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A Slice of Autobiography (1939 to 1946) — Part 3

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Philip E. Marshall, Captain Walker, Admiral Horton
Location of story: 
Tripoli, Straits of Gibraltar, Bone, Algeria, Norfolk, Virginia, U.S.A.
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
08 August 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Philip E. Marshall, and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

A Slice of Autobiography (1939 to 1946) — Part 3

Philip E. Marshall

It was August 1943 when we entered Tripoli harbour, faced with a delicate manoeuvre amidst other ships, and wrecks. The Captain had to hold Whimbrel steady between two mooring buoys, one ahead, one astern, while the motor boats chugged off with a line to each. As soon as the boats were dropped from the davits, water gushed in. Dave's reaction was to head for the ship's gangway, report that he was sinking, and order "abandon boat". Our Cox ducked under the canopy for the hand pump and worked energetically, while we others reached the forward buoy and secured the line. Then it was back to the ship where a worried First Lieutenant enquired if we could stay afloat long enough to take a line to the buoy astern. The Cox of the other boat (who was a bit disgusted with their performance, I think), volunteered to pump for us, and so we took the other line, allowing the Captain, who had been waiting patiently, or at least silently, on the Bridge, to relax at last. I hate to think what would have happened with some of my other Captains.

It will be obvious by now that many of my wartime memories do not include "the enemy" at all. Just being one of a small ship's crew could be exciting enough. Once, in the River Foyle, I was in charge of the foc'sle party when a tug was sent to give us a tow; presumably our engines were not functioning. As the tug heaved on the wire rope against the strong river current, the wire snapped, and whipped back like a piece of stretched elastic. No-one was hurt, but the ship was swept helplessly away. Before a new tow could be attached, we had collided with, and demolished, a solidly-built wooden platform carrying one of the river navigation lights. Eventually all was under control again, and the manoeuvre completed, but next day a small Board of Enquiry met on the ship. I was able to show them my end of the tug's wire, which, they agreed, was new and sound and should have been able to take the strain. Verdict: accidental damage; no-one to blame.

We continued with our convoy duties, whether across the Atlantic or to West Africa. On one of the latter trips, as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, the convoy was attacked by a Focke Wulf Condor, long range bomber. We were the rear escort when the plane approached astern, heading for the more valuable ships, usually placed in the middle of the convoy. For a while it was all very hectic. The projectile, shell and brass cartridge case all in one, like a huge rifle bullet, had to be pulled from the chute (I was at the opposite end this time from my position in Londonderry) and pushed into the breech of the gun. The gun-layer would then hurriedly elevate the barrel of the gun to near vertical to aim at the plane. Once he was too quick for the loader, so that the projectile, agonisingly slowly, slid backward out of the breech and thumped on the deck. There was no premature explosion, so all I could say was "Pick it up and stick it back in," which the loader, rather shaken, did. Our fire was directed from the Bridge, and when I had a chance to sneak a look upwards, I was gratified to see a line of shell bursts just ahead of the Condor. By now, all the guns of the nearest merchant ships were also blazing away and, as I watched, the plane turned and flew off. It jettisoned its bombs two or three miles from the convoy, so it was probably damaged.

Whimbrel, and her group helped to escort the First Canadian Division to the invasion of Sicily. As seemed to be usual in my naval career, the job was done efficiently and unspectacularly. Starting from the Clyde, and taking a wide sweep into the Atlantic, we approached the Straits of Gibraltar, having encountered no enemy submarines or planes. The weather was hot, the Mediterranean calm, and all was serene. Then we detected a possible submarine shadowing the convoy from astern, and raced back to drop a pattern of depth-charges. To everyone's surprise, half a mile or more astern, the bows of a U-boat rose steeply out of the water and sank again.

Of course, we swung around but found no more trace of the enemy than we did of the life-belt at Tobermory. Intelligence reports later suggested that the boat had limped back to base. The more dedicated "killer" groups, such as Captain Walker's would have regarded that as a failure, but we felt we had carried out our duty of protecting the convoy. Our troops were in the second wave, to follow the initial landings, so we put them ashore safely at “Bark South" on D plus 3. That night we could see a spectacular fireworks display, a few miles inland, where the leading troops were securing the airfield at Pachino. As our Asdic (anti submarine detection gear) had now broken down, we did not join the other escorts in patrolling off the beach-head, but anchored among the shipping, to give anti-aircraft support. As one would expect, with my luck, no enemy planes appeared.

