- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Eric R Wilkinson
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 November 2003
This article was written by my father, Eric R Wilkinson, in 1992.
Joining the ship, and engineering officers
I joined HMS 'Euryalus' in August, 1944, at John Brown’s Shipyard in Clydebank, where she was refitting. Although there wasn’t a full ship’s company aboard, she had a full complement of Engineer Officers, namely a Commander (E) (the Chief), a Lieutenant Commander (E) (Senior) and four watch-keeping officers, three being Lieutenants (E), and one a Commissioned Engineer. Six of the seven were permanent navy. The fourth watch-keeper was a Lieutenant (E), Temporary RN. I was a Sub-Lieutenant (E), and I was to replace one of the Lieutenants.
Officers with the rank of (E), Temporary RN, were university graduates who had been given a month’s indoctrination at Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth, followed by six months training/experience with a marine engine constructor. We ‘Temporary RN’ engineers were well accepted by our permanent RN colleagues. After all, our background was very similar. They had been educated in the RN engineering college and worked in RN dockyards.
I was lucky in my fellow engineering officers: they were all extremely competent and enjoyable to work with. One of them, Temporary RN like myself, was the best practical engineer I have ever met. He had an instinctive feel for machinery and was respected by all, officers and ratings alike. We all wore straight stripes with a purple insert which signified that we were ‘capable of raising steam’.
'Euryalus' had an extra engineer officer: he was there to look after the new system of Fire Control which had been installed. He was very fully occupied indeed.
We sailed for Scapa Flow about August 1944 to work-up. This proceeded in fits and starts because the new fire control system had a lot of teething troubles. Amongst other problems, there was swarf in the lubricating oil. It was decided to carry out repairs with ship’s own personnel, and we swung round a Scapa buoy for two weeks while they worked all hours. Those who had been hoping for a return to a dockyard, with home leave, were disappointed.
We made a number of short working-up cruises around Scapa, and at least one operational foray to the Scandinavian coast. In the end, however, it was decided that a dockyard visit was necessary, and we sailed to the Tyne and tied up at the Tyne Commission Quay for a few days. From the engineers’ point of view, the work-up had gone quite well, despite minor problems with boiler feed-pumps which weren’t sufficiently rugged for the job, and persistent steam leaks from the main steam lines.
Joining the Pacific Fleet
In November we went to Rosyth. The ship’s company were given leave and the ship was fumigated to get rid of rats. Previously this would not have been possible, for it was not thought prudent to fumigate a ship with ammunition on board, and the work of de-ammunitioning was formidable. However, an Admiralty committee including 'Euryalus's CO had recently decided that there was, after all, no danger, and so we got rid of most of our rats. Not all. The fumigator, a private contractor, had been short of time and had missed some of the myriad compartments in the ship. By the time we got to the Pacific, there were as many rats as ever on board. During the fumigating in Rosyth a skeleton crew stood by, but for twenty-four hours, the ship was empty of people — probably for the first time since her original commissioning.
In December we joined an assembling convoy in the Mersey, including the ‘Rimutaka’ with the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester aboard. He was heading for Australia to take over as Governor General. We escorted the convoy to and through the Mediterranean. We spent Christmas Day in Malta, arriving in the morning and leaving in the evening. It was a beautiful day and the sun shone warmly. A rope ladder was dropped from the Quarter deck and sailors swam in Grand Harbour.
Still with the convoy we sailed through the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean to Colombo. Then, alone, we steamed round Ceylon to Trincomalee where the British Pacific Fleet was assembling. When we arrived the fleet was out exercising. With three other engineer officers I went for a sail in the ship’s dinghy and while we were sunbathing on a lovely little beach the fleet returned to harbour, sailing past us in line ahead. It was the biggest assembly of big ships any of us had ever seen — two battleships, three aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers. Immensely impressive.
