lords had decreed that the ship must hot rail without the gunnery trials. Finally on Feb 3rd. (1940) we did sail. Firing our full calibre stuff and doing a good deal of minor interior damage to the ship in the way of doors and lights, but nothing structurally, in fact everyone was agreeably surprised how the ship held up to her first broadside.
The week spent in Portland was very useful. We were very much shut up and no leave was given so the ship's company got a chance to shake down and learn something about a ship. They were a collection; 80% had never been to sea before apart from our passage round from Belfast and messing about off the Isle of Wight with the net gear, and their knowledge of ship routine was more than vague, so at the end of a week they knew a little.
February 11th. (1940) saw us arrive in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and there we got a taste of the flap and fuss which was to be our bug bear all the time we were on the South Atlantic station.
As our only claim to fame then was that we were the biggest and alleged fastest armed merchant cruiser, people were keen to see us, the local Admiral most of all. Someone told him we'd got a swimming pool. We got to Freetown around eleven pm. The old man immediately started to do things as if we were to be there for a month. He wanted this done, that done and half a hundred other things and what have you? A programme which would have tried the resources of a fully trained battleship and complement, not to speak of a newly commissioned A.M.C. with a scratch crew - and to crown all an admiral’s inspection the next day and in spite of oiling and storing ship.
The first thing the oiler did was to pump oil all over the deck, and on the day of the admiral's inspection, the blasted motor boats went on strike. In fact the whole thing was a nightmare, but even nightmares come to an end, and we sailed. I think everyone was pleased to see the last of Freetown. It would have been a very pleasant break to have spent 72 hours in port, but to try to cram it into 24 hours wasn't so hot as some people say, and not the least of the big ideas was that we must land our watch of liberty men!!!
From Freetown, we were ordered to proceed to patrol an area off the South American coast in the vicinity of Rio de Janeiro, but a couple of days on passage and orders came through by W/T instructing us to proceed to the assistance of the British ship "Hartsmere", a considerable distance away in the South Atlantic and laying disabled owing to engine failure. This was our first taste of the utter unsuitability of a Service officer to adapt himself to Merchant Navy methods.
Service routine and service methods for naval ships, but they, having been constructed on the approved lines, lend themselves to the service way of doing things. Still, we all learn, and after many discussions, the "Hartsmere" was taken in tow by Merchant Navy methods.
Dupont the late Chief Officer of the ship and myself were given the job, and we organized it jointly, and did it according to our own ideas - everything went like a sewing machine. Casting off the tow was done by the same combination and we didn't even strain a rope yarn. In fact his nibs praised the operation, which was something.
We turned the tow over to the "Jervis Bay", having successfully towed at 8 knots and proceeded to Rio for fuel and water, prior to taking on our patrol. The weather from Freetown onwards was very tropical, but quite pleasant. We towed the "Hartsmere" from Saturday 17th. Feb. (1940) until Monday 19th. and arrived in Rio on 23rd. Feb., staying there 24 hours. The stay in Rio was not particularly pleasant: everyone wanted to get ashore and the all highest had decreed that two lieutenants must be on board at all times in addition to the duty C.O., so we were rather hampered. Liberty men were landed in large numbers and my share of the party was taking in stores all forenoon and looking after the ship from then till 10 pm., when I retired for a night in bed.
During the time on passage, we'd started out in three straight watches, but after a little agitation we'd managed to work it in split dog watches, which was better all round for everyone. That meant only one night in three with a broken sleep.
After leaving Rio, we steamed round in circles for about 24 days then we were ordered south for our next supply of oil and stores. A change of latitude meant a change in temperature, so from the baking thirties, we steamed south through the roaring forties into the howling fifties; colder all the time, and on March 22nd., We arrived at Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. A small place with exceedingly hospitable people and very powerful liquor of which more anon. Port Stanley looked just what it was, a small town at the back-o-beyond, but the local folks were kindness itself - too kind in some cases.
We stayed there two days oiling and taking stores, and I think it's safe to say that T of the ship's company got drunk, - blind paralytic drunk, to use a seafaring term. I had the first night on duty and never have I seen anything like a battlefield as they came off. The local liquor is strong - very strong and the troops had made a meal of it after their spell at sea. It was really astounding, and when some of our young engineer "officers" came off in the last boat and it was reported that they had been fighting with the stokers, it was pretty awful. I believe we were not the worst example of the Royal Navy, which the Falkland Islanders had seen. Previous ships had misbehaved even more than the "Queen of Bermuda".
It was interesting to get the stories from the local folk of the Battle of the River Plate. H.M.S Exeter had been down there for six weeks refitting for the journey home, and she had left her wounded behind in hospital. As Port Stanley was the first real break we'd had since leaving Portsmouth, we were very sorry when we had to sail after only 48 hours in port and the weather, which is usually foul, had been kind to us, to the extent of allowing a football game to take place. We beat the local army 4 - 3 but they saw us off in shooting so honours were even.
Sailing on the 24th. March for our patrol area, we had a week at sea on passage and then we had our first thrill since leaving home. A message was received saying that there was a German stowaway on board the Spanish Ship Ciduad da Sevilla and we were to intercept her and take him prisoner. This was rather a tall order as we had a very approximate idea of the Spanish ship's position, but I suggested that we call him with a phoney call sign and when he replied, all we'd have to do was take a D/F bearing. After some talk, this was done and we eventually picked the Spaniard up. A little shadowing during the early morning hours and at daylight we boarded her and brought the prisoner back. He was very surprised.
