- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Thomas Arthur Russell, Cedric Simpson, Wilf Harrison
- Location of story:
- Greenock, Gibraltar, Mediterranean, Malta
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 02 December 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Thomas Arthur Russell, and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Approach of the storm Chapter 29
Thomas Arthur Russell
Leave was now over and the final striking down of fresh ammunition and the taking onboard of all kinds of supplies was completed. New lists for watch keeping duties were posted on the notice boards and I found myself changing from the engine room to the gear room. It was only manned by two of us but our duties were important, for it included checking hourly, the temperatures of the gears and bearings, oil pressure through the forced lubrication pumps and filters, Plummer block shaft bearings and the tiller flat and steering engine hydraulic pressures.
Prior to leaving harbour, we came under ‘Special Sea duty men’ and whoever happened to have the gear room watch then, would send one man over to the tiller flat to check the degrees of rudder as it was worked from the bridge, making sure it was working efficiently and the hydraulic system was free from leakage. I also found my action station changed from damage control to ammunition supply. First off watch, I was to supply ‘B 4.7’ gun and ‘Y gun’ longest off watch. Well, if we got into any action now I’d certainly get a grandstand view from the gun deck. My anti-flash gear and steel helmet would have to be kept very handy now.
We came to short notice for steam and left Greenock, and headed for Gibraltar at a fair speed together with some more of our sister ships. We all exercised A.A. defence and anti-submarine exercises, and significantly more 4.7inch drill than usual. The future would prove how significant it was. Gibraltar was a short stay. The weather was good and we enjoyed shore leave. The usual drunks came aboard, some had not yet tasted the potency of the duty free spirits or beer. One amusing incident stuck in my mind. Two of my Townies, Cedric Simpson and Wilf Harrison, both good friends, had managed to find something to argue about in their drink blurred minds, and to the amusement of a few onlookers were chasing one another round and round the torpedo tubes, occasionally delivering a smart slap on the cheeks as they got within range of each other.
The Officer of the day came on the scene and ordered them to get themselves cleaned up and to report back to him, no doubt they got a warning on future conduct and to lay off the booze. Cedric had the ability to find booze anywhere. I think he would even unearth it in the desert, but he was a good gunner and knew plenty about the ordinance side of things. He used to help to maintain the ship's armament, together with a P.O. ordnance artificer, they got on well together. Now Cedric is no longer with us. He died of a heart attack a few years ago. He would have been about 64 now; if anyone in those days had said he would go like that he would have laughed at them. Well who wouldn’t in the arrogance of youth?
Wilf went back to the pit, then he did the rounds of the clubs as a singer. He was quite a singer in his Navy days and used to give the boys some light entertainment. Now his wife tells me he spends much of his time in his allotment; strange how we settle into our own quiet corner.
War is never left behind and forgotten completely, its stamp must remain, the sights, the sounds that shocked the mind can only be erased by death. The ears can only lay a film of dust so easily blown away.
Now we left Gibraltar in brilliant sunshine, typical Mediterranean weather. The ship was spotless, her paintwork fresh, her decks hosed down and down below, any brass work polished until it sparkled in the bright electric lights. Morale was high; we got a suspected submarine contact, not far out in the Straits and the few eagerly closed up to action stations. We circled the area and made several runs over the spot, dropping a couple of full patterns. It proved inconclusive, producing nothing more than some flaking of cork from the deck head as we shook to the hammer blow of the explosions. The trip to Malta was uneventful. We had expected some enemy air activity but allied air power had built up to such a pitch, that we now had the edge on the Luftwaffa and Regia Aeronotica.
It was obvious from the number of ships in Malta’s Grand Harbour and Sliema Creek that something big was afoot. The sirens did go a few times and the barrage did open up but nothing big developed, just a couple of highflying enemy reconnaissance planes. Our own were busy now and Sicilian targets and airfields were being attacked. We were allowed over the side in Sliema Creek and swimming there, the water was lovely and warm. You could swim ashore from our anchorage and the roadside wasn’t very high above the water. You could pull yourself out like the side of a swimming bath. If you were nippy, it was possible to go and swallow a quick bottle of beer. I remember a nearby seaman saying, "Look Stokes, Mount Etna," and following his pointing finger, sure enough there was the far distant snow covered cone seeming to float above the haze, Sicily and the enemy seemed very near just then. Soon they would be very much nearer. The ship was now in a state of readiness. Jimmy was eager to hear his beloved guns in real action, as if he needed to prove his dedication to his work and his chums. We would soon depend on those guns for our very lives.