We were ordered to Norfolk, Virginia, U.S.A., to have our Asdic dome, and other items, repaired. First we called at Bone, in Algeria, a delightful little "French" seaside resort, then on to Tripoli, where the incident with the motor boats occurred, and finally to Gibraltar, where it was hard to sleep at night because the ship's hull resounded with the noise of grenades, dropped into the water at regular intervals to discourage Italian frogmen. They had been known to swim across from Algeciras, in "neutral" Spain to attach limpet mines to our ships. However, our main excitement, or amusement, in Gibraltar was provided by Dave's exuberance. Of the two of us, it was his turn to take a party ashore. This happened to be on Sunday, to the local Anglican church. About thirty ratings had volunteered, some from piety perhaps, but most for a chance to stretch their legs, and ogle the local girls, if any. The vicar had been warned of this unexpected increase in his congregation, so Dave set off very smartly, eventually spotted a church, and marched the men in. It was, of course, the wrong one, of what denomination I know not. The priest, elder, or even rabbi was no doubt surprised, but gratified, and perhaps no-one would have been the wiser, only the Vicar sent a rather plaintive message, hoping that no serious war emergency had detained his promised church party.

And so, across the Atlantic to the U.S.A. I cannot remember a convoy. Perhaps, in our useless anti-submarine state, we travelled independently. The people of Norfolk were friendly and hospitable, though I could not help but notice the segregation, or "apartheid'. The buses were divided into "Whites Only" forward, and "Blacks Only" aft. The cafes and shops were similarly divided. In the dry dock, all the workers doing the dirty job of cleaning the ship's bottom were black. I can't say that any deep feelings were aroused aboard Whimbrel; we were an all-white crew, and there were few coloured people to meet in England in the 1940s. It was only after the 1960s, and the rise of leaders like Martin Luther King and, later, Nelson Mandela, that I thought back to those days in Norfolk, Va., and wondered how it must have felt to have been treated as sub-human.

After that stay, disaster struck me, and I must insert a paragraph of explanation. From childhood I had experienced attacks of asthma, and also allergies and skin troubles. In 1999, seventy years later, it is difficult to comprehend how little doctors knew about those illnesses in the 1920s, and how primitive were the available remedies. Most of the trouble was ascribed to "imagination", and I was often accused of spoiling our annual holiday by wheezing for the first few days, because of the "excitement". No-one then suspected that the trouble might have arisen from a change of food, or even of pillow. As for the allergies, one example of "treatment" will suffice. We had a daily glass of milk at school, and the staff suggested to my mother that they should whisk a raw egg into mine, which I would "never notice". I don't think that I did notice, but my eyes swelled up like those of a beaten-up boxer, and my skin erupted into large white blisters. I was sent home for the day, the experiment was discontinued, and from then on, despite the inconvenience, my mother tried to avoid any substance that "upset" me. Gradually the troubles became infrequent, and in 1941 I believe I denied any form of ill-health when I volunteered for the "Y" Scheme. Naval life suited me well, especially when at sea, and I avoided, as unobtrusively as possible, eating the "wrong" things. My mess-mates did not mind, - all the more for them.

What happened in Norfolk, Va., in October 1943, I still do not know. There is another incident, to be described later, where the cause was more obvious, but not this time. I was taken ill, with breathlessness, just before the ship sailed, and was sent to lie down in my cabin, though I might have been better on deck. As Group Leader we carried a doctor, a Canadian from Kamloops, who tended me with great care, but once again with little understanding of the problem, and with nothing in the Sick-bay cupboards to help him. For a week I struggled desperately to breathe, unable to eat or drink much, with the doctor looking in every hour or two to see if I was still alive. To make matters worse, we were enduring the worst Atlantic storm in living memory. I have seen it described, with awe, in other naval memoirs. My lovely boat, up in the highest deck out of harm's way, was smashed by one wave. I lay on my bunk (a hammock would have served better) and clung on as the ship pitched and rolled violently, all the way to Liverpool. The doctor, worn out and bad-tempered by this time, arranged transport to hospital, and remarked sourly that I should never have been allowed to join the Navy. I didn't take the remark too hard, for I owed him a big debt of gratitude. He had encouraged me to hang on, both literally and metaphorically.

Seaforth Naval Hospital overlooked the River Mersey. A few days later, forewarned of the sailing time, I watched H.M.S. Whimbrel sail out of my life for ever. Then I settled down to be restored to health, though the only treatment I remember, painfully, was when my sinuses were flushed out, by sticking metal tubes through the gristle behind the nose, using only a local anaesthetic. Perhaps that cured me; or perhaps it was good food, rest and clean air. I was on my feet, and walking about, when we had a surprise visit from Admiral Horton, Commander-in-Chief of Western Approaches, visiting his wounded heroes. I wondered if he would regard me as a malingerer, as the American General Patton did one of his hospitalised soldiers, in a notorious war-time incident. However, the Admiral did not hit me, he was kindly and sympathetic, accepted my assurance that I wanted to return to duty as soon as possible, and passed on to other patients.

