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Memories of a C.W. Candidate Part One - North Atlantic Convoys and life aboard H.M.S. Somali

by bedfordmuseum

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Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr. Stanley Shield
Location of story: 
UK and North Atlantic
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 September 2005

Stanley Shield, 2nd Lieutentant aged 20 in 1942.

Memories of a C.W. Candidate Part One - North Atlantic Convoys and life aboard HMS Somali

Part one of an oral history interview conducted with Mr. Stanley Shield by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

“I lived in Biggleswade from 1933 onwards and went to Bedford Modern School. There were quite a lot of us went from Biggleswade to Bedford every day on the normal bus service. I was 17 when I left in 1939. I was 17, the war had started and knowing that I would be going into the Services I just went to work in Biggleswade Post Office, somewhere local. I was in the back room. I was a Sorting Clerk and a Telegraphist, so called but I did Counter Work as well.

In August 1939 German and Russia signed a ‘Non-Agression Pact’. In 1939 they both invaded Poland from opposite directions so they were sort of Allies then until 1941 when Germany invaded the USSR and quickly destroyed much of her arms and ammunition. During the first few days nearly 2000 Russian aircraft were destroyed, so now we had Russia on our side or at least we had a common enemy. And that’s how Russian Convoys started. And that is the same time that I went into the Navy, in 1941.

I went into the Navy and then because of my good educational background, (good old Bedford Modern School) they made me straight away a C.W. Candidate, now that means that you were preliminary selection as Officer material. You go to sea as an Ordinary Seaman for at least six months during which you are assessed. If it was a good assessment then you come ashore and you go through a training course and lots of examinations and selection boards, at the end of which, with luck, you get your Commission, which is what happened to me but that was much later.

My six months at sea was on H.M.S. Somali at the end of which she didn’t exist anymore. So naturally I came ashore being one of the survivors. A lot of them weren’t I must say. She was torpedoed. I was not on Watch and the crew who were not on Watch were taken off on Rescue Ships that came alongside. The poor unfortunates who were on Watch most of them drowned when she went down. She was alright at first, they got her under tow for a while but then a storm blew up and Arctic storms have to be seen to be believed and she just broke in two and went down. They got in the water, of course ships came up to try to pick them but you could last about five minutes and then you’d had it.

I did Ordinary Seaman training at H.M.S. Ganges at Shottley, near Harwhich, one had to do that to go to sea as a Seaman. We were learning, classwork learning all about knots and splices and all that sort of elementary seamanship. Rowing heavy boats on the river at Ganges. We were actually rowing ‘cutters’ which were bigger than ‘whalers’ but that’s another matter. Oh, lots of Drill of course, like soldiers, parade ground drill and all that sort of thing. And being Ganges, which was a tough training school they also tried to make us all swim. So how were we taught to do that? We had to put on ‘duck suits’ which are heavy canvas and jump into a swimming pool. They didn’t let anybody sink - they had big poles with which they used to pull you out if you began to sink. I fortunately could swim a bit so I was alright there. Also at Ganges there was the famous mast, a huge, like a huge ships mast, and everybody who passed out there had to go up the mast round the top and down the other side. And then we went to sea.

First of all they sent us into the Depots, the Barracks. I went into Portsmouth Barracks and waited to be drafted to a ship. I was delighted when my number came up and they said, ‘Tribal Class Destroyer, Somali.’ Because they were the best we had, marvellous. Fast, heavily armed. I didn’t know what I was in for but anyway it wouldn’t have mattered if I did because you did what you were told and you went where you were told. None of my story has anything to do with heroism, believe you me, that wasn’t the way in the Navy, they put you in a spot and said ‘Get yourselves out of that!’ More or less.

So then I went to H.M.S. Somali who was just undergoing a session of repairs and refitting in Hull. We sailed from Hull. We were all completed, got all the ammunition back on ship and that was heavy work that was. We set sail at 4 o’clock in the afternoon to go up to Scapa Flow to join our Base and the Home Fleet, so called. Didn’t spend much time at home but that was called the Home Fleet. Half an hour out of harbour there was a German aircraft circling us. Now I’d never been on a gun firing before and I was a member of ‘B’ gun (those ones you can see sticking out there at the top of H.M.S. Somali on a photograph). Of course they turn and my number was an ammunition number. Now in the corner of the deck, in all four corners were chutes which brought the ammunition up from the magazines. My job was to get a shell from chute, get it into the back of the gun but of course you had to keep dodging the muzzles because the guns came round and I thought I’d never hear again - my ears took about 24 hours to recover. We’d done drill but not firing. Every time ‘Action Stations’ went after that, I plugged my ears with cotton wool. You could still hear but it took away that sharp blast because those guns made an awful crack. But anyway that was my first taste of action really. It didn’t hit us and we didn’t hit them as was so often the case I’m afraid.

So we went up Scapa and waited for our next job. Now I was on her for six and a half months until she was sunk and life on board was, well frankly it wouldn’t be tolerated in today’s prisons. You wouldn’t believe what life was like. A ship that is ten times longer than it is wide, it had about 300 crew on board, it had Mess Decks that were forward, in front of the Bridge and there were just, well there wasn’t really enough room for everybody to sling a hammock. Most could, but there was always a few who couldn’t. And of course most of the time you weren’t allowed to sling your hammock you just slept anywhere. On the Mess Decks, on the table, you were so damned tired you could sleep anywhere anyway.