The speed of closing up to action stations, the speed of coming on bearing, the speed of rate of fire, everyone working like a well oiled machine, it was as if a central brain controlled every department of the ship with an immediate response. Speed and efficiency was the very essence of action. To see a destroyer in action was really something, from the high plume of her bow wave and the trough along her side, as the sea slid past, all speed and spray. Her guns swivelled and deviated to erupt in bright flame and dark yellowish smoke, to be immediately torn away by the speed of her passing. Flash after flash followed by the crash of noise, beautiful but deadly, a speeding battering of guns, a result of man's training and ingenuity to destroy his enemy, his kind. So futile, yet in this war so necessary.
The time has arrived, sealed orders come aboard, and the buzz goes round the mess decks. The invasion of Sicily was on; a last flurry of writing to loved ones, careful that the censoring officer could find nothing to cut out. There wouldn’t be much time for writing for a while.
July 10th was the landing date, with landings made before dawn. Bridgeheads had been swiftly established with the Canadians making quick gains. Syracuse fell quickly without much damage. I remember one incident about this time and it affected me deeply. A heavy cruiser off our port beam suddenly ran into a mine or was struck by a torpedo. A dull thud echoed across the water and smoke seemed to linger amid the ship's hull, her speed fell away but she appeared to remain underway. I borrowed a pair of glasses from a lookout and saw figures on her fo’castle. They appeared to be laying victims of the stricken ship out on deck and covering them with blankets. A strange ritual seemed to be taking place. Two men seemed to kneel momentarily by each still form and as I watched, I realised that they were tying something to the feet protruding from the blankets. I handed the glasses back and as we closed in on her, it became apparent that those whose feet we had seen, were dead. The feet reminded me of children in bed, frightened of the dark with blankets pulled over their heads and the feet uncovered. We have now confirmed the ship was the A.A. Cruiser, HMS Cleopatra torpedoed by a ‘U’ boat 23rd July 1943, (so my memory was correct).
The weather was good now, all sunshine and very warm. Our operational role now, along with other ships of the flotilla, was bombardments of enemy communications and escorting the 15” monitors, those strange-looking ships, mounting a twin 15” turret high up on its barbette capable of accurately shooting into the mountain positions of the enemy. I used to watch the sudden scurry of small ant-like figures across the lava-beds, as the civilians took fright at the choking reverberations from the hills. It amused us to see them like insects crossing a greyish roadway, from out at sea, the old lava flows from Mount Etna appeared like that. We had now occupied the large anchorage of Augusta, along with other destroyers of our flotilla. It was also full of landing craft and merchant shipping. We were under constant danger from air attacks. The weather was very warm and under normal conditions we would have been pleased to have the chance to bathe over the side, as the water looked so cool and inviting.
A system had been devised against the sudden appearance of the German fighter-bombers. The ships hoisted a white flag for raid passed, a yellow flag for raid imminent and a red one for raid in progress. How they knew could only have been from a ground observer out in the field, or from our own aircraft, which often stooped above to try to catch them. The system was not wholly efficient, for the radar could not pick them up as they streaked in low and usually in threes, which broke up and attacked from different directions, coming in under air cover provided by Spitfires.
Often the red flags had gone down, then the yellow, and as the white flag fluttered up, a new attack would come in. By a miracle, I never saw a ship hit in the crowded bay. Streams of different coloured tracers from Oerlikan cannon, machine guns, Bofars and Pom Poms streaked into the air. Red, green and white lines crossed over the ships, till it seemed nothing could live in that maelstrom of noise and fire. Those Jerry pilots certainly had courage to press on with their attacks through that lot. Some of it seemed to pass right through them. Sometimes we would be going on a night shoot somewhere up the coast. As dusk fell, as we steamed away, we would see over far away Augusta the marvellous firework display as the ships barrage opened up.
One morning, at about eight o’ clock, I had the eerie feeling of actually seeing a plane come in and no one realised until too late that it was a German plane. I was following my usual routine of pacing the fo’castle, getting a taste of the cool morning air and exercising my legs. I just stopped and watched it, wondering what it was going to do. It looked like an ME 109. Then I saw the bomb fall. It seemed to be gliding towards the ship and specifically towards me. The thought crossed my mind as to where it was going to hit. Should I run after it or should I stay where I was? If I’d been on terra firma, I would probably have made a beeline for the nearest bit of cover, but here I had no time to find cover. Then it hit the water, about two hundred yards away, exploding and throwing a small hillock of water up, foaming and smoking, until it fell away leaving a circle of soot among the dying turbulence. By now he had attracted the usual hail of fire but he was long gone streaking away over the sea, after giving me the jitters. It isn’t every day one survives a bomb that appears to be deliberately aimed your way.
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