Very soon we sailed again, this time as part of the Fleet. Nobody had yet told us where we were going, but as we cleared the harbour, Captain Oliver Bellasis informed the ship’s company over the intercom that our next port of call would be Fremantle, Australia, and on the way the carriers would be flying off aircraft to strike oil refineries under Japanese control at Palembang in the Dutch East Indies.
Oiling at sea
This is the time to write about oiling at sea. Ship’s companies in cruisers and destroyers were used to a life in which it was always necessary to visit a port to take in oil fuel every few days. The time between refuelling varied with all sorts of factors — the speed we sailed at (as I recall we used at least twice as much oil per mile at full speed as at cruising speed) and how low in fuel it was acceptable to be in the circumstances of the place and time. But every week or so, and often more frequently, we put into a port to refuel. This brought respite from the monotony of watch-keeping at sea, at least for the few hours it took to refuel.
But such frequent visits to port would obviously not be possible in the Pacific, and therefore we learned to refuel at sea. This had been part of our working-up programme at Scapa. An oil tanker steamed at constant speed while the ships being fuelled kept station on her, on each side or behind. Flexible hoses were hoisted from ship to ship, and the fuelling proceeded. It was a fraught period for many in the ship. The shipping of the hoses was difficult at the best of times and almost impossible in poor weather. Occasionally the hoses disconnected and fuel gushed everywhere. Keeping station imposed continual strain on the bridge personnel who had to steer and adjust the ship’s speed very precisely.
It was also stressing for the men in the engine rooms who had to adjust the big wheels which controlled the throttle valves which admitted steam to the engines, as orders were telegraphed from the bridge. The engine designers had not envisaged this sort of close speed control being necessary, and the tachometers fitted to each engine gave only rough readings. Fine adjustments had to be made by repeatedly clocking the rev counters. Finally, the engineer officer in charge of taking in oil fuel had to be released from his watch-keeping duties in the engine room so the other engineer officers had to take over his watches.
Fremantle, place of plenty
We reached Fremantle in February 1945 and during our 24 hours there everybody had a few hours ashore — just time to visit Perth. This was one of the experiences of my life. To go almost straight from the rationed food and nightly blackouts of England to the sunshine, lights and free availability of everything in Fremantle was mind-boggling. Also, we’d just had three weeks of continually watch-keeping at sea which was longer than most of us had experienced before.
We were quickly off to Sydney where we settled down for two weeks and met a lot of very welcoming Australians. But that’s another story. There were a number of machinery repairs to be carried out, and, as so often, the boilers had to be cleaned. So the engineers didn’t get as much rest and rehabilitation as everybody else.
We steamed off from Sydney in a great hurry and made port in the Dutch East Indies, at Manus where we tied up to a buoy and waited. Days went by while we lay at anchor in Manus harbour, very hot, with no shore facilities, bemoaning our lot and wondering why the C in C couldn’t have left us to wait in Sydney.
It wasn’t until long after the war that I heard what had been going on. Churchill was determined that the British Fleet should get involved in the Pacific, but the Americans were reluctant to accept us. The American Navy had mastered the logistics of sea warfare in the Pacific, and the Royal Navy had much to learn. Reasonably enough, the Americans required reassurance that we would be able to look after ourselves and wouldn’t need help from their resources, but there were also other, political reasons.
Finally our masters resolved their differences, and we set off for the Central Pacific.
Working life of an engineer at sea
In the Pacific we worked basically to a four-day cycle — two days for the aircraft carriers to fly off aircraft on operations, roughly half a day steaming back to the rendezvous with the oilers, one day taking fuel, and half a day steaming back to operational positions. For most of the two operational days we were at action stations, even if not on watch, and the long routine prevented much rest on the off days. It was a wearing routine. Looking back, I’m surprised we didn’t get more exhausted. But we were young……
We had two long spells in the Northern Pacific with short breaks in The Philippines and a rest and rehabilitation trip to Brisbane, Australia. When the dropping of the two atomic bombs presaged the end of the war we weren’t far away from Japan, and I remember the eerie feeling as we took in this new development. If the Americans had an atomic bomb, we couldn’t help wondering, was it inconceivable that the Japs might have one too?
