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A New Zealander's Reminiscences of his Time in the Royal Navy

by Elizabeth Lister

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Royal Navy

Contributed by 
Elizabeth Lister
People in story: 
David Campbell
Location of story: 
New Zealand, England,The North Atlantic,Round Africa, Suez.
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A8087862
Contributed on: 
28 December 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by a volunteer from csvberkshire on behalf of David Campbell and has been added to the site with his permission. David Campbell fully understands the site’s terms and conditions”.

A New Zealander’s Reminiscences of his Time in the Royal Navy

From Dunedin to Harwich.
When war broke out in 1939, I was a junior clerk with Dalgety and Co. Ltd. in Dunedin. Some of the older members of staff volunteered to join the 2nd. Expeditionary Force but at the age of eighteen my life went on as usual.
Sometime in 1940 I joined the Central Battery which was equipped with 4.5 Howitzers. Later in the year we went into camp for three months — two months attending Central Battery each day and then for the third month we were in camp at Wingatui Race Course. With our guns we roamed all over the Talieri Plain and then went up to Sutton near Middlemarch for live shoots — great days and we were very fit. Later in the month we took part in the manoeuvres from Burnham. I reached the rank of Lance Corporal before leaving the unit.
At the beginning of 1941 I began to get a bit restless — didn’t want to stay in the Army and the Air Force wasn’t for me, so round about March, Jim Bond who was with National Mortgage, and I presented ourselves to the Naval Headquarters at the bottom of St. Andrew’s Street in Dunedin.
We were interviewed by a Petty Officer who informed us that HMS Tamaki was full but there was a scheme “B” whereby young New Zealanders were being sent over to the UK to join the Royal Navy and if found suitable after a period at sea, would be sent to HMS “King Alfred” at Brighton for further training. After twelve weeks if all practical and theory were passed the candidate would be granted a Temporary Commission and would serve as an officer in the RN. I remember receiving a telegram on a Monday morning in September instructing me to report to Navy Headquarters in Wellington on the Friday morning. I realised then that I wouldn’t be coming back to Dunedin for sometime.
Bags were packed and on Thursday we boarded the Express for Lyttleton and there were two or three other boys all joining the same outfit as Jim and I. Friday morning in Wellington we took the oath at Navy Headquarters and were then officially Ordinary Seamen in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. There were 25 of us and we were to travel to the UK in civilian clothes. We came from all walks of life, and were all in the twenty to twenty six age group. On the Saturday afternoon we were taken down to the wharf and boarded the MV Rimutaka which was to be our home for the next couple of months. Unbeknown to me my Mother had followed me to Wellington, so I was able to say goodbye to her before boarding the vessel. There was a full complement of civilian passengers as well as twenty five other boys going over to the UK, like us, to join the Fleet Air Arm. That evening we sailed out of Wellington Harbour and headed South East for about seven days into the Pacific.
We made our way through the Panama Canal, passed Curacao, through the Caribbean up the East coast of the USA to the Port of Halifax in Nova Scotia. From Curacao North and across the Atlantic we all stood watches, and from Halifax on we were in a convoy of about 30 to 40 ships at a speed of 12 to 14 knots. I think we had a mixed escort of American and Canadian destroyers to begin with, and later the RN took over. We were now well into December 1941 and the submarine menace was at its height in the Atlantic. We must have been lucky because to the best of my knowledge none of our convoy was lost. Our route took us North close to Iceland then South to the Firth of Clyde which we entered just before or after Christmas Day. From there we travelled by train to Ipswich and then to HMS Ganges, a shore establishment at the port of Harwich. We had twelve weeks at this base learning to be seamen. We played rugby against any team wanting a game and I don’t think we were ever beaten.

1942 Escort Duty for Convoy to Murmansk
This job was to escort a convoy bound for Murmansk, a Russian port on their Northern coast. Our duty aboard HMS Kent was to be stationed in the middle of the convoy of some thirty to forty merchant ships and give anti-aircraft support. HMS Sheffield was also with us to do likewise. We were attacked by torpedo bombers on one occasion and if they had been more determined we might have lost quite a few ships. However we had a Cam ship with us — a merchant ship with a catapult which went from forward of the bridge right up to the bow. Sitting on the catapult was a Hurricane fighter, which, as soon as the bombers were sighted, was catapulted off. The pilot got amongst them and shot down two before they broke off the engagement and disappeared back to the Norwegian coast. Well, the pilot of the Hurricane had to ditch his plane because there was nowhere for him to land. He ditched safely and was picked up by one of the ships at the back of the convoy —turned out the pilot was a Kiwi. We were bombed from above but I don’t think they had much success. Our anti-aircraft fire must have been very effective. We had one near miss on our stern. I was in the aft tiller flat at the time and the explosion just about lifted our stern out of the water - not quite. We left the convoy North of Norway and I think Sheffield left then also. The rest of the escorts took the convoy into Murmansk. It was another Convoy, PQ17, which got badly mauled by the Germans. The Commodore unwisely ordered the convoy to disperse and the submarines and bombers picked off the ships at will and only a few got through This convoy was forming in Iceland while we were moving up the Norwegian coast with our lot. We must have been lucky.

