- Contributed by
- People in story:
- George Green
- Location of story:
- Libya, Algeria
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 December 2005
My action station for the first period of the battle was on the bridge as remote control from the Wireless Office. A job which one of us liked it was so cold, it was difficult even to speak. I admired our Captain who always seemed in control, whatever, but here was action face to face with the enemy. Three of them with much superior fire power and us little destroyers two with only 6” guns (however, those seem to be the odds the R.N likes if you look back in history). We ordered full steam ahead, of course, as the R.N always does and steamed straight at them to engate the enemy more closely as in the Nelson tradition. Our Captain gave the order to open fire. When this happens on a small destroyer, the whole ship reverberates and shakes and the noise is like nothing on earth, as well as the flash of the shell leaving the muzzle of the gun, also the smell of the cordite. The ship was then steaming full ahead and I could see the German Heavy destroyers (they would have been called light cruisers in the R.N.) ahead of us. Although we were firing at them they concentrated all their fire at our sister ship H.M.S. FORESTER. The idea no doubt was to finish her off first, and then concentrate on us. We could see the shells hitting her and one salvo hit her bridge, blew it completely away, killing the Captain and all crew men on it. The flames and smoke were terrible to see, and they then mnoved in to give her the coup de grace. She came to almost a standstill, her engines no longer working and many men killed in the engine room, and easy target. However, our captain saw what was happening and dashed between them, making smoke, to try and screen her. The German ship had fired their guns at FORESTER (but in the interim period to finish her off. We had got there in the nick of time. However, the salvo of shells intended for FORESTER (to finish her) hit us. The ship reared and bucked under the impact, the noise was deafening, all the lights went out, the smell of burning and smoke was awful. We came to a standstill and slowly the ship listed to port. There was a hole the size of a bus in our side putting our main engine out of action. A Stoker Petty Officer got a medal for turning off the main steam pipe, we would have blown up otherwise! Sorry to say he died shortly after with 100% scald burns, a real hero. However, the Germans had not got off scott free. In the time it took for their shells to hit us we had fired torpedoes at them, also our 6” guns which blew one up, and, out of the water, then sinking. The other one was set on fire, leaving just one to finish us off (we thought). However, this was not so. He broke off the action with us, thinking we were both done for, picked up survivors from the sunken destroyer, and proceeded to tow the other one away. We still thought German aircraft or submarines would come to sink both of us. It was strange how quiet it became. No engines racing, no vibration, no motion at all except for the gentle rolling motion. The ship was then at an angle of about 40 degrees to port. We wondered if she would turn turtle.
After the heat of the action, the fearful excitement of the action, we felt the terrible cold. We thought the ship was doomed. Both FORESTER and ourselves were just rolling about in the swell, not able to steer or to make way. We all pretended to be brave but in our hearts was the fear of going over the side into the sea with the temperature at about 60 below, you would have lived about 5 minutes. Then the order came, to abandon ship, our worst fears had been realised. My abandon ship station was a square piece of wood, 6ft square with rope round the edge for you to hang on, the rest of you in the water (alright for the Mediterranean but useless for the Arctic) at the most you would last about 5 minutes. The only people who had a boat was the Captain and his Officers, and although it seems most unfair, we all accepted the fact that the Captain and Officers would be saved and we would die, rather dramatic, but true.
Nevertheless, the order was given. We Telegraphists went into the wireless office to gather small things. I had a picture of Nancie and Pam which I put in my pocket, nothing else mattered, we would be dead in half an hour, there no ships nearby to help us. We all shook hands and slithered out on to the upper deck. I remember the whole ship was tilting over, with ice covering everything on the upper deck and the numbing cold. The very thought of going over the side appalled. Then, by a quirk of fate we were reprieved for the time being. The Captain could not free his boat from the davits, it was frozen solid to them and could not be freed. What a slice of luck for us. The Captain then spoke on the loud hailer to us all, asking us if we were prepared to stop aboard and try to save the ship. To take a chance if she would sink. Without hesitation we shouted yes, at least if we did go down with the ship it would be fairly quick and not freezing to death by inches. He then said “splice the mainbrace”, this means that everyman gets an extra tot of rum. The stuff is so strong, two tots and you do not care what happens. The barrel of rum was put on the deck and we helped ourselves.