Imperishable memory, and war end
I have one imperishable memory from the last weeks of the war. We were at sea somewhere in the northern Pacific not far from Japan, steaming towards our ‘strike’ position, escorting the carriers whose aircraft were going to do the attacking. It was a grey morning. From deck I could see a few ships of our fleet — carriers with aircraft taking off, a battleship ahead on them, cruisers and destroyers just visible in the far distance. Being off watch and not yet at action stations, I went up to the radar office below the bridge. The radar officer invited me in, and said 'Look at this'.
On the PPI radar screen the beam was showing the blips of 12 or 15 ships — the British Pacific Fleet. Then the operator increased the scale and we saw a scan of the sea surrounding us for 30 or 40 miles. Beyond our fleet was another fleet of the same size, and beyond that, another, and beyond that, another. They were three American Task Forces, each as big as the British Pacific Fleet. I had an overwhelming sense of the scale of the American war effort.
After the war for a while we worked harder than ever, steaming fast to Manus to refuel and take in stores, then to Hong Kong to relieve the Colony, then on guard and patrol duty in the South China seas, then, at last, to Sydney for rest, rehabilitation and refit.
Then followed a South Sea Islands cruise, a visit to New Zealand, a return to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama, and Saigon. I left 'Euryalus' for demobilisation in October 1946.
Part Two: The Engineers' Angle
Whenever we went to sea, the engineering department started work before everybody else. Steam machinery has to be warmed-up slowly, so we had to flash up the boilers and introduce steam gradually to the pipes and turbines, a routine which took two hours or so.
So the duty engineer officer with the Chief Stokers, Chief ERAs and other ratings would turn up in the machinery spaces and start work. As the ship usually sailed in the early morning it seemed we were always flashing-up at ‘Oh Christ Double Oh’.
In emergency, we could light up the boilers and pass steam almost straight through to the turbines, but the sudden expansion of all the pipes and machinery, and the lack of time to ‘bleed off’ trapped water, could damage the turbine blades and cause steam leaks which would have to be repaired at the first opportunity.
Superheated steam is difficult stuff to handle, and the Admiralty at that time insisted on face-to-face flanged joints between steam pipes. As compared with material joints, in which a ring of jointing material fits into grooves in the flanges, face-to-face joints were better in case of trouble — a material joint could always blow out — but were very difficult to repair when they did leak. The flanges had to be pulled apart, which was often very difficult, because an engine room is a maze of pipes and machinery, and often to get at one pipe, others must be moved. Coping with these face-to-face steam joints was one of our recurring problems and we envied the Americans who always used material joints.
High pressure three-drum water tube boilers were particularly subject to furring inside the tubes, even though distilled water was always used — evaporators on board provided water for all purposes while we were at sea, and there was often conflict between supplying water for the boilers and for the use of ship’s company.
But every so often, every two or three months, the boilers had to be cleaned. The routine cut harshly into engineers’ recreation time in port. 'Euryalus' had four boilers, two in each boiler room, and each had hundreds of tubes. First the drums had to be opened up, and all the baffles and other gear stripped out. Then a brush had to be pushed down each tube to clean it. Then the tubes had to be ‘sighted’ to make sure that nothing had been left in — if the boiler had been steamed with an obstruction in one of the tubes, there could have been no water circulation in that tube and it would have heated to incandescence and melted, allowing steam to blow out. That would have been potentially lethal to the boiler room personnel.
Sighting the boiler, then, was very important and was supposed to be done by an officer. Ball bearings were dropped down the tubes to make sure they were free. A wooden board with holes like a solitaire board held 36 balls. Because nobody could go into the boiler after the sighting had been completed, all the gear had to be in place. The officer wormed his way in with some difficulty, lay on his stomach and dropped a ball down each tube to be caught in the drum below by a stoker wielding a small bag. The officer chalked each tube as he dropped a ball down it. Then there was a pause while the solitaire board was passed down to the lower drum and the stoker fitted his recovered balls into it.
