- Contributed by
- HMS FIREDRAKE EYEWITNESS
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 May 2004
On the 15th of November we set sail out in the east Mediterranean in weather, which was distinctly chilly. Now my own recollection of the operation, which took place in gale force conditions, had its commencement in an unusual and disturbing way.
To put some background into what I am going to relate, I will describe a part of my training at the Chatham Barracks. After the six weeks-initial training at H M S Royal Arthur, the next training was at HMS Pembroke (the main barracks for the south east of England) and included rifle drill. At the final stage with rifles we were taken to the Sheerness Firing Range and were given a final test of Target shooting. Altogether I think no more than 12 rounds were used. I discovered that my right eye was unable to read clearly the target. I knew that my right eye was only graded 6/9 as distinct from my left eye, which was 6/6 because at my initial medical that was discovered, and for that reason, I was rejected as a signalman recruit. Because of this difficulty I tried to aim with my left eye. When I fired from this left position, the spent cartridge aimed for my face. This would be a real problem if real action was encountered but no one spotted my problem.
To resume the narrative, just prior to sailing on the 15th of November, the duty watch had been called out on board in harbour. I was part of the duty watch. We were told that there was a need for a boarding party to be formed as an urgent operation was to be carried out. I was kitted out with a rifle, ammunition, gaiters, helmet etc. and made ready for the next step. In the event the operation was cancelled almost immediately and I thankfully felt a great relief that my doubtful armed role was not to be tested and found wanting.
However the alarm was a real one, as I shall relate. The Firedrake and a number of other ships in our group including a Cruiser sailed easterly in increasingly bad weather.
The first phase of the operation was cancelled or re-planned, as I have said, but of which I personally knew nothing. The operation, which did take place, was in fact the interception of a French convoy. This included a Dutch small cargo ship, the Sally Mersk, and a large liner called the Chantilly.
The Chantilly was carrying some French troops we subsequently found out (bound for French North Africa presumably) and the Dutch trader was carrying food stores. It was at this stage that preparations were made on the Firedrake to form a new boarding party, which this time did not include me. I suppose that some signals were made to both ships named above, but as a fact the boarding party armed similarly to my episode took a ships boat over to the Dutchman. In the event the boarding was made without any opposition and indeed, the sailors of our ship were welcomed. The Dutchman was carrying stores of all kinds but particularly thousands of shell eggs. Some opposition I believe accompanied the capture of the Chantilly. The capture of French troops was a sensitive issue at that stage no doubt and AD Divine published no details in his account.
The Germans had captured the Dutchman at the time of the surrender of Holland. In that case the crew seemed quite pleased to be re-united with the Allies. A small contingent of the boarding party was left on board the Dutch ship and the remainder came back to the Firedrake. We joined with rest of the fleet and the captured Chantilly, and proceeded at the pace of the Dutchman in the face of a gale. For three days we had to ride out the heavy seas and much damage was caused to the foredeck and ammunition lockers of our ship. The account of the storm is well told by A D Divine pages 99 to 103.
Once again I had escaped without harm. There is no doubt that I was not given the proper training for the role of a member of a boarding party .Of course the Royal Navy has a separate branch of Royal Marines. These are fully trained as infantry but only feature on the larger ships like Battleships and Cruisers.
The Chantilly eventually reached the U.K. and was sold as a Prize ship. In the past Prize money was shared out amongst the capturing crew but unfortunately no longer applied during wartime..
I was ever so grateful that from this time, my role of quartermaster became a permanent feature of my life on the Firedrake until I left her in 1941.
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