By this time she was listing almost beyond the point of no return, making it most difficult to do anything. The decision was then made to move everything from the port side to the starboard side to try and lift the hole out of the water and stop her from sinking. After nearly 20 hours, we had sawn, cut and moved everything movable to the starboard and slowly the hole was lifted above the water line. Then we packed hammocks, kit bags and anything else we could lay our on to fill the hole. Had the sea got rough we would have sunk, but fate was with us again. My job was to put new aerials up on the mast, the original ones had been blown away by the shells. It took over 6 hours to do a job which normally would take half an hour. Imagine climbing a rope ladder with the ship listing over, the rungs covered with ice and water and having to work without gloves to fix them to the mast. I could only work a few minutes at a time even then my fingers became frost bitten, luckily they responded to treatment. It was sheer hell, but better than dying of cold in the sea. By now, nearly 24 hours after, she was floating level. I had done the aerials, we just hoped that the engine could be made to work. The main engines had been smashed beyond repair, however, our hopes lay with the auxiliary engine, which would must move us at about ¾ knots. With Murmansk over 200 miles away it seemed almost impossible. By this time we were exhausted beyond belief and almost beyond caring if we lived or dies. Out of 160 men and Officers we had lost about 20 men and one Officer. My best friend (or oppo) was killed by a splinter of me metal: I went and found his body lying in the mess below, amongst the rest of the dead. As in Nelsons days the mess and mess tables are ued as an operating theatre and operating tables for the wounded. The dead being put on one side as expendable in heaps, one on top of the other!
We were now just under way so very slowly, all the time wondering if the Germans would appear and sink us. The FORESTER had now put out the fires and short of most of her Officers and Captain, we took her in tow. All her engines had been smashed and put out of action. She was just a hulk, no bridgeworks and hardly any superstructure. But miracles do happen, and we found ourselves entering Sullomvoe the anchorage for Murmansk. We had made it, the impossible had been done, we were safe for the moment. We could wash, eat and sleep at last. Some were so far gone they could not get over the trauma of the last few weeks. We all put our names down to go to communion next day, to thank God for our deliverance. It must have been divine intervention that saved us.
It took a week for the Russian dock workers to weld a patch over the hole in our side, and our men to repair our main engines. We were short of food. The Russians although allies, did not like us and were reluctant to give us any food. All they would give us were Yams, a sweet potato, which none of us liked. We went ashore and looked around Murmansk. We were stopped by boys and girls who offered us thousands of roubles for one cigarette and twice as much for chocolate. The shops were empty except for cheap trinkets. They were still using the abacus whilst serving us to count with. The cold, snow and ice was still with us. The German front line was only 40 miles away and they let us know it. Sending bombs over every day to strike and bomb, it was a diabolical place. We visited the hospital, it was full of wounded soldiers from the front, and I mean full, even the stairs, on every one, was a stretcher with a wounded man. We spoke and chatted to our chaps who were in there, gave them cigarettes, etc and said goodbye. Next day6 we put to sea to bury our dead. As is tradition, they were stitched into their hammocks and after a short service they were committed to the sea. That was how Nelson dit it (and that is how they do it today 1989. Sailors prefer it that way).