The pause lengthened while he searched for the balls he had failed to catch. Finally the filled board was returned to the officer in the upper drum and the cycle started again. When the check was completed, the officer was the last man to leave the drum, and the boiler door was bolted in place. The last thing to be remembered was the piece of chalk.
As I watched the hatches being bolted into place after sighting, the thought often occurred to me that an unpopular engineer might easily vanish without trace.
The core of the engine room ratings were the Engine Room Artificers. The regulars, the dedicated Royal Navy men, well trained and on the whole well motivated, were tradesmen who really knew the machinery. A Chief ERA on each watch saw to the smooth running of the engines. The ‘labourers’ of the department were stokers, with a Chief Stoker in charge of each boiler room.
By the end of the war, a lot of the ERA were temporary, hostilities only. They varied a lot. They had been tradesmen in civilian life, but not necessarily in the most suitable trades. I remember a cheerful stoker from Bradford who was a plumber — literally a plumber. I’m sure he was good at fitting bathrooms, but hadn’t a clue about machinery. The task of fitting men to tasks they could successfully carry out occupied a lot of the engineer officers’ time and ingenuity. It also complicated the giving of leave to engineering ratings. For example, particular skills were needed for boiler cleaning, so if that was due, we had to make sure that enough suitably experienced men were available on board without denying due leave.
Chief ERAs and Engineer Officers spent a lot of time together watch-keeping at sea. Watch keeping involved periodic inspections and checks of the machinery, but unless the ship was manoeuvring, there wasn’t much to do, so we talked about everything under the sun. I came to know the chief ERAs very well, and to have a great respect for them.
We had a lot of trouble with the ship’s boats. The small engines supplied were satisfactory for small British harbours with clean water and short distances to cover, but were nothing like rugged enough for Eastern harbours. The engine cooling water circulating system was always bunging up with filthy water. We cracked a cylinder head, and, with no replacement available, struggled mightily to weld it, pre-heating on top of the galley stove. The Americans provided their ships with much more rugged though less glamorous craft.
It might be thought that engine room personnel would suffer down below decks in the tropical weather of the Pacific, but in 'Euryalus', the engine and boiler rooms were often the best places to be. There were huge forced draft fans which supplied air for combustion in the boilers, and there were very adequate fans to cool the boiler room. I don’t recall ever being in any discomfort in the machinery spaces. There was ventilation trunking with louvers throughout the ship, but the wardroom and mess decks used to get quite hot.
We were very well instructed in damage control. Recent incidents, particularly the sinking of the 'Ark Royal' in the Med, has alerted the Admiralty to the importance of damage control, and how much could be done by proper discipline in controlling water-tight compartments. My Lords were clever, knowing the infinite capacity of naval personnel to avoid going on apparently boring courses in remote locations, they organised a damage control course in Baron’s Court, London, from Monday to Friday. Thus people going on this course could get two free weekends, to go home or spend in London according to choice.
It was a well presented course. There were ship models with watertight compartments and I remember vividly a demonstration of the sinking of the 'Ark Royal' showing how it could have been prevented if good water-tight discipline had been observed.
I don’t remember any drill in procedures for escaping from the engine room or abandoning ship. All training was directed to the more positive subject of saving the ship. I suppose this was good psychology — it is extraordinary, in retrospect, how one lived one’s life down in the engine rooms or boiler rooms, surrounded by all that superheated steam - and heavy machinery revolving at high speed - with very little thought of what would happen if a bomb or torpedo hit us.
At action stations we had damage control duties, but most of these were standby. We were kept informed of what was going on by one of the bridge officers, through the tannoy. But because while anything was actually happening they were all very busy, we didn’t hear about it until some time afterwards. We would sit there, at our action stations, hearing bangs and explosions and bumps, followed by silence, and then, eventually, over the tannoy, the Gunnery Officer in his Canadian drawl, 'What happened then was……….'.