HMS King Alfred October 1942
This was a shore establishment at Brighton. It was here that RNVR and RNZVR prospective officers went through a 12 week pressure course in seamanship and command. If one passed all the practical tests and other exams then the Admiralty granted you a Temporary Commission. Thank goodness I passed as did the other five Kiwis. Each one was issued with a clothing chit which enabled us to go to one of the many naval tailors in Brighton and purchase a two piece blue uniform, a blue battledress and a doeskin uniform for special occasions, socks and shoes. Having fitted us out we were sent on leave until we were assigned to some ship or whatever.
Late in 1942 we loaded our landing craft onto 3 Merchantmen. I had an RN Midshipman with me, a small number of ratings and a small number of the craft. We were part of a convoy of approximately 40 ships and half a dozen escorts. Our destination was eventually to be Egypt via Capetown so we were in for a fairly long voyage.

Convoy off Africa
We had been at sea for about a week and were off the ( West) coast of Africa when we were attacked by a pack of submarines. We had been shadowed each day by a long range German plane so the subs knew exactly where we were. The escorts managed to drive them off but before that they sank several ships. Fortunately our 3 ships weren’t hit. The ship on our port quarter was hit and the whole vessel disappeared in one mighty explosion. The ship on its beam had its entire superstructure on its port side blown in-what a mess. We were hit by flying debris but very little damage. It turned out the ship was carrying a full load of ammunition for the Allied Forces in Egypt and elsewhere. The Commodore of the convoy decided that it would be better if the ships dispersed and made their own way South and that is what happened. Some sailed close to the coast and others kept well out in the Atlantic. Our Captain chose the latter which was just as well because the subs sank several close to the coast. The only incident of note happened after midnight one night. The second officer was on watch and noticed something ahead of us crossing from port to starboard — he realised it was a submarine on the surface obviously charging its batteries, so he turned the ship in the opposite direction until we were well clear.
We stayed in Capetown for two days while the ship was oiled, then we sailed up the East coast of Africa keeping well out of Madagascar because there were supposed to be subs operating thereabouts, into the Gulf of Aden and up into the Red Sea until we reached the Gulf of Suez. and the Port of Taufiq on the southern end of the Canal. There we unloaded our craft and sailed them up the Canal as far as Ismailia, our base for the next month. Our camp of tents etc. was on the banks of the Canal so we were able to operate all together for the first time. I went up to Cairo on one occasion and also visited the Pyramids.
The Eighth Army had already trounced the Germans in North Africa so Cairo was more or less back to normal. In due course we sailed up the Canal and round the coast to the port of Alexandria. Two weeks there and we were once again loaded onto merchant vessels and in convoy we set sail for Sicily to take part in the landing of the Eighth Army.

1945 At Messina.
We had just tied up to the wharf when a young English Sub. came aboard brandishing an Admiralty Fleet Order (AFO) for me. It stated I had been granted leave for three months and I was to return to New Zealand so I packed my bags, said ‘Hooray’ to everyone and went ashore. My memory is a bit hazy as to how I managed the trip to Naples and the UK troopship but I think it was by plane from Catania further down the coast. Harold Godfry, a Canadian who had been in charge of the Naval Barracks by the docks in Naples, had also been granted leave to go back to Canada so we got passage on the first transport leaving port. The sea journey to Liverpool took three weeks. The accommodation on our ship wasn’t very good. The troops were crammed in down below and had to take turns up on deck for a breather or smoke — our accommodation was a bit better. I was back in the port I had left in 1943 and it was now the beginning of 1945. In London at NZ House, the Naval Liaison person, Mr Skinner asked why I hadn’t got a passage home through the Suez Canal and I pointed out the chances of picking up a ship were fairly slim. A few days later I was instructed to report to the Empress of Scotland in Liverpool. What luxury! There weren’t many travelling and we were treated like first class passengers. There were a few Kiwi and Aussie Officers including Keith Williamson from Dunedin also a Sub-Lieutenant like me. From Wellington (NZ) we boarded the old “Wahine” South to Lyttleton. The old ship buried her nose in every swell she met.
Great to be home but there weren’t many of the family to meet me. I felt very self conscious in my uniform so I rarely wore it. After a week or two I received an AFO from the Admiralty advising me of my promotion to Lieutenant.
VE Day came and went and it soon became clear that the war against Japan was coming to a successful conclusion. It wasn’t likely the Navy would send me back to the UK so I decided to ask for my discharge from the Forces. This was granted and my temporary commission in the RNZNVR was cancelled on the 10th August 1945.

I returned to Civvy Street and a job with Dalgety and Co. Ltd. Dunedin.

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