We left Murmansk two days later, heading fro home, in company with our sister ship H.M.S. FORESTER., now looking more like a ship and H.M.S TRINIDAD a modern cruiser. We were 4 days out of Murmansk when we were attacked by wave after wave of German Bombers. We put up a spirited defence without Ack Ack guns, but eventually two torpedoes hit the TRINIDAD below the waterline. She started to sink almost at once. The senior officer ordered us alongside to take off the crew. We were still being bombed and torpedoed. However, we were lucky we got off 60 sailors and marines (with this weight we were well below the plimsoll line). It was here that I saw the real courage and discipline of the marines. They were ordered to stand fast whilst the rest of the crew were saved. They stood there at attention until the order was given to abandon ship. That was something: when the ship was going down, keeling over and being bombed at the same time. Unfortunately a lot of her crew went down with her. They were trapped below decks and could not be rescued; whilst those men drowned. He was lowered into the hold to succour the wounded and brave man, went down with her. I never did know if he got a medal. She went down and we sailed on ever nearer home. Suddenly the lookout shouted “Warships Ahead”. We went to action stations wondering what next, however, they were ours. H.M.S LIVERPOOL and company had been sent to help us.
By this time we were running short of food, water to drink. We had to forget about washing, etc. From then to Greenock. Apart from the odd scare it was uneventful. One incident tdoes come to mind, however. We had almost double the usual crew aboard with the survivors from various ships, and food had become a problem. Stew was all we could provide (naval word Potmess). One day a marine complained about it. The sergeant in charge picked up his plate and emptied it over him. He did not complain again. They were all brave men who had been through an awful lot. We all felt we had been up to the gates of hell and survived. At Greenock we were given 2 weeks leave. However, before we went on leave, we had to sail down to Grimsby. I did not mind this because it meant I was nearer home. We got to Grimsby without too much trouble, apart from the odd air attack. I was disappointed because I was given second leave which meant I had to stay on board and wait for two weeks until the first watch came back off leave. Then off I went home for two weeks. It was marvellous. I had grown a beard. When I arrived home Nancie did not recognise me. She did not like it so I shaved it off.
After a fortnight of heaven; back to Grimsby and the ship. By now she had been patched up, repainted and looked like our ship. Also, They had insulated the bulkheads and deck heads (walls and ceilings) to stop the condensation and icing with extra electric firs in the mess. We were not too happy, none of us wanted to go back to Russia but it looked like it. However, we were wrong! Having prepared us for the Arctic Convoys, they sent us to the Mediterranean (true Navy). We collected the convoy together and headed for Gibralter. We had a fairly easy run to ‘Gib’ but once we were through the ‘Straits of Gibralter’ our troubles began. The first day out fo Gib was uneventful. Then all hell let loose, the first ship was the Aircraft Carrier EAGLE which was sunk by a submarine torpedo. I was doing my dobying on the upper deck (washing) I heard the tremendous bangs as the tin fish (torpedoes) hit her. I recall that it took a few minutes for her to sink taking 50% of her crew with her. We were a little apprehensive, knowing that every hour we were getting nearer to Malta and the North African coast where the Germans and their main strength in aircraft submarines. The convoy sailed on. Three days out of Gib we were bombed night and day by German and Italian bombers. We shot one down into the sea and then picked up the pilot who was put under arrest in the lower part of the ship. He did not like it a little bit when his fellow pilots were dropping bombs on us. The heat in the mess decks was now very hot, well over 100 degrees and remember they had insulated our ship against the cold, because we were going back to Russia! Just like the Navy to prepare us for the cold and send us where it was hot. We were not allowed to open the portholes so we had no fresh air below decks. There was a type of air conditioning which consisted of a fan blowing air from the upper deck (which was warm) along metal channels. It did not really help at all especially if you were cook of the mess and had to scrub out the mess which meant what it said — scrub! The deck had to be spotless and the table and benches had to be white or as near as you could get it. If the officer of the day thought it was not clean enough he would order it to be done again. Then we prepare the food to take to the galley, the name of the place where the food was cooked.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Anastasia Travers a volunteer with WM CSV Actiondesk on behalf of George Green and has been added to the site with his permission. George Green fully understands the sites terms and conditions.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.