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My Life My War - Chapter 5a

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Bernard Hallas
Location of story: 
Plymouth, Bay of Biscay
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
24 May 2005


Bernard Hallas

Chapter 5a - My First Big Ship

After disembarking from the train we stared around at this huge assortment of different sized ships alongside their berths in all stages of repair. I remember the date well, it was the 15th September 1936 and it was to remain in my memory as the day I saw my first Battleship.

We marched off as best we could over the railway lines and as we turned the corner of the customs shed, there she lay. Towering skywards like a huge block of flats, she blocked out the light on that side of the jetty and was painted in what I later found out was the colour of the Home Fleet, a dirty looking dark grey, described hereafter as crab fat grey. More than the length of a football pitch she gave the appearance of strength and efficiency; men were moving about in a never ending stream and cranes were swinging nets full of cases on to the decks high above us where they were unloaded and the contents swallowed up by this huge monster.

I now know that this was “Provisioning Ship.” There were two gangways, one at the after end of the ship and this was reserved for use by the Officers and led directly on to the quarter deck, “The holy of holies”. The other was at the fore end and was used by the remainder of the ship’s company going about their various duties. It was now time to go on board, which proved a little difficult in our full order, carrying our rifles and smaller sea kit bag. Our much larger bags were loaded inboard for us and a working party from the Royal Marine detachment took them to the mess deck, or as we were later to find out the “Royal Marine Barracks”. In the true tradition of the Marines, every one was only too willing to give a hand and to make the newcomers feel at home in their new surroundings. Where your kit locker was, where you could sling your hammock (when it was issued), where to stow your rifle, which mess you were on for meals and most important of all which part of the watch you were in.

There are two watches on board ship; the Port (Red) watch and the Starboard (Green) watch, and each of these watches was divided into two, i.e. the first and second part of the Port watch and the first and second part of the Starboard watch. You were then issued with a small, part of the watch identity card to be used when going ashore. After that, the rest of the day was yours to relax, In the evening it was your first lesson in how to sling your hammock but what was more difficult was how to get into it, after which you slept like a baby.

Next morning we were taken into the gun battery where the duty sergeant talked to us about ship’s routine. We were then allocated different positions on gun crews, according to your individual gunnery qualifications. In one state of emergency, I was a gun captain and breech worker on a starboard six-inch gun, in another I was captain of a twin four-inch H/A gun on the upper deck. For Action Stations I had realised my ambition, I was No 1 of the right gun in the huge Royal Marines turret. I had to operate the “Churn Lever”, which brought the gun loading cage from the shell room complete with shell, stopped off at the magazine for a full load of cordite, opened the breech, lined up the cage with the breech and then with various actions, rammed home the shell and cordite, lowered the cage to the shell room and closed the breech ready for firing. I day dreamed, it seemed an age since I had walked out of a life in the slums of Manchester and now here I was, the number one of a massive fifteen inch Naval turret.

The very next morning started a week of intense activity. There were over one thousand four hundred officers and men in the ships company and it was necessary to load enough food to feed them all for some weeks ahead. We had to fuel ship and then the biggest exercise of all, loading the ammunition, hundreds of shells, fifteen inch, six inch, four inch, Pom-Pom shells and all the cordite necessary to fill the four large magazines.

It was a mammoth job, but carried out with skilled expertise built up after many years of repetition. At last we finished. We received the usual “Thank You” from the Captain for a job well done and then relaxed on our various mess decks waiting the moment when the sailing orders were opened.

Then it would all start again. “All hands prepare for sea, in all sea boats, cable party fall in, part of the watch fall in on the upper deck, In all booms and ladders”. And then came the vibration as the powerful engines throbbed into life and skilled hands took control of the huge ship and ever so slowly, she moved away from the dock side and made her way to the main channel and out to sea. Once we were clear of land the Captain would announce over the tannoy where we were going.

He knew it was a waste of time, as every one on board had already passed the news round by word of mouth. Signals coming inboard were, generally speaking, leaked to the ship’s company; they were discussed in the heads (i.e. the ship’s toilets), then passed on to the mess decks and finally to the bridge.

Normally we would join the Fleet for a session of exercises, but this trip was to be different, we were to go on patrol in the Bay of Biscay. Spain had started their own civil war and as non-combatants, we the British navy had the job of protecting our own British nationals on the high seas on their lawful, or unlawful activities as the case may be.

There were as usual on these occasions, those who sought to make their fortunes by doing a little bit of Gun Running and there were those who were equally determined to put a stop to it. The main culprit was a Merchant Navy Captain by the name of Jones; to all and sundry he was always referred to as “Spud” Jones and part of a ditty that I wrote at the time went as follows:

Outside the three mile limit
In the bay they call “Biscay”
The gun runners stood off and waited
For the first grey light of day.
If the Cervantes and the Cervera (Spanish Warships)
Were no where to be seen,
It was full speed ahead for Santandar
Bilbao, or somewhere between.
They unloaded their guns and weapons of death
Then drew their pay and left,
No thoughts of the thousands lying dead
Or the hundreds of children bereft.

We spent days patrolling with no sight of any ships, and then, one bright sunny day two Spanish Cruisers, the Cervera and the Admiral Cevante had him dead to rights and lined up in their gun sights. On this occasion the gunrunner was fortunate, steaming over the horizon, we immediately realised that the British ship was in real danger.

Our Captain however was quick to react and ordered two of our Destroyer escort, HMS Bulldog and HMS Brazen to place themselves one on each side of the Spaniards’ intended victim and informed the two Cruisers that “We were there to protect our nationals. If to sink them is your desire, then please do not hit my Destroyers, or I shall be forced to open fire.” With the ship’s company already closed up at action stations and the massive turrets trained outboard, he left the Spaniards in no doubt as to his intentions, so in their wisdom, they signalled, “Adios Senor”, and retired. I had no doubt that on that occasion, Spud Jones went down to his cabin and had a very stiff drink. He had certainly had a very close call.

The monotony of the patrol in the rough waters of “The Bay” had it’s moments; there was the occasion when our “Sister” ship HMS Royal Oak was accidentally hit by a small bomb which splintered the ladder on the quarter deck and as usual the necessary apologies were given and accepted. It was totally different when a German Battleship was hit in similar circumstances, far more seriously, and over a score of German sailors were unfortunately killed. After making for port in Gibraltar and laying the coffins ceremoniously on the dockside, draped with the German national flag, the ship proceeded to sea and bombarded the nearest Spanish town. This was the German way of asking for an apology. It was far more successful; I cannot remember any more German ships being attacked.


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