I don’t remember a single serious emergency incident in 'Euryalus'. So far as enemy action was concerned, we were lucky — despite many threats, we were never hit. So far as everything else — on the whole we were able to anticipate trouble and avoid it.
Every sailor wanted to be in a ‘happy ship’, but it was an elusive concept. It grew gradually during a commission, based on mutual experiences and successful achievements. It depended on the interaction of all the members of the ship’s company. Obviously some members carried more weight than others. The Commanding Officer set the tone. I don’t think a ship could be happy if the men were not good at their jobs, but there was no correlation between superior ability and higher morale. I served in 'Euryalus' under two captains, Oliver Bellasis and R S Warne. Bellasis was probably the cleverer man, but Warne the better leader.
It was vital to morale to receive regular mail from home, and the achievement of the Fleet Mail Office was remarkable. Letters addressed from UK to ‘HMS 'Euryalus' c/o Admiralty, London’ were delivered regularly an astonishingly short time later. They even came up on the oilers, so every time we took in oil fuel, we had a mail delivery. Memory can play tricks, but I think I’m right in recalling that at best letters were reaching us in mid-Pacific ten days after posting in England.
We had a padre, a C of E vicar, a most resilient man, who ran an excellent concert party for us. We had a doctor, and a dentist. We were well looked after.
The food wasn’t bad at all. We stocked up with the best fresh food from whichever port we called at. The introduction of dried vegetables added a lot to the diet at sea — dried potatoes made excellent chips.
When we met the American Navy they couldn’t have been more friendly. They always had more supplies than we had, more ice-cream and more recreational facilities. More of everything. But they were completely generous in sharing it all with us. At my level I never came across any hint of resentment or disapproval that we were there. When an American ship was tied up near us there was a brisk trade in ice cream and other goodies for gin or Scotch or rum.
As an officer I had a Division — a group of about 20 stokers. I was responsible for their welfare, promotion, grievances, pay and everything else. Occasionally I had to drill them. On one occasion when the ship’s company were being mustered on the Quarter deck, I distinguished myself marching my division towards the sterns and at the critical moment shouting ‘Shun!’ instead of ‘Halt!’. Fortunately, not wishing to march over the stern they halted.
Spares, the Fleet Train
Of course we were always needing spare parts for the machinery. The Admiralty had established a Spare Parts Distribution Centre (SPDC) in Sydney. We used to requisition from them and they had many of the things we needed. The Fleet Train included a service ship containing a well-equipped machine shop and a small foundry, and that produced one or two things for us when we happened to meet them in port. I remember the Fleet Train best for the ‘Amenities Ship’ — ‘Menelaus’. She carried a floating brewery, which brewed real ale. Also a theatre, cinema and comfortable lounging accommodation. Very popular with everybody, but she didn’t appear until after the war. If the war had gone on, it would have been marvellous to have her in remote ports like Manus.
We had work carried out by local shipyards in both Sydney and Brisbane. In Sydney Harbour, we spent a month in dry dock at Cockatoo Island, a major shipyard.
I was 23 years old, unmarried, an engineer more or less practising his trade. I wasn’t wasting time as so many were, and I wasn’t everlastingly missing wife and family. The watch-keeping at sea was monotonous, but nothing went on for ever. Eventually we got back to some port or other. And contrast heightened the pleasures of shore leave. I loved being in the Royal Navy. In the good old North Country phrase, almost everybody aboard ship had ‘something about him’. Many were entertaining. All were interesting.
As every sailor knows, a ship at sea is a living thing. Although we were always glad to get into port, I always felt a sense of loss when the ship stopped moving and the vibration of the engines died away. Conversely, when we went to sea, sad to leave whatever port we had been in, there was a compensation — the ship came alive again.
'Euryalus' was very seaworthy. We sailed through some bad storms, particularly in the Pacific, but I never felt any anxiety about the seaworthiness of the ship. I was a little sea-sick when, alter a long spell ashore, we sailed out into a rough sea, but I was lucky — it never lasted long.
Eric R Wilkinson 31/03/1992
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