There were different degrees of ‘Readiness’ at sea depending on the danger of the area that you were in. First degree was ‘Action Stations’ naturally. Second degree they were still at ‘Action Stations’ but there was some relaxation, some food would be served to the guns, you were allowed to go down to the ‘Heads’, that’s the toilets in naval language. Third degree, half the guns crews were ‘closed up’, by ‘closed up’ that means they are at their ‘Action Stations’ but the work of the ship went on still, cleaning and all the rest of it. Forth degree you were alright, but in third degree you couldn’t sling hammocks because the ammunition which I mentioned to you came up through all the decks. It came through the Mess Decks, it came through the Officers’ quarters, everywhere, up to the guns and they couldn’t be obstructed. You see they had to be kept clear and so you couldn’t put hammocks up because that would have obstructed.

So that’s how it was, not only that but we had very few amenities on board ship as you might imagine. I mean we hardly ever got off the damn thing! In the six and a half months I was only in three harbours. Scapa Flow where there was a NAAFI ashore and occasionally you could go ashore. We played football matches and things like that, that was the extent of the local amenities. Iceland where the Convoys used to muster and we were allowed to step ashore but we couldn’t go out of sight of the ship and if the guns went up, get back, and Murmansk where we were not even allowed ashore. They were not hospitable to us the Russians, not at all.

On board what had we got? Well we got very short of water on a Destroyer, we made some, we had got some condensers. There was always enough for drinking and washing in a wash basin and a little bit of dohbi’ing, that’s washing clothes. There were no baths or showers, you just had wash basins. Mind you it didn’t matter much because you didn’t take your clothes off, all the time because it was too cold!

Cooks, now that’s an extraordinary thing in these days the Navy are so different now but in my day for all that Ship’s Company, all the crew, there was two cooks. They didn’t do any cooking, well they did but they didn’t make anything. Each day, each Mess Deck and there were several stuck away in the Fo’c’sle, they appointed two cooks of the day - so called cooks of the day, and their job was to clean up the Mess Deck and get the dinner ready. You were allowed to do anything you liked. We had a small NAAFI Canteen which was like a big cupboard and there was basics like bread and flour, meat butchered by an amateur butcher and it was the job of the cooks to make the dinner. We made it and took it up to the Galley and handed it over to the proper cooks and they cooked it but that’s all they did. I became pretty efficient at what I called, ‘doughs’ which are puddings. Very popular they were. Anyway that’s life on a Destroyer which you hardly ever got off.

State of ‘Readiness’ and the Watches. You see you work in Watches. If you were in relatively safe waters and no waters were really safe, you worked your Watches. Four hours on if you were in a relaxed mode, four hours on twelve hours off, if you were otherwise you would be in Watch on, Watch off, fours hours on and four hours off.

I became, owing to casualties, first a ‘Bo’sun’s Mate’ - you won’t understand these terms but I’ll explain them to you - and then later a ‘Quartermaster’ which meant in harbour I manned the Gangway and ‘Piped the Side’ if the Officer coming on board merited it. Or otherwise dealt with visitors and at sea you steered the ship, you took your turn steering the ship. That was a ‘Bo’sun’s Mate’ or a ‘Quartermaster’, you both took tricks on it. Well normally I would never have been either of them but as I say there were casualties and they decided that I’d got enough intelligence to do both jobs so I got them.

There are lots of titles in the Navy which people don’t understand. A Quartermaster is a helmsman basically, nothing to do with the Army Quartermaster, nothing to do with victualling. Bo’sun’s Mate is his assistant, assistant to the Quartermaster. You had people like Tanky, now Tanky was the butcher. Technically he was the Navigating Officer’s Yeoman, but his job was to issue, to help get the water on board and kept an eye on the water supplies, butcher the meat and issue you your rations and so on. Even the term Captain is misleading. Do you know what a Captain is in the Navy? A Captain, if you call a man Captain Jones or whatever he had four broad rings on his sleeve and he is quite a high ranking officer, a Colonel is an equivalent I suppose, and he usually Commanded a fairly big ship. But if like me you became a Commanding Officer of a little Mine Sweeper with 40 men and had two wavy rings on your sleeve, I was also called Captain. Because I was the Commanding Officer but I was never near being a real captain and never would have. The war didn’t last that long! Laughter! There are lots of terms like this, I don’t even know whether they are still in use they may have all fallen in disrepute by now as I say I am talking about 60 years ago. I went on - P.Q.13 was my first Convoy, P.Q.15, P.Q.17 and P.Q.18 that was four. But in between we went on part runs, you see they were when we were with the Convoy but standing off from the Convoy was a Cruiser force covering for us and then the main battle fleet miles away. I can’t remember the details but we would also come out sometimes as escort for the Cruisers or escort for the big battle fleet, so we didn’t go all the way to Russia so I haven’t included those numbers in my file”.

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