Not long afterwards I was sent on a short leave, and then ordered to join H.M.S. Rockingham in the Firth of Forth. Rockingham turned out to be a "four-stacker", one of the fifty American First World War four-funnelled destroyers sent to Britain as part of the Lend Lease Agreement which gave the U.S.A. military bases throughout the British Empire. That part of the Agreement very much favoured the Americans; nevertheless, the old destroyers were invaluable in 1940 and 1941. They alleviated the shortage of convoy escorts until newer, and better ones could be built. Then they were retired; or sent to glorious destruction like H.M.S. Campeltown which, filled with explosives, rammed the dock gates at St. Nazaire; or were found less demanding duties. Rockingham had taken over from an old paddle steamer as a training target ship for the Fleet Air Arm.

It was now December 1943; the passing of my twentieth birthday meant that I became entitled to change my uniform insignia to the single wavy stripe of a Sub-Lieutenant R.N.V.R. Not a dizzy height in the naval hierarchy, but at least I was no longer a "Snotty". Another Sub., "Bill", joined the ship with me, becoming a good friend, but it soon became apparent that Rockingham was used by the Admiralty as a cross between a Convalescent Home and an Asylum for misfits. I did not research the histories of all the officers and men, but the Second-in-Command, "Chris", for example, was a survivor of the Prince of Wales, sunk by Japanese bombers off Singapore. Always quiet, friendly and competent, Chris was, nevertheless, shaken by his experience. The Gunnery Officer, "Guns", was an alcoholic who would return from shore trips in a vile, aggressive temper. As a final example, Lieutenant "T" R.N.V.R., the Commanding Officer, was difficult to warm to, at least Bill and I found him so. As merely a Lieutenant R.N.V:R, he must have been highly regarded in some quarters to have been given the command of a destroyer, even an old one; but the duties of Rockingham suggested that he might have been given charge in order to gain much-needed practice. Or perhaps he had been tried elsewhere and had not achieved much success.

Bill and I soon fell foul of him. We had both come from ships with easy-going regimes. Lieutenant Commander Moore was very well respected, but I could not remember springing to attention at his approach. So, when "T" entered the Rockingham Wardroom, Bill and I turned in our chairs with welcoming smiles; "T", however turned on his heel, scowled, and walked out. We were then summoned by messenger and given an ill-tempered ticking off for discourtesy in not jumping to our feet as soon as he entered the Wardroom. No doubt he had right on his side, but we found him pompous, and as time went on, we were not convinced that he was such a fine seaman and Captain as he obviously thought himself.

There were other incidents. Once I incurred his wrath because, as Foc'sle Officer, I had attached the ship to a buoy by the usual single line; now that a gale had blown up, he considered this unsafe. Again, no doubt correct, but in view of my inexperience, I thought he might have told me earlier to set out double mooring lines. As it was, the Foc'sle Petty Officer and I decided that we had better risk our own necks to take a boat out to the buoy in the gale, and attach a second line. That cost me a ruined shoe, and very nearly a crushed foot.

On another occasion, when Bill and I had taken, in his opinion, too long to say good-bye to our girl friends on the jetty, we found that he had ordered the ropes to be slackened, so that there was about ten feet of water between us and the ship. Luckily I was on good terms with my Petty Officer, so that he caught my signal to heave in on the winch just enough to enable us to jump the gap. As usual, we were later summoned to “T”’s presence and ticked of but for once he was understanding, and even humorous, no doubt enjoying his own little joke. If only he could have adopted that tone from the start, we might have grown to like him.

Rockingham steamed up and down the Firth of Forth, carrying out two types of training. Sometimes a plane, towing a drogue, would fly past, and ships' crews would be given the chance to practise anti-aircraft firing from our decks. More often, we were "attacked" by Barracuda aircraft dropping torpedoes. The Barracudas were intended to replace the old "Stringbags", the Swordfish, but they were heartily disliked by those who had to fly them.
Apparently they were difficult to handle, and there had been several accidents.

“T”’s misfortunes seemed to be a combination of ill-luck and his own misjudgements. Once, the plane towing the drogue passed too close ahead of us, so the towing wire sliced across our bows with the effect of a chain saw. Those on the Bridge flung themselves on the deck, just one signalman having his oilskin cut as he went down a fraction too late. Another time, the torpedoes, genuine ones but without explosives, passed underneath us, being set deep, but “T” swung around 180° and retraced his course, narrowly missing being hit by the tin fish, now nearing the end of their run and surfacing.


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