That was on 2nd. April; 6 days later we transferred him to the Dunotter Castle and set off to Montevideo for fuel and stores. We arrived at Montevideo on 11th. April and sailed again the next day. Monte was much quieter than Port Stanley and the British residents gave the troops a royal time. We had a decent view of the Graf Spee wreckage outside the port. She looked a nasty mess. A few hours after leaving Montevideo we got orders to return to our area at increased speed, as it was thought the " Windbuk " might be trying to make a break. We steamed at 17½ knots and arrived off Santos on April 15th. Cruising around close to the port we found that there was no chance of the German coming out for a bit. Then the Norwegian crisis came along and on 17th April we boarded our first Norwegian ship, only to find she was on charter to the British Government.
A couple of days later, we took another German prisoner, a major in the German army this time. He had booked a passage to Las Palmas in a Belgian Steamer and he was very surprised at being captured. Still it was the fortunes of war. We were chased off to the Plate area for a few days about this time and returned to the Santos Patrol on April 27th when the same old routine was carried out, - round and round; very monotonous. The following day we got news that we would contact H.M.S Cumberland and get a mail envoy with her on the 29th. We did this and had a very good look at the cruiser. She was very clean around the decks but it was obvious that the same irritating uniform regulations were not in force there. The troops were rigged out in whatever dress they seemed to fancy, while the quarterdeck was conspicuous for complete absence of white stockings or sox. A vast difference from the modified Royal Jack restrictions which were in force in our vessel. Men must go around bare footed or else wear stockings or sox with boots or shoes, and white shoes were not allowed. While the officers were encouraged to set a good example. Quite the most tripish order in a series of tripe emanating from the permanent office and inspired by the old man.
The routine patrol was carried out for the remainder of the week and on Friday 3rd May we rendezvoused with Alcantara and transferred our German prisoner for passage to the Cape while we carried on with the work for another week before getting our long looked for break. When we arrived at Buenos Aires on the afternoon of May 10th, we had been away from Portland just 104 days, and in Portland with no leave for 10 days. Of that time we'd had 24 hours in Freetown, 24 hours in Rio, 48 hours in the Falklands and 24 hours in Montevideo. So it was with great satisfaction that we learned we were to have 48 hours in B.A. The 24 hour breaks are really no let up in the routine as watch keeping has to be carried out and stores have to be embarked.
Monday May 13th. was not our lucky day, as we had to turn back and land one o.s. to hospital with an acute appendix. It is to be hoped that he was interned when he was removed from hospital. For a few days we messed about in the Plate area and carried out a half hearted patrol, only investigated those ships which passed close to us. Anything which was more than four miles distant was classed by the Master as "obviously a local coastal trader" and left severely alone. However on the 17th May we got orders to return to the Santos patrol as the Cumberland had been detailed to search an area on the other side of the S. Atlantic and was proceeding forthwith at 21 knots.
It was pleasant to get away from the Plate area and back to the warm weather, back into tropical rig once more. It made the nagging and pin pricks of the master somewhat less irritating. Someone in authority had a brain storm around this time; we got a signal on 20th May saying that all A.M.Cs had to paint the white upper works’ buff and funnels all one colour instead of the more or less peace time colour scheme which had been adopted.
This news was received in different ways by those on board. After three months of intensive washing and painting, the upper deck was looking very fresh and peaceful at the expense and expenditure of gallons of paint. White paint was being used at a rate never attained in peacetime; white enamel too. The all-highest had decreed and it was so. Day after day the troops had slapped on paint and while the result was very creditable, it was totally unnecessary in war time. So the buff news was well received by the lower deck, and with gnashing of teeth by the captain and first lieutenant.
The divisional officers thought it very humorous and did not hesitate to say so, and on 22nd May the great painting offensive started but not, let it be clearly understood, at the sacrifice of Divisions or Action stations. Let the heavens fall or any other thing occur we had to have Divisions six times a week. Action stations three times and Captain's Rounds three times, which included the Saturday Mess Deck Rounds. All these routines were carried out at great cost to the working organization of ship. The painting process lasted several days and eventually dragged on and on until everyone lost interest in it and most of the visible stuff had to have a second coat.
The month of May finished up on a Friday which was remarkable:
(a) that no one was hurt or killed and
(b) that anyone could be so absolutely idiotic as to try out such a stunt in the open sea with ordinary board of trade boat gear.
No one but a very inexperienced naval officer (retired) would have attempted it.
The great idea was to change all the boats round as the inboard sides, when in proper stowage, had been scraped and varnished and it was desired to do the other sides. It was a reasonable way to do it in a battleship, where the outsides were inconvenienced owing to the stowage of the boats, but quite unnecessary with welin? (P36) gravity davits. However it was decided to change them all around and the fun started. There was a moderate swell and the ship was rolling easily, but easy roll in a ship of this type means a lift of six or seven feet. And the lowering was completed without too much incident; one or two jammed fingers, but that was not serious. It was the rehoisting which saw the fun commence.
Continued in part three: A5409137
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